Finding Myself On The Edge

training on bear mountain solo shot
Alison takes in the view while training on Bear Mountain.

When I was a little girl, I always dreamed of being a mother.  I had other dreams too, usually related to a future business I would start–either a coffee shop, or a school, or a bookstore that might also sell flowers.

By the time I turned 40, a few years ago, I was a proud mother of three loving, hilarious children, and I was a co-owner of apple seeds, an all-in-one children’s play space with three NYC locations, two international locations and a national franchise in the works. I dove deeply into both roles–motherhood and business owner.  I worked nearly seven days a week, but at the hours that I chose, and this flexibility allowed me to volunteer at my children’s schools, one year even taking on the role of class parent times three.  The more I did for my kids and my work, the prouder and more accomplished I felt.  But after turning 40, I realized, almost suddenly, that there was one little something missing. I realized quite suddenly that I had let a very important part of myself go into hibernation for far too long.

I was an athlete my entire life.  A gymnast who played soccer, and a swimmer who loved to rock climb.  The more challenging the sport, the better, and I’d prioritize either a yoga class or a run in every new town or country I’d visit.  I was beginning to realize that by diving in to work and motherhood, I had put this person on hold for too long, and I wanted to find myself again.   So two years ago, I took a week off from work and did 15 yoga classes in 5 days.  I felt guilty about missing my work commitments.  I felt guiltier about missing my kids’ drop offs and pick-ups from school.

But when I got home from that 15th yoga class, I remember vividly how my now 9-year-old twin daughters ran up to me, hugged me with pride, and said almost simultaneously, “Wow mommy, you did it!  What you did is amazing!  You seemed so happy all week!  When are you planning your next adventure?”

And so, right then and there, I committed to doing at least one personal adventure every year.  I thought of the options. Maybe I could take up knitting? Or get back to the piano I learned as a child? Or dive into a new language?  I’ll get to those endeavors one day, I’m sure.  I decided for my deepest happiness, I would take on at least one adventurous athletic challenge a year.  It didn’t feel like it would take that much time, compared to the many other directions I felt pulled on a daily basis.  Was I being selfish?  Maybe.  But what I learned in that yoga week is that the time you spend with your family, or your work, or your friends is more about the quality than the quantity.

the 6 of us at the finish line!
Alison, her twins Maddie and Sydney, and their friends at the 5K finish line.

I also realized that, inadvertently, I was inspiring my kids.  I was showing them that it’s OK to take time for yourself and that it’s important to have a passion or a hobby or the space to do what you love.  My kids actually began to plan their own challenges, including running at 5k with their friends while raising money for pediatric cancer. Without planning it, I watched them internalize how to set a goal or face a dream, overshadowing complaints and fears.  I saw them internalize the importance of prioritizing their own health and happiness.

After the race, my daughter Sydney said: “When I was running with my mom, I thought about all of the kids that we were helping and I felt really good to help them.” Of all the races I have done in my life, this one will forever stand out in my memory as the greatest, with my kids by my side, running together for a cause we care so much about.

Fast forward to 2014, and I am less than one week away from taking on this year’s adventure – running across the Grand Canyon and back in one day.  This is not a sanctioned race. “Rim to Rim to Rim” is a 46-mile endurance challenge from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River, up to the North Rim, back down to the River and then back up to the original starting point. The trails include over 20,000 feet of elevation change and intimidating, sometimes dangerous switchbacks. I will share this experience with my husband Bobby, my pillar of support.  He will take on a similar challenge (going from the South Rim to the Colorado River and back up again) with a group of friends, and the idea to seek even more of his own adventures.  What makes this run especially meaningful to me is that, alongside two friends Charles Scott and Brad Graff, I will guide a blind athlete.  Dan Berlin will be the first documented blind runner to cross the Grand Canyon and back in one day.

Dan went blind in his 30s, after he had his two children.  Before allowing depression to overtake him, Dan decided to face adversity in a way that deeply inspires me.  In losing his sight, he gained a different kind of strength.  With Charles as his guide, he took up running, completing marathons and a half-ironman.   This Grand Canyon run is a giant challenge for Dan–even a sighted ultra runner is daunted by the Canyon’s potential dangers. I often wonder if I will have the strength to finish the 46 miles, and help Dan reach his goal.

The four of us will struggle, no doubt, as our bodies break down during the run.  Each of us will have to find the strength from somewhere when our bodies want to stop. None of us knows where we will find the strength to keep going when our bodies want to stop (I’m hoping this is where the calming force of my beloved yoga kicks in).   What keeps me going is my awareness that facing this challenge has made me feel more alive now than I was in my 20s and 30s.

I’ve trained for this challenge at length over the past few months, and I admit that it hasn’t been easy to balance the training with my work and family commitments.  In fact, while I’ve been thinking about the Grand Canyon for over a year, this precise moment feels like a terrible time as I really need to focus my energy on apple seeds’ national franchise roll out.  This struggle for balance is not new.  For so many parents, there are always too many demands, and not enough time and energy.  I’m learning that the key is to set goals that are meaningful and then do your best to accomplish them, while meeting your other obligations. Some days I feel completely overwhelmed and not sure how to make it all work.  But for this latest adventure, when I take the long view, I know it will be worth it.

When I feel the “mommy guilt” overtake me (often), or when I can’t seem to get off the hamster wheel of life’s commitments, rushing to and from work or school activities (more than often), I stop and ask myself two questions.   What is the story I want to tell with my life?  What role does this moment have in my journey?

Asking these questions is a little like imagining myself in old age looking back on the major decisions of my life.  My older self wants me to seek out vitality and make the most of the time I have to live. Thinking of life in this long view helps me set my priorities and even, happily, shed the small stuff.  Who has the time to sweat the small stuff anyway?

To read Alison’s reflections after her Grand Canyon run, click here

Alison Berna is one of four co-founders of apple seeds, an all-in-one children’s play space with 3 NYC and 2 international locations, and the mother of twins Maddie and Sydney, 9, and  Jack, 4.  Click here to learn more about Retinal Degenerative Disease, and to support Alison, Charles, Brad, Dan, and the Blind Institute of Technology and the Foundation Fighting Blindness.