You’ve Run a Long Way, Baby

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Every time we drove by Pat, my mother said something negative. Sometimes it was a simple, “Humph!” with a shake of her head, but usually her remarks made me study Pat closely, as if on a safari spying a native.

“Look at her skin,” she’d say. Or, “Look at her legs.”

Pat’s slightly wrinkled skin looked deeply tanned, and her bare legs looked muscly. She reminded me of my hero Jaime Sommers from “The Bionic Woman.”

My mother, then 44—three years younger than I am now—would be driving our brown Datsun. She teased the front of her ash-blond hair into a bouffant and wore a pink Izod Lacoste and pink lipstick. A Benson & Hedges rested on the steering wheel between her fingers, filling the car with smoke.

Pat, younger than Mom by nearly a decade, ran all around the East end of the Ojai Valley in California, every day, and we’d spot her when Mom drove me up the road to feed my horse.

Pat always gave me a wave and a smile, and always looked the same: legs striding in Dolfin shorts, arms swinging from a cotton shirt, armpits and face dripping sweat. She permed her hair like Barbra Streisand and clutched a navy-blue bandana in one fist to wipe her brow.

“No wonder her kids show up with their hair not combed,” said Mom, who worked part time in the school library. (She said this in spite of sending me to fourth-grade Picture Day with day-old frizzy braids and a large mustard stain on the bib of my OshKosh overalls.)

One morning Mom sneered, “Look at her tits.” So I looked, and I saw golf-ball-sized breasts moving with her rhythmic steps. Having heard Dad remark on other women’s “nice tits,” I guessed that Pat’s were not nice.

Pat was my only connection to the running boom, circa 1978. In elementary school, I performed poorly in the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, and, in junior high, I hated running the required two laps in PE.

When I was in ninth grade, Mom gave me the 1982 bestseller Thin Thighs in 30 Days—a gift that made me aware of my thigh size as never before—and I took to heart the book’s advice that running isn’t necessary and could be harmful. The book extolled, “Work-Off, Walk-Off, Weight-Off.”

Only later could I begin to understand how a strong, earthy “women’s libber” (as Dad referred to women like Pat) must have threatened my mother’s narrow and submissive housewife role, and perhaps sparked envy, even at a subconscious level.

And only later in my mid-20s, when I discovered running almost by chance and evolved into a present-day ultrarunning version of Pat, did I realize how much I wanted to be the polar opposite of the role model that my own mother had been to me.

So I did all I could to raise a sporty, confident girl. I enrolled her in recreation programs and prodded her to do kids’ fun runs during my weekend races. In myriad ways, I sought to empower her.

She turned 18 this spring, and with love and pride I can say I raised a young woman who is healthy, kind, gutsy and motivated.

But if you ask my daughter about running, she’ll say, “I’m not a runner.”

To her eyes, my running probably seemed too intense or monotonous. Or too much her mother’s thing.

I’m OK with her choice not to run, because she found adventure and athletics in circus arts, flipping around a hoop suspended high, and on horseback, racing around barrels. Best of all, she identifies as a hiker and has developed a love of the trail.

Hiking down a ridge in Pinnacles National Park last summer, she unexpectedly broke into a run in front of me. “I’m just gonna run the downhills,” she shouted, as if warning me not to push her.

“Sounds good!” I shouted back, picking up my pace to follow her lead, but at a distance.

I want her to run off and find herself, just like I did.

Sarah Lavender Smith is a contributing editor at Trail Runner. This article originally appeared in our July 2016 issue.

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