Remembering dad: ‘Running helped me find him again’
By Alison Noble
When I began running, I hit the pavement with a simple goal. Like many women who start running after having a baby, I wanted to lose the rest of my lingering pregnancy pounds that felt like a bulky fanny pack hanging on my waistline. Beyond weight loss, I also knew that I needed to approach running as an exercise that would improve my cardio and become part of my lifestyle. Heart disease runs in my family, and since it unexpectedly took my father at the age of 59, I knew I needed to get in better shape. There was no time like the present. I started my running journey at 31 years old, ten years after my dad passed away.
Dad was a runner, starting at age 39 just after I was born. After quitting his smoking habit cold turkey in 1981, he used running as a tool to manage his own stress and problematic family health history. He could be seen treking all through our small Mississippi town, sometimes enjoying the wooded views on the dusty dirt roads lining the Pearl River. Running in his classic gray New Balance shoes and “coach-like” blue shorts, he logged many miles with his training partner.
I remember waking up at a noon-ish hour on a weekend as a teenager, as those strange adolescent creatures tend to do. Dad had already gone on a long marathon-training run, had two meals, showered, and worked a few hours by the time I groggily stumbled into wakefulness. I didn’t understand his sport, and I really didn’t care to. He was a glutton for punishment, I thought. Who would run that far so early in the morning for fun? It was foreign to my mind. I never asked detailed questions about his running, yet I knew it was important to him. I vividly remember him logging in his daily mileage in his nightstand journal every evening before bed, a look of accomplishment in his brown eyes.
The day my dad passed away was the hardest day I have ever faced. He died peacefully in his sleep without warning, and while the shock and sadness will never fade, I appreciate that he never suffered. His eulogy was delivered by his running partner. The words and specifics of the stories he told are blurry in my mind, but I remember laughing, crying, and thinking it was the most fitting and perfect eulogy ever. We picked out scripture that mentioned running for the tombstone inscription. We buried my father, the runner, and although I thought of my father daily, running rarely entered my mind.
I was twenty when my father passed. Fast forward ten years, and I have my own family, including a son with my dad’s namesake and another son that has a lot of the striking Lebanese-looks that my father had. As for me, a recovering perfectionist, I never had my huge meltdown after dad died. I kept on, making my best grades of my college career, graduating with honors, and becoming a wife, mother, and teacher. The years keep slipping through my fingers, and I regret that my dad won’t get to know his wonderful grandsons. Time creates a distance that makes each memory a little more hazy, and I cling to what I can.
When it came time for me to get serious about exercise, running was a natural choice as I struggle to stay connected to my dad’s memory. Running wasn’t something I immediately enjoyed. I wanted desperately to love it for his sake, but for the first few months, it was a struggling relationship. I wanted to quit. I thought, I’ll try something else. I don’t have to run just because he ran. Then I had a profound moment while running my newly-built-up distance of three miles.
As I rounded a curve one early morning, I watched the sun peak over the horizon. Warm orange and pink light poured into the sky and beamed down on me. It was exquisite, and I began to cry. I looked up at the sky, and felt an indescribable connection to my dad – one I haven’t felt in years, perhaps even a decade. All of the reassurance and encouragement I needed was in that moment, and for a second, I felt like I was running with my father in a spiritual sense.
Since that gift of a morning, I have contacted my dad’s running partner to let him know that I am now a runner. The stories he has since shared of their friendship (and of some hilarious race stories) have meant the world to me. My mother gave me dad’s training journal, and I love seeing his mileage scribbled in dark black ink. I’m not sure I’ll ever be a full marathoner or triathlete like he was, but I know he’d be proud of each and every mile I complete.
My favorite picture of my dad is his finish line photo from the Portland Marathon. He looks fiercely determined, yet peaceful. My running goals, no matter the distance, are to exhibit those two characteristics as a runner. If it ever gets to be not fun, not peaceful … I will reevaluate my running. If it is never challenging, then I will do the same. The photo reminds me of who my dad was, of what he loved, and of now, what we share.
Recently, I showed the picture to my four-year-old. He is curious about his grandfather, but he doesn’t understand why we can’t go visit him. When explaining that he was in heaven but we could always have him in our hearts, he asked a very simple but profound question. “Is heaven in our hearts?” I sat in baffled silence, then said, “You know, I think that is a good way to think of it.” If heaven is in our hearts, then my dad is in mine and running helped me find him again.
When I completed my first half-marathon in February (Mercedes-Benz Half Marathon in Birmingham, AL), on the eleventh anniversary of his burial, I know he was with me for those 13.1 miles. I wore a locket with his picture pinned inside my pullover – a good luck charm I wear on important days in my life. As the volunteer placed my finisher’s medal around my neck, I choked back tears, then felt a tidal wave of pride and exuberant joy. No doubt my dad was smiling with approval. He is my ultimate running partner, and although I don’t feel his presence every mile, the sunrise moments of peace and finish line reflections are enough. For these, I will be forever grateful to this sport.
Alison Noble lives with her husband, Brian, and two young sons, Will and Wyatt, at Birmingham, AL.
Top photo: Alison Noble
Bottom photo: Dad: James S. "Jimmy" George 1942-2002