The Language of Movement May 18 2015

For my dad’s 65th Birthday, I asked him if he’d like to do a half marathon with me as a ‘gift’.  Granted, 13.1 miles on foot doesn’t really seem like a great gift, but I thought that the time spent together could be valuable.

You see, my dad and I don’t often understand each other, and for maybe a decade or so, we had stopped taking the time to try.  While we share the same fundamental beliefs – help others in need, leave the world a better place than when you came here, and treat others as you’d like to be treated - we had trouble speaking to our similarities.  However, we had little difficulty discussing our differences – at high volumes.  Our phone conversations were filled with silences and sighs, then the quick exchange, “Is mom there?” and “Here’s your mother.”

 I knew that neither of us wanted  that type of relationship.  I had  great memories of my dad and I  going to see the Boston Celtics  play, just the two of us.  Our  rides and walks to the Boston  Garden would be filled with  endless chatter, and, by 2009, I had no idea what had happened to make those feelings of camaraderie disappear.  But I was hopeful that forging a common bond could possibly be a bridge to a new beginning.

So, in late July 2009, I asked my dad if he might enjoy doing a half marathon with me.  He and my mom, both avid walkers for as long as I can remember, had come to cheer me on at many of my races – through which they’d met many of my friends.  But the idea of doing a race himself – I was wary of what his reaction would be.

My dad listened to my proposal – pick a 13.1 mile race anywhere in the country that he’d like to visit, and, as long as he trained, I’d do it with him (I added in a ‘travel incentive’ hoping that may grease the wheel a bit).  I could picture him nodding, deep in thought, over the phone line, and, after a minute or two, he said he’d get back to me.

To be honest, I didn’t think he’d ever answer my question, but to my surprise, he did.  And his answer was yes!  He also had done his research because, maybe fearing I’d change my mind, he told me exactly what race he’d like to do – a half marathon in Tucson, Arizona in December.  Not only did he pick a location that would be warmer than his home in Boston, MA, he found that the date coincided with his godson’s college graduation which was nearby.

Maybe fearing that he’d change his mind, I quickly said, “Cool!” and hung up.  And over the next few days and calls, I went into ‘marathon coach mode’ – planning out his training, diving into proper shoe selection and lecturing him on nutrition.  I know my dad well enough to know he does not like being told what to do, but I thought if he saw me as his “race coach” rather than his “bossy kid”, we could begin our journey.

Well, that plan did not work… at first. so, instead of getting so frustrated I would yell and hang up the phone, which had become my M.O., I changed gears.  I enlisted the help of my fellow marathon friends to help train my dad.  If they told him to get in his weekly mileage, he would – and I started receiving email updates from him charting his training.  The spreadsheet would not only include the miles walked and his pace, but funny notes about how his shoes felt and the money he found on the ground.

I started calling home asking for him and he was happy to tell me his triumphs.  My friends, inspired, and most likely intrigued, decided to do this race with us, and soon we were all headed across the country.  As a show of solidarity, I made us all shirts that had a photo of my dad and I, circa 1979, holding up ribbons after finishing our first mile race.  On the back of ours read, “Team Robert” and on the back of my dad’s read, “Happy Birthday to Me!”

Race days are early days, but at 5am, my dad was ready to go.  He got into the spirit of things early, despite the pre-dawn chill, and posed for my traditional “start line selfies” and a photo with just me.  And, when the starting gun went off, so did he – moving with a determination and pace I was thrilled to see. 

One of my friends and I chose to stay with him for the entire race, thinking that our chatter would help the miles pass.  Occasionally, he’d chime in – telling stories I had never heard about his father, a man I didn’t have the chance to know and knew very little about.  He also was quick to point out any money found on the ground, and listened when I said this was not the time to stop and pick it up.

At mile 12, I asked him what his goal finishing time would be and, looking at my pace watch, I knew we were on target.  And, as we approached the last hill, just a quarter mile from the finish, my friend’s husband yelled, “Go Robert!  You can beat your daughter if you try!”  And, liking this sense of competition, he did. 

Since one of his teachings had been, “You are never given a win; you earn a win”, I thought it best we cross the finish line together – a mere 15 seconds later than his goal time.  We took our finisher photos – him looking slightly dazzled, somewhat exhausted and supremely proud of his achievement.  And he made sure to wear his medal proudly – and groan loudly - with pride of a job well done.

 In five years since, my dad has  become a regular in our ‘  traveling band of merry  marathoners’ – completing his  13th half marathon this May!  Sometimes he races with me,  and also travels just with my  friends, or by himself.  We have gained not only some cool race medal ‘bling’, but also the bond we both hoped we’d build.  We still frustrate each other to no end, BUT we’re learning to speak the same language.