"Rock Steady" my father said.
He ran alongside me with thick gray sweat pants and sweat streaming down the sides of his face. He took heavy breaths and heavy steps but showed no real sign of distress, not in front of his son, who was nearly a third of his size.
I was eight years-old and days away from running my first race - a mile run. So naturally, I was "training."
And when I write "training," I mean there was a mile race on Saturday, and so in preparation I was running a mile on Tuesday. Training in those days - 1992 - meant running a couple of times the week of the race when I wasn't playing soccer, you know, "training."
When my pace would slow over the course of this very long and enduring one mile run my father would say it again "Rock Steady," on an exhale.
The mantra was one of mystical origins, though in my father's translation it meant: Endure, Tolerate, Go Through, or any other word in the Thesaurus.
At the time I couldn't tell if the pace was too much for him, only years later did he admit I was in fact pushing him, and not the other way around. Perhaps the mantra was more for his own motivation.
I locked it in my head, and days later when I toed the starting line of my first race, it was engrained. As mentioned a few lines up the race was just a mile, but for an eight year-old it might as well be a 5k, and for the untrained eight year-old, you know, the ones who didn't run a mile a couple times the week of the race, this might has well be a marathon.
It was the Faith Holiday Race at Fort Benning, GA., and as far as I know, it no longer exists, but in the 90s it was the prime event for every kid on base. It was for bragging rights on the playground. It was our own Olympics, better than Field Day.
The plan devised by my father, master strategist, was that he'd "pick me up" at the half-mile marker and run most of the second half of the race with me. This way he could "help (me) keep the pace going."
Back-tracking once again, my father would've lined up with me on the starting line like all of the other fathers in crewcuts and run the whole race with me, but the pace was just a touch beyond what his stride could handle, or so he'd tell me years later.
It was an exhilarating first-race experience once the gun to shot out and I found myself among a few hundred kids storming the open road in colorful sweatpants and velcro shoes.
By half a mile my father picked me up and ran stride for stride with me, chanting his mantra, "Rock Steady," when we hit the one hill on the course.
By now we're a few hundred words into this narrative and I'm sure you're wondering where I'm going with this.
Behind every race or every workout, there's support cheering The Athlete on, whether that be a parent, a coach, or friends.
For me, I had a father who pulled (for a brief time), then pushed me to new heights, and a mother who cheered eagerly on the sidelines as No. 1 Fan.
And on this day, my first race, she was there by the finish line when I came down the empty road without a shadow in sight. She held the video camera, one of those big ones that weighs a few pounds and sits on your shoulder. It was the pre-iPhone days... I can still hear her cheers now, but I can't see the footage of my tiny body in faded green sweatpants a race t-shirt slowly emptying out my gas tank, because the cap was on the lens.
I might not be able to see that moment, but I can remember hearing it.
When my sister competed in high school my mother traded out the camera for scissors. She became an expert at neatly clipping out newspaper articles, typically written by Pearl Watts, with my sister's name in it. The scrapbook became a study device of the competition. My mother, No. 1 Fan, helped in anyway she could.
My wife even has a few funny stories of her own...