Run Maria, Run
By Maria Elsser
My mother would get up every morning at 5 a.m. to run 10 kilometres along the sleepy streets of Salt Spring Island before the sun rose. It wasn’t enough that she was raising four wild children, or that she single-handedly ran a three-acre farm. It wasn’t like she had endless time at her hands, those cracked and calloused hands that made everything from bread to wool socks to the quilts that cloaked our beds. It wasn’t like she needed the workout, or didn’t spend her entire day from dawn to dusk chasing us kids, or chasing the chickens. My mother got up every morning to run, because she said it was the “smallest, little thing” she could do for herself to reclaim a piece of sanity within her life.
I thought of my mother when, at the 31-kilometre mark of my first marathon, I felt my big toenail lift from my toe. I had always wondered about my physical breaking point. Though I was fully aware of how readily my mental collapses occurred, I had never pushed my body to its physical edge. I never run for so long and so continuously that a nail had separated from its bed, and I still had 10 more kilometres to go.
I gritted my teeth and turned up the volume on the purple iPod Nano that I clutched in my sweaty palm as its battery rapidly dwindled. I was listening to “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba on repeat in the hopes it would give me the motivation I desperately needed to push through.
Other runners breezed past me, and I knew my pace was slipping. Those runners were prepared; middle-aged, their lean bodies rippling with muscle displayed beautifully in their tight, spandex gear. I was a chubby teenager, messy curls popping out of my ponytail, wearing a loose blue gym shirt, Lululemon leggings, and a purple tie-dyed fanny pack which carried my father’s flip phone, in case I needed to be rescued. My nipples, tucked in an ill-fitting sports bra, had started bleeding around the 20-kilometre mark, and now two purple stains were blooming through my shirt. With every step I took, agony shot up through my wounded toe into my shin, my knee, my hip, my brain.
Still, I kept running.
I thought about my mother. I thought of her in the kitchen, homemade chicken-noodle soup simmering on the stove behind her, shaking her wooden spoon at me.
“I don’t want you running this marathon,” she said. “You’re too young, and it’s too hard on your body.”
I pretended I couldn’t hear her.
“Maria, please, just do a half. Or better yet, do another 10-kilometre race. You were great at those!”
“No, Mom, I want to do this.”
“I think it’s a terrible idea. You are just going to hurt yourself.” She turned and angrily stirred the soup. I leaned over the kitchen counter.
“Will you come cheer for me, Mom?”
My mom didn’t even turn around to look at me. “I will not,” she said into the soup pot.
I thought of my mother and wiped my face with the back of my hand. After 31 kilometres of running, there was no sweat, just salt. My skin felt dry and broken. Mom was right, I was hurting myself.
And because she was right, I limped on.
My father was not athletic. He was tall and lanky, with a thick German accent. His favourite joke was to extend one arm, flex, and say, “Look! Thermometer arms!” He meant that because of his total lack of muscle definition, his limbs looked long and narrow, like a thermometer. It was one of many jokes that got lost in translation.
My father didn’t mind that I had no desire to play team sports like my three brothers. He was kind and gentle when, after my fifth bike crash, I sobbingly resolved to never ride again. He would play cribbage with me at the kitchen table, or help me with my English homework. Where my mother was hard and tough, my father was soft and delicate.
He was not always tactful, however. I began to go through puberty when I was 10-years old, I grew like a young sapling eager for sunshine. With all that growth came a tremendous appetite, and while the growth spurt stopped some months later, my new eating habits persisted.
My mother struggled to zip up the back of my Sunday dress. When she finally succeeded, we both regarded my pudgy body in the mirror. My father, hearing the commotion, came to see what all the fuss was about.
“Well,” he said after a moment. “Don’t you look slightly pregnant.” Years later, he would tell me he only meant it as a joke, but my immature brain couldn’t see the humour at the time. I refused to go to church, and confined myself to my room with a stolen bag of homemade cookies. If I was going to look pregnant, I might as well go for the whole nine-months-and-overdue aesthetic.
The next day, while I sat at the kitchen table doing homework, my father sat down next to me. He placed a five-dollar bill in front of me, and waited until I looked up.
“Hey,” he said. “I want to make you a deal. We both are getting big bellies, us two.”
I sniffled, and my father carried on.
“But,” he said “we are going to fix it. Every day you come for a walk with me. Every kilometre you walk, you get a dollar. I do it with you. Sound good?”
I eyed the five dollars and my father suspiciously.
“You won’t make me bike?”
“I won’t make you bike.”
“You won’t make me run?”
“Psh! Maria, you think I am your mother? Neither of us will be running.”
“Okay,” I said. We shook hands; it was a deal.
The following month, we walked 100 kilometres together. We walked in the rain, the fog, the sunshine, the dark. We walked on the sides of the roads, through forest trails, up mountains to see if we could reach the peak before sunset. Eventually, we were walking so much together that he could no longer afford to pay me the promised dollar-per-kilometre, but by then, I no longer cared.
I was 16-years old and had been running six kilometres every morning for the past seven months. “Dad,” I said. “I’m going to register for the Times Colonist 10k in Victoria this year. Do you want to do it with me?”
This would be my first official race.
“Maria, I am not sure I can run so fast like you,” he said with a chuckle.
“That’s okay,” I replied. “The course loops back on itself. So if you can walk half as fast as I run, we will meet at the half way point.”
“Okay,” my father said. “Let’s do it.”
The Times Colonist 10K is a gorgeous 10-kilometre route that goes through downtown Victoria, to the ocean, along the waterfront. At the end of the waterfront, the course loops back on itself. On a sunny April day, I ran it with my father. Over 10,000 people came to run or walk in the race too, and the energy of that many bodies moving towards a finish line was electrifying.
Video via RunSport
I shot off immediately when the start gun was fired, still a running novice with no clue as to how to pace myself. My father was left behind with the other walkers. At the five-kilometre mark, I turned around and began running back along the sea wall, the sunshine in my face, the cool sea salt breeze tickling my nostrils as my lungs heaved for air. I couldn’t help feeling a little sad. Half the run had gone by, and I hadn’t seen my father since the start. As I continued running, I saw a tall figure staggering towards me in the distance. There, drenched in sweat from head to toe, gasping for breath, flailing his thermometer arms like a set of windmills, he was.
“Dad!” I yelled, stopping when I passed him.
“No Maria, do not stop!” he gasped. “Go! Run Maria, run!”
The Times Colonist 10K was my first race, I finished with a time of 45:03.5, and my father finished at 1:15.50.
“Not so bad for an old man,” he said proudly, as he limped his way over to me, where I was waiting patiently for him at the finish line. “Now, you drive home. I think I’m going to nap for a while.”
When I told my father three months later I was going to run a marathon, he was just as cautious as my mother.
“A marathon is very long,” he told me. “I won’t be able to walk with you.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “I just need two things from you.”
“Will you help me map out training routes? And will you come watch me run on race day.”
My father looked at me, sucked in his breath, and gave a long sigh. “Yes and yes,” he said, squeezing my hand. “How could I say no to my favourite daughter.”
“Your only daughter,” I corrected.
“All the more reason for you to be my favourite.”
A hill loomed at the 35.5-kilometre mark of my first marathon. It was small, but after running 35.5 kilometres, even a small hill felt like a mountain. My father, unbeknownst to me, had studied the course the night before. I had already seen him at the 10-, 20-, and 30-kilometre check points, and seeing his face and his big thumbs up each time had given new spring to my steps. However, as I struggled to get up the hill, my father came barreling at me from the sidelines.
“Come on Maria, let’s go! I run up this hill with you! You can do it! Run Maria, run!”
My father grabbed my hand, and ran half way up the hill with me before a volunteer kicked him off the course track.
Photo, top: Sean Enns