Always Set the Pace First

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

Always set the pace first, that’s what my dad would say.

It is 5am on a cold February morning. He is in running pants and a sweatshirt, I’m in 6 layers of clothing, trying to trick the cold into skipping over me and sinking into someone else’s skin. We leave the house, walk the first hill. I am shaking my hands by my side, puffing rings of frozen air out of my lungs. My dad is laughing, telling me to keep up.

What I remember most that morning before school, when my dad committed to running with me before he went on his “real “ run, were the stars. The stars and how they were so bright they almost made noise. They begged to be seen, to be prayed under, to be admired. They longed to have a girl and her dad running beneath them on a cold winter night.

My dad runs up the street and back again, clicks his watch, and nods that it’s time to run. He sets the pace, and we go.

It is 7am at the end of the summer. It’s already hot on this August morning, sweat pooling at my wrists and beneath my neck. My field hockey coach is here, Kitty, and we stand together as we watch my dad do his first lap around the bright red track. My insides are turning and I feel like I may throw up. Kitty, in her lack of words, doesn’t turn to look at me but stares straight ahead and says, “he’ll get you there.”

In order to be on the varsity field hockey team I need to run my mile in under 7 minutes. In practice I could make it under 8, but never 7. So Kitty agreed to meet my dad and I at the track on a Saturday morning. She needed me, she said. I needed my dad.

He laughs, adjusts his clothes, pushes his hair back and tells me it’s time to run. So I do. We don’t speak. I never fall out of step beside him. We easily breeze across the white paint finish at 6:42. Time to spare, Kitty says.

“Johnna, it’s all about pace.” He told me over and over again. Set your pace first. Then, settle in. Never finish a run by walking. Never stop running if you have good legs. Small steps uphill, long strides downhill. But always, set your pace first.

I look at my dad now, barely able to walk, swollen legs and eyes that aren’t on this earth. I walk by his medals that hang on the wall in our kitchen, all the marathons he ran, all the miles he completed. They jingle as my body brushes them, he looks over at me, at me or in my direction or at his medals, his eyes don’t say. But he smiles, “I used to run, you know.” I know Dad, I know.

It’s his brokenness now that makes me ache. All his stories, his whole life, washed away when the medicine seared through his body, catching fire, the heat burning his brain. How he woke up one morning and didn’t know who he was or what he had lived through. When he looks in the mirror and points at himself, laughs, asks us if we knew “that guy.” Tells us that that guy was a good man. Yes, dad, he certainly was. He still is.

His brain misfires, at least that’s how I see it. Some days he can dance around the house, laughing and running like a madman. But most nights he can’t take two steps, he can’t find me when I’m standing right next to him. Asks me often where Johnna is.

I’m right here. But I’ve been right here for too long.

Longing sparks creativity. It boosts us forward. That’s why people travel to be inspired. That’s why we climb mountains and blast music and cry sunken low in movie theaters as Bradley Cooper kisses Lady Gaga. (Anyone? I’m still a bit dead over this.) I watch my dad disappear and something in me becomes sharp with the desire to feel. To feel anything.

I put Levi on the bus in the morning and I take the rest of my coffee, roll my windows down, and drive for twenty minutes before my work begins. This month, there are always tears as I drive. Maybe it’s the colors of October, because I don’t know what to do with beauty, or the changes Levi is enduring with his father’s side of the family, or how each year that passes somehow feels all too familiar to the last one. Maybe it’s gratitude, for the small changes that amount to big ones, like new jobs, or new work outs. Maybe it’s just change, period. Whatever it is, it’s a part of me and I can feel it and express it and hopefully do something with it, like travel more or give more or cuddle more or write more. (God if I don’t finish my book I’ve been working on for years I may just explode.) So at the end of this month I’ll travel to Haiti to visit old friends, to sit with sick babies, to feel the heat in the place that stole so much and yet, gave me life.

Always set the pace before you run.

That’s what my dad would say.

I say, just run.


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