Sunday, June 16, 2013

The pink velcro sneakers

I can tell you the precise moment that I became a runner. It was 1985, and I was 11 years old. It's Father's Day today, and this is a story of fatherhood at its finest.

I was a very small kid. While I've never reached great heights as an adult (I topped out somewhere just under 5'2"), I'm not what you would consider unusually short. But growing up, this was not the case. I got mean questions from other grade-school kids about whether one of my parents was a midget (it was the 80s ... people said things like that), and whether I was a victim of famine (again, it was the 80s, and the plight of starving Ethiopian children weighed heavily on me and my classmates). I was particularly uncoordinated, and terrible at the sports and outdoor games that I tried to play with other kids. I now understand that there wasn't anything wrong with me; I was just one of many short, slight, knobby-kneed kids and I eventually grew out of it. But as a child I really did believe I had some sort of physical deficiency. I didn't come from a family of athletes, so there were no expectations upon me in that regard. I was a good student and a nice kid, and that was plenty for my parents. But being skinny and clumsy was still difficult, and knowing myself as I do now, I can imagine that I beat myself up over it a lot.

Lucky for me, I had a stepfather who saw this evolving. Joe, who had been a part of my life since I was three years old, was not himself an athlete - although he was pretty killer on a slalom waterski. He had never encouraged me or my siblings one way or the other when it came to participation in sports. Joe was a hard-working guy (he and my mother ran a business together), and recreation wasn't a big part of his own day-to-day life. But that year, one of his clients was putting on a local "fun run" to raise money for some charitable cause, and Joe signed me up for the kids mile. He didn't ask if I wanted to participate, he just came home one day with a pair of pink velcro sneakers, and told me that I was running a mile the following weekend. I can't really remember how I felt about that. But what I remember clearly is how much I enjoyed the morning: putting on those shoes, getting into the car together, and driving to that race. Joe putting off chores and projects around the house on a weekend morning to spend it with me - just me - to watch me run this little race? I didn't know why he was doing it, but it felt important, so I gave it my all. I don't remember how the race went, but I assure you it was nothing spectacular. (I came to my lifelong mediocrity as a runner from a young age.) But I remember listening as Joe described my participation in the event to my mom and brother at the dinner table that night, and feeling like I was the queen of the world. He was proud of me in a way I'd never experienced. I knew the joy of getting an "A" on a spelling test or getting my exhibit into the science fair, but never before had I felt that sense of accomplishment over a physical pursuit. And that, as they say, was that. The next year, I joined the 7th grade track team. I have been running ever since.
Joe, with his beloved granddaughters.
He had a tough exterior, but loved and understood
children in ways that still mystify me. 

This now strikes me as one of the dearest, sweetest things that Joe ever did for me. He contributed many important things to my life, and I'm sure that if you could ask him about the important values and lessons that he imparted to his children, the self-confidence and love of a daunting challenge that comes from athletic pursuit would certainly not be one of them. I lost Joe many years ago, before I had ever run my first marathon, or thanked him for this tremendous gift that he gave me. I often wish I could share with him the daily joys and defeats both of running a business, and running marathons, but I know he would have been proud of my persistence with both. I reflect with a heart full of gratitude today for all of the ways, big and small, that fathers shape and support their children.

My run this morning (my last run of any significance before next weekend's marathon) is dedicated with love to all of the fathers in my life. Don, Chuck, and Everett: you all continue to shape and support me in ways you may not even realize, and I am deeply grateful.


  1. i think running is awesome. and on father's day this post was fitting.

    1. I think running is awesome, too! The awesomest, in fact.