“Don’t need no hateration, holleration / In this dancerie / Let’s get it percolatin’, while you’re waiting…”
The Mary J. Blige lyrics came out slightly muffled from the speaker of the early generation iPhone. My mom held the phone between the two of us—both of us donning cheap plastic tiaras from the Claire’s in a Florida mall. We were 10 miles into the Disney Princess Half Marathon.
We’d run straight through Cinderella’s castle and watched as other runners stopped to snap photos with Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and Donald Duck. With fatigue setting in, we were bringing out the big guns—the Queen of hip hop soul.
Neither of us had trained very well for this race. It wasn’t a “thing” then, something to be added to your resume. In 2008, running a half-marathon was a superhuman feat. Telling people what we were doing inspired: “You’re going to run THIRTEEN MILES?!” At the time I remember thinking: “I hope so…”
But there we were, 3.1 miles from the finish line of my first half marathon, my first race, ever. I had the Mary J. Blige music in me and I could feel my pace quickening. My mom was falling behind inch by inch. “Leave me! Save yourself,” she said, and I could tell she wasn’t joking. I powered up the final Florida “hill” and ran the fastest three miles of the race last. Mom didn’t come in too far behind and we embraced before warily searching for our car in the sea that is a Disney parking lot. Ultimately we found the little blue sports car, got in wordlessly, and practically fell on our stash of Publix birthday cake, secured the night before for this very moment.
It’s been ten years since that day and I can still see almost every second of it so clearly. It was the day I learned that I could accomplish things that seem impossible if I put my mind to it. It was the day my mom and I cemented our bond even further, inextricably. Every time I came home from New York City, we’d both lace up and go out and run, sometimes nine miles, sometimes fewer, but we’d always run at a conversational pace, chatting as the miles passed by.
Taking the First Step
It was my mom that inspired me to pick up running when I quit the Fordham University cheerleading team my sophomore year.
At that point, the longest I had ever run was two miles—an accomplishment that left me gasping for air flat on my back under a fan in a Planet Fitness locker room. Mom had already two half-marathons under her belt and I admired her dedication when she’d strap her bulky Garmin on her tiny wrist and head out to run loops in the neighborhood. “Give it a try, Cait,” she’d say. “It gets easier with time.” She told me that when she first started running, she could barely make it to the end of her street. She promised herself that each day, she’d run one mailbox further than the day before. Now, here she was.
I reluctantly began lacing up a few times a week to trudge around the gated-in campus in the Bronx. I surprised myself—within a few weeks, I didn’t hate it that much. By summer, which I spent at my parent’s house in Tampa, Florida, I was running five miles, no problemo.
“Maybe I’ll join you on your run tomorrow,” I said to my mom as we drove home from dinner. “How far are you planning to go?”
“Nine miles,” said replied, with the ease of someone who runs nine miles once a week, every week. She could sense my hesitation. “You should come, we’ll take it at your pace.”
“There’s no way I can run nine miles. Maybe I’ll do five or six and then bail,” I told her.
“We’ll see,” she said, with the confidence of a mother who raised a daughter who’s up for a challenge.
Our route took us through our neighborhood of equal parts palm trees and oak trees, rose bushes in bloom. Then we were out on the main road, cars whooshing by, and I remember thinking: Wow, this feels like an adventure. Mile five came and went. So did mile six. I suddenly felt elated—the true runner’s high. We celebrated with pink-frosted donuts littered with sprinkles from a Dunkin drive-through and I thought: So this is what running is all about.
Since then, my passion for running has taken me on adventures around the world, to all six of the World Marathon Majors (Berlin and New York more than once), plus Paris. At many of those races, my parents were there cheering me on from the sidelines with a homemade sign and a whole lot beaming parental pride; in 2013, my mom even ventured to London solo to support me. She got lost, couldn’t find the race course, and panicked, but ultimately found it along with a megaphone-wielding stranger that she used to yell my name at mile 23.
I can’t remember when exactly we stopped running together on my visits home, but at some point in the last five years, the runs became less frequent. My mom claimed that her racing days were behind her, that she’s “too slow for me and would annoy me with her frequent walking breaks.” Just as she wouldn’t accept my self-deprecating assessment when I was younger, I refused to listen to her excuses.
We got back out there together last spring, and set out with no real expectations. The deal was simple: If I got antsy, I’d go ahead and we’d meet back at the house. But I didn’t get antsy. Her “frequent walk breaks” were just a few quick water stops. She could run faster than she thought; we met in the middle at just over a 10-minute-per-mile average. Maybe subconsciously, showing her she could do more than what she believed she could was my way of returning the favor from all those years ago.
A few weeks later, my mom forwarded me a link to the Sunshine Skyway 10K race in St. Petersburg, Florida. Sure, it was “just a 10K,” but the bridge is 200-feet above sea level and the slope on either side is a 4% grade, so it felt on par with our previous half-marathon efforts. I immediately wanted to take it on the adventure and so did she.
An Unbreakable Bond
On a beautiful, colder-than-usual March morning in Florida, mom and I boarded one of what seemed like 1,000 school buses at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, to be driven to the starting line on the south side of the bridge.
The bus driver cheerily welcomed us, and our fellow passengers chattered excitedly. At the start line, there was no jockeying for position, just friendly smiles. That’s what struck me about this race: Instead of “good luck!” being the phrase volunteers and other runners called out to us, it was “have fun!” The race, for a great cause—to salute military families—wasn’t about running a certain time or getting a PR. It was about getting to run (or walk) this iconic bridge, taking in the view of Tampa Bay and downtown St. Pete while getting an extra dose of endorphins from the sheer height of the thing. And for me, it was about gratitude.
“Be thankful that you’re healthy enough to be out here on this beautiful day,” the race announcer called out to the crowds gathering at the starting line. That sunk in and, when we took off at 8:05 a.m. to the sound of a cannon being fired by members of the military, my mom and I took several moments to revel in the moment.
We had no time goal in mind. We ran 90% of the time, but we also stopped for numerous photo opps, including one epic Boomerang at the very top of the bridge—decked out in matching Adidas Ultraboost, Apple Watches, and our favorite Lululemon leggings.
After our Boomerang moment, we ended up stride in stride with a female soldier, in full fatigues including boots, running while carrying an American flag. “You’re a badass!” My mom called out to her, as she continued her mission to the finish line with a slight smile on her lips. Her words seemed to reverberate: It was quiet up there—horns from friendly drivers in cars passing by going in the opposite direction was the only sound that broke the silence other than the pattering of running feet.
So we decided to shake things up a bit. My mom took out her phone and queued up—yep—“Family Affair”. It blasted out of her iPhone 11 speaker as we passed the 6th mile marker and continued on the straightaway to the finish line. A woman running alone smiled as we passed, filming us on her iPhone. “Thank you, Mary!” Mom said, as we arrived, giggling, having completed a thoroughly good time.
That theme of gratitude carried over into the rest of the day and to now, as I write this. When friends have asked me how I’m so motivated to get up early and exercise, I used to falter, not really understanding why myself. But now I know: My parents set the example that it’s part of who we are. Exercise and running isn’t a chore. It’s something I get to do, something that makes me healthier and happier and always better for it. So when I wake up on a frigid New York City morning, when I know the West Side Highway sidewalks will be glittering with an icy sheen, it’s not a matter of if I want to drag my body—Florida blood coursing through my veins—out from under my fluffy duvet, I just do. And I’m grateful for that. And I’m grateful for the gift of distance running that my mom bestowed upon me. I’m grateful for the years we’ve ran together and the years to come that we’ll continue to do so.
There’s just one question, actually: Mom, what’s our next running adventure?