Sunday, January 27, 2019

The Mother

(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)

2004. My latest book project began with a phone call that I took in September 2003 at my mother’s last home. This seemed exactly right, because I’d 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 I’ve 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 I’d 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.

I’m both my father’s and mother’s son. My late dad, Jim, was a sprinter and jumper good enough to compete in college. From Mom came the gift of endurance.

Virginia never ran a distance race, and I couldn’t 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 – in dresses and high-heeled shoes.

In her late years Mom’s legs and memory failed her, but she remained a sports fan to the end. I have a photo of her embracing Suzy Favor Hamilton as if she were a long lost granddaughter, though Suzy had no idea who this friendly little old lady was.

They met at the Drake Relays, a holiday weekend in our family. 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, after too long away. A year later her seat was empty. But she endured through that 2004 “holiday” so her family and friends, in town for the meet, could come to her hospice room to say good-bye. Three days later she died peacefully.

Later. Shortly after saying good-bye to my mother this spring in the Iowa town of her birth, the Road Runners Club of America honored me there with its Journalistic Excellence Award. Here’s what I said while accepting it – or would like to have said, given a chance to edit. I print it here without the pauses needed to compose myself:

This is going to get personal and emotional. But that’s how my writing has often been, so why stop now? I can barely begin in these few minutes to tell you how much the RRCA and this award mean to me. The reasons are ancient and recent.

Your group and my running were born the same year, 1958. An RRCA founder, Browning Ross, taught me how to read about running through his Long Distance Log magazine.

Another founder, Hal Higdon, taught me how to write about running. Your organization that promotes endurance has endured for almost a half-century, and I’m proud to have done so myself as a running writer.

Life itself has been an endurance test recently. We all face these trials, just not usually two at once.

Early this year my wife Barbara was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has endured months of treatment already and has as many more months ahead.

In the last few weeks I’ve endured the last days of my mother’s life and the first days without her. Her funeral was two weeks ago today, back in Iowa.

Last winter, right before life’s latest endurance tests began, I visited the John Steinbeck museum in Salinas, California. He was my first writing hero and remains my biggest one.

Seeing his words as he’d written them on the original pages moved me deeply. At the museum’s exit appeared this line from Steinbeck: “I nearly always write, just as I nearly always breathe.”

I keep writing for the same reason we keep running. Because it’s as normal and necessary to us as breathing, and because we can and we must. Why stop now, just because the road has turned bumpy lately?

(Photo: Virginia Henderson at age 83.)

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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