I know this should be about the Houston Marathon. It should be, but it’s not.
I have something crazy to share with you, a story that has been blossoming over the past 13-years. One that is reaching a frenzied peak. I don’t know how it will end but I can start you somewhere in the middle.
See, next week I will rent a car and drive north from Portland until I reach the Olympic National forest where my 25-year-old sister attends college. Shannon and I will fly through dark green pines on muddy trails that wrap their way through the dense forest in Olympia, Washington. This will feel like home to us; beating our legs into submission as we dance over twisted tree roots and propel ourselves up and over wet, mossy boulders. The woods have been our home since we were children.
When we were quite young tall men with yellow machines began to illegally log the 80 acres of forest behind our house. We can’t have been more than 12 and 10 years old that night as we crept into the woods after sunset with a pair of wire-cutters from the garage and attacked the bulldozer they left behind, snipping a wire here and a wire there, disabling it.
It rested there for years, nature eventually taking her revenge with snaking plants that swarmed and conquered the machine that was built to destroy her. We were proud of our forest, we cherished it, protected it, drinking from the stream, learning which of the berries and plants were good to eat and which were good for papering the outside of stick forts. We had names for the nooks and hollows and prodded piles of scat with twigs to test for the freshness that would signal the proximity of coyote or bear. We fired arrows across the wide clearing and hollered like savages as we pinged tin cans with a 22.
Perhaps running wild in the fashion that we did led us to the path we are on today. You see, I am not the only blue collar, pain-loving, adventure-seeking runner in my family. Not by a long shot. Would you believe it if I told you that both of my sisters ran a faster 5k than I did last year?
Well, they did.
For reference, I am the second of four children.
Georgia: March, 30th, 1988 Sarah: August 22nd, 1989 Matthew: March 30th 1991 Shannon: March 30th, 1991
You read that right. All three of my siblings have the same birthday, which is all well and good until the “March 30th Club” was formed and I was formally excluded.
We had a typical, if somewhat red-neck, upbringing that eased us from the unbridled mischief of childhood into the overly-governed compensation of our teenage years.
I began running at 14, Shannon at 12. Though she was only a sophomore in high school when I was a senior, she began beating me regularly. She rapidly closed in on the 5:00 mile and broke it for the first time at the state meet when she was sixteen, placing 3rd, leaving me far behind in her shadow with a 5:11 and 10th place. It was heartbreaking, but no one seemed to care which one of us came out on top, we were a package deal. The Porter girls.
My mother, who started running so I would have someone to keep me company began a journey of her own that would see her narrowly miss the Olympic Trials in the marathon a few years down the road. My father and brother began running as well with both seeing success at the 5k distance. In fact, Northwest Runner Magazine posted an issue with a shot of the five of us on the cover. The title read Meet the Porters: A running family. Georgia was nowhere to be seen.
I never wondered until years later if that bothered her. Georgia joined the high school track team for a season with a half-hearted attempt to throw the javelin, then promptly went back to her true interests, alcohol and rebellion.
There is something people love about a sister-sister rivalry and it felt to me like Shannon’s raw talent trumped my work ethic in race after race after race. I graduated both relieved and hopeful that leaving her shadow and leaving the family that had placed me in such a specific role would rejuvenate my running. It did.
I dropped two minutes from my 5k personal best during my freshman year, earning the last spot into nationals for cross-country and indoor track and narrowly missing All-American status in the outdoor 10k. My times continued to drop throughout college, culminating in a national title, an NCAA record of 12 national appearances and a contract with a professional running group.
Meanwhile, Georgia had graduated from fire-science school, fought wildland in the summers and worked as a paramedic full time, exhausting herself during 12-hour shifts and running not at all.
Shannon spent her first few years out of high school at a few different colleges, running Division 1 and being swallowed up by masses of upperclassmen. Discouraged, she eventually returned home and worked several different jobs, her running placed on the back burner, dormant but not absent as she found herself unable to let go of the thrill of pushing herself on long, hard runs in the Washington rain or on solo intervals on the local high school track. We talked less about running when we spoke and I felt a chasm grow, not sure how to bridge the widening gap between our situations.
I felt that the only difference had been my choice of school. In some ways it seemed that Division II saved my running. I was allowed to be a big enough fish in a small enough pond to avoid the discouragement that Shannon faced during her freshman year.
During these years she continued to run, racing locally on occasion but floundering with her identity as a runner. Meanwhile her twin Matthew was attending a small NAIA school in Seattle where he went on to qualify for nationals in the steeplechase event.
Georgia and Shannon moved into an apartment and had started logging miles together. Georgia had even started entering a few local races, daunted at first by the 5k but moving quickly all the way up to the half marathon. Still, she rarely ran faster than 7-minute pace. I can’t say for sure when Georgia first laced up a pair of running shoes and gave it a shot, but I can say that the most natural instinct in the world to her is the primal need to win
I flew home from Zap one Christmas and asked if she wanted to jump in my long run with me. She agreed but promised me I could run ahead if I needed to. We left the house at a slow pace, but once we hit the waterfront path and runners popped up in front of us, I felt her energy shift.
The word popped into my head involuntarily. Ferocious I thought. She is ferocious.
A couple running ahead of us at a fairly good clip became her target and suddenly I was the one holding on as she cranked down the pace. They were 100 meters ahead of us. Then 75, then 50. They reached the next side street and slowed to a walk. I heard Georgia’s sigh of irritation as we flew past them and I glanced over at her.
“You’re angry?” I asked.
“I wanted to catch them.” She grumbled.
“We did.” I said.
“They started walking. Doesn’t count.” She argued.
I was having trouble accepting that the girl next to me on this 18 mile run was my sister Georgia, the sullen high-schooler with zero interest in athletics.
We cruised home and sat on the porch, untying our shoes as the sun went down. That was the first time I told Georgia that I believed she could be great. The 18 miler had been assigned by my coach at Zap Fitness and has several hard surges beside her natural surge brought on by the same instinct that causes a cheetah to chase a gazelle. These planned surges of mine were unexpectedly matched by Georgia. I tested her curiously, accelerating cautiously while I listened to hear breathing and watched her form for any sign of a hitch. There was none.
Two years after our 18 miler, as she started wilderness leadership classes at a community college, she asked if I would advise her training as she competed for the first time in a team jersey for cross country.
Every speed workout was a surprise. When she broke a 6-minute mile for the first time running a 5:44 at the end of mile repeats she called me in absolute disbelief. She ran tempo runs in pitch darkness after her 12-hour shifts, fighting wind and snow in her small town of Stevenson, Washington.
She won every single race she ran that season in the community college league. She broke 19:30 in the 5k, then 18:30, then 18:00. Her body began to change from the stocky build of a firefighter who had climbed flights of stairs with a 40lb pack, the body of a paramedic who had lifted people on stretchers into the back of an ambulance over and over into the lean, lithe body of a runner. That first year of serious training was a chance to watch Michelangelo carve the statue of David from a rough block of marble.
I tried to explain to her that this wasn’t typical, that it wasn’t normal to win every race by a matter of minutes and set personal bests every time the gun went off. It didn’t sink in, and in a way I was glad for it. Her ignorance was powerful, the way mine had been before Shannon began beating me in high school, and I knew that once it was gone it would be gone for good.
As we began to talk about her future in running I told her that she had a decision to make. She wanted a degree from a University anyway, and I advised her to look at two of the best Division II Schools in the country. When she selected Western State University of Colorado, I was thrilled, though it was difficult to hand the reigns of her training over to another.
Around this time, perhaps inspired by Georgia’s success, Shannon decided to go back to college as well. She chose St. Martins University, a Division II University in Olympia Washington that had been in my conference when I attended Western Washington.
Back under the counsel of a coach and with the accountability of a team, she began to flourish, rising as I had done in that conference years before, making a name for herself at the front. She began to share about her running again and we talked openly about our training and racing.
As both sisters began to shave seconds from their times it soon became clear what was bound to happen. They couldn’t orbit around each other forever, they had to meet. Both qualified for the national indoor track championships and would race head to head for the first time in January of 2016. They were each set to race the 5k and the 3k, both aiming for the elusive top-8 All-American spots.
In a bizarre twist of fate, I found myself sitting across the country watching my sisters, one the high-school Phenom, the other a completely unexpected 28-year-old prodigy, compete against each other in the realm that had been mine half a decade earlier. It was downright surreal.
I paced back and forth in my living room with the 5k projected from the computer onto the television screen. Georgia and Shannon, both in the red jerseys of their respective universities, tucked onto the rail in the middle of the pack. Earlier in the season, Georgia had broken 17 minutes running an outstanding 16:50. Similarly, Shannon had closed out her first outdoor season with a 16:32 and was looking to raise the bar even higher.
The camera focused on the leaders as they pulled away and I lost sight of my sisters. Glancing at my watch I figured I had at least another 30 seconds before they finished so I glanced down at my phone for a text. Catching a glimpse of red I looked up at the screen just in time to see Georgia flying across the line with her arms in the air, an expression of victorious exhaustion on her face. I stared open-mouthed at the television in disbelief. The clock read 16:18. She had finished fifth. Shannon struggled home well behind, but her weekend was not over. The next day in the 3k race, Shannon claimed the final All-American spot when she placed 8th, a prize she had dreamed of for over a year, while Georgia fell behind, well off her personal best.
I began to wonder if there were any three sisters in the US today that could add up their collective 5k times to a total of 48:39. And beyond that, I started to wonder what the future held.
I know that there will come a time in my life when I will be willing to give everything I own for one more chance to race and hurt and fight and suffer. When my body can no longer keep up with the physical demands of my mind I at least want the satisfaction of knowing that I chased this as hard as I could. That I gave it everything and made sacrifices where they needed to be made. I know that this attitude is rare but I sense that my sisters possess it.
In 2020, I want the three of us to stand side by side on the starting line of the Olympic trials. I want us to embrace one another as we prepare to go through that special challenge that most only dream about. I want them to know what it’s like.
But for now, both have a track season ahead of them full of promise, as do I. It is conceivable that at some point this spring, the three of us will race each other and PRs of 15:49, 16:18 and 16:32 may fall and shift in order. Will it bother me if they beat me? Yes. It bothers me when anyone beats me. But I want them to want to beat me. I want them to wonder if they can and to be willing to try. That day is growing nearer and I welcome it with equal parts arrogance, fear and curiosity. Until then, I will settle for an easier pace and miles in the pines.