Raised a Runner


I was raised a Runner.

My father grew to love running during its heyday, when Americans excelled, Nike was waffling its first soles and women were finally invited into the sport.

That’s me, weighing in at 6lbs on our local track.

My dad instilled his passion for the sport in his sons at a very young age.

And as children of the 80's my brother and I were spoiled. Our parents were raised comfortably, during a period of alienation. Third generation American, children of the Baby Boom, they grew up on Woodstock, Vietnam and Rock & Roll. Born into Catholicism, they met at Boston College just as both were beginning to question, and ultimately reject the church. 6 days a week of church services to zero. Trust in the Presidency to protests. Baby Boomers are a generation of love, passion and disillusionment. The world changed as they were inheriting it — what was promised began to be lost. Authority and order were replaced with a world that was what you made of it.

And as sons we were raised without a clear authority to accept or reject.
We were instructed to be good to others, take responsibility and to chase our passions with intent. It’s a directive that is both inspiring and terrifying, stimulating and ambiguous.

We were given everything we wanted and more. My father supported our many endeavors, from basketball to art, soccer to science. All he asked in return was that we give a full effort. Because absent a higher calling or promise of eternal blessing, effort in the moment is divine.

Raised during the rise of Rock & Roll, my parents blasted us with “Rolling Stone” by Dylan, carpooled us around with Cream of Clapton and sat us down for “Teenage Wasteland” by The Who. Without a formal moral authority, it’s always felt like the purity of passion and emotion from these artists was our family’s example of a righteous life.

He loved running, and so so did we. I loved soccer, but his eyes lit up when I talked of the track. I was given all the shin guards and cleats I ever needed, but every running shoe or track spike I ever wanted.

If sport is culture, running is our family language. It’s where our stories originate, it’s where we shine, and it embodies the principles we believe in.

The sport of running embodies rejection of authority.

The evidence is clear, the watch doesn’t lie. Other sports ask you to try out, running demands you put it on the line. You don’t have to ask for a place on a roster to run. You just show up and grind.

Running is the perfect sport for a disillusioned generation thirsty for authenticity. “Put up or shut up,” served straight. There is beauty in the simplicity of sport, perfection in the act of covering a set distance for time, and humanity in the endeavor of enduring together. It’s a sport of the people; to express strength, passion and beauty.

We were raised with passion. Taught to love life, indulge emotion and chase our interests with raw excitement, without concern for approval or acceptance. Running is our religion. We have served and it has provided.

Then, 3 years ago, the heart of our family nearly stopped.

As my father drove himself to the hospital he knew something wasn’t right. Strength from years running on the roads couldn’t offset poor genetics and diet. As he endured a heart attack, two stents placed into his arteries, his outlook, and our family’s faith was questioned.

And something shifted.

A man of constant energy and motion grew a bit tired. A father of excess love and passion was somewhat more fatigued. A fiercely optimistic believer in tomorrow was dampened by a doctor’s pessimistic prognosis.

If running is our religion, then the marathon is our method of worship.

My father has run them in cities around the world and my brother and I have followed suit, to cover the distance and celebrate our sport. The Portland Marathon is home, New York is an international spectacle and Boston is hallowed qualified ground. So it was with excitement that I prepared for this year’s Chicago Marathon in October.

Then my father fell.

He didn’t think anything of it and wouldn’t even have mentioned it had my mother not heard him crash. The following visit to the cardiologist revealed an erratic heart rhythm and thicker blockages than we’d known. Further surgery was required; I could sense my parent’s optimism wearing thin.

My father was in surgery as I flew to Chicago for the marathon. Upon landing my mother texted,

“Dennis is out of surgery. He had 3 stents put in; 2 in one artery and 1 in another. This is a good outcome. Love you all.”

I was there to run, because it’s what we do.

The goal was to run sub 6 minute pace per mile, for as long as I could, for no other reason than to see if I was able. The preparation was there, the 20 milers had been run, but miles 21–26 lurked, always elusive, unable to be contained simply with preparation. Those miles will take from you whatever you brought and more, you just hope your feet will carry you to the finish.

As Saturday started to wind down and I began to prepare for the morning my father texted me,

“Here is a bit of inspiration for you: for the past three years I have been playing not to lose. After yesterday, now I am playing to win. I love you. Have a great race.”

Speechless, I thanked him. And, still speechless, I gained a sense of calm for the morning’s endeavor. 26.2 miles of trial lay ahead, but the pursuit would be a celebration, my family’s method of rejoice.

….

When the gun fired, I started my watch, and crossed the timing mat that would beam my progress around the world to family and friends.

The early miles passed and nearing mile 8 I found my pack.

“What are you guys running?” I asked.
“6s,” a man replied bluntly.

Miles 7 through 18 came and went. They led many, I led some, and despite trying to calm my mind, my breathing and my stride, behind my sunglasses I began to smile.

My team, the 6 minute pack of the 2014 Chicago Marathon.

This is why I run. Racing with this team of strangers from around the world is our celebration of the act. We do it together because we can, and we can because we show up every damn day. No one gets to assign roster spots to the 6 minute pack of the Chicago Marathon. If you can, you show up and throw down. We’re here together, to help each other hurt.

And here, slowly, came the hurt.

At 19 we started to push.

“Let’s do this!” I implored a man who’d been sharing the pace.
“I know,” he grimaced.

And we pushed on.

At 20 our pack began to splinter, each effort for itself. And as I crossed that timing mat I imagined what my friends and family might be thinking around the world, “You’ve got a good one going Peter, DON’T FUCK THIS UP NOW!”

The final miles are raw.

The pain is visceral, simple and understood. You can do anything you want, but you can’t give in. Mind tricks, self-pity or anger. Whatever it takes, anything besides resignation.

Mile 26, well inside the Pain Cave, just .2 to go.

I choose to count down: 25 minutes to go…18 minutes left…10 minutes till freedom.

You’re almost there…when almost isn’t close enough.

The final mile is turbulent, an intense mix of anticipation and exploding discomfort. All your senses are firing. It’s pure. Beautiful. And horrible.

Then, as I entered the final stretch I heard a speaker system blaring music,
The Who began to blast across the course:

“Out here in the fields
I fight for my meals
I get my back into my living
I don’t need to fight
To prove I’m right
I don’t need to be forgiven
Don’t cry, Don’t raise your eye, it’s only teenage wasteland.”

And I was crying.

I was choking up at the very moment when all I needed was more oxygen. The music we grew up on, the lyrics that represented my parents’ generation, were hitting me at a moment when I was maxed out. I began driving my arms, pleading my knees to lift and willing myself to the finish. I was in the moment, consumed by its significance.

This is why I was here, this is why we do this. The final mile of a marathon transcends logic.

There is no real reason to push this hard except that you can. The pain, effort and emotion of that moment were mine, ours, because they embody everything we embrace as a family.

Easing into the finish the intense pain washed away with waves of gratitude and celebration.

Stumps up!

Across the finish I threw “Stumps Up” to honor my run club, the Stumprunners of Portland, Oregon. Many miles brought me here, the past 2 years on roads and trails shared with these new friends.

Crossing the line at 2:36:50 I was overcome with gratitude for what I’d just accomplished. Time barriers are arbitrary, and can feel meaningless, but once you set your mind to them they become daunting. Running for over two and half hours, I broke sub 6 minute pace by 22 seconds.

Limping slowly away from the finish line I smiled, knowing that my family and friends would understand what I had done. I hobbled, soaking in the sun of a beautiful fall day.

Greeted with messages of love, humor and support from friends and family meant the most.

When I found my phone my eyes welled up with love. Texts from everyone who was following, including my dad,

“Truly impressive, well done.”

I took a deep breath and was completely at peace.
I smiled, and gave thanks, that I was raised a Runner.



Thank you! If you read this I’d love to hear from you, bromka@gmail.com

Also, a bit of sequel, my run in Boston 2016, “9,000 Seconds.”