Learning to Run

My dad was a runner. For most of my childhood there was a nook in our scary basement near the heating oil tank that held a smelly assortment of New Balance shoes, t-shirts, bandanas and, for most of the year, mittens, hats and jackets.

The “jogging stuff” took my dad on nearly daily excursions around Lake Harriet in south Minneapolis. The three-mile door-to-door round trip was the trade route for him and a seemingly impossibly long distance to my 7 year-old legs. Rain, shine, sleet, blizzard, 20 degrees below zero or 100 degrees above, he was on the road to the lake and beyond. I didn’t realize it at the time, watching his dedication and commitment, but I was learning.

We had big bay windows that faced the street, and, a few blocks away, the lake. I began waiting for him. I would stare down the street, inadvertently memorizing every house and tree, until he came jogging into view, familiar in his cream and silver track suit. When he appeared, with frost thick on his full beard, I studied him. Watching his even stride and kick up the hill, I was learning.

I could barely finish the run in the President’s Physical Fitness Test, hating every second of it. My dad, meanwhile, was training for his third Twin Cities Marathon. “Training” was a foreign-concept to me. At my age, you either had the innate ability or you were picked last. I was often the kid stuck in deep right field. A marathon, to me, was a distance akin to our annual trip to see Grandma in Honolulu.

Watching the marathon pass by our door was a Fall ritual of cold fingers, donuts and Dixie Cups of water from a garden hose. We lived between miles seven and eight, and would watch every year with our neighbors, shouting as the leader cruised past with the television van and then the thousands of everyday runners, like my dad, who flowed past as a stream of anonymous athletes I could never hope to be.

Then, like fireworks going off, there was Dad, running in his blue nylon shorts with a red bandana on his head, just as he looked approaching our front window countless times.

I was proud of him. “My dad’s a marathon runner, what’s yours do?”

My father and I are alike in almost every way. We have the same physical structure, appearance, manner of speech, stance and outlook on the world. We even have similar work. I realize now, with years of hindsight, that I was not just absorbing how to run or the value of exercise and health—I was learning how to hold commitments, how to challenge myself and how to have fun everyday. I was learning how to be who I would one day be. I was watching my future self.

I call myself a runner now, too, and even have a few marathons to my name, including the Twin Cities. My family moved from the house on the race route long ago, but when I ran past it after mile seven that year, my dad was home, cheering and looking proud. I was so caught up in the run that the change of roles didn’t hit me for a few days, but it left a lasting impression.

As he watched me run, maybe he was learning.

Originally published at www.unfencedspace.com on November 3, 2014.