Over Thanksgiving when I offered my mother a second cookie, she politely declined. “I can’t,” she said. “I’m dieting.”
I examined my svelte, sixtyish mother who after years of struggling with her weight was leaner and in better shape than she’d ever been before. “Why?” I asked putting the lid back on the cookie tin.
“Oh, I always do between Thanksgiving and New Year’s,” she replied breezily. “During the holiday season I try to lose two pounds.”
“Okay,” I said carefully. I’d never been aware of this before, but since I find it a good mother/daughter strategy to be across-the-board supportive, I said, “That’s probably good since most people gain weight during this month.”
“I know,” said my mom, taking a sip of coffee. “So I figure if I lose two pounds instead of gain five then really I’m down a total of seven pounds by the first of January.” She paused, and then, looking like the cat that swallowed the canary, added, “At least that’s what I tell everyone.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “Seriously, Mother?” My mom has always had a unique way of bending reality to fit situations as she pleases, but this was a bit of a stretch.
She smiled and shrugged, impervious to my daughter scorn.
But in the weeks that followed, I couldn’t help but ponder what I came to think of as “Mary’s Math.” My mother’s claim of a seven pound weight loss wasn’t exactly a truth bullseye, but her strategy of widening the target circle to enhance a sense of achievement made me wonder if she was onto something. A self-help tool of sorts. By reworking the numbers to accentuate the victories–honoring the smallest achievements, drawing hope from the faintest silver lining, and cheering loudly when crossing the finish line–we could boost our confidence levels and keep our focus on the gains (or in my mother’s case, the losses).
Fast forward two months. Mid-February, I stopped by my friend Carrie’s office to discuss plans for the half-marathon that she and I were participating in just a few days later. It was Carrie’s first event, and even though she had been dutifully following a five-month training schedule, she was a little nervous.
“So what time should I tell my husband to meet us at the finish line?” I asked her. When she said she was unsure, I offered the time I’d calculated based on my estimation of our miles per hour over the thirteen-mile course.
Carrie quickly tapped some keys on her adding machine. “I can’t do that kind of miles per hour average,” she told me, looking stressed. “You are just going to have to go on without me. I’m going to be so much slower than you.”
“I would never leave you,” I reminded her. “We are in this together, and how fast we go is not the point, but I do believe that you can make that time.”
Carrie shook her head, and calculated a different finishing time based on a slower miles per hour rate. “This is what I can do,” she told me, showing me the tape. It was a significantly slower time, but we left it at that, and finished finalizing our plans.
The morning of the race she and I, along with several hundred other people, met at the starting line, our adrenaline pumping. At the sound of the gun, we were off. Just as I predicted, we rode on the high of group participation and covered the first four miles quickly.
“We are ahead of schedule,” I told her.
“Really?” Carrie asked, surprised.
As the sun grew warmer, we kept up our pace, passing the halfway point and making steady progress towards the finish line. But then, just before the ten-mile mark, Carrie’s feet began to hurt. When she took off her shoes after the race, we would discover enormous blisters on the bottoms of her feet that would take months to heal, but we didn’t know that at the time.
All we knew was that Carrie was in a lot of pain. Tentatively, I said, “You know, Carrie, we can quit. I don’t mind at all.” And I didn’t, but I knew that Carrie would feel terribly disappointed if we didn’t finish. Especially since we were this close to reaching our goal.
Carrie shook her head. “I’m not quitting,” she told me through gritted teeth.
So instead of stepping off the course, we slowed our pace down to a crawl. Still, Carrie grimaced with every step. In an effort to distract her from her pain, I kept up an inane stream of chatter interjected with words of encouragement. Silently, Carrie bravely continued forward. Inch by inch we made it through the last several miles. As we crossed the finish line, holding hands above our heads, Carrie was practically hobbling.
Despite her brave effort, I could tell Carrie was disappointed about how the race had gone. She, like me, can be a hard taskmaster when it comes to her own achievements. Luckily, at that moment, I remembered my mother. Clutching a bouquet of flowers, a gift from her thoughtful husband, I told her the story of Thanksgiving and the theory behind Mary’s Math.
“That doesn’t make sense,” said Carrie, who is an accountant by trade.
“But it does,” I countered. I showed her the photo my husband had taken of the clock as we crossed the finish line. “Even though our pace dropped off significantly during the last three miles, we finished at the exact time I originally calculated. And my estimated miles per hour for the race was two minutes faster than your estimated miles per hour.”
“Okay?” she asked, waiting for the punchline.
“So,” I explained. “According to Mary’s Math, we cut 26 minutes off our time!”
Carrie’s smile was skeptical, but her spirits seemed to lift a bit. “I guess,” she said.
“And,” I continued, on a roll, “If you hadn’t had your foot problems, we would have finished even faster!”
Carrie shook her head, but I think she got the point. We’d done well. As crazy as my mother’s methods may be, I’m glad I shared her self-help tool with Carrie. It served to remind her and me that while we hadn’t set any new land speed records, we had committed to the training and put in our best effort. And, Carrie had persevered even when her feet were crying for mercy. We’d accomplished something, and we had a right to be proud, even if we had to juggle the math a little bit to see it.
Carrie (on the right) and me at the finish line.
“Besides,” I called after Carrie as she limped away. “When you consider all the people who didn’t get off the couch today, we are 13 miles ahead of most of the pack, right?”
Carrie laughed. “That’s right,” she answered.
I’m sure she rolled her eyes, but it didn’t bother me. In my mind, the math worked.