If you find yourself in London and decide to go for a run, look out for Paula. Chances are at some point, you’ll see her with a fleet of enthusiastic runners close by. But it's not that Paula. Paula Mitchell, a native Texan who lives in London, facilitates groups of running mothers, most of whom she recruits when they’re running on their own around town. Maybe you’ll hear their feet pounding toward you, but more likely, you’ll hear their voices first.
It’s the sound of mother-runners on the path, and it’s a growing phenomenon that gives new meaning to the phrase social movement.
While thousands of groups of running moms begin formally online, many others are simply casual groups of neighborhood moms who notice each other on the sidewalks at the crack of dawn, getting a run in before the kids wake up and the hectic day launches. Or, they see each other in running gear at the school bus stop and make “fast friends.” The friendships build, a running day is set, and the pairings expand to triplets, eventually developing into small cadres of mothers operating their own aerobic neighborhood watch. These mothers aren’t Paula Radcliffes in the making, but the organizers of running groups for mothers know the potential to transform these women in powerful ways.
Leaders like Paula Mitchell welcome mothers of all running levels into their support groups of runners, knowing that running gives an escape that can preserve a mom’s sanity and provides a network of other women. Having lived in Borneo, Indonesia, and Belgium since leaving the U.S. for her husband’s career 15 years ago, Mitchell knows how it feels for mothers to feel isolated and without connections, especially in a foreign country. She began building informal running groups of other ex-pat mothers after moving to London and now leads beginner and experiences groups that tour London several times a week and travel together to half-marathons all over Europe. “My goals are to take these new runners from nothing to being able to call themselves runners. I get way more satisfaction out of that than being able to run a marathon two or three minutes faster than I did last time. There were times when that was important to me, but not anymore, ” says Mitchell.
Mitchell structures and leads the groups to give ex-pat mothers in London a footing when they find themselves living in a new city with few instant friendships. Even though she describes the groups as “loosely knit,” more than 100 women have been a part of her effort and come to rely on it as part of their lives while their families live in London. Among the words they use to describe Mitchell’s service are “amazing” and “inspirational,” and of her runners, Mitchell says, “Ex-pat women move to different cities every two years. They have no family, no friends around them. And they’re often frustrated or a little bit unhappy.” Their husbands go to the office, and the kids go to school, becoming immersed in new surroundings, but the women stay at home. “Most of our women are 35 to 55,” Mitchell says, “and a lot of them are completely lacking in confidence, just in life. And once they start running, they think they can do anything. And they can. Their whole frame of reference changes. It’s amazing to see the transformation.”
Not only do these runners develop greater confidence in their fitness, they experience new joy in life. “They go and do things they would have never done before. Changes that are internal, but you can see it on their faces, because they’re happier,” Mitchell reports. She attributes the transformation in her runner-mothers to the convergence of a social network of support and greater health and fitness in a sport that does not have to be competitive to be rewarding. “Most other sports are competitive,” she says. “You’re playing tennis against someone. Somebody wins and someone loses. Or someone is better than you. But running, you just throw on a pair of shoes and off you go.”
Along the same line, there are mothers who make a regular, obligatory visit to the gym to spend a reluctant hour on a machine or in a class, with the goal of losing weight, caring for their cardiovascular health, or preparing for a summer in a bathing suit.
And then there are the mothers who run.
These women make the time in their hectic family and work lives to run because it preserves a part of themselves that transcends the size of their jeans, concerns about blood pressure, or lounging at the local pool. Mother-runners are a community of women who turn to running for social connection, personal empowerment, and the knowledge that their running is a service to their families as well as themselves. While running might tone their quads or calves, mother-runners know that it is their core that is strengthened most from their passion and practice.
Happy Mother's Day, runner-mothers. Here's to neglecting our kids, one mile at a time.