With my running shoes in hand, I tiptoe out the front door, closing it gently so as not to wake the napping house. It is early but already the sun creeps from behind the trees casting a glow over the dew drops on the grass. I haven’t even started running and already I feel sticky.
I scroll through my phone to find my running playlist, the one with Lady Gaga and Usher and Black Eyed Peas because I’m a middle-aged white woman pretending to still live the playlist of my pre-kid era. Butterflies dance in my stomach with the knowledge of what I must do this morning. I take a deep breath, stretch my legs briefly and then decide I can’t stall any longer—it’s time to do this.
I’m training for a half marathon at the end of the summer. This isn’t my first long race. One marathon and a handful of half marathon medals sit in my kids’ dress up box from past races. My training schedule tells me I have to complete eight miles today, my longest run in almost two years. I know I can do it. Still, I’m nervous.
Training for distance running is not just about the long runs. It’s also about consistent training throughout the week to build up strength and endurance. But as I look back on this past week, I feel defeated before I get to the end of the block. This has not been a great running week. Then again, motherhood never made running easy for me.
Two days before this run, I shouted through the house to my children “everybody get your shoes; we’re going on a run!” In case you incorrectly read that with a positive inflection, let me paint a truer picture.
It was 4 PM on a Thursday, halfway through the summer, every toy in the house was upturned on my family room floor as if ransacked by a burglar. The six and four year old have been at each other most of the day like seagulls fighting over a piece of bread on the beach. The baby was screaming because I wouldn’t let him eat the legos he found abandoned on the floor. I was on day four of a solo parent week, it was 90 gatrillion degrees outside and we have no air conditioning.
So what I’m saying is we were cranky.
I needed a run. For my mental health most definitely. But also, according to my training schedule, I was supposed to clock three miles that day for my “easy midweek run.”
What a joke. There is nothing easy about these runs. This schedule was clearly written by a man who is not the primary daytime caregiver for three young children.
My training this time around has been less than ideal. One year after delivering my third baby, I feel like I am getting to know my body all over again. While my husband and I do our best to accommodate for each other’s exercise needs, sometimes, like when he is traveling, it’s just not possible to run alone. The balance of running and motherhood often means bringing three tiny running partners along, tiny running partners who do not seem to have the same training goals.
This was not what I imagined being a runner after babies would look like. The other mother runners made it look so easy. Earbuds in, babies relaxing, strong muscles pushing the jogging stroller along with effortless grace. Easy.
But this would just be one of many things I anticipated incorrectly about motherhood.
Over the years I have learned that an “easy midweek run” actually involves multiple legs. The first leg of the race doesn’t involve running at all. But it certainly makes me sweat.
On this particular day my first leg looked like this: meltdowns over putting on shoes, an inopportune diaper change followed by a change of clothes, arguing over who gets the purple cup which apparently is superior to the identical green cup, replacing removed shoes, hunting for a missing pacifier, slathering uncooperative bodies with sunscreen, and OH MY WORD WHY ARE YOUR SHOES OFF AGAIN.
But once we finally had one child in a stroller and two others with helmets and scooters, it was time for the second leg of the race: the actual running.
And by running I mean spending most of my time directing children to stay to the right, stop at intersections, cross the street quickly, please don’t ride on their grass, no not that right your other right, all the way until we reached the running path a half mile away. This is when I finally settled into leg two—the actual running. We were on a trail so I wouldn’t have to worry about traffic management. I could focus on what I came here to do—get stronger, build up endurance, and run.
But not five minutes later someone asked for water. A pacifier dropped at some point and we had to backtrack a few paces to retrieve it. Shortly after the middle one takes a fall (why didn’t I think to pack bandaids?) and required a healing hug from mom. Then there was the intense scrutinizing of the foliage along the trail at which point I really began to curse the park district employees who chose to add plant life to this running path.
“Look mom! The flowers are about to open!” Elliott, my middle child, said as he stopped to draw closer to the tall stem on the day lily plant. “What color do you think they will be? Do you think they will be yellow? When will they open?”
I tried to cover up my exasperated sigh as just breathing heavy from running but at this pace the only thing getting my heart rate up was the intense frustration at all of this interruption.
“I don’t know, bud. Let’s keep going or we will never make it.” I hated dismissing his curiosity like this. But I was in no mood for a teaching moment. I just wanted to finish this “easy run” and get home.
Especially because I knew we were approaching the third and final leg—the whining stage.
“Mooooooom! I’m tired, or we done yet?” the cries echoed behind me.
The final third of any long race is always the hardest part. But for a mom just trying to drag her three children home, it’s excruciating. By the time we finally hit our block, my pace had slowed down so much to accommodate for my lack luster “running” partners that I’m certain I saw a sloth lap me. There was no way I was building up endurance and strength at this rate. I began to wonder why I even bothered running at all.
I shake the thoughts of this last week’s run out of my head as I set out down the street, realizing I need a mental pep talk. Sure my children have held me back most of the week but today I am alone and I can move freely. I let Lady Gaga’s words “Just Dance” move my feet along to the beat. It doesn’t take long before I hit a comfortable stride. My feet feel light. My breathing easy. I grin at the runners passing me with a face only other mother runners recognize as the joy of a mom finally set free to jog without a single disruption. I look down at my watch surprised to see improved pace from last week.
I am tempted to credit this pace to my solo run today. And yet, with a free mind to think more clearly, I wonder if it is my children that actually make me a stronger.
Running with my children along feels like moving through quicksand—the constant interruptions, the weight of the stroller, the pace that never matches mine. But it’s not just running that feels heavy for me. How often have I blamed the weight of motherhood on other areas of my life that just haven’t gone like I planned?
But what if I’m not held back, but actually made stronger?
With every push of the heavy stroller or the pause in my running flow, my muscles fought against the resistance and got stronger. With every stage in parenting that feels never ending, with every doubt of my ability, with every time that left me weak and angry and helpless, I pushed through those moments too. And through this effort, I am getting stronger. My muscles were stretching. I am stretching, too. Motherhood hasn’t weighed me down like I once thought. Instead, it adds resistance in my training, making a stronger, better, more capable version of myself.
It’s funny how even when I long to run alone, my children still trail along with me, always guiding my thoughts and teaching me something new about myself.
As I finish up the run, I make a turn onto the running trail close to my home. I notice the day lilies Elliott studied just a couple days ago have opened, bright yellow like the sun, and his shaggy hair. I can’t wait to show him when we come back here next week on another one of our runs together, just me and the best running partners a mother could ask for.