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How I Kept Going After My Dad Died

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A few summers ago, I raced at the USATF National Team Championships. I’d qualified for this race with a fast half marathon just a few months prior. This was my very first track event.

On a whim, my dad decided to travel all the way from St. Louis to watch me run circles for 25 laps. As one of his five daughters, I’m very independent— having built a life for myself in New York City. However, this was a time I needed my dad close by to keep me calm and collected. But let’s just say things didn’t go according to plan.

Until that point, my dad had never cheered at a track event before, so I was in for a whole new side of him. However, I was well aware of his boisterous spirit when he attended basketball games— spectators often asking him to please take it down a notch. It should have come as no surprise that my dad’s enthusiasm only heightened with his daughter at the focal point.

Once the race began, I could feel my dad in close proximity, his body pressed against the rail separating the crowd from the track. And when I sprinted by him, he exploded. My dad cut to the chase and let me know I had exactly 300 yards on my competitor. Just before the race, I warned my dad that 10k’s get kind of long on the track, and not to underestimate what can happen after the thirty-minute-mark. So as I continued, he got even more amped. But suddenly that competitor on my tail passed me, and it was clear she was going to win. With his arms waving up and down, working almost as hard as I was, he gasped, “Uh oh! You’re really slowing down!”

I remember with burning pain in my lungs and legs that I hoped he’d just stop. Looking back, I can only laugh— yup, that’s my dad.

Dad was always kind of an outsider. And while he seemed introverted, he loved people. As a writer who told other people’s stories, so much of his life was spent absorbing the world around him so that he could tell it with his own spin. My dad had such a knack for assigning meaning to anything that happened. So when I think about him at the race that day, I imagine him weaving a story together about the irony of his non-athletic roots creating a competitive runner. When I managed to cross the finish, my dad met up with me with tears in his eyes. I think he was crying from a combination of pride and shock.  

After I placed second in the race, we drove back to the city. With his ears pinned back, my dad was so elated that he took me to one of my favorite bars in the neighborhood to celebrate. Over a couple glasses of Cabernet Sauvignon, my dad bragged to the bartender, showing off my medal. He had been wearing my race bib around like a badge of honor. That summer night in Brooklyn is one that I’ll never forget.

That was the first and last track event my dad would ever watch me run in. He passed away suddenly last fall, causing my entire world to stand still.

Besides being my biggest cheerleader, my dad was my confidant. My daily routine always included a pep talk, where I’d get a coffee nearby and give him a call. As I caffeinated, I’d go over my agenda with him, ready for all his wise words and guidance.

This part of my day was what invigorated me to put hard work into my runs. And while my dad invested in my day-to-day life, he also never told me what to do. He was great at giving feedback but let me make my own choices. Above all, he was a friend to banter with. There was no one better at making me laugh than my dad.

If I’d be freaking out about running, work, or anything, my dad always set me straight. He had this saying, and while it may be crass, it worked wonders when I was getting carried away. If I was feeling insecure, two words my dad said with such authority always put me in check: “F*#% ‘em!

So when all of a sudden my dad passed away with no warning, I was totally lost. All I knew was that I needed to keep moving. In those first few days after he died, my body found its way to my safe place and I hammered away on the treadmill until I couldn’t go anymore. There was nothing else I could do.

Without our morning coffee talk, I was so empty. I’d tear up waiting for the barista to whip up an espresso shot to dump into my drip, giving an alternate meaning to the coffee term “red eye.” But because that part of our routine was so ingrained in me, I turned my daily running time into talking to dad time.

I used to tell dad all about this singer I adore, Regina Spektor. I love how she depicts the streets of New York City and her immigrant roots. Dad would send me little tidbits about her here and there, knowing how much I loved her. Now I can’t help but apply all her lyrics to him when I’m running, almost as if I’m speaking to him directly.

It’s like he’s right there when Regina belts, “No one’s laughing at God when they’re saying their goodbyes…” In those moments when I’m searching for my last few breaths during the last few miles, I let the sadness I have over losing my dad wash over me. But despite how hard it is, I also feel so relieved. I feel like I’ll forever be able to communicate with him when I’m out there running. Sometimes I swear I can feel him right there— and I know he’s telling me not to slow down.