A run down memory lane

My dad’s in town for the next week or so and last night we went in and met up for dinner. Over a meal and a nice bottle of wine, after discussing the stimulous package, the Madoff ponzi scheme and our upcoming trip to Oregon, the conversation turned to running (as so often happens). More specifically, my father’s previous life as a marathon runner.

Like me, my dad was a latecomer to running and ever later to the marathon party. In fact, our timelines are strikingly similar, with a few years of fitness jogging, followed by an experimental half marathon, then a full blown plunge into training for and racing marathons. We even ran our first full marathon at nearly the same age — he a few weeks before his 41st birthday, and I a few days before my 42nd.

When asked why he started running in the first place, my dad told us that he started right after he and my mother had separated (circa 1973). He’d moved across the bay into an apartment in San Francisco (an extremely spartan arrangement on Van Ness Avenue, right over the Silver Platter deli, and on the corner of a Muni bus line which was perpetually — and noisily — breaking down). Describing this two year period as the worst of his life, he recalled how he was working too hard and, in his words, “needed to do something.” With little disposable income, and this being years before there were such things as “gyms,” he turned to the relatively cheap (and infinitely portable) sport of distance running.

San Francisco is a great running city, and ran it he did. After a couple of years, he moved to Rome for awhile and ran there. Then he moved to New York, where he continued to run. By this time, a few years had gone by and running had become some combination of habit, addiction and outlet. These were still relatively early days (a time vividly chronicled in the documentary about Fred Lebow, Run For Your Life) and despite the presence of Rodgers, Shorter and other Olympic luminaries, everyday runners were still viewed as oddballs. In fact, he told us that when he first moved to New York (around 1976), he’d run around Central Park’s reservoir and would typically not see another soul.

Like so many of us who gravitate toward the marathon distance, he loved running long. We talked about the calming effect that such runs produce and how after awhile they become as essential as any other daily act, like eating and sleeping. As he talked, I remembered a few of the “running stories” he’d shared over the years, such as the one about a crazed hawk in Golden Gate Park that would dive bomb him every day. He must have run too close to its nest, and was as a result on its permanent shit list. The bird was so determined to scalp him that he took to running with a crowbar for awhile, and he’d bat at the bird whenever it attacked.

The other great story I recalled was his experience of running around the Circus Maximus in Rome. Ever the boy from the midwest, he was amazed at how many incredibly friendly young men would appear, seemingly out of nowhere, every morning. My dad’s a good looking guy (and had great runner’s legs). It took him a little while to figure out that he was being cruised.

His first half was the Hispanic Half Marathon (yes, it was really called that) in Central Park. He says he ran it and thought, “Well, huh, this is okay…” and immediately set his sights on running the New York Marathon. His first was 1978 — also Grete Waitz’s famous debut — although he finished about 45 minutes behind the pigtailed Norwegian.

He recalled how the network he was working for actually did a news story about him — the wacky newsman who runs! ha ha! — and he said he interviewed Fred Lebow several times over the years. He was right on the cusp of “jogging”s explosion in popularity and in fact proposed a book to his agent with the theme of “running around the world” — a collection of essays about his experiences of running in weird places (why am I thinking of Haruki Murakami right now?) — a sneakered travelogue of sorts. He was told no one would ever buy it as there was no market for it. If he’d only waited about four or five years…

Like me, my dad loved the training and the slow-build of excitement while doing all that preparation for one event on one day just once or twice a year. But, as a traveling journalist, he eventually found wearing the sometimes impossible reconciliation of rigorous marathon training with the long, unpredictable hours and constant travel required by his job. Somehow, once he was reduced to getting up at 4AM to run 55 laps around a Holiday Inn somewhere in Kansas, what had made it pleasurable (or even sustainable) had started to seriously ebb.

He would run a total of five marathons, with a personal best time of 3:14. While training for his sixth, the Marine Corps Marathon, he stepped in a pothole and tore his meniscus, necessitating total removal of the torn cartilage (knee surgery hadn’t quite evolved yet). With no shock absorber remaining, he never ran again.

I think of my dad when I run sometimes, how similar our paths have been, as are the particular aspects of running that motivate and gratify us. His interest in my running is genuine, never just polite. I thank him for that, as well as for the marathon-friendly genetics he seems to have passed along to me.

14 Responses

  1. That was so nice to read. :-)

  2. 55 laps around a Holiday Inn! I’m starting to understand your passion for the treadmill.

    Watch out for ice-covered potholes.

  3. So that’s where you get our writing talent, too. How very cool to have such a similar introduction to the sport and to be able to discuss it in depth knowing he gets it. How did he deal with not being able to run again? Did he find something to replace it with? (as much as that could be possible)

  4. Flo, my dad continued to work out (biking, hiking, etc.), but as you can imagine it wasn’t the same. I know that when I was training for my first marathon, he was adamant that I watch out for potholes. That was pretty much the only piece of advice he gave me. So I think it was a pretty traumatic loss. If he’s found anything to replace it, I’d peg oenology. Which of course presents its own health consequences and is not nearly as cheap as running.

  5. I really enjoyed your post today, a nice shout out to your dad! My dad and I seem to have similar paths and I am proud to say he got me started in many of my sporting activities though he and I never really knew it.

    FYI, I would have have never guessed that you are in your 40′s by your picture. You rock!

  6. Great story. My Dad is not a runner but he gets a lot of my race shirts so people think he is a runner!

    By the way, it was called the Hispanic Half Marathon until the mid-90′s. It was always run in August and I believe coincided with a Hispanic Heritage Day.

  7. This was a great read! It reminds me so much of my father and I, that I think I’ll send it to him. i always remember him running and biking during my childhood, and he even did a couple marathons, although he says he’ll never do one again. Now he says he just runs for his health.

    I think this will be a good reminder to him (and to all of us) to enjoy running while we can because we may not always be able to put in the miles…

  8. Thank you for writing that, it make me feel warm inside. As a guy in my 50s, I sometimes wonder how I will handle it if I get a career-ending injury. Or even, as in Haruki Murakami’s case, dealing with the eventual slowdown. Most runners put a brave face on that, but I’m pretty sure I’ll fight it like Haruki does.

  9. What a great post! My father never evolved into a runner, but he did try to start at one point. I found his copy of Jim Fixx’s book (with the 1978 copyright!) and inserted in the book was a pamphlet for a 10,000m race in the DC area (they didn’t call them 10Ks yet…hehehe). He never ran it – or any race – as it turns out :-(

  10. Glad your dad is still active, but it’s heartwrenching to have had the sport stolen from him in the blink of an eye.

    “Avoid potholes” is such valuable advice, simple as it is. It really does suck that potential hazards are everywhere (Deena Kastor stepping on a pine cone and getting a stress fracture comes to mind). I stopped wearing sexy heels to go out (not that I did it often before, but now it’s never) because I’m too paranoid about twisting an ankle.

  11. Actually, if you read Dick Beardsley’s autobiography (which, unfortunately, is not very good), you’ll learn that stepping in a pothole instantly resolved a leg issue during his historic Boston race against Alberto Salazar. The way he relates it is pretty funny, actually.

  12. When I saw your name on your blog, I wondered if you were related to Richard Threlkeld, and then I saw this great post! I always enjoyed seeing your dad’s features, and on screen he projected such equanimity. Good luck to you in your running progress which, in my opinion, is pretty spectacular. From 11 minute miles to what you’re doing now is remarkable.

  13. Thanks, Marilyn. The age cutoff for people having heard of my dad seems to be about 40. I get asked if we’re related less and less ever since he retired about 10 years ago.

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