I Coped With My Dad’s Illness By Running

I have always processed things while running. When I’m out on the pavement, I work through the day’s problems. I pray, come up with ideas, and tune in to my emotions. My runs have taken on a meditative quality for me, and they are an important coping mechanism whenever I face adversity or need a little boost.

In the almost 20 years I’ve been at it, there are several runs that were particularly healing for me. I can remember running on 9-11, for instance, marveling at the quiet skies after the President had grounded all commercial airlines. Or running with a friend, as I let my tears fall, on the day my mom found out she had lymphoma. Whenever I go through a tough patch with one of my kids, I run.

Typically, I run about five times a week, usually in the range of 40 to 45 miles. Recognizing its importance in my life, I do everything I can to stay healthy and uninjured, including regular strength-training sessions, visits to my personal trainer, and eating well.

My runs have taken on a meditative quality for me, and they are an important coping mechanism whenever I face adversity or need a little boost.

Most of the time, I stay ahead of injury (which helps me stay emotionally grounded), but last fall I found myself facing a problem with my Achilles tendon. I had to stay off my feet.

The timing couldn’t have been worse: My dad had been suffering from late-stage dementia, and he took a fall which landed him the hospital with brain bleeding. At 82 and with his advanced disease, surgery wasn’t a practical option and would only serve to prolong his life. I knew we were on borrowed time.

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Running was like a little secret I shared with my dad, who ran in his youth, too. As he slipped further into dementia, he often returned to the tale of his relay team winning state championships his junior year of high school.

My dad was always my biggest cheerleader when it came to my own racing, and I love that we shared this common passion.

Requiring too much care to return home, my dad took up residence in a senior care facility. Living six hours away from my parents and as a mother to two children, visiting my dad wasn’t easy. But I went as often as I could over those final two months of his life.

My dad was always my biggest cheerleader when it came to my own racing, and I love that we shared this common passion.

Since I couldn’t run during this difficult time, I stayed as active as I could in an effort to cope with the emotional pain of my dad’s worsening health. I swam, I did aqua jogging, and I took classes that didn’t aggravate my Achilles. Slowly but surely, I could feel my injury getting better.

Finally, my doctor said I could run again. If you know any runner who has been sidelined by injury, you know that allowing them to return to the sport is akin to releasing a caged animal into the wild. During that first run, I soaked up all those endorphins, grateful that I had them back at a time when they were sorely needed.

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Soon after, my dad’s physicians suggested he was ready for hospice. My family and I packed our bags to spend whatever time we had left with him. Every single morning before heading over to the hospice center, I got up and ran. It was bitterly cold and often snowing—weather that keeps most people inside. But I wouldn’t have traded those runs for anything.

If you know any runner who has been sidelined by injury, you know that allowing them to return to the sport is akin to releasing a caged animal into the wild.

As awful as it was to say goodbye to my father, I had a beautiful final week with him. Thanks to my runs, I felt strong enough to handle his decline, and I had the strength to support my mother and my kids.

On the day of my dad’s funeral, I set out for eight pre-dawn miles in awful weather: single digit temperature, snow, and a wind chill below zero. Nevertheless, I knew I needed that run. There’s no question that it gave me the stamina I needed to make it through the day.

The day after my dad passed, I was up running as the sun rose. It was an incredibly beautiful sky and as I looked up at it through my tears, I could feel my dad’s presence.

As I continue through my journey of grief, I’m thankful for the runs that helped me handle the rough patches. And every time I see a sunrise while putting in the miles, I look up and know my dad is watching over me, smiling with approval.

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