The Doc Project

'Strong, capable Hutterite runner' takes on the trail — and tradition

"If I am a healthier Elaine, then I am a healthier Hutterite," says Elaine Hofer, even though she struggles with taking time away from her traditional Anabaptist community.

Elaine Hofer is a Hutterite and a runner, but it's not always easy being both

Elaine Hofer, running in the Epic East Gate Trail Run in Manitoba's Riding Mountain National Park. (Meghan Mast/CBC)
Listen to the full episode29:21

When Elaine Hofer runs in long-distance races, she tends to get stares and second glances from other runners. As a Hutterite, a member of a religious sect which shares some similarities with the Amish, Elaine puts in her paces while wearing a long dress.

"A skirt flapping as we run across the Prairies, it does not hinder us in any way," she said. "Why is there a certain way we need to be dressed to be able to run?"

When she first started, the 38-year-old Manitoba woman did not anticipate how important running would become to her — for her physical and mental health and, more than that, as a metaphor for freedom.

But with Elaine's Hutterite upbringing, chasing her passion for running hasn't been easy.

Hutterites are Anabaptists, a type of Christianity that stems from the reformation. 

Elaine spending time with the horses at Green Acres colony, one of more than 100 Hutterite colonies in Manitoba. (Meghan Mast)

They speak low German and practise a traditional, communal way of living — sewing clothes, growing and cooking food for the community, sharing resources and working together to make money. They eat together and attend church and school together.

'Doesn't she have work to do?'

When Elaine first started running, she worried about what the other people in her community might think of her. During her first year of training in 2013, Elaine remembers wanting to dive into a bush anytime another person would pass her while she was running. 
 
"I could visualize people thinking, 'Doesn't she have work to do?'" Elaine said. "'Doesn't she have anything more valuable to do?'"

Elaine Hofer and her sister, Alice, defy convention both as runners and as members of their traditional Anabaptist community. 1:58

 
Elaine didn't know many other Hutterites who would go running during the day, particularly women. It took several years, but over time she stopped feeling self-conscious. She knows running makes her happier and healthier, which helps her contribute more to the community.
 
Still, it can be hard to plan for a race. For Hutterites, community duties take priority over individual interests. Registration is always several months in advance and community needs can surface during that time. Sometimes it's small things like canning pears or picking berries. 

 

Picking spinach in the Green Acres garden is one of many community duties that Elaine, right, and Alice take part in. (Meghan Mast)

Recently, she and her sister, Alice, were eight weeks into training for a half marathon when they learned a community wedding was being planned for the same day. They had to miss the race.

"There was really little we could do about it," said Elaine. "Those are times when you have to sacrifice your own plans and needs to share part of a community celebration, an event, and be supportive of it."

Life on the Hutterite colony

Since Elaine is not married, she lives with her parents and two unmarried adult siblings. They live with 115 other people in a community called Green Acres Colony, one of more than 100 Hutterite colonies in Manitoba. 

Elaine, right, and Alice both live at home in Green Acres with their parents and brother. (Meghan Mast)

Living with her parents comes with perks, like her mom sometimes doing her dishes and regularly gathering her laundry. They have their own rooms, but the living quarters are tight, and navigating the emotional spaces of her family members can be draining.

Sometimes when Elaine settles in for the night she feels like she can hear her whole family outside her room. She hears her dad clicking the cereal bowl as he eats, her mom listening to the news, her sister Alice slamming the dresser drawers as she gets her clothes out for the next day, and her brother brushing his teeth with an electric toothbrush.

Elaine relaxes with her friend's dog, Dex. (Meghan Mast)

"Just our different schedules and routines, it certainly is a big challenge, I think, with us having enough space to be who we are," Elaine said.
 
Recently she's been feeling the need for more room. She talked to her parents about moving out with Alice, but housing in the community is limited. People can make housing requests, but ultimately the community leaders determine who gets housing, and priority is usually given to married couples.

Both Elaine, right, and Alice hope to move out of their parents' home, but housing in the colony is limited. (Meghan Mast)

Since Elaine does not know when or if she'll ever move out, she is looking for other ways to find freedom and assert her independence. She is training to get her driver's license, but her primary outlet remains running through the trails and country roads that surround the colony.

Being part of something bigger

The night before their latest venture, their first ultra-trail run this past May, the sisters sat on the couch in their basement, talking through their current predicament. They were anxious because they'd been assigned to de-bone turkeys the next morning, and they were going to have to skip it.

Alice pointed out that they're usually very diligent with community duties — and they'd even found women to cover their work — but they still worried about what people would think.

From left to right: Rhoda Hofer (cousin), Alice Hofer and Elaine Hofer peel potatoes as part of their community duties at Green Acres colony. (Meghan Mast)

"We're not just leaving and waving de-boning turkeys goodbye and thinking we're taking a break from community work," said Alice. 

The day after the race, where they logged 25 kilometres in just over three hours, it was back to prepping vegetables for Elaine because her "cook week" started on Monday.

Elaine Hofer, left, and her sister, Alice, pose after running the Epic East Gate Ultra, an ultramarathon in Riding Mountain National Park, Man. (Meghan Mast)

Elaine compares this dance between individual needs and community needs to when a choir sings. There are many different parts blending together to create a rich, full refrain. But that song wouldn't be possible without the altos, the tenors, the sopranos and each unique voice. 

"I need to be part of something bigger than I am," said Elaine, "in the same way that I need to believe in a being bigger than I am. But I think one of the challenges is to find our separateness within it."

Elaine sits in the improvised recording booth for the documentary. (Meghan Mast)

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page. 



About the Producer 

Meghan Mast is a multimedia journalist with a love for long-form storytelling. She got her start in radio at CBC's DNTO. She worked as an agriculture reporter, fresh out of journalism school, and in the last several years wrote a personal essay about grappling with the decision to have children in an increasingly volatile world, and a long-form double feature about the way residential school survivors are reclaiming their life through small acts of resistance.

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook, and was made through the CBC Radio Doc Mentorship Program

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