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.