I’m on a rocky single-track trail deep in the woods. The morning sun streams through the branches overhead, dappling the pine needles and rocks under my feet. It’s only 8 am, but I’ve already been running for two hours. And I still have four left to go.
Last year at school, my son Sam told the gym teacher his mom had run 100 miles. The teacher laughed and told him not to tell fibs. Sam replied, “I’m not. My mom runs ultramarathons.”
An ultramarathon is any distance over 26.2 miles, and it is usually on trails, as opposed to roads. I have run many 50-kilometer races, three 50-mile races, and one 100 miler. In a few weeks, I’ll be making my second 100 mile attempt. Yes, I run through the night; no, I don’t stop to rest; yes, I do eat while I’m running; yes, I go to the bathroom in the woods; and yes, I do sometimes have encounters with wild animals.
A lot of people ask me why I do this. I know they’re thinking, why would a mother of two small kids run hundreds of miles? True, I don’t meet many moms of young kids who do ultramarathons. My fellow ultrarunners love to hear stories about my kids as we run, but I do sometimes sense judgment from people who aren’t runners. Many people don’t seem to understand why I’d want to spend time away from my kids, and a lot of people think running so many miles is downright strange.
But if it weren’t for my kids, I probably would never have gotten into ultrarunning at all.
I was never a runner when I was young. In fact, I wasn’t athletic at all, and played no sports in school. After I had my first child, I joined a mom and baby running group, in order to get fit and meet other moms. After a year or so, I ran my first half marathon with that group. Eventually, I started running on trails with some local trail runners, and from them I learned about ultras.
My first ultramarathon was a 50-kilometer (31 mile) race in January 2019. It was a 10-kilometer looped course that runners could complete anywhere from one to five times. I hadn’t planned on running all 50 kilometers, but it just sort of… happened.
When I finished that race, I felt self pride and confidence new to me since becoming a mom. Not that being a mom isn’t special. I love watching my kids learn new things, and I feel a huge amount of satisfaction seeing them grow and mature. But since I had them, I hadn’t felt that sense of accomplishment in myself.
From then on, I was hooked.
The stress relief I get from running has also kept me logging hundreds of miles each month since then. Since becoming a mom, I had to put my career aside in order to care for my son with special needs. But, as is the case for many parents, I don’t usually feel that I’m particularly good at parenting. There’s no guidebook, as much as we all wish there was. But I’m someone who thrives on feeling successful, engaged and determined in my work and my life. I also do best in an environment with structure and schedule. And stay-at-home parenting… isn’t any of those things.
Running fills those needs for me. Most of the time, when I open my running schedule to see what workout I’m doing today or my Garmin app to analyze a workout, I do it because I feel like I’m drowning in a current of uncertainty and failure, and that little bit of predictability and structure reassures me. When I plan for a race and painstakingly pack my gear, that’s my way to assert some kind of control over my life.
I am lucky to have a great deal of support from my partner. As a parent, a passion like ultrarunning wouldn’t be possible without it. My husband is not a runner, but I encouraged him to find a sport he can be passionate about, and I’m so glad he found it in jiu jitsu. I support the time he needs away to refuel himself and stay healthy.
Back in the woods on my Friday morning long run, I slowly trot up the rocky trail to the parking lot. I’ve finally finished my long run. I stop my watch and check the mileage, carefully saving the run so I can analyze the data later. Drenched in sweat and utterly exhausted, I haul myself into my car to get home as quickly as possible. I have just enough time to take a shower and quickly grab something to eat before heading to school pick up.
I stubbed my toe badly on a rock, so I’ll be hobbling around for the rest of the day. But I won’t be able to rest much, because Sam has archery and Elle has a friend coming over for a sleepover that night.
It’s a grind and it can be exhausting. But at the end of the day, as I lay in bed and look back, I have concrete evidence of something I accomplished that day. I can never be sure if the parenting choices I made were right. But one thing I do know is that I got myself out there and finished the run. And as I drift off to sleep, that self confidence is what I choose to focus on.
Jennifer E. Rizzo is a freelance writer and mother of two humans and one dog living on Boston's North Shore. A lover of crafting and a maker of all things, Jennifer can usually be found knitting, baking, painting, reading, running or writing.