Essay: I Dreamed We Were Running, From 'Tales From Another Mother Runner'

Alison Overholt

Overholt's daughter wears mom's running shoes. "This was my Facebook profile picture while I trained for NYC," Overholt says, "to remind me why I ran: to support The Breast Cancer Research Foundation." She raised more than $6,000 in her mother's memory.

The recently released "Tales From Another Mother Runner: Triumphs, Trials, Tips, and Tricks from the Road" explores the inspiration, strength and sense of community found through running, in a collection of essays by mother runners, including this one from espnW's Editor-in-Chief.

I've never liked running.

In high school, I craved that instant Yesssss! that came with grabbing a rebound from right over someone's head in a basketball game, or the satisfaction of sprinting for a loose ball and knowing I'd beat the other girl as we scrambled down the court to get it.

By contrast, I hated those mile-run tests in gym class. And those "conditioning" runs our hoops team did semi-regularly after practice? Kill me now. That's what I thought every time we headed out. There was no sprinter's high waiting for me on the trail, just the feeling of legs turning to sandbags, breath ragged, with that near-instantaneous stitch in my side and blood thudding in my ears as I struggled not to fall too far behind.

Andrews McMeel Publishing

The day I realized our coach didn't really pay attention once we headed out to run, and that, once out of his sight, I could detour off the park path to the nearby reservoir and leap off the bridge into the cool water below ... well, that was possibly the best day of my senior year.

That's right. I literally jumped off a bridge -- on a regular basis -- just to avoid running.

Fast-forward 20 years, and I'm living in the 'burbs, working crazy hours, and there's not a whole lot of basketball happening in my life. Around here, women my age don't seem to have the time for or interest in gathering for games, so I'm trying a spin class here, a yoga class there, but I'm mostly just cutting corners on the fitness front and starting to get used to the extra 10 pounds I'm carrying.

Then, in early May of 2010, my mom got breast cancer.

And a month later, I got pregnant.

Sometimes I think of that summer as the one when someone pushed the "hyperdrive" and the "pause" buttons on my life exactly at the same time. All summer, I was back and forth between New York and Texas to help with doctors' appointments, paperwork, and postsurgical care, while furtively sitting in on conference calls from hospital waiting rooms, editing stories as my mother napped, and answering emails on my phone in bathroom stalls.

Despite the frenzied activity, it also felt as if, for those few months, the world simply stopped spinning. (And not just when I took a "break" to puke in the bathroom, when pregnancy nausea got overwhelming.) It was as if everything got terribly quiet. I had this sense that I was paying close attention to life, noticing every single detail I normally might blow right past: my mother's hand resting lightly on my arm as we watched the Red Sox on TV, her nails -- always perfectly oval and impeccably polished -- reflexively digging into my skin at every out. The sound of her too-loud telephone ring, as jarring as ever, but now a reassuring reminder of how many people cared enough to call at all hours of the day to check on us. The pulsing heat of each Texas summer day, which seemed to slow time -- and everyone's speech -- no matter how packed our days were.

Alison Overholt

Overholt awaits the start of the 2013 New York City Marathon by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge on Staten Island.

Of course, there were some details I had always noticed. My entire life, I had watched my mother struggle with her weight, her confidence, and ultimately her health. She'd gain and lose the same 50 pounds over and over, dealing first with a thyroid issue, then high blood pressure, then diabetes, now cancer. My teenage self had always noted how angry she got when she struggled with clothes that had grown too tight -- again -- and then judged her for not doing something about it. My adult self cried for her now, as she stood on the scale at the surgeon's office, making gallows jokes about how she could finally take off 10 pounds when the doctors removed her breasts.

My mom died when I was five months pregnant. She and I both thought she'd beat the cancer, and we were looking ahead to Thanksgiving, planning a weekend of crib shopping and celebratory feasting. But a week after her last chemo treatment, and the day after leaving me a raspy-voiced message in which she whispered, "It hurts, Ali. The treatments are always hard, but it's really bad this time," she passed away from a pulmonary embolism. Her body just couldn't take it anymore.

The rest of my pregnancy still seems like some movie I watched at 3 in the morning; I know I was there, but the details are hazy and there are bits I'm pretty sure I just skipped entirely. I recall a lot of snow that winter, a lot of phone calls about estate logistics, a lot of long hours at a job I couldn't quite remember why I was doing. Then a lot of her furniture and boxes arriving a couple of weeks before the baby was born, turning my house -- and my life -- into something that felt like it didn't quite belong to me anymore.

And then ... joy. "The baby" was our daughter, Madeleine, and she was here, born the day after my mom's birthday. All the cliché things people said were true: After death, there was life. After the months of winter darkness, spring was here again, and with it, the light of this new life in the world. After all the crying -- well, there was more crying. But these were the tears of a brand-new person, and also my own, as I recovered from delivering that new life, then tried to figure out how to breastfeed it. Maddie was this incredible presence, and I couldn't shake the superstitious feeling that some of my mom's huge personality had gone right into this tiny little girl.

I stood in the kitchen one morning when Maddie was about 18 months old, holding my coffee in one hand and my own thyroid pill in the other, and thought: This is how it happens. Mom's struggle to "do something about it" didn't seem so simple anymore. I wished so much for just one moment, one chance to tell her I understood, now, how hard it was.
Alison Overholt

I also couldn't stop thinking about how I wanted things to be different for her -- and for me -- than they'd been for my mom. I wanted to be healthy for her, to have energy to share all the adventures I wanted us to have together. In the first months after Maddie arrived, I worked hard to shed my baby weight and felt good when 25 pregnancy pounds disappeared, thanks to eating healthy and doing workout videos during her naps.

But I'd put on 40 pounds, on top of the extra I'd already been carrying. And after that early weight-loss success, my efforts stalled. That hyperdrive button? Still in full effect. The plane trips and doctors' visits for my mom had simply given way to feedings and changings, mountains of laundry, and more doctors' visits -- just different ones. Throw in my husband's travel schedule and my own work deadlines, and the feeling that life didn't quite belong to me was starting to feel permanent.

I stood in the kitchen one morning when Maddie was about 18 months old, holding my coffee in one hand and my own thyroid pill in the other, and thought: This is how it happens. Mom's struggle to "do something about it" didn't seem so simple anymore. I wished so much for just one moment, one chance to tell her I understood, now, how hard it was. I also thought about how I wanted to share something better with my daughter, to pass along more than a fraught medical history and a mirror-avoidance habit.

So I started running. To clear my head. To get fit again. To just ... do something about it.

Running was exactly as hard as I remembered from high school. My legs were the same bags of sand; my lungs still burned. But at 36, I'd experienced a lot of things in life that were so much more painful. This time around, the hardness of running seemed less of an actual obstacle and more like a basic fact I acknowledged, then moved past.

The first day, I think I ran for only about two minutes before stopping to walk. But then I walked for a minute, and I started running again, and I did that for about half an hour. More important, I did it again the next day, and the day after that. And I did go a little bit farther each time I went out; eventually I was running for four minutes before I took my walk breaks. Whenever I wanted to quit, I'd imagine what it would feel like to see Maddie cheer for me as I crossed a finish line, and with that version of myself tucked in my head, I'd keep going.

After a month, I wasn't any faster but I could tell that I was stronger. So I kept running.

I remember the day I first made it 5 whole miles. It was a dull, gray winter day, and the thermometer on my car dashboard read 16 degrees when I dropped Maddie off at day care. I went running anyway, wearing pretty much all my ski gear, from my long johns to my fleecy neck gaiter. All that was missing was my helmet and goggles. When my Garmin said I'd hit mile 5, just past the high school over on Park Street, I stopped and did an actual happy dance right outside the main building.

Alison Overholt

After the marathon, Overholt and Maddie snuggle with the orange finisher's poncho and some ice-cream cake.

After reaching that milestone, it was like something inside me clicked; I just knew I was going to keep running. Some days I'd head out, singing along with my playlist, shutting out the world, and zoning in on the music for the entire run. Other days, after pushing past that first punishing mile, the music would fade to the back of my awareness and I'd just see the road in front of me, or how sharp the outline of the leaves in the trees looked against the sky. I've written entire articles in my head on long runs, rolling words and phrases around in my mind as I alternate run-and-walk, four-and-one, then coming home to bang it all out on the computer in one long whoosh. I've spent other runs gasping for air, tears streaming down my face, because that just happened to be the one time that week when I could stop checking off items on the endless list of our life and finally just feel what I was feeling.

One foot in front of the other. Four-and-one minutes at a time. One mile and then the next. I followed that slow-and-steady plan all the way to finishing my first half marathon, four months after I took my first step out the door. Five months later, I checked off another 13.1. And two months after that? The 2013 New York City Marathon, thank you very much -- 26.2 miles for the girl who used to jump off a bridge rather than go for a run.

The first mile still always burns and creaks and aches in a way that makes me roll my eyes like my 16-year-old self and think, Seriously? Doesn't this part ever stop? But somewhere just shy of the 2-mile mark, when my legs find their rhythm, and my breath evens out, and I swear I can see the world more sharply as the fog clears from my mind ... That's when I discover, as I find I have to do every single time I hit the road, that while I will never like running, I have grown to love it. It's a love that connects me to my mom, connects me to me, and connects my mother to the granddaughter she never met, but most definitely lives on in.

And it's a love that is creating a new and better legacy in my family.

My daughter, who is now nearly 3, was wide awake but still lying quietly in her bed when I went into her room this morning.

"Is it wake-up time?" Maddie asked.

"Yes. What are you thinking about?"

"Last night I was dreaming," she answered.

"What about?"

"I was dreaming about you. We were running."

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