Today was race day….only five hours ago, the Girl and I arrived at my school and we wandered around in the cold and pretended like we fit in with this mass of strangers.
It was our first 5K that we had ever run. Since January, I have been training to get ready for the Appalachian Trail hike. And then, I came back from that life-altering experience and decided that I wasn’t done. I couldn’t return to the stagnant life that has been sitting in my recliner. So I signed my daughter and me up to run in our first 5K.
The Girl hates running. Passionately. She hates exercise because *gasp* it makes her sweaty. And it makes her muscles ache. And then she gets really hungry and her horrible mother (me) forces her to eat….vegetables.
Yeah, “it’s a hard knock life.”
Over the summer, my husband and I took our kids to a local ice cream parlor. Our daughter asked to get one of the larger sizes and I made the deal that if she ran the 5K that she could have it. She made the deal and for the last three or so months has been regretting it. Every training run was punctuated with groans, moans of despair, complaints of aching muscles or gas bubbles or “sprained” ankles.
The Girl talked non-stop about how much she hated running. She cast baleful glares at me. She would limp around the house. She felt as though she were abused.
In the week leading up to the 5K, I tried to get her to run more with me. Boy…mistake time. And then, yesterday, we picked up our gear, specifically our bibs and t-shirts. I was nearly leaping out of my skin with excitement. She was about to sink through the floor with despair and fury.
The drive to the race, this morning, was a combination of sputtering conversation and more angry looks. Last month, I bought her a long-sleeve running shirt; thank God I had given how cold it was today. We layered on sweatshirts and I brought hand warmers and we walked around the race area, looking at the venders while trying to maintain an air of normalcy.
And then, steadily, my students who were also participating greeted me, hugged me, shook my daughter’s hand. Smiles punctuated my world and I slowly shed the confidence gnawing dread that my daughter was going to be miserable.
Members of the field hockey team invited us to run with them, wanted to have my daughter as their inspiration. My colleagues greeted her, wished us well, gave us encouragement to do the best that we could do. And I watched as my daughter’s sullen expression slowly leaked away and was replaced by a….hesitant smile.
The time to race arrived and we barely got to the starting area in time. The race gun was lifted, the trigger pulled, and everyone sort of leapt forward. Naturally, true racers were in the front and I ignored them. I had my own shadow, my own past to race. All the times that I had doubted myself, saw myself through distorted reflections of self-loathing and destructive self-doubt were my competitors.
And next to me. My daughter. Who was gasp-panting. Who was hobbling with every other step. Whose face already was clouded and we had just run..five…ten steps?
An auspicious start.
We left the parking lot, started out on the street that led away from the high school and towards my daughter’s middle school. My pace evened out, my breathing regulated. And she, my daughter, my beloved girl, she was struggling. We had been running for several months. She could knock out almost two miles without a struggle. And we hadn’t gone a third of a mile.
The true racers were gone. I didn’t care. In front of me, a heavy man trotted. Beside me, my daughter struggled. I took her heavy water bottle and we continued.
Crossed the main street.
Ran parallel to her middle school.
Ran up the driveway leading to her school where we ran past one of my students who was volunteering as a “cheerleader.” This dear young woman grinned at me, greeted my daughter and me, and then shouted out how great we were doing.
My daughter read the student’s sign, a statement that we were beating the people behind us. That we were doing great.
And her pace quickened. We were at a hill and she didn’t ask to stop and walk. She ran it. The entire (small) hill. She charged up the hill where another one of my students waited, holding another encouraging sign, pointing us towards the path.
And this student greeted us and called out encouragement and I watched the Girl speed up a little more. Her back was a little straighter. Her gait a little steadier.
We ran down a long path that took us beside lovely houses, a golf course, a world in which we will never fit. We passed the heavy man. Ran behind a young man who would jog a little while. And then walk a little while.
Every time we came close to him, he would suddenly speed up, dart ahead, gain some distance, before he would start walking again.
The Girl and I shed our sweatshirts. I hooked them over my arm, shifted my load a little, and we continued with the race. Another hill. Up naturally. And we looked at each and started running.
By this point, the fastest runners had already turned around and were racing towards the finishing line. One young man was so fast, he had a wind chasing him that blew me in the face. And I felt no shame at my clydesdale-like-clopping. I felt no shame at the wobbles of fat that jiggled with every step. I only felt absolute pride.
Because my partner, my daughter, was running and wasn’t complaining or limping or giving me dirty looks.
By this point, the run had been a rhythmic chant of me telling her how proud of I was of her. How thankful I was that she was with me. How she was doing a great job.
And she was. She had defeated her own sense of “I can’t do it” and was nothing more than a runner out in the world following flour-arrows and a boy who refused to let her get in front of him.
We entered into a neighborhood, stopped at a water stand, and drank from little Dixie cups. And then we started running again. Turned a corner and there was the boy who was running-walking-running. And I leaned over and told the Girl that the boy had made a point of not letting us pass him before.
And, suddenly, she put on a burst of speed. The distance between her and the boy diminished. He heard her behind him. Tried to run. Lapsed back into a walk.
She passed him. He tried once more to run. And I passed him. And caught up with her.
And the look of triumph on her face was amazing, was beautiful.
She was luminescent triumph. The girl who had been terrified of running a 5K last summer because she wouldn’t be able to finish it was gone. The angry, petulant child was somewhere in her shadow, being left behind in the floury footprints.
Eventually, we walked. A couple of times. Several tenths of a mile…maybe a half mile total. We walked. Because she wasn’t ready and maybe I wasn’t either.
But we didn’t fail.
After a brief walking break, the Girl announced that shewas ready to run. And run she did. She left me behind. Five feet separated us. Ten. Fifteen. Twenty. Maybe more.
I don’t care. My daughter had left me behind. And I watched as her hair rose and fell with each step. I watched the beautiful lines of her back, this roadmap of her successes and defeats and triumphs over obstacles. I could walk my fingertips over every bead of her spine and pray like they were a rosary. And I would pray for her protection. And I would pray that the world would be ready to receive her.
Because someday she will leave me behind. I will watch her go and will wave and will wear passionately bittersweet tears because I don’t want her to go but I know that she needs to run away.
And today, I saw that she could. I saw that she will succeed because she can. Not because she will or because she is expected to. But my daughter will leave and will succeed because she has the ability to do so and the strength and the resilience to do so. The only thing holding her back is herself.
And even that really isn’t a problem anymore.
When we were running through the circle that marked the halfway point, the Girl slowed to a walk and apologized. She was worried that she had hurt me because she had sped up and pulled away from me. I reassured her that everything was fine, that she was fine. Instead, I stated over and over about how proud I was of her. And I told her that I was going to be thrilled when I watched her cross the finish line, even if she was in front of me.
“You are not going to cross the finish line by yourself,” she said. “We are going to cross the line together.”
I nearly started crying right there. No matter what I hoped for or dreamed for in life in terms of success, I had already won. I had already triumphed. I had already succeeded.
We passed the halfway point. We stopped at another water station. And then we ran down a hill. And we walked a little. And then we ran again. Each time, the Girl leapt forward, eager to go, eager to prove to herself once more that she was strong enough to beat all that she had determined was holding her back. We walked up another hill. And there were my two students who had cheered us on earlier. And we ran. We ran past them. We ran down the hill and past my daughter’s middle school. We walked a little after that.
And then, we were close to the finish line. And we ran. And the Girl picked up her speed and ran ahead of me. Away from me. Five feet. Ten feet. Fifteen feet. Twenty feet.
The finish line was a glorious goal, a streaming banner just beyond which were my students screaming and shouting for us. My daughter’s name was an echo bouncing off the trees and I was running in an opalescent world of translucent tears and transparent pride.
I have no personal record for this race. I don’t know my time. I earned a medal that everyone else wore. But mine is the brightest and the shiniest and the best….especially when it’s laying next to my daughter’s.
She still doesn’t like running. But she enjoyed today, even if she won’t admit it. And I saw God’s promise for my daughter, a woman who will find her ways to success and to victory. It might be hard. She has plenty of challenges ahead of herself simply because life isn’t supposed to be easy.
But I have every confidence in my daughter. I have every confidence that she will succeed. And I will be the one behind her, not chasing her, not trying to catch up to her. I’ll be her personal cheerleader, quietly and passionately singing her praises and celebrating her successes. Because they are completely hers. I was just a bystander.