Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 02 May 2013 05:27:11 -0400

Mother's Footsteps


(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one, continued from RC 986, comes from the January 2005 issue.)

My year-long book project began with a phone call that I took in September 2003 at my motherís last home. This seemed exactly right because Iíd followed her into writing. Mom was a self-taught journalist. She wrote for local newspapers and found me my first job at one of them when I was 17 and had no visible talent.

For the last 30 years of her life she wrote a weekly newsletter for family and friends. Her mother, my Grandma King, had done the same for 30 years before that.

The columns Iíve written most weeks for more than 30 years, and that make their way into books, reflect this enduring family tradition. So does the running, another inherited activity, not one Iíd come to alone.

No matter how old we get and how far we stray from the family nest, we never leave our parents. And they never release their hold on us. They stay forever in our actions as well as our hearts.

Iím both my fatherís and motherís son. My late dad, Jim, was a sprinter and jumper good enough to compete in college. From Mom came the gift of endurance.

She never ran a distance race, and I couldnít imagine her ever wearing running shoes, let alone shorts. But she had stamina. She never learned to drive and did much of her daily commuting on foot, always hurrying. I recall her near-running through our hometown Ė in dresses and high-heeled shoes.

In her late years Momís legs and memory failed her, but she remained a sports fan to the end. I have photos of her embracing big-name runners at the Drake Relays as if they were a long lost grandchildren.

Each April, Mom opened her home to relatives and friends, who sat together at the track meet. I sat beside her at the Drake Relays in 2003. A year later her seat was empty. But she endured through that 2004 weekend so her people, in town for the meet, could come to her hospice room to say good-bye. Three days later she died peacefully.

We said final good-byes in the tiny Iowa town of Coin, whose streets Mom had once run and so had I. My first timed mile, as a 10-year-old in May 1954, used our home block for a ďtrack.Ē Iíd hoped to celebrate that 50th anniversary with another mile around that same block. It never happened.

Instead I came back to Coin in May 2004 for Momís funeral. A run around that block, with the Methodist church marking its start-finish line, wouldnít have been right that day. So I just stood outside the church and let memory do the running. I remembered what had once happened here and all the miles traveled, on foot and otherwise, since then.


Americaís worst collective start to a September came in 2001. The news stopped some of us from running, thinking it trivial and disrespectful. Others of us needed to keep running, then more than ever.

I was in the run-through-this camp. Running still mattered, as it does at times of personal as well as national tragedy.

To run at times like this isnít selfish or heartless. It isnít going out to play as if nothing had happened. It isnít running away from a big problem but running WITH one. Anyone who thinks otherwise isnít a runner and doesnít know that running can be as much an emotional as a physical exercise.

Going for a run forces us to look a problem squarely in the face. The run brings up tears and fears that are painful but necessary for dealing with the pain now and healing from it later. Before getting better, we must open our heart and let it bleed.

This happened to me in other years Ė when my father died much too soon, when my infant daughter had life-threatening surgery, when my first marriage ended. I couldnít write about these events as they were happening, but could and did run. Running still mattered, then more than ever.

How to run with such pain matters too. In September 2001 I wrote lines that would need to serve me again in later years:

ďRun alone unless you have a companion who knows you well enough to let you drop your happy face and brave front, someone whoíll let you talk or stay still as needed. Run quietly, far away from the noise of traffic and the dangers of competing with cars while lost in thought. Run simply and easily, slipping into an auto-pilot pace that lets you think far beyond what youíre running at the moment.Ē

A series of events dictated my running this way for most of 2004. I didnít run away from the problems but with them. I didnít solve any big problem while running but faced each one squarely for that hour each day.

Running worked overtime this way through July of that year. Then when needed less at yearís end, the runs ended for awhile.


Lifeís stresses add up, just as running mileage does. Psychologists have a way of scoring lifeís trials by assigning stress points to traumatic events. These range from 100 (for death of a spouse) down to 11 (for a minor brush with the law). As with overdosing on miles, piling up too many stressors predicts a physical or emotional breakdown.

My stress scores ran high in 2004, maybe never higher in how they piled one atop others. Yet for most of those months I stood strong, never feeling bad enough to miss a planned run during the months when the need to run was greatest.

The enemies of running did me a favor from January through June by calling a cease-fire. This wasnít a final truce but a pause in hostilities, which resumed in July. By then I was too depleted to fight back.

Illness struck. Then, as if to warn me against rushing the recovery, illness struck again, much harder this time. First came a simple cold, dismissed too lightly. Next came pneumonia, with complications too dramatic to dismiss.

This second illness cost me more unplanned days off in July alone than Iíd normally need in any five-year span. The after-effects allowed only token runs through August.

But by then I could more easily miss or reduce the runs. My mother was both buried and well established as a living memory, and my wife was well along in her healing. My book was finished, and Iíd settled into my new magazine home at Marathon & Beyond.

Getting sick was okay now, if it didnít extend into the ďnew year.Ē And it didnít. Writing from the first of September, Iím back to full strength, and back to running for reasons besides the crisis-counseling of the past year.

UPDATE: Another heavy blow, described in RC 984 and 985, came on the next-to-last day of 2004. I ran through that one too.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from; (2) as e-books from and; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joeís Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehartís book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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