Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Book Review: Sole Sisters: Stories of Women and Runnning

"The running group has become a movable village, where women swap advice on matters small and large, from issues as mundane as helping a baby sleep through the night to crises as grave as a hospitalized child."   -- from Sole Sisters: Stories of Women and Running

This past Sunday was Diva Night at Playmakers  (my local running store) an annual event which celebrates women runners and walkers in the community. It is a fun night of socializing, sharing stories, learning about new gear, clothing, and equipment, and generally celebrating being active, vibrant women. If you haven't seen the video yet, check it out on the video page.

 In looking around the room, I could not help but be struck by the diversity of the women attending and how we all mingled together in a big happy bunch. Running is like that. It creates instant community. It doesn't matter if a person is rich or poor, black, white or brown, liberal or conservative, religiously devout or atheist, a high school dropout or a scholar with a Phd., we all share very similar experiences as runners, and those experiences give us a common ground. It is amazing when you think about it.

 The Diva Night experience reminded of a book I had read recently titled Sole Sisters: Stories of Women and Running. It is one of the few books I have in my collection that focuses exclusively on women runners and tries to capture their experiences and unique perspectives.

The book is comprised of 21 short vignettes of real women runners. It is a celebration of regular women who are also runners, some of whom happen to be professionals. It covers the life experiences that women share that bond us together, just as the experiences and struggles we share on the roads and trails bond us together as runners.

If you read the book you will be amazed at how many ways you can relate to these women. There are women here who have battled loss, cancer, alcoholism, eating disorders, injury, and their own lack of self-esteem, and found their way through these life struggles with the help of running. Many took up running to help them cope with problems in their lives or as part of attempts to make their lives better. Their stories are inspirational and entertaining.

The book introduces you to some wonderful women, such as Sister Marion Irvine, known as The Flying Nun, who took up running at age 48 and qualified for the Olympic Trials six years later and who was still running when the book was published in 2006 at the age of 75. It also profiles Grete Waitz, 9 time New York marathon winner, who just passed away last year from cancer. It also includes an interesting look at two Kenyan women runners, Catherine and Anastasia Ndereba.

One of the more interesting stories for me was that of Cheryl Treworgy, the mother of Shalane Flanagan, who is on our current women's Olympic marathon team. Cheryl was a runner in the 1960s, one of the pioneers of women's running. Her story reminds us of how far women have come in a short amount of time. Cheryl was banned from running alone on the high school track because the idea was unheard of. She had to wear boys running shoes because they did not make them for girls, and her grandmother made her clothes to run in. She went to Indiana State University, and she was the entire women's track team. The men's team would not allow her to train with them so she found a high school team that allowed her to train and compete with the boys (if she didn't get in the way) to help her prepare for her AAU meets. It is amazing to think that this was only one generation ago.

The book also celebrates the friendships that women make through running and the value of the group experience. There are stories of running partners, such as Susan Pajer and Marilyn Darrows, who met and ran together to cope with the loss of Marilyn's husband, or the Dawn Patrol, a group of women runners who meet faithfully regardless of the weather. There is also the story of the Centipede Team of the Aggies running group, which run the famous Bay to Breakers race as a centipede, hooked together with bungees into a single group of 13 runners, or the girls at Students Run Philly Style, who hope that running will help them find the path to a better life. There are so many wonderful stories.

This book is not deep reading, and it is not a masterpiece of prose. However, I found the book enjoyable and a nice addition to my running library. The chapters are short and easy to read. It is a fun book if you want a little inspiration and motivation. It would also make a good gift for a woman runner in your life, especially one who may be going through a rough patch physically or emotionally, as a major theme in all the stories is the strength of the women and their ability to persevere and triumph regardless of what life throws at them.

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