(I’m writing something every day for #100days. This is post 38/100.)
Like most young boys, my Dad was my hero for a long time.
At one point, he held New Zealand records in the 3,000m, 5,000m and 3,000m steeplechase.
When we compared Dads at school, those New Zealand records were my trump cards.
When I was a baby, he’d run me 10kms in the stroller every morning.
He put the wind in my hair before my memories even begin.
Through primary school, on weekends I would ask my parents to drive me to Sportsman’s Warehouse, the biggest sporting goods store in our town, so I could walk around and make lists of all the things I wanted.
Still today, whenever I’m somewhere new, I’ll always try and spend time in the best running store in town (sadly, chain sporting goods stores aren’t very good anymore).
The best running store in town will always be staffed by passionate runners, who will be able to tell you about the best local trails, and more often than not, the best local breweries and bakeries too.
As I’ve grown older, it’s become harder to justify my obsession. When you’re on a road trip, there’s always a long list of places to visit and things to do and going to a running store isn’t usually at the top of people’s lists.
But I’ve maintained the habit for enough years now, that I always find a way to convince the people I’m with to give me 15 minutes to browse around.
Back in 2011, my brother and I spent a week in New Zealand, where my father was from. It was our first visit, and our itinerary mapped to the most significant places in his life.
We visited the school Dad went to, the town he grew up in, and ran his favourite trail. We spent 2 hours with his childhood running coach, visited the camping spot he’d spent his holidays with his family, and stood in the cemetery in the foothills of Mt. Taranaki where some of our extended family are buried.
On our second day, a remarkable thing happened.
As we were driving out of New Plymouth, the town where he was born, we passed a running store. I got Jack to pull the car over so we could go in.
We browsed a few minutes, and the store owner approached. We asked him about the best places to run, and then, unexpectedly, I decided to share with him the purpose of our trip.
— “We’re here because this is where our Dad grew up. He ran competitively here back in the 1970s.”
The owner paused a moment, staring at my face more intently.
A heavy silence.
— “What’s your last name?” he asked me.
He paused again. Closed his eyes. Exhaled, shaking his head.
— “Wow… You look exactly like your Dad. He and I went to rival high schools. I liked your Dad, but for a few years there we were sworn enemies when it came to our racing. How is he?”
Shocked and moved, I stumbled a response.
— “Um. He died. He died of cancer. 7 years ago.”
Another silence. The owner looked back at me with the thousand yard stare of comprehension.
— “Listen”, he interjected, “I finish here at 4pm. Come by my house. I have some photos of your Dad and I racing that you might like to see.”
Later that afternoon, we approached his driveway, high in the hills.
He opened the door, and we entered the kitchen. On the bench were laid out two albums, full of clippings, and on the open page, a grainy black and white photo of my teenage father, rain-soaked, sprinting to the finish line, neck and neck with the store owner.
Soon after my Dad had broken those New Zealand records, he’d given up running and moved to Australia.
The store owner, and his wife, had gone on to become New Zealand marathon record holders.
She too had died young, he explained to us. Also to cancer.
That thousand yard stare we’d shared had traversed the death of loved ones, the incoherency of life lost early, the pain of cancer.
We stayed until the sun set, drinking tea, looking out over the valley.
Sometimes life ends too soon.
And that doesn’t make sense. And never stops being sad.
That’s my Dad for me.
Wherever I’ve been, I’ve always gone into running stores. At times, it seemed an odd carryover from my childhood. I never really understood it.
Until that day in New Plymouth. And that moment of recognition.
I miss my Dad.
I run to be with him.
I’m grateful he put the wind in my hair.