The Loneliness of the Competitive Running Mom

Disney's 1939 version
Sometimes being different can make you feel lonely, even in a crowd.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are moments when I’m acutely reminded why it’s so unusual for nursing mothers of three small children to attempt to become elite amateur athletes. Is it just me, or is the time of life when we are parents of small children a time when we actually have every excuse in the book for throwing our hands up and surrendering the fight? To quit the hobbies that make us ourselves. To quit worrying about our physical health. Definitely to quit worrying about how we look…just let go and slide that goldfish-and-peanut-butter-fed body toward the super-charged magnet of elastic-waisted mom-jeans with child-rearing abandon.

No! I will not wave the white flag of surrender! There are certain things I insist on doing or refuse to do in defiance of the mom-jean magnetic force! While I admit it would be way more practical, I refuse to drive a minivan. I listen to NPR in my non-minivan; my children are are more familiar with Diane Rehm than Raffi.

My biggest act of rebellion: I won’t give up my running dreams. But being ironic comes at a price.

In running circles or mother circles, I often feel like a fish out of water.  In the first group I feel old and stressed out. My friends with no kids don’t want to wake up at 5:30 to cram in a run before a busy weekend; weekends are their time to sleep in and relax, like mine were before kids.  They head out to brunch after morning runs or dinner after evening runs. Meanwhile, I book it home to stop the sitter’s meter from ticking or relieve my husband before he blows a gasket or to feed the baby before my you-know-whats explode.

With other moms I am the sweaty one, my sweat-wicking spandex sticking out among the chinos. Instead of using preschool as a time to shop or get my hair done I run as much as I can with as few kids as I can; that’s my “me-time.” While they talk about their contractors and choices of counter tops I’m thinking about how many miles I still have left on that one pair of shoes and when-oh-when am I going to get that tempo done.

Sure, I’m oversimplifying a lot. I love my carefree younger running friends and I know they love me even as I dash off after our runs. And I love my non-running mom friends and I know they love me despite my perceived addiction. I realize much of my outcast feelings are solely in my head. And I do know that in both groups I have more in common than I don’t. Heck, I love post-run brunch and I could totally get into counter-tops (once I’m not worried about them getting destroyed by crayons). I know this, but it’s rare that the worlds collide and I find that friend, that one other woman who is as intense about both running and mothering as I am.

Often I am reminded why it’s so unusual for mothers of small children to attempt to be elite amateur athletes. Although the body-aches (from schlepping small people around all day) and sleep deprivation are no joke, the real reason attempting to train at a high level when you have small children is so difficult is the loneliness. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones who has a bad ass running mom or dad living in your neighborhood or have a running buddy who doesn’t mind running when most people are sleeping, you’re probably running alone much of the time like me. And when you do make a date, you have to bolt as soon as your watch beeps that you logged sufficient mileage. Babysitters aren’t cheap.

The one that put up with my waddle and then up and moved to freakin' Alaska!
The one that put up with my waddle and then up and moved to freakin’ Alaska!

It gets me down sometimes, it really does. But when I do meet another competitive running mother there’s instant connection!  It’s like we’re long lost sisters. Unfortunately for me, I tend to lose my best running mom friends to other states thousands of miles away (Alaska? Really?!).  It’s happened to me so many times now I think it might be me. If they don’t move across the country (or continent) they live fifty miles away on the opposite end of greater Cleveland, so training together is simply impractical.

I was spoiled for the last three weeks when I met the holy grail of running friends: just the right speed; just the right competitiveness; just the right willingness to meet me crazy early on the weekends and one hell of a mom. But it was just a summer fling, as she returned home to another state after visiting her parents here. But man, those were a great three weeks!

And now I’m on my own again. Even though it’s an often lonely road…it’s worth it.

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. I read this while riding the bike at the gym (3 weeks to REV3 – eek!) in between fervent checking of work messages while stewing about how crappy a mom I am for forgetting juice boxes in the boys’ lunch boxes today. Amen to everything you said.

    1. 1. You will crush it!

      2. You are one of my mom mentors! You are the opposite of crappy!

      3. Thanks. It helps knowing I’m not out there busting my butt alone even when it feels that way 🙂

  2. I totally agree with this post. I am not an elite athlete by any means, but depending on the group I am in I feel differently. In my mom workout group I feel like a fish out of water because I am the only runner and like being pushed throughout the workout. The mom’s think I am crazy everytime I tell them how many miles I ran for my long run or that I just ran 6 miles and am working out with them already. I love my running lifestyle and am proud of it!!

    1. I know! So many people “hate” working out and look at us passionate runners as nut jobs (which we very well might be! Ha!) But I really think a lot of people think the ONLY point of working out is to be thin, so when they see us running a relative lot we look like we have a problem 🙂

  3. Finally someone who understands! I started running 1 year before getting pregnant with my first child. I decided to stay home after her birth, and after my 2nd daughter’s birth, even though I missed my work desperately. I was in exactly the same spot – sandwiched between running pals with no kids and lots of free time, and mom friends who made me feel bad or weird about running. I finally found a perfect running friend – mom of two, full time job and perfect pace, willing to get up at 5am on cold Colorado mornings. Two years of awesomeness came to an end when she had to go run another more important race, against breast cancer. She’s on the mend and I miss her terribly.

    1. We are very similar! I got serious about running the year before I had my son and then it’s been stop and start since then. I also left my career to stay home, somewhat unwillingly (I felt like it was all or nothing with the job and I just couldn’t do all with that little face at home!) How awesome to find that friend and how sad. I am glad she’s on the mend and I hope she’s healthy and back up and running for a loooooooong time to come!

  4. All I have to say Salty is you keep chasing your dreams. Now, more than ever (in light of a recent event that happened in my life) I have come to realize no matter how big the goal is, it is important to not give up and keep fighting for it. I support you 100%. Will it be hard? Of course. Will your goals be surrounded by challenges and some heartache? Yes, but this is what makes you, YOU. And I love the you that you are. This post hits home for me. I still face challenges of balancing it all without tons of mommy guilt and a resentful husband. However, running and training….this is a passion of mine that makes me who I am. Without it I would be lost, and I certainly would not be a good mommy or a good wife. I look forward to your training posts to see how awesome you are doing. Keep pushing toward your goals with that burning desire that I know you have in you. And remember lady…I am certainly not elite, but I am only a car ride away from you and I miss you, so a run with you would make my day:).

  5. First of all, like everyone else has said, I totally feel you on this post. I wish we lived closer! I would love to run with you again (and more often)!

    With baby #2 ready to make any appearance anytime in the next 8 weeks or so, and in the process of moving to a new city, I’m definitely having the worries about running at the elite level, making new running friends, etc. Most of the time I am super optimistic because things have always worked out, but I have my fair share of doubts too.

    Little things keep me going (even shallow things) like yesterday when some college dudes stopped me to ask for directions around the Pitt campus then said I was “bada$$” because I was pushing Currie on a hilly course in the jogging stroller with this big pregnant belly. They both gave me high-5s. I know it sounds silly but ridiculous things like that remind me that I’m still awesome for doing what I do every day!

    I actually enjoy feeling a little out of place in mom situations because it has helped me find new friends in this last 5 years of moving all over. I wear my running clothes almost everywhere and like when people think I’m crazy for running insane (to most people) miles, running while pregnant, just running in general! I think it makes me unique. My running habits make me more interesting and memorable and I feel have helped me more than hurt my mom status. I think I’ve been lucky in that way!

    Anyway, thanks for the post, Salty. Easy to relate as always!

    1. I would love to have you as my local elite! You’re one of those people who inspire me to keep pushing. I’m sure you’ll find some awesome new runner friends. So glad you’re still logging the miles with the big bump!

      I TOTALLY feel you on the running badge thing! While I do sometimes feel like I don’t fit in, I also relish it in a way. I love being a runner and I wear the badge with such pride. I really don’t care if any one makes fun of my sweatiness or any of it. I embrace it, 100% and I love what I’ve been able to accomplish despite all the hurdles in my way. In actuality, most of my mom friends dabble in running so I’m their go-to expert 🙂 I love it!

  6. Yep, that’s me alright.
    I just had my third child almost two weeks ago. Now I’m thinking and trying really hard to figurate out my schedule for runs. I rely on daytime, night groups and the one hour I get to put some miles in; let me just put it this way my best PR have been during that one hour just because that’s all I’ve between dropping the kids off to school and heading to work. I’m a lonely runner, I don’t know any running moms and my group it’s full of fast tall running man, that have been able to teach me to push harder and also because I don’t want be the last one arriving just because I’m the only short mom.
    Thanks for the article! Don’t feel as lonely anymore.

    1. Congrats, Kenia!!! Things have a way of working out. My 3rd just happened to be the only of my children who loved sleeping in the swing next to the treadmill and it just so happened my older two are still good nappers, so I logged all my weekday miles on my tm during afternoon naps. I never would have thought that could possibly work out, but it did for 5 months! If you need ideas on how to fit it in let me know 🙂

  7. Perhaps you could check out the “tribe” (community) – @TheMotherRunner – started by @SBSontherun and @dimityontherun – may be focused more on age groupers, but I’m sure there are more competitive moms out there, like @mileposts – AMR has a web site, podcasts, even forums by location to try to connect with other runners.

    (I’m not a mother, but still enjoy most of their info & community feeling)

    Good luck!

  8. Good vent! I am a new mommy and have felt this way too.
    I am known for saying “I am an athlete first and everything else is just extra.” Do I need to change this to “I am a mommy first”? I don’t like being pulled in 2 different directions with equal intensity. I recently retired from another sport and I am re-inventing myself as an athlete and I will keep training. But I want to be a great mommy too!
    Last night, I sat on the edge of my couch staring at my baby in her basinet not wanting to leave because I did not want to be alone on my run. My husband kept saying, “Go run.” I run at night because I feel like the tin man in the morning from years of playing various sports. I have a 26.2 and a 27K trail run scheduled in October. I belong to 3 running groups (Cinci trail-runners, Mojo Tri-club, and Mojo running) and I have only run in a group twice since the baby arrived. I am training for an iron man (2015) and I need to get “used to” running marathons. Finding the time to run is easier than finding a running partner.
    Hugs from Cincinnati,
    – The Midnight Runner
    PS-When I saw on the news that Cincinnati was making a bid to host the 2016 Olympic marathon trials, the first thing that popped into my head was maybe I will get to see Salty compete in this.

    1. The guilt is most intense at first, but it gets better when you realize how essential it is, especially when athletics is such a part of you. The 2015 IM goal is ambitious, but doable. Good luck!

  9. You are such an inspiration to other ‘lonely’ competitive running moms! As one of your running friends, I’ve witnessed – on a few occasions – what you ‘venting’ about. I’m in awe of how you manage to handle 3 (adorable) kids under 4 yrs., and take care of everything else that needs to be done on a daily basis! You are a wonderful mom, wife, and super athlete!

  10. Thanks Barb! I am so lucky to have your support and friendship in my life. I couldn’t do this without it!!!

    It’s funny: I often think about the story you told me of running around your horseshoe driveway with the baby monitor on the front steps after you had your #3. The treadmill is down right heavenly compared to that! 🙂

  11. New Hilliard runner here. Mom of a 3.5 year old and I started running right after he was born to maintain my sanity and health and came to LOVE it. I used to live in the country and my parents were close enough to drop off and just go tune out on a quiet bike path or dirt road. Now I’m now a suburbanite, with concrete sidewalks (not so nice on my body) and traffic (should I pause my gps at stoplights?!) It’s a completely different environment, and although it contains more people, it’s surprisingly more lonely. The problem with mom runners is that we are a community; however, we are a community that just can’t come together quite as easily as we want to. Salty is right on when she says the mommy-running balance is hard, but it’s soo worth it whatever your goals are. We are just as much runners as we are moms. East-side runners, I welcome you for an evening or saturday morning run sometime 🙂

    1. Yep! I have tons and tons of running mom friends, but to be able to match up the pace, distance, time and place is virtually impossible! Also, it’s not so much that I’m bemoaning the fact that I am lonely, I’m just noting that it IS lonely to train when you’re a mom, at least for many of us. It is what it is. It’s not necessarily a problem, it’s just something we have to deal with. And one of those ways to deal with it is to come together any time and anywhere we can – like here! – to offer support and advice. So thanks for sharing your story and I hope you find running bud, even if it’s just temporarily like mine have been 🙂

  12. i love this post, you should move to eastern PA. Like you, I have refused to give up on my running dreams explaining that i have some “unfinished business” with a few distances (5k, steeplechase, 10k). But i love my kids, and it’s a struggle to find the time…but i wouldn’t want them to think, or me to think, that i gave up on my dreams bc of them. Good luck with everything.

  13. Ha! I have totally felt this way, too. Like the oddball in the mommy’s group, like you said >> a fish out of water.

    Most moms I know think running full and half marathons is borderline insanity, so I try to filter my conversations to more group-friendly things like baking (because most runners love to eat!), babies, and books when I’m around them. Thank God for running moms who blog! You all keep me sane and motivated to keep being that running mom oddball.

    Awesome post – it’s great to know that I’m not alone!
    Amy @

  14. I can totally relate! I’m 19 weeks pregnant with # 3. I started running when I was 12 and became in love with the sport. 20 years later, I still feel the same way! Trying to create the healthy balance between family, work, and running. Before I found out I was pregnant again I was just getting back into racing. I was so happy to be running 5k’s in the 19:30’s. Now, I wonder if I’ll get back to that after the baby in May. I also wish I had someone to train with, I’m running so early in the morning usually, and it seems like it’s always so difficult to meet up with a friend to run with. We always have conflicting schedules. I’m running at least 30-40 miles a week. Quite a few days out of the week I have to take my two little girls in the BOB stroller. But, I’m just happy to be able to continue to run right now. Thanks for all of your posts!!!