My father did not understand.
We had traveled 4,500 miles to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska from our home in New York City and I was preparing to go out on a long run. He wondered “Why, with all the miles of trails here which we can hike, would you want to go out for a run?”
I lied to him, “For the sights.” And left for an hour-long jog along Alaska’s route 1.
I had lied to him because I could not tell him the truth. The truth was that I was not really a runner at all. My friend Fran likes to describe me as a “weightlifter “as my endomorph body type was far better suited for the weight room than long lonely stretches of highway. And frankly, at the time, I would have rather exercised indoors than out. But I had made a commitment.
A few months previous, I had gone to Boston for business on the day that their marathon was being held. On the plane ride up from New York I had been given a complimentary copy of Runner’s World Magazine. In it had been an advertisement for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, Team in Training program, stating that they could “train anyone” to run a marathon to raise money to defeat those awful blood diseases. Just two days previously, Dad had been told that his 8-month struggle with Lymphoma was over. He was in full remission and everyone in the family breathed a long sigh of relief.
The advertisement got me thinking. Despite having neither the body type or the aptitude for running I had harbored a secret desire to run a marathon. I think it had to do with the metaphor of the race…life is not a sprint it is a marathon. When I finally made it to my hotel room, I went to Team in Training’s website and signed up to run the Chicago Marathon. I promised that in exchange for their training program that I would raise $5,000 for their cause.
That commitment turned to buyer’s remorse the next day as I watched the less than elite cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon. They looked like hell. Pain was etched on their faces and their feet were barely clearing the pavement. Some of them even collapsed on reaching the finish line on Boylston Street. But a commitment is a commitment and, a week after the marathon, I began my training regimen of ever-increasing mileage six days a week.
What my father did not understand, and what I could not tell him on that morning in Alaska, is that I had to run to maintain my training. I had to lie to him because I did not want him to know that I was running the marathon. Not the physical fact that I was running a marathon (he always supported his children in their physical endeavors) but that I was running the race in his name in order to raise money for the charity that had helped save his life. There is a Jewish tradition that charity should be performed anonymously so not to place a burden on those for whom the charity is given. It is tradition he taught us and it was one I had hoped to follow.
My resolution was even more emphatic considering the purpose of this trip. We had hatched the concept of our Alaskan adventure when he had been diagnosed with Lymphoma. I had wanted to give him something to look forward to and work towards at the end of his treatment. I had asked “Where have you never been, and always wanted to go?” He had tossed out a few places, but we had decided on the 49th state as it was on both of our bucket lists.
I could not tell him on this life celebrating trip that I was running a marathon on his behalf. The burden on him and me would have been too great. It was far better to just enjoy all the Alaskan wilderness had to offer and marvel at its beauty.
For the rest of the trip, where and when I could, I would go out for a run. My father never asked again why I ran but would shoot me one of his famous “your misshoganah “looks and shake his head. Occasionally, because a Dad has to be a Dad, he would warn me to be on the look out for the bears that roamed the woods. This admonition always managed to put a little giddy up in my get up and go.
That trip gave me a true appreciation of outdoor running. It continued all summer long on ever increasing runs through out NYC. Around the loop in Central Park. Laps around the reservoir. In Riverside Park, running along the Hudson to the small Lighthouse underneath the George Washington Bridge and back. South along the Hudson River Greenway all the way to the World Trade Towers and occasionally the Battery.
I loved these runs because they made me feel more fit than I ever had in my life and allowed me to explore, unabated, my serious passion for ice cream without gaining any weight. They provided me with an opportunity to slow down and see the world around me in ways I never had before. To see the details that provide so much of the beauty in the city. The gardens in Riverside Park where they meet at the end of “You’ve Got Mail.” Belvedere Castle, Strawberry Fields and the Imagine mosaic, and so much in Central Park. The Hudson with its ever-changing hues, moods and ships passing.
Even more I relished these runs because of the time it allowed me to think unencumbered by cell phone, Blackberry, or other distractions. I had the time to think about issues that were nagging at me both personal and professional. I had time to think about why the Red Sox were doing horribly. I could solve the worlds problems while I ran instead of having to litigate them in the middle of the night.
And, while some runs were tougher than others, I cannot recall a single time where I returned from a run where I did not feel unburdened and freer than when I had started.
That is not entirely true. On the morning of September 12, 2001, the day after the attacks, I ran south along the West Side Highway, past an endless line of ambulances and first responder vehicles to what was now being called “The Pile.” When I got as far as the police would let me go, I paused to mumble a few words of prayers and vow revenge and then ran home with anger and tears for the innocence of the world that had died the day before.
On October 7, 2001, a bright sunny day that started out cold and ended mild, I ran the Chicago Marathon finishing in 22,291st place with a time a 4:53:08. I had raised nearly $10,00 for Leukemia and Research and in the process managed to develop a passion for long outdoor runs. At a time when the nation and I had needed healing from the events of only a month before, I had been healed by the crowds cheering for NYC (our shirts designated us as the NY chapter of TNT) and by the fact that I had given my father a gift that he would never know about but that I would always cherish.
Or so I thought. When I eventually found my way back to the hotel room and into an icy bath, to cool my aching body, my cell phone had rung. It was my mother, calling from Vienna where my parents had gone for a visit. She wanted to congratulate me on my finish, they had been watching the results via the internet. But mostly she wanted me to talk to my Dad, who, it appeared, she had blabbed my secret. When he got on the phone, he said “I really don’t understand why anyone would want to run that far…but congratulations.” He knew why I had run. That was self-evident. But he did not want to place a burden on me to say anything. And he did not have to because I knew how he felt so I responded, “For the sights.”
Over the next 10 years or so I ran three more marathons and four triathlons. All for TNT. All but one raising money for Pops. I did it for him for sure, but I did it for me too. I did it because it made me feel fit emotionally and physically.
Physically, the miles burned calories and kept the weight off. Emotionally, the long runs with their sightseeing provided ample time to think and a way to provide balance to a life easily unbalanced.
Eventually, age and logged miles paid their toll. On a visit to an orthopedist about a persistent back problem, he advised me to stop running and biking as they were exacerbating bulging discs and arthritis that I managed to collect over the years. He told me that if I did not stop, that the problems would only compound themselves and that I could eventually lose the ability to walk or even stand without assistance.
I stopped and changed my running and biking gear for gym togs. Instead logging long hours on the road, trails and paths I spent my time on ellipticals and Stairmasters, lifting weights and stretching. Instead of watching the world go by I watched CNN, Fox and other gym goers. This helped with the physical part of the equation a lot. I got fatter less quickly than I would have otherwise. But from a psychic perspective it was never the same. Gyms are just more rushed. Instead of the “I will be done when done feeling” when you bike and run for distance you put yourself on the clock. I will do 45 minutes of Stairmaster, 20 minutes of stretching and 30 minutes of weights. Moreover, the joy of being out and about seeing something new, even familiar things, you are left with the stress of watching the news or the same sweaty people you see every day.
I was thinking about this recently on one of my daily walks around our neighborhood in Jardim Itanhanga. They have been one of the unexpected gifts of the Covid 19 pandemic. Each day, I go for a 60 minute or so walk around our gated community. They are never timed instead I let my nose (even when it is covered with a mask) guide me around the tangle of streets that surround us. While I have my iPhone with me, I mostly do not listen to it and never check for messages or emails. Instead, I let my mind wander wherever it happens to want to go and let it stay there for as long as it needs. I try reliving those long rides and runs from my marathon and triathlon days and seek to see something new every day. Thankfully, this neighborhood is a forest that is ever evolving. There are literally new flowers to see every day and I make a point of stopping and examining new blooms when I see them.
Yesterday, I stopped in our garden to examine a new red rose that had emerged on one of the bushes I had given Elaine years ago. It was so beautiful and fragrant, and I was taking my iPhone out of my pocket when it hit me.
Perhaps one of the true lessons of the pandemic is that life is a marathon, but you should take the time to stop and smell the roses.