Friday, March 14, 2014

Chapter One, Part 3: How To Describe My Dad

One thing that some people who knew my dad may not know about him is that he was very competitive, mostly with himself. He regularly set goals for himself in different areas of his life, probably most often in the sport of running.  His objective for events varied from race to race, whether it was to be among the top finishers, to run the race in a certain time, or to complete a race that was unlike one he had done before, like an ultra-marathon, an adventure race, or a triathlon.

Even with an objective in mind, though, Dad always tried to help other people who were also competing in the races in which he ran.  He often cheered people on in the middle of a race while he was running.  He thoroughly appreciated the spirit of competition and admired people who overcame adversity and challenges to rise to the top, especially when their success wasn’t expected.  On more than one occasion, Dad won a trophy or a medal in a race and then gave it to someone else who had competed in the race but who hadn’t won, often a child who had finished a race for the first time ever.

When I was a teenager, Dad took a couple of guys from my high school and me to a state park in Mississippi to compete in a small-town road race.  We left early on a Saturday morning, and, as we drove the last mile or so to the starting line, we saw a teenaged boy walking along the side of the road in basketball shorts, walking barefooted and carrying spiked track shoes.  The guys in the car and I laughed when we passed the boy because he seemed so poorly prepared for a race that was about to be run on a paved road.  Dad didn’t laugh, though; instead, he said, “You never know who’ll get the last laugh.”  We found out how true that was after the race when we found out that the boy had finished in second place overall, running on Dad’s heels with his spikes clicking on the pavement for the entire 5-mile race. 

From the time I started running, Dad often found out about races that were coming up in the area and registered me as well as himself in those events.  He and I ran in a total of roughly 100 events together over the years. One of his routines before a race was to size up the competition for himself and for me; in my competitive days, he gave me an honest assessment of how he thought I would fair in the field and if it seemed like I had “a shot at placing,” or finishing in the top three spots overall or in my age division.  Whenever possible, we drove the course ahead of time, with him pointing out any big hills or sharp turns along the way because, as he always said, those were the places to “make a move” to pass other runners just ahead on the route. In every race, he finished before me and then ran back to find me on the course, to cheer me on and give me advice, especially if he saw me struggling.  Once he had seen that I was ok, he would run ahead to the finish line to wait there for me to make it in. 

One thing that I think my dad learned from me after I had finished running competitively in high school is that there is a sense of pride and accomplishment that can come from just finishing a race, if that is one’s objective.  When I left home to go to college after high school, I went from running six days a week on a strict training program to running when I felt like it and when I could fit it into my schedule, a pattern which continued into my adulthood.  Dad told me many times that a runner has to “make time to run,” but he saw my priorities change and understood that running did not carry the same weight for me as it did for him. 

When I was in training to run my first half-marathon many years ago, I asked my dad if he would go on a long run with me so I could work on pacing before the race.  On the morning of the run, my brother-in-law drove Dad and me out into the country and dropped us off ten miles out of town so we could run back on mostly farm roads with limited traffic.  

I remember that I was wearing a running shirt that day that said "Run the mile you're in." After we'd gotten out of the car and started on the run, Dad looked at my shirt and said, "I don't get it - what else would you do besides running the mile you're in?"  That turned the conversation into a Who's On First-type of exchange that last for several minutes, until I said, "I think it's referring to the way that a person can choose to be grateful for what he has instead of thinking that the grass is always greener or that someone else is luckier than he is."  He thought for a second and then said, "I just don't get why somebody wouldn't do that, because, really, if you think you're lucky, then you are!"  

And that, in essence, was my dad.