A Last Call to My Father
I almost shouted into the telephone, “Hi, Dad! I won! I won!”
My father replied, “Does that mean you were second again?”
What? Oh. No. I was first overall. I won.
Three weeks ago I had called to tell him of the course record I had set at Le Grizz. Then I had to explain how I could set a course record without winning (I was second overall but won the masters division). Rick Spady, the overall winner, was so far out in front that he probably had no idea a race was going on somewhere behind him. I, in turn, had no idea of the assault I was mounting on the masters record for Pat Caffrey’s 50-mile course alongside Hungry Horse Reservoir just south of Glacier National Park in Montana. Larry Carroll and I had played cat and mouse for many miles. When I finally passed him that last time, I started running against the most challenging competitors I knew—the watch on my wrist and the unsympathetic demons in my head. It would be fun to pretend it was something romantic like the age-old “You do your best and the rest of the day will take care of itself,” but it wasn’t. I had simply raced my watch with little thought about how that would do in the overall standings.
I thought of that conversation and told him no. This time there was no one in front of me. I was the overall winner.
I was calling from a motel room in East Wenatchee, Washington, late Saturday afternoon. I usually waited until the trip was over and we were back home to call and tell him of the latest running trip. His interest was never at the level of excitement from years ago when I ran one lap or less—distances and events he could understand. He had never approved of this endurance stuff, these hours-and-hours-at-a-time runs—not good for your joints, he would say. Still I would call, perhaps still seeking his approval as any other aging child seeks a parent’s affirming nod. These last few years we had slowly bridged the gulf created those many years ago. It might be we had both learned along the way—surely he learned more than I—how was I to know of the abilities he had seen in me, tried to coax out of me during those years when I already knew everything? Surely his inability to talk was more the problem than my inability to listen.
This time, for whatever reason, I called before we started home. The 100k had started at midnight on Halloween, October 31, 1986. There were no aid stations. Kathy was up all night, stopping every three miles to feed and water me and whoever else was near. She was mysteriously correct at judging when I would want a dry shirt, a nibble of this, a drink of that, and all the while punching all the right buttons to keep the frayed ends of my mind together through that night.
Her mastery of my mind reached the peak as I took the lead at just past sixty miles and then labored through the paranoia- and anxiety-laden last few blocks as the course returned us to town and then the final turn up the two blocks to the finish line. I had won an ultra. We sat around waiting for the other events to complete. There was a 50k, 25k, and 15k being run on the same course. The staggered starting times made for quite a mix of finishers at the end. Finally everyone was in or accounted for, then various rounds of applause for awards, “oohs” and “ahhs” and cheers and laughter, rose and fell with each announcement, then finally died as the last runner was hailed.. Those of us from the 100k said good-bye or see you in a few weeks. Kathy and I headed to the motel, too worn out to consider the 150 miles back to Olympia.
The motel had an outdoor Jacuzzi—a Jacuzzi being a major selling point if we are not camping. After a shower and the requisite 47 minutes in the warm, whirling waters I decided I should call my father now instead of waiting. He should know of this one.
Hi, Dad! I won! I won!
Does that mean you were second again?
No. This time I was the overall winner.
Was this another 50-miler?
No, it was a 100 kilometers.
A 100 kilometers, how far is that?
Uh, just over 62 miles.
And you won?
That’s a long ways to run.
Yes, my longest so far.
How long did that take?
About nine hours and fifteen minutes.
For the first time there was a conversation with all the old interest from the years of track and field—sprints, hurdles, and jumps. The years where my performances, though erratic on a grand scale and full of high potential, were more showcases of my bullheaded refusal to be coached than anything else seemed to be set aside. We talked for a few minutes, questions about the course, about the field, and so on; finally I said I needed to get some sleep before I fell asleep with the phone in my hand. His last words still echo so wonderfully clear:
Sixty-two miles; John, that’s a long ways to run.
Yes, it was a long night on the mountains.
And you won.
Yes. Yes, Dad, I did.
Good, that’s real good.
I didn’t have to pretend I could hear the soft chuckle of approval.
Bye, talk to you next time, Dad.
Ten days later when I answered the telephone it was my mother calling to tell me my father had died that evening and I needed to come home.
Over the years I have been thankful many times for that last phone call with my father. We were left with many things still needing to be said, but we had said many other things. I am more thankful for what was said than I am remorseful for not getting to what we still had left to say.
———-Run Gently Out There———