I became a runner on May 12, 1985. I was six years old. That was the day my father ran his first marathon, the National Capital Marathon in Ottawa, Canada. I was electrified by the whole experience and remember it like it was yesterday. I stood with my mother near Pretoria Bridge to see my dad part way through, and there was never a prouder little girl on the planet than when he ran past, looking strong and focused in his navy shorts and white singlet.
There was record heat in Ottawa that day, and Runners were beginning to succumb to it, but not my dad. He did hit the wall at mile 20, though. For non runners, “hitting the wall” means literally like you have hit a wall and suddenly can’t run a step further. Glycogen stores have been depleted, miles and miles are already behind you, and you suddenly have nothing left. There is little to do but walk, try to recalibrate, reach down into yourself and find strength that is no longer in your legs, but in your heart, in your spirit. Find it he did, and he came towards us at the finish line, limping from terrible tendonitis, weeping at the moving strains of Chariots of Fire that someone was blaring from a jukebox. I watched he and his fellow runners run, walk, crawl, and stagger across the finish line and I felt, though I couldn’t have articulated it then, as F. Scott Fitzgerald says in The Great Gatsby, that I had come face to face with something commensurate to my capacity for wonder. That day sealed the deal: I was going to be a runner.
My dad indulged me, barely jogging while I bopped along beside him. By eight, I could run 5k. I ran Cross Country and track through elementary school, until teenage hormones had me throwing up all over my desk during the national anthem one morning after cross country, and all over myself after an 800 meter race at a track meet. I continued to run on my own time through my teenage years and twenties, with my dad whenever possible. Being out on the road was a safe place, where the stresses of adolescence and the growing difficulties of mental health problems and the myriad challenges they posed melted away, if only for a time, and it was just me, or just us, chasing peace and occasionally, each other.
I still recall my first run with my dad after childbirth. It had been six months, and I had long recovered, so it was time. But pregnancy had widened my hips and I felt like I had to learn to run all over again, so I kept putting it off. He took me out on a familiar route, beating me (of course) up a hill that I once had managed like a gazelle. At the top, he turned around and encouraged me up as a coach would, while I waddled awkwardly and carped at him. Somehow, I made it though, and he was proven right: I still had it. Point taken, Daddy.
I ran my first half marathon in 2014, in Ottawa along the same course that my father had run 29 years earlier. I ran too fast in the first part of the race, jockeying for space in a ridiculously crowded field of runners. At kilometer 17, I hit my own wall, feeling miserable and exhausted and Thinking that collapsing in a heap on the sidewalk like some other racers I was seeing seemed like a very, very good idea. I somehow managed to muddle through those last 4 km, going on nothing other than determination, throwing up in a sewer (and all over my white t shirt…nice, when brown sports gel was what came up.) I finished vertical, but barely, and fell into the arms of a wonderful volunteer who kept repeating his name because I couldn’t remember it, and asking if I needed medical attention.
There are times when I haven’t run, or I just don’t have it in me. This Winter, when things were so bad, I sat on the couch getting jiggly and morose, thinking my Running days were over. But eventually, the siren song of the road becomes too compelling, and I find myself on it once again. I am back running now, complaining about but secretly enjoying my sore hamstrings, blistered heels, and growing callouses. Running is one of the great loves of my life, started because of and shared with another great love of my life. It is always refreshing, always healing, and whether it’s through a rainstorm or sweltering summer heat, into bitter winter wind or over a gravel path strewn with autumn leaves, it always, always brings me home.
To all runners reading this: May the wind always be at your back.
And to Daddy: For being the reason I started this magical sport in the first place. Long may you run.