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Susan Orlins Headshot

Marathon Women

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Who knew we were marathon women?

On an ordinary afternoon in 1998, Eliza, my sixteen-year-old daughter, plopped her backpack at my feet, waved a brochure so close it grazed my nose and declared, "I'm signing up for the Marine Corps Marathon. I'll be running with a group that raises money for AIDS and trains Sunday mornings at seven."

"Seven a.m. -- are you crazy?" Then, pausing for less time than it takes to say "PowerBar," I added, "Tell you what, I'll sign up with you." It was as though, for just this microsecond, I had morphed into Jane Fonda.

Now alone, I began to confront different questions. Was I doing this for myself or for Eliza? Was it to bolster my athletic image with friends and acquaintances? Was I willing to risk injury and, in turn, all the skiing and swing dancing that filled the void left by my divorce? Wasn't there a simpler bonding opportunity with Eliza? And an easier way to meet guys? Would I ever find a sports bra that worked? And why would I give up six months of Sunday mornings to arrive at my weekly training sessions earlier than the newspaper arrived on my doorstep? Surely not because running 26.2 miles with thousands of other Type A's had always been my dream. More likely, my interest could have been called morbid curiosity.

Nonetheless, I attended an orientation meeting with Eliza where we exchanged motives with other hopefuls. A trim secretary, seated beside me, told the group, "My best friend is dying from AIDS. He can't run, so I'm going to do it for him." Ashamed of my egocentric motivation, I sheepishly introduced myself and expressed my desire to regain a sense of focus in my life. When Eliza announced that she looked forward to training with her mom and raising money for an AIDS clinic, I felt exonerated.

At our first weekly training session, our leaders assigned partners and placed us in pace groups. These were the people with whom we would train as well as run the actual marathon. Eliza's tight-abs pack lined up near the front; despite our neon CoolMax costumes, my partner, Rayford, and I found ourselves in the rear among the less hurried.

In the weeks that followed, the pain of placing one foot in front of the other was eased, ironically, by Rayford's sagas of his partner's death from AIDS and living with his own HIV. After we got through a twelve-mile Sunday run by exchanging the ordeals of Rayford's coming out and the final year of my marriage, we agreed on "single in the seventies" as our topic for the upcoming fourteen-mile run.

If I were still married, I would have bristled at the idea of striding the equivalent of halfway from Washington to Baltimore (or if you compute all the training miles, round trip to Scarsdale). Isn't it striking how a major life change like divorce can transform you into the opposite of who you thought you were? Yet, dim recollections suggested that the marathoner was a part of my original self. It seemed that marriage had molded me, temporarily, into someone less adventuresome.

Sometimes I imagined Eliza and me as two intersecting rings. I worried I was treading on her exclusive territory but I asked anyway, "Would you mind if I try to keep up with your group on next week's six-mile maintenance run? It might be my only chance to jog with you before the distance increases."

Even before she answered, her response was evident in her bright eyes, lit up the way they did on the trail when her group -- in their homestretch -- passed me, still huffing my way to the halfway mark, and her fellow speed-mates cheered, "Go, Liza's mom!"

As Eliza and I planned a party for the fundraising component of our marathon, she asked, "Mom, how can I take credit for half the donations? They'll be mostly from your friends." I told her that many of my friends were the parents of her friends and that we were in this together -- a partnership. We not only jointly crafted invitations and made cupcakes, but we also explained to our guests what raising money for drug therapies that offered hope to people with HIV/AIDS meant to us. I reminded Eliza that, without her, this expansion of my world would never have occurred.

The training distances mounted. I began to believe I could actually make it to the finish line. New queries surfaced. Would Eliza wait on marathon day until I completed the course? Wasn't it backward -- shouldn't the mother be the one to soak up her little girl's I-did-it grin as she crosses the finish line? Or was this one of those role reversals dealt to us by the passing years? On my birthday, Eliza hauled out a cake she had baked and shouted, "Yay!" when I extinguished all the candles in one blow.

And on marathon day, there I was, sailing by on my merry-go-round as I cried, "Look at me!" Eliza jumped and waved and cheered my victory -- hers, mine, ours.

What have you plunged into with unexpectedly satisfying results? Any bonding parent-child experiences?

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