I was chasing this guy up a mountain in New Hampshire with my lungs on fire. His name was Stephen Chandler. He worked for the U. S. Forest Service as a District Ranger for the White Mountain National Forest. He was forty years old and he convinced me it would be a good idea to do the Mount Washington Road Race on my 16th birthday. So, I did. Upward we climbed, running until the trees disappeared and I was finally lurching up the 22% wall at the very end. That guy is my dad, I thought, as I watched him finish four seconds in front of me. I almost caught him that day in 1983. Happy Birthday.
My dad took me running when I was in the eighth grade. That’s when this new thing called a curve ball used to make me jump backwards out of the batter’s box. As we ran together, I learned that, in this sport, you never had to ride the pine. My dad and I trained together almost every day. I won a medal in my age group in one of my first races. I was hooked. I would end up running for the cross-country team and the track team distance crew every year of my high school career. In the summer, my dad and I would still run together. We’d end our runs with a wicked sprint to our driveway. I don’t remember winning many, if any. This was an omen.
The summer before my senior year in high school, I realized I might finally be able to beat my dad in a race. I was pretty motivated, as he had crushed me again in the 1984 version of the Mount Washington hill climb. At a 10k in Franconia, New Hampshire, I decided I was going to take him. It was a muggy, hot morning in September. The gun went off and my dad was right there on my shoulder, stride for stride. Around halfway, I made up my mind to leave him behind. Otherwise, I’d have to face him down at the finish line. I feared the old man’s finishing kick, proven in the Battles of the Driveway. I put a surge into him and lost him. Amen. Then, three or four minutes later, I heard footsteps and he was right next to me. I pushed again at four miles. Shook him. Whew. Then, pat-pat-pat-pat and he was huffing along right next to me. I cranked it up a notch at five miles. I hoped he was gone for good. Nope. There he was again. We could hear the cheers at the finish line. He kicked. I tried to throw a rope around him, but I couldn’t keep up. My 41-year-old dad ran that 10k in 36 flat and his 17-year-old son finished in 36:04. Four seconds again! Those times are our personal records to this day.
At the time, with my teenage blinders on, I’d lost to my dad. That was it. It made no impression on me that my father could run 6.2 miles at faster than a 6-minute per mile pace. It makes a huge impression on me now as I struggle to reach 7:30 miles. I told the story of this race to a friend of mine and he remarked, “You’ve got to be pretty determined to run that fast at that age.” My dad recently admitted that he used to carry his racing shoes down to my high school track and do speed work by himself when my team was out doing road work. Determined, hell. Obsessed is a better word. I did intervals myself this week, but there’s no way I’m as fast as my dad was at the same age.
A lot has happened in the past couple decades. I joined the Air Force, learned to fly F-16’s, got married, had two kids, became an airline pilot, and joined the Minnesota Air National Guard. I just returned from my second trip to Iraq as an F-16 pilot. Life has a way of filling the hours in your day. In my spare time, I’ve done five running marathons. I’m training for another one this summer. I love doing them, but I’m not winning my age group. That pesky mortgage keeps getting in the way of my workouts. Sometimes I feel old. I’m not discouraged, though. The running glory days of my youth are not just sepia-toned, nostalgic reveries. They motivate me to be as fast as I was. The image of my dad in his top gear, four seconds in front of me, is a reminder that age is no excuse. I’ll be 41 in a couple years. Because of my dad, I keep training like I was 17. Thanks, Pop.