In a wet, sweaty embrace, I felt the weight of my father on my shoulders.
We had crossed the finish line of the 2015 Boston Marathon together, holding hands and drenched, after running through cold rain and headwinds for 4 hours 26 minutes 44 seconds. “Merci, merci,” my French father whispered, falling into my arms, pale and depleted. Overcome by emotion, I experienced the vulnerability of a man who had never looked vulnerable in my eyes before. His weight felt heavy and light at the same time.
Any long-distance runner will tell you that anything can happen during a marathon. No matter how hard you train for those 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometers), you can have a bad day. April 20, 2015, was a bad day for my father, Alain, who at 67 has run 23 marathons across Europe and the U.S. He had trained to run just under 4 hours, but he struggled from the start.
This year’s Boston Marathon was a family affair. My parents decided a year ago to stop running marathons after a last one in Boston with me. An injury prevented me from training properly so my plan was to start with them and drop out after 10 or 12 miles. Lining up at the start of my sixth Boston Marathon with both my parents but knowing that I wouldn’t finish was bittersweet. I was set on my role as support crew — complete with a backpack containing a change of clothes, my smartphone, and some fueling gels.
My stated goal was to run with the slower of the two — which would most likely be my mother, Simone. I started with her, checking occasionally on my father, who stayed behind for the first few miles. “Don’t worry, he always does this,” Simone said, “he starts slow and then catches up.” Her pace was brisk, and her eyes straight ahead. She was having a good day.
After 8 miles, Alain was falling farther and farther behind, while Simone powered up to a sub-4-hour pace. I waited for him: his glaze was down on the road, his shoulders rounded, his feet shuffling. I’m not hurting, he said, just slow. By the halfway point, I suggested he drop out with me. “Dropping out? I won’t drop out, I’ll finish!” he said. “Then I’m staying with you, I’m not leaving you,” I replied. We carried on with what became a father-daughter journey to the finish line in bone-chilling weather, wearing the identical purple rain jackets we bought the previous day at the official marathon-gear store.
I was so focused on getting Alain to the finish line that I don’t remember feeling cold or tired — but I knew I was cold when I tried to retrieve my phone from the bottom of my backpack to alert my husband I would run the full distance after all. My hands were so numb that it took several attempts to open the bag and then dial the number.
Every 2 miles, I would get Alain water and Gatorade at the water stations. I fed him with my stash of gels when he finished his own. I tried to break the wind by running just ahead of him on the famous hills that start mile 16.
Alain taught me how to ski and read sheet music sheet. He taught me windsurfing and the piano (although I wasn’t talented at either). He spurred my interest in politics, the economy and social issues — our debating the day’s news is probably why I decided to become a journalist. We have the same character, my mother used to say, by which she sometimes meant the same ill temper and stubbornness.
I still remember the moment when I became faster than my father at downhill skiing. The family had matching skis that Alain had bought on sale — they were coincidentally the same purple as our Boston Marathon jackets. I was thrilled to beat my speedy father, but I also wondered how hard it must have been to be surpassed by your own daughter. I didn’t say anything. Moments like these are meant to be lived, not talked about.
With a few miles to go in Boston, Alain was slowing down, walking at times. I tried to cheer him up. I talked a lot, waved at the crowd. Alain was silent. After the final turn on Boylston Street, Alain could finally see the finish line. He accelerated in the final yards, giving everything he had before leaning on me for the embrace. A few minutes later, he’d recovered already, flashing a big smile of relief at the finish-line photographers.
Once reunited with Simone (who finished 13th in her division, in 4 hours 11 minutes 26 seconds), we reminisced about the day. I had hoped my parents would experience Boston the way I’d always done so far: on a sunny day. What a shame they’d just run their final marathon in such harsh conditions.
A few weeks later, my parents were back home, getting ready for the cycling summer season. On one of our regular phone calls to catch up with family news, my father announced as-a-matter-of-factly: “Oh by the way, we just registered for the Paris marathon in April 2016.” They had changed their mind, hoping to run another last marathon — in better weather preferably.