Mile by mile

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“Why are you running?”

The tiny girl, about 5 years old and peering from the sidewalk, was barely audible through the mid-March wind. I saw a flash of confusion on her face as I breezed past, with no time or concrete answer to give.

For the next five miles, the question lingered.

The author's happiest finish line photo, from May 2013's Run River City 25K.

The author’s happiest finish line photo, from May 2013’s Run River City 25K.

I pondered the three, ragged pairs of running shoes shoved under my bed. There were the 22 races in 2014; 130 miles against the clock. I considered my first half marathon – exactly one year ago – followed by three more in the subsequent months (because, why not?). And there was the marathon, my goal for the coming year that left me terrified.

The calendar of 5Ks, 10Ks and four-milers became packed, as did my closet with
t-shirts from each race. It was a quiet source of pride, this act of dragging myself from bed after several hours of sleep, to line up with a crowd and see how many I could pass before the end.

Competition is addicting. Some might say it’s inherited.

*     *     *

Predictably, my father was a sports nut, most at ease during the weekends in a battered Cardinals hat. Saddled with two daughters, he did his best to impart a love for baseball, the NFL and various pastimes that involved feats of throwing and catching.

The efforts were mostly wasted on me.

Track was the first organized sport where I found any success. After giving up gymnastics and  dismissing any notion of softball or basketball, simply running – one step at a time – held appeal. I was just stubborn enough to keep going.

My middle school’s track consisted of the uneven, square perimeter of sidewalk that surrounded the building. The last quarter was uphill, where we did sprints to the shouts of the math teacher who served as our coach.

When I developed a case of shin splints from striking that concrete, my father took me to get my first pair of proper running shoes. They were plain, white Reeboks, with extra cushioning in the heels. These shoes were nothing fancy, they kept one, undersized 12-year-old going.

*     *     *

The field for the 800 meters wasn’t crowded – maybe three other runners brave enough to take on two laps around the Peoria Stadium track. After the first 400, the other feet had faded behind. I couldn’t hear the crowd, only my labored breathing and those Reeboks on the spongy surface.

When I crossed the finish line, I could see a familiar shape in dark suit and tie, waiting at the edge of the track. I don’t know if he cheered aloud for me, but I can still see him standing there, shaded from the sun.

That would be the only meet in which my father would see me compete. He was gone the next year, at age 45.

I gave up running in the years after, with other sports to occupy that space. There were no more races for another 15 years. Then as a 30th birthday loomed, the urge returned, to be scared and free at the same time. The miles spent alone with pavement allowed time and distance like no other. And not a run goes by without thinking of those who will never meet me at the finish.

Everyone has reasons – inspiration, vanity, health, awards, camaraderie, competition. I’m not running for something as much as I am running because of something.

I’ll be doing that marathon in October in Chicago, along with 45,000 other runners.

Thanks for the shoes, Dad. I haven’t forgotten.

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