Written by Katie Arnold
Not long ago a friend suggested I put the word “mother” in front of “runner” on my website, saying. “You’d really connect with a lot of moms out there.” It’s true, of course. I am a mother and a runner, but I believe that both are worthy of merit on their own, and that neither word needs modification from the other.
Why do we feel compelled to identify women first as mothers? When we lead with our reproductive status, does it legitimize our success in other arenas, or diminish it? Does it honor our work as mothers or demean those who, by choice or circumstance, aren’t? When I edit “mother” out of my bio or move it down in a long line of nouns, am I denying a part of myself or, worse, my own daughters?
After I won a major ultra-marathon, in 2018, I naively thought I wouldn’t need the other descriptors. Surely now that I’d posted one of the fastest women’s time in Leadville 100 history, my running would stand for itself. Just as I thought that after I published my first book, in 2019, my writing would, too. But we live in a world obsessed with labels, and at 46, I seemed to defy them all. Was I an up-and-comer or a late-bloomer? A one-shot wonder or a serious contender? Was I an author who happened to be an athlete or an athlete who wrote a book? Sometimes even I’m not sure. Am I a mother first or a writer? A wife or a runner? The order of importance depends on the day.
It’s not that I don’t have enormous respect for women who juggle child-rearing and careers, or parenting, period—no modifications needed. It’s not that I don’t love my children more than my own breath, while understanding that being a mother has most certainly made me a better runner and being a runner has made me a more patient and present mother. But the two parts of my identity exist wholly and separately within me, at the same time that they are completely intertwined. It’s a conundrum I grapple with daily, as do most women I know, though our descriptors may be different. And fairly certain that elite male athletes seeking sponsorship or media coverage are not identified first and foremost as “fathers.” And that the paternal status of male authors is not widely reported.
In the end, I suppose, the labels don’t matter. When I run high above tree line, glossy black ravens swooping overhead, I am free from the need to please or be good, to be successful, to fit the mainstream feminine, maternal ideal, or to be anyone other than who I am. I accept myself completely in those moments. I am running for joy, for devotion and dedication, for the inner strength that arises when I push beyond my perceived limits. I love my husband and my daughters, but running is how I’ve learned to love myself. And this is a feeling that transcends language and needs no words.