The Running Man – continuing the legacy

6 Dec

Six years ago today, my Dad died.  Dad had been many things to many people.  He was many things to me – in addition to being my Dad, he was friend, financial advisor, giver of wise advice, and provider of corny but very, very funny jokes.  He was also my unofficial running coach.

Dad grew up in a small town in South Africa.  In his early years, he was raised by his mother while his father fought in World War II.  The war split the family apart; my grandparents divorced, and although my grandmother remarried, the new union did not create financial stability.  Dad and his siblings were fed and sheltered, but there was only money for the bare necessities; certainly no luxuries.  His childhood was probably typical of the late war and immediate post-war years.

Dad did well in school, academically outperforming most of his peers.  There was no money for university, so he had to get his education in the School of Hard Knocks.  At some point in his youth, possibly when he was fresh out of school and newly employed at the bottom of the totem pole, he joined an athletic club.  He was physically fit out of necessity, having had a childhood where he had to walk or bike everywhere.   He started entering races, running longer and longer distances.  And he started winning.

In the days before there were heart rate monitors, motion control shoes, and online training programs, Dad made an impact on the South African running scene, distinguishing himself as one of the elites of his generation.  I have a folder full of newspaper clippings featuring his victories, and my Mom’s display cabinet at home contains medals and trophies.

Dad never tried to push me into running – far from it.  In my school days, I was hardly a poster child for athleticism.  But still, the sport of running always held a fascination for me.  Every year starting from when I was twelve or thirteen, there was one particular day when Dad and I would get up before six in the morning and spend the entire day riveted to the TV.  That was the day of the annual Comrades Marathon, South Africa’s premier ultramarathon.   It is the world’s oldest ultramarathon and draws more registrants than any other event of its kind.  Dad and I would watch the start, we would be watching when the first runners completed the 55 mile race about five and a half hours later, and we would still be watching when the final gun went off signalling the end of the eleven hours that runners were allowed to complete the race in.  Most years, Mom would be in the kitchen baking cookies.  She said it was the one day of the year when she could any baking done without the entire family getting under her feet.

I made my own personal acquaintance with running when I was 26.  I had decided to give up my ten-year smoking habit, and was preparing by taking on healthy lifestyle habits.  My first runs weren’t really runs.  They were walks with the occasional burst of running here and there.  But soon, with Dad’s help, I was following a program of walking and running that slowly but surely built me up.  Before I knew it, I was running and walking in equal proportions, and soon after that, the running overtook the walking.

I did not run my first race until I was 30, and that year, I did a 5K, a 10K and a half-marathon.  Out of all of these races, the one that is by far the most special to me is the 10K.  Sure, the half-marathon was a tremendous accomplishment, and as soon as it was over, I was on the phone to my Dad in South Africa, telling him all about it.  Earlier that year, however, Mom and Dad had been over to Canada on a visit, and they were there with me when I ran my first 10K race.  It is the only race that Dad was physically present at, where I crossed the finish line and saw him on the other side.

During those years of running, Dad gave me countless pieces of advice.  He coached and mentored me.  He told me what I doing right and where I was going wrong.  He was thrilled to have a receptive audience for his running-related wisdom.

By the time I started running again after my seven-year gap, Dad was gone.  But his words lived on in my head, and when I find myself hitting a rough spot either in a training run or a race, I say to myself, “What would Dad do?”  I draw on his advice time and time again – advice about everything from nutrition to shoes to running form and pacing.

Every time I run, I think of Dad.  Sometimes, when my energy starts to flag, I feel a sudden burst of energy, as if something unseen is lifting me up and helping me soar.  And so the legacy of the Running Man in my life lives on.  I am proud that I can call myself his daughter.

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