She took her first steps in a motel room in Rocky Mount, N.C.
At her first dance recital, she wheeled across the stage with epic awkwardness.
She was a little hung over, I’d wager, when she walked for her college diploma across a football field, wearing Blue Hen blue.
And on Sunday, my daughter, Sara, ran the Philadelphia Marathon.
On a morning of brisk air and brilliant sun, she ran 26 miles and 385 yards through Center City and Fairmount Park, then up Kelly Drive to Manayunk, where she made the big turn by the firehouse, then all the way back.
As she completed the final yard, Sara Katharine fell gasping into the arms of her husband on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
I could not be more astonished.
Or more proud.
In her 28 years, Sara has been many things – a reader, a talker, a rebel, a dreamer, a writer, a bargain-hunter deluxe, and a loyal friend – but athlete was never one of them.
Through school, she was in that timid, awkward group usually picked last for games. Her brief soccer career ended with a broken wrist a couple of minutes into her first playoff game; oh, how her father felt guilty for that “be aggressive” pep talk he’d given her in the car ride to the match. A good swimmer, Sara did work as a lifeguard for years, but made her mark at the pool mostly as an administrator.
It’s not that she hates sports. She dons her Eagles jersey for game days in the fall, and roots for the Phils – except when they play the Red Sox, her husband Nick’s team.
But playing sports? Tennis? Fuhgedaboutit. Softball – stick her in right field and watch her daydream. Field hockey? Please.
A few years ago, something got into my slim, pony-tailed girl. Nick was an on-again, off-again runner. He lured Sara out for some jogs. Suddenly, she took to it, longer and longer runs, with her iPod playing “This American Life” and “Radio Times” (I told you she’s loyal).
A few road races ensued; then a half-marathon. Sara was hooked – on the invigorating routine, the endorphins, the adrenalin of race day. Most of all she was captivated by the sense that here was a high-level athletic challenge that she – awkward, tiny Sara – could master through sheer dogged application.
A planner par excellence, she mapped out the training regimen for Nick and her to prep for Sunday’s marathon – and stuck to it with apostolic fidelity through spring chill, summer heat, and fall superstorms.
Come race day, we made a family festival of it – the in-laws down from the Lehigh Valley, her brother actually getting up early to lend his support.
Murphy, meet Fenway
Still, my best-laid plans to cheer Nick and Sara on from multiple spots on the route went all awry.
It was a Murphy’s Law day. We had the bright idea of bringing Sara’s new dog to inspire her at Checkpoint 1. He’s a rambunctious rescue named Fenway, deeply in need of the Dog Whisperer’s touch to walk properly on leash – and he ended up making us late for our first planned Old City rendezvous. At the second spot, we saw Nick, who gave Fenway a quick pat on the head, but Sara apparently slipped past us, part of the vast river of pony-tailed young women in black leggings flowing up Chestnut Street.
We managed to give an hurrah and a high-five as she trotted by the Art Museum and onto Kelly, hitting the half-way mark with a big grin and what seemed to be a lot of brio.
I tried to zip up to Manayunk to see her near the turnaround at the end of Main Street. That’s mile 20, when the pain, the fog and the desperation tend to kick in. I wanted to be there to boost her with a cheer, a smile, a “You rock!” and “You can do it!”
But maneuvering through Philly on marathon day is tricky; lots of closed roads. Cutting up Girard Avenue proved less of a masterstroke than I’d expected, and I hit every last freaking light on Ridge. And parking in Manayunk … grown men have wept at lesser challenges.
But I got there in time, I thought, right beneath the big Manayunk banner that draped across Main Street as two colorful currents of runners trotted beneath, one heading up to the turnaround, one plugging doggedly back towards Center City and the finish line.
My eyes darted back and forth from one current to the other, cellphone camera at the ready. Many young women trotted by – Alexes, and Stephs, and Jens aplenty – but not my Sara, that I could tell.
Later, piecing it together, I figured I’d arrived just too late — or just in time but too flustered to pick her out amid the motley gangs trotting each way on Main.
One dithering dad
Missed by her father, Sara forged on, bolstered by her sister-in-law Jill – a veteran marathoner not enrolled for this one – who hopped onto the tarmac next to her to trot and talk through the last, agonizing miles.
I raced to my car, steered with careening frustration back towards the Parkway (so many darn lights) and frantically tucked my Rogue into a kind-of-almost parking spot on a crowded Fairmount side street. I ran downhill to the police tape on Kelly Drive, directly across from the museum’s new parking garage. My wife, now with friends elsewhere, texted that they’d seen her go by Boathouse Row.
Staring north up the gantlet of cheering spectators and yellow tape, I peered into every face, checking out every bobbing pony tail, as the runners girded for one last, depleting surge to the finish line.
I will never understand how I missed Sara; she apparently ran right by me, me not seeing her, she not noticing me.
Finally convinced I’d missed her, I trotted glumly up the parkway to the finish line. I found her, with Nick, near the new Barnes, their silvery heat wraps around their shoulders, faces pale but grinning.
I enveloped Sara in my arms; she was trembling from dehydration, but so, so happy. I kissed her forehead; told her how proud of her I was.
She’d finished in four hours, 25 minutes – a back of the middle of the pack time, but much better than her target of 4:30.
Even as Nick muttered “never again,” Sara was babbling excitedly about her next marathon.
My girl, the marathoner.
The long road
The analogy may be a bit trite, but it’s hard to avoid.
Raising your child is like a marathon. You spend so much time preparing for the great adventure, and you begin it in sun with song and a smile. But no one can prepare you, really, for how long, twisty, grueling and intimidating your child’s road will turn out to be.
And sometimes, along the way, you miss big moments, because your focus was elsewhere, you let life make you late, or at the crucial juncture, you just could not see.
At times, you think you simply won’t make it. But the race goes on and you fight to catch up.
If you’re lucky and dogged, and your child energetic and brave, life will offer some finish line, some milestone moment where you can pause and say, “Yes, that was something, something to honor, something to hold close.”
And then you can put your arms around your daughter. There, she feels at once like a little girl, and like a bold, brave adult whom you hardly dared hope to meet.
The miles melt away, as do the missed moments and rendezvous.
And there is simply gratitude.