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Best Running Friend Week (#BRFweek): A Party of Five

Ruthie Kinker breast cancer BRF photo
Four of the Party of Five in their pink: Ruthie,, Amy, Jenny and Sarah (left to right).

Day Two of #BRFweek, a weeklong tribute to Best Running Friends: forces that push us farther than we thought we could go. As we celebrate all week long on our Facebook page, celebrate your BRF with our special deal in the Mother Runner Store: buy any $25 lifestyle tee, get one for $10 (one for you, one for your BRF). Use code BRF10 at checkout.

To checkout all the happenings of #BRFweek, head here.  Now let's toast to Ruthie and all the friends, both running and not, that have marked her life.

As I have aged, I am a believer to the saying of “I’d rather have 4 quarters than 100 pennies” when it comes to my friends. I have an inner circle of friends that are close to me. I call them my know­-me friends. They know everything about me: my secrets, my accomplishments, my achievements, my huge failures. They know me, and they still love me.

Mariellen was a know-­me friend. We met when I was 17 at my first job at McDonald’s. Mariellen was 19, and my boss. We immediately hit it off. During our time there, we were inseparable. As friends do, she held my hand and dried my tears through the heartbreak of my first love. She guided me when my relationship radar was off, and I was making bad boy choices. We went dancing. We went drinking. We may or may not have gone skinny dipping.

Wedding day: Ruthie in white, Mariellen in black.
Wedding day: Ruthie in white, Mariellen in black.

The years flew by, but our friendship remained constant. We were each other’s bridesmaids. I suffered through a bubble-gum-colored, taffeta­-laden bridesmaid’s dress in her wedding. Her dress wasn’t nearly as bad in my wedding. (And yes, of course I am going to say that.) We celebrated the births of our children. We dried each other’s tears when we lost parents. We lived 500 miles apart, so we didn’t talk daily, but like great friends, we could easily pick up where we had previously stopped.

I started running to celebrate my 40th birthday in June 2008. To everyone’s shock, I loved it. I was never an athlete; running seemed stupid to my younger me. I ran half marathons and 10Ks on a regular basis, and soon I added marathons and ultras to the list.

Mariellen saw the success I was having with running, and started running 5Ks. She would contact me periodically to ask for some tips. I would offer encouragement. We promised each other we would do a 5K together some day. We were both Steelers fans, so the Steelers 5K topped the list. Sadly, we would never see that finish line together.

On August 11, 2011, Mariellen was diagnosed with breast cancer. I knew she would fight. She would beat this. As she battled, my marriage fell apart. Mariellen and I were each drowning in our own sea of sadness. She didn’t have the strength or energy to reach out to me. I sent her texts with no reply, left voice mails with no return call. Mariellen had been with me through many miles and mistakes, so when I didn’t hear from her, I knew things were serious.

Sadly, I was so depressed with my own situation that I had no idea the severity of Mariellen’s fight. I should have tried harder to reach out to her, but I was barely holding it together myself.

Almost exactly three years later, Mariellen’s husband called to tell me that she had lost her battle. I quickly made arrangements to travel home to western Pennsylvania for her funeral.

In the midst of my shock and grief, I ran. I ran to clear my head. I ran to try to stop the tears. I ran to honor my know-­me friend.

In March of 2015, I was notified I had been chosen in the lottery of the Marine Corps Marathon. I was thrilled, ecstatic. I had done MCM last year, and know it is an emotional, amazing race.

I was honored to do it again. And, truth be told, scared to do it again.

My training partner from the previous year had been injured and was not training for a marathon this fall. The idea of all those long runs on my own terrified me.

Enter Amy. I had met Amy through her husband, with whom I had organized a local 5K for a fallen state trooper. She was a newbie. She had just started running, loved it, and in six months completed her first 5K, 10K and had registered for her first half marathon. She was looking for someone to run long miles with her during training. She asked me if I might be interested in joining her.

Amy and I ran a few runs together, but I quickly learned that Amy was like Julie from The Love Boat: a social director. Soon, Courtney and Sarah, both casual acquaintances, joined us on Saturday mornings. Eventually, Jenny, a co­worker of Amy’s, became part of our group as well because Amy convinced her to register for her first half marathon. We became a party of five, and we celebrated on Saturdays at 6 a.m. for our long runs.

Yep, one of those classic mid-run selfies.
Yep, one of those classic mid-run selfies.

The five of us have varying personalities. Amy is our moral compass. On many a run I have shared a personal story with her to get her perspective and opinion. If Amy said I was doing right, then I was doing right. Jenny is quiet. Sarah is not. In Jenny’s first run with Sarah, Sarah lifted up her shirt and flashed Jenny her running bra. (In Sarah’s defense, good running bras are hard to find. We must share our wisdom when we find one.)

As we ran together more, our conversations became more personal. The idea of TMI got thrown out the window the day that Sarah asked us if we shaved to prevent chafing. We immediately where she meant. When Amy said she had hardwood floors, I got confused and wondered how the topic jumped to her kitchen floors. Amy kindly explained this euphemism. Sarah informed us that she needed a landing strip. This did not need to be explained to me.

I, however, did wonder why I was suddenly running alone. The others had stopped to let Amy gather herself, who came to a dead standstill in the middle of the road because she was laughing so hard.

We ran on the morning of Amy’s wedding anniversary. She was perplexed about what to wear that night on her date night with her husband. Sarah quickly pointed out that she needed to wear a mini skirt to show off her gorgeous legs. Then Sarah offered to let her borrow one of hers. Sarah, not wanting anyone to feel left out, proceeded to name off all of our great body parts.

We aren’t just fixated on TMI and our great butts. (Sarah has the best one, btw.) Like all know-­me friends, we look out for each other. Amy, knowing that I was having financial difficulty (single mom and a teacher: need I say more?), bought me a foam roller as a way to say ‘thank you’ for my support of her running.

However, it was when I was having heart issues that I realized what this group meant to me. I had missed a run because my heart was acting up: shortness of breath, tightness and palpitations.

On our next running date, it was only Sarah and me, due to our schedules. I needed 16. Sarah needed 10. Sarah voiced hers and Amy’s concerns about me running. I listened—and continued to run. We completed our 10 together. Sarah got in her car to go home, or so I thought. What I didn’t realize is that she and Amy had already decided that she would follow me around town to make sure I was okay in the remainder of my run. She showed up at various points in my run. I ordered her to go home, and she ignored me. I finished 16, and was grateful for my secret escort.

Ruthie with Carly, Mariellen's daughter, on a visit after her mom's death. "My smile shows how much the stay with them meant to me, and how important Mariellen's family means to me," she says.
Ruthie with Carly, Mariellen's daughter, on a visit after her mom's death. "My smile shows how much the stay with them meant to me, and how important Mariellen's family means to me," she says.

When the first anniversary of Mariellen’s passing fell on a Saturday, I couldn’t think of a better group of women with whom to be than my know­me BAMRs. I texted them the night before, requesting that we wear pink, telling I would explain later.

Promptly at 6:00 a.m., we all showed up, every single one of us in pink. Sarah even flashed Jenny her running bra. I explained the meaning of the day for me. I was forbidden to cry—Sarah doesn’t do well with tears—so instead we laughed. We laughed to celebrate friendship. We laughed to celebrate the bond women can have. We laughed to celebrate women who fight. We laughed to celebrate women who lost their fight. We laughed because that is what Mariellen would have wanted.

And then we ran.

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