Running always came easily to me. I was one of those girls who ran laps around the boys on the playground, proudly challenging other kids to races, and looked forward to gym class. I grew up with a father who was 63 years old when I was born. Because of his advanced age, he valued fitness highly, especially running, in order to find the energy to raise three young children and to instill in us discipline and a love for the sport.
But despite my athletic ability, I hated running. The few times I would jog around the neighborhood in Connecticut with my father, I was ashamed by my inability to keep up with him. I faked an injury a few times and, overall, I ran more to please him than for any other reason. I tried doing high school track and was a successful sprinter, but found the competitiveness overwhelming, so I quit after a year.
I never thought I would be able to run a marathon. It was always something I wanted to do eventually as a personal challenge, but it seemed impossible. My father, Carmine Negri, ran the 1987 New York City Marathon when I was not even one year old. Though I do not remember it, my mom brought my sister and me (my brother was not yet born) and our grandmother to cheer him on. In my family’s house, we have two giant poster sized images of my father finishing the race, looking up at his time, which he always claimed to be a disappointment because he battled a tight muscle and suffered through a toenail falling off during the race.
My father’s running ability was something of a legend among not only my family, but my local town of Orange, Connecticut. We have dozens of running journals covering his years on the road in our house. Medals and trophies sit on top of his dresser and old race t-shirts are stuffed in drawers. Everyone around town knew him as “the runner.” He could do six-minute miles in his 60s and was one of the few senior citizens in our town to consistently get out there and race. I never thought I would be able to come close to what he accomplished, especially his consistency. I did not understand why he loved running so much, or how putting one foot in front of the other for hours could be enjoyable.
In 2007, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Over the course of the next few years he ran less and less, until at last we was no longer able to run. He would sneak out of the house early in the morning only to return home with cuts on his body from having fallen in the road. I have that same stubborn gene, so I understood where he was coming from. I cannot imagine what having a disease like that does to you mentally let alone physically.
In September 2011, my father suffered a massive stroke combined with a battle with pneumonia. He spent four months in intensive care, in which a trachea tube was inserted to help him breathe. He then did a few months in rehab, finally coming home in February of 2012. I decided during this time that I needed to run the New York City Marathon for my dad not only because he could not run anymore, but to inspire him to rehab and to show him how much he meant to me.
My father could not speak after the stroke and was confined to a wheelchair. Despite his handicap, my mom made sure he still got a brand new pair of running sneakers for his birthday in July, a tradition he always expected and to which he looked forward. Throughout the summer of training, most of which happened in Connecticut, my father would high-five me after long runs and write out routes with magnet letters on a board. I cannot tell you how many sweaty hugs I gave him.
Slowly, I started to love running. I started to understand it. I appreciated the simple fact that I could run, and the more I did it, the more miles I wanted to put in. I could not help but imagine myself in that wheelchair one day, and did not want to waste another minute.
We all know that Hurricane Sandy led to the cancellation of the marathon in 2012. I was devastated because I was excited to run for my father, but I understood the decision. I remember calling my father and telling him, “I’m doing it anyway for you.” That morning, November 4, 2012, I set out on a pre-planned 26.2 mile course with my running friend Rachel. We ran a half perimeter loop of Manhattan and finished in Central Park among hundreds of marathoners with a similar plan. I ran with my phone strapped to my arm and my mom called me every 20 minutes or so, so that I could check in with my dad and tell him how I was doing. Although he couldn’t speak, he would make encouraging sounds. I could hear his excited tone. After I finished, my boyfriend videotaped me and I gave a message to my father through the video.
That week, I emailed my mom the video and she showed it to my dad. I called while he watched it for the first time and heard him cry while he watched me talk to him through the video and as he saw the text saying it was dedicated to him, the best father in the world. That was the last time I spoke to him and the last image of me he saw – finishing my own personal marathon.
He passed away a few days later on November 10th. Part of me cannot help but wonder if subconsciously he was holding on to watch me run the marathon. When I returned home the day after he passed, his 1987 marathon medal was waiting for me on my bed. My mom said after he watched the video and spoke to me, he pointed to his bureau where his medal was and motioned for my mom to give it to me because I did not get a medal of my own.
This coming Sunday, after months of déjà vu training, I will finally be running the New York City Marathon. It is going to be incredibly emotional for me. Not only will I be retracing my father’s steps in 1987, but I will be honoring his impact on my life. He taught me to accomplish something every day and to push myself to the limits. I watched him fight to recover and survive months longer than he should have. I saw him smile through pain, laugh with me even when he could not speak, and do the impossible. Every long training run, when my body wants to quit, I think of my father running in his 80s and making it look easy. I feel him when I run. As excited as I am for this marathon, it is a little bit of closure after an almost two-year emotional journey.
I can say one thing for sure: This is just the beginning of marathoning for me. I am already planning my next. Running is about accepting pain and pushing through no matter what. It is about proving something to yourself. I have finally figured it out. And I know that my dad is extremely proud.