Using therapy to manage my grief hadn’t worked. Burying my emotions and not letting them out was unsustainable. By the spring of 2002, I still needed to figure out how to deal with the loss of my father and everything I was experiencing at Robin Hood. I was stumbling along without a plan when in late spring 2002, I chatted about my life over e-mail with a former running coach. He suggested I try getting up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m. to run before work, to see if it made me feel any better.
I did. It did. I hadn’t run through the winter because I left home early and got home late — there weren’t enough daylight hours and running in the dark felt like running blindfolded. When spring came and the days lengthened, I started to go for half-hour runs in the morning, which were good for my mental health. And with my five-year college reunion approaching, I could stand to lose the five pounds I’d gained since the previous September. Some people lose their appetite when they are under stress or experience a hardship. I didn’t have that kind of luck.
Running was another gift from my dad. My earliest memory was watching him cross the finish line of the 1978 New York City marathon, which was not long after my third birthday. Think about that — it’s the first thing I can remember. On a brisk afternoon in early November, my sisters and I ran beside him and cheered as he finished the race. He was part of what’s called the second running boom — the mass of people who began running in the 1970s.
Running and my dad went together in my mind. In the ’70s and ’80s, my father often ran road races for fun but never attempted another marathon. In 1984, for the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon, my dad gathered our family in the living room to watch it on TV. His excitement was contagious and if sheer exhilaration could have pushed Joan Benoit across the finish line, we had enough of it in our house to power her through. Joan had been the favorite to win the race before nearly being disqualified at the Olympic trials due to a knee injury. How she would do at the Olympics was anyone’s guess. Joan was an American; the race was in Los Angeles; and it was the first women’s Olympic marathon, an historic event.
Joan pulled away from the pack early in the race and when she entered the stadium for the final lap around the track leading to the finish line, we screamed at the top of our lungs. Earlier in the year, my father had hung a poster of the track and field hopefuls from the 1984 Olympics on the steps to the basement. For years after, we had the inspiration of Joan Benoit, Mary Decker and Carl Lewis every time we walked down those steps.
My father, ever the feminist, had hung a poster of female Olympians in a place where his three daughters would see it often. He never used words like feminist, but he made sure we knew we could run a marathon too and if we did, it would be even more important than a man’s race because the road to get there was longer and harder — like Joan Benoit’s road to the gold medal in the first women’s Olympic marathon.
Even after he stopped doing road races, my dad always ran. Running was part of who he was. He never had fancy clothes — he ran in sweatpants and sweatshirts, an old bathing suit, running shorts long past their prime, cotton socks and cotton T-shirts. When I was at Boston College, he made a point to always visit the nearby New Balance outlet to stock up on the cheapest, most unfashionable running shoes he could find from the clearance rack. He never bought into any of the fancy gear — that stuff didn’t matter to him. What mattered was getting out and doing it.
For many years, he ran in all types of weather. As he got into his 40s and the cold weather started to become an impediment, he joined a gym and ran on a treadmill. He ran because he liked it — not because he was fast or wanted to win a race. He ran for his health and for his well-being. When his knees started to bother him, he took a supplement to see if it helped. Knee pain didn’t stop him. He just ran.
I later learned he ran partly to counteract his smoking. He thought if he could give his lungs enough healthy exercise, it would perhaps counterbalance his smoking cigarettes and all the smoke he had inhaled over the years as a fireman. I’ve not met many habitual smoking long- distance runners, but the reasons people run are personal and if that’s what got him out the door, who cares?
My love affair with running was not love at first sight. In high school, I followed in my sister Kim’s footsteps and joined the winter track team. I found it boring — interminable daylong track meets with a lot of sitting around and very little running. In college, I laced up my shoes a few times and ran around the reservoir next to campus. It seemed every time I had the urge to run, I started at twilight and I finished in the dark — poor planning and not much dedication. A few weeks of half-hearted running around the indoor track or reservoir in preparation for spring break each year didn’t exactly make me a runner. Each April, as I watched the Boston Marathon runners pass campus, I cheered with my schoolmates and knew one day I would be a marathoner too. I just didn’t have a plan for how I would get there.
After college, I started running regularly. I lived in East Los Angeles and my roommate, a former college cross-country runner, ran every morning before work. Her dedication inspired me — she simply made running part of her day.
Our neighborhood in East LA lacked parks and running paths, so I figured out a new route and did laps around local cemeteries. I loved exploring my new neighborhood. Being a blonde-haired blue-eyed twenty-two-year-old woman running through the streets of East LA, I didn’t exactly blend in. Over time, I started to recognize people in the neighborhood and one day while walking down the street, a woman I didn’t know smiled at me and said, “You aren’t running today?” I liked the familiarity — running had helped me become part of the community. The runs also helped me process all the changes in my life which included a cross-country move, living in a new community with five other volunteers, and working with homeless folks on Skid Row, in downtown LA.
In 1999, I ran a 10K in Central Park with my sisters. We knew our dad was going to find a way to watch, even though he was working. As we ran north on the east side of the park and got to the top of the six-mile loop at the park’s northernmost point, we saw the Chief’s car and my dad standing in front of it with the Chief’s Aide. My sisters and I hollered and shouted as we ran down the hill. Kim raced ahead of Karen and me to give him a hug. He brought a cheap, disposable camera and took our pictures, encouraged us to “Go get ‘em!” and off we ran. Seeing our dad gave us a much-needed boost of energy as we approached the dreaded Harlem Hill, a beast loathed by most runners, on the north side of Central Park.
After running regularly for a few years, I was ready to take on the marathon. I had the image of my dad from 1978 burned in my brain — earliest memories don’t fade — and had listened to his marathon story for more than twenty years, which included a poster-sized aerial photograph of runners on the Verrazano Bridge he had hung in our kitchen. In the Fall of 1998, when I moved back East from LA to Boston, I signed up to run the Dublin marathon with Team in Training — a program that trains athletes in endurance events in exchange for fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The program included a running coach and weekly long runs on Saturdays and I trained throughout the spring and summer in Boston. In addition to the great coaching and motivation from being part of a group, I made a bunch of new friends and we trained together and eventually ran the marathon together.
Kim trained simultaneously for the New York marathon and we decided to run the Manhattan half-marathon on another day that summer of 1999. Race day was sunny, hot and humid. The 13.1 mile course was a little more than two of the six-mile loops in Central Park. My father drove down from Piermont to cheer us on and we saw him four times on a thirteen-mile course. He went back and forth — east to west across the park to catch us at different spots on the loops.
At one point, another runner keeping the same pace as Kim and me shouted out to my father after seeing him so many times. “Hey, Dad, you have three daughters, right? Two running and we just passed the third!” (This helped my dad find Karen too!) My father laughed and enjoyed his brief celebrity.
He jumped in and ran with us for a bit, even though he wasn’t dressed in running clothes. In fact, he was wearing Teva’s. Irrelevant. He probably didn’t even notice, and certainly didn’t care. He was too excited for us. My dad was never short on exuberance, especially when it came to encouraging us.
Around mile ten, Kim wanted to slow down and suggested I go ahead of her. I saw my father about a half-mile later.
“Where’s Kim?” he asked.
“She wasn’t feeling great so she slowed down. She’s behind me.”
“Stay together!” my father shouted after me.
I knew what he meant — it is motivating to have a running partner especially if you are the one struggling with heat or fatigue. Kim and I reunited and finished the race together.
When the Dublin marathon finally came in the fall of 1999, my mother, father and sisters flew to Ireland to cheer me on. The marathon route was sparse with few spectators and having my family cheering boosted my morale. Unlike in Central Park, where my father and Karen had quickly walked across the park to see the race, my family resorted to planes, trains and automobiles to root for me. Seeing them so many times provided the boosts I needed at important points in the race when I started to drag. At nearly every interaction on the route, my father encouraged me to stay with my friends — same counsel he gave at the race in NYC.
When I got to the finish line with my two friends, I will never forget the look on his face. He engulfed me in a bear hug. It was, and remains, my proudest moment. I had made him very proud. I had graduated from high school and college with honors, had captained sports teams, was elected class president, and had received academic awards. Nothing compared to the feeling I had at the finish line where I felt like I had really, truly done something worthy of my father’s pride in me. The academics were easy for me and he knew that. Running the marathon was hard, and he knew that too. I have a photograph from the finish of me standing with my parents and the look on my father’s face summed up the moment. Pride and excitement.
Kim and I planned to run the NYC marathon together in 2000. The summer before the race, I rented a share-house at the Jersey Shore with my friends and I did long runs on Saturday mornings at the boardwalk on the beach. Despite logging the miles, my physical state wasn’t great. Too many beers. Too many late nights. Too much bad food.
I slogged through the training and while I was in subpar condition, I had the miles in the bank and felt ready enough. My father pulled some strings and got Kim and me spots on the FDNY team bus to the starting line in Staten Island. We had to meet the bus at an ungodly hour — before the sun was up — and I hadn’t slept well on Kim’s couch the previous night. The November morning was cold and even though I wore warm clothes to discard right before the start, I shivered as I waited. When a member of the FDNY team asked me what time I was hoping for, I said I was just hoping to finish.
We left the starting line among 30,000 other runners and began jogging over the Verrazano Bridge en masse when my white, NYU baseball hat blew off. I wore it for every run and I needed it, especially on marathon day to keep my head warm and the sun out of my face. I crouched down to retrieve it and a runner close behind me attempted to jump over me and nearly knocked me down. Not exactly the start I hoped for.
Kim and I chatted and jogged through Brooklyn and Queens — each stopping to use the bathroom or grab a water but always staying together. Spectators lined the streets and race organizers provided plenty of water and Gatorade, bananas, wet sponges — the opposite of my race experience in Dublin.
Once we reached the hill on the 59th Street Bridge taking us from Queens to Manhattan, and despite my father’s advice, I urged Kim to go ahead. I was really dragging and didn’t want to slow her down. I shuffled north on First Avenue, found my parents and Karen, who were standing on the corner of the block where Kim’s apartment was, a little past right past mile 17. Kim was already there chatting and being a running machine, seemingly unperturbed by the miles. As I stumbled over to my family, I can still see the look of concern on my father’s face once he saw me.
“Do you think you are going to finish?” he asked.
I was flummoxed. This wasn’t the kind of question I was expecting. Plus, he wouldn’t ask for no reason. I must have looked…..bad.
“Yeah, I can finish,” I said, before I ran off with Kim again.
I schlepped my tired body through the Bronx and back into Manhattan down Fifth Avenue. I saw my family again in Central Park as my father shouted, wildly gesticulated, and tried to will me through the last mile to the finish line. He ran along with us for as much as he could but the course was blocked by the barricades and hordes of people cheering the runners.
When I finally saw my dad after I finished, I asked him about his question at mile 17.
“You looked awful. I’ve never seen you look so bad,” he said.
I had no words. I couldn’t believe he thought I would drop out. Run seventeen miles and then not finish? No way. Not me. I was his daughter. Though some things are hard to do, they are usually the ones most worth doing.
For many years, I had a love-hate relationship with running. I mostly loved it — the unhurried, letting my mind wander. When I started to really love it, I would find myself thinking I should take it further and sign up for a longer race, like a half-marathon.
Once the training for the longer race started and the necessary long runs grew in mileage, I would hate running — feeling like I HAD to run. I trudged through eight and ten milers, ran the races, and then wouldn’t run for months. When I finally laced up my shoes again, the cycle started over.
It took almost seventeen years but I finally figured out my complicated relationship with running is really quite simple in one important respect. When I’m running, I feel close to my dad. It’s a warm and comforting feeling that has lingered in the back of my mind since he died. Logging a few miles one day, everything I feel about running became clear.
In September 2018, my sisters and I ran a ten-mile race along the Hudson River. The race course took us through downtown Piermont and onto the pier, past the beautiful memorial to our father. We chatted for the entire course, laughed and told stories. It had rained the night before and the roads were wet. The day was overcast, damp and chilly. As we ran by the memorial to my dad, I pointed to it and shouted, “This is all your fault! We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t for you!”
My dad loved running and he loved that my sisters and I loved running. He flew across oceans to cheer for us. He ran in sandals to encourage us. He even found a way to watch us race while he was working. He knew running was a powerful part of life and he was excited to share it with us.
Running helped me clear my head in the spring after he died. On those early mornings, I ran on the rail trail in Piermont, as the sun rose and the dew dried, and I started to feel more like my old self. Like I could manage my feelings. My life was going on and I felt as if it was going to get better. I was in control of where I worked and I could exercise to improve my health and mental outlook.
Working at Robin Hood was hard. Mourning was hard. But the work we were doing was important and needed to be done. I brought an interesting perspective to Robin Hood’s grant making and felt I had to give it my very best for as long as I could.
Whenever I feel like life is getting out of control or I don’t know where I’m headed in my career, I make a list of activities to incorporate into my daily life to improve it. At the top of the list is always, “run regularly.” As soon as I get back into the routine of running, my life feels more manageable, I sleep better and feel better.
The inherent value in running my father showed me is ingrained. He wasn’t fast, in fact he was slow, like me. Speed wasn’t the point. The point was health, mental clarity, focus, and good habits. Once when I shared how in awe I was of the front of the pack runners, my father pointed out that those runners were giving the race everything they had — their very best.
Then he asked me, “Are you giving the marathon your very best? Are you giving it everything you’ve got?”
When I affirmed that I was indeed giving it my all, he said, “And you’re doing it for twice as long as those runners in the front of the pack. I think your accomplishment is far more impressive.”
My father’s advice about sticking together also continues to resonate with me. Running can be mentally tough, especially longer races. When my father ran the 1978 NYC Marathon, he trained and raced with several firemen friends and they relied on each other to keep going. Those times when I raced and he made sure to tell me to stick with Kim or my friends, he wasn’t only talking about running. He was imparting a lesson about life.
In many ways, when I worked at Robin Hood in the months after my father died, I outwardly exhibited the same mental toughness I used when training for and running a marathon. I didn’t share with my family or friends the extent of how difficult my job was or the toll it was taking on me. I thought I was supposed to tough it out and persevere.
It didn’t need to be that way. I could have lessened my mental burden by asking for help from my friends, my sisters, and even my mother. I could have asked for help from my colleagues, many who became friends. Looking back, I see it as another example of a lost opportunity to ask for help. I wish I had asked for support and I suspect I would have received it.
Despite all those benefits, the day of the New York City Marathon is still one of the hardest days of the year for me — tied with St. Patrick’s Day. It’s harder than any holiday or my father’s birthday. The marathon and my father are so intertwined in my mind that being in my apartment and listening to the crowd cheer for the runners less than one block away used to make me cover my ears and turn up the radio. My dad loved the marathon and for many years, I couldn’t untangle my feelings of loss with the festiveness of the race — it reminded me too much of my dad. Hearing people yell and cheer for the runners. Watching people struggle through the miles and having been there myself all because my father inspired me to run.
I used to leave the city early the morning of the marathon — before the streets were barricaded — and try not to return home until after all the runners came by. When I first started dating my husband, he wanted to go out with friends on marathon day and cheer and then hit the bars lining First Avenue — it’s always an excuse to drink on marathon day. I couldn’t do it — walking around my neighborhood on marathon day brought tears.
With the passing of the years, I tried to look at the marathon in a new way — it was a day that made my dad happy. My earliest memory is the New York City Marathon. In the spring of 2019, after waking at 5 a.m. for six months to work on this writing project, I put writing aside and decided to train for the NYC marathon again. I wanted to reclaim the marathon and not avoid it anymore. I had been running regularly for many years but a half marathon was my longest mileage since 2000. I dutifully followed a training program and was ready for the big day in November 2019.
As I shivered at the starting line in Staten Island on that chilly morning, I thought I would be overcome with emotion, like I usually was on marathon day. Instead, I just wanted to run my race and enjoy, as it was likely going to be my last marathon. I can’t put my finger on what caused the change. Was it the passing of 19 years? The starting line looking and feeling so different? Changes to my own outlook?
I enjoyed the crowds of jubilant spectators in Brooklyn and Queens and waved to enthusiastic friends along the way. When I got to the corner of my block on First Avenue in Manhattan, past mile 17, I saw my family waiting and cheering for me. Again, I expected to be emotional and think of the moment in 2000 when I saw my dad and he asked if I was going to finish the race. Instead, I was too tired to think of any of that and delighted in seeing my family there supporting me. I hope the image of me running by is now etched in my children’s minds, the same way the image of my father running the marathon in 1978 was burned in mine.
I try to inspire my children in the same ways my father inspired me. So far, mixed results. Watching me run a half-marathon in Central Park on a frigid December day, Peter, age five at the time, asked me if I could run any faster. After my sisters and I finished the ten-miler in Nyack, his first words were, “I knew you weren’t going to win, Mom.” My daughter on the other hand used to love to join me on runs in the jogging stroller when she was a toddler and when she asked if she could watch me run another race with my sisters, I knew the message was getting through.
I think I’ve put the cycles of running behind me. I’ve finally come to a place where I can run a few times each week and not worry about speed and simply be content with how good it makes me feel. Running has saved me many times throughout my life — starting in the spring of 2002. I have my dad to thank for this gift.