Elizabeth Ewens will run the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9, 2016 in honor of her father.
My sister started running again shortly after our father died in January of 2014. It’s not like she was brand-new to the sport. A little more than a decade prior, she, just months removed from having my nephew, completed her first marathon.
She and her husband raised their two children in Davis, California, a community that’s flat and fast where runners are the jocks. The sport, it seems, was never completely forgotten between the car pools and the soccer games and the back-to-school nights. They would do the occasional St. Paddy’s Day 5k or Turkey Trot or fun run for one of the kids’ school fundraisers, but she swore she would “never do any distance that was longer than to the store and back again.”
The year leading up to our father’s passing, my sister and brother-in-law helped my mom run point on his care. He was diagnosed with cancer in the spring, when, during the first backswing of his maiden round of golf in North Lake Tahoe after the thaw, he felt a pop in his shoulder. X Rays and later an MRI revealed that lung cancer had metastasized throughout much of his body. His diagnosis was grim, three maybe four months—not to do what he wanted—but to live.
He decided that wasn’t enough and though he was never one for hospital visits—even for the birth of his children and grandchildren, he chose to suck it up and go in for chemo and radiation, for his children and grandchildren.
We squeezed in a couple family trips to Tahoe and a Giants baseball game that summer and fall but by Christmas, my father’s reserves were depleted. I stayed up with him by his bedside most of the night on Christmas Day, listening to his breathing, ever labored yet growing shallow. My sister came in the next morning and though she’d slept at home I could tell it had been an all-nighter for her as well.
“When this is over,” she said in a so-tired-you-don’t-know-if-you’re-thinking-or-talking kind of way. “Well, I think I’m going to have to reassess some things.”
At the time, I thought she was speaking in the context of getting back to being a mother and a wife and an attorney—three full-time jobs she’d put on hiatus in order to meet her father’s needs and spend the most time with him, quality or no, that she could while he was on earth.
And though weeks after his death she did get back into her normal routine, I remember her telling me something was still missing.
So she started to run.
And she started to write about it.
Within a year’s time she was training for the New York Marathon. A column she’d written for Women’s Running entitled “You know you’re a real runner when…” was an online sensation, garnering thousands of likes and shares and giving her a small but faithful following.
My sister and I are very different people, two raggedy and opposing ends cut from the same cloth. Though we share a common bond in writing and running, we also have an unwritten rule when it comes to both: It’s OK to offer helpful pointers and style tips, but commentary on whether the other is “doing it right” is verboten. It’s kind of like watching someone parent. Everyone has their own style and it’s never going to be quite like yours.
And so, I held my tongue when her “real runner” piece started to gain traction. It was well-written and smart and compelling and chuckle-inducing and true, an accurate reflection of the writer if there was one.
But I also thought it was missing something—something that I’d heard straight from her mouth.
A few months prior to her New York Marathon, she and her husband notched a relatively intense training weekend, half-marathon on Saturday, 10-mile recovery run on Sunday. It was the most mileage she’d put in in years. I asked her how she felt after and she said something curiously un-her.
“It was painful,” she said. “More than I expected. But I also missed it a little once we were done.”
My thoughts immediately turned to our dad and the year she’d spent by his side unable to ease his pain in body and mind and spirit. It wasn’t till the very end, our last family laugh together, that we witnessed any sort of relief cross his face. And that’s when he chose to go.
I know my sister carries that year with her, every run, every time. She doesn’t say it but that’s why she’s out there. It’s why she runs in the 99-degree Davis heat. It’s why she leaves the poolside on her Hawaii vacation. It’s why she gets up in the morning.
There is no mention of that pain in her column. But it’s there. It reminds her of our father’s struggle and how hard he tried every day to keep it going one more day, not for himself, but for those he loved most.
…And maybe it’s the one reason she runs that she keeps for herself.
Tomorrow she laces ‘em up for another 26.2, this time in Chicago. For the race, she raised a couple thousand dollars on behalf of our dad for the American Cancer Society. She says she did it so others can see his name and maybe wonder who he was. But I know it’s really for her.
So there you go Elizabeth. You are a real marathon runner because you don’t ignore pain, you don’t fear it or cheat it or overlook it or run from it. You embrace it. You do that because you learned from a great man that life’s toughest struggles are exactly what make life worth living.
Welcome to the club.