I never set out to be a runner. Sure, I ran cross-country in high school, but most of the time I hated it. I tried to trip myself during races when the exhaustion became unbearable, and my friends and I often took short cuts on long practice runs. We hid in the bushes or ran to Burger King for French fries while the rest of our team trudged through six miles. (How we got away with this, I have no idea.) In those years, I didn’t consider myself a runner, and when I stopped running after high school, I didn’t miss it.
Fifteen years later, when my daughter, Stella, turned 1 and I still hadn’t lost my pregnancy weight, I started running again, and it felt like work — hard work. But when a friend encouraged me to try a half-marathon, and I began running serious distances, a surprising thing happened: the more I ran, the more I liked to run.
I lost a little weight and was able to wear clothes I hadn’t fit into for years, which was nice, but running also made me feel more grounded. There was something in the rhythm of my gait that loosened my mind and allowed me to forgive the Tinker Toys and Little People scattered around our living room. I breathed deeply, and by the time I got home, I felt revived, which gave me the energy and inclination to help guide Stella’s little hands as she assembled her farm puzzle for the 12th time in a row. I was able to smile and cheer for her when she found the right home for the cow and the barn and the tractor.
I had signed up for the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon at Grandma’s in Duluth, and to prepare for it, I ran a few times a week, running 11 miles twice. I wasn’t training very hard — I liked the balance I had established with running in my life — but still, I thought I was ready for 13.1 miles.
Stella was 2 1/2 when we drove up to Duluth for the race. We talked about the race route and where Stella and my husband, Donny, would stand to cheer, and all evening Stella practiced screaming, “Go, Mama, go!” as she jumped around the cabin where we were staying.
The next morning, race day, dawned foggy and humid. It was going to be the hottest Grandma’s Marathon in the history of the race, but I didn’t realize this. Even if I had, I wouldn’t have understood what that meant for my pace. I had never run 13 miles before and really had no idea what I was doing.
I ended up starting too fast, passing people for the first five miles. At mile six, Donny and Stella were waiting for me. I was still feeling good, thinking oh, I can do this! Donny snapped pictures and cheered as I ran by, but Stella just stared at me. She didn’t smile or wave. She looked totally overwhelmed by that river of people streaming past her along the shore of Lake Superior.
The race got much tougher after that. At mile eight, everyone and their grandmothers (literally) were passing me. At Lemon Drop Hill, my heart rate became dangerously high and it felt as though my kneecaps might pop off. At mile 10, I became confused and thought I had already run 11 miles — a devastating mistake. At 12.5 miles, I had to walk 50 yards because I felt as though I might pass out, and I wondered who these crazy people were who did this for fun. How could anyone call this fun?
By the time I crossed the finish line, I was convinced I would have a heart attack, and I vowed never ever to run again.
I spent the rest of the day hydrating and napping and complaining as I hobbled around on very sore legs. That night, I hugged Stella close to me in bed. It wasn’t dark yet — grey light from Lake Superior poured through the open windows — but we were both exhausted. Stella held onto my ears and stared at me, trying to keep her eyes open. I hugged her tightly and said, “Thank you, Sweetie, for coming to see me run today. It meant a lot to me to have you there.”
“Sure, Mama. It was fun.”
How grown up, how nonchalant she sounded. I smiled.
“But,” she said, “I didn’t say ‘Go, Mama, go.’” So somber, so intent.
“That’s okay,” I said, looking into her serious face. “Maybe next time.”
And, just like that, I knew there’d be a next time. I knew I’d do it again. It wasn’t just about the weight and being in shape. It wasn’t just about the way that running cleared my head. It wasn’t even about the high I sometimes — on those very rare occasions — got after six or seven miles. It was about Stella, too, staring at me with those earnest blue-grey eyes, taking it all so seriously. I run for you, too, my dear. And I hope that someday, she will be running alongside me and will turn to me and say, “Go, Mama, go!” and I will turn to her and say, “You go, Stella, you go!”
Kate Hopper teaches Mother Words, a class for women interested in writing about their mothering experiences, at the Loft Literary Center. She continues to plod through her weekly miles and has actually grown to love running, though she has not run 13.1 consecutive miles since Grandma’s Marathon.