There’s a poem a friend sent me when I was going through a difficult time. it's called "Welcome to Holland." It’s by a woman who’d given birth to a child with developmental issues. She writes about the experience like envisioning a trip to Italy - when you’re in labour you’re boarding a plane, then you’re landing, and as you’re delivering - the pilot suddenly announces, ‘Welcome to Holland’.
So after imagining this perfect trip to Italy, you land somewhere else.
But If you spend your whole time in Holland thinking about how the pasta would have tasted, or how the wine would have tasted, you’ll miss it. You’ll miss all the beauty, and the chocolate, and the wooden shoes and the tulips.
It’s super cheesy, but it’s the truth - as hard or as shitty as life may seem sometimes, there’s daily gratitude in everything. Running is part of that for me. Every step I take - I have a body that can run and the freedom in my life to do it.
I’ve been running since I was quite young. It was something I always loved, I don’t know why - growing up in a small place, there weren’t a lot of runners my age.
My first race ever, I was in junior high, I remember wearing a Bart Simpson tee-shirt. I can still feel the exhilaration of it - running in the fall across country, with crunching leaves, the smell of the woods. Every time I experience those sights and smells and sounds again I get that little gurgle in my stomach, the kind like right before a race - I still feel that first race excitement.
Running has always been mentally grounding for me, something I connect with on a spiritual and mental level. I’ve always felt drawn to it. Even my mom who doesn’t really ‘get’ running will say - if I’m going through something, ‘go put on your shoes, you know what you need to do.’
I decided to start training for triathlons in 2013. I did a lot of running in university and I just felt like I wanted to do more - I think I had exhausted my run goals and I wanted to challenge myself. I didn’t want to ever feel limited by what my body can do, and that’s always been my drive to exercise. You go to the gym and there’s so much body image-oriented thinking, which I’ve never bought into. I want to feel strong. Whatever I want my body to do - if I want to climb Everest next year - I want to feel like I’m able to train and do it.
That first triathlon, I was smiling the whole time. My cheeks were hurting. I was just like ‘OH MY GOD, this is so fun.’ The bike - you’re just going so fast. And I loved the feeling of running after the bike too, your legs are so weird and jello-y. My first year I did all Olympic distance races. The second, I did my first half iron man. Then I got pregnant. I still trained. When I couldn’t reach the biathlon bars, I went to spin class. Eventually my stomach got too big to reach those bars. Wearing my swimsuit got more and more scandalous as it stretched. But I was on my spin bike until 37 weeks.
I was planning to save my full Ironman for my midlife crisis, but I think that already happened. For about a year and a half or more I was treading water because I had to. It was pure survival. I was at a point where I had to figure life out again.
I’m a single mom, and after I moved my son and I from out west, I was working full time. It was stressful. We got through the move and landed on our feet, and I decided I needed to get back to triathloning. We didn’t have a lot of money to tie things together, but I found a little treadmill on Kijiji and set up my trainer in the basement. I wanted to do another half Ironman. I’d get up at 3 or 5am in the morning, or I’d be exercising until midnight or 1am after I got him to sleep - I was burning the candle at both ends. Two nights a week I got a babysitter and I’d go swim for an hour. I was only taking two hours a week for myself, but I felt TERRIBLY guilty about it - and that parental guilt is so awful. I had a lot of guilt. People said to me, ‘why don’t you do a smaller distance, do a sprint distance, you’re a mom…’ I think from their perspective it was about trying to help me find balance, but it was important for me to show my son it’s valuable. Taking time out is really important - the same with me working. I feel so strongly he needs to know that balance, and the importance of personal wellness and self-love, because it’s made me a better parent I think.
I still get up in the mornings to do my workouts before he wakes up. I’ve thankfully never had to spend too much time away from him to train - even when I go for 100K rides, I’ll get up at 3am to get it in, so I don’t have to spend too much time away. I don’t think being a parent has changed why I run, but it’s definitely made me more purposeful.
My one year runner-versary with the North End Runners is coming up. Even though I still feel new to the crew, there’s a family orientation that feels really embracing and supportive, in particular being a single mom who did all my exercise in the basement by myself. I’m so happy to be running outside with other people. I think the most important parts for me (and my run story and my parenting story) is just that - the gratitude. And of course equity, the camaraderie of women, and female runners supporting each other.
My son admires strong women, his favourite superhero is Wonder Woman. He thinks I’m her sometimes.
One of his favourite books to read before he goes to bed every night is about Bobbi Gibb, the first woman to run Boston. When they get to the part where she runs by Wellesley College he’s the first one who hops up with, ‘go girl go! you’re my hero!’ It’s amazing.
But it can still seem really, really overwhelming sometimes - and we’re not superheroes.
Don’t put too many expectations on yourself to be everything because you can’t. You’re going to suck at some things, and be good at others. Some days will be better than others. Ultimately, our kids have to see us feeling fulfilled. It’s important for them to see you being you, for them to learn that’s not something you can compromise - you can’t compromise who you are and what makes you happy, and I think that’s a valuable lesson. Drop the guilt. Allow yourself the guilt-free moments that give you joy. We all have these unfillable voids in us we need to fill with the good stuff - to be fulfilled, to be better parents.
It’s been a struggle, but everyday I find something to be grateful for and start there. When I can get up in the morning and actually run outside, I’m just so grateful, it’s never lost on me. The hardest part of running is getting your laces tied and getting out the door. Once you’re doing it - that’s it. Drop your judgement of yourself - I’m too slow, I’m too fast, I’m too whatever - get all that inner dialogue out of your head and remember why you want to do it. You’re doing it for yourself, for joy, to get all that negative chatter out of your mind.
Take a deep breath, put your shoes on and ‘welcome yourself to Holland’.
Leah is a Mom (and superwoman), and a sponsored triathlete on the Tri It Multisport team.