In round numbers it has been 40 years since my first half marathon, 40 days since my last. At some point, the definition of “last“ shifts. “Last“ always means “most recent“ until it doesn’t. Then “last“ means “final,” there was never another one. Absent actually dying on the course—an unpleasant eventuality—it’s hard to know if a given finish line is the actual finish. Sure, nobody coughing up half a lung at mile ten ever exclaimed, “can’t wait to do this again!” but the excruciating misery that is childbirth notwithstanding, there are many families with multiple offspring, and the majority of race participants are repeat offenders.
My running buddies and I don’t talk much about running. Our conversation focuses on travel, family, current events, book recommendations, and of course, perfecting the Karate Monkey Joke. We eschew politics and religion—not everyone agrees. When the subject of running does occasionally come up, it’s the bizarre training runs and events that we reminisce about. “Remember 35 years ago when we went out at 10 o’clock at night and got desperately lost in South Dade? We ended up so far south that there was a canal blocking the way to Southwest 117th Ave. That canal went on forever, there was no way around it. No street signs, we didn’t know where we were. No streetlights either. We just kept running. At 2 o’clock in the morning, we finally found a convenience store, drank a gallon of Gatorade, and got a taxi home.”
"Yeah, that was pretty great. And what about that ultra-marathon in the Everglades where the course wasn't marked right and we ended up needing IV fluids?"
While I wouldn’t wish pasty, salty skin, disorientation, and mild cognitive delusions on anybody, the stories do get better over time. “The older I get, the faster I was.” Did I say 117th Avenue? Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure it was 817th Avenue.
Similarly, it’s hard to be excited in the moment about 2:00 am feedings, carpool, endless extra inning games in the sun, flu, pediatrician appointments, and bedtime stretching from one geological era to the next. Not to mention the logistical nightmare of arranging a liaison with your fellow cuddler. Whatever the opposite of an aphrodisiac is, a three-year-old climbing into bed with her parents comes close. Parenting is not for the faint of heart. Being covered in baby-throw up is a better story in retrospect than in real time.
How to make a morning in the waiting room seem like a day at beach? Every pediatrician’s office has a trash can appropriate for an impromptu game of wadded-up-paper basketball. Every interminable line has a place outside to sit and read. Every hour is a chance to connect, make something pleasant happen. Even the great outdoor parking lot that is I-95 can be a venue for conversation rather than snarling.
As many un-magical hours as parenting provides, every moment has to be considered. You get 365 opportunities to hang out with your five-year-old. A few minutes later, you get the same number of chances to connect with your 15-year-old. Before you can say, “and the seasons they go round and round and the painted ponies go up and down” the kids have gone from “pumquin” and “pasgetti” to "graduate school applications," "down payment," and "yearly visit." Instead of writing their names with backward letters, they are authoring the “Effect of Standard Therapy With vs Without an Antistaphylococcal β-Lactam on MRSA Bacteremia Outcomes”—whatever the heck that is. Don't blink. It goes by fast.
To paraphrase Harold Kushner, nobody on his deathbed ever wished he had spent less time with his children. Because forbidding all birthdays and putting bricks on their heads so they won't grow up doesn't work. And you never know when the most recent time you got to read out loud to your kid turns out actually to be the last time.