The tale of two sisters, the distance between them, and how running kept them connected
The tale of two sisters, the distance between them, and how running kept them connected (Photo: Milica Golubović)

Running Kept These Sisters Close Through Tough Times

The siblings essentially crossed finish lines together in high school track. Moving far apart and facing their own demons, they found that the bond of running holds fast.

The tale of two sisters, the distance between them, and how running kept them connected
Hilary Oliver

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Not even a mile into our run, Whitney’s shorts are already sopping from a sudden slip into the mud. In the tall grass, it’s impossible to see what our feet will actually land on—maybe a spongy hummock, a bowl of mud pudding, or a black puddle of unknown depth.

“Sorry!” she shouts back to me, her pace quick despite the horrible footing, the baking sun, and the hot breath of humidity rising from the soggy sheep pasture we’re cutting through. “I forgot how long this section was.”

Typical, I think. We’re so forgetful about the parts that suck.

I can tell my little sister is thrilled to show off her local trails after moving to Wanaka, New Zealand. It’s December 2018, and my husband and I have flown down to visit as part of our honeymoon. But to get to the more scenic, craggy ridgelines of the 18-mile Wanaka Skyline Traverse, we have to slog through this bog first. At least we’re doing it together this time, I think.

Living on opposite sides of the globe makes it difficult to stay in touch, and I often worry about Whitney. Since she moved abroad nearly six years ago, phone calls are sporadic, and we see each other in person only twice a year at best. But running has come to serve as a kind of litmus test for the condition of our inner lives, whether we’re on the trail together or awarding each other kudos on Strava from thousands of miles away.

Since the district track meet my senior year of high school, when she was a freshman, I’ve felt the push-pull of wanting Whitney to slow down so I can keep up, while also wanting her to break through her own limits.

At 15 and 18, Whitney and I were look-alikes: two heads of white-blonde hair, two purple and gold uniforms, four legs blinding white from a winter spent indoors. Our shoes struck the track in sync as we turned the corner into the final stretch of the 800-meter district championship. We grew up best friends, and moving to a tiny new town in western Nebraska the previous year had cemented that bond. We could hear the small-town crowd’s crescendo as it watched us pull away from the rest of the pack together, shoulder to shoulder, matching strides for the final stretch. At the finish, my body crossed the line a fraction of a body width ahead of hers for first place. I’m quite sure that was intentional on Whitney’s part, because she’s been ahead of me ever since.

That fall I left for college, but we both kept running—Whitney even faster in her final years of high school track, and me clocking laps around the Colorado State University campus or jogging in the foothills. After high school, we quit competing, except for the occasional 10K or half marathon. We occasionally caught up on the phone or by e-mail, but we grew in different directions, eventually keeping our heaviest burdens and darkest secrets to ourselves. It would be five years before we lived under the same roof again for a summer, when it all finally came out.

Sitting next to me on a park bench one summer evening in 2004, Whitney told me that through high school and college she’d been wrestling with an eating disorder that took root during high school track.

She’d come to live with me and my roommates after my senior year of college in Fort Collins, Colorado, and we’d been sharing a room for a few weeks. We sat in City Park, staring across the lake, though neither of us was actually seeing it. At first I felt like punching someone—like I could punish whoever was responsible for ripping away my little sister’s innocence. But as Whitney talked, I saw that she’d been blaming herself all along. It felt like a betrayal—that running, this thing that should feel like freedom, could be part of something so insidious.

I had no idea how to help. I was getting ready to leave for a six-month stint working in Antarctica, part of a vague plan to restart my adult life after severing ties with nearly all of my college friends. Trudging through my own mire of confusion and heartbreak, I felt empty-handed.

Each of the five years since my freshman year of college, I had dived deeper into a campus religious organization that eventually threatened to swallow my life entirely. Whitney and I grew up in a devout Evangelical home, and I’d looked for a church group to join right away in college, excited to make new friends and grow spiritually. At first the group felt accepting and supportive. I appreciated how informal it seemed, meeting in small groups at people’s homes during the week and having casual services together on Saturday nights. It even had a rock band—not something you saw in western Nebraska.

Trudging through my own mire of confusion and heartbreak, I felt empty-handed.

I moved up in leadership within the group, and gradually it asked more of me, and willingly I gave. More time. More commitment. More loyalty. I quit attending other campus groups and doing recreational triathlons, and I cut way back on my own outdoor adventures. I eventually stopped hanging out with other students at all, unless I was trying to recruit them into the church group. The time commitment ate at my study hours, and my grades slipped. I took the church leaders’ messages to heart, to “trust God for my schoolwork,” not fully understanding what that meant other than giving my time to the ministry instead of studying. My stress levels skyrocketed. Meanwhile, questions about the group’s dogma—and my own faith—started to simmer.

Finally, I broke down. I’d been struggling with depression and felt like a fraud leading others while my own faith was crumbling. Tearfully, I explained to the other church leaders why I wouldn’t just be taking a break for a couple weeks—I was leaving. For good. At 22 years old, recently graduated from college, this meant jettisoning nearly all my friends and everything else familiar in my life. Taking a janitor job at an Antarctic research base sounded like the perfect way to move on.

Boarding the military cargo plane to Antarctica, I welcomed the sensation of leaving everything behind. Except Whitney. Only a few weeks before, sitting on that park bench, I’d seen I wasn’t the only one who was fractured. Whitney and I had cried and held each other. She sounded like she was recovering, but I worried about whether she would have the support she needed in California during her final year of college. In my rush to escape my own problems, was I abandoning Whitney in her time of need?

In the dark, low-ceilinged gym at McMurdo Station in 2005, I beep-beep-beeped the button for the treadmill’s incline—up, up, up—my breath and my heart rate spiking with it until I couldn’t bear it anymore, and then down, down, down again. Desperate to stave off boredom, I jacked the pace up and down, and then the incline up and down, and then both. I’m sure I was driving anyone else in the gym nuts.

I ran because I could barely button my jeans, thanks to the fatty cafeteria food and beer—and I ran because running was the one place I felt like myself anymore.

Staying in contact with Whitney, or anyone, from Antarctica was more difficult than I’d anticipated. Six harried days a week I scrubbed showers, scoured toilets, and vacuumed floors. My roommate worked nights washing dishes, so on my days off, when I hoped to call Whitney or my parents, she was asleep in our tiny dorm room. I can count on one hand the number of times Whitney and I spoke on the phone during the five and a half months I was at McMurdo. A small computer lab in the hallway outside the galley offered infernally slow internet access, and lines of cooks, mechanics, and heavy-machine operators stacked up there on weekends and after shift changes. On the rare occasions I waited in the line, I usually found myself filling e-mails with mundane observations about station life: I saw a penguin. I came down with a cold.

Hammering as hard as I could gave me a precious feeling of autonomy that I’d missed.

I began preparing my workout clothes before I left for work each morning, so I could quickly and quietly change from my bleach-splashed Carhartts into my fleece running pants. If the weather was mild, I trotted along the volcanic dirt roads and trails around the station. I skittered down along the harbor, where the icebreaker and cargo ship would arrive, circled the hut built by Robert Falcon Scott, or scrambled up to the top of Observation Hill—the cone-shaped volcanic mound on the edge of town that was topped with a memorial to Scott and his men, who perished on their return trip from the South Pole.

I entered a 9K race organized by the rec department and surprised myself by sprinting to the finish for first place in the women’s division. Hammering as hard as I could gave me a precious feeling of autonomy that I’d missed. At the bottom of the planet, running quietly whispered to me, “You are still you.” I wondered about Whitney, back in California, and hoped that she, too, felt like herself. Our scattershot e-mails were typically vague and, I knew, probably more upbeat than true—because typing out the words to express dark thoughts is like confirming their truth. Neither of us was probably ready for that.

“Slow down, sister!” I whispered urgently, refreshing the Los Angeles Marathon website on my laptop. Back in Denver in 2007, I was starting a fresh life after Antarctica. I was also slowly rebuilding a sense of closeness to Whitney, who was transitioning from the frying pan of college to the fire of a Hollywood job and dating in L.A. She signed up for the L.A. Marathon, and when race day rolled around, I tracked her progress online.

Since my return from Antarctica, I’d taken every chance I could to visit Whitney. We ran along the creek from her Culver City apartment out to the beach, slowly catching up on months’ worth of news. I worried she was too nice to stick up for herself against manipulative film-industry figures and the selfish, grabby men she met online. I wondered if the toughness I saw in her disciplined running strides carried over to the rest of her life.

Just the way I’d poured myself into running in Antarctica, I knew that Whitney had been passionate about her marathon training. But as I paced around my 300-square-foot apartment, munching on toast and refreshing the race tracking, I worried that maybe she hadn’t taken good enough care of herself to push so hard. Had she been eating enough? Had she been training too hard? Was she drinking enough water? Her splits had been so fast.

My heart sank as several more minutes passed and no mile-23 check mark appeared by her name.

I knew it was a hot day, and her miles had ticked by so quickly. One by one, I saw her pass through the checkpoints, astonished at her speed and willing that she could keep it up. I felt painfully far away.

At mile 23, the minutes started to stack up. Maybe she stopped to walk, I told myself. That’s probably a good thing. But I knew in the cells of my body, which share her DNA, that Whitney wouldn’t just quit.

My heart sank as several more minutes passed and no mile-23 check mark appeared by her name. Helpless with worry, I finally received the crushing news from my parents over the phone: Whitney had collapsed on the racecourse. Still jogging as she approached an aid station, she’d apparently wobbled, swayed, and then crumpled onto the adjacent grass, blacking out. My eyes filled with tears thinking of the medic who’d been there instead of me to scoop up her chilled, sweaty body.

Over the course of the next couple of months, she saw a doctor and got checked out for a possible stress fracture. Our parents feared she suffered from a heart problem. But to this day, she says that the collapse was a combination of not eating enough while pushing herself well beyond her body’s capacity; she didn’t accept it until she was lying in the grass alongside the racecourse, unable to recite her own address to the strangers huddled over her.

Ten years have passed since that painful marathon, but Whitney and I both still turn to running for its soul-soothing properties. Treading in her footsteps as we tour her favorite trails around her New Zealand home, I’m happy to see that Whitney’s learned a lot about taking care of herself in the previous decade. Each of her strong, confident strides on the Skyline Traverse reassures me.

Whitney left her job in Hollywood to travel and work abroad, eventually marrying an Australian man and settling in New Zealand. I lived in a van, traveling the American West for a year and a half with my now husband, eventually settling back in Denver. We each learned to fight for our own identities, and running has been a constant touchstone. Before each of our weddings, we planned ambitious trail runs to spend quality sister time together.

Aside from my husband, I only follow one person on Strava: Whitney. Even with our regular Skype chats and e-mails, Strava gives me the most visceral understanding of how my sister’s doing. When I can see where she’s been running, how far, how fast, how often, I feel connected to her. I’m comforted simply knowing she’s out there being her true self, strong and sweet.

As we finally pop up to the ridgeline above Wanaka, she points out different peaks across the saw-toothed horizon and apologizes again for forgetting how tough the 5,000 feet of elevation gain would be. I’m surprised—but then, not at all surprised—at how tough she is. And at how we always seem to forget enough of the hard parts to keep moving forward. Maybe, over all these years, running has simply been there to remind us of how strong we actually are.