Run Like A Mother — and never stop
The idea came to her, as many good ideas do, when she was waking.
Megan Searfoss was in the middle of training for the Lake Placid Ironman triathlon, a test of endurance not for the faint of heart. First you swim for 2.4 miles. Then ride your bicycle up and down hills — heck, mountains there — for 112 miles. And then run a full marathon, yes, 26.2 miles.
“I woke up with — ‘Run Like A Mother’,” Megan said Thursday, reflecting on the start of the 5K race in Ridgefield that now has become a Mother’s Day tradition in Connecticut and six other states. This Sunday will mark the 12th Run Like A Mother.
Like the mountains to be scaled in Lake Placid, Megan’s life has crested and dipped with thrills and challenges, successes and obstacles.
When she moved from Illinois to Ridgefield, the focus was on helping her daughters — then in second, fourth and ninth grade — adjust to new schools, make friends, get involved in activities.
“I looked around and thought, ‘what about me?’” she recalled. She began running on Sunday mornings with a few other women. In 2007, she invited friends to join on Mother’s Day morning and then get coffee after the run.
The next year, training for the Ironman, fixed the idea of making the Sunday runs into a timed 5K race.
“What I wanted to do with the race was help women feel as I do when crossing the finish line,” she said of the satisfaction that comes from pushing yourself. “In this era of hyper-parenting, we lose sight of what’s important to us.
“Selfish is not always a bad word.”
The first Run Like A Mother race in 2008 was spread by word of mouth. She expected about 50 women — within one week 500 had signed up. Wow. This race didn’t need baby steps — it was off and running.
The next year a kids’ one-mile run was added, along with a training program for those who wanted to learn how to run or improve their time.
Now registration is steady around 1,500 women and 200 children, though bad weather can dampen turnout on race day. Often mothers and daughters will run or walk together; the eldest participant was in her mid-80s.
“It’s one of the very few 5Ks where runners wear the race shirt,” Megan said. “Elite athletes don’t wear the shirt until they’ve finished. But here it’s a supportive spirit of women, a sea of color as the race starts.”
If life is like a 3.2-mile 5K, then Megan’s hit a speed bump around Mile 1.
In 2010 her three daughters were diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, an incurable and painful inflammation of the digestive tract. Her husband has Crohn’s, and from the beginning Megan’s Ironman feats were to raise money for research of the condition.
Run Like A Mother went on.
Around Mile 2, a series of speed bumps brought agonizing lows. In 2013, one of Megan’s best friends, Noreen Papa, was only 47 when she died from cancer. Noreen had been a part of Run Like A Mother from the beginning, earning the nickname of Queen Mother of the Hill for her encouragement of runners on the last steep hill.
Megan still has a catch in her throat talking of Noreen. The race has always given profits to charitable causes; now the cause is the Noreen Papa Foundation, which enables health and wellness programs at Ridgefield Library.
Megan ran the Boston Marathon that April, finishing just 10 minutes or so before the bombs exploded.
She vowed to do the Ironman triathlon that July for Noreen. To people like me, an Ironman looks impossible for the human body; for Megan it’s a thrill. Her first was in 2005 in Wisconsin; she did six in Lake Placid, and twice — in 2008 and 2010 — qualified for the world championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. That’s a big deal.
But back to 2013, the bike portion of Ironman. Around mile 70, her gears broke and she had to navigate the remaining 40-plus miles, up and down hills, with one gear. Her hamstring muscle detached; she couldn’t run. She was devastated to not finish. This was supposed to be for Noreen.
After surgery, she faced six to eight weeks recovery, the first time she had no weight-bearing exercise. She’s not one to sit still.
And then, in a synchronicity of the universe, an editor from Adams Media asked her to write a book about training for your first 5K. “See Mom Run,” a practical guide with headings such as The Hallowed Ground of Girlfriend Running, was the result.
An up: Megan opened her store, Ridgefield Running Co. in 2014. A low: Her youngest daughter, Jane, was diagnosed in 2016 with a spinal tumor. It ate through two vertebrae and could have paralyzed her. After several surgeries, Jane was well again.
On Sunday’s Run Like A Mother, Jane, now 19, will wear bib #1.
Megan exudes health and fitness. She worries about kids spending too much time in front of screens and not moving enough.
For good health, we’re supposed to exercise a minimum of 150 minutes a week, according to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Do you reach that minimum?
Even in Connecticut, which generally ranks well among other states for fitness, the obesity rates are alarming.
The Community Well Being Index, commissioned by the Fairfield County Community Foundation in 2016, showed 26 percent of people in Connecticut are obese. Think about that: One out of every four people.
The study showed a 36 percent obesity rate in Bridgeport, 22 percent in Stamford and Norwalk, 21 percent in Danbury, 18 percent in Fairfield and 16 percent in Greenwich. The correlation between income and obesity must be explored and addressed.
Also alarming: The obesity rate is growing. In Connecticut in 1990, the rate was 10.4 percent; in 2000 it was 16 percent, and by 2017 was 26.9 percent, according to The State of Obesity site.
While the state had the 10th lowest adult obesity rate in the nation, it had the 29th highest for youth aged 10 to 17.
“We’re all meant to run,” Megan said. “You don’t have to run an eight-minute mile to get benefits.” Just get moving.
Sense of accomplishment
In 2009 I was editing a story about Run Like A Mother, then approaching its second race. I put the story down, called up the website and registered for the race before thinking it through.
My heart was pounding. I had never run, other than crossing a Manhattan street. Had never been an athlete. I started blogging about it to ensure I wouldn’t chicken out.
And then something wonderful happened. My daughters Sarah and Rebecca Flinn signed up, too. It would be their first 5K. My step-daughter Barb Davis, who ran the first one, joined us. And my sister Cindy Gabriele, who was living in Pennsylvania at the time, got on board even though she had never run either.
As we all gathered at the start line, with nearly 1,500 other women, the excitement nearly sparked with electricity.
The satisfaction of crossing the finish line — of accomplishing something I never thought I could do — was empowering.
Though the race is timed, the competition is with yourself not the other women.
I’ve learned to avoid limiting self-labels, such as “not a runner.” When you’re running, or walking, down the middle of Ridgefield’s Main Street closed for the race, you feel part of something bigger.
Megan’s store, Ridgefield Running Co., was bustling Thursday morning with people getting fitted for running shoes. She recently learned her shop was named one of the top 10 in the nation by the Running Industry Association. That’s quite a feat considering it’s only five years old and, I’ll say it, a woman-owned business in a male-dominated field.
It started with Run Like A Mother, and this Sunday morning I’ll high-five Megan when I see her at the 12th annual race.
“At 54, I don’t feel any less strong than when I started,” Megan said.
I’d like to say I’ve gotten faster, but that wouldn’t be true. I still can’t run continuously, so I do run/walk intervals. Some women walk the entire way, and that’s fine too. We’re all moving.
Jacqueline Smith’s column appears Fridays in Hearst Connecticut Media daily newspapers. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org