Amy Donaldson: Daughter's birthday celebration a reminder that the best gifts can't be bought

Published: Sunday, June 1 2014 11:55 p.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, June 3 2014 2:13 p.m. MDT

Our first run together was a disaster.

She cried. I scolded.

“Running is my break from stress,” I said somewhere between lecturing and begging. “No whining allowed.”

But she was just 10 or 11 and when something hurt, she cried. This was both an understandable reaction and something I thought she should overcome.

Pain is part of running.

Pain is part of life.

If she could run through the pain, she could conquer. At least that was what I thought. But like most things I believed when I was younger, dealing with life’s agonies is much more complicated than that.

In truth, I understood her complaints. Her lungs hurt and her side ached. And many, many days, I have wondered what she asked me repeatedly on that warm summer afternoon, “Why do you think this is fun?”

As a kid I saw running as punishment. It’s what my basketball coach made us do after missed free throws. It’s what my softball coach forced us to do if we giggled too much while he talked. It’s what my friends did when they wanted to lose weight.

Running is what you did when you failed at something else. Running is how you prepared to do the stuff you actually wanted to enjoy.

Running was not a reward.

It wasn’t a reward until life beat me up a bit.

Then the very thing I dreaded, even lied to avoid, became my refuge. How many times have I started a run with a heavy load, only to return home with perspective that whatever I faced, I was strong enough.

So I wanted to share this not-so-secret power source with my daughters. Rachel was my oldest, and so when she was in fourth or fifth grade, I started to entice her into signing up for races with me. The first 5K we ran together was up at the University of Utah. She started crying as soon as we hit that first hill.

I was embarrassed and frustrated. I pleaded with her to push herself. I tried to shame her into silence. Rachel was not moved by anything I hissed into her ear. She continued to complain — and to cry.

While I contemplated all the ways I was failing as a mother, I had an idea.

“How about a bet?” I pleaded. “If you beat me to the finish, I will clean your cat’s litter box for a month.”

She stopped crying — and running.

“How about three months?” she countered.

Desperate, I agreed to the deal, and we began running.

She beat me to the finish line fair and square. She beamed, and I vowed never to sign her up for a race again.

It turns out that was a promise I would break — a lot.

And while I endured a lot more complaining and a little more crying, eventually, she found her own joy in the sport. As a ninth-grader she was horrified by my suggestion that she participate in Hillcrest High’s cross-country workouts.

“You know they run at 6 a.m., right?” she said with equal parts disgust and horror. The next year, she signed up for those summer workouts on her own.

One day a couple of years ago, she dragged me to the gym. As I watched her on the treadmill next to me, I realized everything had changed. I almost started crying, but instead I started laughing as I remembered what I told her on that first run.

“Crying just makes running harder,” I’d said. “Why make something that’s already difficult even more challenging.”

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