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Feet Don’t Fail Me Now

December 5, 2008

I come from a family of athletes. My grandfather and uncle both played college football. My father was a collegiate wrestler, my brother and twin sister were collegiate cross-country runners, and, to this day, my older sister holds college swimming records that remain unbroken some 14 years later. I on the other hand dabbled in several sports growing up, but never truly excelled like my siblings (and I’m fine with that – no Freud couch, seriously). Cheerleading, tennis, swimming, soccer, I did it all – reasonably well.

But running? Long-distance running? Um. Yeah. No. Yet, in a perfectly awful ironic twist, my dad was determined to have us workout together as a family as part of his never ending war with his weight. Dad’s weight was always an issue, especially during his military career as an Army officer. As a family we mostly did fun runs – an oxymoron if there ever was one. You know, the early morning weekend events that ranged from 1 mile to 3.1 miles (5K).

My twin sister and I hated running the most.  We’d cry and threaten throwing up while my father explained little tricks we could employ to make running less miserable like sucking on a pebble (or candy). He told us that’s what he did as he ran in the mountains with his heavy pack and boots. He said it kept his mind off the running and squarely on the pebble in his mouth. So, we adopted that trick…with varying degrees of success.

If there was a silver lining to this never-ending race, it was the clothes and shoes. While running was cheaper than most forms of exercise, four growing kids still required running clothes and regular rotations of new sneakers. My father, who, as you are beginning to see, was a complex sort, and also the King of the hustle, bargain and deal. He often had frequent stints for the Army in Korea, where he would spend his time off scoring deals for all sorts of goods – running shoes and track suits for us kids, custom-made silk blouses and stuff for the house for my mother. 

One day, an enormous box the size of a refrigerator arrived with a Korean P.O. Box return address. We four kids were giddy with excitement…what sorts of surprises would tumble out of that box? Mom deftly wielded her scissors to cut the packing tape and when she turned the box over, out spilled piles of running shoes. Pumas, Nikes, Adidas, Kangaroos – not in shoeboxes labeled with a style or size (that would be too easy), just pair after pair laced to their mate.

When the last shoe dropped, my twin sister squealed with delight. She’d spotted a pair of pink tennis shoes – albeit one size too big – with Miss Piggy printed on the side. An ear-to-ear grin spread across her face as tears streamed down her cheeks. She promptly laced them up and began prancing around the house, dangerously close to tottering over in her ill-fitting prize. Now, since we were twins, logically I assumed there had to be an equally wonderful pair (or, dare I hope, even better than, Miss Piggy) waiting just for me in that pile. And then, there they were, as if I’d conjured them up right on the spot…the most magical pair of tennis shoes imaginable. Light tan – almost an off white – with red trim and the piece de resistance (drum roll, please) a Kermit the Frog appliqué across the side. I could just picture Kermit and I ripping through the fun run finish line tape with my sister and Piggy running a distant second.

When my father returned from his duty in Korea our weekend fun runs resumed in earnest. All six of us entered races that looped through the lush mountains of Oahu. I remember one race I didn’t run, but cheered as my brother ran a 10K, trekking up steep terrain wearing a shirt that said, “feet don’t fail me now” (the feet part of the shirt was spelled out in sneakers). And although only a bystander, my father made me wear a sweatband with lightning bolts (or was it wings?) attached to it, to subliminally urge him to run as fast as lightning or to help him imagine that he was as light as a bird. Whenever I was just a spectator at these runs, I felt a bit odd – we just weren’t a sideline kind of family, even if some of us wanted to be.

I’ve never been the runner, or athlete that my family is. But my father surely tried to make it so…maybe this is why I’m challenging myself to run a half marathon come February – the longest race of my life…to honor my father, his commitment to staying fit and to his family. I’ll tie my laces tight, put that pebble in my mouth and wish for the return of a time when all that mattered were Kermit sneakers. All the while knowing my feet won’t fail me…