Why my mom started running in her fifties, what made her stop, and the joy of watching a parent discover a new part of their life.
Mom was in her fifties when she took her first run. On a winter night in Minnesota she ran to the snow pile at the end of Farington Circle beneath the yellow streetlight. 500 feet, give or take a few. She walked back home.
Mom’s workout attire for the run: business casual. Corduroys, a sweater over a white blouse, winter boots, and a parka.
I think of her first run regularly, often while I’m running through Oakland in the early morning. The story has long been a part of the family canon. Any forgotten details have been covered by the senses of memory undetected by chronology. For one, there’s little doubt her pre-run snack was a sip from a can of warm Diet Coke and a few chocolate chips from the yellow Tollhouse bag forever ripped open on the counter just to the left of the kitchen sink. Her corduroy strides zipped out in the cold as she passed our neighbors homes – first the Henches, then Bergersons, then Collettis and all of the rest. I can scribble a picture of every house and every bare tree.
I’ve been a runner since college, nearly 20 years. Most of my five siblings are runners, too (respect for always holding out, Tony). I’ve got the sibling marathon count around 45. Mom and Dad were at many of those races. She’d be on her tiptoes at mile 21 of the Twin Cities marathon, straining to spot one of us coming up Summit Avenue. We’d get in the Suburban after the race, and she’d be energized, thinking aloud about why she was on the curb cheering, not running. Eventually, she gave it a shot.
Recently, Mom told me that, long before any of us ran, she would be introduced as Monica, mother of six. The number of her children was the most recognizable part of her, and she would have to convince herself that she was still Monica, separate from us. And then there was the part that had been unsaid in Mom’s presence but no doubt discussed—that she was the mom of six who’d had been really sick. Throat cancer.
Both distinctions —the one said in front of her and the one discussed when she wasn’t within earshot— pestered her for years. Two mosquitos in a tent. No one has ever loved being a mom more than she’s loved it, but goddamn, she was more than a mom, and certainly more than a mom who almost died. More than a wife, too. First, she was Monica.
Another certainty regarding the night of her first run: Mom visited Grandma and Grandpa on the way home from teaching at the very elementary school she attended. Their home, where Mom grew up with two younger sisters (both of whom began running later in life, too), was halfway between where Mom taught and our house.
Grandma and Grandpa have been gone for years now, but Mom checks in with them daily. I was shocked when Mom told me only a short time ago that Grandma had not been on board with Mom having so many kids. They did not send her to college to be a housewife, to be introduced as the mom of six.
Something in me, the bad writer still tempted to make all the pieces fit, wants to say all of those factors— her kids running, the housewife identity, the cancer survivor story she’d grown tired of, or even her hero, Grandpa, taking the time to exercise— pulled on the same end of the rope and finally got her out there to give running a shot.
That all might be, but not even Mom could know for certain. The real explanation is a mystery, or maybe even so mundane that it was lost as soon as she got to the snowpile. Instead of jury-rigging an explanation, it feels true to let the mystery be. Epiphany has the tendency to be assembled from the evidence that survived long after the happening has passed.
Mom kept running. Cue the montage music (she would request “Diamonds On The Soles of Her Shoes”). Runs to the end of the cul-de-sac became runs around the block. Around the block became around the neighborhood. The routes expanded to much of Roseville, many of the same paths Grandpa walked.
She ran down the streets and through the parks and around the lakes and through the yards that were the backdrop of nearly all of her life.
A police officer once stopped her on Highway 36. Mom had veered left down Minnesota Ave over behind Concordia Academy and found herself on the quarter-mile off-ramp. It’s that little stretch of Highway 36 that was part off-ramp, part frontage road across from the Vietnamese Buddist temple on the other side of the high school football field. I doubt she even noticed she was technically on the highway, and I promise she never thought it was cause for police concern.
To her, the fact that she was on a highway mattered less than the proximity of that particular stretch of pavement to so much of her life. How could that officer possibly take issue? She knew more about where she was than his finger knew about the inside of his nose.
Mom loved running for what it did to her mind. Aside from a Discman that rarely worked, accessories were absent from her runs. So too were gadgets used to count ultimately meaningless units of time and distance. Instead, she took a special joy in cutting through yards. As odd as it sounds, she would go out of her way to cut through a yard. To this day, she gets a kick out of it.
One time she complained to my brother, Matt, that her knees hurt. He suggested that it was probably time for a new pair of running shoes. A common issue with regular runners, which Mom had become. That didn’t make sense to her. She was still running in boots in the winter.
She loved it, and watching a parent find something they love other than you is life-affirming. To see another part of them come to form, to witness them alive in the most childlike way: experiencing something new.
After her runs, we’d talk. Mostly on the phone, but we would sit on the front porch when I was home in the summer. She’d still be sweating in the white wicker rocking chair, I’d be on the front step, and we’d stare down Farrington Circle. That runner’s gaze—exhausted contentment. I saw it in her, knowing its perfection myself. I loved to see her lost in the gaze.
In many ways, I think like her. We drift on a similar current. Running gave space to think. A tempo for her to meditate on the people she loved and the ideas that she couldn’t untangle or set aside. She could stride through all of the thoughts with the power of synchronicity, of breath and stride. The idea of faith vs. organized religion, grandpa flying missions as a navigator in WWII, dinner that night, the latest from The White House, a lesson plan, the reading for next week’s mass, and her book club book—all of these thoughts connected within the rhythm of breath and footfalls, and Mom didn’t have to wait for anyone to keep up.
Mom stopped running maybe seven years ago. She slipped a couple times and hit her head. She’s had seizures in her past, though not as a result from falling while running. Also, the radiation from the throat cancer 30 years prior caused many of the muscles in her neck to begin atrophy. Her neck bends forward, resulting in neck, back, and shoulder pain. There have been spinal fusion surgeries, physical therapy, botox, speech therapy, and more. Recently, the flap in her throat—the epiglottis— doesn’t work too well anymore, so it became hard for her to get certain foods down. Some would go down the wrong pipe, causing her to aspirate. Pneumonia followed at least two times.
Mom has always been a petite woman, but the swallowing issues had left her much too thin by my wedding in 2019. She’d always plow through any discomfort. Still, I was scared. She was frail, exhausted, but it was more than that. Mentally, she was loose.
She was malnourished. A feeding tube was put in, which makes it sound like she’s now incapacitated, and that’s far from the truth. The tube has brought her back, in weight, sharpness, and wit. She doesn’t have to rely on swallowing food to get her nutrition. She still eats, orally, but just can’t rely on it for her nutrition. At night, a they attach packet of her daily dose of nutrients and calories to a tube right into her stomach. She has more energy than she’s had in years, and she puts it to use.
I don’t put my mom’s health challenges out there for dramatics; I share to underscore just how much it took to merely slow her gait from a run to a walk. She is, without a hesitation, the most resilient person I know. She doesn’t know how to quit.
She walks most every day, probably as fast as she ran to be honest, but her spirit is not that of a walker. She’s in it, but Mom isn’t ready for a walking life, especially after finding running so late.
Mom’s a fucking runner. I thought she’d hate that I put it that way, but it’s the truth. Turns out, she wasn’t mad at that description at all.
There’s absolute strength in knowing that I come from her, the lady that took her first run after 50 on a cold winter night. I’m not foolish enough to presume I have all of her resilience in me, but some of that made it to me. It must have. All of those 45 Lang sibling marathons—the ones before and after—come from the same place inside of Mom that convinced her to run up the cul-de-sac.
OK, I admit it; I can’t be completely certain on the specifics of her work clothes on that first run, but that’s the story that survived, and there’s much truth in it. And that lady defaults to corduroys in the winter, always has. She definitely was not wearing jeans to teach the kids at Maternity of Mary. Of course there was a sweater, and what mom owns any less than 40 white blouses?
I often recreate Mom on that run. Her breath finds a pace. Her boots crunch the snow-ice with each petite stride venturing out into the night.
Phil Lang, 02/02/21