By Robyn M. Perrin - Co-founder, Focal Flame Photography
In retrospect, training for a 5K might have been a good idea.
Training myself, that is. My daughter, on the other hand, had this one down cold. She had not only been preparing for the past 10 weeks, but is a 3-time alumna of the Girls on the Run program. She started participating as a 3rd grader and enjoyed it so much that she enrolled each spring and fall session afterwards.
And so it was that we were both standing on the starting line, a year after we had done our first 5K together in Waunakee, WI.
Oh what a difference 12 months makes for a child now turned preadolescent.
Last year, I coaxed her along with her friends. When one of the compadressuffered a side cramp, everyone stopped and walked, holding hands until all was well. We walked for over three-quarters of the run. So I wasn’t terribly concerned about keeping up for this fall’s 5K, even though work, life, and willpower had intervened such that I had zero miles under my belt by the week of the race.
In the meantime, my little one was no longer little. And she had discovered that running fulfilled a joy that she could articulate most clearly with her feet, her heart, and her lungs.
This is not to say that Girls on the Run is a competitive running program. It’s not. The secret is that it’s not really a running program at all. Through the thoughtfully developed curriculum, girls in 3rd through 5th grade discuss topics such as positive decision-making, community-building, and how to take a stand against bullying. They have discussions about how to recognize negative, disempowering messages in advertising and media. They vote on a nonprofit to support (my daughter’s team held a bake sale that raised over $200 for the Dane County Humane Society). They navigate some difficult, messy discussions about the negative effects of gossiping and how to be effective at asserting themselves.
And twice a week, they run a little longer and a little harder at each practice.
Last fall my daughter had no interest whatsoever in setting a goal time. I asked if she thought she had any idea how long we should plan for the 5K. She wrinkled her nose, saying, “What does it matter, Mom? We’ll get to the finish eventually.”
And we did, letting each moment unfold in due time.
This year, however, she didn’t discard the thought of a goal. After doing the team’s practice 5K in 36 minutes, she decided that 35 minutes was within reach. “I’ll be sprinting the whole thing, Mom,” she declared. Then she giggled and darted away.
Three days before the run, I figured I better do something. I had started using a FitBit over the summer and had a good idea about how many steps I averaged per day, but let’s face it: they were all walking. I went to a nearby roundabout in a quiet neighborhood, did a few laps around the 1/16 mile circle, and the trudging was uneventful. A steady jog should do it, right? Right.
The big morning arrived. Over a thousand girls, coaches, families, and community members lined up at the start, and we were released in the first wave with the blast of the horn from the Waunakee firefighters’ truck.
My husband Clint, co-founder of Focal Flame Photography, was perched above all of us in the firefighting rig’s platform. “Wave to Daddy!,” I told our daughter. I knew that the course was lined with Focal Flame photographers ready to lend their keen concentration and sense of timing to capture the day for each racer. I knew this because I had talked with each and every one of them, helping to convey assignments and paperwork and all the logistics that go into preparing an event crew.
But right now, I was just a mom running with her daughter.
Within a few paces, I realized that we were keeping up a pretty good clip. “Ah, great,” I thought, “the excitement of the 5K is kicking in.”
Then I glanced at my daughter’s coach, who checked her watch and assessed the pace. “Wow,” she murmured between strides. “They’re heading out WAY faster than they did at practice.”
Within a quarter mile, the trajectory was unmistakable: there was no holding back this year. I fixed my glazed eyes on my offspring from a few paces back, watching her keep stride with metronome-like precision, staying true to form.
At one point the inevitable side cramps set in for nearly all members of the team. There was no walking this year. I overheard my daughter’s response: “Coach told me I should run through them.”
And run she did.
The back of the Waunakee course includes a long incline up completely open terrain hugged by agricultural fields. The wind whipped up so strongly it felt like a cold hand pushing me backwards as I struggled to crest the hill. We turned a corner and I attempted to maintain some semblance of nonchalant dignity, nodding in response to the casual conversation of team coaches and fellow moms.
The truth was, I was dying. I mean, the only thought that kept going through my mind with every footstep was, “Good grief make it stop, I should have trained for this, I know this is nothing compared to enduring 36 hours of labor but how am I supposed to maintain a shred of dignity when my heart may well explode before the end of 3.1 miles?”
There are certain things one attempts to do when trying to be suave while running. You sport a causal half-grin that you hope desperately doesn’t transition into a full grimace. You attempt to respond to conversation through earnest head motions, hoping that no one realizes you are sucking wind so badly that you couldn’t utter a response even if you wanted to. You try to ignore the thought that you’re only going to be able to descend stairs for the next three days by taking a double dose of ibuprofen, stepping gingerly, and inhaling from the gut.
We reached the aid station and I thought, “Oh, good, she’ll stop to take water.” Nope. She slammed the contents of the Dixie cup, deposited it in the trash, and took off again.
The realization sunk in: I’m toast. There was no way I was going to be able to keep up with her. A momentary wave of guilt washed over me – will she be OK running alone? - but then I spotted one of the team coaches, Laura, keeping pace alongside my daughter with the steady stride of a practiced runner. (And practiced Laura is: a two-time Boston Marathon qualifier.)
Steady. Step by step. Never wavering. I saw my daughter take off her hat - having warmed to the task - and press on. She pulled away into the distance, and I realized that today offered so much more than a Saturday 5K.
This was a glimpse into the future.
Every parent has a moment when they first begin to realize that their child has in some way begun to come into their own. In reality, there are endless instances of such realizations: the first time they begin to read independently. The first time they walk to a friend’s house in the neighborhood. When they pause in conversation to say something so insightful you are left speechless. These moments arrive like snowflakes, slowly at first and each one perfect in its individuality, until one day you turn around and realize a blizzard's-worth of evidence of your child's spirit and self-identity has accumulated.
Today, I realized that my daughter was outrunning me with great joy and tremendous grace. This was her homage to an autumn day, choosing a wild neon hat to stand in contrast to dreary skies. Choosing an even tempo of footsteps to counter the blacktop-clad ascents.
If I thought it was hard to breathe myself up the hill before, that was nothing compared to trying to run with tear-tinges of gratitude and a lump in my throat. “If she can do it, so can I,” I thought.
We did not cross the finish line together this year. But she was waiting for me in the finishing chute, jumping up and down and squealing with glee. “Mom, I did it! Twenty-nine minutes!!”
Strong women: May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.
Focal Flame Photography has been honored to serve the Dane County Girls on the Run 5K since 2011. Participants in the Fall 2013 5K may download complimentary FocalShare™ photos from the event.