I’ve never been able to please my father. When he was my football coach in seventh grade, he thought I wasn’t hustling enough so he demoted me to third string. He thought he had banished me to the sidelines, but I saw it as salvation. By high school he finally accepted I hated sports and spent all his time coaching other people’s kids, bragging about their accomplishments as if they were his own. Now that I’m an adult, our communication is sporadic, relegated to phone calls on major holidays and birthdays, short conversations about current events and the Yankees.
I didn’t know then how he found out about my marathon, probably from Mom. I didn’t know they still talked. I thought back to when Dad signed up Mom for a 5K when I was younger, then bugged her every dinner about working out, one of them always leaving the table with their plate, the other asking what I learned at school that day. Once, he even took her to the track to time her. I played with my action figures in one of the outer lanes as he looked at his watch and yelled at her.
I was barely awake when I stepped off the elevator in my hotel, still tired from the three hour drive to Richmond the night before. He sat across from the reception, coffee cup in hand, sunglasses resting on his forehead. He looked lean, as always. “You should look like this,” he used to say, pointing to his body. I considered heading back to the elevator, making an excuse about forgetting my water, but he saw me. His sharp voice cut through the lobby: “Jason,” he said. “Over here.”
“Hi, Dad,” I said, holding a plastic shopping bag of with a water bottle, banana, and gloves inside. It’d been at least five years since I’d seen him, but he still had his firm handshake.
“Jason, good to see you,” he said. “Race starts at eight. You should be at the starting line by now.”
“I’ll get there,” I said. “How did you get here? Isn’t it an eight hour drive for you?”
“Got up early today. How are you gonna have enough time to warm up?” My father had run marathons his entire life until he blew his knee out playing basketball with some high schoolers two years ago. When he wasn’t punishing his body for hours at the gym, he would often ask why my mother and I weren’t as disciplined as he was. On his nicer days, he’d try to explain how wonderful “peak physical fitness” felt, how it could be obtained if we’d just try a little. But that was before he left. Before he said he’d found his soulmate in the form of Lizzie, a muscled trainer. Before he settled into a small one-bedroom apartment, even the standard every other weekend visit most kids get impossible. I tried to visit, twice actually. I invited myself, content with sleeping on his couch. Between waking up with a sore neck and watching Lizzie make scrambled eggs in one of his t-shirts, I knew there wasn’t room for me.
“It’s twenty-six miles! I wasn’t planning on warming up. I just want to finish.”
“Anyone can finish.”
“Dad, I’m not trying to win.”
“You should at least want to place in your age group.”
I didn’t tell him I was only here to prove to my third graders that I wouldn’t die like Pheidippides if I ran a marathon. One of the kids didn’t think I’d make it a mile. During recess one day, I looked at myself in the faculty bathroom mirror. I had grown chubbier since college, my khakis tighter, a not-so-subtle stomach hanging over my belt buckle. “I’m just trying to finish.”
My father pretended not to hear me, heading for the door. “You know my best marathon was a 2:43. I’m not sure if that family record’s coming down today.”
“I’ll let ESPN know.”
By the time I reached the starting line, there were runners everywhere, the “Rocky” theme blasting from speakers. I settled into the back, runners on both sides stretching, eating gooey substances squeezed from silver packets, adjusting headphones and heart rate monitors. I closed my eyes and saw my father’s face behind dark sunglasses, clapping at me, it seemed, rather than for me.
His presence made me nervous. A heavy weight settled in my chest. I’d spent the last years of my life avoiding him, content with my effort to repair the relationship and convinced nothing more could be done. I couldn’t change his inaction, make him want a relationship, I told myself. I knew who he was, his limitations. Therapy is a great place to hear yourself talk, and when the therapist asked why I still wanted a relationship with my father after everything he’d done, all I could say was, “Because he’s my father and one day he’ll be a grandfather.”
I was so far back from the starting line I couldn’t hear the starter gun. As I crossed the starting line, I started my stopwatch, hearing the beep that had become all too familiar the past two months. It was hard to move, one step too fast and I was running over somebody, one step too slow and I was getting trampled on from behind. As the street widened and runners spread out, I saw crowds cheering, holding signs, ringing cowbells.
By the fifth mile I was running with a small group. Adriana was a cancer survivor running her third marathon, Darryl an architect running his twentieth, and Sidney a freshman in college. They laughed when I told them my students’ comments. Darryl said that once I finished this race, I’d promise to never run again, but about a week later, I’d be searching for my next marathon. We stayed together through the halfway point. Then my leg cramped and I couldn’t keep up with them. Adriana stayed behind, walking it off with me. She took a small bottle of water off her belt. “Take this,” she said. “You just need some water.” After massaging my leg and walking for a half mile, I could run again. I’d prove to my father, and myself, that I could do this.
Adriana and I started slowly. Each step felt like my thighs were being stabbed. I adjusted my gait, taking smaller steps, the pain continuing.
Around the sixteenth mile, I saw my father. “Come on, Jason! Move it! You gotta move it! You’re not even gonna break four hours like this!” He held a water bottle out for me. I waved my “no thanks.”
“Move it!” My father yelled as I continued. He grimaced as he clapped his hands. It looked painful.
“That your coach?” Adriana asked.
“No. My father.”
We ran in silence for the next four miles, my lungs burning. Adriana tried to talk to me, but gave up after my strained one word responses. Around the twentieth mile, my side cramped. I placed my hands over my head as the running magazines suggested. Adriana paused next to me, as I came to a complete stop, hands over my head.
“I’ll see you at the finish line,” I said.
“Yes,” I said, determined.
“Okay,” she said, restarting her watch and taking off.
Over the next two miles, I walked and ran, feeling relief each time I passed a half-mile marker, knowing I was that much closer to the finish line.
My father waited near the twenty-second mile marker, offering a water bottle. Amidst the crowd’s cheers, I heard, “Come on, Jason! You’re quitting, young man! It’s time to man up! Man up!” Man up? I thought. Man up like when you left Mom for that personal trainer at the gym, the one that did those cycling classes you used to take? Man up like pack your things for you because you couldn’t even come to the house to look me in the eye?
As I continued to alternate between running and walking, I received pats on the back and words of encouragement from passing runners. “Almost there” “Couple more miles.” “You can do it.” I continued shuffling forward, knowing each step was one less I’d have to take. I pictured myself lying in the hotel’s king-size bed, calling room service and ordering the entire left side of the menu, then calling back an hour later for the right side.
At the twenty-fourth mile, my father stood near the digital clock, most of the crowd already gone. The only ones left were waiting for someone they knew. “This is embarrassing!” he yelled. “I didn’t run this slow on practice runs!” I moved to the other side of the street, still within earshot. “Ridiculous!” I heard. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him slam the water bottle down, the plastic bursting, water splashing his legs. An older man running near me shook his head. “Asshole,” he muttered. My dry throat wouldn’t let me respond even if I’d wanted to.
I crossed the finish line in four hours and fifteen minutes, a time I remember because a woman finishing in front of me screamed it out, her arms stretched over her head in triumph. Volunteers placed medals around our neck and passed out aluminum blankets for warmth as we made our way out of the finishing area. “Keep moving,” the volunteers urged. I stepped over outstretched bodies on the pavement. Each gave a thumbs up whenever someone asked them if they were okay. When I left the chute I didn’t see Adriana, but I wondered if she was waiting. I looked for my father, anticipating at least a hug in between suggestions for how to run a better marathon next time. I circled the finishing area three times, sweat drying white on my arms, taking slow bites from a bagel between sips of sports drink, as my dizziness subsided. I saw Adriana. We hugged, offered our congratulations, made plans to meet for lunch later, but there was no sign of my father.
I felt a growing emptiness inside as I began the slow walk back to my hotel, feeling the weight of my finisher’s medal around my neck, the aluminum blanket crinkling with each step.
My hotel room was empty, the bed still unmade. I sat on bed, my body moving even slower than I anticipated. I grunted as I swung my legs onto the bed, grateful for the privacy. My phone was filled with text messages offering congratulations from friends who followed my progress online. I found Dad’s number and called, the call going straight to voicemail. The weight in my chest was still there when I turned off my phone.