How Pushing Myself on a Cold Dark Running Trail Every Morning Makes Me a Better Parent

Through her morning runs, one mom sheds other people's expectations and puts her own needs and mental health first.

Woman running through the forest
Photo: Getty Images | SkyNesher

It's 6 a.m. and the rain is hitting the metal roof outside my window. I'm cozy in bed, thinking about how the sun won't be up for at least another hour on this dark winter morning. The ding of a text comes through.

"See you on the trail!" my friend says, and even the text sounds too chipper for my foggy brain.

"Can't," I respond, before shutting the phone off, bailing on her as I snuggle deeper under my covers and sleep for another two hours.

I am consumed by bone deep exhaustion from endless pandemic parenting, from the isolation, from the constant fear and decision-making we are still living with as the world opens up, wanting so desperately for our kids to go back to their normal life, but still so worried for their mental and physical health. Every single decision I make feels weighted. I worry that I am failing my child by not being present enough, that I'm too overwhelmed with work and bills and keeping up with the house.

When my friend suggests running, it's just one more thing to add to my to-do list, and I'm convinced that there is no space in my life for self-care. But I also know I am so emotionally depleted that I need to do something.

When I wake, I text her. "Okay, tomorrow." She agrees to push our meet up time to 7:30.

The next morning, I drink three sips of coffee and then stand in my closet wondering what one wears on a wet muddy trail at dawn when it's 28 degrees out.

As I head out, I throw on a hat and find my kid's worn-out stretchy glow-in-the-dark gloves with skeleton bones on the fingers. My friend is jumping up and down, warming up, as I pull into the parking lot next to the wooded trailhead in our small town. She's five years younger than me and already has a runner's body. I met her 12 years ago when I chatted her up on the playground and claimed her as my friend. We were both momming hard, deep in the throes of toddlerhood, career shifts, and navigating our young marriages. We've been through so much together, but this is the first time she has successfully convinced me to hit the trail.

Within minutes, pain is shooting down the side of my leg into my left knee. My hands are numb from the cold and the air burns my lungs. I am slightly afraid of bears. I'm slowing her down and I keep apologizing.

"No apologies on the trail," she says. "You're here. You're doing it."

She's chatting, but I can't breathe and talk and run, so after struggling to speak I finally I fess up. "Just do the talking. I'm trying to survive right now." She tells me about a family situation that's heavy on her mind. I can hear my feet slosh in the mud.

We reach the beaver pond. Mist floats over the water and there are old dams collapsing in the middle of the viscous green murky algae. It is surreal, silent, and I half expect the Lady of the Lake to rise up and tell me what a good job I've done. Maybe she will reward me with Excalibur for my efforts. We stop running when we reach a random bench. I have no choice. I'm about to keel over, but with hands on my knees, taking deep asthmatic inhalations, I look up, suddenly aware of the soft rustle of the last dried brown leaves on the trees.

We turn back, and it is only slightly less painful because my body is warmer. Except now I have to pee. My bladder does not like to be joggled, but I am determined to sweat it out.

"Is that the end?" I ask, pointing to a curve in the distance.

"Not even close." She laughs.

Another mile—or 10, who knows—and I finally see a light. It is a break in the dark morning forest and now, with our destination in sight, we speed up. When we reach the parking lot, she tells me I just did my first 5K. I should be proud.

"I never want to do that again," I say, collapsing against my car, searching for my bottle of water.

"Text me when you're ready for another run," she says, driving away.

I stand in the parking lot a moment longer. There is no one around and the quiet is so peaceful I want to put it in my water bottle to drink up later in the day. My body tingles. It feels alive in a way that it hasn't felt in a long while. It is shedding something, but I haven't tapped into what that something is just yet. Maybe it's the idea that I feel obligated to be all the things to all the people in my life, or maybe it's that I've put so much pressure on myself to succeed in everything I do that I've become wrapped in a blanket of anxiety and now I need to cast it off. I imagine leaving an actual blanket with the word "anxiety" emblazoned on it in the mud.

A few mornings later, my friend texts at 6:20. "Let's go!" she says, and I both love her and really don't even want to know her.

It's 7:15 a.m. and we are already running. I've got thermals on this time and we are moving at a good clip. And then we get real. Somehow it's easier to form words today. I am so hungry for human contact with other women. It's more than just the pandemic that's made it harder to connect with people, although that is a huge part of it. It's work, and life, and technology that allows us to talk without hearing each other's voices.

We are two moms living in rural America, where it is pitch black at 5:00 p.m. and if we are lucky the sun shines bright for a few hours midday, but mostly we are too busy with work and other minutiae to notice. One of us admits that we are running to ward off the inevitable winter depression that we know all too well is setting in. We no longer have even the small pleasure of standing around a fire pit with a glass of beer or a tumbler of whiskey because it's just too cold. There is no place to go except the trail.

"See you at 7," I text her two days later. I don't know if it is the running or the talking or the sound of the icy squish beneath my feet, but I know now that I need to be on that trail. I tell her I'm nervous about an interview I have scheduled to discuss my new book, Knocked Down: A High-Risk Memoir, about marriage, motherhood, and the risks we take. Together we come up with talking points, but the conversation morphs into the realization that all of life is, metaphorically speaking, a running trail. It has hills and valleys and unexpected curves, and things jump out at you—sometimes it's a bear and other times it's just a squirrel. Our journey is meant to be full of grief, and disappointment, and death, and so much boredom. It's mired with health care crises, financial worries, and loneliness. But also there is love and joy that is so profound it makes you weep.

After a few more runs I begin to understand what it is I've been shedding. It's not physical weight, that's not even my goal. It's something heavier, intangible, but just as real. I'm shedding expectations, other people's, but also my own—my fear of failing as a mother, a writer, a wife—and now finally for the first time in my life, I am running toward something instead of away from it.

I see a light at the end of the trail, and while it may only be the entrance to the parking lot, it represents so much more—a new chapter, one in which I'm confronting my mortality, claiming what's mine, and finally going after what I have always wanted. To everyone else, it may look like I'm still running in the same direction, but I have changed course. Now that I have this knowledge, there is no stopping me.

I text her Sunday night. "We on?"

"Always," she says.

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