Passing the Baton

I’ve been running for a longer time than I have the brain cells to remember, but I must have started around my oldest son’s age. Which would have made me a middle schooler. What I do remember in mental high-def was getting up super early before school—while it was still dark out—and cracking an egg into a glass, which I would drink before my run, its sliminess tempered by the dash of vermouth my dad suggested I add. 

Yes, this was the early eighties, and Rocky Balboa was my idol in all his raw egg chugging glory. And over the years, I can’t tell you how many times I have run up stairs or a hill imagining I was the Italian Stallion on his famous sprint up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the chords to “Gonna Fly Now” blasting through my head. Once, I even ran up those iconic steps myself, throwing my arms up in triumph when I got to the top.

But lately my runs have been harder and shorter, with me feeling more like the aging Rocky from his latest movie, Creed, and the only sound between my ears is the recurring ring of a four-letter word. STOP. 

I can’t help but wonder if I’m approaching the end of the line of finish lines.

So it was a special slap to my already weather-beaten face when my twelve-year-old, the Duke, recently called me “A Runner In Decline.” It was two days after Thanksgiving and we were set to run in my town’s Turkey Trot 5K, but a better offer came up in the form of tickets to a Rutgers football game. The Duke hemmed and hawed about what to do before choosing the race over a day with Dad. He informed my husband, “I’m gonna do the Turkey Trot with Mom. She’s a runner in decline. This might be her very last race.”

No. He. Didn’t.

My first thought was coal in his stocking and his name removed from my will. But still, kind of sweet that he wanted to be there for his frail, decrepit mother. Even though he had no intention of actually slowing down a smidge for me.

The Duke has been my sometime running partner for a little over a year now, and when he first started accompanying me, it was kind of a dream come true. See, I used to run with him in my belly (right up to my 8th month of pregnancy—you should have seen the way people stared). Then with him in a baby jog stroller. Then I would go for runs while he trailed behind on his bike. So to have my child out there on the road right next to me was nothing short of awesome. And the conversations we would have were like a MasterCard ad. You know, priceless.

Even if he was weak and whiny and struggled to go more than a mile. And just convincing him to come would often require begging, threatening and the occasional promise of Starbucks after.

Come on boy! Iwould yell to speed him along. Can’t have you getting beat by your mom!

He had just joined his middle school’s track team, and though I was happy he had chosen to participate in something athletic, he lacked Balboa’s eye of the tiger that gets you to the gold. But I had to give him props just for finishing.

As the season went on, he got fitter and stronger and our weekend runs started getting longer, but still he insisted on stopping at Mile 3. And he wasn’t setting any records on the school track either.

Faster boy! I would yell. You’ve got this! You’re built for speed like your mom!

Every meet, I wanted to sprint out there and pull him along.

Then something crazy happened over the summer. I’m not sure if it was puberty or destiny or a toxic blast of pool chemicals messing with his DNA. All of a sudden, he was the one asking me to join him on runs, pulling me along, and suddenly I was the one could barely keep up. He made the cross-country travel team, and he wasn’t just finishing races, now he was placing.

Hallelujah! The student had become the master. Duke was Skywalker to my wrinkly Yoda.

I can’t believe how fast your boy is! People started telling me. I couldn’t believe it either.

In a span of time the chronological equivalent of a sprint, my boy had become A RUNNER.

Now, whenever we hit the streets or trails, he is so far ahead all I’m staring at is his tiny tailside. Which makes it harder to have the conversations we used to. Heck, at his pace, it’s hard for me to even breathe. And when I do dig deep and try to catch up, it’s like he senses my force field approaching so he speeds up even more, turning the whole run into a torturous game of cat and mouse. Inside, I know he’s thinking the words I drilled into his head: Can’t get beat by my mom!

That's why I wasn’t surprised that he sprinted out ahead of me at the Turkey Trot, leaving me to chase his dust. I’ve done plenty of races in my running “career”, beating others and my own personal bests—I even had a medal from that very same 5K that I won a few years prior, so I had nothing to prove to myself. But I did have a little something to prove to my 12 year-old. So in spite of my ‘decline’, in spite of the hills that were burning my calves, in spite of the little voice begging me to STOP, I started sprinting too and managed to finish in under 26 minutes.

The Duke had already crossed the tape (in 21:56!) so he was there to see my dash for the finish line. He looked at the race clock then back at me, impressed with my respectable time. But a few minutes later, it was my turn to be impressed. We checked the race results and learned that the Duke had won first place in the 14 and under group. I was as proud of him as I’ve ever been of myself, maybe more.

In that moment, I again felt like the older, wiser Rocky in Creed, but the way I imagine he must have felt coaching Apollo’s boy to victory. Watching the Duke follow in my footsteps was every bit as rewarding as running to the top of those steps in Philly myself.

I may be a runner in decline, but my son is on the rise and I’m thrilled to be here to pass him the baton. 

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  1. Don't give up! I just ran my first 5k and came in 2nd. Not bad for someone approaching 60! OMG did I say that? Kill me please.

  2. Deb, you rock! I totally plan to follow in YOUR footsteps. (But I might need some replacement parts!)