Clay mud from the rough trail cakes my running shoes and I have to tread carefully around the cow patties left by the herd that roams this regional park. My calves are splattered and I’m breathing hard as I climb to the top of the Vista Peak trail, which is sodden from winter rains. On the way down, I hit a patch where the mud is soft and deep and nearly slide onto my rear end. As I right myself, I take in the green hillside, the heavy clouds over the San Francisco Bay, the craggy live oaks that look like they’ve been growing here forever. I laugh out loud. Filthy and exhilarated, three thousand miles from where I grew up, I have never felt more like my mother’s daughter.
I used to hate running with my mother. I was a teenager and she was helping me work up to a flat, easy, two-mile run. We’d run down the main street of our town on long summer evenings, when the air had just begun to cool. She taught me that it was okay to take walk breaks, even though I knew she didn’t do that when she ran on her own. She wasn’t critical of me, and she didn’t make me feel badly for not being as strong as she was. But she wanted to chat while we ran, and she was enjoying herself too much for my adolescent sensibilities. I just wanted the run to be over. I did get strong enough to do the two miles, but then I dropped running because it felt so lousy. I didn’t understand the gift my mother was giving me, so I left it unopened.
My mother started jogging in New York City’s Central Park during the mid-1970s, as did so many of her peers. She and her women friends would be sweaty and proud after running races with names like the L’Eggs Mini Marathon and the Bonne Belle 10K, posing for pictures with their arms draped over each other’s shoulders and grinning unselfconsciously. I was always paying more attention to playing with my brother or making up games in my head while runners crossed the finish line, but I watched them out of the corner of my eye.
For thirty five years, my mother has continued to run. Now she lives in rural Western Massachusetts, and our winter phone conversations often include her accounts of running on snowy roads, undaunted by icy winds. Years before I began running, I listened with a mixture of admiration and puzzlement as she told me how getting out for a run on a cold, grim day made her feel like she’d triumphed over the weather.
I didn’t grow into a runner until I grew into a mother. I knew I would need a flexible, efficient way to exercise that didn’t require schlepping to a yoga class at a particular time or waiting for fair weather to spend hours on my bicycle, but I didn’t anticipate that running would teach me lessons I’d need in my mothering.
As my partner and I were being interviewed by our social worker and making our way through the requirements of adopting a foster child — first aid classes, making our apartment safe for a little one, assembling a book of photos to introduce ourselves to a child — I began to run. I experienced how persisting through those early runs, when everything hurts and nothing feels right, leads to strong runs. Suddenly, I was able to pay attention to the color of the ocean or a problem I was thinking over, instead of needing to concentrate on keeping going. That helped in the early days of parenthood, when we awkwardly tried to learn our new daughter, making up family rules, routines, and rituals as we went along. What at first felt contrived and effortful (What’s her bedtime? How much should we feed a five year old?) came to be the way we do things in our family (We hold hands before dinner and share something good from our day. We have cookies for breakfast on Christmas morning.).
Through running, I learned to rely on the strength of my body, which I drew on for games of monster and tag on the playground, and endless challenges of “Hey Mama, let’s race to the corner!” I didn’t often win, but I always matched my daughter’s enthusiasm.
When nothing is right, when I need to be the mother who holds out hope in a bleak moment, but find myself stumbling instead, I’ve learned that even a short run can help me regain my footing. I may return home still not knowing how we’re going to get through, but I have more reserves to draw on after I’ve run. Putting one foot in front of the other sometimes is just the image I need to keep me going when fear and anger are all around.
When I need to remember that I’m more than a mother, I can get out and run to be alone with my pounding heart and hard-working body. I’ve run in the rain during my daughter’s singing classes, in the heat while she was exercising at the local girls’ center, in the twenty extra minutes I had between leaving work and picking her up at school, and through the mud during her horseback riding lessons.
Perhaps my mother experienced something similar. She ran her way through a devastating divorce, getting laid off during a recession when my brother and I were in college, and myriad other challenges — right into a life she loves.
I finish my winter trail run and my shoes are entirely covered in mud. Peeling off my soaked socks back at the car while my daughter cleans up the stall of the horse she’s ridden, I smile in anticipation of telling my mother about this run. My mud isn’t quite like the ice she contends with, but the pleasure of getting out and running in conditions that might deter other people is the same. I finally can fully appreciate this gift she gave me, a gift I took a long time to open.