Running with Walter Rhein
“I could never run a marathon.”
I’ve heard this statement uttered dozens of times and it always breaks my heart. There are so many people out there who are so overwhelmed by the enormity of a challenge that they dismiss them entirely. The truth is that it’s easy to finish a marathon, all you have to do is not quit.
I ran my first marathon at 18 and the experience was very much the equivalent of being tossed into a lake to learn how to swim. A marathon was the second race I ever did. The first was the now defunct Syttende Mai out of Grantsburg, Wis. What I’ve come to learn some twenty years later is that there’s a problem with the phrase “run a marathon.” For most of us, it is more accurate to say, “run/walk a marathon.” If I’d known walking all or part of an event was common, I might have enjoyed my first effort a little more.
Today, I am the proud father of two daughters who are now four and six. The four year old is indefatigable, which is to say she takes after her mother. My six year old knew the alphabet at a year and a half, which means she takes after me. They’re both tenacious and kind. I’ll stop there or the rest of this article will just be about how great my girls are.
Since the birth of my girls, I find myself running a bit less mainly because I miss hanging out with my children when I’m on training runs. Those of you who are parents know that it sometimes seems you leave the house in the morning, and by the time you return the baby you left behind has somehow grown four inches. There’s so much to teach your kids, and only limited moments that critical windows are open through which you can convey vital information. Sometimes when those windows close, they close hard. You don’t want to miss those opportunities when they arise.
You can’t start healthy habits too early. Walter Rhein photo
I’ve often reflected on my kids while running marathons. Sometimes while you’re out there you see lucky dads or moms finishing big events with their kids and that always makes me emotional. There’s nothing like adversity to keep those metaphorical windows of knowledge transference wide open, and a marathon is controlled adversity of the best kind. A parent who manages to cross the finish line of a marathon at the shoulder of their child has well equipped that young person for many of the challenges he or she will encounter in life.
It was with all of these ideas floating around in my mind that I posed the question to my wife, “How about if we do a family 5k?”
My wife’s done a smattering of runs throughout the years including a half-marathon back in the day, so she was amenable to the idea. “Okay,” she said.
Delighted at the approval, I jumped online and went to sign us up. Right away we had a problem, my four year old was too young to do the event. The minimum age was five. I thought about it for all of two seconds before changing her birth year from 2012 to 2011. Her first race and already she was bending the regulations! What kind of a dad am I?
But the second you turn over your credit card, you’re committed!
Family bonding can be strengthened on a race course.
As always, the delight of picking an event was quickly followed by the nervousness of impending preparation.
“Okay,” I said to myself. “My objective is to finish this event, and, in the process, not ruin running races for my kids for the rest of their lives.”
The second part of that equation weighed on me.
I picked my kids up from school and sprung the news on them, “Hey girls, guess what? I just signed up the whole family for a 5K!”
“Nooooooo!” my six year old said. “I HATE running!”
Ungh, it looked like I had asked the wrong woman for permission!
“Well, we don’t have to run,” I said, “we can mostly walk.”
“Nooooooo!” my six year old continued, so I let it drop for a while.
Back at home I was just coming around to the idea that I might have to eat the price of four entry fees when my four year old came running over to me wearing her running shoes.
“When’s the race?” she asked.
“Are you excited?”
She smiled and nodded.
“Would you like to do a practice run first?”
She smiled again.
“Do you think you can convince your sister?”
Another smile, then she ran off. I held my breath and waited, expecting an explosion. But a few seconds later my younger daughter returned with her older sister who now, miraculously, was not opposed to the idea of running. She had her running shoes on and everything! I’m not sure if I don’t understand them because they are girls or because they are children, probably a little of both.
“Hey, guys,” I said, “do you want to do a training run and then maybe get some ice cream?”
The same motivation always works for me.
So we went outside and all of a sudden they were just jacked to run. The first few minutes were total chaos as they seemed to want to sprint in every direction like a pair of squirrels chasing acorns for winter storage.
“Okay, okay, okay,” I said. “Come over here. Now listen! The first thing is, even though it’s a running race, we don’t have to run the whole way. You can walk. Also, you don’t have to run as fast as you can, you can run slowly. Understand?”
“Yes daddy,” they said in perfect harmony.
“Okay, let’s go.”
Instantly they were both sprinting down to the end of the street.
“Girls, girls, girls, that’s too fast!”
It took a little while, but I got them rounded up and trotting along beside me. We made it about a quarter mile before they started walking. Then I was called upon to carry them for a little bit, but we finished our 20-minute loop with minimal declarations of “I HATE running.”
It’s hard to argue with somebody who says they “hate” running. Honestly, I hate running too. What I like is being able to do things because of the mental and physical endurance I’ve developed from running. There are places in the world I’ve seen only because I’ve taken the time to go on runs and have developed enough fitness to go beyond where the roads can take you. But how do you convey that abstract concept to a six year old? My solution was the aforementioned scoop of ice cream. It seemed to work.
The next time we went out, mommy came with; again, we walked when needed. The girls seemed to have learned a bit about controlling their pace. We did about forty minutes. I felt they were pretty much ready.
Race day arrived and my girls were excited and nervous. I had water bottle carriers for both my wife and myself since the forecast called for a scorcher and thirst is a discomfort best avoided.
“When’s the race?” my four year old said again and again. “C’mon, I hate waiting, I want to run!”
“Let’s do some stretching,” I said.
A little pre-race stretching creates a diversion for antsy participants. Walter Rhein photo
So I had the girls stretch for the minutes leading up to the event.
Finally the announcer called for us to assemble. My wife and I directed our girls all the way to the back.
“What?” cried the four year old, not pleased at giving up so much ground.
“We don’t want to get run over,” I said.
She didn’t seem pleased with the answer, but acquiesced.
After a few more announcements, the race started and we were off. Right away people noticed my girls and started cheering for them. My four year old was in heaven, my six year old took some convincing, but even she could not help but crack a smile at all the calls of, “Great job! Nice work! Keep going!”
I’ve never been so thankful for encouragement on any event I’ve ever done. The policeman who stopped traffic for the runners said, “Great Job!” The local beauty queen who was out on the course said, “Nice going, little girl!” Other racers would come by and smile and cheer, and I think maybe, just maybe, the point of running events started to make a little sense to my kids.
My wife and my four year old took off like a flash and I stayed with my six year old.
“I want to walk for a while,” she said, so we walked.
“Those are pretty flowers,” she said, and she trotted off into a field to look at the flowers.
“Can I take your picture?” she asked, and I gave her my camera to take some pictures.
The miles rolled by, and yes, she complained a little, but complaining is okay. You have a right to complain when you’re facing adversity. But we kept going, and eventually we arrived at the finish line. My four year old saw us and came trotting up, excited.
“Great job!” she yelled. “The finish is this way!” Then she took off leading us to the finish where there was watermelon and ice cream and gatorade and a limitless assortment of sweet and sticky things!
“This is the best part,” said my six year old.
The crew hangs out after a successful finish. Walter Rhein photo
At that point, the race director came over and mentioned there was another event happening shortly, a quarter mile sprint or something. “Hey girls, want to go?” she asked.
“NO!” they cried in unison, “We’re never doing another running race again!”
“Way to go dad! You just ruined running for them!” the race director said laughing.
“Well,” I replied, “that’s what I say two seconds after crossing a marathon finish line, too. I’m just glad they finished smiling.”
“That they did.”
For the next few days, the girls got to hear about what a great job they did, especially from people who tend to say things like, “I could never run a marathon.” It was fun to watch the expression on my girl’s faces change as the memory of the discomfort of the run began to fade and the satisfaction of the achievement began to become more prominent. Two days later, I posed them a question.
“Do you remember that time grandma came to do the 5K in Irvine park?”
“Yes!” cried my four year old delighted, “with all the Christmas lights!”
“That’s right, they do a 5K to raise money to pay for the lights.”
“Oh,” the girls said together.
“Maybe,” I said, “we could do that race with Grandma this year?”
My four year old was in, but my six year old seemed skeptical. She tilted her head and thought about it with a pensive expression. Eventually she looked up at me, “Will there be ice cream at the end?”
“Darling,” I replied, “in a world filled with uncertainty there is one thing I can guarantee. There is always ice cream at the end of a run.”
She hasn’t quite committed to doing it yet, but I think the window of opportunity is still open.
For my use