I ran a marathon last week along an old railway track converted into a trail. When I crossed the finish line I cried. Which surprised me. I’ve done a few marathons over the years. After my fastest I vomited steps after stopping. I barely remember any of the other finishes, other than being thankful that the pain was over.
Pain isn’t the right word for this marathon. Thankfully. There had been pain leading up to it. A torn calf muscle which took weeks to rehab and put the race itself in doubt. It got better and it held up to the rigors of the race. As did the rest of my body. No new injuries. While the final ten miles of the marathon were uncomfortable, it was the expected discomfort of an endurance event. It should hurt and it did.
Maybe I cried because the hurt was over, and my body and mind could let go. I’d run alone for the last few hours, mostly without music, mostly in the rain. I saw a handful of other runners and hikers. There were no spectators. This was not a big city marathon. No funny signs. No bands belting out music at the mile markers. There were volunteers though. Dozens of them at the aid stations. Men, women and children who’d sacrificed their time to stand outside in the wind and the rain and hand out food and drink to lonely wet runners. I should have cried at the aid stations, because that’s where I felt most thankful.
Or maybe I should have cried in the first ten miles, much of which I ran with a new friend. A talented runner who happens to have epilepsy. A runner who could have a seizure at any time. Who could be moving effortlessly along the trail one second, and crumpled beside it a moment later, head covered in blood from bashing it on a rock. That could have happened. But it didn’t. She finished the race. Courage and grit.
I got home a few hours after I finished, and it felt like a normal day. Like I’d completed a long training running. I ate a normal dinner, went to bed at a normal hour, woke up a little sore and a little tired and very ready to enjoy a week off work.
A couple days after the marathon I spent most of the day with my daughter Molly. We skated and went to the park and played with her toys. I battled a tantrum or two and spent about thirty minutes coaxing an exhausted and giddy child into her car seat. We spent hours together that day. I did exactly what my wife Sonja does every day I’m at work except I did less of it, because I didn’t have Molly for the entire day. By dinnertime I was exhausted. I ate early and crawled into bed. Sonja told me I looked more tired than I did after running the marathon.
She was right. A marathon is a known entity. 26.2 miles. A runner can train for it, set their own pace, and, especially with a little experience, know essentially what to expect. Running a marathon, you can control your speed, and reign in your emotions. You can evaluate your pain and respond accordingly. That doesn’t make a marathon easy, but it makes it manageable and knowable, in a way that raising a child isn’t.
I have had moments of incredible frustration this week, emotionally and physically drained by a three-year old whose behaviour I can’t control. Sonja and I search for ways to influence that behaviour. When it works, like seeing Molly grow in confidence and independence, the feeling is better than any finish line I’ve ever crossed. When it doesn’t, it feels like mile twenty of a marathon. Battered and bruised, you keep moving, knowing the finish line is still a long way away.
And I love every moment of it. Both marathoning and parenting. Maybe not in the moment. It’s hard to be thankful for something that hurts when its hurting. But pushing through the discomfort always pays off.
A week ago, I ran that marathon. I’ve already forgotten the discomfort, and I can’t wait to do the next one.
A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will not remember the specifics of any tantrum or angry word unleashed by my daughter who each day learns that this is a big world, and navigating it isn’t easy. Imagine being three years old again and trying to find yourself as you’re bombarded by the cacophony of life.
A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will remember three things that happened this week.
I skated with my daughter. The first time I’ve been on skates in over thirty years. I skated with my daughter. A sentence I never thought I would write.
I watched my daughter dance. In a class, at a studio with two other girls and two boys. I watched my daughter dance. For thirty minutes I stood with the other parents outside the window that separated us from our children, and I watched Molly dance. She was graceful and confident and joyful. She loved every second. It was one of the best moments of my life.
A few days after the marathon Molly’s pre-school class went on a field trip. I went with her. The field trip was on an abandoned railway track. A track that had been turned into a hiking trail. The same trail I’d run the marathon on earlier in the week. I watched my daughter and her friends sprint down the trail. I saw the wonder in her eyes when she stood atop a refurbished wooden bridge and gazed at the river far below. I sat beside her while she ate the teacher’s homemade zucchini loaf and asked me, over and over, why the railway had been “abandoned.” She seized on that word, never tiring of hearing me tell her that the trains stopped running and the bridge fell apart, and then good people came together and worked hard and rebuilt it for all of us to use. She asked about it dozens of times. I never tired of answering.
A few days earlier I’d run a marathon along that trail. Now I was with my daughter, running a different kind of marathon. A marathon with an unknown finish line, a marathon that may be impossible to train for, a marathon that taxes the mind and body daily. A marathon where crying is possible anytime along the trail, not just at the finish line. A marathon where the joys and rewards of just participating are infinite. A different kind of marathon.