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Running like my mom, with courage and joy

Emily Halnon shares universal lessons learned from her mom, providing inspiration on how to run and live.

Emily Halnon

May 1st, 2022

8 min read

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Things got so ugly during my first marathon that I cried for my mom.

I went out like a total chump. Weaving around other runners. Running way faster than I had any business running.

“I’m on track to qualify for Boston!” I cheered – as I looked at my watch at approximately mile 5.1 of the race. “I’m nailing my first marathon.”

And then the wheels fell off. And I was suddenly on a very different track. One that involved positive splitting the race by an hour and forty minutes and missing that Boston qualifier by a good hour. Which is when the crying-for-my-mom started – because that’s also when she ran right by me.

We were in DC together to run the Marine Corps Marathon. It was my first marathon, which I’d decided to run after watching her run her first marathon the year she turned 50. Because I think it’s scientifically impossible to watch your 50-year-old mother run a marathon and not feel wildly inspired to run one yourself.

She was on her fourth marathon – and looked it. Her stride was confident and strong. Her pace was steady and joyful.

As soon as I saw her through the crowd of runners, I snapped into a 6-year-old version of myself. I was having a very hard time and I wanted my mother to make it better.

“MOM!” I yelped. “MOM! MMMOOOMMMM!”

My cries got more desperate as she showed no signs of hearing me over the swarms of runners and rowdy spectators.

“MOMMMMMMYYYYY!” I cried as she ran out of sight.

I didn’t see her again until the finish.

She’d beat me there by 20 minutes, which my brother will never let me forget – not that I want to. Now, I want to cling onto every memory of my mother. I want to hold her close.

My mom is every reason that I’m a runner.

She wasn’t a runner while I was growing up, or any sort of athlete at all.

But, after a health scare, she decided to introduce more physical activity into her life. She started with short walks. Then race walking. Then she started running: 5ks and 10ks and half marathons.

And then that first marathon the year she turned 50.

I chased her around the streets of Burlington, Vermont that day to cheer her on. She had a giddy smile on her face for all 26.2 miles. It was the smile of someone who was surprising herself in the most exciting way. She was not my sedentary mom anymore – she was a marathoner.

She ran through the rainbow flags of the finish chute with a proud stride. My voice was hoarse from my proud cheers. I was in awe of my mom. And inspired to run a marathon myself. Which is how I ended up in the Marine Corps Marathon, getting smoked by my 53-year-old mother.

That first marathon was just the start of my running story – which is now forever intertwined with my mom’s. My mom introduced me to the joy of pushing my limits and redefining my strength through running. And I loved it.

She never left me lacking for running inspiration. She kept chasing new PRs in every distance, going after age-group places, and running more marathons. She set all kinds of goals for herself: running every county in Vermont, racing in every state in New England. She even learned how to swim the year she turned 60 so she could do her first triathlon. She once showed up for a 5k with two left shoes and ran it anyway. She was unstoppable.

I also chased PRs and BQs (with a much smarter pacing strategy). I ran 20-something more marathons. I got into long-distance trail running and climbed my own ladder of distances: 50ks, 50-milers, 100-milers.

But then something changed. I stopped running with courage and vulnerability and slipped into complacency. I wasn’t exploring limits or testing my strength anymore. I stood on the start line of a 100-miler and realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had that bubble of nervous excitement.

I couldn’t remember the last time that I ran like my mom.

I don’t know exactly when it happened. But I know exactly when I realized it.

It was the summer she had cancer.

She was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive uterine cancer in December, 2018 and the prognosis was grim from the start.

It was one of those awful kinds of cancer, that doesn’t give you any hint of its presence, until it’s already reached an advanced stage and obliterated your chances of surviving it.

If I were in her shoes, I would’ve crawled into a hole and tried to hide from the senseless and cruel world. Or drank myself into an oblivion that might let me forget the doom and gloom that surrounded me.

But not my mom.

She kept living in her bold, brave, joyful way. She stayed active all through her exhaustive and invasive treatments. It was winter in Vermont when she started chemotherapy. The treatment was grueling, but she kept pulling on her LL Bean Boots and her thickest down jacket and meeting friends for walks on the snowy dirt roads. She was fighting to hold onto joy with every step.

When she lost her hair from chemotherapy, she road-tripped to Maine with her girlfriends to go to a “Bald Thursday” at a tiny diner in a tiny town. I have a photo of her on my fridge from that day – cracking up over her breakfast, bald and happy.

I’d always thought I was maxed out on the mom inspiration. But my awe and admiration for my mother reached a whole new level when I saw how she kept living through the darkness of cancer.

Meanwhile, I was a mess. I was hiding in holes and trying to numb my pain away. I wasn’t living – or running – like my mom.

My mom passed away just 13 months after her diagnosis.

I didn’t know how to handle the hailstorm of grief that crushed me as soon as she died.

But, I did know, I wanted to run like my mom again. It was one of the only things that seemed clear to me through the haze of loss. My mom left me with a beautiful example of how to keep going. Of how to keep living through the darkest moments. Of how to keep running with courage and joy.

I trusted I could find solace the same way she did, by approaching each day, and every mile, in a brave, wholehearted way.

I decided to celebrate her life in the only way that made sense, with the biggest, scariest, hardest run I’d ever attempted: a run across the Oregon stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.

As soon as I started training, I finally felt that excited fear again. That same excited fear that my mom introduced me to through that first marathon. When I started running from the Oregon border on a dark August morning several months later, I ran with as much life as I could squeeze out of me, thinking about my mom every step of the way.

No run could ever take away the pain of losing my mom, of course, but that run gave me the chance to do something I really needed. It let me hold my mom close and live – and run – like she did.

I hope I never stop doing that again.

13 responses to “Running like my mom, with courage and joy”

  1. Brooke Salvini says:

    I love running with my daughter (and son). Just did Born to Run. I hope we are creating as beautiful memories as you have. Very special! You and your mom are both inspirations! I’m sorry she is gone too soon.

  2. Kelli Dubois says:

    I taught with your mom at BES for a couple of years. She was such an inspiration. I joined her for one of those walks when she asked for walking companions to keep her going. Whenever I run or bike, I think of her. ♥️

  3. Sandra Kotrick says:

    I love your story you and your mom are so very brave and courageous💕

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