Before I had my daughter, I knew some legendary local runner moms who had kids and returned to racing faster and stronger than they'd ever been. I assumed this was because the pain of labor had made the pain of a race feel insignificant. My friend Kristin told me, "You don't have that much time, so when you can run, you just go run fast." I imagined her sprinting as fast as she could for 30 minutes a day, which would explain why she could beat me by a minute in a 5K even when she'd been up all night with her daughter.
I started running competitively in ninth grade and never really stopped. Even after college, I trained and raced consistently. When I was pregnant, I feared that my relationship to running was on the brink of redefinition. I tried to tell myself I didn't mind. And, in some ways, I was prepared to redefine my relationship with running, with pain, with my body. I was about to be a mom. I didn't know what labor and delivery would bring, when the next time I'd sleep through the night was, or if I'd feel even moderately competent as a mother.
I continued running through my pregnancy -- all 42 weeks of it -- and those third trimester waddle-runs gave much-needed time to reflect on the enormous changes coming, gave me confidence in my strength for labor, and I think eventually helped to make recovery from childbirth easier. While walk-waddle-jogging through my neighborhood, I figured, stories of super running moms aside, it was unlikely I'd ever PR again.
My first postpartum run was humbling. I peed on myself while running half a mile at 10-minute pace on the treadmill. A few weeks later, I was up to a 3-mile loop a few days a week. Then, one day when my daughter was about 3 months old, I was at work with the high school girls' team I coach when I decided to jump in for a mile interval with one of the senior captains. I'd just eaten a large lunch, but if I wanted to get a run in, it was going to have to be right then. She and I had covered hundreds of miles together in her years on the team. In a powerful but simple reversal of our usual roles, I latched onto her for 10 laps around our 160-meter indoor track. When I looked down at my watch, I was stunned, then elated. We'd run 6:08. The headache I nursed that whole night made it clear that I'd pulled that mile out of muscle memory and stubbornness rather than fitness, but that day marked a new mentality as a runner.
I ran a half-marathon on a hilly course when my daughter was 14 months old. She was getting sick, I'd been up most of the night and almost bailed on even starting. But my husband encouraged me to go. I talked myself into the car, reasoning that racing 13.1 miles might be the most relaxing part of my day. I finished just 38 seconds shy of the PR I had set 10 years earlier when I ran at least twice as much as I do now. I hadn't had time to warm up. I hadn't eaten a special prerace meal, done any strength training, run twice a day, or logged the kind of mileage that I used to think were requirements of serious distance running. But, I felt faster and stronger than I had fresh off four years as a three-season college athlete.
Was it the redefined definition of pain? (No -- I actually tried to motivate myself during the last half mile of a 5K by summoning a hazy memory of the pain of contractions and even in the moment felt the absurdity. This is just a hobby.) Was I actually running faster during the shorter time I found to run? Not precisely.
The shift has been more fundamental: I'm much more patient. I used to go out blazing for the first third of any race I ran, stubbornly believing if I didn't bank a few minutes up front I'd never run a decent time. I trust myself now. I've twice been pregnant for nearly 10 months and then in labor for 12 hours. I'm trying to teach my daughter to use the stairs, brush her teeth, put on her shoes, my infant son to eat solids, sleep through the night, pull himself worm-like across the carpet. Patience is the sole consistent requirement of my days.
The other thing that's changed was what I first experienced that day at the indoor track. I don't have the kind of time or flexibility that I once did. Not to reschedule a run if my legs aren't feeling great. Not to worry about a daunting workout for hours, or even days, beforehand. I run hard when I got the chance, like my friend said, but it's not what I thought she meant. It means swallowing my pride and doing a workout even if it's humid, rainy or there's a brutal headwind. It's pushing the double stroller uphill in the middle of a summer morning, huffing out answers to toddler questions and responses to baby coos. If I get to the track and my legs feel like trash, I do my workout anyway. Even if I don't hit my paces or the JV lacrosse team is playing a game. If I've woken up before my kids or asked my husband to clear his schedule so I can get in a run, I make it happen.
Having less time has changed what running means to me, which is exactly what I feared. But the change hasn't been what I expected. The time crunch has squeezed out the demons that sometimes lurked in my running life. Ego, fear, guilt. Instead, it's just running. I was right to sense that my relationship with running would be redefined by motherhood, but it was less about re-scaling my concept of physical pain and more about the freedom for running to fall into its rightful place in my life. Just running. Something I am lucky enough to still get to do.