Running Connections

I came to running late. With most of the sports I played, especially football, running was a punishment. Late for practice? Run. Miss a tackle? Run. I knew running was good for me and for my fitness, but it wasn’t fun. I would run a couple miles here and there from time to time to get in some cardio, and that was about it.

That changed around ’08 when a college friend was up here in Maine visiting and we decided to run a local 10k together. I stayed with him for about a mile and a half, when he dropped me on a steep hill. I remember my triceps burning, and thinking to myself that I needed oxygen elsewhere! He beat me by two minutes. I was in good shape, but I was still more football player than anything, carrying close to 170lbs on my 5’7” frame. I quickly learned what a different type of fitness it is, and that extra muscle bulk did nothing for my running.

The next year, a student I knew through the Bowdoin Outing Club challenged me to do a triathlon. I still weighed close to 160. As I began entering road races, triathlons, and racing my bike in a local crit series, I started trimming down. (My natural, non-training weight is 150 now, and I like to race at around 145.) It was right around that same time that several other college friends—who’d all been college athletes, but not runners—figured out that we’d each gotten into running. We decided we’d meet up that fall in Hartford, where one of them lived, to run the Hartford Marathon. That was ’09 and—with some rotation due to family life, injuries, etc.—we’ve been doing it together ever since. Running that race became a new tradition keeping a bunch of us close twenty-plus years out of school.

A snapshot of Fay, Lisa, and me at Fay’s first 5k in 2014. (She’s holding up her fingers to indicate a 33-minute finish, which she was excited about. This xc season, she was right around ~23:00 in her races. And now, she thinks that’s not even fast enough!)

I love to run year-round, and especially in the winter. Four years ago, I started growing a beard for cold-weather running and skiing. Running got me through my divorce, and connected me with my second wife, Lisa. But, by far, the best part of running—better than the physical and mental health, better than the new friends I’ve made and the old friends I’ve reconnected with—has been the new bond it’s created between me and my now-teenage daughter Fay, and also how it’s helped Fay and Lisa bond, and has become a common interest for our new blended family.

Three or four years ago, after seeing how much I run and attending races to cheer me on, Fay decided that she wanted to start running, too. We eased into it, run-walking just a mile on the dead-end dirt road where we lived, and with a lot of positive encouragement from Lisa. A year later, we’d moved into a neighborhood, with nearly three miles of streets. We began going out to run a mile all together each day before or after school.

There were some mornings Fay didn’t want to do it (right?!) and we encouraged her, but never forced her, and she kept it up. I remember one January morning she was particularly grumpy. I told her to dress warm because it was pretty cold. She was still scowling half way through our run, and I said something to the effect, “Be proud of yourself. How many other kids are out here in the dark, before school, minus three degrees, running?” And she punched me in the arm, “You didn’t tell me it was three below!” She was miffed at me, but proud of herself at the same time.

By far, the best part of running—better than the physical and mental health, better than the new friends I’ve made and the old friends I’ve reconnected with—has been the new bond it’s created between me and my now-teenage daughter

The three of us ran our first 5k together two years ago. A family-friendly race sponsored by LL Bean at their flagship store in Freeport. It’s still a family joke—Fay had set a goal time for herself, and because I tend to be a bit competitive, part way into the race I told her, “Your pace is dropping.”  That’s when both Lisa and Fay told me to be quiet or go run by myself! It was a good lesson for me to keep my expectations separate from Fay’s.

A year later, Fay signed up for summer track through our town rec program. I was blown away at how popular it was. I had no idea. Hundreds of kids out there running around, and huge tent cities at the meets with families in their shade watching and cheering. Two summers of that and Fay was way into it on her own. For the first time in her life, she took real initiative and asked me, begged me, to take her to the track in the evenings to practice.

Last fall, she joined the middle school cross country team. And this fall, as she faced a challenging transition into ninth grade in a new school (she was doing town sports but still went to a tiny school in the town her mom and I used to live in), being a member of the cross-country team has been the single greatest element of her success in that transition so far. Watching her love for running grow, watching her set goals for herself and work hard—harder than she ever has—to achieve them, watching her begin to learn how to push herself beyond what she thought her limits were, has been indescribably gratifying for me as a dad.

I also love the fact that her teammates are serious about school. Her coach loves to tell the story that she looks for new runners each year in the library because she finds that the students studying there tend to have the qualities necessary to be runners, primarily motivation and the desire to better themselves. Fay made high honors her first quarter and she was especially proud to read the list to me and say, “Cross-country…cross-country…cross-country,” after so many of the names.

Running has helped in another aspect of Fay’s school transition in that Lisa and I have gained new friends in parents of several of Fay’s teammates’. It’s helped us become a part of the school community and, of course, the more people we know and the more involvement we have, the safer and more supportive it will be for Fay these next few years.

A couple weeks ago, Lisa, Fay, and I ran in a night time 5k trail race, benefitting the local VFW—the senior project of two of Fay’s cross-country teammates. It was in the low 30s, with a biting wind, but there were 100 people there, students, parents, neighbors, kids, coaches, all happy to be together and excited to go for a run. It epitomized what it’s all about.

I’ve kept running my races, 5ks, 10ks, halfs, and Hartford, running anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen races each year. There are a few staples—Portland Seadogs Father’s Day 5k, LL Bean Fourth of July 10k, Beach to Beacon 10k, Hartford Marathon, and some others sprinkled in as the calendar allows, and as new races pop up.

Sometimes Fay and I run together in races, sometimes I race my own race. She’s catching up to me, though, and I bet this coming summer, we’ll be battling for family fastest. I usually log 20-25 miles/week in the winter, 30-35 in the spring, and then 50-60 in the middle of marathon training. Like I mentioned, I’m pretty competitive, and running is a great way for me to continue to have an outlet for that as I get older. I race myself but love trying to stay competitive in my age category.

I’m trying to check off some milestones: sub-20 5k, sub-40 10k, sub-1:30 half, and sub-3:00 full. I regularly nail the first two, and have run an even 1:30 in the half, but I haven’t cracked it. I had a three-year plan for the marathon that got sidetracked by illness and injury in ’14 and ’15, so this year was my first year back on that. I ran 3:13, but that was with less intense training schedule and a better training/life balance than in years past.

I’ve qualified for Boston twice, but have never run it. I’m planning to take the coming summer off from marathon training and just run shorter races, mix some more halfs in there, and then (if my BQ this year holds) start training in winter ’17 for Boston in ’18. As Fay has gotten into cross-country, I’ve learned that master’s cross-country is becoming popular, and I’m thinking that might be something fun to try next season.

We have a great running community on campus at Bowdoin, and around town. I always used to train by myself, but have found a couple of local friends who run at a similar pace, and it’s made running and training much more fun. For the past two summers, we’ve had an open-invite early morning track workout on campus, which has drawn a regular group of alumni, faculty, staff, and local runners. It’s a lot easier getting out of bed and pushing yourself on the track when you have others to answer to!

The Bowdoin track at daybreak, just before a speed workout

I hope my running sets a good example for Fay, for her to see me still trying to improve, still trying to reach goals, even as I get grey in the beard. Eventually, she’s going to have to slow down so that we can run together, and I hope she’ll have patience with me then, but I fully expect to hear, “Your pace is dropping, Dad!” I will deserve it, and as long as we’re still running together, I’ll check my ego to hear it.

Matt O’Donnell is editor of Bowdoin Magazine at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. Apart from his day job, he directs a telemark ski program for the Bowdoin Outing Club and is founding editor of From the Fishouse, an online audio archive of emerging poets.