By Laura Simon

I like to call myself an accidental runner. I started out as a swimmer, primarily because when I swim, I can’t feel myself sweat. I hate sweat.

Swimming allowed me push myself to the max without ever feeling particularly hot. But periodically, my coach would take us outside for “cross-training” and make us run around the lake next to the Y. Most of the time I didn’t make it out of the parking lot before I stopped to walk. If I’d wanted to be a runner, I told my coach, I would have signed up for cross-country.

And then, inexplicably, I did just that. I did like to run fast…for short distances. I don’t think I fully understood that cross-country is not short distances. Not at all. In middle school, our races were two miles long. I never, ever ran the full two miles. On my last eighth-grade race, we ran trails through a state park. I waited until we were in a remote part of the woods and dropped to a walk. It was freezing. My lungs were screaming. My stomach hurt. I was surely near death. And then my dad burst out of the trees. I’m not making this up. He couldn’t understand why I was walking. I couldn’t figure out how he found me.

After that season, I decided to give up on running for good.

It drew me back in during my early twenties, but I still couldn’t push myself beyond a mile or two. I loved the gear, loved the camaraderie of runners, and loved the idea of running. But actual running? Ugh.

Three kids and many pounds later, I found myself living across the street from an old high school friend. She was a runner, and she wanted a running buddy. Inconceivably, she set her sights on me. It took her almost a year to get me to go on an actual run, and when I did, it lasted for a whopping 1.89 miles. I had to stop twice and catch my breath. The third time we stopped doesn’t count because her dog had to poop, but I can admit that I have never, ever been so glad for a doggie bowel movement.

Two weeks later, I had a half-marathon training schedule in my inbox. I still cannot pinpoint exactly how we got from point A to point B, but I’m surely glad we did. Almost two years later, I’m still running. I do all sorts of things that I once thought were crazy…things like running at 5:30 am when it’s 28 degrees…and running at 5:30 am when it’s already 82 degrees. I run with my youngest in a stroller while my older kids ride bikes and scooters. I run with a flashlight, and sometimes a bottle of water strapped to my hands. When last winter’s snow storm started to move in, I went for a three-mile run while the snow fell.

I’m not really any good. I mean, my time has gotten a lot better, but you won’t see me running Boston anytime soon. And every time I sign up for a half-marathon, I’ve noticed I go through a reliable cycle of emotions. First, I’m elated and can’t wait to get out there and train. After a month or so, the runs get longer, and the weather invariably gets colder or hotter. Then I enter the stage of deep regret. I question my sanity, and try to convince my brain that wasting the entry fee is totally OK. Is it really so bad to stay at home with a book?

The week before a race, fear creeps in a paralyzes me. I’m in that stage right now, with another half-marathon just four days away. There are so many unknowns in a race that long, and each one of them keeps me up at night. I will be almost sick with worry by the time the starting gun goes off, although then things usually get better. In fact, within an hour or so of finishing, I’ll be icing my aging knees and pondering my next race.

My husband, who is the sort of runner who enjoys almost every minute, asked me why I keep at it. After all, that’s a lot of time to spend doing something you only occasionally enjoy. I’m not under any delusions that running will help me cheat death. My dad, who ran almost every day of his adult life, never drank alcohol or coffee, and ate veggies from his own garden, died of an aggressive leukemia at the age of 63. If I was hoping for a few extra years, I wouldn’t bother tying my shoes.  I also know that running isn’t a magic wand for weight loss. My first half-marathon helped me shed almost thirty pounds. Since then? Not one. As frustrating as that is, I do have to say that I haven’t gained the weight back, either, so it’s working on some level. But wanting to lose five more pounds isn’t enough motivation to get me out the door on a cold day.

I keep running because it gave me my life back. After three kids in four years, I was exhausted and lost. I struggled with anxiety and anger. I didn’t recognize myself inside or out.

At some point, about two weeks into running regularly, I realized something shocking. I was in a better mood. It wasn’t just a runner’s high; the days where I ran were better than the days where I didn’t.

When I crossed the finish line after my first half-marathon, I gained a new appreciation for my body. Stretch marks, sags, and all, it came through for me. In fact, I did something it couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do when I was in my twenties. That half-marathon medal came with a measure of the confidence I thought was gone forever.

Many of the aches and pains that I thought would get worse with vigorous exercise have actually improved. My sciatica faded. Eventually, even the shin splints mostly went away. It turns out my body needed regular exercise, and not just rest.

In addition to the physical benefits, regular running forces me to be disciplined. I have to plan my day to get my run finished, and that planning and order helps my mind feel a little less crazy.

Like I said, I never planned to be a runner. If you’d suggested running 13 miles when I was 20, I would have laughed at you and ordered another pizza. Even after I had kids, I somehow felt it was a selfish way to use my precious time.

But it turns out that running and mom-ing go pretty well together. It gives me an outlet, a workout, and most days, a little break from the myriad responsibilities of parenting. Running makes me a better mom.

How about you? Have you found something that has helped you find confidence after motherhood?