Two weeks before the election, I went for an evening run. At 80-plus degrees and my stomach full of stir fry, the conditions weren’t ideal. Still my wife Kate and I had decided that the post-dinner hour was our only chance that day to offset our sedentary jobs as college professors teaching via Zoom. Because it was my turn to put the kids to bed, I’d have time for three miles tops, and running would mean leaving Beckett, 11, and Ellie, 8, home alone after dark, which we’d never done. But we were confident they’d be safe in the embrace of their iPads. So Kate and I left, she heading one direction, me another.
The October sun sets early in Myrtle Beach, where we live in an area of new-build subdivisions ten miles inland from the sand and the souvenir shacks. Not even 7:00 and already dusk. The running came slow at first. I’m 51, a decade older than a lot of parents with kids the same ages as mine, and for the first few blocks I felt every one of those years. My right calf was tight and my left knee ached. But it wasn’t just my age that slowed me. I also felt the weight of the presidential election, and the pandemic, and the stress of homeschooling the kids while Kate and I taught our own classes.
We were lucky. We still had jobs. The four of us were healthy. But like everyone, the last seven months had left us with losses large and small. My mom died of COVID in April, an early nursing home casualty. Kate’s dad, who lives 30 miles up the coast, refused to see us unless we pledged to vote for Trump. As I ran, I thought of Beckett and Ellie home on their screens. And how the coronavirus had stolen one of their grandparents; the President had stolen another.
After the first mile, the sky was fully black. I passed a drainage pond and hit a welcome pocket of cool air. It occurred to me that I’d run at night only a handful of times since Beckett was born and probably not at all in the eight years since Ellie followed. I’d forgotten that the sun, especially here in South Carolina, can be a bully, forcing our overdependence on the sense of sight. In the dark, I felt the breeze on my skin, smelled a backyard fire, heard the cicadas and crickets and air conditioners. My breath dropped in sync with my strides. My calf was loose. My knee no longer hurt. Though I kept my usual pace, it felt like I was racing. Politics and pandemics couldn’t catch me.
I remembered the first time I’d experienced this adrenalized night-run feeling. I was 13 and decidedly not a runner. I played baseball and basketball, but running for its own sake was a waste of cardio-pulmonary effort. In gym class, the only unit I hated more than running was swimming, and that was only because swimming came with the additional locker-room angst.
One night during dinner, the phone rang. My mom handed it to me with a frown. Dinnertime was sacred; she didn’t truck with interruptions. I pulled the handset into the next room, yanking the cord tight. It was Toby, a kid I’d recently met at school. He asked if I wanted to hang out that night. We agreed to meet at the Dairy Queen, which was about halfway between our houses. It must have been a weekend, because my mom let me go.
“But not on your bike,” she said. “It’s too dark.”
I told her not to worry. I’d walk. But I didn’t walk.
As soon as my Nikes hit the concrete, a ball of energy swelled in my chest. I was excited to be untethered from my parents. Excited to be released into the night. Excited about kindling a new friendship. All that energy needed someplace to go. I started running.
I know now that the DQ was a mile from my house. But at 13 I only knew it was beyond my usual after-dark turf. I ran one block, then another, until I figured I was at the distance where, if this were gym class, my stomach would cramp. But my legs kept pumping, even in jeans. My arms kept windbreaker-wooshing against my sides. It was easy. I could run forever.
When I saw the Dairy Queen sign, I finally slowed to a walk. I couldn’t risk Toby seeing me red-cheeked and sweaty like a total dweeb. He was standing out front, backlit by the interior fluorescence, waiting for me.
I’ve since learned that his house was a quarter mile farther from the DQ than my place was. Which makes me wonder, had he run to meet me even faster than I ran to meet him?
Now, nearly 40 years later, I was again night running — not with the freedom of a kid let loose from his parents but with the freedom of a parent let loose from his kids. I leaped over curbs, skipped entire sidewalk panels. I ran as if there was still somebody waiting for me at the finish. Maybe I was running to meet up with the teenage version of me, a kid not yet burdened by politics or pandemics and who assumed that parenting could be boiled down to clear and memorizable rules like No phone calls during dinner and No bike rides after dark.
Just short of mile three, my knee and calf started hurting again, physical reminders that there’s no purer folly than chasing down your youth. The teenage me can’t be caught. Smarter to accept and appreciate the tight-calved me I wake up with every day.
Still, as I walked the last block, I realized that maybe I did run in order to make good on an appointment. Not one located in the past, but in the future. And not with the younger me, but with the older Beckett and Ellie.
I read somewhere that every hour of running adds two hours to your life. I hope to use the extra minutes I earned tonight helping Beckett move into his first house or watching Ellie graduate from med school. When my kids are my age, I’ll be in my nineties. Maybe if I work up to marathon distance, I could live long enough to spend the time with my grandkids that my mom can’t — and my father-in-law won’t — spend with my kids.
Of course, investing in health and fitness for the sake of a payoff later might also be folly. There’s no outrunning the calendar. I could catch the coronavirus and be gone by Christmas. I could choke on an almond and drop dead tonight. So ultimately, I didn’t run to make a better future. I ran to make a better now. The pandemic was still raging. The President was still fomenting anger and division. All the problems persisted. But this particular now suddenly seemed a little easier to endure. And I felt like a better, more responsible dad knowing that I was in training for a million more nows to come.
When I got home, Kate was walking the dog. I pried the kids from their screens, tucked them in, kissed them goodnight. Before I closed Ellie’s door, she offered her own gesture toward the future, “See you in the morning, daddy.”
That’s the plan, sweetheart. That’s the whole plan.
Joe Oestreich is the author of four nonfiction books, including Hitless Wonder: A Life in Minor League Rock and Roll. His work has appeared in Esquire, Salon, Sports Illustrated, and many other magazines and journals. He teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University.