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A (Must-Read) Tale of the Tufts 10K, Two Generations of Mother Runners, and The Photo

 

the-photo-1987

by Sarah Luehrman Axelrod

Long before I became a runner, I had the perfect reason to run: a photo that I love more than any other photo. In my mind, it’s The Photo. I’m 15 months old and pinned to my jacket is a race number, which belongs to my sweaty and grinning mom. It’s her 37th birthday: October 12, 1987, and she’s crouching behind me with her arms around me, glowing with the satisfaction that 6.2 swift miles can bring.

I don’t remember The Photo being taken, but I can well imagine the story surrounding it: My mom running the Tufts Health Plan 10K for Women in Boston, my dad cheering for her along Commonwealth Ave, near the finish, holding me up so I could see Mommy run.

Ann Roy Luehrman, my mom, started running in the mid-1970s, and almost certainly ran the Tufts 10K in its first year, 1977, when it was called the Bonne Bell Mini-Marathon. The race became an annual tradition for her. Not only did she love the atmosphere of a women’s race, but the race was always run on Columbus Day, which falls on or around her birthday. She loved celebrating each new year of life by crossing a finish line.

Athletes: Sarah (in pink) and her mom.
Athletes,1987: Sarah (in pink) and her mom.

She missed the race in 1986, since she had given birth to me three months prior, but she was back at it in 1987 (the year of The Photo) and almost every year after that, except 1989, when baby #2 was a month away from making his appearance. 1992, however, was her last Tufts. In August of 1993, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Although she lived for seven more years, during which she went through periods of being in reasonable physical shape, she did not run any more races. She died in May of 2000.

I was seven when she stopped running, so I don’t remember her days as a runner very well.  She worked full time and she would usually run at the end of her workday before coming home to us. She didn’t run with a stroller, and now I completely understand why: uneven sidewalks and potholes galore, not to mention alone time.

Mom started running in her late 20s while dating a runner, one who encouraged her to run to lose weight. I don’t know how well-meaning and/or subtle this comment was, but I am certain it registered with her as body shame.

Nevertheless, she rapidly made running something that she owned. While she was dating my dad, she was also preparing to run the 1982 Boston Marathon, her first. Outside of business school, her training was her life. She fretted about snowstorms in February and March interfering with her training, but even with snow, ice and slush on the ground, she preferred the Charles River path to the treadmill.

She trained with a running group, and she was very serious about getting every single run in, no matter what. She bought her Reeboks at Marathon Sports in Cambridge, a running institution.

mom-after-boston-1982
The Boston Marathon finish line, where she is hugging her best friend Chris. She is wearing what looks like a cotton shirt. (Ouch!)

She finished the marathon in about 4 hours, happy and proud, and Dad took her home, made her dinner, and put her in a warm bath, which he continually filled up with warm water. She may have started running in response to feelings of inadequacy about her body, but I can only imagine that at the end of 26.2 miles, soaking in that bath, she felt like a badass.

Over the years, I stared at The Photo for hours, but I had a hard time believing that when it came to athletics, we had the same genes. The idea of running a mile, let alone a 10K or 26.2 miles, was frankly ridiculous to me. My mom had hiked the Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon on crutches, just a few weeks after an emergency hip replacement. She had come back from many cancer-related crises that everyone thought would be the end for her. I remember one occasion when she regained consciousness for the first time in days; she immediately asked if I had practiced my piano that day.

This was my truth: She had had strength that normal people didn’t have. I was just an out-of-shape teenager who scrupulously avoided the subject of my weight. I told myself there was an unbridgeable disconnect between her strength and my lack thereof. When I accepted that situation, I didn’t have to take responsibility for how unhealthy I had become.

A year into college, in a story that is likely familiar to many, my narrative changed. I decided to admit that I wasn’t actually happy with the state of things. I weighed more than I ever had. I took a deep breath and told my dad and stepmom that I was joining Weight Watchers. They immediately joined with me and we counted points together. Turns out, a daily muffin on your way to work is half your points for the day.  It was humbling, but my family made it no big deal.

In an effort to start banking some Activity Points, I started meeting my best friend at the town reservoir every morning at 5:00 AM to run (THAT is a best friend). One minute on, one minute off, two minutes on, two minutes off, and so on until it was time to go home and take a shower. By the end of that summer, I could run five miles without stopping.

My sweaty run/walk intervals slowly wore down my mental wall between my badass mom and me. Maybe I was not in a different category. Maybe I was more like Mom than I thought. I rode the wave of that realization through my first 5K, a Komen Race for the Cure in South Boston. In the last mile, when I knew the finish line was close, I gritted my teeth and thought about her. This is for you, I told her.

florence-marathon-2006
In Tuscany, there are no bananas at the finish line. Just prosciutto.

That first 5K was followed by a 10K with my dad, a half-marathon and finally a marathon in Florence, Italy, which I trained for and ran during my semester abroad.

Despite my running successes, when I closed my eyes though and thought about running, The Photo kept coming back to me, reminding me that there was more. I moved back to Boston for graduate school and as soon as it was humanly possible, I registered for the October 2009 Tufts 10K.  Upon registration, I received a confirmation email inviting me to share my why-I’m-running story. Without giving it a second thought, I hit reply, and I put it all out there. I even attached The Photo.

About a month before the race, I received an e-mail, saying I had won the Special Story contest. I was invited to a special pre-race dinner at the Park Plaza Hotel the night before the race, where I would read my story. Of course I accepted, and Tristan, my fiancé, and I took the train downtown, unsure of what to expect.

As it turned out, the Tufts 10K is now the USA Women’s 10K Championship. Read: we were seated with a field of elite runners who were hoping to win the race the next day.

I nervously attempted to make conversation. “So, have you ever run this thing before?” I asked Molly Huddle, the defending Tufts 10K champion. Molly was too gracious to set me straight, but one of our other tablemates chimed in: “Actually, she’s won this thing before.” Molly would go on to win Tufts the following day, too, and eventually set an American record for the 10K at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

As we ate pasta with Molly and her tiny, fast-looking and friendly ilk, we listened to the race director tell the elite women where to go for their drug test before the race start and where the tight turns on the course were; when you’re trying to win, I guess you need to know that stuff.  When lemon sorbet was served for dessert and Molly and her friends sighed, disappointed that it wasn’t cake. I knew I liked them.

Next up was to speak none other than Joan Benoit Samuelson, the Olympic-gold-medal-winning runner from Maine. Naturally, my story had to follow Joan’s speech, and I was visibly shaking as I stood at the podium and told everyone in that room about my mom, and about the excitement tinged with sadness of running my first Tufts without her on what would have been her 59th birthday. When I finished speaking, my heart was full and I was on the verge of tears. Mom had brought me here, to this room with these people. It was too much.

Joan, Sarah, and Joan's friend Jane.
Joan, Sarah, and soon-to-be-wedding-host Jane.

 

Moments later, I was shaking hands with Joan, my heart pounding as she thanked me for my story. Moments after that, she was introducing Tristan and me to her friend, Jane, who happened to live in Tenants Harbor, Maine, the town where my parents spent their summers and where we had decided we’d be getting married the following year.

When Jane asked if we had a venue in mind, we confessed that we didn’t. She replied that she had actually hosted two weddings on her property, and that we’d be welcome have ours there. Such a nice offer, we said to ourselves as we walked home in disbelief, but you never know if people really mean it when they offer something so generous to complete strangers.

The race itself could have been a total letdown after that magical night, but I remember it as one of my best races ever. It was a perfect day, sunny and in the 50s, and Boston Common was a sea of women cruising the Luna Bar samples, waiting in line for porta-potties, and talking excitedly. I got choked up as I crossed the starting line and ran down Charles Street towards the Longfellow Bridge. Dipping into the first underpass, the whole crowd whooped, and the sound echoed through my whole body, already buzzing from the high of just being there.

I ran hard that day, and I finished in 55:06, which is still my 10K PR. More exciting than seeing that time on the clock, however, was seeing Joan again at the finish line. She had finished in 36:29 that day, just four and a half minutes behind Molly Huddle. Then, she stood there for the rest of the event, shaking hands with every single finisher. Somewhere inside myself, I found the guts to say, “Hi Joan!  It’s Sarah!” as I approached her, and she hugged me, and said “Wow, Sarah, congratulations! You ran a really great time!”

wedding-photo-with-ocean-2010
Sarah's running mom directly landed Sarah and Tristan in this lovely wedding spot. Nice choice.

A little less than a year later, Tristan and I were married in Tenants Harbor, in the field on the water’s edge behind Jane’s house. It was a bright August day, not too hot, wildflowers everywhere. When my dad made his toast, he encouraged the guests to ask me for the story of how we’d found such a perfect place. Jane’s field and the Tufts 10K are now part of our family story.

My Mom and I never got to run together—I should qualify that together: in person together—but that doesn’t mean I don’t carry her with me on every mile. This year, as I ran my fifth Tufts 10K, and my first as a mother runner. I check in with my mom just before every single finish line I cross, just to make sure I don’t wimp out on that last sprint, when my stomach is rebelling and my mind is close to giving way.

Monday was no different; I sought her out in my mind as I gutted out the last mile, my fastest mile since having my daughter Rosalind 13 months ago.

Like Mom in 1987, the race was a celebration of both my body’s recovery from childbirth and a new, toddler-sized reason to run. I scanned the crowd anxiously for Tristan and Ros as I raced that final mile along Commonwealth Avenue. When I saw their faces and high-fived them at the 6-mile mark, I was ready for my last .2. I finished in 1:00:14, with my strongest, fastest kick ever.

After I finished, I walked right past the line for bananas, looking for my patiently waiting family. Ros grinned at me despite having skipped her nap, and I scooped her up and knelt down on the ground with my race number in front of her jacket.

This day only needed one more thing: The Photo, Version 2.0.

the-photo-2016
The Photo 2.0: Nearly three decades, one blankie, and one generation later.

It will live next to Version 1.0, in a place where I can see it every day.

67 responses to “A (Must-Read) Tale of the Tufts 10K, Two Generations of Mother Runners, and The Photo

  1. Well told, Sarah. A must read story for every mother runner! How I love the part about Jane and Joan! Molly too. So representative of the support from other women who “get it”. That’s why I love our Mother Runner community so very much! I would like so very much to be around to see The Photo 3.0 one day! Meanwhile, I hope you keep writing and sharing, and enjoying many happy miles!

  2. What a beautiful story! You made me cry, Sarah, but they were good tears. That is a special connection to have to your mom. My mother has never been a runner, but as I plan for her 80th birthday next March, I will think of the things she has done and the links we have forged. I will also think of your story and try not to take for granted the time I have been gifted with my mom.

  3. Sarah, your story brought tears to my eyes, it was so beautiful and incredible. Thank you so much for sharing. We all run for different reasons and many of us have someone that we run with even if they are not physically present. Your story was an excellent reminder of why we all run, thank you for having the courage to share and tell it!

  4. This story brought me to tears, and that doesn’t happen very often. What a beautiful story. Sarah, I think your mom would be so proud of all that you’ve done! And The Photo 2.0 is just perfect. 🙂

  5. This is such a beautiful compelling tribute to another mother Runner. It is a beautiful way to keep her with you, daughter.

  6. Just beautiful. I lost my dad at 16…he wasn’t a runner but he was dedicated to daily exercise, and I’d like to think he’d be proud of my running, if a little surprised!

  7. What a beautiful story. The Photo is such a lovely photo and one that you can cherish forever. Side note, I made a tee shirt quilt for my sister from her old race shirts, and it is possible your mother and my sister were in the same races back in the late 70’s. There were Bonne Bell, Tufts and others that I remember from making the guilt about 10 years ago. I need to look at it again when I visit her later this month.

  8. In the story I am your mum, but obviously I hope for a different ending. A runner for 20 yrs, diagnosed with breast cancer 2 yrs ago when my kids were just 2 and 5. It’s fantastic that your mum inspired you to run, my kids often watch me race and take part in fun runs. Although running didn’t stop me getting cancer, it helped me through a very difficult time in my life, and I hope that through me, my children and others can see the joy of exercise and the benefits that come with it. Keep on running!

  9. What a beautiful story! Thank you so much for sharing it.
    The more people in the running community that I meet, the more I love to hear the stories of what started a love of running, what and who inspired that love, and what connects them. I picked up the thread of my dad’s love for running, also begun in the mid-70s, early boom days, when I myself was a lazy teen. And I feel that same sense of connection to him now, when I am gutting out the last part of a race, that You (Sarah) describe in your story. We are blessed–we really are.

  10. I am both tear soaked and beaming for you being able to hold onto such a special connection with your mother. You are a special lady.

  11. I can’t edit comments but I wanted to share my version of The Photo — crossing my first finish line with my daughter (then 4). When I start thinking that maybe running is too much, whether I should go out today or at all, I remember this photo and I remember who’s watching. “Mama running” is part of my girls’ lives, and your post showed me that running could be a huge part of all of our lives a few decades down the road. Thanks for the inspiration to keep running.

    https://www.instagram.com/p/BLeN8AehFUy/

  12. This is the most beautiful story I have ever read about women and running. I wish I could leave it at that, but I am compelled to say that I am crying and blowing snot bubbles. Big, badass, mother-runner snot bubbles. And loving it!

  13. Sarah, thank you for sharing the story of a shared love for running. You did so beautifully and I’m now a blubbering mess at my desk.

  14. This needs a tear warning! Trying not to let my office mates catch my crying.

    What a wonderful story – congratulations, Sarah.

  15. Well, I feel better that I wasn’t the only one crying on the train into work this morning! I am 5 months pregnant with my 3rd child and my husband and I took our 2 girls (ages 5 and 6) into Boston on Monday. Our timing worked out that we were able to catch the end of the race and it was amazing to see- I’ve always wanted to run that one and I vowed to do it next year. I’ve had my girls cheering on my for a few half-marathons and I told them when they get bigger, we need to do the Tufts 10k together. Congrats on your awesome finish, your beautiful baby girl, and your amazing spirit. What a great read!

  16. Sarah, you are definitely a BAMR, just as your Mom once was. Thank you for sharing your story. Your Mom and the rest of your family are so very proud of you!

  17. I teared up, reading this wonderful story. Actually, it feels like a book full of wonderful stories all contained in one post. What a wonderful way to share love with your mom, even though you can no longer do so in person. Thank you for sharing your journey so far with us.

  18. Of course you ran your fastest mile at this race Sarah! You are incredible. Thanks for writing this and for being such a badass mom.

  19. Such a Beautiful and inspiring story. I’m sure many of us mother runners can related to the idea of wanting to be an inspiration to our own daughters, as your mom was to you – and as you are to your own daughter. Thank you for sharing.

  20. Sarah, I am crying at a very early morning hour reading through this! I love the way that you told your story, and I have NO DOUBT that your mom is watching over you and just beaming with pride and love. What an incredible story in so many ways. You are an inspiration to many and definitely stronger than you think. xoxo

  21. Throughly weeping as I write this…. what a beautiful story. I speak for all us mother runners when I say thank you sooooo much for sharing this. Your mom is no doubt beaming with pride. The best to you and your family.

  22. Oh the Feels!! Hold on, let me dry my eyes… AWE!! Thank you for marking this ‘Must Read’ in the email. LOVE this story. I hope I am the one that sparks the love of running in my daughter.

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