13.1 miles for Dad

I wanted to tell somebody, but there was nobody to tell. Though I was elbow-to-elbow with some 40,000 people, I was alone. There was no one to tell my story, no one who a cared to hear it. In front of me sat 13.1 miles of running, a race for which I’d been planning, training, and worrying for six months. That night in Las Vegas, in the middle of a chaotic near-riotous crowd, I had never run more than 12 miles without stopping. Now I was fighting against a tide of spectators, lost runners, and confused organizers in an attempt to get into my starting corral. It wasn’t what I’d planned. Then again, nothing had been going to plan in the past week. Everything had been chaos, and nothing had ended well.

***

My dad died eight days earlier of a sudden and unexpected heart attack, the kind they called The Widow-Maker, the kind for which there is nothing the best doctors can do. One minute everything is fine, and the next moment everyone has to face the reality that nothing will ever again be the same. I was in China when it happened, flew to my childhood hometown over the next 24 hours, and decided along the way that the half marathon that meant so much to me the day before meant absolutely nothing now. At that moment, I was fairly sure that nothing had meaning. I quit the race a week before it started.

I would never have gone to Las Vegas for the race had my wife, mother, and brother not told me to go. My wife said I needed to. My mom said my dad would’ve wanted me to. My brother told me he’d already found me a plane ticket. He took me to a sports store to pick up supplies. Twenty-four hours later, in the middle of the worst emotional turmoil of my life, I set out to put my body through something it had never endured.

Now I feared I wouldn’t even get to run. The race organizer’s infrastructure had fallen apart. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series is an organization with a great reputation, but this night, it fell apart under the weight of its own success. Getting to the starting line felt like getting to a water trough in the middle of a natural disaster—every man for himself as 60-year-old women throw elbows, 20-something young women weep, and everyone looks on the edge of panic.

I made it just as the gun sounded and looked around to see no one I knew. Everyone looked ahead at the 13.1 miles up and down the Las Vegas Strip, and no one wanted to hear what I felt so desperate to say to someone.

To get to that starting line, I’d leaned on some of my best friends, I’d absorbed everything my volunteer coach had taught me, and I’d taken more personal training time away from family than I had for anything in years.

Now I was alone. And running.

***

What does a novice runner say about the experience of running his first half marathon? There is no wisdom, no great story of overcoming every runner for a first place finish. It’s a personal journey with a sure beginning and unsure end. Any part of the story I told would mean nothing to longtime runners, and bore people who don’t put themselves through the training.

And yet, the story played out as I ran and wept for the first three miles. I stayed at the Excalibur and MGM with my dad. He had taught me to play poker. The first time he bought me a beer, I was 20 years old and standing on the lip of the Grand Canyon during a Vegas trip. One time, during one of his frequent moments of frugality, he convinced our entire family to walk from the Excalibur to Circus Circus on a June afternoon. It was a story of woe we told for the next 18 years, including on the day of Dad’s funeral.

Now I was running, past the dancing Bellagio fountains, past Paris where Dad had once made a special trip to pick up a gift for my mom, past Bally’s where I stayed on my first non-Dad Vegas trip, past the Venetian that didn’t even exist when Dad first took me to Vegas, and, yes, on past Circus Circus where one of several anti-frugality family mutinies once took place.

As I left the strip and headed toward the darkness of downtown, a streetlamp above my head blinked out. And, of course, I thought of my dad.

***

I felt fine for the first ten miles, which was unexpected. After a week in China and a week in Missouri, my body had already started to de-train. So, I expected some sort of early, horrible collapse—my IT band seizing up, dehydration stroke, or, allowing myself a moment of sad morbidity, a heart attack.

At the ten-mile mark, after making it all the way down the Strip, all the way down the road to downtown Las Vegas, around the scary streets, and back up to the Strip, my mind gave me the first “no-go” in the ongoing mind/body “go, no-go” conversation. All around me were warriors—tatted-up punk chicks, a man with one leg, a man nearing 80 years old—all facing forward and…most importantly…still running.

I thought about having to admit to my family and friends that, after everything, I’d given up. There is something very easy about acquiescing. When the hurt finds new claws, the temptation to speed up the end is stronger than I’d ever thought it would be. I imagined having to say I’d succumbed to the pain, sat down on a curb, and waited for death or a police officer to take me away. I imagined it just long enough for my mind to stop thinking about how bad I hurt. I looked up and realized I was still running and had never stopped.

I threw my brother’s empty hand-bottle on the curb, found a hydration station for a drink, and energy pack for some calories. With all of them making their way to the right place in my body, I started to feel better. It happened just about the time I saw a police officer blocking traffic. It was the man I imagined dragging me into an ambulance or paddy wagon. He looked up—likely as confused as he had been all night—as I pointed a finger at him and said, “Thank you.”

With a couple miles left to go in the race, I flash my dad's initials (yes, a pre-race Sharpie project) to a curbside photographer

With a mile left in the race, I ripped my headphones out of my ear, and per the advice of a friend who treats 13.1 miles like a warm-up, threw a few high-fives to the spectators on the rail. The fives came back in kind, and for a great moment in front of the Excalibur, I let myself smile. I let myself realize that I was reaching a moment that wasn’t just validation for six months of training, that wasn’t just a tick on some must-do list, that wasn’t just among the best things I’ve ever done with my friends.

It was also a celebration of a man who had made me, who had taught me the value of not giving up, who had first taken me to Vegas, who had told me to forget everything I thought everyone wanted me to be and to instead be myself. With every step of the last mile, I was celebrating my dad’s life in a way a funeral never could.

I tried to hold it, but with half a mile to go, my brain sent down a gigantic “no-go” that made me think I was going to fall over. I had cried for the first few miles of the race, but that had been expected. Now, I felt like I didn’t even have the energy to cry. I had expected the finish line to appear as soon as I passed the Excalibur, and it wasn’t there. My body was listening to the “no-go,” and I felt myself slowing down. For a moment, I thought I would have no choice but to stop.

And then I locked eyes with a tall Iowan on the rail. It was a friend, and around him were a dozen other dear friends who had braved the cold, the wind, and the mist to see my friends and me finish. I pointed at them, and they screamed. They chanted my nickname as I passed. I shot my fists in the air. I never figured out where in the field of 40,000 I finished, but when those folks chanted my name, I might as well have been in first place.

I left them behind me and realized, despite the crowd, I was alone. It was just the finish line and me.

***

I have no question that I did everything my body could. The moment I crossed the finish line and stopped running, I could barely stand. In the crush of people forcing their way out of the finishers’ corral, I stumbled and nearly fell into my fellow runners. I found my way to the edge of the corral and put my head between my knees. I tried to call my wife, but the cell towers were just as overwhelmed as the race course.

When I felt sure I wasn’t going to pass out, I stood up and re-joined the crowd between two women. One was older than me—maybe 45—and the other was a young Asian woman. I turned to them both, because I had to tell somebody before it was really over.

“I know you don’t know me,” I said, “but I need to tell someone this. My dad was very proud that I was running this race. He died last weekend, and I did this for him.”

There, surrounded by thousands of people we didn’t know, the two women and I cried together for my dad, for me, and for everything the past 13.1 miles had meant.

I’d like to say that’s where the story ends, where I came to grips with losing my dad, where I achieved all I wanted to achieve. But, in truth, I’ve already mapped out at least four races I’m running this year. And, no matter how much you may see me smile and how much joy I force into my voice, I am so far from accepting my dad’s death that I wonder sometimes if it isn’t going to feel this bad forever.

But, if I’ve learned anything from running over the past year, it’s that I’m stronger than I thought I was. I’ve learned that when my fickle mind tells me to quit, I have to count on my body to keep moving on its own. Or, in other words, I have to count on my heart.

Whatever hurts may never go away completely, but if I just keep running, I can live with the pain, and sometimes it doesn’t hurt as bad. And, no matter what, I can make it to the finish. Because at the finish, there are friends, there are smiles, there is reason, and there is celebration. And that, as near as I can tell, is what life is all about.