Monday, August 2, 2010

Tip Your Hat to These Two Women

Two ladies raced. I happened to be there. And I was glad. It led to one of my favorite stories. From the Running Journal, July 2010.


You should have seen Margie Stoll and Marie Threadgill.

They had not met each other before that Saturday morning of September in 2004. They were acquainted only by reputation.

Ms. Stoll, then 63, was the fastest senior runner in Tennessee, dominant at all distances from one mile to the half-marathon, having recently run a 5K in a time of 21:54. She sets an age-group state record every time she runs. She will go on to set over four dozen new marks. A few years later she will gain a national ranking of third in Running Times Magazine, and go on to earn two gold medals and two silver medals at the National Senior Games.

She doesn’t just win. She destroys. She destroys records, and leaves her competition far behind her, out of sight over the hill somewhere. I see her frequently around Nashville, where she runs most of her races.

Ms. Threadgill, also then 63, was more of an occasional racer. She hails from West Tennessee, ran races in that area, and runs a few of the Tennessee State Park Tour races. She is fast too; when she runs, she wins. I had gotten to know her a bit at the Tour races.

So Ms. Stoll and Ms. Threadgill usually run different races. Their paths had never crossed—not until that Saturday morning.

A story about two women old enough to be your mom, you say? Bite your tongue, sonny. Yes, if you insist. They would not deny it. They are age-group athletes, after all. Old enough to be your mom, maybe. But, on the racecourse, fast enough to run your legs off! Walk a little slower when you walk by them. And tip your hat, or, by grab, there might be trouble.

There is a mark painted on the road in front of the River View picnic shelter in Nashville’s Shelby Park. The Nashville Striders running club put it there. It marks the beginning of 15,000 meters, or 9.32 miles. At 7:30 on that Saturday morning, Ms. Stoll and Ms. Threadgill stood with several hundred other runners behind that mark when a man fired a starter pistol.

Then they met. Somewhere along nine miles of exquisite agony they became acquainted; they both suddenly knew.

A race sorts things out. Soon the crowd around you thins out; the pack gets strung out along the course. You look around and find out who’s with you, find out who your competition is. There comes a moment—as I think it did with Ms. Threadgill—when you suddenly realize, there she is!

And the next phase of your life changes. You pour every desperate last atom of energy into getting to the finish line first. In that moment, nothing else in the world matters at all.

Of course Ms. Threadgill’s chances were poor against Ms. Stoll, a runner who had probably never been beaten in her age group. If you saw her you would understand why. She is tall and slender, and her long legs make each stride count, lapping up the miles. Ms. Threadgill is smaller, maybe standing five feet three, but with the quickness of a point guard. Quickness aside, nobody beats Ms. Stoll.

That day Ms. Threadgill did.

Afterwards, she was as giddy as a schoolgirl. Her bright eyes flashed.

“I won!” she said.

“What? You beat Margie?” I barely believed it. I’d missed their finish, myself, recovering.

Ms. Stoll, in defeat, was gracious. Her eyes twinkled; she seemed as happy as Ms. Threadgill was.

“Did you know Margie before today?” I asked Ms. Threadgill.

“No, but someone pointed her out to me before the race.” Ms. Threadgill had known whom she faced. I asked Ms. Stoll if she had ever seen Margie before.

“No, we met on the course,” she said.

So they did.

Ms. Threadgill covered the 9.32 miles in one hour, twelve minutes and two seconds, Ms. Stoll just seven seconds slower. These two smart, funny, friendly, generous, gracious ladies competed as fiercely as fighting bantams.

You should have seen them.

How good was their run? Well, in endurance sports, men hit their peak around the age of thirty. So I looked at the performance of the men in the 30-34 year-old age group, 30 runners that day. Ms. Stoll and Ms. Threadgill would’ve placed in the top half of that group. In other words, these senior women beat the majority of the men who were in their prime. Overall, they easily placed in the top third of the whole pack of 375 racers.

Do I have to say it again? Tip your hat.

Look what these women have done! Can’t somebody learn from that? Isn’t the lesson plain? Get moving. Do something—anything!—the opposite of nothing. In motion is life, in stasis, death. Soon enough it’s over and done. Don’t mess around.

We stood around that Saturday waiting for the awards ceremony like a few hundred sweaty people at a cocktail party of Gatorade, bagels and bananas. Ms. Stoll and Ms. Threadgill had become inseparable, although they’d never met until that morning. Every time I looked around they were huddled, talking and laughing, sometimes with others, sometimes alone.

They reminded me of sorority sisters reunited after a long time. Perhaps they had played intramural football. Given her height advantage, Ms. Stoll played quarterback and Ms. Threadgill, with her quick feet, played wide receiver. They formed a spiritual bond in that game long ago, a bond flicking from Ms. Stoll’s throwing arm along the ball’s delicate arc to Ms. Threadgill’s outstretched hands, a bond undiminished by time. And now they were together again, a team again, like time hadn’t passed.

Of course that never happened; they’d just met. Had it happened, I doubt they would have been better friends than they seemed to be. Their meeting two hours earlier had been a galvanizing one.

Ms. Stoll and Ms. Threadgill went to school long before Title IX, before women had many opportunities in sports, before people knew what women could do.

Driving home that day, I wished I’d told Ms. Threadgill more about how impressive her performance was. Before daylight that morning when her alarm rang, she must have had second thoughts about throwing off the covers only to drive to Nashville and face a runner everyone knew was invincible. That takes courage. She has plenty of grit in her craw.

And Ms. Stoll—I wished I’d told her something, too. Her loss didn’t diminish her one sliver. Instead, it made her stronger. It may have been the luckiest run she ever made. It will certainly be one of the most memorable. I’ve been on the losing end of a duel or two, and the memories of those are the most vivid of all. Ms. Stoll will always remember the race fondly.

As the awards ceremony started that Saturday, Ms. Stoll and Ms. Threadgill stood there side by side, sweaty like we all were, their hair hanging limp in wet strings, soppy as rags. They were a mess.

They were beautiful.

They were magnificent.

You should have seen them.

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