Just as I paid tribute to my mother’s contributions to my running on Mother’s Day, it is time to do the same for my father on Father’s Day. The ways in which our parents can shape us as runners (and as individuals in general) come from “nature” (genetic) and “nurture” (environment). Whereas in most cases there is a debate as to which is the more significant contributor to our outcomes, in running it’s clear that both aspects play a role, and in roughly equal proportions.
The “genetic” aspects go beyond physiology and are likely more psychological than anything – the way we are “wired” comes from personality traits that we inherit. This isn’t to say that being “born to run” isn’t helpful – it’s just that the definition of success as a runner is more of a “relative” than an “absolute” concept. We are all capable of being the best we can be if we set our mind to it and commit to reasonable but aggressive goals.
My father was a sports fan as I grew up, and was a wrestler in high school, but other than being lean and strong from the fact that he was raised on a farm, he never struck me as a particularly adept athlete. He played softball a few seasons when I was young and I’d come along to practices and games to serve as the bat boy. I recall him being the 10th man.
It was only later in life that my father actually discovered running, and while he mostly did it out of health reasons (probably because that his father and brothers all passed at this world at a relatively young age), it is clear that he has a gift for it. I’ve had the pleasure of running with him once, while visiting my parents on a business trip to Charlotte, NC. He maintained a conversation with me while we knocked off some 8:00 miles. And while my father is a humble man and rarely races (and even more rarely talks about it), Google makes it easy enough to find that he has at least one 38:25 8K race under his belt (~5 miles at a 7:44/mile pace).
However, where he did excel was as a coach, particularly with soccer. He never played soccer himself, but quickly got a local reputation as one of the better youth coaches around due to his dedicated effort to study and learn about the sport. He wasn’t much of a reader outside of the newspaper, but I do remember him devouring books on coaching soccer – though, as I do with running and so many other things, he always learned best by trying things out. This same type of desire to understand the ins and outs of a sport and how to improve at it is a valuable trait for a runner to possess (and has led me to take the same approach in coaching my son’s soccer team).
Often a tendency to stay active in life translates into running success, and my father was nothing if not active. While he worked a desk job, it was unusual to see him sitting still at home on a weekend. In fact, it was sometimes tough to find him as he’d bury himself in an intense project, often helping out family members with roof repairs, minor construction, or farm work. I’ve inherited (or learned) this same “restlessness” trait, though I’m far less handy so tend to focus more on activities with my sons or more “domestic” projects like cleaning, and I do think it contributes to one’s overall level of fitness.
Perhaps the most useful behavioral trait my father passed to me (besides the work ethic that should be clear from this post already) is the tendency to be an early riser. As I mentioned in regard to my mother previously, I suspect this comes from being raised on a farm, where chores required completion before the school day even started. However, my father carries this tendency through to this day. He would work long hours to try and earn extra money to send my brother and I to college (fortunately, not necessary as we both went on pretty much full academic scholarships).
But he would do so in a manner where we never felt like he was absent – he’d often be into work by 5AM so he could put in 12 hours and be home in time for dinner, soccer practice, the basketball game or track meet, or whatever other family activity we had going on. And that example more than anything set me on the path to predawn running, where my goal is to let my running pursuit interfere as little as possible with family or career commitments.
He also abhorred taking shortcuts. If my father took on a project, he did it right, or at least to the best of his abilities, even if it took far longer than planned. His approach was simple and direct, with no frills and no fanfare. This is also the best approach to training for a marathon – the shortcuts you read about just don’t work as well as the direct and time-intensive approach of “putting in the miles.”
And finally, another trait I’ve long admired in my father is that he doesn’t complain about anything, and he works with whatever life chooses to hand him. You can’t get him to say a thing about fighting in Vietnam; he nearly lost his life twice while there and shows no outward signs of trauma (nor any hint of inward signs). His company bumped him around from location to location, yet always he did what was asked with grace. I can’t think of many better traits for a runner to possess than to be able to handle what a workout or season dishes you, be it injury or success, and to continue moving forward with humility.
So this Father’s Day I offer a special thank you to my own Dad, for all that he has taught me directly and indirectly, about being a runner and a father. And you may be amazed to know that he still gets up earlier than I do; we left for that run together a few years ago around 4:00AM, if I recall, and he had been waiting downstairs for me for a half-hour at that point.