Fitness is my Apparatus for Grieving
I am one of those people who dedicate my long runs to my dad because I want to hear him tell me to keep moving. Oftentimes he lovingly speaks to me via F bombs.
It's been two weeks since my last race for the year. Instead of opting for the marathon distance, I thought out loud one week prior to the race: "Eh, I kinda did a lot this year and I'm mentally tired. Maybe the world won't hate me for dropping down to a half distance." After a bit of research, I swapped some gear out of my suitcase and prepared for my last 2019 adventure -- the Dallas Half Marathon. But before you think this is another race report, it isn't. Instead, this is an ode to one of the people who pushed me through my six years of running and in life, particularly this year: My dad. I'll put up a race report on another date.
Shaun's Daughter: The F Bombing Adventurer
If you follow me enough on Facebook or Instagram, I bring up my dad quite often and to a point where some people inquire who is my mama. I promise my mom is alive, thriving and at times, terrified about my random travels or moments of finding myself paragliding off of a mountain in Chamonix while inebriated. And for those who know me well understand that these are the unpredictable things that I borrow from my father.
Leon, my father, was referred to by a bunch of names: Fat Daddy, Santa - for his round belly and his birth date - and then there's Shaun -- in which I still have no idea why he went with this nickname but somehow my middle name is tied to it. He was the first person to show me how to live vicariously without apologies. Frankly, I thought some of his tactics were nuts; it didn't stop me from willingly following him blindly into the zaniest of places.
When I am in the middle of a marathon trucking through the shits and wondering why I am doing another race in heaven knows what place alone, I hear my dad. I don't know about your dad but my dad offered advice like "...you better keep movin' them damn feet muhfucka" and I can almost see his Newport cigarette wailing SOS signals as he talks with a smirk on his face. I laugh every time I get that visual because this is how I like to remember him. Even when our talks were serious, his voice and expressions were so animated when telling a story that it's almost impossible for me to forget the message.
In ways, my dad taught me how to move through endurance events without knowing it. We walked across one end of Brooklyn to the other on the weekends; sometimes with my sister and other times it was just us. And when I think back to those moments, they were always special. There's certain things that our parents teach us without lectures. He'd smile and sing off key and make up the craziest of songs on the fly if he wasn't toting around this oversize boombox. While doing this, he'd always made it a point to say hello to a passerby. It didn't matter if a residential New Yorker looked at him funny for his unbreakable Southern hospitality; if you saw him enough, eventually you'd said hello too or at least acknowledge his presence. Almost every person was assigned a nickname if he couldn't remember it the first time. His laugh was infectious and despite what pain he was in physically or mentally, the public barely knew. Shaun's poker face was a smile and in ways, I borrow those same principles on the pavement.
It's been 3,996 days since he's been gone and I grow nervous that I'll never be able to hear his voice again. I spent Christmas morning in a frozen state and almost paralyzed. Call me crazy but I find signs of his presence everywhere when I really need it.
In 2018, I saw a trail of butterflies on the Javelina Jundred 100K course every time my brain went into a claustrophobic like pit. At the beginning of the race, I was fortunate to move with my friend Lisa. She was carrying a list of instructions to herself to break 24 hours; I was holding onto names and messages that I received all year, both good and bad for every mile. Around mile 10 or so, we spoke about childhood nostalgia, food and my father. Ironically I was telling her that I have this weird way of seeing butterflies and moths just when I need them and then she pointed out a few yellow ones that traced the path that I was moving. We lost each other at the second loop, the sun started to set and I felt like the quickly escaping colors from the sky kidnapped parts of my courage. When the moonlight and counterclockwise headlamps are the only thing illuminating your path, your mind drifts off to equally dark places. Around mile 40 something, I wailed and because nobody was there, it was freeing. Physical exertion was kicking my ass but I remember reverting back to being five, wanting my dad to pick me up and pull me from the Coney Island water that I thought would take me for being too small. In my delirium, I reached an aid station where a few people suggested that I rest my legs a bit as they pushed bean tacos and broth down my throat. I didn't see him but one of the volunteers played a song from Rare Earth for me. I thought it was strange because I don't know many people who listened to them but dad did at least once a month as my mom, sister and I tried to destroy that CD. Spoiler alert: That damn thing still plays without missing a beat. I used "Get Ready" from Rare Earth as a sign to keep moving.
I felt better as the sun started to appear but the fatigue harshly impacted my performance. My longest solid run at that point was 40 miles. All of the back to back training runs weren't enough to prepare me mentally for 62.3 miles. Could've been mile 58 or 60 but I passed the last aid station with a moderate level of rage and overwhelmed with self pity. I blubbered out loud "Why the fuck am I doing this?" Perhaps it was him or a great need for fuel and hydration - I prefer the first thought - I started seeing these butterflies again for a minimum of a mile. The mere thought that I wasn't alone and he was possibly with me filled up my heart enough to press through until the end. I crossed that finish line on that day and 2018 was an amazing year.
It would be easy to think about all of the highlights but 2019 is where his words helped me the most. Personally, this year looks great on paper. I'll never shortchange the accolades that accumulated this year but I've never felt so much pressure to be someone else in my life. As I encountered countless riptides from the changes in my career to venturing alone, it was my father's voice that pushed me to not give up 3 out of the 7 days of the week.
When I was in my teens, my dad gave me a string of advice randomly whenever we played Dominoes, built Lego homes with every piece or playing Thousands because I am one of the few Black people on the planet who can't play Spades. I'll paraphrase whatever I can remember. Oh, and a side note if you haven't noticed, Dad loved profanity; we're filthy mouthed twins:
I was tested with each one of those variables this year beyond comfort. And as I wanted to succumb to being safe and conforming to the words of what others wanted me to be, I visualized you shaking your cigarette at me screaming "sink or swim muhfucka."
Last Race Mile of 2019
When I reached mile 12 at the Dallas Half Marathon, I stopped recording Instagram stories. In 15 minutes or less, I'd reach the end of my running tour for the year. I felt relieved and overwhelmed; my last mile allowed me to grieve the way I wanted to for ten years.
This year I managed to find his voice and ways through myself and others:
Perhaps you're questioning why I would make an ode to my father on a fitness and food blog -- that's if you're still here reading my blurbs. For most of us, endurance sports tend to pull out heavy emotions and help you process through the most complex of things. Through ultra running, power lifting and cooking marathons in my kitchen, I granted myself permission to have conversations with a man I love dearly despite our sometimes complicated relationship. Fitness is the muse that I use to connect with the person I can no longer visit within twenty minutes by foot. Each time I tackle a different fitness endeavor - whether training run or a swimming pool that humbles me like a half dead goldfish - it allows me another opportunity to be five years old again, flying on my father's back. When he placed me down for a landing, it's the hug that I remember having through the good and bad times.
Thank you for sharing your dad with us. We just lost my mom this year. This is a club that I never wanted to belong to. I’m getting through I think. My real reason for reaching out is to ask you...what and when started your life of long running, exercise etc?
I find your courage inspirational and can really relate to your close relationship with your Dad. On days when fear and depression keep me paralyzed I try it move forward with your example in mind. Motion is a friend to those of us who struggle. I don’t always remember that. Best wishes for a Happy New Year.
This is a beautiful story and I'm glad I found it! Thank you for sharing, I have a hard time not seeing exercise/movement, whatever you want to call it, as a chore but hearing a story like this helps me understand how exercise can bring peace.
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Latoya Shauntay Snell
For my pretentious ass bio, check out the about me page but for anyone interested in who I really am, make me a good meal at your house and I'll tell you a dope ass story.
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