I signed up for my first race in the spring of 2008---a half-marathon, in Rochester, to be held in early fall. Never having run more than five miles consecutively, I spent my summer training, hydrating, and icing my aching knees. I slept at my parents' house the night before the race. The next morning, my mom was up with me before the sun rose, making coffee and puttering around, while I obsessed over my pre-run meal, my running outfit, and oh my god, why don’t we have enough safety pins to hold my bib in place? As I crossed the finish line hours later, after a grueling 13.1 miles on what turned out to be an unseasonably warm and humid September day, after witnessing more than one runner collapse on the course around me, and after looking for an exit route on the course for 8 miles, I declared that I was done with running. Finished. The End. Two weeks later, I started looking for my next race. And so began my short stint as a distance runner. With several half-marathons under my belt, I decided it was time to try my hand at the real thing, and set my sights on the New York City marathon. Now, marathon running requires a certain level of commitment, even at the amateur level. Your entire world revolves around running, carb-loading, and hydrating properly. My husband endured months of early nights and pasta dinners; my friends, I’m sure, grew tired of hearing me ramble on about my upcoming long runs; and my mom, well, she supported me in the only way she knew how: by telling me I was crazy. Unsurprisingly, she had a saying about marathon running. If God wanted you to run that far, he would have given you four feet! Lacking a competitive bone in her body, she also casually asked me, as I agonized over IT band pain for weeks before the race, if I couldn’t run as planned---or if I couldn’t finish---would it really be that big of a deal?
Nonetheless, my mom arrived in New York the day before the marathon, my sisters and brother-in-law in tow, to cheer me on every step of the 26.2 miles. As my sisters and I leisurely strolled around my Brooklyn neighborhood that afternoon, my mom started on a pot of sauce for dinner. We returned home to a feast, my mom doling out pasta and homemade meatballs in my tiny kitchen. My alarm clock went off at five the next morning, and while the rest of my family rolled over for a few more hours of sleep, my mom, once again, was up with me before dawn. We sat and drank coffee, and discussed, one last time, the four points in Brooklyn and Manhattan where they planned to cheer me on. This would require a bit of hustle out of the group, and my mom, at a strapping 5 feet tall, was not to be outdone by her younger (and taller) counterparts. Not one to wear sneakers even in her backyard, she gamely came prepared with a loaner pair from my sister, ready to take on the streets of New York.
I saw my family first at mile six. With my body and mind already failing me, I found myself choking back tears at the sight of them. They were there for me again and again as planned --- my mom’s head barely visible over the crowd, my sisters and brother-in-law screaming my name, my husband looking on with pride --- as I hobbled forward to finish out the race. I learned later that as I was running, my cheering section ran into their own set of problems. My mom, in a pretty white sweater, was the unlucky target of a low-flying bird, and spent the rest of the day trying to camouflage the obvious stain. My sister, innocently using the bathroom at a McDonalds along the course, with my mom standing guard outside the door, found herself face-to-face with an overly aggressive patron who couldn’t wait his turn. By the time I finished, bruised and battered, we shared more than a few good laughs over a post-run meal.
My mom passed away three years later. We spent the last two weeks of her life in the hospital, sitting vigil by her side, pacing the hallways, hoping for a miracle. When she died, I was left with a hole in heart, and strangely enough, a sharp pain in my right calf. A wrong step left me gasping in pain for months afterward, and running was all but impossible. The hows and whys of this injury were unclear, and quite honestly, probably nothing more than a random coincidence. And yet, maybe it wasn't.
In those weeks leading up to her death, I realized in a panic that I had no idea who I was---or would be---without my mom. People assured me, repeatedly, that she will always be with me: in everything I do, and really, in everything I am. I scoffed at this initially; after all, it requires an astonishing amount of faith to believe such a thought, at a time when my faith has suffered a serious blow. But, as I limped home after each attempted run, I thought of my mom. As I stretched my calf in yoga class, I thought of my mom. And as I laughed at the irony of it all, I thought of my mom. As it turns out, she's with me every step of the way---whether I'm on two feet or four.