National Capital Race Weekend

By 
Catriona Wright

Numbers safety-pinned to matching blue tank tops, our last name, Fraser, emblazoned beneath them, my sister and I double-check that our shoes are laced tight. Attached to these laces are black chips. These chips will be used to establish our official marathon time, which determines whether or not a runner qualifies for Boston. They will activate when we run over a pad at the starting line and deactivate when we cross the finish line. We will also get a Gun Time, but this is less accurate. Often there’s a delay of several minutes between the gun going off and actually making it across the start line. You get stuck in a crush of muscular calves and jostling water bottles. I know all this because I’ve already run a marathon, but my younger sister, who hasn’t, doesn’t know quite what to expect. She certainly wouldn’t expect that I’ve switched her chip with mine.

“Ready?” I ask.

“Good luck,” she says.

She knows she’ll beat me. We both know it. There are infinite precedents: spelling bees, dates, grades, civil-service positions, waist sizes ... hell, even her kids’ Halloween costumes were better; she made all hers by hand—painstakingly embroidering Gryffindor crests on robes—while I bought mine from Zellers. There’s hardly any point competing with her.

But what my sister doesn’t know is that today she’s running for me, as me. Well, I guess that wouldn’t entirely surprise her. After all, to the left of her spine, my kidney is doing its homeostasis thing. I donated it nine months ago, following a plummet in her kidney function (the one thing I’ve ever been better than her at). I wanted to save her from a life of weekly dialysis treatments. And frankly, she never expressed the proper gratitude. She didn’t even really ask.

“The doctors say it’s best if a living relative donates an organ,” she said over the phone. “So, you’re probably the closest match. Are you free to go to a screening next Monday?” She treated the decision as inevitable, a foregone operation, which, I felt, deprived my acceptance of magnanimity. It took a few months, but I figured out a way to extract a thanks.

I need her to finish in four hours and fifteen minutes, seventeen minutes faster than my time last year. To qualify for Boston, my sister would have to finish in four hours and five minutes, because she’s fifty-four, two years younger than me, which puts her in a different age bracket. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have switched our chips if this weren’t the case; if I didn’t suspect that she wouldn’t qualify in her own age category anyway, but would in mine. What really is the harm in that? One of us might as well qualify.

For the past five months, on practice runs, we’ve been training at a four hour ten minute pace, but you never know what’ll happen out there. The last time I was on track for four fifteen until roughly thirty-two kilometres in when I hit the wall. I’d been told about hitting the wall, but just hearing it described hadn’t prepared me for the dead-heave of my limbs and the morphinated sludge of my mind. I managed to finish but I had to stop and walk for a long chunk. Also, I had to talk down an anxious medic, who was urging me off the course.

I’m not worried though. This time I have insurance.

Around us, runners lift their legs up and down, they snort and pull their arms across their chests. An announcer’s crackled voice welcomes us. My sister squeezes my hand. The gun goes off in the grey morning, and the phalanx of runners begins to move forward.

There are thousands of people in this race. Lots of people in Ottawa run marathons. On Sunday mornings, you will see flocks of the upwardly mobile jogging along the canal. Almost everyone wears the same style of jacket, a windbreaker with a formal set of tails across the butt. It gets cold in Ottawa and such a flap is not only elegant (supposedly), but also necessary. On my floor at Environment Canada there are five other marathoners. The truly exceptional thing is not to simply run a marathon, but to qualify for Boston.

My muscles are still warming up as we run past the Parliament Buildings, the Supreme Court and Library and Archives Canada. Should my legs really feel so stiff? I remind myself that this happens at the beginning of long runs. It can take me up to ten kilometres to really hit my groove. During this time I get possessed by a weird fear that I’ve somehow forgotten how to run. I fear that I haven’t trained, that it’s pure hubris to be attempting the run at all, that my legs are going to punish me by exposing what a charlatan I am. I think of it as a version of imposter syndrome, that disorder they say women experience when they attain prestigious positions; they worry that their successes are all accidental and that someone is eventually going to blow the whistle. Only this time I deserve to feel like an imposter.

My sister and I stick together through the portion in Old Hull. By five kilometres, the crowd has already begun to thin. On the sidelines people cheer and clap. “Looking good.” “Ne lachez pas!”

“When is the next water station?” my sister asks as if she doesn’t already know, as if she hadn’t consulted the route map a thousand times.

“At the corner of St. Joseph and Montclair.”

“When do you think we should start eating the Power Gels?”

I look over at her. Her forehead is wrinkled in concern. “Same as in training,” I say, my voice rising at the end. “At around 10k.”

We huff along in silence.

What is this naive act all about?

My sister informed me of her intention to run this year’s race shortly after recovering from surgery. Yet another chance to prove her superiority, I thought.

She hurtled into training with the same zeal she used to devote to studying for finals. She analyzed all the latest carb-loading and Fartlek training debates. She bought a GPS monitor so that she could track and log her runs on the computer. She befriended my friends at the Running Room. Her calves grew.

Everything she did seemed calculated to one-up me. She saw my two hundred-dollar Asics with three-hundred-dollar Mizunos custom-designed to cushion and stabilize her over-pronating feet. She outdid my subscription to Runner’s World with subscriptions to Runner’s Digest and Sweat Magazine.

In fact, last night at dinner, she made it a special point to emphasize how much more she knows about marathons than me. We had gathered with our husbands, a few close friends, and five children (three sons for her, a daughter and a son for me), for a big pre-race pasta feast. It was held at her house in Nepean. Not content with potluck, she made enough walnut and ricotta ravioli with sage pesto for everyone. Naturally, she grew the sage herself.

My friend, Kevin, asked me to explain the origin of the marathon, so I launched into the whole story of Phidippides and the Battle of Marathon and the Peloponnesian war.

“Actually, the Battle of Marathon occurred during the Persian war,” my sister said. “Everyone knows that. But did you know that a marathon used to be only forty kilometres? The 42.195 distance was established at the 1908 Olympics. A whim of the royal family who wanted the race to start at Buckingham palace and end in front of the Royal Box in the stadium.”

“Didn’t I send you that Wikipedia link?” I said.

“What?” she said. “No, I never got around to reading that. I read it in a book. Anyways, of course women weren’t allowed to run back then. Scientists used to think that after such exertion a woman’s uterus would fall right out! Can you imagine?”

Everyone laughed, including my husband Aiden. I still remember how nervous I was thirty years ago when I first introduced Aiden to my sister. I was convinced that he would fall in love with her. Back in the tenth grade I lost my boyfriend, Luke, to her, and I’ve been paranoid ever since. Although she’s been married for twenty years, I still don’t like Aiden to spend too much time around her.

The pasta, of course, was delicious. As I chewed, I wished my sister’s uterus would fall right out. Along with that kidney I had donated her. My kidney enslaved to her body, doing all its dirty work.

~

Still side by side, my sister and I pound our way over the Alexandra bridge and pass by Maman, a giant spider sculpture, sentry to the National Art Gallery. I’m a bit surprised my sister hasn’t already taken off. Perhaps she’s biding her time for a last-minute getaway. Finally, my legs are warmed up. They feel strong and substantial. I’m in the best shape of my life. Growing up I was never much of an athlete. I started running a couple years ago as a stress relief from the emotional upheaval of menopause.

The cheering becomes more insistent as we pass by the embassies that flank the road to Rockcliffe, the expensive part of town, home to diplomats and high-tech tycoons. We soon realize the source of the cheers; a sylphlike black man glides on the other side of the street. The leader of the race, he’ll finish in less than two hours and fifteen minutes. Following closely are a series of other elite runners. Many are from Kenya and Ethiopia. They use the money earned from these races to support their entire families. Suddenly, I feel petty and guilty. That is, I feel petty and guilty until I realize that my sister is starting to pull away … as I knew she would.

~

Nine months ago, my sister and I spent four days recovering in a shared hospital room. We had visitors, but we spent a lot of time just the two of us, just like when we were girls sharing the same bedroom: my side messy, with posters of Rolling Stones taped to the wall; her side, neat, but not in a fussy, clinical way. She had saved up her allowance to buy a lava lamp and these funky orange and red striped sheets. I had these awful gravy-coloured sheets and this dinky bedside lamp with a lacy shade. In the hospital, of course, our sides were identical.

Mostly, we talked about nothing: plans for upcoming vacations; vacations we had taken as children; anecdotes about our teenagers; our lives as teenagers; curry recipes; Mom’s weird curry phase. After a while I realized that all she really wanted to talk about was the past. I figured any brush with mortality makes you nostalgic, so I didn’t think much of it. Only later did these conversations strike me as drastically out of character. The strangest of all happened two nights in.

“Do you remember that party Maggie Sparring threw?” my sister asked.

Maggie Sparring was this hyperactive girl who lived down the block from us growing up. A year and a bit younger than me, she was friends with both my sister and me, though we both lost touch with her after she dropped out of high school to hitchhike up north with her boyfriend.

“When?” I asked. Maggie had thrown a lot of parties.

“Her eleventh birthday.”

“Not really.”

“Well I do, because her parents hired a magician, remember?”

“Vaguely.”

“I was so mad because I didn’t get to go.”

I didn’t really remember, but I wasn’t about to admit that her memory was better than mine, so I played along. “Right. Why was that, again?”

“I was sick. I had the measles. I’d never seen a magician before. Afterwards Maggie bragged to me that he had worn this flowing cape with little silver stars all over it and that he cut you in half. You wouldn’t tell me anything about it. I wanted you to tell me if he really did cut you in half and if you screamed and if there was lots of blood and you’d just say, don’t worry about it, don’t worry about it, as if I was too young or too delicate to know this big secret.”

“Honestly,” I said, taken aback by my sister’s avidity. “I don’t really remember the magician being all that special. I was a bit too old for that kind of thing. I certainly don’t remember being cut in half.”

“But I wasn’t too old for that kind of thing. And I was cooped up in our bedroom all the time. I was always sick. I was so jealous that you got to go out and I didn’t.”

It’s true that my sister was sick a lot, but, as far as I was concerned, it just meant she got more attention from our parents. Horrible as it is, I sometimes thought she was feigning the severity of her illnesses for pity and extra ginger ale. When she was well, she accomplished so much, was so vibrant and energetic, that it was hard to remember the other side of her, the bedridden, feeble side; her sicknesses all seemed incidental to her personality, not integral. It certainly didn’t occur to me that she could ever be jealous of me.

I was about to apologize, but faltered. The more I thought on it, the more this expression of jealousy bothered me. How dare she reveal her envy when I kept mine restrained and mute? Besides, the very fact that she was able to say it aloud meant that it wasn’t a source of embarrassment or shame—her invocation of jealousy trivialized the down-deepness of my own. Here I was, having gone through surgery for her, and she was making me feel bad about some party forty years ago.

~

I manage to catch up to my sister again.

“There you are,” she says. “I was worried I lost you for a minute.”

Yeah right!

We run around the gated perimeter of the Governor General’s house. I take out a Power Gel and suck down the vanilla syrup. My sister follows my lead. The crowds get bigger and bigger. We breathe and sweat together by the canal up to Hog’s Back and along Riverside Drive. We’re twentyeight kilometres in and I’m starting to get nervous. My legs are killing me, but every time I start to slow down, my sister slows down, too.

“Don’t want to lose you again!” she says each time. At this rate, there’s no way she’ll qualify for me.

The manure twinge in the wind means we’re nearing the Experimental Farm. This is where I hit the wall last year. Once again, my body begins to feel like a burden, an outrageous compromise with the devil. Although my breasts are squished into a heavy-duty sports bra, they still manage to jiggle painfully. My calves burn, and I’m so overheated I’m starting to get chills.

“You can go faster if you want,” I wheeze.

“That’s okay,” she says. Her voice sounds as fresh and accommodating as a salesperson’s. “I want to run with you. That’s why I did this in the first place.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I insist. “I understand if you want to go ahead.”

“I’m fine,” she says. “It’s so fun to see all these different parts of Ottawa. Really puts the city in perspective.”

I look over at her. Her hair is firmly held behind a headband. Mine has started to stick to my forehead. Her posture is upright. Mine is slouched.

There’s still hope. All I have to do is convince her that … damn! Midscheming, I fall to the ground and twist my ankle. I can see the 32-km sign in the distance. My sister helps me hobble to the side of the road as runners gallop by.

“I’m okay,” I say. Salt drips into my mouth, sweat or perhaps tears. “Keep going! You shouldn’t wait here with me. Keep going.”

“No way,” she says.

“But you trained so hard,” I plead. “And you’ve had such a rough year. Please.”

“The only way I’m going is if you trade your chip with mine.”

She must know then. But how? Because she’s always one step ahead of me? I guess it doesn’t matter. None of it matters. “I’m sorry.” 

“I want you to win,” she says. “I want you to have my time.” Oh, okay then. She doesn’t know.

“I’m feeling good,” she continues. “I think I can get in by four fifteen. I’ll try my best.”

“That’s too kind,” I say, crying forcefully now from the ache of my ankle, my selfishness.

“It’s the least I could do,” she says, touching my lower back, passing her hand across my scar, twin to hers. “I owe you.”

Gun-time gratitude: delayed yes, but she got there eventually.

Feeling like a sister imposter, I can’t find the courage to tell her the truth. We unlace and switch our chips. A paramedic appears with a walkietalkie and a first aid kit. My sister merges with the stream of runners and vanishes from sight.

I’m the one left out of the fun now. I can picture Aiden’s proud expression at the finish line, the reverberations of his clap as he watches my sister sprint to the end, his confusion when I don’t follow. But that isn’t why I envy her. I envy her because throughout the race she was so uncompetitive and gracious, so sports-sisterly.

The paramedic manipulates my ankle.

“Does it hurt here?”

That pain seems minor. A shiny foil cape emerges from his pocket. “Here,” he says. “I’m just going to wrap this around you for a bit to preserve your body heat.”

The cape flutters on my shoulders.

But wait, I think, did she just bow out of racing me because she didn’t consider me a worthy opponent? My scar begins to throb. The paramedic helps me to my feet. Worse, was it a competition to see who could be less competitive? Oh, she is devious. The throb extends around my stomach, becomes a thick belt, an equinox of pain. Severing me in two.

Catriona Wright is a Toronto-based writer. She is on the poetry editorial board at The Puritan and her work has previously appeared in various publications such as Free Fall, Contemporary Verse 2 and Existere. She is working on a collection of short stories.

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