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Jenn Shelton, Unleashed

My mother used to keep me on a leash. It's not that she was one of "those" parents. It's that I was one of "those" kids.

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“You were always a runner,” my mom likes to say, shaking her head in disappointment and disbelief.

For 18 years she has watched me run competitively, sometimes maniacally. Cross country, track, 5Ks, road marathons, trail marathons, ultramarathons, multi-days, big mountains, beer miles. She’s watched me both win big and lose big.

Some people consider me a professional runner. People like my sponsors and the IRS. My mom, however, won’t have any of it. In her eyes I’m going to stop this running nonsense any day now, finish my degree and be a linguist. She’s convinced I’m great with languages. This idea is unfounded, solely based on a few silly, trash-talking phrases I’ve picked up while traveling to international races—phrases like Je suis le roi du monde! I’m the king of the world! But she did create me, and can create and house whatever flattering life story she wants about her youngest child.

After all, we were bound together even after I was born. For a few years, before I was in kindergarten, my mom kept me on a leash. Grocery shopping, trips to the state fair—anytime we were out and about.

It’s not that my mom was one of those parents. She never leashed my older siblings. It’s that I was one of those kids. I was, as she likes to say, “always a runner.”

This story is my favorite of all she tells, and I beg to hear it. I have to beg. The leash era makes her uncomfortable, and she tries to gloss over it; sometimes she even tries to deny it.

“It wasn’t really a leash,” she claims.

“Bullshit, mom.”

“Well, OK. But it wasn’t like I had a collar around your neck. It wrapped around our wrists.”

“Like handcuffs?”

In my teens I stumbled across the leash one day while snooping through her closet, rifling through the boxes of sentimental junk she’d saved from raising three kids: First Communion dresses, favorite Pound Puppies, a complete set of the Berenstain Bears books.

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When I saw the leash I wasn’t immediately sure what it was. As I turned it over in my hands I was filled with a simple hatred, the kind of rage unique to early childhood, when processing emotion is as uncomplicated and immediate as a white-hot temper tantrum. Amid the strange surge of emotion, I realized that in my hands I held the despised and fabled leash. I wasn’t sure what shocked me more—my intense visceral reaction to an inanimate object or that my mom had actually held onto that damn leash for all those years.

The leash itself is nothing fancy. A tightly spiraled cord, the kind that coils back to its original state. The cord is the same cheap plastic as the key-ring bracelets we used to wear as kids. But the leash I held lacked the cheerful pizzazz of 1980s kitsch. It is an ugly shade, a Winnie-the-Pooh yellow, the processed hue of Kraft singles. At each end of the corkscrew leash is a simple wrist strap, white with blue stripes, a ghastly color scheme.

“It’s not like I didn’t feel bad,” she says. “You would kick and scream and pitch such a fit that I’d take it off. You’d swear up and down that you’d stay, but the second I’d turn my back you’d be gone. Running away.”

“Where was I going?”

“You weren’t going anywhere! You were too young to be going anywhere!”

She sighs. “You’d turn wild. An animal. That little head thrown back, pumping those chubby arms for everything you were worth. Running for your life. I thought someone was going to kidnap you. Or you’d run into a parking lot and get hit by a car. I never could understand it. There was no rhyme or reason. And you were such a sweet little girl otherwise.”

“Kids these days have it easy,” I say, laughing, trying to break the tension I sense in her defensiveness. “I saw a boy wearing a monkey backpack at the grocery store, and the monkey’s tail was—get this—a retractable leash. The dad held the monkey tail and the kid charged through the aisles, le roi du monde.”

“I feel bad for any parent whose kid is a runner,” my mom says, shaking her head. It’s easy to pinpoint the defeat in her voice, no matter what language you speak.

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