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My First Tough Tiger

“You psyched, Zoe?” I asked my daughter as we approached the starting line.

“Yeah!” She said. “You?”

“Oh, yes,” I said, mustering up as much false enthusiasm as I could. I adjusted the custom-decorated sweatband Zoe had made for me, ensuring that the “Super Mom” part was centered on my forehead.

“How long is the run again?” I asked.

“One point eight,” another mom said. “With two obstacle courses.”

“And the mud!” Zoe added.

Ah, yes, we couldn’t forget the mud. We’d been talking about the mud all week.

Deep breath in, Julie, and a deep breath out.

You see, I’m not what you’d call “sporty.” No one has anyone ever called me “athletic,” or “tough,” or, come to think of it, “a runner.” And mud? Puh-leaze. So not my thing.

Besides from lacking athleticism, I also don’t have much of a competitive streak. The only ambitious nature I have is to try and out-read myself each year. 25 books, 30 books. Bigger books. Faster page turning. More nonfiction, try to improve my ratio of memoir to historical fiction. You heard that right: I do not measure success in miles run, but in pages read.

And yet.

Since moving to Barrington last summer from Scarsdale, NY, I have developed what you might call a decent active streak. Lured by the pretty neighborhoods in town and the view of Narragansett Bay from Nayatt Road, I started “running” in July. (I walk-run-walk-run, hence the quotation marks.) And, for the first time since I was 10 years old, I own and regularly ride a bicycle. (It has no gears, but still. It’s turquoise and retro-looking and I love it!) And, after years of wanting to teach indoor cycling, I finally got certified and now teach my own weekly class.

But did any of those criteria make me ready for my first Tough Tiger?

I looked around. Surrounded by the other Room 13 Rockstars, including Zoe’s teacher, some moms and dads, the 4th graders and their siblings, I couldn’t help but get excited. It would be fun to compete as a group, and, hopefully, to cross the finish line in one piece.

Megaphone raised to her mouth, a teacher at Hampden Meadows called out to our team positioned at the starting line. “Everyone ready? Then…GO!”

Zoe and I were off! She quickly sprinted ahead with two friends, the three girls giggling and racing along. “You are going to get tired!” I called out to them, “Go slower!”

Just three houses ahead, I caught up with them, panting and gasping for air.

“C’mon girls!” One of the dads called out. “Keep running!”

“I have a cramp!” Zoe complained, doubled over.

“This. Is. Too. Hard.” Another one said, between breaths.

“Too. Hard!” the other echoed.

“Aww, c’mon, guys, just pace yourselves.” We told them.

“Jog like me, Zo,” I said. “Try my old lady stride.”

“I think I’ll just do that New York City power walk that Nana taught me,” she said, swinging her arms side-to-side and mimicking the quick heel-toe-heel-toe gait of my mother on Fifth Avenue, trying to bypass slow-moving tourists.

Since the girls were lagging behind, I spent most of the first leg of the run looking over my shoulder and encouraging them to keep up the good work.

The other moms and dads were similarly motivating. “In the Marine Corp, they don’t just let you stop!” Zoe’s friend’s dad said as the girls took another short siesta near some daffodils.

“Yeah,” I started to say. But I had no advice to match that. “What he said!”

We finally reached a table set up with cups of water, followed by the first obstacle course.

“I’m just gonna throw my cup to the ground and keep going the way they do in marathons,” Zoe said. She’s a method actress, my daughter, who likes to get into character. I reminded her that this in no way resembled a marathon and that she needed to place the cup delicately in the recycling box to her left before moving on to hurdle hurdles and climb bushels of hay.

As we entered the final run through the woods and made our way over tree roots that might have sprained my ankle but did not, I realized something.

I could totally do this.

Not only was I was capable of participating in an obstacle course designed for nine year olds, I was capable of encouraging those nine year olds to finish strong.

“Finish strong!” We adults told our children as we emerged from the dense overgrowth and onto the smooth blacktop behind the school.

“Pick up your pace! Make it look like you’ve been running this whole way,” one mom wisely advised. I picked up my pace and pretended too.

Zoe and I lined up for the rope wall. We exchanged thumbs ups and observed how others were moving over the structure. Once Zoe was safely on the other side, I waited in line a few people behind her. But by the time I hit the ground, she had dashed ahead with her friends and was nowhere to be found.

Under more hurdles, and through the tires I went. “Hey!” One friend on the sidelines called out. “You are almost there!” She laughed and said that her daughter had left her in the dust as well.

Then I approached the finish line. The only thing standing between me and an awaiting taco truck now was mud.

Zoe was about to enter the pit. “Wait for me, Zoe!” But, too excited and too far ahead, she didn’t hear my plea. She crawled through the sludge without me.

I dashed to the edge of the mud. “C’mon, Mom!” Zoe said, jumping up and down on the other side of hell. What kind of child had I raised, to cross the finish line without me? Jeez. The Tough Tiger motto should be “No Mother Left Behind,” I though, taking a step towards her. Cold, wet clay instantly soaked through the bottom of my sneakers, and in that moment, I had a second realization.

I had been mentally and physically prepared to crawl through mud with my daughter. I pictured us holding hands and moving as one, like synchronized swimmers. But, now that she had already completed the task, was my mud-crawl really necessary? Wouldn’t it just be, you know, purely superfluous for me to get dirty too?

I took a step back and circled around the mud pit, sidestepping it entirely. Then I casually and cleanly crossed the finish line.

“Why didn’t you wait for me, Zoe?” I asked like a petulant child.

“I was having so much fun! I just couldn’t stop! I’m sorry, Mom.“ she said.

I was about to push the issue even further when I caught sight of a dad who had face planted in the mud. He was covered head to toe in the stuff, looking slightly startled.

No thank you very much, I thought.

I grabbed my beautiful, mud-covered daughter and hugged her tightly to my crisp, white race t-shirt. My impulsive, dash-ahead child had saved me from that man’s muddy fate.

“Zo, I absolutely loved doing the Tough Tiger with you!” I gushed, the truth of those words surprising even me. And then I had my final light bulb moment. “You know, next year, I really think you should sign up with Dad.”

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