The 3-mile marker of last year’s Shelter Island 10K Run was a lot more than just a milestone, much more than a sigh of relief as I approached the halfway mark.
The white picket fence and green grass of the golf course, the rush of the race and the thud of sneakers on concrete were all familiar. For years I stood by that fence, handing out high-fives and words of encouragement to the racers, but I was always waiting for one person — my dad, John Quinn.
Sign held high above my head, brimming with pride and excitement as he emerged from the woodsy road, that was all I ever knew of the 10K.
Until a Saturday afternoon in June 2015, when I ran by that fence cheering him on as he ran next to me on the day before Father’s Day, rather than cheering from the sidelines. As we passed, the memories became just a flashback, reduced to a second, a moment in time of something that now felt much bigger.
I have never been much of a runner, that’s always been my dad’s thing. He’s finished marathons, countless triathlons, including a half Ironman. He wakes up every day to the silent darkness of the early morning (shortly after I’ve gone to sleep) to spend hours in the gym before work.
When I was about 10, I stepped up to the starting line of a local 5K, confident that I could keep up with the stride of my 6-foot 2-inch partner. I spent the second half of the race with an angry grimace, walking my way to the finish line, a few fingers pressed firmly into the stitch below my ribcage.
Despite my cranky complaining and stubbornly slow pace, my dad walked with me the entire time, crossing the finish line with me well past our goal of 30 minutes.
Standing beside him in the rain at the starting line of the 10K, I bounced from foot to foot. Adrenaline had kicked in like a shot of espresso. I looked at him as he calmly waited for the gun.
He’s done this more times than I’ve laced up my sneakers for a run. For a brief moment, I feared a repeat of the last time we lined up to race together, so many years ago.
But this time was different.
I had trained, starting with short, daily treadmill runs up to longer outdoor runs the month before the race. And even with a constant rain, it happened to be one of those days that you feel like you can run forever.
Maybe the feeling came because it was my father at my side, or the excitement of the race, or the cheers of spectators who sacrificed the dry comfort of the indoors to root for friends, family and countless strangers. Or maybe it was just luck.
Along the way I waved to the people I knew on the sidelines. Each time it gave me an unexpected burst of energy and confidence, even when those crowded along the edge of the road clapping and shouting were complete strangers.
My dad, seasoned runner, racer and triathlete, matched my pace for the first 3 miles. After we passed the halfway timer, he began to slow down.
I wanted to run with him and cross the finish line together for the first time the day before Father’s Day. But he refused to let me slacken my pace.
“Just like everything in life,” he said through heavy breaths, “there comes a time where I have to give you a push and say, ‘Go for it.’”
For the next two miles I retreated into my thoughts and let my body take over. I climbed up the small but cruel hill before Second Bridge.
“Where you start to ask yourself why you signed up for this,” my dad had told me the night before when he took me on a drive through the course.
It took only one look at the view of Dering Harbor — masts of sailboats dark against the horizon, the chop of the water like the texture of a painting — for me to forget about my burning leg muscles.
As soon as I saw the flags that signaled the start of “Joey’s Mile,” with each flag representing a fallen soldier or Marine, my stride turned into a bounding pace. Training for and running a 10K isn’t easy for most and at the 5th mile we were sweating and huffing and hurting.
But the flags that line the edges of Joey’s Mile — too many of them — put things in perspective during that final stretch. We finally answered the question we’ve asked ourselves since the 3rd mile: Why did we sign up for this? Why do we run?
Answers: For fun, to relax, to spend time with people or maybe to be alone, for the challenge, to see the beautiful Island, to test our limits and to build strength.
We also run because we want to, and because we can. And, for that, we are so lucky.
I passed the finish line alone, making a time faster than I’ve ever finished. I walked back to the fence where I waited for my dad to run in just a few minutes later, cheering him on, just like I used to.
It took nearly 19 years for me to finally follow in his footsteps. Or, rather, for him to follow in mine.