I’ve told the story a few times lately. Short and simple, unlike all my others.
“My mom told me that my dad tried to run a marathon once. Around Mile 17, she got a phone call from him: ‘I’m done, come pick me up.'”
I don’t know if it’s true.
The basics, sure. My dad was a runner, and I have vague memories of participating in fun runs after his races, the ribbons from which adorned the posts of my childhood bed—which had once been his—even after the remains of my family made the move south. I’m pretty sure my mom told me about the marathon try, a few years ago. But was it Mile 16, not 17? Was there more to it? The game of telephone rings doubts through my head.
I only have one (good) photo of my dad, one that’s in focus and frame, one taken by someone other than my five-year-old self. It’s Father’s Day, 1987, and I’m sitting beside him in my parents’ bed, holding a sky blue construction paper card in the shape of a tie up to my neck. Five months earlier, he had for the second time become a dad. A year and a half later, he’d be dead.
In his absence, my father has become a legendary figure. Those who loved him are always happy to talk about him, sometimes for hours, once upon a time, on tape. I have the digitized files of his best friend’s tales, of tipping over phone booths the summer after college, or the time he drove cross-country to help his friend save his marriage. His older brother, speaking of his mischievous youth. Nobody speaks ill of the dead.
I have one photo, on a shelf, sitting crooked in its too-large frame.
Before my parents met, my dad lost 80 pounds, or so I’m told. I haven’t seen the photos, haven’t seen the evidence. Years ago, I saw one picture of him as a teen, in which I’d describe him as “chubby,” and I can picture the path his physique might have taken from there.
But in my mind, my father was always in shape. I remember sitting in my seat, strapped onto the back of his bicycle as he rode around our New Jersey town, sometimes accompanied by my mom and sister in a similar setup. I remember his weights in the downstairs den of our split-level home, and the hand-grip strengthener that somehow escaped the post-mortem purge and journeyed with me all the way to my current home. I remember him running.
A few years ago, I took up his old hobby in an attempt to escape his genes, much as he had. Type II Diabetes runs in his family, and while I only lost half the weight he did, it was all I had to in order to feel more confident in my future health. I was never as heavy as he had been in those unseen years, and I’m now probably as fit as he was at his peak.
After building for years, last Fall I decided I felt confident enough to run a half-marathon this year, and ultimately I signed up for two. The second is the day before my 34th birthday. The first is Sunday. On Father’s Day. A holiday that, for many years, I couldn’t tell you when it was.
Friends have asked how I feel about the looming race, and I make jokes, as I always do. The truth: I feel capable, but not confident. I know I can do this, but that despite all the training, it will, by definition, be a struggle. At the very least, it will be the most physically demanding thing I’ve done to date.
In those conversations with others, I deflect. I say I’m crazy or masochistic, but neither affliction severe enough to ever step up to a full marathon. I say this is what I have to do to eat as poorly as I do, or that I like challenging myself in ways like this. Or I tell the story, ever so brief, of my father’s attempted marathon, the implication being that if he could do 17 miles, I can do 13.1.
Telling that story has put him in the forefront of my mind as of late, and running this race on Father’s Day doubly so. And that’s probably why this morning, I realized something I hadn’t realized as of yet.
In that photo, that lone photo sitting crooked on my shelf, my father is two months younger than I am now.
After a lifetime of chasing him, I’m approaching Mile 17, that place where he stopped despite his best efforts. And I still have miles left to go.