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It’s Not About The Running: Fathering One Step At a Time

This isn’t really my story to tell, but as there were scarcely any witnesses, my version will have to do. The event didn’t even officially happen. It was cancelled weeks before reportedly due to concerns about spreading COVID, but with the subsequent terrorist attack warnings for this part of Virginia, who knows the real reason. Anyway, on the Saturday afternoon before Halloween 2021, I stood in the shadow of the Iwo Jima Memorial and watched a handful of runners cross a “virtual” finish line after completing the 26.2 miles of what would have been the 46th Annual Marine Corps Marathon. The clapping crowd, loud music, and news cameras that normally accompany this event were absent; however, there was nothing virtual about these athletes. Every one of them ran (and maybe walked a little) every step of that race—in real life. They each have a story to tell about their own experiences. I want to tell the stories of forty-eight-year-old U.S. Navy Captain, Mike, and his sixteen-year-old son, Steven.

With almost thirty years in the Navy, Mike is no stranger to running. Every six months, active-duty military personnel are required to complete a physical readiness test that includes strength exercises and running. Since 2008, Mike has finished four Marine Corps Marathons including the “virtual” one in 2021. His success as a runner is a marvel to those who know him because his physique harkens more toward Viking sailor or lumberjack than chaser of lithe land animals. Nevertheless, he runs.

So five years before, when our then-seventh-grade son started getting in trouble at school for talking too much, being out of his seat too often, and general mischief, Mike knew exactly what to do. He knew his boy did not need shaming or grounding; his boy needed running—and that’s what they did. Not every morning, but many mornings, they would rise extra early before work and school and run a couple of miles through the neighborhood. 

Eighth-grade Steven running in the qualifying race for the Marine Corps Marathon.

Like any twelve-year-old boy, Steven at first perceived these morning jogs as punishment, but not for long. Soon he realized he was getting faster and stronger, and that felt good. Then he wanted to test himself in a race, so in 2018, he and Mike ran the Marine Corps 17.75K and then the Army Ten-Miler. Then they ran what would be Steven’s first marathon in 2019 in a driving rain that all reports agreed was the worst weather in the history of the race. Steven was proud to have finished that day, but he immediately started talking about the 2020 race when surely the weather would be better, thus giving him a chance to improve his time. Mike pledged to train with Steven for 2020, but behind closed doors and under his breath, he cursed the race-day rainstorm of 2019. He had really expected that one to be his last marathon. 

We all know this next part of the story. The 2020 race was canceled due to COVID, but not to be thwarted, Steven turned his eye toward October 2021. Meanwhile, Mike became no more enthusiastic about another long race. They both ran all summer. When school started, Steven was up at 5 a.m. every day to get in five miles. He and Mike did their longer training runs on the weekends. 

When Steven heard the 2021 race had been canceled, but that there would be an option to run it virtually, he was determined to do it.

Mike joked that he had created a monster. Mike did not want to run this race either virtually or in real life. He reminded Steven that a virtual race would have no official pace runner making sure they didn’t start out too fast and burn out. There would be no aid stations every couple of miles offering water, orange slices, and the coveted Vaseline for anti-chaffing. Most importantly there would be no cheering crowd to get you through the lowest, hardest moments.

Mike started gently suggesting that Steven might need to find a new (younger!) running buddy. From Steven’s point of view, he already had his perfect running partner. 

This brings us to Mile Fourteen of the virtual race. Steven was going faster than Mike wanted to run, so Mike pointed out two guys running at Steven’s pace and told Steven to stick with them. Then Mike sent me the following text message: 

“I think I’m dropping out. I sent Steven ahead. I’m just not feeling it. I don’t think I want to do it. Steven is with a solid group. He will finish.”

I was relieved and replied immediately that I was proud of him for taking care of himself. I asked where he was. No reply.

Mike would report later that he kept jogging and walking intermittently through downtown D.C. with the intention of making it to the finish, albeit slowly and as the crow flies. Then out of the blue, he saw Steven, who was not looking great and admitted to feeling pretty banged up. Steven had gotten separated from the group, realized he was headed the wrong direction and turned back. He was lost—and then found by his dad. 

They compared their mileage counters. Despite being separated, they had both completed twenty-one miles at exactly the same place and time. Mike was stunned by the serendipity and says it was a sublime moment that he will remember for the rest of his life. 

Only five to go, and they would do every step together. They agreed to start and finish each mile running but walk a little in the middle. There was no talking; only breathing. As they approached Mile Twenty-Five at Arlington National Cemetery, Mike says that Steven’s demeanor changed. He pointed at the headstones and said, “Good motivation—no stopping.”

When I caught my first glimpse of them coming up the hill on 110 toward Iwo Jima, it had been almost two hours since Mike had texted me and then gone quiet—two hours of praying that my husband was too busy running to send a text rather than unconscious in an ambulance. But for a few of those 120 minutes, I had a flash of memory: Mike running alongside that first tiny bicycle as young Steven struggled to gain balance and then the exquisite moment of Mike letting go and Steven’s beaming face as he realized he was doing it by himself. 

Father and Son after the 2019 Marathon

During the race, Mike let go, and Steven went on under his own power only to come back around and give his old man the sense of purpose he needed to finish the task at hand. They crossed the imaginary finish line together just as they had planned. 

Steven running in the Marine Corps Marathon 2023

Mike has run his last marathon, but Steven is just getting started. It’s fun to think about where his striving toward those finish lines might take him. I can already see his beaming face as we let go.

About the Author

Sarah Weeldreyer

Sarah is a proud Navy wife and mom, who has lived on both coasts and a few places in between raising two boys and a couple of beloved dogs. Her essays have appeared in The Atlantic, Arlington Magazine, Verily, and Washington Monthly. Sarah also publishes essays on her new blog: What I Might Have Said.

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