One night about 40 years ago, a phone call woke my dad in the middle of the night.
It was his Uncle Joe, who owned a local bar. He told my dad to get over there, NOW.
So my dad took off running. He got to the bar, and as he struggled to catch his breath, his uncle told him he needed my dad to settle a bet: Joe had bet the other patrons that his nephew was so fast that he could run around the town in an hour.
My uncle won that bet. He and his fellow gamblers followed in a car as my dad jogged the circumference of Mahanoy City, PA, in the dead of night.
No one was going to put my high school record next to my dad’s and use phrases like “running dynasty.” At best, I didn’t embarrass myself. I never came in last place, and I never got so worn out that I stopped running and walked the rest of the race.
My dad would occasionally point out that if I ran more than just three days a week, I’d get better. But I was a teenager, and didn’t want to hear any of this. I turned this advice into something it wasn’t — convincing myself it was my dad trying to mold me into his image.
I think now that he just wanted me to do my best. He also wanted me to get exercise, which meant that if I quit the team, I’d need to do something else. I’m terrible at all sports involving throwing or catching or hitting things, so cross country was my only option.
So as father/son conflicts go, this one is pretty lame. But I made it more epic, imagining some grizzled old sports reporter covering one of my meets: “He’s nothing like his father, Paul ‘Palomino’ Coombe.” (In this fantasy, my dad had a pro-sports nickname.)
Maybe in some people, this fantasy would push them to do better, to be as good or better than their father.
I’m not any of those people. My main goal when I ran cross country was to not be running.
The whistle would blow, and we’d sprint off into the woods or down some Coal Region street, and my lungs would burn, and I’d imagine the moment in 20, 15, 10 minutes when I could stop running and drink water or Gatorade.
I did that three times a week — two practices and one race — a few months of each year for four years. My cross country career ended in November 1994, and I went 18 years without running more than a few blocks.
Then last week, I started again.
It was by accident. I posted a completely work-related question about 5K races on my work Facebook page, and people took it as a sign that I wanted to run a 5K. That wasn’t my intention — and I still don’t know that I’ll ever actually sign up to run in a number-pinned-to-your-shirt road race or anything — but I thought, “Why not?”
So now I’m up early every morning, walking and then running around my neighborhood.
My lungs still burn, and I still count down the time until I can stop.
But my imagination is different. Instead of the old-time sports reporter, I picture a group of guys drinking coffee at a construction site. They notice that I run every day, and eventually, they start sardonically cheering me on.
Maybe they’d yell, “Hey Rocky!” or something like that.
Maybe my dad imagined this stuff too, or still does. Maybe running isn’t just a young man’s game.