When I was twelve years old, my mother taught me how to run. Not like running to catch the bus, or running from whatever villain might be assailing my mellow suburban life. Running through thick, lush maple and pine, for hours on end, not to achieve anything except to maintain contact with all that is good and holy in this world, the antitheses of the endless white fluorescent lights of store aisles and glowing phone screens and the stale smell of plastic. Running to bring me back to things that are deep and rich and real. Soft soil with the clean dewy dampness only found first thing in the morning. The textures and shades of green in the layering of pine boughs and maple branches huddled together. The sharp, refreshing smell of pure morning air shared only with a couple scattered deer and a coniferous and deciduous tribe of thousands.
Naturally, my twelve-year-old self couldn’t stand running. I wanted to go home, take a shower, maybe kill some time with some TV or the Internet, and see if my dad would whip me up some pancakes for lunch before I head to a friend’s house. My mom had been a runner in college, cross-country and track. I was not. I have an athletic build, but not a runner’s. My torso and limbs are built thick and sturdy with most of my weight concentrated in my upper body. I’m of the odd physical proportions at which a pair of jeans that are suffocatingly tight on my enormous, toned quads are baggy around my average-sized waist. Let’s say belts and I hang out a lot. Also, in all my years of athletics, I’ve never had to take a nip of a protein bar: my body converts anything to bulk. Anything.
Naturally, starting running at the age of twelve after five years of competitive swimming felt like being scorched by the flames of hell. When I watched my mom run marathons, every step she took looked light and graceful, as if she was bouncing from one step to the next, even when agony drew at her face with a thousand cruel puppet strings and dry sweat left caked salt in the crevices of her face. When I ran, though, I felt the impact of every step echo through the bones of my foot, resulting in a pounding, throbbing ache. My mom said I was going to get used to it as I ran more often. “We’re going to start short, and build our way up to long runs,” she said reassuringly as I limped to the car after our first twenty minute run, spewing the invective of a tired, bitter preteen girl confused by the soreness and the feelings of middle-school isolation.
My mother wasn’t built like a runner either, but she ran Division One distance track right alongside the little five-inch, three-ounce blondies with toothpick arms that seen on in Olympic distance running races. Sure, she didn’t win, but the fact that she climbed from being a walk-on runner to a varsity captain was pretty impressive. Looking for Christmas lights in our attic, I once found newspaper clippings from what looked like a Sports section, crispy and flaking, faded brown, with my mother’s name in bold in the Number One spot on a fine-print results listing. High school results, of course, but still. The girl who rounded the track in the paper’s picture looked an awful lot like me: stocky and athletic, with fluffy hair bound back by what looked like a ratty bandanna. Her face was stone-set with determination. Inside, I glowed with pride and approval.
When teaching someone an endurance sport that lacks a physical learning curve, such as running, one has to be somewhat precautious about distance. If I was teaching a friend to ski or swim, I’d be teaching them a whole new way to move, a whole codebook of techniques and physical cheats designed to create maximum efficiency. Therefore, a large portion of each lesson would be spent standing. For example, over half of a one-hour ski lesson for a friend would probably be spent parked in one place as I explain technique and demonstrate. With a sport that’s simply part of human nature, like running, the mind is born ready, but the body isn’t conditioned yet. Starting the season with a two-hour run can lead to muscle pulls, shin aches, and sore knees, among other things. It took until the third weekend of running lessons with my mom for me to move up to half-hour runs. While we were running, I asked my mom if she minded that she had to run shorter distances with me. “Of course not,” she replied. “I’d much rather run a half-hour with you than go for hours alone. The most important part isn’t how long I’m running, it’s that I’m running with you.”
At the time, I thought that was the most corny, mommish thing she could have possibly said. And it was. But, seven years later, as I ran through Minneapolis alone, boxed in by strip malls and without a soul to talk to, I realized how right she was. There is something recharging about the forest itself, and something irrevocably twining about exercising with someone frequently. Though there are a few extra holes in my ears and I have my father’s jaw line, I often look in the mirror and think of my mom. I’d dyed my hair red for a while, but I’ve let it grow back brown, and I often wear athletic pants places where my friends may wear a casual dress. I’m not talking yoga pants—I like those loose pants with side zippers. And Birkenstocks or running shoes, to attempt at placating my aching toe joints.
What I didn’t realize at twelve was that as I was picking up running, my mother was having trouble putting it down. In college, she’d told me, she started to find that her toes would lock up occasionally while she ran. Cracking them or stretching them would provide temporary relief, but several hours later, the ache would persist and remain all night, or perhaps for the next few days.
Running, though, was freedom. In no other sport is zero apparatus needed. Running can be practiced diligently anywhere, anytime. There’s something empowering about being able to slip out the back door for a run around the neighborhood anytime you want, and something adventurous about bringing your running shoes in your carry-on bag and exploring a new city with a brisk jog. Additionally, to my mom, running was freedom and self-discovery. After an attempt at business school prompted by her well-intentioned family, mom found fulfillment in art and running: through this combination of mediums, she began seeing herself as someone strong and capable, resilient and creative, cherished by her team and able to shape and fine-tune her body into not just a carbon-based mold to hold a brain, but into an intricate, well-performing machine, able to create something entirely her own.
I only witnessed the end of her running career, sitting at my dad’s feet complaining of the heat and snarfing graham crackers as I waited for her to pass by in the marathon or triathlon. The entire logistically hellish day would be worth it, though, when my mom went flying by, and when we’d meet her at the finish. I’d look up in silent awe at the woman shivering in her own sweat after just completing an extraordinarily challenging task, something painful, just because she wanted to and decided that she could.
Though I never saw her decked out in Minnesota maroon and gold, I was raised on an incredibly empowering pillar because of my mom: her example silently taught me that beauty and strength are melded concepts. Not “can be” melded concepts. “Are.” As a small child, I didn’t sit on my mom’s bed and watch her apply lipstick; I sat on the basement rug and watched her tie up her muddy running shoes right as the drowsy sun began to peek over the horizon.
As a child, there were no limits on my television time like most modern children need, the ones moved from school to the Nintendo Wii via the portable cage of the minivan. I played outside. Sure, I got my fair share of Nickelodeon, but it came on a balanced plate with swimming, family hikes, hide-and-seek, and building stick huts in the forest. I was occasionally jealous of my friends’ processed lunches and weekend trips to the Twin Cities for shopping, but when I was at the mall myself, I’d always get irritable from the harsh white lighting. The clothes designed for skinny teenage girls made me look like a ham hock, but I practically drowned in the plus-size offerings. The cheese in Lunchables made me nauseous. As a young teenager, though, I’d forget all this and covet my friends’ run-free Saturdays a bit. Though I have an iron biological clock (seven a.m. sharp, every day, without fail), I’d covet their sleeping-in. I detested running and preferred swim team, which was both more social and physically low-impact, while still being a hard workout. I was already addicted to exercise endorphins by fifth grade. With my mom’s genetics, I didn’t stand a chance.
After a few more weekends of running with my mom, though, we’d built to forty-five minutes, and I was starting to leave our runs feeling refreshed instead of weary. Over the course of the following spring and summer, my runs built in time, and I had turned into a confident, lean endurance freak. I started training with a summer club, and my runs with my mom were gradually replaced by club workouts.
The following spring, when I was again free of high-school sports, my mom and I resumed our running together. Again, we started small, gently stacking an hour on last week’s forty-five minutes atop the original thirty. Just as importantly, we resumed the long conversations we’d have during the runs. Being two tiny human specks in the towering forest was the great equalizer: for the first time in my life, I got to hear my mom talk about her life instead of just drifting between rejoicing and complaining about my own.
Incredibly enough, my mother was a human being before giving birth to me, with all kinds of life experiences and skills. Adopted as an infant by a professor, my mother had lived in Oklahoma and Norway before eventually moving to Minnesota. Along with a business degree, her old-fashioned parents had gently nudged her towards more feminine hobbies, but she was drawn to running with her brothers. Equally enticing was obtaining coveted track team sweatpants to replace the unfortunate khakis hand-sewn by her mother. Though her parents weren’t entirely behind her running, they were definitely on the sidelines of every Minnesota Running home meet, clapping as their daughter crossed the line.
By spring of my senior year of high school, in the glorious part of the season when our runs had built to an hour and a half, I began to notice my mother in serious discomfort. She would limp stiffly rather than bouncing around the kitchen after our runs, slipping bread into the toaster before hobbling back to the eggs and bacon merrily popping and sizzling in a pan on the stovetop. It turned out the aches in her toes had begun getting worse. During subsequent weekend runs, she began having to stop and take walking breaks, visibly wincing as she hobbled, and eventually building momentum back up to run. Every step looked excruciating.
One weekend, we decided to run on the side of a country road rather than our usual trail, just to shake things up. Though the road was dirt, it was gravelly and packed firmly down by tire treads. The absence of a soft trail to cushion my mother’s toes led to increasing periods of hobbling.
“Just… just one minute,” she said, entire body tense as she limped. Under her breath, I could hear her muttering fuck, fuck, fuck with each step.
Minutes later, the pain escalated to the “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK” level. “Can I go get the car for you?” I asked tentatively. I didn’t want to make her feel helpless, but she was almost to the point of immobility. She nodded and bent stiffly to untie her running shoe, un-threading the house and car keys from the lace. (This is a common runner’s trick: shorts pockets are roughly the size of a dollar coin, if they even exist.)
As I took off, I got a burst of adrenaline. Yeah, I was just running home for the car, and taking off quickly would probably save about five minutes in getting the car to my mother, who was in no real hurry. In a way, though, I’ve thought about this as my mother passing me the torch: she had taken the enjoyment and empowerment out of running for thirty years, and now it was my turn to be the runner, and be strong for her.