Mom's on the Run:
By Colby Dunn | Photos by Angelina Bellebuono
It is 8:30 on a Monday morning and I feel like someone is trying to get behind my sternum
with a knife.
Sharp pains are blazing out from my breastbone like a flame blown by a giant set of bellows. My calves, inexplicably, itch and a persistent, pulsing pain keeps sneaking in under my penultimate right rib when I lean too far that way.
I’m not having a medical emergency. I am just running, although only the most charitable person would call what I’m doing running. I am running for the first time in over four years and, currently, I think it is killing me.
I round the next corner and Lili Dowd, pushing a jogging stroller, comes up beside me, encouraging me to keep going. She is a lovely woman but I am inwardly jealous of her ability to run and talk at the same time. I had, moments before, felt it a triumph that I was running and breathing simultaneously.
Lili is one of a group of 10 moms who convene regularly to run up and down the hills of Madison’s backstreets, and today, I have joined them.
“Some days there will be about three of us,” says Erin Spinks, a founding member of the group, “some days we’ll have all of us.”
Spinks shows up for the four-mile run five days a week, although the others come when space opens in their schedules. Most are members of the Madison MOMS Club, many are relatively new to Madison, only a three or four year tenure under their belts, all differ in ages - as do their children - and some run with babies in tow, while others’ kids are past their stroller prime and off into school.
“We’ve got 21 kids between us,” says Dowd, “and two borrowed.”
I met the moms at 8:20 a.m. in a parking lot beside Madison First United Methodist Church with extreme reticence. I own no running shoes - the closest thing I have is a pair of Puma lace-ups, which, I confess, I bought because color of the trim was attractive.
Spinks greets me first - we had spoken on the phone to arrange the meeting. She is a lithe, muscular, but compact woman with a double-barreled jogging stroller, and I am instantly worried by how clearly athletic she is.
“So how long is this run?” I ask.
“Right. Well, this should be fun. I usually only run to catch a bus or away from a fire,” I say, jokingly. The moms smile, but that statement is completely true.
As we start out, I find out that they’re in their second year of this run, although a few have been going for longer, and I am stunned to learn that none are lifelong running champions or former cross-country starlets.
Most have taken up running recently, to lose baby weight or have a moment for themselves.
As we start the initial run, Spinks tells me she started with small goals. “Let’s see if we can make it to that fence, to that stop sign,” she says. “Now we’re training for a half-marathon.”
When asked why they show up day after day, their reasons differ.
“To keep us sane,” says Ashley Brown.
“For the friendships,” adds Tiffani Tanner.
“To prolong our lives,” says Jennifer Breedlove, with a short laugh.
Researchers have found that they have the right idea, as well.
A 2008 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that running into old age decreased chances for arterial and heart disease, incidence of early disability and added years onto life.
The study, which followed two groups of Americans over age 50 for 21 years, one group runners, the other non-runners.
“At 19 years, 15 percent of runners had died compared with 34 percent of [non-runners], the study said, concluding that running into middle and old age decreased disability and was “a notable survival advantage.”
According to the study, the health gap between the runners and non-runners only got wider with age, even into the ninth decade of life. While most, eventually, gave in to some level of disability, the runners succumbed an average of 16 years after non-runners.
“”The study has a very pro-exercise message,” Professor James Fries, lead author of the study and former Stanford professor told the BBC last year. “If you had to pick one thing to make people healthier as they age, it would be aerobic exercise.”
But in America, few heed that message. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimates that only 31 percent of Americans exercise regularly, while 39 percent never engage in any exercise - not even a jog around the block after the second order of cheese fries.
The CDC did find that the percentage of exercising adults has started to rise in recent years, but many Americans are still opting out of the aerobic exercise that could prolong their lives.
Halfway through my own run, I started to think that this aerobic exercise thing was better than I’d thought.
I still stayed at the back of the pack, inwardly chanting the prayer “someone please start walking, someone please start walking, someone please start walking,” resisting the urge to shout “Yes! We’re walking!” when someone took a break from the jog, giving me an excuse to slow down without looking moronic.
But my body was starting to thank me. I was enjoying the fresh air, I felt slightly invigorated. I spent the rest of that day feeling a little happier about my life and my body, even if the next two were very sore.
As we flew down one of the last hills, Spinks waved to a neighbor, shouting from the front of the pack, “Look! We’ve got the newspaper girl with us!” and I waved back, thinking that it wasn’t so bad, this running thing.
I did give out before the final sprint and watched, impressed, as they raced around the church at full pelt, strollers zooming ahead of them, and I haven’t been back to join them, but I surprise myself by thinking I’d like to.
To me, health in the ninth decade and a notable absence of disability and heart disease seem like desirable benefits.
Plus, almost against my will, I actually enjoyed myself.