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Women who run in Memphis

Courtesy of the author

In October, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on heroes.

A runner knows her city: Block by block, she knows where the uptick of a curb tricks her feet, where the slow, mean slope of a final hill can make her lungs heavy.

This is how I learned Memphis. Late summer mornings, I ran through our gated neighborhood down a narrow road lined on one side by chain-link and on the other by extraordinary hydrangeas peering atop high, solid wood fences. I traveled patiently, alone, to the crosswalk at the intersection of Poplar and Lafayette, then crossed to a long lawn of yellow grass and the track at East High, a monolith public school I have never set foot in. I looped circle after circle around the black kids playing football, practicing marching band, then weaved my way back through the high fences to home.

That was 15 years ago.

I learned to run in heat. Salt streaked down our foreheads, we met at closing bell, a row of us girls on a row of houses, feet tottering on the curb. We started with a 2-miler. Our careful line of small, white girls moved in steady puffing breaths down the city blocks. The adults gave us maps, small laminated things that could be held in our hands while we ran, winding the almost-suburbs of east Memphis, continuous loops around our beautiful school, its Bible Belt spiritualism.

We could hold it ourselves, our pathway through a city they told us at any wrong turn could be dark. Black.

The way we lived in Memphis was on purpose. A white life, something evangelical and wonderful for us -- it is daily decided on. We liked our class differences right between our fingers: in our clothing, our food, our cars, our houses, our booze. New money brought a new God, and year by year we were cleaner and brighter.

The woman who taught us French was brought up in Memphis by a mother from New Orleans. White, working-class Catholic Memphians, a small but stalwart clan, their stony churches and thronging, imperfect gardens. Her name was Nanette.

In the fall of 2002, Memphis opened its first half-marathon, and Nanette took it upon herself to lead a group of us. For the first time, we had to leave the knot of well-kept residential lanes around our campus for some real distance. We ran through the Tennessee wilderness outside of town at Shelby Farms. We ran through midtown, red and gold leaves making slick the cypress-covered paths of Overton Park. Through downtown, its empty blocks and dead neon signs, crossing Beale Street to where the city opens into the delta, the Mississippi brown and endless, our horizon.

After that first race, Nanette and I went on to do New Orleans, this time without the army of girls accompanying us. With my Northern parents and my godlessness, I was no one's favorite in those years. Except hers. Nanette taught me to love these Souths, her homes, this brassy, sturdy woman who ran through, with me by her side. Nanette taught me how to use my body to love a city, to find home by the unfailing rhythm of feet on ground.

In the fall of 2005 when we found out she had cancer, the letters came in enormous drifts. When I left school in the afternoons to see her, first at the hospital and then at home, fresh piles came in daily, students from decades past, younger students who hoped to get into her class in the years to come, neighbors, churchgoers, acquaintances.

When we buried her one February morning, her South and her God were never more evident. Her priest swung his incense down the stone cathedral aisle, its waft something old. After decades of teaching us and praying to the bright white vaults of our Protestant haven, this time we came to her, droves of us in our pressed clothing, soft hair falling right. Girls she taught. Girls she led on runs.

In the days and months that followed her death, my mailboxes too filled up. High, threatening piles of unread emails, card stock I left scattered on the shelves of the East Los Angeles apartment I never cleaned. I opened none of them, turned over no postcards. I was afraid to see the words of prayer of the women I grew up with, ran with. The sadness and the God that belonged to them did not belong to me. The sharp scent of citrus and rind came through my second-story porch windows, my overgrown lemon tree crawling upward through that spring, summer, and then the next fall.

I waited 12 years to run the Memphis St. Jude Half Marathon again. This time, I did it with my mother. The faces of my high school classmates and teachers passed by me in uncanny blurs. This marathon was high-tech, massive in scale, a beautiful winding way through Memphis' old residential gardens and its rapidly gentrifying downtown blocks. Well-designed, pressure-washed sidewalks and clever storefronts dislodge me from what I knew of that place.

When I don't sleep, I conjecture about the somewhere else, as being a child down there taught me to do. What might have happened if it hadn't been that school, that life. That river, that town. Would she have died, and young? Would she have had those years of illness? Moll, she would often say, my oily cafeteria lunch in front of me, her empty classroom, the sounds of girls drifting along the walkway outside. Don't be in the business of comparing one life to another. She twirled in her desk chair, an old, mashed pillow underneath her. No one ever wins.

Today on the day that I am writing this and some other day when you are reading this, a woman will run in Memphis. I do not know her. I do not know where she goes, where she's running to.