Running and Mom

running and griefI feel like I won’t be able to start writing again until I write about the Austin Marathon and my mom. It’s not necessarily to close that chapter of my life, because I’m not sure that is a chapter than can actually be closed. There will always be a “before Mom died” and an “after Mom died” in my life.

I find myself rationalizing all the reasons why I’m ok. After all, I was a 37 year-old adult when my mother died, and my mother was only 18 when hers did. I was lucky enough to have her with me to celebrate my college graduation and to pick out my wedding dress. She knew my husband and was able to meet and love both of my children. I realize many people have much worse situations and have lost their parents earlier in life, but at the end of the day I still miss my mom. So what does this have to do with running? Nothing. Everything.

I was running the Mercedes Marathon in Alabama the weekend my mom’s symptoms started. Shortly after she was diagnosed with brain cancer, I ran the Boston Marathon. It was everything Boston was supposed to be, but I couldn’t help but think about how my mom had been there with me just one year before. Mom wasn’t a runner, and I’m certain she never fully understood my obsession with the sport, or the lengths I went through to make my runs happen. She did understand that Boston was a big deal and she knew what it meant to me and she made sure to be there during my marathons, just like she was for all of my high school cross country meets.

While her treatment continued, I snuck away one weekend to South Dakota to run the Leading Ladies Marathon. While I was there, I bought us matching blinged-out hats even though it wasn’t quite her style. I figured she could wear it to cover the hair loss from her treatment. She wore that hat almost everyday. Mine hangs on a hook waiting for the day that I’ll be able to wear it again.

Last November came and she was struggling, but they said the tumor hadn’t grown. My husband and I squeezed in our quick trip to Charlotte to knock out North Carolina. Three weeks later I crossed Delaware off my list with the Rehoboth Beach Marathon.

I know a lot of people probably think, “that’s a lot of traveling and a lot of running while your mom was so sick.” Yes, yes it was. I was prepared to cancel each and every one of those trips for my mom. Each was a choice that I didn’t make lightly. I went on those trips to try and keep some sense of normalcy and to keep myself anchored.

Around the holidays my mom began to decline. She almost missed Thanksgiving and she was in the hospital on Christmas day. As we rang in the New Year, I had no idea she would soon be in hospice. When that eventually happened, I could no longer keep up my running. I squeezed in a run here or there to clear my head, but the desire to train or race was gone. I spent as much time as I could sitting by Mom’s side.

But me being me, always strategizing how I could get closer to my 50 state goal, I was already signed-up to run my Texas marathon in mid-February. Like all the marathons in the months before this, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get there.

Mom passed away on February 7th and we buried her on the 10th. After much deliberation and overanalyzing I decided to still go to Austin to race on February 19th, just nine days after Mom’s funeral, and I went simply to keep moving forward. I ran twice between Mom’s passing and that race, but none of that mattered. I was going to finish and I was dedicating that race to her.

Race morning came and it was 69° with 98% humidity. The storms in the weather forecast moved later in the day by the time the race started. The starting corrals were chaotic, leaving me starting much further back than I would have liked, forcing me to start out slow.

None of it mattered. I wasn’t expecting a great finish time. I was tired, exhausted from the past year and the grief and stress was finally on top of me.

Within the first mile I spotted a girl with a sign on her back honoring a loved one that died the previous day. I started to cry. Choked up, I couldn’t breath. My survival instinct kicked in and I pushed my feelings back down deep inside. I couldn’t go there emotionally if I was going to get through this race. Near mile five we passed a huge quilt store. My mom was an avid quilter, creating beautiful works of art that friends and family treasured.

austin marathonAs we ran on I passed a woman who was describing how the disease she was running to raise money for actually kills a person. She could have been describing the last hours of Mom’s life. I started to choke up again. I wanted this race to heal me, to think about Mom, reflect on the past year, and run for her. If I made this an emotional journey, I would never finish.

I continued to run whatever pace, chucking time out the window. I walked through the water stop at every mile so that I could dump two cups of water on my head and drink two more. Because of my strategy I was faring better than a lot of people in those late miles when the temperature reached into the low 80s. I thought of Mom and I thought of how tough the past year had been on her. I used that as inspiration to keep moving forward.

This race wasn’t the healing journey I had hoped for, but it was a lifeline that kept me tethered to running. Running has always been and will always be a major part of my life. Had I not run this race, I’m not sure when I would have had the motivation or desire to lace up my shoes again.

Has running ever helped you through grief?

I'm a running mom of two little girls, who is busy balancing life, work and marathon training. It's always training season for me because I'm on a quest to run a marathon in every state, while constantly striving to be the best runner I can be. Running has led me to some great adventures and I always have a good story to share!

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  1. Oh, Dill. I know these feelings. My Papaw, who was more like my father, passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2014 shortly after my first marathon. I’m sure I’ve commented about him before, and I’ve definitely written about him here. The story about the hat you bought her just tore at my heart. I’m so sorry. Sending you prayers for peace and healing. <3 You are a tough woman.

  2. What a beautiful meditation on your post-Mom’s death journey with running. I’ve never experienced a loss quite like yours, but as I’ve mentioned before running is my therapy….amazing you were able to stick it out through a marathon. I’m sure your mom’s proud.

  3. This is a beautiful post, Dill, and I’m crying right now. I ran a race a few days after my brother died. It was strange to race, and beautiful, and I had the same experience passing a stranger who suddenly reminded me of my brother and suddenly I couldn’t breathe.

  4. Beautiful post. My dad was such an avid supporter of my running and racing. When he passed away, I lost all desire to race. Maybe one day I’ll get it back, but I agree that there will always be a before and after chapter. Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt post.

  5. Thank you for sharing this. My mom died very unexpectedly in January, and much of your feelings and experiences mirror my own. I have hardly run since her death, but still plan on completing a very difficult race in about 3 weeks. I have no doubt the tears will flow, but its nice not to feel alone.

  6. Really wonderful tribute to your biggest fan, and an important discussion on self-care for caretakers and those involved in this kind of long-term, emotionally-crushing times. Thanks for opening up and sharing your very real and personal experience.

  7. I love this. You are such an inspiration, and your mom is too! She fought so, so hard. I think of my dad every time I run a marathon, no matter what the pace or goal is. He is my motivation to finish, because I know he would want me to. I hope that every marathon from here on out, you think of your mom, and your feelings of the “before” and “after” mom will slowly dissipate. You will just remember your mom for the awesome lady she was! I’m so glad to be your friend, I hope you know I’m always here for you.

  8. I am so very sorry for your loss.

    My younger brother Stephen was a runner. He also suffered from bi-polar disorder. The running was the only thing that got him going. In 2012 he was diagnosed at age 38 with Hodgkin’s, a very treatable cancer with 95% freedom from progression after 5 years. We didn’t think twice and I never thought to get second opinion on cancer or treatment as he worked at a MD office. Tumor was removed. Chemo started and we (his family) all thought, easy. He had 12 treatments to get through which I now I realize was overkill. The chemo was hard and he gutted it out, not wanting to complain because he just “wanted to finish”. And that’s what runners do. He skipped a PFT (pulmonary function test) and kept getting chemo. Finally, after the 9th treatment, he struggling with bad cough, barely able to get out of bed, and had his PFT. It has fallen from 95 (pre-chemo) to 56. The diagnosis of pulmonary fibrosis from bleomycin toxicity (one of the chemo drugs) was minimized because, hey, he’s a 38 year old runner in good health.

    Well, it went downhill fast and hard in a matter of days. He was in ICU for 3 days, out for 3 days, but his lung function was awful. He went back in the ICU and tried to heal. Until, he went unconscious on 9/7 no MD thought the situation was severe. But when he did, they gave up quickly (in hours) and some amazing nurses got him airlifted to U-M ICU that same day. Unfortunately, it was ultimately too late. We had to terminate support 9/14 after the miracle never came. So many lessons it would take a book to share them all. Worst weeks of my life.

    I had just started racing the year he died. My first half qualified me for NYC so I had entered. I had been training for the race and just had to stop. Fate intervened that year with Sandy but I could not have run anyway. My grief (and anger) were too strong.

    I’ve come to peace with it (most days) and there are times I run when I just know Stephen would have loved these days. I think of him more in training than racing. Certain skies. Certain temps.

    I ran the DTW international marathon in 2014 for him. I’ve run Boston 3x and many more races since his death. I think about him often but more to motivate me and remind me that I’m lucky to be able to run because many can’t.

  9. What a heartfelt story. The last paragraph is so honest and real. I hope you continue to find ways to process your grief and that running will bring you happiness.