In late summer my wonderful mother passed away. The manner of her death was very shocking. She had been diagnosed with cancer just four weeks previously – a tumour in her bowel had grown without any symptoms, or being detected in the bowel cancer test given to over-60s, and spread to her liver and lungs. Her consultant told us there was no healthy liver left and, despite our hopes she might have palliative chemotherapy to give her more time, she deteriorated very rapidly. There was nothing that could be done for her.
It was not just the speed of mum's death that shocked us, but the fact that she was ill at all. She was 66 and in fantastic shape – she had been at the gym a week before her diagnosis and was a keen runner, completing the New York marathon some years earlier and still chalking up the miles albeit on a running machine now as she worried about the effect of pounding the concrete on her knees as she got older.
I had definitely not followed in Mum's speedy steps. Over the years I had taken up running periodically, usually worried about an expanding waistline or occasionally cajoled into joining friends on charity runs. I'd never got beyond 5k (and even that was a struggle). Just as I seemed to be improving, some reason – a cold, bad back, holiday, childcare commitments or a full-on bout of socialising – would mean I'd drop the running and next time I tried again I'd be back where I'd started.
But this time feels different. I'm doing 6k now and don't feel exhausted or sore afterwards. I'm aiming for 10k by Christmas and am even considering entering a half-marathon in April (also with a bereaved friend and definitely in aid of Cancer Research).
So what has changed now? The thought of Mum is pushing me on. She didn't take up running herself until she was around my age (43) and always said anyone could do it "you just need to put the miles in". I scoffed a bit (and then scoffed some food) but now I think she was right. Her words matter more to me now she has gone. In the past I would often stop when I felt tired but now I push on through; I feel as if stopping would be letting her down. She showed such tremendous bravery in her last days, so I think of her and feel inspired: I want her to feel proud of me. I also feel closer to her when I run – I'm even wearing her shoes – and it gives me the solitude, the time to think and grieve that coming to terms with loss requires.
So maybe I shouldn't be thinking about whether grief is making me a better runner. Instead is it that running is making grief a little easier?