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Amy Donaldson: Daughter's birthday celebration a reminder that the best gifts can't be bought
Rachel Gitlin runs on a dirt road near Navajo Lake in the Top of Zion Relay. This race was the way she celebrated her 20th birthday. - photo by Amy Donaldson

Our first run together was a disaster.
She cried. I scolded.
“Running is my break from stress,” I said somewhere between lecturing and begging. “No whining allowed.”
But she was just 10 or 11 and when something hurt, she cried. This was both an understandable reaction and something I thought she should overcome.
Pain is part of running.
Pain is part of life.
If she could run through the pain, she could conquer. At least that was what I thought. But like most things I believed when I was younger, dealing with life’s agonies is much more complicated than that.
In truth, I understood her complaints. Her lungs hurt and her side ached. And many, many days, I have wondered what she asked me repeatedly on that warm summer afternoon, “Why do you think this is fun?”
As a kid I saw running as punishment. It’s what my basketball coach made us do after missed free throws. It’s what my softball coach forced us to do if we giggled too much while he talked. It’s what my friends did when they wanted to lose weight.
Running is what you did when you failed at something else. Running is how you prepared to do the stuff you actually wanted to enjoy.
Running was not a reward.
It wasn’t a reward until life beat me up a bit.
Then the very thing I dreaded, even lied to avoid, became my refuge. How many times have I started a run with a heavy load, only to return home with perspective that whatever I faced, I was strong enough.
So I wanted to share this not-so-secret power source with my daughters. Rachel was my oldest, and so when she was in fourth or fifth grade, I started to entice her into signing up for races with me. On the first 5K we ran together, she started crying as soon as we hit that first hill.
I was embarrassed and frustrated. I pleaded with her to push herself. I tried to shame her into silence. Rachel was not moved by anything I hissed into her ear. She continued to complain — and to cry.
While I contemplated all the ways I was failing as a mother, I had an idea.
“How about a bet?” I pleaded. “If you beat me to the finish, I will clean your cat’s litter box for a month.”
She stopped crying — and running.
“How about three months?” she countered.
Desperate, I agreed to the deal, and we began running.
She beat me to the finish line fair and square. She beamed, and I vowed never to sign her up for a race again.
It turns out that was a promise I would break — a lot.
And while I endured a lot more complaining and a little more crying, eventually, she found her own joy in the sport. As a ninth-grader she was horrified by my suggestion that she participate in her high school's cross-country workouts.
“You know they run at 6 a.m., right?” she said with equal parts disgust and horror. The next year, she signed up for those summer workouts on her own.
One day a couple of years ago, she dragged me to the gym. As I watched her on the treadmill next to me, I realized everything had changed. I almost started crying, but instead I started laughing as I remembered what I told her on that first run.
“Crying just makes running harder,” I’d said. “Why make something that’s already difficult even more challenging.”
On Sunday we celebrated Rachel’s 20th birthday. It was a pretty subdued dinner party because we were recovering from running the Top of Zion Relay this weekend.
It was our eighth long-distance relay as teammates. As I watched her run on a dirt road near Navajo Lake Saturday afternoon, I thought about that first run. As I saw her helping other runners along the route, I remembered how she told me that she didn’t think running was her thing.
Rachel ran cross-country and track in high school, but she never won a race. Other than the best team name award we won this weekend as Team Cheaper than Therapy, she hasn’t won anything the rest of the world would acknowledge. Especially given the thousands of dollars we’ve spent on running gear and race entry fees.
But as I watched her describe her final few miles of this scenic relay to our teammates, I was reminded that sometimes the best prizes can’t be mounted on a wall or put in a trophy case. Sometimes the greatest competition is the struggle with your own self-doubt. By embracing challenges, she makes herself stronger and more capable to wrestle with life’s unavoidable heartbreaks.
She doesn’t need me to challenge her anymore. She no longer requires a bribe to push herself. She has her own reasons for seeking solace in a sport that teaches you how to grow and adapt — even when you don’t think you need or want to do so.
I know life will be much harder than any of the hills or headwinds we faced this weekend. But in those moments that seem dark and endless, I hope she will remember all the times she accomplished what she didn’t think she could.
I hope she will recall how she ran through pain, through fear, through doubt, and even through tears. I hope she will remember that the greatest gifts life offers don’t come in packages and they often don’t even come from other people.
And I pray that years from now, Rachel Jeanne will recall her 20th birthday celebration as the weekend she realized that even when the running was hardest, she was able to appreciate the beauty around her and the strength inside of her.