My seven-year-old son Riley has been begging for weeks for me to bring him with me to the track workout on Tuesday nights. I’ve taken the kids to the track on the weekends before, but not to one of the group workouts. There are other parents who sometimes bring their kids to play in the infield, but I had yet to try it out. Now that I’m not doing track workouts anymore, I like to run in the mornings. But he’s still asking.
So when Riley asked this week, I said yes. I had already run for the day, but I figured I could jog with him and we could leave when he got tired. Maybe we’d get a mile or so in.
We arrived at the university track before the group and I put him through some warmup drills: lunges, high knees, grapevine, leg swings, a few stretches. He copied my examples in his own adorably exaggerated way. “Do you really do all this stretching before you run, Mom?” he asked. “Yes,” I told him. “Warm ups are important to get your body ready.”
“I’m ready!” he answered, looking excitedly around the oval.
When the group of thirty or so runners began making their way around the track, Riley quietly held my hand in a moment of shyness. Norm announced that the workout would be the first in a series of four. Hill repeats. Off the track. If I had been going more often, I would have known this. I have heard about how tough the hill workouts can be. I began to second guess my choice to bring my son that night.
I asked Riley if he wanted to run hills with the group or run around the track with me. He said, “Hills. With you.”
So we followed everyone as we left the track for the surrounding hills. The first set was close to a mile away. Riley started out running in a goofy kid stride with his arms flopping happily out to the sides. We talked the whole way and the gap between us and the group grew. As Riley told me about his day, I smiled thinking how nice it was that we had this moment to ourselves to catch up. This normally doesn’t happen on a typical school night.
We met the others at the bottom of the first hill. Norm had already given them instructions to run hard up and jog back down four times. We jumped in at the bottom of the pack and ran up.
Kids have such a simple freedom when they run. All the grown-ups at the workout had serious, hard faces as they concentrated on conquering the task in front of them. My son smiled and laughed and chatted. At the crest of the hill, he asked if he could “bomb back down” like he does on his mountain bike. I reminded him that we needed to save our energy to climb back up. He tucked in his floppy arms a little and headed back up. “Now he’s got it,” Norm commented.
As his little face began to redden, Riley’s pace slowed and he ended up walking some. After climbing the next hill, he decided to take a break at the bottom for a set. I asked him if he wanted to head back. “No!” he replied. “I want to do the rest of them too!”
On the way to the third set, there was a little short cut through some woods that college kids had carved out to cut a corner. Riley asked if he could run fast down this hill. “I don’t mind if you go fast, Riley,” I said. “Just as long as you are in control.” He took off ahead of me and bombed down it effortlessly. “Looks like you’ve got an ultra runner on your hands,” remarked one of my friends.
The light began to fade as we made it back towards the track. I told Riley that we needed to head back since it was already getting close to bedtime. I looked at my watch and announced that we had run 2.75 miles. “Wow! Really?” he asked, clearly impressed with himself. I asked him to take a break and drink his water while I did a lap to get an even 3 miles. “Can I come with you?”
I smiled, and told him no. “Awww. Pleeeeease?” he cried.
As much as I actually did want him to come with me for that last lap, I also knew that telling him no would make him want to come back again.
The natural joy that kids have when they run is something I need to remember more often. Running with my son just this one time makes me think of how much more I’d like to run with him and my daughter. I don’t know if I really have an ultra runner in the house or not, but I hope I can teach my kids how much running can enrich their lives.
Or maybe they’re the ones teaching me.