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All in the family

There are times when a single image is crystallized into a lifetime's memory. These are moments of transcendence, awareness and enlightenment. And sometimes these memories become road signs that direct us along the highway of our lives.

Such a moment occurred for me in the middle of a marathon relay. My mother, my son and I were a team. Being the 'real' runner, I completed the first 13.9-mile leg. My son, blessed with youth and enthusiasm, had the 9.3 miles in the middle, and my mother, claiming the privilege of age, took the final three miles.

Aged 26, 48 and 69, we had a common goal. For a few hours on a cold morning in November, the generational roles were eliminated. We were not just a mother, a father and a son - we were teammates. We were connected not just by blood, but also by choice.

It wasn't always that way. You'd think when you announce, at 43 years old, that you've decided to take control of your life, give up your bad habits and take up a healthy activity - your family would be all for it. You'd think so, but in many cases you'd be wrong.

I'd like to believe it's out of love, but the truth is that, in most families, who you are, is exactly who they want you to be. If you decide to become someone else, you threaten the structure of the family; if you stop being who you've always been, how will everyone else know who they are?

This need to maintain family roles takes many forms. When I decided to get in shape, my entire family thought I'd lost my mind. Suddenly I didn't fit. I didn't eat like my family any more; I didn't talk like my family; when the family got together to sit, I wanted to go out and run. Rather than seeing the positive changes that running was producing in my life, they saw only that I wasn't the 'old' John that they knew and loved.

But, of course, that was the point. I didn't want to be the old John. I was trying to discover a 'new' John, and wanted very much to have their support and encouragement. I wanted them to see how hard I was working, to appreciate my discipline and tenacity. Most of all, I wanted them to be proud of me.

It didn't happen right away. Even after they'd seen me race, my family didn't understand. My son was sure that, with a little more effort, I could be a lot faster; my parents were totally convinced that I was going to seriously injure myself.

As I continued to run and race, though, my joy became contagious. When my mother retired, at age 65, she took up race-walking and rediscovered the athlete she had abandoned 50 years before. Suddenly she was training and racing again. My son, who is at the stage of life when the pressures of new careers and relationships limit his time, has discovered that physical activity creates the balance he needs. Even my father, for whom my athletic ability as a boy had been a disappointment, began to acknowledge the power of my competitive urge.

We were all there at mile 23. I was draped in my finisher's wrap, trying to stay warm; my son was running into the relay-exchange chute, screaming at the top of his lungs; my mother was yanking off her jacket and heading onto the course at full speed; and my father was smiling!

For one magic moment, we overcame the differences between us. As we walked back to our hotel after the finish, we celebrated each of our individual efforts and our joint effort. We were athletes. We were a team. We were, now more than ever, a family.

Waddle on, friends.

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