Mothers Day by Mark Stone

May 2013. Dear Mother,
There's something I want you to understand about me and running. I know that the idea of me running marathon distances makes you anxious, and I want that to change. I want it to make you proud: not proud of me and what I've accomplished, but proud of yourself and what you've accomplished.

Friday evening Karen and I were watching Nathan swinging in the back yard, and remarking on how much his gross motor ability has improved, and how much more confident he is as a result. In particular, he's gotten really good at getting the swing up high and then jumping off. Karen said, "It's good to see him so bold... as long as he stays within my comfort zone."

That's really one of the great paradoxes of parenting, and motherhood in particular, isn't it? You want your children to approach life boldly and yet somehow stay within your comfort zone when it comes to their safety and well being.

Obviously I grew up in a very intellectual setting. That's to be expected when you now see that our family is two parents and two children all with at least a master's degree and a lifelong engagement with learning. But what I appreciate so much about my upbringing was how I was encouraged to develop a life of the body, not just a life of the mind, and to see these two as in harmony.

I don't want to diminish Daddy's contribution in this regard. I think of all the time he spent with me playing tennis, basketball, throwing a frisbee, and just playing catch. And I think of how he showed me the mental side of sports, whether it was watching the Cardinals play baseball or watching John Newcombe on the tennis court. But to some extent that's what's expected in father - son relationships. So I appreciate what he gave me, but I also expected it.

What's more remarkable is the role that you played. You are the one who pushed me to get involved with Boy's Club, and to sign up for their basketball team. You are the one who carpooled me to all of those games, including neighborhoods in D.C. that nice suburban white boys aren't supposed to go to (not that I knew that at the time; you and Daddy raised me to be blind to those distinctions). And while I know that you and Daddy both watched my games at the end of University of Maryland basketball camp, my most vivid memory is of you, just beaming with pride, at the defensive job I put on my matchup in the finals of the 3 on 3 tournament. I've never told you straight out how much your pride in me meant, but I want to say that now.

And you had your own sports heroes that inspired me, and from whom I learned through you. I learned to play hard, but play fair, and always to play smart. The Billie Jean King - Bobbie Riggs match was a formative experience for me, not so much from watching her as from watching you watching her. Your pride and your sense of mission in that moment told me that the only barriers to what is possible are the barriers we impose on ourselves.

Not long after that I began to leave behind the sports with which you were familiar, and to move beyond your comfort zone. In retrospect, when I realize how little about rock climbing you knew, and thus how little you knew about how safe rock climbing could be, I'm astonished you let me pursue that endeavor. But you did, and never once criticized or openly fretted over my choice. That must have been hard.

Of course you might also consider how much your own enthusiasm for the story of Tenzing Norgay and the climbing of Everest inspired my interest in things like rock climbing and back packing. As I think back, though, I realize that many stories that you loved were stories of people discovering through their confrontation with Nature a way to break free from the limits society had defined for them. Think of Katherine Hepburn's character in one of your favorite movies, The African Queen. Or your admiration for Isak Dinesen and one of your favorite books, Out of Africa. Of course for you it was important that many of these heroes were women, and the societal limits they were transcending were gender-based. For me they were simply people striving to discover and become themselves. But I am acutely aware that I owe that insight to you, and to the passion for these stories that you shared with me.

Now, decades and two back surgeries later, at age 53, here I am running. And not just running, but pushing marathon distances.

But here's the thing. Friday night before bed I was doing my preparation for my long Saturday run. My training plan called for a 20 mile run, and since my next race is at elevation I do those training runs up in Mount Rainier National Park. It involves running 10 miles up a 4% grade, which any runner will tell you is a monstrous amount of elevation gain for a single run. I have to carry enough water, and some sort of carbohydrate and electrolyte supplement. I need to think about the variable weather conditions, since I start at about 1500 feet elevation but will reach my turnaround point near the snow pack. I need to be self-aware and disciplined enough to know what pace I can manage that will build my body up rather than tear it down, and leave me enough recoverable stamina for the remainder of the week's workouts. There is an enormous amount of thought and planning that goes into this, and it is all part of larger and more complex thought process about how to run a marathon, a distance that the human body is not naturally able to sustain, but that no other animal on the planet handles so ably. It isn't just a physical test, it is a test of will and a test of intellect.

And as I'm going through my ritual of preparations, in the background I can hear a TV interview with Jimmy Conners, now 60 years old with a just published autobiography. And I hear him talking about his training routine when he was on the pro tour, and his mental preparation before a match. And of course he talks about his US Open victory, in 5 sets, at age 39, over a young and in his prime Aaron Krickstein. I remember that match, and was riveted watching it on TV. Suddenly I'm struck by a sense of common spirit. I'm no Jimmy Conners; of course I know that. But the meditative preparation, the ritualistic fussing with gear, the thought and preparation before a daunting task. These are things all runners have in common, and indeed all athletes have in common.

And that's when I realize. I will probably never win a race. I will set no records of note. No sports story will ever mention my name. But I am not the old man with the broken back and the half dead right foot. I am an athlete. And you made it possible for me to be that way. Because you, more than any other single person in my life, taught me to live without barriers and without limitations.

So I want to thank you for that. And I want you to be proud. I want you to be proud of your achievement in laying this foundation in me. Please remember that deep inside I am still just your little boy trying to figure out how to be a man.

Happy Mothers Day,
Your son Mark

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