Running, the Perfect Place for the Perfectionist to Hide from Her Messy Life

My family during my running peak: how perfectly imperfect!

I seem to be incapable of heeding conventional wisdom. Instead, for some reason, I must figure every single thing out for myself and experience my very own Oprah-riffic aha moment for the most common of common sense things. Having three children in four years (almost to the day) is really hard. Maybe other people know what they’re in for, but I did not. I wanted a family and in theory having them close together seemed perfect! And they are perfect and it is all perfect, but in perfect, I mean the important things are perfect, but in the wake of our family making is one huge mess.

Now don’t for a second think I’m whining. I’m just coming to terms with my situation in hopes of accepting the imperfection of it all, that imperfection being the mess I spoke of in the last sentence. What I did not know and what conventional wisdom seems to say is that everything other than child-rearing will be half-assed when raising many small children at once. And by many, I might mean any, but I’m not sure because I only know what it’s like to raise three. I couldn’t tell you much about what life was like with just one or two because it’s all a blur at this point. With my youngest approaching three, I can now stop, catch a breath and admire the big heaping mess of imperfection I’m standing on.

But I wouldn’t be able to see any of it if I was running well right now.

With small children, it’s about survival: keep them safe, healthy and feeling loved and then just keep everything else one notch above disaster. Reading this post in which I declare my desire to qualify for the olympic trails makes me chuckle. How cute was I?! Just trying to train at a high level, spending any time caring about running performance seems so ridiculous to me and it now seems so clear that it was a way to pretend everything else (other than the kids) was a big fat mess. If I’m running well then surely I’m fine! I can run towards perfection, achieve some arbitrary running greatness and then I’ll be excused for my messy house, neglected career and everything else.

It got really ugly when I began running from my running imperfections. When I physically struggled with running after having my third child, I dug in harder, my resolution stronger to get faster. Surely if I just try harder, I will get back in shape and then even faster! I told this to myself over and over and over. I told this to myself even when faced with obvious symptoms of overtraining. Just dig deeper!

In a way, I am grateful that my body rebelled and refused to allow me to hide behind running anymore. If I was able to train at my previous level, I’d be faster, skinnier and could pretend I was a better person because of it. But of course that would be a sad and ridiculous lie. I’d also feel enormous pressure to keep it all up for fear of facing all the underlying mess in my life and I’d have to direct some of my energy, time, and money that is allocated to my children and husband to my quest. That hardly seems healthy or fair.

YES! Moms should allocate energy, time, and money to self care and pursuit of their dreams! YES! And here’s the point of my story: because of my struggles with running, because my body refused to cooperate with my brain’s plan to hide behind impressive race times, I thought more deeply about my dreams. Are my dreams in life really to run fast times? Could I die happy knowing I sacrificed much of my life and a portion of my family’s for that? Even an OTQ?

No. My answer is no. That alone will not fulfill me. What I am actually chasing is to matter, to belong, and to leave my mark on this world.

If running success came easy to me these past three years (and by easy, I mean followed the standard formula of hard work + consistency over time), where would I be? After years of directing time, energy and money at running I might have finally logged some really impressive times. And maybe to a hand full of people I’d matter a little more and they’d adopt me into their elite circles and my Athlinks profile would forever demonstrate my awesomeness. But where would I really be? Would I be satisfied? And wouldn’t that be kinda sad?

For so long I feared failing at this running thing. I ran out of fear, to escape the pain of life’s messiness: to fail at running then would be to completely fail. Nice set up I had there! No wonder it didn’t work out so well. But in this running fast thing not working out, in having to slowly come to grips with “failing” at running, I am finding my self. I can matter, belong, and leave my mark in this world through running or in other ways even if I never run any kind of fast again. I can stand from where I am right now, look back and see a little legacy forming: all the friendships I’ve made through running; the team of competitive running women I helped found; and of course Salty Running. And that’s just in running.

I’m sure this was obvious to some people who know me and I’m also sure there are many people out their genuinely pursuing running dreams. I’m certainly not saying there is anything inherently wrong with that! What I am saying is that, for me, right now, the fulfillment of my dreams requires a different course.

What’s drives you to pursue big running goals? Do you think you hide behind running?


Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. My family situation (ie having a bunch of kids at a formative time in my career) derailed the life trajectory I was on. Like you, I grabbed onto some modest running successes at a time when other things in my personal and professional life did not seem successful or under my control. But running is fickle – it depends on talent, hard work, but also timing and some luck. I’ve learned that from weathering a lot of ups and downs with running. I love it, and it is hugely important to me, but I view it now with a different perspective as I’ve also become more comfortable with imperfections and the messiness of the other parts of my life. I still aspire to big running goals, for sure. Would I love to achieve times like those of the nationally competitive women my age – of course I would! But if I don’t (and most likely I won’t), I’ll still achieve personal satisfaction from being out there, trying hard, and achieving goals I set that are specific and achievable for me.

  2. Laura, this is brave and beautiful, not because some goals might be put on hold or changed but because you’re pulling deep from yourself and recognizing what is important today. What might be important tomorrow or ten years down the road could be different. Running is only one piece of who we are. Know that it stays with us through the dry years, the injured years, the too-many-other-things-that-are-important years. We bring to running only what it can give to us. To me, running is integral to who I believe I am or might be…but if I had to chose, family would always be first (and it has been and always will). Thank you.

  3. The honesty (and a little pain) really shine through here. Lots of runners and moms (I am one) will share their perspectives with you. Here’s a slightly different one: I am the eldest of three, born in a span of 4 years and 7 months. The benefits of being closely spaced in age to your siblings are pretty huge. We went to school more or less together, and then college and grad school around the same time. Now, as adults, we’re moving through milestones and stages of our lives at about the same time. My kids have cousins who are almost exactly their age. We all like each other’s spouses. It’s good. You’re good.

  4. Probably would have never thought we’d write what we do now when this site first started. Isn’t that fascinating and neat to see? Thank you for your honesty and sharing.

  5. Very well written! I’m afraid my running is just to keep from getting fat. I love eating, and I am 5′ tall so a little extra weight REALLY shows on me. plus my body type/figure is just all sorts of curvy in the WRONG places. so running helps me to not be 200 lbs.

  6. You’re right – replace “running” with “movies” and it’s all true for me too. It’s so sucky when we make the stakes so high for ourselves on pieces of our life that are…well, not arbitrary, but also not critical. Does it mean that those things aren’t worth pursuit though? I don’t know.

    This was great-I bet a lot of women feel this way when they choose other things as being more important than running (or career aspirations, or whatever). And it’s so wonderful to see that you’re recognizing legacies you’ve created beyond the kids! Sometimes it seems like they’re little hurricanes that blow through and knock down the other parts of yourself (in the best way?), and I worry that you might feel like the rest of you is falling apart. From the outside I can see that you’re holding up just fine, and it’s really good to know that you see it too!

  7. Yes! I don’t have kids but can totally relate to hiding behind running to deal with a messy life. Race times are tangible…the rest of life, not so much! I know it is a form of escapism that we all need. On the other hand it is hard to be passionate without going overboard and putting too much stock into running fast times. Thanks for this very honest article. It expresses what many of us are going through.