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Somewhere around the age of 12, each of my three now-teenage daughters, in her own sweet way, let me know of my rapidly declining intelligence. I clearly remember the most direct of the three saying, “Dad, you just don’t know anything anymore.” I was living at the nadir of the father-daughter relationship with no end in sight until, quite by happenstance, life took a turn.
It started a little over a year ago on a beautiful evening when my wife and daughters and I decided to go for a walk in a park in a nearby town. A nice trail about a mile long loops around the perimeter of the park. Our plan was for a brisk after-dinner walk. As it happened, a bit of passionate discussion arose between my wife and one of our daughters, and, seeing no end in sight, the other two decided to turn the walk into a run and bolted. Having determined that I could add nothing helpful to the conversation, I took the coward’s way out and followed in the dust of the other two, who were now well out of earshot.
The problem for me was that it had been 30 years since my pace exceeded a middle-aged trot to the fridge, so this was very much out of character. Somehow I completed a lap and rejoined my now-happy family. The four of them stared at me, not in awe as I would have thought, but with puzzlement and grave concern for my well-being. I stood before them doubled over, red-faced, gasping for air, completely and utterly exhausted. So began my running “career” and journey toward a better place with my daughters.
Each of the girls at one time or another has run cross-country and played soccer and lacrosse. With the exception of their excellent physical condition, we now had something beyond our genome in common. Driving to races, we spent time in the car together that we never would have otherwise. We could actually have a conversation about things like running equipment, and they would give me advice like, “Dad, remember to pace yourself,” forgetting that I had one pace: slow. They wore custom-fitted athletic footwear, while I ran in sneakers with grass stains from mowing the lawn. They used electronic devices to measure their time to the hundredths of a second. I looked at the sun to estimate elapsed time.
We trained together for 5Ks with runs near home. Prior to my first run around the neighborhood, I would have sworn on a stack of 5K racing bibs (I now have four) that there was no incline to the road leading out of our subdivision. But today, as I claw up that escarpment, I strive to make it to the end so that I can turn around and lope downhill toward home.
My wife, perhaps sensing an opportunity that I was oblivious to, took the important step of actually registering me and our daughters for my first 5K. The four of us grouped together at the starting line. We were equally nervous, the three of them about recording a competitive time, me about finishing. The starter’s horn blew, and soon they were three bobbing ponytails steadily growing more distant.
I was more than halfway through the race when I caught a glimpse of my youngest. But she was running in the wrong direction! How could she make such an error? Even I generally knew which way to run. She picked me out of the thin crowd and said, “How’s it goin’, Dad?” She had already crossed the finish line, then turned around to meet up with me and, I presume, make sure I was alive. How touching. And humiliating.
As I think about last year’s running season and look forward to this year’s, I’ll consider every race a minor victory. Not that I cross a finish line ahead of anyone, but rather because, to some small degree, this old dad is winning over his girls again.Stephen Burke lives in North Grafton with his wife and daughters. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.