05/30/2014 11:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What I Learned When I Ran a 5K With My Son

He ran next to me the whole time.

And I was ashamed I couldn't run as fast as him. He's 8 and I'll be 40 this August. And I watched him choose.

He could have run fast and far up ahead where his friends were, where the best times were, where the winners were.

But his glasses kept swiveling in my direction and he kept up a steady steam of chatter when all I could do was wheeze through my aching lungs and wonder how I'd make it another step, let alone another mile.

For the first time in our nearly nine years together, I was the choice in his hand. I felt all vulnerable at being left behind by this son who watches documentaries about Usain Bolt and dreams only of being fast. And I watched him choose me.

His slow mother, shy of running and nervous about being at the back alone. His mother who still told him to go on, run at the front, I'll be fine here by myself.

And over my own rasping conversation and pumping knees, his answer floated back on the breeze like so much grace, "But I want to run with you, mom."

And parents ran past us dragging crying kids, snarling under their breath that they should "keep up already; stop walking," as my son looked over and caught my eye every time I shame-facedly confessed I needed a break to walk for a while, and told me, "That's fine, mom, that's fine. This is called a Run-Walk 5K race. So walking is totally fine."

And then he'd lean over and hug me and we'd walk together on the side of the trail.

There is fast and there is kind, and today my son was both. Just not at the same time.

We ran past an old detention center and both gazed up at the guard tower and broken spotlights, the windowpanes all shattered through by rocks thrown by kids or detainees or who knows who.

We ran single file along stubbled trails of tall grass and over bridges and down rocky hills, me worrying he'd trip and him flying fast down the spitting stones, laughing -- all blond hair and grace.

We ran and breathed and ran. Blue sky. Green, rough grass. A cutting breeze that chilled us when we arrived too early at 7 this morning, an hour before race time.

We ran and we walked and always he was right there beside me checking in and pushing me and encouraging me and telling me over and over, "I love you, mom. I just can't stop saying how much I love you 'cause you run with me."

And I loved him back in my aching chest that felt sure it couldn't do another mile -- and then it could. Because my 8-year-old believed in me.

He tells me he's small for his age, and I ask him why he thinks so.

"It's what all the kids say," he tells me.

But when we cross the finish line, him cheering me on the whole way, every hard, burning step, all I can think is --

You're a giant, son.

You're a giant of a man to me.

Lisa-Jo Baker is the bestselling author of the newly released book, Surprised by Motherhood: Everything I Never Expected About Being a Mom.

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