Friday, September 01, 2006

Happy Birthday Dad

Although I lost my dad 25 years ago this fall I still feel his influence. Running was one of his passions and it was through his example that I learned about running. Dad was not a natually built runner. As an adult he was a little over 6 feet tall and a solid 190 pounds. He played on the line for JV football while at college in Princeton and was on the crew for a year. However, he did run the mile as a prep at George School in Pennsylvania. The story is that he he came on to the team as a chunky kid and some of the others teased him about being heavy and slow. But his coach saw something, a determination, and told the other boys not to razz Bill too much because some day he might turn around and beat them. He trained all season, and sure enough at the end he bested the very boys who had teased him.

After marrying my mom in Finland in the early 1950s, dad moved west to pursue a career in hydrology. He kept an active lifestyle with hiking, fishing, and tennis, but he also smoked cigarettes and a pipe. After the Surgeon General came out with warnings in the early 60s, dad quit the cigarettes but continued with the pipe. Nevertheless, he jumped right into the "jogging" movement in the mid-60s, after publication of Kenneth Cooper's "Aerobics." For the next 15 years he was downright religious about his running.

As an engineer he was very precise, if not regimented. Through most of that time he would run three miles on the same route, three times a week. He wore an old cotton t-shirt and sweatshirt and tennis shorts and the trusty Converse All Star high top basketball shoes. Even though he was a "jogger" his pace would be considered these days closer to a tempo run or progression run. He didn't plod, he wanted to work up a sweat on his runs so he was pushing and huffing almost the entire way, and he always finished with a sprint, grunting with each breath, his head flushed red and thrown back as if he were age-group compatriot Roger Bannister running the first sub 4 mile in history.

His running routine sometimes brought my mother to a rage. He would come home from work at 5:30 or 6. Glance at the paper for a few minutes and proceed with his prepatory routine. Meanwhile, we'd be watching cartoons (Warner's Brothers), Gilligan's Island, or the news while she would make dinner. As dysfunctional as our family was, dinner was the one time where we actually sat down together and attempted intelligent conversation. But on dad's running night (usually Tuesday and Thursday--he'd also run on Saturday morning), dinner would be ready at 6:30 when dad was no more than half way through his three mile run. Sometimes we'd wait, but if it was getting too late and we began clamoring, we'd start eating by the time he came churning down the road on his final sprint, and he would end up eating on his own and on occasion without his favored salad, because my brother had helped himself to seconds and thirds. I also remember chewing on many a leathery ham or minute steaks augmented with wrinkled peas and dried rice because we had waited for 45 minutes for his return. And a few times dinner ended up on the wall after my mom threw it in disgust before heading off into the night in the VW to her art studio. On those nights we'd pop in a TV dinner for the four of us remaining and eat without much talk.

My favorite running story about dad was on his visit to China in 1974. By then he was a leading hydraulic engineer and professor at the University of Iowa. His mentor and former colleagues from Colorado State University had arranged for a delegation of scientists to visit the vast communist country, which had been closed off from almost all western visitors for 25 years. They asked dad to particpate on the delegation, and of course he accepted the offer, and he brought his jogging clothes! In Bejing one evening, while his colleagues were preparing for dinner, dad headed out for a 20 or 25 minute jog through the city. His plan was to just run out for 10 or 15 minutes and return on the same route. The streets were nothing like he was used to, because there was no grid system and the intersections included a multitude of roads, sometimes six or seven. After a turning around, he realized that he was not on the same streets from which he had embarked. So he kept trying to find his way back, only to become more disoriented. Finally after an hour or so of futility, he walked to an intersection kiosk where there was a traffic policeman. Of course no one spoke English and dad knew only the basic greetings in Chinese. Fortunately he had torn off a piece of hotel stationery and stuck it in his shoe. He pulled out the paper and through sign language communicated that he belonged at the hotel but had lost his way. They called a taxi and he returned back to the hotel for a late dinner. For the rest of his life his friends enjoyed the retelling of that story.

Dad never pushed me to run, and rarely mentioned it as I was growing up. But I know he was pleased when I started running casually during my last semester of high school, and he was proud when I started training for competition in college by the beginning of the next year. Once, after logging 10 miles in the dark and snow while on Thanksgiving break he said, "You've discovered the loneliness of the long distance runner, I see."

He was not a racer, but after I started competing he did run a few races. My mom still has a certificate and trophy of his, from a small race in Iowa City. He ran 28:05 for 4 miles at age 50, which was fast enough to win his age group!

Meanwhile, he was being taken by heart disease. After one race, on a particularly hot and humid day, he collapsed momentarily after crossing the finish line. The medics attended to him, but he seemed okay. But after a few weeks of lingering tiredness, he went to the doctor for a checkup and tests indicated that he had suffered a heart attack. He was in such good shape that they called it a mild myocardial infarction. After a few months of rehab, he improved his diet, quit smoking the pipe after 25 or 30 years, and was back on the roads.

In 1980 he and my mom moved back to Colorado, where he upped his training: he now wanted to run the Denver marathon, and hopefully someday Boston. He'd send me results from Denver races, and when I was in the city for a race he'd watch. In early October 1981 he ran 14 miles on Saturday and climbed a 14,000 foot peak on Sunday. On Monday he went to bed tired, and within minutes his heart just stopped.

I remember my dad for his determination and for his humility. He was quite a man, and indeed quite a runner. The first runner in my life.


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Blogger BB said...


I can't help you make extra cash, but I *can* provide a real-person comment!

Great essay about your dad. You are still an excellent essayist, a quality that stood out as much as you running back in the days of "disfunctiomerv"

More erie similarities- my dad was a football player, used to smoke and was an engineer. He dabbled a bit in jogging but didn't stick with it. Now he plays golf and damn near shoots his age for 18 holes (We've made a gentleman's bet about who can accomplish the "number=age" feat first: for me it is running my age in the 400) I am very fortunate that he is still very healthy and turning 80 this month.

Thanks for the comment on the blog- you're my first customer, not even any spam! I posted a link on letsrun but I doubt anyone used it. I do plan to network things a bit with my running friends via e-mail; I am 1-for-1 using this method so far!

I only read a few posts so far but look forward to digging deeper- the wolf story was great, it's fun to vicariously follow your kids' developments, and I love the idea of Tamara providing you with a "Sugar Mama" aerobic support through her art. Does she have a webpage anywhere?

Cheers BB

1:49 PM  
Blogger Mike said...


Made an infrequent visit to your site and am very touched by your tribute to your Dad. He'd be very proud of you! Congrats on your run in the Equinox!

Take care,

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