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Born to Run

Words by Jonelle Lonergan
Photography by Ben Rayner

When my daughter was a toddler, she begged to run with me. Every Saturday, the same scene: she sees me getting ready for a workout and bursts into tears, inconsolable, until I dress her in a pair of track pants and tiny New Balance 680s and let her accompany me for a warm-up around the block. She alternately holds my hand and sprints ahead, two-and-a-half strides to my one. I tell her that when I'm running easy miles, sometimes I brush the leaves of low-hanging branches. I tell her it feels like giving high-fives to the trees. 

She gets a little older and she is fast and seemingly inexhaustible. We watch the Olympics together and she develops a deep obsession with steeplechase. We line out an oval in the backyard with cones, stud it with two low hurdles and add a shallow kiddie pool. She flies through seven laps yelling "Jump, jump-splash!" and collapses on the grass in a happy, damp heap.

She is just turning five, the pandemic is waning, and youth sports are roaring back. In our town, kids start playing soccer at age two. Her kindergarten classmates are signed up for softball, lacrosse, judo – but there is not a track team or running club to be found. When we finally hear about a casual kids racing series in the next town over, we sign her up. She is thrilled about the t-shirt and puts on her "super-fast shorts."

The first race is on a humid Sunday evening. Forty girls, all five or six years old, line up at one end of a soccer field. Someone blasts an air horn and they take off, and 100m later my daughter is jogging, then walking. She looks at me, stricken, "I don't want to run" written all over her face. I speed walk alongside her until nearly the end, where she plods across the line, shoulders sagging. I am completely bewildered. My track-obsessed girl, who sprints laps around the house at the merest suggestion she should, just gave up in the middle of her first real race. 

It wasn't just fatigue, even though 400m on badly-mown grass will kill anyone's pace. We talk about it, carefully, during dinner and it becomes clear: she doesn't want to compete. She doesn't like the nervous energy, the atmosphere of caring where you finish. The marked-out course. The air horn. The hopes and expectations I desperately try to keep to myself. She hates all of it. 

The series is six weeks long, a race every Sunday, and part of me wants to make her stick it out, to try again and see if something changes. But next Sunday rolls around and I realize the far more likely outcome: she will hate running. She will associate it with nerves and misery and never want to do it again. 

Instead, we ice skate. She zips around the rink on hockey skates, wanting only the feeling of speed. We chase each other to the blue line over and over. I let her catch me sometimes and she doesn't care either way. The next Sunday, her father introduces her to soccer in the backyard, and she wants him to boot the ball down the hill so she can run it down. 

When our kids are tiny and all potential, it's impossible not to dream about what they might be. President, astronaut, artist, mom. Since before she was born, when she kicked me from the inside with what turned out to be absurdly long legs, I had all those visions along with one more: she might be a runner. Maybe she will love this sport that I've loved for decades. Maybe she will be great at it, or maybe she will be just good enough to enjoy it, to want to keep doing it. Either way, maybe we will have this touchstone – this thing we both love that keeps us connected as we age and diverge. Maybe when we have blowout fights in her teenage years, when we feel like neither one of us understands the other, we will both know we still have something in common. Maybe when one of us lines up to race and loses or wins or anything in between, we'll never have to explain to each other how it feels. Maybe she will only ever love the feeling of being in motion. I understand that, too. 

The final race in the series has a theme: kids are encouraged to dress as their favorite movie or book character. This is enough of a carrot, and my daughter dons a tiered, purple confection studded with flowers and introduces herself to everyone as Isabela (from Encanto). She toes the line and hitches up the ankle-length ruffles. And she trots through a quarter mile on grass, occasionally stopping to walk, grim determination on her face, not thrilled about it but not giving up. She finishes, dead last again, and we shower her with praise for just getting through it. She seems relieved it's over. She has no interest in the participatory medal and gives it to her dad. 

There is a playground on the other side of the park – about 200m away – and we tell her we'll meet her there. She hitches up her dress again and takes off at a sprint, hair swinging loose, smiling, joyful. She skims along on the grass, passing the older kids closing out the last straightaway of their mile race, and she is all upright trunk and graceful back-kick. 

Mid-stride, she leaps into the air to high-five a tree.

All in the Family

For many runners, the Turkey Trot was a gateway into the sport – our first opportunity to run as fast and as far as our legs and lungs could manage. Usually, we went out too fast and had to walk, but, still, we were hooked. In celebration of these memories, we built a collection for the whole family.