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A Father, A Daughter And A Georgia July 4th Running Tradition

Photo illustration by Blake Cale for NPR, Photos Courtesy of Mary Louise Kelly

Growing up in Georgia, when July 4th rolled around, we kids knew there was one fight we would never win.

We were free to bicker over the best place to watch the fireworks. Same for barbeque chicken versus burgers on the grill. Strawberry versus vanilla in the hand-cranked ice cream churn, dusted off every year on this day and this day only? Have at it. May the best man win.

But as to how we would spend the morning? Not negotiable.

This is because in Atlanta, the morning of the Fourth of July marks the running of the Peachtree Road Race. Atlanta is hot as hell in July, and the course unfurls, as the name suggests, straight down Peachtree Road, the main drag of the city. Six-point-two sweltering, shade-bereft miles of asphalt, south from Lenox Square until you finally hit the blessed green patch that is the final few hundred yards through Piedmont Park.

If you were too old to run, or too young, or pregnant — and these were pretty much the only excuses accepted, though I certainly tried a few others over the years — then your job was to decorate a poster, plant yourself along the course and cheer on everyone else. My family loved it. To be precise: Dad loved it, and we loved him, and so we ran.

It wasn't just the Peachtree. My baby brother and I were force-marched to more Turkey Trots and Jingle Bell Jogs over the years than I care to recall. One of my earliest clear memories dates from when I was four or five years old, and my parents signed me up for a one-mile Fun Run. I was flying, rounding the final turn and headed toward the home stretch when I spotted a familiar head bobbing between the bushes alongside the course: Dad, sent by Mom, to make sure I was OK.

When my brother and I hit our teens, all these races were grudgingly shifted from the mandatory to the optional category. But it's fair to say we were strongly encouraged to run.

"I'll register all of us, so you have timing chips and numbers. Just in case," Dad would say, the note of hope in his voice unmistakable and, at the time, infuriating.

"I told you, Dad. I'm probably busy," I'd reply, mostly just to be ornery. Before he went to bed, Dad would lay out my race number on the hall carpet outside my bedroom, along with safety pins to secure it to my shirt. When he was in especially crafty form, alongside would be a peanut butter-chocolate PowerBar — my favorite — and a handwritten note: "I would love to run with you."

Fast-forward to 6 a.m. The alarm buzzing, me warm under the covers, desperate to stay there. But the guilt — knowing he was awake, knowing he was rustling around the kitchen, brewing a thermos of coffee, wondering if I would join him on the dark drive to the starting line — it was almost always enough to rouse even surly, teenaged me out of bed and into my sneakers.

Somewhere along the way, I'll confess I started to like it. Dad cheered me on at high school track meets, which I never won. He cheered me from the sidelines of the 2000 New York City Marathon, the only marathon I've ever run or ever will. Running was something we could share. It's only now that I realize how, at 6'3", he must have shortened his stride for me. Only now I realize that as he loped along beside a younger me, asking inane questions about things not remotely on my mind ... that he was trying to communicate, groping for a connection, because he had no idea what was on my mind. I have teenagers of my own now, whose interior lives are hidden from me. I find myself groping around with my own inane questions. Asking, the hope naked in my voice, if maybe they want to go for a run with me? ("I told you, Mom. I'm probably busy.")

Dad himself ran everything from circuits around our back yard to the Marine Corps Marathon. He possessed a pure, unshakeable conviction that everyone is a runner, if only they would give it a try. A thousand weekend mornings in our house must have unfolded something like this:

Dad (cautiously optimistic): Want to head over to the river and do a loop on the Chattahoochee trail?

Mom (sweat-averse, has never expressed interest in jogging in her entire life): No, thank you.

Dad: It would be good for you. We could pick up bagels afterwards.

Mom: You go ahead.

Dad: It's a beautiful morn—

Mom: JIM.

My father, Jim Kelly, was diagnosed with cancer 17 years ago.

Through radiation and surgeries, through chemo — so many, many sessions of chemo — he tried to keep running.

Last year, Dad was too sick to run the Peachtree Road Race. My brother had turned his ankle, so he was out too. Which struck all of us as fine, because the pandemic had rendered the race unrecognizable anyway. COVID-19 had forced organizers to delay it from July 4th to Thanksgiving, and then to shift the whole thing from in-person to virtual.

I signed up anyway. They mailed my T-shirt and official number, with instructions to run whenever and wherever I wanted, so long as I submitted my results via the official race app. You feel a little silly pinning a big number on your chest when you're running all by yourself, on a random course of your own devising. But I figured: what the heck. Afterward, I gave my number to Dad and told him maybe next year we'd be back out there together.

We lost my dad on Feb. 15. I ran the day he died and every day the week after. And then I found ... I couldn't. Just couldn't get myself out of bed and out the door. What was the point? Weeks passed and I tried again. Baby steps. Slow and creaky. An 11-minute mile felt like a triumph. I balked and procrastinated and finally forced myself to sign up to run the Peachtree this Sunday. It will be the first Peachtree Road Race of my life without him.

As we claw our way back from the pandemic, the race this year is hybrid — meaning, you can select to run in person or virtual. I signed up for the latter. I'll be running on my own again, dorky race number affixed to my chest. I'll lay it out the night before, with safety pins and — if I'm feeling especially gentle with myself — a peanut butter-chocolate PowerBar. I don't know yet what time of day I'll run, or which course exactly. But I do know who will be keeping me company.

I hear Dad's voice already, pacing me, leaning down to murmur in my ear: "Looking strong! Want to pick it up a little? You got this, buddy. Just a bit farther. We're nearly home."
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