Cinthia Ritchie is obsessed with running. She collects specialty running shirts like prizes and spends much of free time researching the latest in gear, from goos to shoes to water belts.
But for all her obsession, running is much more than that. It's like a form of prayer, a meditation, a source of strength, and even more importantly, joy.
Ritchie explores those themes in her essay "Running," which will be included in this year's "Best American Sports Writing" anthology due out Oct. 8. The essay is one of a dozen from such prestigious publications as The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, ESPN and The New Yorker.
The essay examines moments in Ritchie's life through the lens of running. Her childhood in northwestern Pennsylvania, her wandering adolescence, a disconnect with herself in her later years. Through it all Ritchie interjects those reflections with specific moments in running on well-known Alaska trails -- like the one up Flattop Mountain, Lost Lake and Knoya Ridge.
Editor Glenn Stout admired the breathless, easy quality of Ritchie's essay, which first appeared in "Sport Literate" journal. All works included in the anthology were judged blindly.
"The end result was a story that, after reading once, I wanted to read again, which is really the only criteria of judgment I've ever used, and, as a writer, is the goal: to produce work that lives on," he wrote in an email.
Ritchie, a familiar byline in Alaska newspapers, has had her work appear in numerous national publications. A former newspaper reporter, she lives and works in Anchorage and is now focused on writing novels. But finding the essay, much like she found running, happened almost spontaneously.
She wrote it as a one off, an attempt to bring something to her monthly writing group. But she found that the piece -- which acts as both a meditation on running and a meditation on the challenges of living -- had, well, legs.
She was surprised when the personal essay not only won the "Sport Literate" essay award, but when it was included in the anthology.
Learning to run
Running hasn't always been a part of Ritchie's life. As a child, she ran through fields in her native Pennsylvania, but life caught up with her. By her own admission, life wasn't easy. She drifted, hitchhiking across the United States. She became a single mother and bounced between Alaska and Arizona.
At the famous Mount Marathon race seven years ago, Ritchie decided to run again. Covering the race for the local Seward Phoenix Log, she hiked halfway up the mountain to photograph the race. Seeing all the women so clearly fighting the pain of running up and down the treacherous mountain, but still so joyful, inspired her.
"I recognized something ... and I just wanted to release it," she said.
So Ritchie began running. It hasn't been easy. She's struggled through injuries and the little personal things can keep people away from the things they love. But as she kept running, she made a point to be selfish about it.
"In life, we do so much for others, but running is what I do for me," she said.
But her love of running also connects her to her love of Alaska. She's thankful to live in the state, and to be surrounded by the beauty it provides. "When I'm running I just start weeping, because I feel so alive," she said.
It was a feeling she tried to grasp in the essay, which she said was written quickly, in just a night, as a quick one-off -- something she could deliver to a workshop at her informal writing group. She wrote long, run-on sentences in the hope of giving people the feeling of breathlessness. The word choices are simple and short, like the cadence of a run.
She committed what she called "writing errors," too, using the same word over and over again the same sentence in an effort to create a sense of tiredness.
Despite that conscious effort, Ritchie felt slightly ashamed of the piece, thinking it was too simple and lacking complexity. But she found, through her writing group, that that wasn't the case.
"One of my group members mentioned that it was pure," she said. "This is what I was striving for."
She hopes that anyone reading piece can rekindle the wild part of themselves they may have lost, and that through that, hopefully, they can start loving themselves, a long process that Ritchie had to go through.
"I want people to live and realize they can," she said. "And to find these little pieces of joy and claim them for themselves."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com