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.