Running Towards My Father
On Marathons, Perfection, and the Impossibility of Intimacy
If in the late evening just inside the borders of Washington, D.C., you venture to a track—not quite the regulation 400 meters—tucked above the intersection of 37th and Quebec Ave., you will almost every day see my father running, a solitary figure trotting in between the streaks of orange light siphoned through the chain link fence, descending gracefully upon the surface’s burnt red rubber.
In the summers he still sports a light windbreaker despite the trademark District humidity. He wears the same shoes he has for the last few decades, grey New Balance 990s, the kind of shoe that has migrated from sport to stylistic utility. Though he has acquired a soft weight in his gut, a weight impossible to remove after a certain age, his legs are lean and wiry. They are a tannish pale, hairless in some spots, and dotted throughout with the impossibly white and almost fearful marks of skin transformation—that last warning before cancer comes. Subtly visible on this surface are the bluish rivers of his veins, as if a pool of water lingers beneath the skin.
On this track with these legs, my father runs exactly three miles each day. Only some days does he run this distance steadily, without any sort of leaping increase in pace. Usually, my father quickly propels his body along the straightaways and dials the rhythm of his legs back to a resting jog upon reaching the curves. Straights and curves, he calls this. If you watch him perform such a thing, as I have often, it is with a clockmaker’s precision. He wears a cap to keep the remaining sun from burning the top of his bald head—his own father died of a cancer that moved quickly from his scalp to his brain—and what greyish white hair remains billows loosely in the wind his moving creates. Fairly soon into the run, the windbreaker is soaked with sweat from the inside out and his cheeks glow a salmon-red above the moonlight of his beard.
He is 72 now and has been doing this for years, sometimes climbing the fence of the track when he finds it locked, and then running with the assured form of someone who, 50 years ago, could race three miles in 15 minutes. He does not listen to music and hardly ever reschedules this endeavor. He is late because of these few miles for events, for trips, for dinners, for the small mundane gatherings of life.
When he runs, my father’s breathing hustles to a rhythmic grunt punctuated by each footfall, accompanied by the swish of his nylon jacket. I have never seen my father bend or stretch. Before he runs, he takes off the clothes he does not need and begins, simply, as if a bird did not have to flap a feather before flying. When he is finished, my father does not stoop to catch his breath. He walks for a time, stops, puts on the previously discarded clothes, and leaves. This is a secret, what I am telling you. The only ones who have witnessed it are my brother and me.
Because he raised us by himself for a large portion of our childhood, my father brought the two of us to the track each evening when we were young. We played catch in the grass or simply sat or, as we grew older, bent our minds into math problems. But each evening ended the same way. When my father finished his run, my brother and I walked onto the track to race just one measly lap. My brother was always skinny, the annoying kid who eats like a garbage disposal and somehow loses weight. I’ve forever been stockier than him and those years I was bonafide chubby, so my father offered me a quarter-lap head start. I won almost every time until I didn’t. That evening, as I was being passed on the final curve, I elbowed my brother off the track. And then I stepped off, in tears. I didn’t finish.
I don’t know what breeds obsession. I don’t know if it is hardwired into the body or if it assumes its role after the long habituation of practice. I don’t know if what we do becomes what we do or if it too just is. Either way, I come from a family of runners.
Lately, I have been reading Garth Greenwell’s tender novel What Belongs to You and encountered a passage early into the book where the narrator finds himself wandering through a scenic park. While there, he witnesses a small child who only gives herself permission to laugh once held in her parent’s arms. It’s a gorgeous scene, made all the more poignant by the narrator’s observation that such embraces, from parent to child and vice versa, would, in time, “become impermissible.” Our first moments of consciousness have little to do with embrace, or affection, and more to do with absence. We soon become creatures of longing, searching for voids—in ourselves and others—to be filled.
Last month, I finished my first 50 mile race, running alongside two friends I competed with in college. Held in Bear Mountain State Park, not far north of New York City, the race curled and wound and climbed and (very steeply) descended among trails both established and not. Sometimes it felt as if we had missed a turn or ventured off course, the ground so rocky and unsure. Though May, the temperature hovered in the high 40s. It rained the whole time.
My father drove hours to watch me run this race. After those early years of observing him run, both my brother and I became runners ourselves, competitive ones, and my father hardly ever missed a race. My brother found far more success than me, but I tagged along and held my own. After college, as my brother ran for various semiprofessional track clubs, I moved quickly to marathon running, finding comfort in the longer distance, the rhythm of it. It’s too much like writing, long distance running is, for me to even elaborate on the similarities. Together, they make up my obsessions.
“I wanted nothing to do with finishing. I only wanted to come through that act of failure a little more understood, or, I guess, forgiven.”
The race began at five in the morning. We wore headlamps in the darkness, each runner both before us and behind became a star ascending the invisible black slope of the mountain. We trudged silently, unaware of the degree of each hill, our footsteps sludging through the mud and slipping against the rocks. My father had not woken up yet, but when he did, he would stand gathered with a group of our friends at mile 23—hours down the course, the first time spectators were allowed to see the race. As the sun rose behind the thick veil of clouds, casting all of the mountain in a watercolored mist of blue-grey fog, we became more fully aware of the obscene nature of the course. Valleys had transformed into murky swamps. The descents after hills were far more difficult and treacherous than the hills themselves. By the tenth mile, I had turned my ankle more times than I could count and it already sang with the sound of blood rushing towards it, a symphony of swelling.
By that same mile, I had essentially given up, an act that has marred my history of running ever since that moment when I, just a kid, pushed my brother off the track when I knew I would lose. It’s easy to give up and even easier to blame that giving up on something else. I began, at the tenth mile, to think about the 40 miles ahead, to see in them an undeniable hell, and to make plans for dropping out in a kind and understandable way. I had reached my pain threshold already—my legs were unused to the strange terrain, my body was cold and wet with rain. I began writing an essay in my head about the merits of failure. It began with the sentence, “I do not want this essay to be about failure.” I wanted nothing to do with finishing. I only wanted to come through that act of failure a little more understood, or, I guess, forgiven. But each mile ticked by, however slowly, and my friends did not leave me, and with each passing step I knew that we grew one future step closer to my father. I only wanted to see him for that first time.
I think often that one of the strangest qualities about the act of writing is how it brings the ideas of posterity and remembrance to the forefront of the writer’s mind. Because every writer knows that many words do have some kind of audience, there is the underlying unease of how I will be observed, perceived, remembered. This is why the world as a past and the world as a present and the world as a future becomes for me a breathing document, worth writing down and worth writing well. Because I want to be remembered and to remember them, I am holding the ones I love with my words—like my father, aging and running through the waning light of late afternoon, a mantra. Who will tell that story but me?
Most evenings on the way back from the track, my father would take me and my brother to KFC or Taco Bell, though sometimes we would stop at a local deli and order steak sandwiches and fries. I can still smell the soggy steam, condensed and mixing into the aura of grilled meat. At a certain point long before my memory begins, some pact was made among my family that forbade talking about anything of importance. So we ate in front of the television and didn’t talk, not of the day behind us or of my father’s workout or of my mother’s leaving or of how he must’ve felt to sleep alone each night in bed. To this day, I still don’t know how my mother and father met, or what they found in one another other than my brother and me. I only know my father’s discipline, the quickened sound of his steps, the hurrying of his breath as he moved, stride after stride, around a circle that would only leave him back on the starting line when he finished.
It’s odd, how a track is an oval and an oval is the shape two arms make when they reach one another at the completion of an embrace. It’s odd, how for all those evenings I found myself in the middle of my father’s running, I never saw it as a kind of tenderness, my father for miles running his body around my body, holding me in that way.
Though the sun never broke through the clouds, we took our headlamps off after the first few hours and kept running through the endless rain. We went from aid station to aid station—each placed about four to six miles apart—and stopped at each one to chug water and then Coke and then hot salty broth. Each time I thought, well this is it, before my friends Matt and Nick gathered themselves into these depressed shuffles, and I followed.
In the lead up to that 50 mile race and in the aftermath of past marathons, the question I am almost always asked—sometimes with a humming hostility—goes something like, “Why the fuck do you do this?” It’s an honest, important question, regardless of its intent, and my answer is sort of the same as if you asked me about writing. When I have been in good enough shape to truly race marathons in the past instead of running to finish them, there is that sense, while running, of being as far along the edge of yourself as possible.
Then there’s the idea of patience. In a marathon, even if you are running the fastest pace you can handle over 26 miles, it feels relatively easy for a large portion. The pain doesn’t settle in until deep into the race, and sometimes, if you have impatiently misjudged those early miles, it’s a pain you can’t recover from. Running your best marathon requires patience. The hurt builds like a good story. It gathers. The pain carries momentum. And the ending is never certain, never taken for granted, until it’s there.
“Being out there on the roads gives me the same feeling as trying to write a line, a sentence, a poem, a story. Feet like words, miles like sentences.”
Racing a marathon is less about some cliché notion of finding yourself than it is about trying to be as perfect as you can be for a few hours, about knowing how to dance along the thin line that is where your mind meets your body, about listening and being generous to yourself, about adjusting and re-adjusting, about, like so much else, trust. Being out there on the roads gives me the same feeling as trying to write a line, a sentence, a poem, a story. Feet like words, miles like sentences.
Still, 50 miles represented a different territory. When people asked, I mostly resorted to some canned response about trying to test myself, but even that felt like a lie, because I didn’t know what kind of mystery I was running into. I think, though, that our obsessions are hardly ever understood, even if we can manage to string together a few mediocre words about them. This is why my father never really talked about what he did or why. What’s the point?
Not even halfway done with the race, my friends and I only wanted to make it long enough to see our loved ones. They’re just around the bend, we kept saying after we passed through mile 22. When we did see them, our little community in the rain, I didn’t touch my father. I saw him and nodded and he smiled and motioned for a hug, but I bent a little bit away. He said I love you and I’m not sure if I said it back. Which is why I’m thinking now of Greenwell’s novel, about how certain things—an embrace, a kiss, a word—become impermissible over time. Why, after spending so many of my early years in my father’s arms, do I find myself running away from them when they are right there, outstretched to greet me?
I used to be upset that my father would bring me to the track while he ran his laps. But there was not much else he could do. My brother and I were just becoming kids when our mother left, and in those early years of being a single father, he didn’t want to leave us alone. I guess, like so much else, I only realized this later.
I mean that I realized this on some old Virginian battlefield in high school, when my father picked me up in his arms after I finished a race where I had, because of being pushed by another runner, tripped and hit my head against a rock, blacking out. I realized this after the countless times my father drove to Maryland, Pennsylvania, even Florida, to watch me get blown away by faster, bigger men and boys. I realized this after I ran my first college 10k during the late afternoon on a track in New Jersey, the day’s sun burning the rubber to a temperature so hot that the skin on my feet, barely protected by my thin racing spikes, blistered and melted away. My father was there to cradle me into the backseat of his car like a child. I realized this after my father accumulated parking ticket after parking ticket after illegally leaving his car on closed-off roads during some of my marathons, so that he could see me more often along the course. I realized this over and over again after repeating the same words—“I don’t think I can do it”—to my father on many occasions halfway through failed race attempts, only to hear him give the same answer as always, the one he knew would make me, out of spite and some weird sense of humor, keep going: “Then don’t.”
“I was blessed as a boy to see almost every evening my father trying to live with his pain and ours.”
What I mean is that, though I have said the opposite before, pain, like time, can’t be overcome, or conquered, or defeated. It’s not there for that. It takes on different forms, becoming chronic or not, self-inflicted or not, tragic or not. But you learn to live with it, to run with it if you can, to breathe into it. And maybe, too, you come to love the ones who carry you, those first teachers of life—a father around a track, a brother accompanying you through the motions of childhood.
What I mean too is that some of the most beautiful, simple things reveal themselves to you long after they’re gone, after the shoes have been taken off and the track, the roads, the trails have been left behind, and all that’s left is you and the person you love and your inability to say how or why you love them, or even that you do. But you do, you know. I was blessed as a boy to see almost every evening my father trying to live with his pain and ours. He’s at that age now where he moves slower each time no matter how often he goes out there to run. Time is the forever-defeater. Which is why he runs in circles, I think. With an acceptance that some things are never coming back, but others—like a body around a track—are, at least for a time.
I will tell you that I finished the race. That we all did, together. There are parts I don’t remember. I remember vaguely hallucinating. Once, in the woods, we came upon two runners who were salt-deficient and whose bodies therefore were temporarily paralyzed. They looked at us, wide-eyed, a mile away from an aid station, and said, “Do you have any salt?” It was surreal. Such a simple question. “I’m trying to move my legs,” one said, “But I can’t.” We gave them the salt we had and ran away and for the next few miles I thought we were in the Old Testament—these people turned into pillars, these constant tests, a vengeful God.
I want to say that at some point in those miles I came to some compassionate realization about my father. But I didn’t, not really. In those final miles, I thought about why I hadn’t flown into his arms at the aid station, but the thought made me sad, vaguely terrified.
My father was there at the finish, and he waited for everyone else to greet me, to hold me, to say nice things, and then, as I sat soaked on a table, I let him hug me. Later on, looking at a picture from the race, I realized for the first time how much I resembled my dad. I look at this picture and see my father running in circles around me, his legs like the frictionless wheels of little trains churning away, his head down and hat on, the sun setting to the other side of the world. If I could, I would go back.
Now that I lived with this little pain for ten hours, I want to live with his for a lifetime. I’d run with him for a lap, try to keep up. I’d hold him after, and say thank you. For what? I don’t know. It’s the best things we don’t talk about, the deep obsessions. It’s how, after intimacy becomes impermissible, we have our entire lives to give ourselves permission to love again. It’s the way my father found different ways to hold me—an evening spent giving himself to circling—when I didn’t know I was being held.
I know it now, though. And I’m so in love.