I will always remember going for runs with my father. I don’t remember how often we did that, it was simply one of those activities you do, as a human, to take good care of yourself. Consequently I didn’t think of myself as a runner — I was actually in the process of becoming a swimmer.
My decision to run, to be a runner, came nearly a decade later, when I entered my first half marathon. (I believe it was in 2002, in April, the race being the Safari half marathon on 1 May.) I did run occasionally before then, but to find motivation to even pretend to train regularly, I had to have some goals to work towards.
I have since branched out into the occasional triathlon, or just cycling or mountain biking on its own, and when the opportunity presents itself, I also do paddling. In fact, my father used to paddle, so that’s also special. Having never paddled together though, there’s something special behind running — those memories. I remember fragments of our runs, I remember some of our regular routes, and I remember words shouted back at me as I fell behind on the downhills:
Rek jou treë!
They are words that I recall with fondness, words of sporting advice passed from father to son, words of encouragement that still serve to inspire me, and words that I no longer trust.
An English translation would be “lengthen your stride” (rek means stretch). I recall this advice for downhills in particular: when you’re running downhill, you don’t need to be doing much work. You can “roll” down the hill, the longer your stride, given a fixed tempo, the faster you are running.
The long stride is possible due to the modern running shoe: they usually have a lot of padding that encourage a heel strike, which you get when you hit the ground further forwards than you would when running barefoot. I no longer trust running shoes: apparently running injuries have significantly increased since the introduction of such shoes, which would be a consequence of no longer running in our natural manner. Consider millions of years of evolutionary adaptation to barefoot running…
My weaning off of padding was initiated by trail running. Padded shoes on technical trails are treacherous, using a padded shoe notably decreases stability, increasing fears of tearing another ankle ligament or take a really bad tumble at an inopportune time. In addition to the general preference for less padding, a long stride with a heel strike is often not even an option: for technical terrain, shorter strides provide much more control, particularly important on descents.
As part of the process of improving my running style, fixing issues I’ve had due to formerly flat feet turned outwards (quack quack), I found myself gravitating towards avoiding padding on tar as well (though ideally I’d avoid tar altogether). And for me, in my mind, I suspect it has brought about the demise of the classic rek jou treë philosophy. And it provided me with the missing piece of a puzzle I had been pondering…
Over the past couple of years, I spent some time speculating about the value of father-son rivalry. Imagine, for example, a son challenging his father in chess, year on year, or chasing after him when they go running. In fact, picture children generally learning things from their parents, whether it be maths, rules on what to do to avoid getting hurt, some kind of a code of ethics, or even a favourite recipe passed on from mother to daughter or non-traditional son. (In my experience of conservative Afrikaans culture, it suggests the kitchen belongs to women.)
Picture the son improving his chess, driven by a desire to beat his dad some day, or training hard to eventually beat him on a run. Consider an up and coming engineer developing his skills to eventually discover he has surpassed what his father could do. Or maybe teenagers coming up with better or more realistic ideas on how to navigate life’s risks given changing circumstances, or coming to ethical decisions that disagree with what their parents would have advised. Picture daughters outdoing their mothers in kitchens.
I’ve sucked some scenarios out of my thumb, but this represents the theme of some of my thoughts, especially during my first year in a full-time job. I had chosen to study electronic engineering as the degree that fit me best. This choice was made by a process of elimination, partly in an effort to avoid merely plodding on in my father’s footsteps: I wanted to ensure I won’t be left wondering whether I had simply failed to make up my own mind. It had to be my choice, my life.
And yet there they were, footsteps of an earlier traveller still clearly visible on this path I found myself on. During times of questioning what I’m doing with my life, wondering where I’m headed, in particular during times of particular doubt, the mind simply couldn’t avoid comparing. I had been raised with the most wonderful stories, narratives of how things did work out for my parents. These then got cast into the role of narratives of how things should work out for me. My parents’ narratives shaped my expectations for my own narratives, rather than me simply writing my own from scratch.
I’m sure this is perfectly normal: children do grow up within the context of their parents’ narratives. As they mature, their voices and stories grow until they become part of the big picture storytelling. And at some point these new voices and emerging stories take precedence, as the young adults spin off a narrative of their own. I suppose what I found myself wondering about was possible sources of confidence for the new voices.
Is this one of the things that happen during teenage years? Young people striving to find their own place in the world, their own identity, find their narrative debating with their parents’ narrative? At which point do children typically grow to recognise their parents are also just fallible human beings, also make mistakes? How related is that to a teenager or young adult surpassing their parents on some level — rivalry and eventual triumph?
Would it have been a source of confidence (in life or career?) to have been able to compete with my father? Or at least have been able to observe him to the point where I could recognise some of his limits, in particular the limits which I could exceed myself? I don’t count swimming or music, activities my father was simply not good at in the first place. (He claimed he was bad at music because we had inherited all his talents, leaving him with none. ;-)) This was about coming to a point of disagreement and finding myself satisfied with my own choice, even after debate or careful consideration.
Of course this is certainly not something one should obsess over, the most useful thing to do is to simply get on with living your own life. (Avoid any such comparison games, they’re really just silly.)
But running? Lengthening your stride? That memory turned out to be the first thing I got to consciously disagree with. In that way, it was the first example by which I could think of my father as my equal, rather than as someone unchallengeable due to them really always knowing more. (Even if I turn out to be wrong about this. :-P)
My hesitance to disagree with a fond memory turned to be misguided. I will remember it even more fondly now. As absurdly silly a little issue as this whole thing actually is, it brought a smile to my face, provided a deeply satisfying little answer to a silly speculation: my father’s boots aren’t as big as they might have seemed to a toddler — they’re human boots, just like mine!