Jeff Pearlman

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The son and the comeback

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I was a second grader when I ran my first 10K.

That sounds crazy in hindsight, but back in Mahopac N.Y. in the early 1980s, the town’s four elementary schools ended the academic year with a run around Lake Mahopac. To qualify, you had to show you could jog three miles—which I did.

So, at age 8, I dashed around the lake.

And again at age 9. And 10. And 11. And 12.

Those early jaunts turned me into a runner’s runner. I began competing in races all over Putnam and Westchester counties. Five milers, six milers, eight milers, half marathons. I probably averaged, oh, 20 races per year through middle school, then joined the Mahopac High track and cross country teams. I would ultimately go on to compete (“compete” is a stretch, admittedly) in a year of track and cross country at the University of Delaware, then run 11 marathons.

Then my back died.

It happened about eight years ago. I was running regularly with a friend, preparing for another marathon, when I started feeling this shooting pain down my right leg. It was borderline unbearable, and a trip to the doctor concluded with the awful diagnosis of disc damage. The options were not good: Relatively ineffective physical therapy or (egad) permanently dreadful spinal fusion. Or I could just stop running.

So, with a heavy heart, I stopped running. Just gave up my lifetime love. I still played basketball, I still went to the gym (more than ever, actually), but the long, winding trots across America were forever a past part of my existence.

Eventually, we get used to things. You lose your right hand, you use your left. Your spouse dies, you gradually return to dating. It’s sort of who we are. Adaptable. Adjustable. So I adapted and adjusted, and running became this thing that used to be me. I missed it. But less and less and less and less …

My son Emmett is 11. He’s a good-not-great athlete who has played baseball, flag football and basketball. His best sport, of course, is distance running. He’s not a burner, but he puts his head down and chugs ahead at a determined clip.

A few years ago I ran with him a couple of times—usually two or three miles. It was lovely, but limited. Short trots, nice chatter. Recently he joined the running club at his middle school. They work out three days per week after school, then (generally) either an organized race or long training run on weekends. Parents are allowed to participate, and I thought, “Well … hmm.”

I did a three-mile run with him a month ago. No problem.

I did a four-mile run with him a few weeks ago. No problem.

Today, we did a six-miles run. No problem.

It’s not fast. It’s not competitive. I’ll never be what I was at 18, or 22, or even 30. But—I’m giddy. I love running with my son, more than I ever loved running by myself. We chat. We joke. We compare notes. He explains his thoughts on school, on sports, on science. We actually have this running game, where we pick a topic and both of us need to write a poem. Example … boogers:

I have a booger

On my nose

It’s green and nasty

Smells like my toes

Where it goes

I’ll never knows

Stick that thing

Back in my nose.

Today, during the six, we tried something different. His running club is called WEROCK. So we played the acronym game. For a half hour, it was WENDY ELIZABETH RETURNS ON CHERRY KICKS and WILL ED REYNOLDS ONLY CLEAT KILL? I know it sounds silly, but—for me—it was electrifying and life-affirming. It also reminded me how running, truly, isn’t about winning or losing or even PRs. It’s about embracing moments; focusing on the zen; just … being.

I am happy, once again, to be.

  • dick maynard

    Great to see you posting some “uppers” on your blog. I worried you were turning into the Joe Ptfsplk of the internet. (I know, you have to be of a certain age to remember Joe Ptfsplk)

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life