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Mom loved running. On Mother’s Day, I run to feel close to her.

When you watch your 50-year-old mother run her first marathon, you feel wildly inspired to run one yourself

Emily Halnon with her mother, Andrea, on a walk along Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vt., in 2019. (Andrea Halnon)

I went into hiding the first Mother’s Day without my mom.

She passed away from a rare uterine cancer in January 2020, and the pain of losing her was raw. The smallest reminders of her felt like hot embers of grief.

I wasn’t up for the avalanche of emails that would assault my inbox on Mother’s Day. Corporate America never misses a holiday sale, and the “Don’t forget Mom next week!” promotions were like a stab to my heart with a screwdriver.

As if I could forget.

My mom was the very best mom. Her fierce love for my brother and me was always on display.

When she would fly out from Vermont to visit me in Oregon, she would post Facebook updates from her layover. “Now in Denver. Getting closer to my baby!” she’d e-squeal, alongside a photo of the two of us grinning after a run along the river during her previous visit.

Living 3,000 miles apart didn’t stop her from being a huge part of my life. We would text or call daily with stories about runs and bike rides and books. She would send me photos of her cat Rocco and I would reply with pictures of Brutus, my schnauzer. She loved handwritten mail, and nearly every week, I’d see her teacherly handwriting across an envelope in my mailbox. Another card from mom, just because.

Mother’s Day felt like another cruel reminder that there was a huge hole in my life.

So on Mother’s Day 2020, I packed up my puppy and camping stuff. And I went to where cell service and retail emails couldn’t find me.

But of course that was a short-term fix. Because then came her birthday. My birthday. The anniversary of her death. Mother’s Day again. And every other religious and Hallmark holiday.

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On my first birthday without her last year, in October 2020, I toiled for weeks: What do I do with this impossibly hard day?

I decided to run my age around town. I figured 37 miles would make me tired enough to stop feeling some of the emotional pain. I would be too busy huffing my way up every hill in Eugene to notice the empty mailbox or the absence of the one call I wanted most.

And it was something my mom would do. She was always marking her birthdays with big runs and big bike rides. She even rode her age on her bike into her 60s.

My mom is every reason I’m a runner. I watched her run her first marathon at age 50, and it’s hard to watch your 50-year-old mother run a marathon and not feel wildly inspired to run one yourself.

So I did that. And she joined me — and beat me to the finish by 20 minutes. She was waiting for me with a Mylar blanket and a mama bear hug.

That marathon was the start of a lot of shared running between us. We would road-trip all over New England to run races together. I paced her during a half-marathon, and during my first 50-miler, she met me along the course with food and cheers. When I got injured or missed a goal, she was my first text because she always knew what to say. And she was my reflexive call when I finished my first 100-miler. Her excitement matched my own. Running was a constant thread through our texts, our visits, our relationship. Running was our love language.

When I ran 37 miles on my birthday, it was the perfect fall day. Sunlight spilled through the golden foliage. A soft fall breeze rippled through the trees along the trail. I felt the soft earth beneath my feet and thought about how much my mom loved running in the fall.

I remembered running my first half marathon with her in Vermont on dirt roads. We celebrated our finishes with fresh cider doughnuts that were still steaming when we ripped into them.

Thirty-seven miles wasn’t enough to erase the pain or make me forget that my mom was gone.

But as I ran with my grief close to me on that impossibly hard day, I felt the warmth of her, too.

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When the first anniversary of her death hit just a few months later, I still didn’t know what to do with the day. But I found myself on another run.

I ran a half marathon, her favorite distance. And I knew she would be doing the exact same thing if she was faced with an especially tough day.

She stayed active all through cancer and chemotherapy. When she couldn’t run, she walked. The ritual of putting one foot in front of the other continued to give her peace and joy. She kept turning to the rolling dirt roads surrounding her home in Vermont. It was one of the ways she kept living wholeheartedly through cancer.

I let running do the same for me, as I ran every day after my last goodbye to her. The steady footfalls grounded me. Memories of her washed over me as grief boiled in my chest. Not the mental images of her I had from the hospice home. But the ones of her running off-road with an excited stride and a joyful grin.

I felt everything as I ran. The ache of grief. The fierce love. The hot anger of loss. The gratitude for every mile we had together.

I hadn’t known what to do on the anniversary of her death, but running was the answer, again.

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Running was a big part of how we stayed so close while she was here.

And now, running is how I feel close to her, when all I want is to see her again.

This Mother’s Day will be another reminder that my mom is gone.

But this year, I won’t go into hiding. I’ll grab my running shoes and head to the trails.

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