I grew up just down the street from Utica, NY, where the Boilermaker 15K Road Race is held each year on the second Sunday in July. But because the date of the race coincided with our family’s annual trip to the Adirondacks, I never got to see what all the fuss was about. On Monday morning my parents would drive from our rental cabin to the small corner store to pick up donuts and a copy of the Utica Observer-Dispatch paper, which ran a Boilermaker insert. We would scan the results pages with cinnamon-sugary fingers and use a highlighter to indicate the names of the people we knew. Growing up, this was all the Boilermaker meant to me.
When my oldest sister began running the race as an adult, I was happy to pick up one of Utica’s finest bagel sandwiches and sit on a curb with the rest of the family to wave signs and cheer her on, but I had no real interest in distance running. I had been a member of the track team through middle and high school, but despite my coach’s best efforts, I was a high jumper and nothing more. I associated running with pain; there was never enough air in my lungs, and my flat feet made me susceptible to shin splints.
I guess it was love that led me back to my running shoes. A year after we got together, my future husband-to-be ran the Go! St. Louis Marathon, and the year after that, he agreed to run a half-marathon with me. We crossed the finish line at exactly the same time, my sneakers full of blood from unanticipated blisters. He spent the next several days complaining about pain in his knees and hips from “not running at his natural pace.” (Which really means, I love you, but I’m never running with your slow ass again.)
After conquering a half-marathon – or maybe it conquered me, but either way – I felt more equipped to tackle the Boilermaker when my sister suggested that we run together in 2010. On the day of the race, I had a nine-month-old and she had a ten-week-old. The fact that we were running at all seemed a little insane, but the draw of the post-race party, where Saranac beer flowed freely for all runners, spurred me forward.
What I didn’t anticipate, as I shuffled toward the starting line for that first Boilermaker (I’ve run one more since), was how enjoyable running 9.3 miles could actually be. The streets were lined with spectators offering encouragement, popsicles, and the occasional spray of a garden hose with which to cool off. Bands performed along the route; DJs blared popular hits and oldies music. This blighted city, which a century ago had been a vibrant seat of manufacturing and transportation, came alive. The whole city, it felt, was smiling.
I knew, just a few steps into that race, that I would do it again. Never mind my general dislike of running. This was something special.
So, again I’m in training. With three children now, and let’s be honest: my body isn’t what it once was. This body that has birthed three babies, that totes them around and stoops down to clean up their messes and to look them firmly in the eye- this body is not psyched about running. It hurts. It hurts my joints, it hurts every bone in my feet. I have to wear as little clothing as I can get away with or the heat generated by my own exertion threatens to consume me.
Most of the time it feels like crap, but I do it anyway. And I never thought I would say this, but in the process, I’ve found something that I actually love about running: I’ve found the power of my own stubborn will. I’ve discovered that I can talk myself through the hardest parts. I’ve come to love the struggle, because it shows me I am strong.
At some point in this round of training, maybe panting on a treadmill in a crowded gym, or venturing out in the 5:30 a.m. dark while my children sleep, I unlocked a secret. Running and parenting are no different. Think about it: Most of the time it feels like crap, but I do it anyway. I can talk myself through the hardest parts. It’s a struggle, but it shows me I am strong. Stronger than I ever knew. And it makes me a part of something too special to adequately express.
If I can do one, I can do the other. Bring on the pain, and see you at the after-party.