My postpartum journey back to the race course wasn’t always pretty, but it taught me how much I was capable of… and helped me quiet my mind in the process.

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Photo Courtesy of Gabrielle Russon

Before having a child, I was a proud, pudgy marathoner who ran races in Missoula, Montana, Tokyo, and everywhere in between.

Running was my therapy in my 20s when I dealt with bad boyfriends and stressful deadlines from my journalism career. In my 30s, after I got married, it was my excuse to travel and see the world.

Eventually, my husband and I decided to start our family.

I stopped running in my second trimester when the pain in my middle felt too much. If I couldn’t run, at least I could walk. On the day my water broke, I power-walked five miles in the Florida heat.

Six weeks after I gave birth to my son, Boomer, I ran my first mile. It seemed to last forever. I felt miserable. My legs felt shaky; my boobs hurt in my ancient Target sports bra. Maybe this was a mistake, I thought between clenched teeth.

It got better slowly — only because I kept going.

The one-miler turned into two miles. I invested in a better sports bra. I celebrated my first 5K as I ran to quiet the loud voices in my head. Is the baby eating enough? Am I a good mom if I’m working? Can I really do this?

My runs gave me peace from the postpartum anxiety and the overwhelming feelings that churned in my head. Eventually I hit five miles, under the Orlando skyline. Oh, how I had missed my old running route… and I was back. It didn’t matter how far or fast I ran, just as long as I stayed moving.

Sometimes my running buddy, Boomer, joined me on my runs. “No excuses!” a stranger said, giving me a thumbs up, as I went by pushing the stroller. It made me go a little faster.

In the hot afternoon sun, I would peel off my shirt and run in my sports bra, feeling the wind on my back. I felt good. I didn’t care about the extra weight on my frame that I still hadn’t lost. I just ran.

On the bad days, when I was exhausted from late night feedings, I dreaded lacing up my shoes and going out the front door. A 5K never felt so far. But I always returned home feeling more re-energized.

I surprised myself by looking forward to the long runs on my calendar. My brain was still. I stopped worrying about the dirty dishes piling up, my freelance writing, and my intense focus on being the best mom I could be. I was just free to run.

I ran a half marathon at three months postpartum. My participant’s medal felt like an Olympic medal to me. After that, I knew I was ready for my next challenge: a full marathon. I needed to see if I still had my old runner’s self in me after all these changes in my life.

I signed up for the Boston Marathon, the most prestigious race in the world. I was going to run 26.2 miles, eight months postpartum.

Training was uneventful, besides the increasing confidence I felt. I finished my 19-mile training run, fist-pumping in the air like a mad woman to ACDC’s “Thunderstruck”. I felt strong and ready for Boston.

My race day routine was different as a new mom.

The morning of the marathon, I FaceTimed with Boomer who cheerfully babbled back from Florida. I missed him terribly.

Leaving my son at home gave me a new type of race day jitters. I reminded myself of my inspiration – to show Boomer how strong Mommy was, to teach him to be healthy and set goals to challenge himself.

The Boston Marathon offered nursing mothers a private medical tent to pump by the start line and then transported the breast pumps back to the finish line so we could pick them up after the race. I pumped near another woman; two strangers feeling the race jitters.

And then my race began.

In the early miles, my legs sensed trouble right away. These were hills they hadn’t felt before training in flat Orlando. I knew it was going to be a long day. I prayed I didn’t get swept off the course for going too slow.

But then a peculiar thing happened. The swell of humanity pushed me along.

The crowds lining up 26.2 miles outside of the city and all the way through Boston roared at me to keep going. I high-fived every child I could.

On the back of my shirt was “First marathon post-baby!” The front of my shirt had my name on it, and the crowds cheered for me like I was a celebrity. “GO GABBY!” they yelled.

Throughout the course — miraculously, when the hills felt the steepest — runners appeared at my side and congratulated me. The kinship was the perfect distraction. I forgot about my aching feet and my cramping thighs.

At one point, I ran with a woman who was four months pregnant with her second child. The woman’s strong runner’s heart helped her get through a tough delivery of her first baby, she said. Together, we passed a sign that said, “You go, girl!” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of women running the Boston Marathon.

Another woman admitted she was doing her first post-baby marathon too. It was tough training, but she was happy to be on the course, she said.

One mama-runner commiserated with me about the postpartum feelings and how running mattered so much. We were running, doing something for ourselves, and we agreed it felt so important not to give that up. We could let date nights go, no problem. But our long runs? No way.

Our chat was cut short. We had reached the final mile.

My face was a rainbow when I turned left onto the famous Boylston Street. I beamed from ear to ear while I blinked back tears crossing the finish line. I thought of how far I’d come, of the long hours training, of the strength and sanity I found along the way. I was also ready to go back home to my baby.

Gabrielle Russon is an Orlando-based freelance journalist. She previously was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, and her newspaper career has also included the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the Toledo Blade, the Kalamazoo Gazette and the Elkhart Truth. She graduated from Michigan State University.