Before I was a mother, I was an ultrarunner. I ran marathons, then back-to-back marathons, then a 60-kilometer race, then a couple of 50-milers, then, at last, a 100K (61.2 miles). Before I had kids, I worried that my ultrarunning was a sign I was unfit to be a mother. The loneliness of the long-distance runner has nothing on the oddball misanthropy of the long-, long-distance runner. But I was married, and I wanted kids, so I had one, a daughter, and two years later, a son.
Before I gave birth, everyone, including my childbirth educator, told me that ultrarunning was good preparation for the trials of giving birth. That was crap. I've hurt during an ultra, but I never found myself screaming Jesus-fuck, just kill me. But if ultrarunning did not train me for childbirth -- my labors were sprints -- the sport did, perhaps, prepare me for motherhood.
Mothering is, after all, an extreme sport. And I've learned from ultrarunning how to tackle a sport when I don't have a lick of talent or skill. I am that astonishing athlete who can't throw a Frisbee, catch a fly ball, complete a layup or beat her 4-year-old in a sprint to the mailbox. My sole athletic gift is the capacity to not stop running. I can run when I'm hungry, when I'm blistering, when I'm chafing, when I've fallen on asphalt and I'm bleeding from the knees. Of course I can be a mother; I already know how to go on when I'm psycho-sleepy. I know how to go on and on no matter how badly I have to pee. Would any mother be surprised to hear that an ultrarunner is that rare athlete whose performance often improves in middle age?
I had to take a break from ultrarunning to get my body in shape for breeding. (It's hard to ovulate on a training schedule of 70 miles a week.) But recently I made my comeback, in a 50-kilometer race through the New York borough of Queens, which I finished in midpack glory. (I was supposed to run a six-hour race a few weeks later, but at the last minute -- surprise! -- there was no one to watch the kids.) For a bone-weary, sleep-starved mom to rise extra-early for the hours of training that ultrarunning requires might strike some as perverse. Yet for me, postpartum, the sport has more allure than ever before.
There's my body. I loved my pregnant body and my nursing body, that whole full-moon-and-high-tide thing. But running, and running, I return to a sense of my body that I misplaced when I started having kids. It's not that training gives me back the abs I could spin quarters on. I don't even want that body back. I like the little jiggle of belly that will forever remind me of the pouch in which my babies grew. But running, and running, returns me to the feeling of being a body that is light-footed and tireless and strong. Running, I seem to travel in a child's body, a girl's body. Sometimes, hours later, when I'm shoving uphill a double stroller loaded with two kids and more bags than the Joads lugged to California, I'll feel that girl in me shiver with life.
There's solitude. I am a stay-at-home mother; my husband travels frequently on business overseas. The kids have sleep issues. They are also at the stage where they toddle after me like ducklings as I travel from room to room. If I rise, bleary, in the middle of the night to pee, I'm apt to find I have an audience of two. What are you doing, Mommy? Can I get the toilet paper? Can I flush? No, me! Me! Waaaah! At times, my desire to have no one speaking to me, looking at me or touching me can get nearly crazy. At those moments, being alone is not enough. I have to be alone and running.
To be blunt, I have to be running away. The truth is, I love to rise while it's dark and my husband and kids are sleeping, slip on my running shoes, stretch and leave. I love indecently that moment when I step out of my building, hit the street and start running. And running. I travel into the park and out of the park, into and out of Brooklyn's neighborhoods. Midwood, Borough Park, Flatbush, Kensington, Fort Green, Williamsburg, Bay Ridge, Park Slope. I study the buildings I pass: brownstone, townhouse, high-rise, decaying mansion. I could have that life. That life. That life, instead. I put distance between me and home. I start to gather speed.
No wonder I often return to my just-waking family, two or three hours later, carrying a guilt offering of muffins and scones.
My kids seem to sense the undercurrents of my sport. When I snap the bolt to our front door, they come tumbling to greet me with frantic joy. Satisfied, my daughter grabs a hunk of cranberry scone and saunters off, scattering crumbs. I lie on the kitchen floor to stretch, and my little son throws himself across my belly. He sucks his thumb. When I lift his pajama top to tickle his skin, I feel as though I'm saying, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. You know I'll always come back.