You Can Fly

I haven’t seen Dumbo in years, but I still get sad thinking about it. It broke my heart when I was a kid. This elephant with the big ears, stolen from his mom, picked on and forced to perform. Disney used to be dark. I can’t remember if he dropped his feather or was forced to jump without it, but the look of fear on Dumbo’s face sticks with me today.

I get it. Dumbo had to believe in himself. He needed to know that his power came from inside him, and he could fly with or without the crutch. The current issue I’m dealing with as a parent is that I’m the crutch.

I want my kids to take risks, I want them to climb, to flip, to drop in on the 20-foot halfpipe, or do a backflip off the 10-meter diving board, or even go for the slide tackle that explores the gray area of legality. I want them to fall off the bike and then get back up and try again. I want them to do all of this, and I praise them when they succeed and when they fail, but I still want to be the one to catch them, to spot them, to cheer them on, and occasionally to help them off the field when they hurt themselves.

My son has been able to do a backflip for about 5 years. He can do a backflip off the high dive, and he can do one on a skateboard off of a ramp into a foam pit. He can do one on the trampoline too, but he still asked me to spot him. By spotting him, he means me being on the trampoline with him and at the most, barely feeling his shirt glide past my fingertips while he is mid-air. Physically, he didn’t need me to spot him, and I wasn’t spotting him at all.

He can also do a front flip 180 and a front flip 360 which is kind of like a vertical and horizontal flip at the same time and looks way harder to do than a backflip. He doesn’t need me to spot him for those tricks or any of the others, but for the backflip, he needed me there. I was his feather.

Every time he asked me what trick he should do, I would say backflip. He would ask me to spot him, and I would tell him that he could already do the trick and that he didn’t need me to be on the trampoline with him and that I don’t really spot him anyway, I just stand there looking stupid, and that it would probably be easier for him to do it without me standing there because I take up room on the trampoline and I absorb some of the bounce. I gave him all these arguments, but he would ask until I eventually relented.

Last week I came home and my son ran up to me with this big grin on his face. His new trick grin. He asked if I wanted to see his new trick, and I started to head out back to the trampoline and he stopped me and said no, right here. He stood there in the middle of the living room, crouched down and did a complete backflip from standing.

I was shocked, amazed, and proud. What about the trampoline? What about the spotting? He showed me how he progressed from doing the backflip on the trampoline to doing it standing on the trampoline without jumping, then doing it on the grass, then the carpet. No spot? No, he said, I did it myself. I was as proud of him as he was for himself, but I felt like a dropped feather twisting its way to the ground.

Sharks and Minnows

Photo and cropping job courtesy of Marathon Foto

When I pictured myself running the Boston Marathon, it was cruising downhill on a crisp, but sunny spring New England day. A couple weeks out, the weather forecast called for rain, and a 15 MPH wind from the west, which would be nice. The rain would be annoying, but as long as the wind was at our backs, everything would be okay. A week out, the wind forecast shifted to a 20-30 MPH headwind with temps in the high 30s and low 40s. These were some of the worst conditions the race had ever seen.

I don’t like race reports. It’s hard to go back and be in that experience once it’s over. I’ll share what got me through the experience in the hopes that these strategies will help someone else. For Boston, I thought about middle schoolers. I should probably clarify that. I’ve been coaching middle school track and field, and it’s a good thing because that last sentence would sound kind of weird otherwise.

I’ve devised a system that works for me during races. It keeps me from thinking about how much warmer and drier I would be in the medical tent, or back in my hotel room with a hot shower and a steaming cup of coffee. I think about people I love, and things in my life that I am grateful for. During Boston, I thought about my kids quite a bit. My oldest daughter will be heading off to college next year, and it’s too soon, and I’m too young and emotionally immature to handle that. I thought about how amazing she is, and that I need to tell her I love her more often.

I thought of the middle schoolers I coach, including my two younger kids. Everyone talks about how annoying middle schoolers are. Yes, they can be annoying. So annoying. They have these chemicals in them that they don’t know how to handle, so they deal with it by being loud, obnoxious, and moody. They are also amazing to be around. They’re still kids and they do kid things like dance and sing together in practice, without the self-consciousness of high school kids, or the awkwardness of adults.

There is something about watching kids run that gets me excited. Again, as a coach. They have this naturally good form. They drive their knees, and their heels come all the way up to their butt on the backswing. Their heads are up, chests are out, and their arms drive forward. What happens to runners as we age? Why do we lead with the heels? Why do we shorten our stride? Why are we stingy with our energy? I guess we’ve been burned too many times. If I started Boston as a middle schooler, I wouldn’t last 5 miles because I’d be chasing everyone who passed me and end up running sub-6 minute pace for a few miles, then walking with my hands on my head, face flushed red, and gasping for breath. But, that form, that’s what I channeled.

We play this game in practice called sharks and minnows. Even the shot-putters play it, and they actually run. Fast. It’s a common game. One person is the shark in the middle of the field, and the other 60 or 70 kids (minnows) line up on one side of the field and try to make it to the other side without getting tagged. If they’re tagged, they become sharks. This goes on for 5 or 6 rounds until everyone is chasing the last couple of minnows. The kids complain about running repeats, but when they play this game, when they are minnows, they run 100-meter times that beat anything I’ve seen them run in a race. And they’re smiling the whole time.

We lose that smile, too. I made jokes during Boston. Freezing, soaked with rain, and I would step in a puddle and yell out “dang, now I’m wet.” People around me would laugh. And then 15–20 minutes later, I’d make the same joke, and people would smile, and then 15–20 minutes later, I’d make the same joke again, and people would roll their eyes. I’m a dad, it’s what I do. It kept me going.

Have you ever seen Kipchoge run a race? He smiles like a maniac. He’s laying down 4:34/mile pace at the end of a marathon and he’s got this huge grin on his face. He says it makes him go faster. It works. It works for the kids, too. I tell them to smile during their race, but they never do. They push, they strain, they try too hard. Racing isn’t fun, sharks and minnows is fun.

I pushed too hard at Boston. In the back of my head, requalifying was a goal, so I didn’t adjust my pace for the weather. The cold, the wind and the rain took their toll, and the too-fast start caught up with me around mile 16. I slowed down (I don’t count the intentional Wellesley slowdown at mile 13). I reminded myself that running that race was a long-term goal that I had worked hard to achieve and that I was grateful and lucky to be there. I decided to just run. I stopped looking at my pace, I slowed for water at the aid stations, and I smiled.

I probably looked like an idiot as I turned down Boylston Street and the rain came at me horizontally. I didn’t care. Mouth open, arms wide, running towards the finish with my eyes closed against the rain and the wind, and letting the tears mix in with all of it.

I recognized that feeling, that middle school not caring how much is left, or who is watching, or what time I’m going to get, or how I’m going to make the two-mile post-race walk back to the hotel while dealing with hypothermia. I was fully in love with that moment, legs stretching, but not forcing anything, running like a middle schooler avoiding the sharks in the middle of the field like my life depended on it.

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