I started running for the first time back in 1996, the same year I kicked a decade-long smoking habit. I knew that quitting smoking would never work unless I supported it with other healthy lifestyle habits. And so, my original goal, the first time I ventured out into the big wide world with running shoes on, was simply to get my butt off the couch and do some exercise.

Imagine my astonishment at discovering that I actually liked to run. By the end of the first month, I was not merely going out to run in order to get exercise and keep my weight down. I was running because I wanted to.

Who knew?

By the time I discovered that I was pregnant in 2003, I was a well-established part of the Toronto running scene. I participated in every event I could get my hands on, my life was all about race numbers and personal best times, and I was in the best shape of my life. I saw no reason why I couldn’t continue running throughout my pregnancy.

As it turned out, my body had other ideas. A smallish percentage of women, including yours truly, have a problem where their inner ear fluid gets completely messed up by pregnancy. I was having trouble keeping my balance at the best of times – there was no way I would pull it off with an ever-changing centre of gravity, while wintery conditions (read: ice on the sidewalks) prevailed. And so, much to my dismay, I had to hang up the running shoes.

It was supposed to be a pregnancy-only thing, but my break from running turned out to be a lot longer than expected. There always seemed to be something preventing me from going back. New mommy exhaustion. The pressures of combining work with family. Mourning the loss of my Dad. Postpartum depression after the birth of James. Being hit with George’s autism diagnosis. When I did try to return to running, an old injury – a previously broken ankle – flared up and caused me grief. On another occasion, I developed plantar fasciitis – an excruciating foot ailment that lasted for a full year.

The long and the short of it is that in early 2009, I had not run for six years and my weight had ballooned to a number way higher than it had been during either of my pregnancies.

Then, after one magical email, everything changed.

The email was from an organization that has been a lifesaver for my family since the time of George’s diagnosis: the Geneva Centre for Autism. They were entering a team in that year’s Charity Challenge portion of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Half-Marathon and 5km event. Was I interested in being a part of the team?

Hell yes, I thought excitedly, hungrily scanning the email for sign-up information. The 5km run, I decided. That would be a perfect way to get me back into the sport. I filled in the registration form, but just before I clicked “submit”, something made me stop.

I didn’t want to do the 5km run. Back in my heyday of racing several years previously, the 5km distance had been my least favourite. I had excelled in the distance runs, the ones where I had to use pacing strategies and experiment with my limits of mental toughness. If I was going to race again, I wanted to really challenge myself.

I pulled out my calendar and worked out that with six months to go until the race, I just about had enough time to train for the half-marathon. Without giving myself time to think it through, I changed the distance on the registration form and submitted it. And that was it. I was committed.

Overnight, I changed from a couch potato into someone obsessed with getting in the right amount of mileage for each day. This time, I knew that the running would stick. I knew that there would be no circumstances, no injuries that would keep me on the sidelines. All I had needed, it turned out, was the right motivation.

What better motivation could there possibly be than doing something to benefit my child?

During my training for that first autism run, I got back into shape, shed sixty pounds, and best of all, rekindled my love of running. My time for the half-marathon was less than stellar, but I didn’t care. All I cared about, as I stood completely spent at the finish line, was that I had done it. I had run this race for my child and for other people living with similar challenges to him, and the sense of victory was so immense that it brought tears to my eyes.

I did it again the next year, knocking more than six minutes off my time.

I am doing it again this year, for the third time. This time, I have a lofty goal: to break two hours for the half-marathon.

This annual event, my Run for Autism, brings together the elements of my life that I am passionate about. Not only am I raising funds for a cause that affects my child, I am modelling a healthy lifestyle and a love of physical fitness – setting an example that my kids will hopefully follow. At the same time, this annual project gives me opportunities to be an advocate for people with autism, whose unique, out-of-the-box ways of problem solving can make them a truly valuable asset to society. And while I’m doing all of this, I get to run.

I feel as if I have rediscovered a part of my soul that was missing for a long time.

Sometimes people ask me how I do it, what it is that enables me to train for months on end and then race for 13 miles.

For me, the answer is simple. My son lives with the challenges of autism, day in and day out. Surely I can manage running for a mere two hours at a time.

It really is the least I can do for my child.

Have you ever been inspired by your kids to do something special that goes beyond the bounds of regular parenting?

This is an original post for World Moms Blog by Kirsten Doyle of Toronto, Canada.  Kirsten can also be found on her blog, Running for Autism, or on Twitter @Running4autism.

Photo credit to Action Sports International professional sports photography.

Kirsten Doyle (Canada)

Kirsten Doyle was born in South Africa. After completing university, she drifted for a while and finally washed up in Canada in 2000. She is Mom to two boys who have reached the stage of eating everything in sight (but still remaining skinny). Kirsten was a computer programmer for a while before migrating into I.T. project management. Eventually she tossed in the corporate life entirely in order to be a self-employed writer and editor. When Kirsten is not wrestling with her kids or writing up a storm, she can be seen on Toronto's streets putting many miles onto her running shoes. Every year, she runs a half-marathon to benefit children with autism, inspired by her older son who lives life on the autism spectrum. Final piece of information: Kirsten is lucky enough to be married to the funniest guy in the world. Connect with her on Facebook and on Twitter @running4autism. Be sure to check out her personal blog, Running for Autism!

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