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