“When people asked about her training I replied that really she’d been training since she was 4 months old, when we bundled her up in a Snugli and stood in the wet and cold on a day much like Monday, near the Woodland Station waiting for Jon to run by before hopping on the T to watch him cross the finish line (you could do that back in 1984). And last night, when someone asked Joni if it was difficult grabbing the water cups, she replied ‘You seem to have forgotten that Loren and I spent hours grabbing cups off the porch and crossing crepe paper finish lines was I was 4 years old.'” – Ann (Joni’s mom)
You always worry about your kids.
You worry the first time your child travels out-of-state with classmates on a school trip. You worry when she goes off to college, and you don’t hear from her for weeks at a time. You worry when she spends the fall of her junior year in Tanzania with a dozen other students (and two program guides barely out of college themselves). You worry when she returns to East Africa a few years later to spend another six months exploring on her own, and later still, spending a year in Zambia while working on an internship for her graduate degree in International Public Health.
And even though it becomes almost routine after a while, you can’t help but worry when your daughter’s career requires that she travel every few months to a new corner of the developing world, and when she casually informs you that her company has taken out “kidnapping insurance” for her.
But even all that worry over all those years didn’t fully prepare me for the helpless feeling of dropping her off in Hopkinton, Monday, and watching her head off to join the crowds queuing for the shuttle buses. I just kept telling myself that she was mentally and physically strong, and that she had been preparing for the next 42–odd kilometers for a very long time.
When Joni first started running in high school, I had different worries. Mostly, I worried that I would do or say the wrong thing, and that she would get the idea that she had to like running or perform at a certain level to earn her dad’s approval. I didn’t want to be that parent, the one who became so enthusiastic about his child’s latest PRs and the details of her training that he sucked all the oxygen out of the room.
I always loved to watch Joni run, beginning with those crepe-paper triumphs, continuing in her junior year of high school when she surprised us by joining the Cross Country team at Newton North and spending her afternoons jogging happily along with her friends at the back of the huge orange pack.
I also took secret pride in the revelation that, unlike almost every other high school runner the Newton North coaches had ever seen, Joni was a FAN of the sport of running. She knew the names of obscure running heroes from the 1930s, could recall track and field results from past Olympics, and was as comfortable speaking metric as imperial. Maybe that was partly my doing, but whatever its origin, Joni’s knowledge of the sport made her a delightful companion for anyone who followed competitive running.
But the most important thing I want to say about Joni’s re-discovery of running as a sixteen-year-old, is that it influenced me as least as much as I had influenced her. I would not have gotten into coaching if she hadn’t started running at Newton North. I certainly had no intention of coaching the girls’ team, but the more I hung around the meets and got to know the boys on the team who were Joni’s friends, the more I found myself talking to them about training and racing. One thing led to another, and I ended up volunteer coaching the boys in the fall of 2001. I was hired as an assistant coach that winter, beginning a five-year stint working with both the boys and girls teams. I owe that to Joni.
A few years ago, when Joni began running and racing long distances, we found that we were almost perfectly suited as training partners. Our paces and temperaments are compatible, and we both obsess over logistics to the same degree. Some of my absolute favorite runs over the last couple of years have been long runs with Joni, even though she almost always ends up going further than I do. Our run from Hopkinton to Wellesley in early January was a delight on an otherwise dank and murky winter day. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep up with her, but the hope of more long runs with her gives me tremendous motivation to stay fit.
On Monday, Joni began the marathon without the panic that I displayed my first time running. She had a great race plan, and executed it to perfection, easing into the pace when the crowds were thick, and gradually speeding up as the course opened up.
She knew that feeling great at the beginning can be a trap, and so she held her enthusiasm in check, only breaking in a wide smile when she passed Dennis and me and other friends at different places on the course.
Her goal was to run 3:15, which would have been a ten-minute personal best. Feeling strong crossing into Newton, she increased her effort gradually and actually ran the hills faster than the flats that had preceded them. Because she was racing, she monitored how much she had left, and ran with the goal of exhausting her resources when she crossed the finish line. At 40k, she knew she was close to running 3:10, and so on cold and tired legs she ran her fastest mile of the race, finishing in 3:09:59.
Nothing can really describe the feeling of seeing her afterwards. All around I saw friends and relatives collecting their drenched and shivering loved ones, and then there was Joni, just as drenched, just as shivering, but utterly radiant with the knowledge that she had run the race she wanted, and finished in a time that represented the culmination of two years of preparation and hard work.
I still love watching Joni run, but not because I run. I love to see her run because it expresses who she is, who she is becoming, and the intelligence, grit, determination, joy, and grace that belong to her alone.
That’s what finds a fitting symbol in the quite heavy medal that the BAA hung around her neck in the rain on Monday afternoon.