Personal Best: What I Learned by Running a 10K with my 11-Year-Old Son

As of this morning, my quadriceps no longer scream “STOP, WOMAN!” when I walk down stairs. Normally, that would be welcome news.

But I have mixed feelings about this development, because it means that the Fourth of July’s 10K race is receding into the dark realm of memories less vivid than “a couple days before yesterday.” And I don’t want the lessons I learned in that race to recede with them.

Yes, those burning muscles were a joyful ache that said I’m still young enough to lace up my sneakers and run 6-plus miles on a whim, just for the hell of it.  But, “it wasn’t just for the hell of it,” my husband reminded me, his own muscles blaring similar complaints. “It was because Emmett wanted to.”

Right. The aching muscles reminded me of what I learned about my 11-year-old son, and what my son taught me about myself.

A few weeks ago, our kiddo decided that this July 4th he wanted to run the annual 10K race in our neighborhood. There was no talking him out of it, or talking him down to the 5K. (I tried.) Our parental instinct was that he had to be chaperoned. He had never done this race before, he was not an experienced runner, and it’s challenging even for a 10K, winding through hilly neighborhoods, up and down steep switchbacks. What if he fell, or got lost, or needed help? He’s only 11. We wanted to believe he needed us by his side.

We were dead wrong.

If it’s not already clear, let me spell it out: I am not a runner. Neither is my husband. Even so, for the past few years I’ve done our neighborhood’s Fourth of July 5K race, because it is a fun, spirited, communal event. That distance has always felt like challenge enough. This year I kvetched for two weeks before the race: “Emmett’s making me do the 10K.” Fact is, he never asked either of us to join him. And either of us could have deferred to the other parent to be the chaperone. But neither of us wanted to miss this. We sensed it would be special, and and we wanted to see how it would unfold.

The morning of the race, we three stood at the section reserved for “9-10 minute mile” runners.  Emmett thought we should move to a faster section. Christopher thought we should move to a slower group. They were both right. (In case you’re wondering our older son’s self-knowledge meant he stayed home happily playing video games, and preparing water balloons for when we passed our house.)

We started the race together. At first, Emmett and I got a bit ahead of Christopher. Emmett kept looking back to see if his dad was okay. Ah, sweet irony.

We hit the one-mile mark together, and that was the last I saw of him. I couldn’t keep up. He conquered those winding roads and steep switchbacks on his own, and finished five minutes ahead of me (Christopher finished a minute ahead of me). Not only did our boy run solo, he fell and got a bloody knee soon after mile one, and continued to run five more miles.

I never did feel the “runner’s high” I’ve heard so much about, but it felt great to finish. After, Emmett told me his race mantra was, “Let it end. Let it end.” Which tells me something incredible: it wasn’t easy, and he did it anyway. (Oh, how to apply this stick-to-it-iveness to challenges he doesn’t hand pick!?)

I also learned that I’m dispensable. He reached the finish line all on his own. (My goal became keeping up with him enough to see him cross.) More than that, he inspired and motivated me to choose a harder personal goal than I ever would have chosen on my own. (Oh, how can I apply this to reach for higher, harder challenges?) And so I rue the healing of my overburdened muscles, and I hope to make this “muscle memory” stay with me for a long time to come.

Pre-race jitters, for one of us.
Deciding to enjoy it.

(Thanks to friend and travel journalist extraordinaire Tracy Gallagher for the photos. You can also find Tracy on FB and Twitter.)


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