The days after our daughter was born were a blur. I remember my boyfriend and I packing up all of our belongings strewn around our stale hospital room. I remember us, as terrified new parents, dressing her in her too-big going home outfit and trying to keep our cool as our Uber driver waited patiently for us to figure out how to buckle the car seat in correctly. And then I remember getting home and realizing that the hard part was just beginning. Exhaustion played a large part, sure, but so did the disorienting elements of our new normal. It didn’t matter whether it was day or night anymore; our birthing classes had warned us that a newborn eats and sleeps on a schedule so intermittent and frantic it’s as if they’re hazing you, the untested parent, to see if you make the cut. The birthing classes were right. I followed suit, eating, sleeping, and breastfeeding on her terms, barely able to eke out anything more. When I went back to work three months later, I had the added pleasure of juggling the needs of a tiny baby with a full-time job.
It was shortly after all of this, naturally, that I decided the best thing to do for myself was to train for a marathon. I’d been invited to run by New Balance, a sponsor of the New York City Marathon, one of the world’s most iconic races and one of the only ones I told myself I’d consider running after trudging my way through two previous ones. The promise of that bump of self confidence I’d feel afterward was alluring; there aren’t so many other goals in life that have such a tangible and measurable payoff in a relatively short period of time. I knew what to expect: Train for a set number of months, run the requisite number of miles, endure physical pain and emotional roller coasters throughout training and on race day, and boom—cross the finish line and reap the benefits of all my hard work.
As a new mom, I needed all the confidence boosts I could get. To use an apt metaphor, I’d spent the months since my daughter was born finding my footing. My transition into motherhood started out on an alarming note; after a breezily uncomplicated pregnancy, I had an emergency C-section, then contracted a life-threatening infection as a result. What I thought would be a happy 48-hour stay turned into a seemingly unending string of days spent learning how to care for a screaming newborn while being so sick and weak that I couldn’t get out of bed. I spent much of that time doubled over in pain and exhaustion, tethered to both an IV cart and a hospital-grade pumping machine trying to will the droplets of colostrum my body had managed to muster up into breast milk.
Since then I’d plunged deeper into a new reality, where certainties seem to lie only in the confusingly vague concept of “maternal instinct.” Not very confident in my own, I found myself googling almost everything I could think of—when you should worry about a fever, what it means if your baby won’t stop crying when you put her down. Overwhelmed by the unknown, I figured running—which had been part of my life since I was young—was the best way to connect to a version of my old self that knew the shape of things. The assuredness of putting foot to pavement as I’d done countless times before, of seeing the miles on my watch creep up in predictable fashion, was enticing.
Once I started actually training, though, I found that even my familiar ground had changed. Instead of being able to run (or procrastinate about going for a run) as much as I chose, I was bound by lack of time. If I was particularly slow one day, I couldn’t spend more time making sure I hit my mileage goal. I was constantly rushing from work to the gym and back home and then doing it all over again the next day. It wasn’t fun—it was, in fact, often a frantic period in my family’s life—but I needed it. Even if I was constantly doing a series of guilt-ridden calculations in my head: I’ve been this many hours away from my daughter already. Or, If I don’t pick up my pace, I’ll owe the babysitter this much money. Even if sometimes the only time I could train was in the middle of the day in the height of summer (special thanks to the Lyft driver who, worriedly eyeing me sweating and panting in the backseat of his car after a truncated long run, pulled up to a food truck alongside the road to buy me a cold water). Even if my milk supply plummeted while I figured out how to eat for both marathon and baby.
Even with these constant feelings of being selfish or not doing enough, I felt joy at being on the road. It wasn’t just the runner’s high that made me feel better, although the regular surge of endorphins certainly didn’t hurt. My body calling upon its mechanical memory while on a run—the feeling of my legs loosening up after mile two, of my lungs finding their rhythm as I breathed through a long session—was reassuring in its familiarity. Having to consciously make time to run also allowed me to step away a few hours at a time from a routine of new experiences and obligations. Realizing all of this was a simple motivator to get me out the door when I felt like skipping a workout. It was nice. I ran well on race day, much better than I had in previous marathons when my time was solely my own.
A year later, with my daughter now a toddler and me comfortably settled into motherhood (why yes, I have sung "Baby Shark" more times than I can count!), I realize that training for a marathon helped me transition, intact, through that life-altering “becoming a mom” phase. I surprised myself with how much of my personality, seemingly ensconced in habits honed over three decades, had welcomed these changes. How proud of myself I was that I could leave the house three hours early and run 18 miles to work if I needed to, even though during a previous marathon season I would’ve balked because I considered myself “not a morning person.” How much I needed the constraints of a training plan to help me shift my perspective. Knowing that my hard-coded runner habits could morph so fluidly helped give me the confidence to take on the other changes in my life. It might not be the same ever again (you won’t see me signing up for another one to find out), but during that chaotic first year, training for a marathon was exactly what I needed to feel like myself again.