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Almost There

  • Tori Pennings, '12 by Tori Pennings, '12 Earth Systems Stanford Cross Country and Track

“Come on Tor. That a girl. Diggg. Five-fifty-one, five-fifty-two, comeon, five-fifty-three, four, five-fifty-five.” My dad reads off the mile splits to me from his bike.

At my running pace, biking is not physically demanding, but he is still in his full workout getup. He’s wearing the Cardinal Nike dry-fit T-shirt I got him for Christmas a few years ago. It gives off the serious athlete vibe with its aerodynamic pattern and breathable fabrics. I’m wearing my mom’s old cotton grey Champion sports bra with a tired pair of Nike tempo running shorts I’ve had since the 11th grade. To the onlooker, he’s either my coach or one of those over-the-top dad-coaches, controlling my sleep-eat-life schedule and living his athletic dreams through his daughter. But really, he has no clue what the times mean. The extent to which he approves or disapproves of the times is directly determined by my reaction to the splits.

“Dad–” I talk in between reaching for air “this.  is friken harder. than. I remember. I can’t believe how quick I get outta shape. Whatever, it’s only the first. workout. Jeez. K. Make sure I don’t go slower than like 2:50 or 2:55 through the half mile. I wanna run like five-fiftyishes.”

“Alright baby. Catch your breath and we can start ‘er up again.”

“No, just a minute rest. I’m ready, come on.”

I can’t help but think of how summer workouts lack all glamour. Today I will run three mile repetitions at summer tempo pace with short rest between them. By the end of the season I can string together five miles, without rest, feeling better than I do now, at a pace faster than this. But feeling fit never happens in early summer. The undesirable work also conflicts with summer vacation schedules and so vacation is put on hold, which is inconvenient but not unusual. Even though I’d call myself easy-going, my dad knows I will be a cranky mess if I can’t get my run in, and so we’re out here at 8 a.m. on our second day of family vacation.

For this workout, we’re on a section of the Cape Cod Rail Trail that follows an old railroad 22 miles from Dennis to Wellfeet. The paved path is wide enough for about two bikes and a runner to travel side by side.  It’s lined with sandy soil and shaded by pines and oaks: a combination of a Northeastern forest with the Atlantic sand that can only be found in Massachusetts’s Cape Cod.

“What’s”–I breathe–“the-split?”

“You’re good, you’re fine.”

I know better, and pick up the pace.

My dad’s athletic career did not extend past the position of 7th man on the high school basketball squad. Second youngest of ten, with four older brothers, he associates more with after work pickup leagues. His “Drink Milk” team basketball singlet hangs in my brother Stephen’s room; he pitched for the “Rotten Apples” in the over 30 softball leagues; he always goes as first pick for a game of horseshoes or corn hole; and he always plays designated quarterback for Thanksgiving football games. His dad, Grandpa Jake, was more an advocate of hard work, family and friends than of athletics. Grandpa Jake played casual soccer when he lived in the Netherlands, but after moving to America he traded his cleats for the worn-out work boots of a dairy farmer.

I used to bring one of the black plastic milk crates out to the dirt field beyond the greenhouses so I could cheer as hard as possible for my dad’s wiffle ball team. Then, later in the evening, I’d curl up next to him on the couch and follow his lead in rooting for his Yankees until I fell asleep to the rise and fall of his stomach. I would never yell or cheer too loudly, but I watched religiously and took the games as seriously as he took his post-game Coors light.

“5:55”

“blahhhh. K. thanks Dad.”

My dad is a social man. Everyone in Warwick knows Steve Pennings, and when I meet his acquaintances the conversation begins, “Oh! You’re the RUNNER–your dad raves about your accomplishments. Congratulations, you’re doing incredible…” It then morphs into some sort of chat in which they, thanks to the information my dad has provided, believe my talents in running are much greater than they are. I immediately get credit for being an exceptionally driven and motivated person, but I want to tell them that running every day is not hard. It’s hard NOT to run every day. It makes me feel good, so I do it. But because he’s more familiar with pickup football games than track, I’m sure my dad thinks that running is harder than it is.

“Done now?”

“No. One more.”

“Okay… You sure? You’re good?”

“Ye-ah. ”

Annoyed, I think he should know I’m completely fine. I’m just out of breath like a normal workout. It’s just that unglamorous summer work. Then again, I know why he gets concerned and it shouldn’t bother me.

I have this issue, habit, problem, of maxing out. I don’t know what happens or why it happens, but it has happened since high school. I’ll be racing along fine, feeling strong, smooth, covering every move the other girls make, setting myself up perfectly to reach my goal, completely ON. Then my legs shut down. It is not extraordinary pain; my legs just begin to feel heavier than I can handle. I am literally 100 meters within my goal times, within qualifying times, within scoring points for my team. Seconds haunt me. All I have to do is keep my legs moving at the same comfortable pace for a few more meters.

My dad has seen this finish dozens of times. Seen me nearly walk across the finish line. He also feels the aftershock, wiping the tears that are full of absolute frustration: why can’t I finish?? I’m smart, I go to a good school, I answer questions much more complex than this on a daily basis, but I don’t have an answer. Nor do my coaches, nor do my trainers, nor does my dad.

“One more Tor, comeon get meannnn”

There it is; my dad’s favorite, nonsensical, line. His swing at a solution. His advice has come a long way from when he used to yell mid-race to “use some defense, box-out!” But for whatever reason, the “get mean” line has always worked, ever since the days when he would drive me to soccer practice.

Back then, we used to take the white work truck to the soccer fields at the Warwick town park. The truck’s ripped and musty-smelling bench seat gave away its age. The collection of rusty bolts, mismatched leather gloves, and empty Snapple bottles below the seat told the story of long work days weeding the fields.  The trips down the Pine Island turnpike would last 12 minutes. Plenty of time for a small pep talk and to crank an Eagles song from 101.5 WPDH. He’d roll up the windows (to get me “conditioned and toughened to the heat”), turn up the volume, and tell me in-between tapping the wheel offbeat of the music: “Ooohhhh yeah, you gotta get mean girl.”

With just about an eighth of a mile left, I see him out of my peripheral vision and I see his focus. His Stanford shirt is damp from sweat now.  I notice his calloused work hands holding the stopwatch against the bike handle. He almost understands the times he reads. He’s nearly there, almost a full blown fan of not just his daughter but of track and field. It’s not his job to find my answer to finishing a race, but he’ll never stop trying.

“Comeon, you’re almost there.”