They are the scaffolding my life hangs on.
When those words spilled out of my mouth, while I was standing sweaty in running clothes in my kitchen one recent early morning, even I was surprised at the heft of my sentiment. My husband, looking up from the New York Times, looked crestfallen. I get it. I'd kill him if he felt that way about anybody but me.
Yes, it's tough to compete with the EMC, for "early-morning crew," as we've proudly deemed ourselves. We even have bumper stickers and long- and short-sleeve running shirts. We couldn't agree on the "sexy runner" or "serious runner" logo, so we printed both.
My life's stabilizing infrastructure is a perfect image for these sporty pony-tailed sisters of the wee hours of the morning of mine. We are a 10-years-going coffee clatch in perpetual motion, a weirdly loyal posse of badass, midlife moms who have an uncanny ability to talk while we run and have been running together almost daily for a decade, since back when my now teenager was snuggling upstairs with Berksy his teddy bear instead of his pretty strawberry-blond girlfriend.
The run-plan emails start flying around 8:30 p.m., and there are usually more than a dozen using reply all to settle on it.
Meet at the Gate? 5:45?
Who's In for McClaren, 5:30?
Can we go early, Maya has PT?
Jenny, don't be offended if we insist you run short. We need to keep an eye on you -- we want you better!
I'll get Sydney at 5:25 and meet the group at Arguello 5:45, and we'll peel off at the yield sign.
That we bend ourselves into ballpark pretzels to try to make the plan work for all is testament to the fact we all see the run as sacred. Plus, if not for this gang, who is going to make you feel that your presence matters every day.
On some scores, we have barely evolved over the years. Running comes before sleep and oftentimes sex. Most of us are still loyal to our Asics Gel Kayano shoes. Ann runs with her water bottle but nobody else. Lisa still has FOMO. All of our hair, though now colored, is still long and ponytail-able. We have our same two weekday routes, and three long weekend loops, and we rarely stray, unless of course we are running hut-to-hut in Northern Italy's high alpine Dolomites (two Augusts ago), or trail racing in the jagged Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho (this past August). Next trip up: Running through Nantucket's cranberry bogs. Tuesdays we meet a coach at the track to do speed work.
Yet, the growth and change, shared in the minutest of detail by the dim light of crappy flashlights much of the year, is also constant. In big strokes, we've endured a divorce, the loss of a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law, a brother and a mom. Kelly sent all her kids off to college. Megan left San Francisco for Marin. Mardi renovated her house and found a new sleeping partner.
Along with these hairpin turns, we also run alongside through the subtle, minor life curves. Jenny has a new nanny who the prior night forgot to make dinner. Staci got two new pairs of work pants, and Mardi's dog is now consuming her own poop, which apparently is common. Sydney remade her tennis stroke, company logo, living room furniture (bronze leather sofa!). My "girls" know my mom is discontinuing her chemo, that my sister's latest OK Cupid match looked promising but was a dork who likes gem shows, that I have a hangnail. Our kids cover 10 schools, so there's little gossip that doesn't filter through our sieve.
It is so very rare in this overstuffed life to be in such close touch with anyone. It is unheard of to have a sense of having time. But we do, something like 120,000 talking minutes every year, if you multiply 330-some running days, 4 to 5 conversations going simultaneously, solid gabbing for anywhere from 50 and 150 minutes.
This week we covered the benefit of a fake-versus-real whole fish for 10-year-old Pierce's fishmonger costume, using "I" statements when screaming at our kids. We chewed over legalizing marijuana, 16-year-olds voting, the tasting menu at Al's and the optimal number to enjoy it with, and the suicide at Mardi's sons' school.
We've passed along our dermatologist, ENT, psychiatrist, bar-mitzvah tutor, plum torte and cold oatmeal recipe, masseuse, silver sandals, yogi, driver's ed coach, jeans tailor, wedding ring jeweler, adventure guide, family photographer, junk collection agency, landscaper and poison oak scrub of choice, just for starters.
Our bond in sweat and sharing is particularly notable because most of us maintain that we would otherwise never be friends.
We are big on traditions. For 50th birthdays, we write and perform a rap, compete with trucker hats and off-key singing. Every birthday gets a special run and a present, either hipper-than-we-would-buy-ourselves running duds, or a massage. We even have an unspoken system for switching off who purchases and pays. Post-run coffee happens on Saturdays, always at Peet's Coffee & Tea. Lisa has a flat latte; Jocelyn gets tea. When anything important or hard happens, we check in, and show up.
Of course we have occasional tensions. Our coda of "What happens on the run, stays on the run" has been broken. Increasingly, we don't run at the same pace, and we ping between doing the right thing, which is to wait patiently, and surging ahead heeding a need to run hard.
Somehow Mardi, who never seems to lose her fast-twitch muscles, is frustrated that we aren't "stepping it up" more while I am headed in the opposite direction, barely able to imagine that I once ran a 3:17 marathon, staying beside Jocelyn the entire time. She is our ace pacer, who always wears the watch. Whether togetherness or rigor wins the day remains unsettled.
I'm quite certain that as long as our lips are still able to move, we will keep running. A number us are loyal racers of the Dipsea Race, which is the oldest trail race in America. The course involves 2,200 feet of vertical and high risk of poison oak. We all run the trail together during training runs.
As a group, we just plunked down $1,000 to rebuild a stair at the race's start, for which we get a plaque affixed to one refurbished step. The inscription was Jocelyn's idea: EMC=chatting2.
Diana Kapp is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. Her work appears in the WSJ, NYT, Marie Claire, San Francisco Magazine, and others.