Web Exclusives: PawPlus

December 14, 2005:

On the run
Hugh O’Neill ’74 tells how running with daughter Becky ’07 fosters a special bond

By Hugh O’Neill ’74

The young woman running beside me is 5 feet 2 inches, maybe 5 feet 3 inches, her body at once graceful and strong, her stride crisp, self-assured, somehow fluid in a staccato way. We have similar scooting gaits and smart-aleck attitudes. Her mother claims that you can tell by our running styles that my daughter, Becky, and I share some DNA. Hope so. The girl is diesel. The woman can go.

When she left home for college two years ago, Becky took pity on parents bereft by her departure and chose the university in town. Among the great fringe benefits of having an undergraduate nearby is a phone call I get, every few weeks, often in the late afternoon, just when a writer needs a break from all the words.

“Hey, Dad, I’m going for a run. You work out yet?”

She runs a mile in my direction, I run a mile in hers, and, given the reliability of our paces, we always meet within 50 yards of the corner known as our spot. When I catch my first glimpse of her, if I’m not mistaken, the air tastes a little sweeter.

We don’t stop. She just flashes one of those sunrise smiles – yeah, I’m crazy about her, so you might want to stop here if you can’t take it – we tap fingertips in greeting and fall in side-by-side. And then, the conversation begins. Most often, she’s bursting with news – of a a great course in civil rights, of an a capella concert, a loss for club lacrosse, a setback on a midterm paper, updates on her campus roommates. She is, I think, what nature had in mind when she invented youth: exuberant and kind, alert and on the prowl, intrigued by her own mind and the powers that will be. (Hey, I warned you!) now and then, I chime in with news of mom, her brother, of my work.

The conversations Becky and I have while running are unlike any other I have with my two kids. Most often, when we talk in the kitchen or in the yard, I’m in dad mode, assessing what they say, reading between the lines for signs of trouble, and ever ready to offer my handy-dandy, unsolicited little life tips. You name the subject – work, dating, nutrition, fashion – and this dad can turn it into a teaching moment, free of charge. True, it’s extremely annoying. But hey, I’m their father. What am I supposed to do? Keep all my hard-earned wisdom to myself?

Somehow as we stride side-by-side, my dad instinct retreats. Our roles get fuzzy and fade. I’m no longer her father, nor she my daughter, or not exactly anyway. We’re just two creatures, boosting our endorphin levels, sharpening our minds, in search of our best. Running conversations are agenda-free. I make no judgment of anything Becky says, and feel no compulsion to offer counsel. And if I should backslide into dad mode, running offers a conversational bailout. I can abort a sermon merely by feigning a side-stitch. As we huff-and-puff, Becky and I share the runners’ fellowship. Unburdened by who we are, by the yoke of expectation or by particular roles, we are inspired by the plain spirit of left, right, left, right, a faith that if we can just run faster and farther, perhaps we can do everything else more fully, too.

After 20 minutes or so, Becky gives me a sweaty kiss and peels off, back to campus and the path that will lead her eventually away from me and toward some glorious whatever. As she recedes into the distance, in an instant, I’m Dad again, swamped by a million corny memories of her ascent, regretful that I didn’t share my solid-gold advice, and thankful for the great break of being her father. Left, right, left, right, she motors away, strong and full of hope. Left, right, left, right, I head home, enlivened by a different kind of runner’s high.

Originally published in the October 2005 issue of Runner’s World. Reprinted by permission.