As we crossed the finish line, Will was flopped almost sideways in the stroller. His hoodie had slipped over one eye and he’s was fast asleep as we rolled through the final chute, under the race clock that read four hours, fourteen minutes and change, and into the group of race volunteers handing out medals. He was oblivious that he had sat through an entire marathon in the stroller, and he really only cared about a diaper change and a stretch. Or that’s at least what I am assuming he cared about after being strapped into a stroller for more than four hours.
After a diaper change on the lawn near the race finish, I watched as my 11-month-old tried to crawl, without the full use of his left shoulder, toward a case of water bottles nearby. I crouched to his level. He had a smile on his face, but couldn’t understand why his head was crooked sharply to the left. Being stroller-bound for so long had given him an epic neck crick. This is when it hit me — marathons aren’t for babies. And not in an “are you, or aren’t you tough enough” kind of way. But literally.
I believe now that the option to select “Stroller Division” for the the full marathon might have been a technical error on the race website. It’s quite possible the race organizers decided not to remove it from the pull-down menu on the registration page — the same menu used for the half-marathon and fun runners — under the assumption that no one would actually select it. Well I did, figuring that if the option exists on a pull-down menu, it must be a thing. Like something people do regularly. Like salsa dancing or knitting.
I realized at race check-in that running a marathon with a baby in a stroller is, in fact, not a thing. There were no other names listed under the full marathon stroller division heading. As I wrestled the stroller on race morning into the start corral and towards the middle of the marathon pack, other runners eyed me with suspicion. Too late to turn back.
Running over the years has magnified in me what many might consider “Type A” personality traits, such as a need for control, organization and success. It’s not a surprise that many friends I have made through running groups in multiple cities are lawyers, tenured professors, doctors and executives.
Motherhood has had much of the same magnifying effect.
I have loved running with my son. I began running with him in the stroller when he was still in his car seat, slowing down for corners to avoid tipping him like a double decker bus in a car chase. I pushed him in a neighborhood race when he was around nine-months-old, and placed third in my age-group.
It became apparent, however, early in training that trying an entire marathon with the stroller would be tough on us both. I abandoned my goal of running the race with him around the six-week mark in the training schedule, as the weekly miles increased and the summer temperatures and humidity crept higher and higher, leaving me to cover the most of the distance before he woke up or after he went to bed.
When race week arrived, my husband shared with me that he had to work on race day. In this instance, a more laid-back individual might suggest, “Let’s find a sitter.” Instead, I announced, “It’s probably easier for me to just take him with me.”
I figured we would embrace the element of surprise come race day, like a parent who tells their child “We’re almost there!” on a road trip, knowing full well there are roughly four hundred miles and and a re-fuel stop left until reaching the destination. I borrowed a proper running stroller from a friend, because mine would have rattled itself apart on 26.2 miles of city streets, and I started the diaper bag packing list for race day.
Race day rituals for a runner border on the sacred. They are often rehearsed prior to races, and repeated time and again before reaching the starting corral at each race. The race with Will was my my 16th marathon, so I could say that my race preparations are almost second nature. Not that I adhere to a particularly strict diet or outfit, but race morning involves staying as calm, well-fed and watered as possible. If I tried to explain to someone my race morning routine, when I wake up, go to the bathroom, drink and eat, put on my selected race kit and number, collect the bag for drop-off (which I packed the night before), load in the car to head to the start, etc., it would take an hour.
I have actually had this conversation with other runners at dinner parties, and it has lasted clear through appetizers and the first course. Runners are nuts. So is motherhood. If I explained to someone every agonizing detail of my son’s (he was just under a year-old on race day) morning routine, we’d be mired in the details before we got started. Waking up, nursing, changing the diaper, getting dressed, feeding him half a banana while I make the oatmeal, putting the other half of the banana in the oatmeal with a small scoop of Greek yogurt, etc. The details of daily childcare are mind-numbing.
These routines, however detailed, become second nature.
Friends offered to take Will, but I decided I wouldn’t be deterred from this new goal. I further justified my decision by convincing myself that since I wouldn’t let someone else prepare for my race, I should probably not let someone take on Will’s daily routine.
A once wild idea was now quickly solidifying into a concrete plan.
Runners are determined. Ok, stubborn. We will run through injuries, bad weather, in between meetings at work, through traffic, just to get in miles. This trait in my case was not eased with the onset of motherhood.
As the clock ticked down to race day, I had I begun to wave the mommy martyr flag, patting myself on the back for the selflessness I possessed to push my child through an entire marathon, just like I brought him into this world.
I baked snacks, I selected his favorite toys, I picked out his race day outfit. It was as if I believed that somehow the act of caring for my baby, even in the throes of a marathon, would earn me a large deposit in some ethereal mommyhood bank for an undisclosed sum to be cashed out later. With interest.
I will admit that on race morning, it actually felt easier to pack up Will’s things for a marathon than packing a diaper bag for a babysitter. I felt in control.
But good running is learning about how to gain control and how to lose control. How to train yourself for success and learn from — sometimes heartbreaking — mistakes. Parenthood is the same.
When I decided to stay home with my son, I transitioned from hardworking executive to spit-up clean up crew. It was a literal, albeit grossly stereotypical, transition from business casual attire to workout wear. Babies are cute and all, but the fulfilling aspects of raising one show themselves in less expected ways than quarterly reviews and annual bonuses.
In many ways it felt as if I had lost control of my own career path, for better or worse.
And this is where running made a positive difference. Running remained one of the activities I could enjoy just as much after baby as before. And remaining on the run allowed me to identify with me as me, regardless of title. It made what I had called my new mom uniform so much more acceptable if I was actually wearing it out for a run.
Many parents, like runners, need to learn to relax, trust their instincts and know that there is nothing to prove to anyone but yourself. And when it comes to having complete control, you have nothing to prove at all.
Will’s neck straightened itself out after a post-race nap and I decided I would never run a marathon with a stroller again. It was an easy fitness resolution to make, especially compared to simpler things like drinking more water, getting more sleep, etc.
I learned my lesson when it comes to babies and marathons. When it comes to my willingness to let go of control in other areas of my life, I’m still learning how to stop pushing.