Marathon Mom

"First woman! It's the first woman!"

A horde of spectators, up at dawn to cheer for Eugene Marathon runners, hung over the bike-bridge railing and pointed down at me. Me, with my sloppy ponytails, my ancient Asics, my nine-minute-mile pace.

Up ahead, the two front-runners pounded up the steps to the bridge and vanished across it in a flash of tiny shorts and stunning calf muscles. A cameraman hung over the railing. "First woman!" He aimed his lens at me. I turned and fled.

I hadn't meant to infiltrate the marathon, but the course along the Willamette River path ran right in front of a townhouse I'd rented temporarily with my family. That Sunday morning, I just wanted to jog a leisurely six miles. "Is it okay to run on the path?"

The raincoated volunteer stationed at the purple 17-mile flag shrugged at me. "If you stay to the far right."

I did, carefully sidestepping the messages of encouragement looped in pink and blue chalk across the pavement. Way to go, Shannon! Almost there, Dave! Near the bridge, I stopped and bent to rescue a snail attempting to cross the path. Nevertheless, onlookers amped from cheering the front-running men caught sight of my ponytails and went wild.

Once upon a time, I ran marathons. I qualified for Boston up in Portland, jacked up on Gu packets and live music on every corner. I ran the McKenzie River ultramarathon, bounding over cantaloupe-sized chunks of lava, so euphoric over Oregon's beauty that I barely felt the yellow jackets plunging their stingers into my ankles.

Then I became a mother, and my mileage dwindled from 50 a week to 15 . . . if that. Other mom friends kept running, logging three-hour workouts with their baby joggers. "You should do a half-marathon with us," they told me. "Want to train for Big Sur?"

"No time."

I pleaded overwork. Two teaching jobs and a writing career left me few hours to spend with my daughter as it was. How could I waste three hours on a Saturday morning running, even if my kid might prefer pancakes and cartoons to our weekly hike? How could I leave my husband for an hour of speed work on a Monday night, even if he longed to read the paper undisturbed with a glass of Merlot? I couldn't fathom leaving my family to commit to a training schedule, even for an event that took place, literally, in my own front yard.

Marathoning in Eugene once took a long hiatus as well. Nike had sponsored one in the 1970s and '80s, but there had not been an official Eugene marathon for many years until the current race debuted in 2007. Initially, naysayers doubted many people would come from out of town to compete on the mostly flat, fast course, even though legendary runners Steve Prefontaine, Alberto Salazar, and Mary Decker Slaney once trained on these paths. But now, hotels book up months in advance. Friends and family and runners with no desire to beat their knees into pulp line the route to cheer.

Perhaps another, wittier runner would have embraced the kudos coming at her from the bike bridge now—after all, there's no shame in a six-mile jog—but I turned tail like an imposter.

My shoes, soaked from the flight across wet grass, led me toward the Delta Ponds at the north end of town. An elderly couple stood by the entrance, photographing stalks of white and purple lupines. The man looked at me with a bemused expression. "Sweetheart?" He pointed toward the river path where we could just see an undulating line of runners in bright shorts and jerseys. "The race is over there."

I stumbled over a stump. "I'm not in good enough shape."

His smile felt like benediction. "You're doing great."

I was, I decided, as I ran along the gravel path around the ponds. New goslings paddled with their parents past logs dotted with congregations of western pond turtles. Lupines and poppies and bright yellow mustard waved in a gentle breeze that rustled the maple leaves overhead. An osprey shrieked, fish in talons, sailing toward its nest of waiting babies. Not racing, I had time to notice these things. Idyllic, yes?

But at mile five, I felt the familiar, welcome ache of tired calf muscles and recalled long runs with friends, followed by coffee and cinnamon rolls at a local breakfast joint. I remembered exhausting hill workouts, the thrill of mile repeats on the high school track. I missed being a marathoner, devoting hours each week to seeing the world on foot, to demanding strength and speed from my body, to joining the race.

Suddenly, I wanted my daughter to see me out there honoring my passion, tending to body and soul, so that she'd learn to do the same.

I picked up my pace and ran home, blew past my husband and child on the couch, and hurried out to the balcony to stretch. Across the grass, the mid-pack athletes made their way along the river path—my people, the nine-minute milers. Some of them toted a few extra pounds. Some held their sides, obviously cramp-stricken. Some walked. No matter—the majority would cross the finish line, wrapped in silver space blankets and clutching their post-race bananas with weary, giddy smiles.

I'll never be "First Woman." I'm too slow for that. But next year, I'll be somewhere behind her, enjoying the run.

—By Melissa Hart 

Melissa Hart is the author of the memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009). She teaches in the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communication.