Chasing Mom

reluctant runner follows in her mother's footsteps – and her socks, too

Madeline Gray

madeline gray, right, runs in last month’s eau claire marathon as her mother, JANE, cheers her on.
madeline gray, right, runs in last month’s eau claire marathon as her mother, JANE, cheers her on.

I ran a marathon in my mother’s socks.

My mom had already run hers: the Twin Cities Marathon in 2005. I was in seventh grade at the time, and she dragged me along on many of her training runs. She didn’t want me to run that far at my age, so I biked with her water while she put in the miles. Those rides were long, hot, and boring. Mom must have been frustrated with me as I biked in circles around her, complaining, while she ran 20 long miles. As I did my own 20-mile training run I thought back to how obnoxious I probably was, and how much I would have wanted to smack myself. But that is such a testament to who my Mom is – she would always just thank me for helping her, push through, and do her thing.

Mom has always been a runner. Her high school didn’t have a team for women, so she just took off on her own, striding down the gravel roads of Sumner, Iowa, by herself. She had no spectators, no coaches, and no teammates. There was never a race coming up, or a rival to compete against. She pushed herself to run, racking up miles as she raced past cornfields and electrical poles. She ran for the love of running, for sweaty limbs and sore muscles.

During my lifetime, she was always running. She would tow me and my two sisters to the local high school’s track to run laps on the weekends when we were toddlers. We messed around with each other, finding frogs or playing in the bleachers, as she rounded the bends, endlessly. Later, in elementary school, Mom would make me run the local 5K with her every November. My older sister had inherited Mom’s natural running ability, while I had none of it. But Mom never left me, offering me bits of encouragement and pushing me through the parts I wanted to quit (which were all of them). I hated the race, but loved spending the time with Mom. With a dad, two sisters, and a demanding dog, it wasn’t often that I got to spend alone time with my mom. But with running, it was just us.

• • •

The summer after my freshman year of college, Mom and I started running together again. Long story short, we were signed up – slightly unwillingly – for a difficult race at the end of the summer. So together, we ran.

Not much had changed; I still hated running, but loved spending time with Mom. We would go every afternoon when I got home from work. Mom would slip into her old, threadbare running tees, me into my new, unworn Dri-FIT T-shirts, and we would head out. We never worried about distance or pace, just running for a set amount of time. Despite loathing the activity, the minutes passed quickly as we talked.

Sometimes we talked about trivial things, and sometimes we discussed more serious matters. We laughed about the antics of my kiddos at summer camp, the way our dog would sit on top of pillows, talked through the failing mental health of my grandmother, how much our bodies hurt on the run, my fears for the upcoming year of school, and everything in between as the miles melted away. And the longer this went on, the harder it became to distinguish the activity of running from my conversations with my mom. I began looking forward to running. Or at least, running with my mom.

We ran together every summer after that. Occasionally we had a race, but usually it was just us. There was something perfect about talking and sweating and struggling, together.

• • •

During my fifth of college, I decided to run a marathon. Immediately after I signed up, my mom asked me to send her my training plan. Being in a different state, she couldn’t run next to me, but she was going to try and run with me. Training for a marathon is grueling; it was a five-month process that involved lots of miles and lots of alone time. But having Mom empathize with me, offer stretching advice, share her own running stories, and give me the encouragement I needed, got me through it. We talked on the phone after almost every run, and once again, she guided me through.

During my longest training run, I got blisters. Bad blisters. Walk-on-the-sides-of-your-feet-and-try-not-to-cry-blisters. I called my mom as I walked home, still breathing hard.

“You probably just need new socks,” she told me, instantly calming me down with her solution. New socks, better socks. “How was the run otherwise? Did you feel alright?”

I told her the truth – it sucked – and she just laughed.

“But you did it! Trust me, I know it is hard, but if you can do 20, you’ll be just fine for the marathon.”

I went home the next weekend and Mom took me shopping for socks. I couldn’t find any that I wanted, and running socks are ridiculously expensive. But, as usual, Mom had the answer. We got home and she presented me with “new” socks. Her socks. The same pair she had worn in 2005 for her marathon, which she hadn’t worn since.

• • •

The morning of race day I was ready to go, Mom’s socks on my feet. However, I was about to find out that the only thing more grueling than training for a marathon is actually running one. At Mile 15, I was done. I was tired, dehydrated, and mentally defeated. There on the course, just past the water station, was my mom.

“You’re doing so awesome Maddie! I’m so proud of you!” She beamed as she hugged me and walked with me along the course.

“I’m sorry, but stop hugging me, I’m so hot and gross,” I told her, trying to shrug out of her embrace.

She laughed and kept rubbing my arm. “You’re almost done now. Just think of it like you and me going on a little jog. Nice and easy. Just keep going, you can do it!”

It was at that moment that I knew I could finish. “Walk with me to the mailbox?” I asked her. It was a question she had posed to me many times on our summer runs.

“Sure, let’s go!” We walked to the mailbox and then I started running. I couldn’t hold back a smile as I heard her cheering my name as I stepped forward, placing one foot in front of the other.

• • •

I think it is a cliché that your mom is with you every step of the way. But for me, my mom literally was. From my first 5K at 11 years old, to my first marathon at 23, she’s run with me, every step of the way. And while our paths to 26.2 might have been slightly different, I’ve never been more proud to follow in my mother’s footsteps.