Watching My Boys Learn To Run Ahead Of Me

by Kate Fries
Originally Published: 

It was October 13, 2002, the morning of my first-ever marathon. Under any other circumstance the absence of my expected period might have been cause for concern, but I was mostly relieved that I wouldn’t have to deal with it as I navigated 26.2 miles on foot through the streets of Chicago. Besides, I wasn’t even really late.

Still, part of me knew.

A week later, when I was too late to be just late, a pregnancy test confirmed what I had suspected: I had run my first marathon while pregnant. I had crossed the finish line with my son.

Perhaps because my first pregnancy was so closely linked to my first marathon, people asked me if I was going to get a jogging stroller once the baby was born. I did, and I became one of those moms. When my second son was born two years later, I upgraded to a double jogging stroller.

The jogging stroller’s main purpose was to keep me sane. The days at home with babies, then toddlers, were long. My oldest stopped napping when he turned 2. Heading out for a mid-afternoon run—often followed by a trip to the park—broke up our day and allowed me to continue to train for marathons. But in the back of my mind I also hoped I was setting a good example for my sons, that from the very beginning they would grow up knowing the joy and value of spending time in nature and being active. I also wanted them to know that their mother was strong, that girls and women can be strong and fast and dirty and determined. Maybe they would grow up to be runners themselves. I hoped they would, but who could know?

Preparing for a run was a chore, to be sure. Sometimes, it took me longer to get everyone ready than it did to actually run four or five miles, especially during the winter and spring when I had to bundle them up in jackets and blankets and winter hats and mittens. There were water bottles and Snack Traps to fill, stuffed animals to grab, board books to stash in the bin underneath the stroller. But it was also the sweetest time. We talked about the cats and dogs we saw as we ran and discussed everything from Fed Ex trucks to trains to the stars of their favorite television shows. Sometimes I just quietly listened in as the boys babbled to each other. Other times I bit back my frustration as they fought, or as I had to double back and retrace my steps to retrieve a water cup that had been pitched out of the stroller for the third time. But those little annoyances weren’t as frustrating as not being able to run, and I took a certain amount of pride for being known throughout the neighborhood as “That Lady With the Jogging Stroller.”

On the weekends, when my husband was home, I ran alone. I had found an online group of like-minded runners who were in the trenches of raising babies and toddlers, working moms and stay-at-home moms alike, who also struggled to find time for daily runs. Many of us ran with strollers. We joked that running alone was, literally and figuratively, running away from our families and responsibilities. I could never really run away, not when one of my children relied on my breast milk for sustenance, but for an hour or two at a time it felt like I had. Without the weight of the stroller and my kids and the encroaching walls of an always-too-messy house, I felt like I was flying down my neighborhood streets. I returned home renewed, more relaxed after two hours alone—the only two hours I might spend completely alone for the rest of the week.

I retired the jogging stroller when my older son turned 6 and the younger was nearly 4. We had moved by then, to a different state and to a home situated near the top of a hill. I valiantly ran down the hill every day, pushing the younger boy in the stroller, to pick up the older one at kindergarten, then walked them both back home. But pushing 70 pounds of children plus the stroller up a steep hill was too much.

We had a good run, that stroller and I. Saying goodbye was bittersweet. It marked an end to a very specific era of my running and parenting life, one that only other women who have run while pushing their children in strollers may be able to understand. There was relief and freedom in getting rid of the jogging stroller, but also grief that those days were forever behind us, that my boys would never again be so small as to sit side-by-side as I pushed them for miles.

What followed was more years of running solo, more running away. I snuck my runs in when my children were in school. During the summers, I would put the television on for them in one room and hop on the treadmill, able to drown out the sound of the television and their occasional bickering with my music or a movie on the iPad. I ran late, after my husband got home from work, and on weekend evenings before dinner.

My boys are 9 and 11 now. A few years ago, they started joining me and my husband at our favorite 10k, the Wharf to Wharf race from Santa Cruz to Capitola, California. We didn’t run for time, and we didn’t pressure our kids to race. The goal was simply to have fun together as a family.

My oldest son discovered he had a knack for running and joined the cross-country and track teams when we moved to a new school district. Last year, when he was 10, he joined me at the local Mother’s Day run, where we won the mother-son title in the two-mile race. My younger son, who has never seemed to enjoy running the way his brother does, nevertheless joined cross-country and track this year as a third grader and actually—kind of surprisingly—made it to the city championships in both.

This year, my older son and I decided we had to race in the Mother’s Day two-miler again to defend our team title. Although he had eschewed the Turkey Trot a few months earlier, my younger son piped in and declared he also wanted to do the Mother’s Day run. Negotiations over who would race on my team ensued. Mothers could enter as a team with only one child. In the end, I decided to once again team up with my older son (we had a title to defend!), but I told my younger son that if we won the team trophy, and his time was faster than his brother’s time, he could keep the trophy in his room. It was the only way to be fair.

On the morning of the run, we headed to the park as a family. Heeding the directive to “paint the park pink” for Mother’s Day, my boys accessorized their baggy Adidas shorts and Under Armour shirts with neon pink tube socks. They insisted they were ready, even as my 9-year-old anxiously asked what would happen if we were separated. “Follow the leaders,” we told him. “Stay on the trail.” We reminded them the race was not about the trophy, but about doing their best.

We lined up near the front, ready to race. And when the starting gun was fired, something funny happened. My boys took off, well ahead of me, and didn’t stop.

Thanks to allergy season, my lungs burned and I just felt off. I decided to let the boys run on ahead and resolved that maybe we wouldn’t win the mother-son competition. That would be okay, I decided. My kids would still have a chance to win age group awards. I turned my own focus to just finishing the race. Two miles is nothing.

Ahead of me, I caught sight of my sons running, strong and sure, my younger son just slightly behind my older. In their confident strides and even paces, I saw them not as the unsteady toddlers they once were but as the young men they will soon be. Even when they turned a corner and I lost sight of them, I caught flashes of their pink socks flying down the trail ahead of me. I focused on the sky, the trees, the music in my earbuds, because focusing on those four pink legs together—not quite as close as they’d been when they’d sat side-by-side in the jogging stroller, but close enough to mark them as brothers and close competitors—made me too emotional.

Years ago, when I found out I was having a second boy I cried. Not because I didn’t want another boy, and only a little because I really had to pee. I cried because I knew in my heart that this would most likely be my last child, and I would never have the experience of raising a daughter. That door was closing forever. And then, as I used the restroom and surreptitiously wiped the tears from my eyes before anybody could see how selfish and ungrateful I was being, my mind flashed on the opening credits to Jack & Bobby, a short-lived WB drama about the lives of two brothers who my husband and I enjoyed at the time. In those credits, the titular brothers are shown running together, the younger of the two just behind the older. These fictional brothers fought and competed and supported each other. This would be my life, I realized, and it would be a great one.

This Mother’s Day weekend, both of my sons outran me for the first time. For the first time (in a race, anyway), I was the one running after them. Not running with them, not running away from them. I struggled to finish right behind them. My older son and I did win the mother-son team trophy, and we all received age group awards, but the victory really belonged to my kids, because they beat their mom.

My boys will soon be teenagers; Their fastest running days are ahead of them. Thanks to some good coaching, a supportive running club, and the same determination I had when I hauled that jogging stroller all over town, I’m not too shabby. But if I get faster, it won’t be by much. I’m already much slower than I was when I competed in high school. I am unlikely to knock full minutes off of my mile times the way my sons soon will if they decide to continue running. Soon they will finish longer races minutes or even miles ahead of me. And while part of me thinks my ego should be bruised for not being able to keep up with my boys, I am actually delighted. This is as it should be. In racing, as in life, they are running on ahead of me. In life, as in racing, I hope I’ve taught them the skills to run ahead with strength and confidence.

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