by Dante Zappala

The humidity on Kelly Drive rebuffed a welcoming breeze and kept the consistency of the air somewhere between soup and Jello. My head floated about 3 feet above my body and I couldn’t feel my legs. “Glorious,” I thought, “I’m 3 miles out; this will be fun getting back.”

As the name of this column suggests, I run a lot of out and backs. They are an ode to my father. His crew had a 6-day-a-week regimen that made constant use of routes that were to and from the Valley Green Inn, all with their own names. “Two mile flat out” was an 8 mile run to Ridge Avenue with the last bit turning into a race. “Rock the cradle” was up and down Springfield and Wises Mill, two times each. “Top of Thomas” was our morning staple that added the hill just past Northwestern Avenue.

He’d take my brothers and me to Wildwood for one week each summer. Every morning he ran from the Crest to the end of the piers and back along beach. He’d finish each run with a dip in the ocean. He was a man of many things, but a ton of variety wasn’t one of them.

For me, the idea of going out and back extends beyond describing a single run. Rather, it encompasses my entire experience with running thus far. In high school and for two years in college, running defined me. After sleeping, and before eating, it’s what I did with most of my time.

I shed that identity and several others in that ever cliché “search for myself.” Running in college for a Division 1 program drained my mind and my legs. I walked away but kept running. I had the opportunity to travel. I moved to Roxborough, then Los Angeles. I kept at it, just not with the vigor or commitment I once had.

I made it back; back to Philadelphia and, ultimately, back to a love for running. In 2007, I ran the Philadelphia Distance Run. My father was battling cancer, and we understood that this would be his last race. A big group of us donned shirts that read, “This one’s for you, Al.”

After my father’s passing, I got it together to run Marine Corps in 2010. It had been his first marathon so it made sense to make it my first as well. Somewhere around mile 18 as I went past the Capitol building and the sun moved to my back, I saw this person in front of me with his legs shuffling and his arms pumping. There was my dad in his ever familiar full stride. I would tease him about it constantly, it looked no less ridiculous now. It took piercing the haze of exhaustion to realize I was looking at my own shadow.

The race continued through Crystal City and at mile 21, the course went right past my hotel and about 200 yards from where my car was parked. “We can stop,” I was told by many different voices in my head.

My dad had a knack for unintentionally passing on simple metaphors of wisdom he gained from running.  “If you go out, you have to come back – that’s how you get the miles in.” Put yourself a ways away and you’ve got no choice but to find your resolve. Never was that lesson so clear when the opposite was staring me right in the face.

I finished the race and I’ve been locked in ever since.

That’s my out and back. I have a sense of missed opportunity. I think of the high school seniors who are getting their first summer workout plans from their new college coaches. Their window for success, in the classic sense, is not the next four years, but the next 15. I hope they carry that perspective because I certainly did not.

Yet I also appreciate the view from the other side of the running spectrum. For many years, I ran for fun, or to blow off steam, or for no reason at all. But I didn’t do it every day, I didn’t compete. Its place in my life would expand and contract like an old wooden door. Having had that relationship, I’m more able to identify with people who approach running more as a Facebook friend than a lover.

Out on the Drive, with a half mile to go, the breeze broke through and the cool air finally won the shoving match. I suddenly felt in control, powerful, capable. But if I could have, I would have quit on the run much earlier and missed that moment. Feeding off that sensation, I sensed another one of my father’s allegories playing out. He didn’t even pick up running until he was near 40.

Now that I’m back, what really piques my interest is what lies beyond.