There are times when a single image is crystallised into a lifetimes memory. These are moments of transcendence, awareness, enlightenment. And sometimes these memories become road signs that direct us along the highway of our lives.
Such a moment occurred for me in the middle of a marathon relay. My mother, my son and I were a team. Being the real runner, I completed the first 13.9-mile leg. My son, blessed with youth and enthusiasm, had the 9.3 miles in the middle, and my mother, claiming the privilege of age, took the final three miles.
Aged 26, 48 and 69, we had a common goal. For a few hours on a cold morning in November, the generational roles were eliminated. We were not just a mother, a father and a son we were teammates. We were connected not just by blood, but also by choice.
It wasnt always that way. Youd think when you announce, at 43 years old, that youve decided to take control of your life, give up your bad habits and take up a healthy activity, your family would be all for it. Youd think so, but in many cases youd be wrong.
Id like to believe its out of love, but the truth is that, in most families, who you are is exactly who they want you to be. If you decide to become someone else, you threaten the structure of the family; if you stop being who youve always been, how will everyone else know who they are?
This need to maintain family roles takes many forms. When I decided to get in shape, my entire family thought Id lost my mind. Suddenly I didnt fit. I didnt eat like my family any more; I didnt talk like my family; when the family got together to sit, I wanted to go out and run. Rather than seeing the positive changes that running was producing in my life, they saw only that I wasnt the old John that they knew and loved.
But, of course, that was the point. I didnt want to be the old John. I was trying to discover a new John, and wanted very much to have their support and encouragement. I wanted them to see how hard I was working, to appreciate my discipline and tenacity. Most of all, I wanted them to be proud of me.
It didnt happen right away. Even after theyd seen me race, my family didnt understand. My son was sure that with a little more effort I could be a lot faster; my parents were totally convinced that I was going to seriously hurt myself.
As I continued to run and race, though, my joy became contagious. When my mother retired, aged 65, she took up racewalking and rediscovered the athlete she had abandoned 50 years before. Suddenly she was training and racing again. My son, who is at that stage of life when the pressures of new careers and relationships limit his time, has discovered that physical activity creates the balance he needs. Even my father, for whom my athletic ability as a boy had been a disappointment, began to acknowledge the power of my competitive urge.
We were all there at mile 23. I was draped in my finishers wrap, trying to stay warm; my son was running into the relay-exchange chute, screaming at the top of his lungs; my mother was yanking off her jacket and heading onto the course at full speed; and my father was smiling!
For one magic moment we overcame the differences between us. As we walked back to our hotel after the finish, we celebrated each of our individual efforts and our joint effort. We were athletes. We were a team. We were, now more than ever, a family.
Waddle on, friends.