At 57, My Mom Became a Runner—and I Discovered Who She Really Is

When my mother got off the sidelines, it shifted our relationship forever.

My phone rings. I look at the clock and do a little math. She can’t be at the finish line yet. It’s too early to hear from her.

“Mom, are you okay?”

“I can’t do this. I’m at mile 11 on a hill, and I’m not going to be able to finish this,” she says, panting.

“Yes you are, Mom. You’re almost there. Slow down if you have to, but you’re going to finish this race. Call me when you cross that finish line.”

My phone rings again, 2.1 miles later.

“I did it. It wasn’t pretty, but I did it,” my mom told me, on the verge of tears. “Are you proud?”

She always asks me this after she finishes a run.

“I’m so proud of you, Mom.”

***

It’s been seven years since my mom’s first half marathon, which she completed at age 57—34 years older than I was when I ran my first half. She power-walked the 13.1-miles at a race in Central Park. I ran a mile, waited for her, cheered her on, and continued, and repeated until about halfway. Then I ditched my plan.

There would be other races for me, but how many runners can say they helped their mother finish her first half marathon?

For the latter half of the race, my legs were bouncy, my energy levels high. But my mom was hurting. Her cotton apparel was clinging to her body in the April sun. The hills were merciless.

We shared no banter, just words of encouragement. My mom was pushing herself beyond her comfort zone. For years we walked 20 miles in Boston for the Walk for Hunger; I was 11 the first year we did it. But a race, that’s different. And she was learning that.

I told my mom we’d have to start running so we could finish strong. With the finish banner in sight we picked up the pace. Hand-in-hand, I felt myself dragging her. But I felt her smiling, too. We crossed the line in 3:16:42. It took us 90 minutes longer than my half marathon best, but this race was incomparable.

To date, my mother, Caryl Mayer, has completed 14 half marathons, five sprint triathlons, a handful of 5Ks and 10Ks, and the Falmouth Road Race.

“I would watch you run all these races and think, I can do that, I should be out there,” she told me.

My mom was always an avid power walker. But she wanted to test those legs on race courses. It was no secret she started to train for 13.1 miles—the sign of a true runner, right? She’d call and tell me about her morning walks, how she’d throw in surges, but still felt more comfortable power-walking. And then we signed up for the half marathon in the spring of 2012.

My mom and I could not be more different when it comes to how quickly we can cover distance on foot. My best half marathon is 1:34, hers, 2:47. My best 5K is 19:44, hers, 35:37.

It doesn’t matter, because our efforts are the same. She covers almost as many miles per week as I do—25 to 30. In January, we challenged each other to see who could log more. Every day she called to compare numbers. She won by 12. I created a monster.

This was never clearer than when I called her in 2014 from an unidentified number in Chicago. It had been a tough race for me as I attempted to qualify for the Boston Marathon. It’s a big deal for our family because we’re from Boston and my mom’s uncle ran the prestigious race until he was 74 years old.

That day, dehydration set in around mile 17. In my head I could hear my mom telling me to slow down or drop out. But I pressed on. I also knew she’d share my elation if I qualified.

When she answered the phone, she heard sirens in the background. My first piece of news? I qualified for Boston in 3:31:42. My second announcement? I was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital after collapsing at the finish.

As a runner, my mom was beside herself. And as a mother, she was equally beside herself. But what she chose to share with her friends was telling: her daughter had qualified for the Boston Marathon.

I recall when her maternal instinct was to tell me to rest when I didn’t feel well or was injured. Or to slow down when I was redlining. But now? She pushes her own limits, too.

The first time she felt that mid-race dizziness she was scared. When I found out she hadn’t eaten anything during those 13.1 miles, I gave her a crash course on race fueling. And also offered a bit of her old advice: Don’t push too hard.

The next time it happened, my mom knew what to do.

“I knew I’d be okay if I slowed down and ate something,” she told, me after the race.

In the peak of fitness, I run for time, for the tape. My mom runs for the medal—she sends me pictures saying Michael Phelps and his 28 pieces of Olympic hardware should “move over.” She runs for the ecstasy of crossing the line no matter what the clock says, because “I love making you proud, Heather.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Heather Mayer Irvine
Two princess hanging out after a Disney race.

Running has become a part of us and our relationship. It has made me see her in a way I might not otherwise have appreciated, if I didn’t know what was required of running. She has grit. And she wants to make her kids proud.

For nearly 25 years, I rarely saw my mom do anything for herself. That changed when she started running. Racing became something she did because she wanted to. As an adult and a mother myself now, I realize the importance of my parents having something they call their own—that they have an identity beyond “mom” and “dad.” And the fact that my mother and I share this interest makes our accomplishments that much more meaningful.

Sunday will be my second Mother’s Day. My son and I have already run countless miles together. I’ve pushed him in the stroller, he’s cheered me on at races, and worn his “My Mom is Fast AF” shirt. He’ll always know me as a runner and I want him to be proud of me in the same way I’m proud of my mom. As I continue to train and race, he’ll see my determination, grit, and work ethic throughout his life.

Because now I know that when a mom chooses to run, she exudes all of that and more.

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