Some might think that being an ultrarunner as well as the mother of two young boys is a mutually exclusive undertaking. Speaking from experience, I can tell you this is not the case, although it is certainly a pretty major balancing act.
Ironically, I think having children was the thing that motivated me to explore ultrarunning. (For any unfamiliar with the term, “ultrarunning” – also referred to as ultramarathoning – generally refers to running any distance greater than a marathon. 50k, 50 mile and 100 mile are standard distances for an ultra race.) My husband Brett and I had been avid athletes all our lives, and avid trail runners more recently. Some years ago he began expressing interest in doing an ultra-distance race. My response was invariably something along the lines of “Hmm. That sounds horrible and I won’t be joining you, but I’ll come and cheer you on from the sidelines!” However, after becoming a mother for the second time in less than two years, one of the first things I did after little G’s arrival was to sign up for a 50 miler…
I’m not entirely sure how the change in attitude to ultrarunning came about. Perhaps the sleepless nights combined with all those lovely post-pregnancy hormones clouded my usually good judgment. Maybe my inner athlete, which had lain mostly dormant during nearly back-to-back pregnancies, was demanding to be let out again. Maybe I just needed a totally crazy goal to help me hold onto my sense of identity as an athlete amid the daily challenges of being Mommy to “two under two.” Whatever the reason, when a friend of mine decided to register for a 50 mile race that summer, it was all the encouragement I needed to do likewise.
I completed my first ultra race when our youngest son was not quite nine months old–and not quite weaned as I had planned he would be. (Knowing him now as a two-year-old, I laugh to think I ever harbored any delusions that my stubborn little G-man would conform to any plans I made with regards to how or when he should do something!) Ergo, I packed my breast pumps along in one of my drop bags in case I should become a little too “top heavy” during the race! In short, being a mom and an ultrarunner is sometimes monumentally challenging, balancing your children’s needs with your own needs, but I’ve been a devoted (addicted?) ultrarunner ever since. Fortunately, both my parents and Brett’s live in town. Without two sets of willing grandparents to babysit our boys, I’m fairly certain ultrarunning would not be a part of my life.
I’m a firm believer in the benefits of running. Aside from the obvious and oft-extolled benefits to one’s physical health, I think running is just as important for mental health as well. (Ever seen that bumper sticker “I run because it’s cheaper than therapy!”?) I know I am a much nicer person and more patient mom if I get to run on a regular basis (I’m sure many of you can relate!) so I’ve never felt guilty about making a daily or near-daily run a priority. However, I can’t help feeling a little guilty about my ultrarunning habit (addiction?). Sure, it makes me a more pleasant person to be around (as does any sort of physical activity), but mostly the only person reaping any benefits is myself. On some levels, running is an inherently selfish activity. So I can’t help but feel a few qualms each spring when I begin training. During the spring and summer, it’s not unusual for me to spend six, eight, or more hours running on a Saturday. This means that, A) I’m missing spending precious time with my family while Brett watches the boys, or B) one of the grandmas has given up their Saturday to babysit so I can train. I often wonder if I can justify all the time spent away from my family when really the sole beneficiary is me.
All that time on the trails gives me plenty of time to ponder, though, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that, in addition to all the things I love about the sport of ultrarunning—the endorphins, the incredible views, the solitude and/or good company—it also offers valuable lessons that I’d like to pass along to my boys as they grow.
For instance, I am anxious to instill in them an appreciation for the outdoors and for their healthy bodies. I want them to love being outside. I want them to value, and not take for granted, their proximity to some beautiful mountains, as well as their ability to explore them under their own steam. I hope they notice my exuberance as I lurch stiffly into the house after a long trail run. I might be exhausted, reek of sweat, and be covered in trail dust and scratches, but by golly, Mom got to be outside in the mountains all day. And that makes Mom a happy girl.
When I train for months and then successfully complete a race, I hope they will see that persistence really does pay off. I want them to learn about commitment, following through, and about the satisfaction of reaching a goal. And I want them not to fear discomfort. Pain is sometimes an inevitable part of ultrarunning, just as it’s an inevitable part of life. My hope is that they will learn not to fear pain but to just keep putting one foot in front of the other, literally and metaphorically. What other options are there, really, when you’re 20 miles from the nearest road?
Already our sons are showing signs of becoming mountain people. They gladly accompany Brett and me on short hikes, know which berries are ok to eat (or at least to ask Mom or Dad if they’re not sure!), and enjoy learning the names of plants and animals we encounter. Occasionally they even ask to go trail running with us…which I can’t help but suspect might be partially motivated by the hope that they’ll get to eat some of the junk food and brightly-colored Gu packets that they see me filling my Camelbak pack with before I go on a long run.
Having said all of the above, I’m certainly not going to push my kids to be ultrarunners as they get older, or even simply runners. Don’t get me wrong; I’d be thrilled if they DID get psyched about ultras later. But Brett and I want them to do the things that they naturally gravitate toward, whether it be music, art, or athletics. (Ok, maybe with the exception of video games, which I’m pretty sure ALL boys gravitate towards.) But I hope that by watching me train and race will inspire them to apply the same philosophies to their chosen pursuits one day.
And that is why I will continue to run long, no matter the hassles, sleepless nights or breast pumps stowed in drop bags!
Maggie is a stay-at-home-mom to two little balls of energy, ages four and two. High school nordic ski coach in the winter. When not on the ski or running trails, she can usually be found at home eating bacon. Well, actually she can usually be found eating bacon on the trails, too. You can find Maggie’s previous guest post on the blog all about family nordic skiing here.
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