Mom gives best piece of advice for reaching Boston

What mom taught me about running marathons

Desire.  I don’t really think I understood the word’s meaning until this morning. 

I woke at about eight o’clock at the hotel room I was staying at in Lansing, Michigan, took a shower, got dressed, grabbed my bags and drove down the road to the memory care unit where my mom lives. Mom is 86 and has lived in this home for about two years now. I live in Wisconsin and try to get over to see her as often as I can. This time, in addition to seeing mom, I was also in town for my annual trip to run the Grand Rapids Marathon.

When I walked into the front door of my mom’s home I was greeted by a young man named Chris who I had met before. He told me that mom was in the dining room for breakfast. I thanked him and started walking back to find mom. There she was sitting with two other folks waiting for breakfast. I sat down with them, said hello and looked at mom and said, “Hey mom, it’s your son Joe.” 

Mom is always friendly. She will smile at you and talk to you like she has known you forever, but not have a clue who you are so it is important that I introduce myself right when I come up to her. 

This time she didn’t get it even after I told her, but I didn’t press the issue and we just continued to make small talk about the rainy weather outside, why breakfast was taking so long and cheeseburgers (mom LOVES cheeseburgers). About the time the coffee was served mom leaned in, looked at me with intent and careful eyes, and said,” 

“Are you my son?” 

I told her, “Yes, I am Joe, I’m your youngest son.” 

Her eyes widened. You could see the light come on as she exclaimed, “I know that! I named you.” Then she started saying my full name while she continued to stare at me as she carefully studied my face.

“You look like a Starr,” she said with a laugh. “How about that,” she said still laughing as she slapped the table top with her hand, full of joy at her new discovery.

Then I said, and you have two other sons, “Jon and Chris.”

Her eyes widened again as she smiled turning to our dining guests to tell them about this great news.

“How about that. I have three sons!” she said to the delight of the others who were smiling at her happiness. Then I also threw in that she had a grandchild to which she said, I have one granddaughter named…. I started with an “And—” and before I could finish she said, “Andrea.” 

She was even more delighted now with this news as she continued to repeat her three boy’s names. You could tell she was really trying to get it to sink in and make certain she did not forget. Then she would stop and stare at me for a while and ask again, “Are you my son?” to which I would repeat, “yes and you have two other sons and your husband’s name was Bill.” 

“Yes, he died,” she said.

This would go on for several minutes as the food came and we began to eat. She would ask again, “Are you my son?” to which I would again say, “yes I’m Joe.” But this time the excitement turned into something more like sadness or fear or possibly disappointment. She said, “I should know that. Why don’t I know that? Why don’t I know who my own sons are?”

I tried to reassure her that it was okay and that everyone forgets now and then and it’s nothing to worry about. Mom is usually very positive and laid back, so to see her get frustrated with the gap in memory I knew it really bothered her. Trying to change the tide I asked her how she liked her pancakes and sausage. Attention now turned to the plate of food, I looked up to see my brother Chris walk into the room. We were going to meet for coffee at a local restaurant, but I told him it might be better if he stopped at mom’s. I certainly wasn’t going to leave her until she was feeling better. 

Now with two of her sons there she looked at Chris – after realizing he was another son – and asked him if he knew I was her son, too. Chris of course said yes, which led mom to say I feel like I’m going to cry. I should be able to remember my sons. This was tough to hear because for mom to say she felt like she wanted to cry meant a lot because mom never cries. I probably had only seen her cry once at dad’s funeral and that was brief. She is part of that stoic generation that was told to cry is to be weak so crying was not allowed. But at that point I felt like crying. 

The reason I bring this up is not to make you all cry, but if you would like to please don’t let my stoic ass stop you. I bring it up because I have been looking for desire, for passion, for motivation, something that has eluded me for pretty much my entire life. Tomorrow morning, I will run one of the most important races of my life as I make yet another attempt to qualify for Boston at the GR Marathon. The training is there, but what fails me every year is the heart and desire to close the deal. Blame it on the wall, the bonk, the heat, the rain, whatever, but what it boils down to is, “did you want it bad enough.” I don’t think I ever have because I had never seen what true desire, passion or hunger looks like…not until this morning. 

It’s tough to imagine seeing it in the frail frame of an 86-year-old woman but Wanda Starr is a fighter. She could easily give in to the dementia and decide to forget everything and veg out but she fights every day to remember and she works hard. I don’t know much about the disease but I know something about the human spirit and when I see mom continue to repeat the full names of her three sons over and over, it’s not because she is crazy or likes to hear her own voice. She is trying with every last inch of who she is to remember something that means the world to her.

So I am going to get up tomorrow morning, I am going to get dressed and I am going to drive down to the start line at the Pearl Street YMCA like I have ever year since 2005. I am going to toe the line and run like a beast for 3:25 or fewer and make my time. I know it’s going to be hard as fuck and I’m going to dry heave and try to convince myself that it isn’t worth the pain and nausea and more pain so why not just quit. And who knows, maybe I will give into the darkness and allow my guts to do the talking as they contort into a twisted mess while my bowels begin to clench and cramp and feet pound heavier and heavier down onto the pavement with every little hill turning into a mountainous climb. One mile done with the right intensity can tare me up bad, so one wrong move along 26.2 – going out too fast or not drinking enough, or not getting enough nutrition can create their own problems leading to a total unraveling of an entire race.

But fortunately the physical side are things that through trial, error and adjustments in training I have learned to manage, so while they will pay me visits throughout the race I feel confident they will drop in for temporary stays and be on their way. As I begin to press up those hills tomorrow and the miles build, I will remember mom and how she fights every day to hold onto her memories. Taking even a sliver of her attitude and applying it out there at mile 23 when that wall begins to rear its ugly self will be enough to take would-be bonk and turn it into a boost of energy that will take me on a glorious runner’s high that I have never felt before.