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The endurance dad dilemma

Attempting to reconcile the emotional pull between adventuring outdoors and being a father.

Peter Bromka

June 10th, 2022

10 min read

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“Does the bunny have a dad?” My son interrupted the bedtime story I was reading one evening as he shifted his little body around to get comfortable. I was confused by his question but tried to play along.

“Oh sure, I bet he has a dad.”

“But he’s not in the story,” my son rebutted matter-of-factly.

“Ohhh.” I understood what he was saying. “Yeah, he’s just not included, he’s probably just busy.” I reasoned why the picture book only made room for a bunny and its mom, as well as a balloon, and the moon.

“I bet he’s out RUNNING!” he exclaimed with pride, his four-year-old brain having solved the bunny mystery with the clearest explanation he could reason. 

He was overjoyed, but I was mortified. If “out running” is your child’s most logical explanation for “Where’s Dad?” then you’re probably also an Endurance Dad.

Physical strength.

Mental clarity.

Social connection.

The reasons for running are clear, but for runners who’ve added children to our days, the benefits of endurance sports lie in constant tension with this growing obligation.

Why we run

No one who’s been around an irritable athlete deprived of their routine exertion would argue against the need for a few miles, but what is the threshold between justifiable self-care and indulgent hobby?

“How about you just go for a run…” My wife wisely advises in those unfortunate moments. Having realized there’s nothing either of us can say that will solve the situation as well as me taking space to get outside and elevate my heart rate.

As an athlete, I specialize in inventing rationales. Since nearly all my actions are deemed “excessive” by standard society, who’s to say what’s too much?

My body whispers and then screams when training stress is unreasonable, which serves as a check on physical injury, but what signals my limit on parental absence?

As a seasoned Endurance Dad, I’m quick to explain, standing in a sweat-stained shirt and worn trainers, that these efforts amount to more than just exercise, they serve as an inspiring example for the next generation. These routines act as a model of health, effort, and the importance of daily habits, I reason. And that much might be true. But does my kid care much whether I got out before dawn for 5, 10, or 20k? A training plan clearly distinguishes between such efforts, but my son only knows that since I was out running my morning hugs are “sweaty and gross.”

Of course, a dad’s endurance dreams can also serve to illustrate life’s larger objectives. If done well they can culminate into efforts that prove hard things are worth doing, perseverance is important, and dreams are worth chasing. Yet when I returned from last fall’s Boston Marathon and excitedly greeted my son with a shiny medal, he gladly accepted it as a glimmering necklace, and then immediately asked if we could go play in the basement. He was appreciative, but mostly just glad that I was home. 

“Did you win?!” He shrieked and then moved on without interest in time or place.

As a kid should.

Presence

Having been raised by an Endurance Dad, I always knew he had run many races, some so long that they were called “marathons.” I distinctly recall his absence during some early AMs, but only recently circled back as an adult to ask about the outcome of those efforts. Parents stand as our protective giants, their importance implicit to our existence and safety. Does it matter how high they rank on a results sheet?

I justify that my efforts create meaning, but mostly what my son wants is…just for me to be around. 

The coldest, most mundane parenting truth I’ve learned since my son arrived is that sometimes he needs nothing from me other than just being there.

Present.

Not to get him food, to play games, or to perform any specific task that would give me a sense of purpose. No, just my presence affords him the safety to explore the edges of his expanding world.

Dad and son, both exploring the edges of an expanding world.

Two places

The hard truth is that I still deeply want both – to explore my next threshold and to be with my son.  

Meanwhile, the invites for adventures continue.

“Will you be there this year?! It’s gonna be epic!” my running friends text, their stoke leaping at me through SMS. But as my son ages, I’ve discovered that the seedlings of hesitation have germinated into sprouts of self-consciousness, and are growing into vines of guilt that pull at my heart to stay.

So as an Endurance Dad I’m caught in a conundrum, my heart screams to be in two places.

Recently, acclaimed endurance athlete Gary Robbins announced that he would be limiting his training to a “reasonable” level to make more time for his son, who’s the same age as mine. He wrote on Instagram, 

“My son is growing up far too fast, and I don’t want to be staring at a 10 year old wondering where the time went, realizing I’d taken it all for granted.

I will still run, I will still train, I will still adventure & I will still race a few shorter distance events, but my goal and focus for 2022 and beyond is to spend way more one on one time with my boy, so that hopefully, when he’s old enough to make his own life decisions, he’ll then choose to spend a bit more one on one time with me.

Robbins’ acknowledgment that our children’s lives somehow move even faster than finish line clocks was meant as a personal statement, but touched me deeply.

How do I reach peace if being away feels like abandoning my heart, and staying at home feels like letting myself wilt?

More seasoned parents have shared that age matters more than a first time Endurance Dad might understand. They’ve imparted that a child’s awareness increases, but then interest eventually wanes. “Be around while they care that you’re there.” An older friend cautioned.

Presence and prioritization

I adore my son. As all loving parents do. 

His existence is the greatest gift I’ve ever received. And yet, as time has passed, it is with disbelief and sadness that I’ve had to accept the heartbreaking truth that not even he can complete me.

No child deserves such pressure. No mature adult looks outside themselves for such fulfillment.

So, I still have to run – for myself. Being an Endurance Dad is who I am, like it was for my father. But, I have to choose my solo moments carefully.    

What I believe I’ve learned, and yet struggle to balance, in aiming to solve this impossible equation, is the importance of presence and prioritization. When I’m with him I strive to stop checking race updates and just be there with open ears and engaged eyes, no matter how exciting or dull the new game is that he’s concocted that day. 

And although the invites from my endurance peers are well-intentioned, I’ve come to understand that I shouldn’t say “Yes” just because I’m asked. I should say “No” to most things.

But, once I’m gone, after I’ve caught the flight, my family has wished me well, and I’ve signed off Facetime, the key is to be as present as possible in that moment out in the world.

The truth is, the scared athlete in me always looks for an out. With the starting gun approaching, my stomach churning, and adrenaline setting in, the same question begins to circle ominously overhead, “This is awful, why do I do this?!”

But as an Endurance Dad, I’ve felt what life is like without these days, and understand the trade-offs I’ve made to get here and so I cannot afford to falter because my focus is fragmented.

No, in those hours that I’m away, when I’m embodying the part of me that needs to keep pushing in order to thrive, I must live fully in the moment without hesitation.

Because time will pass.

My son will grow.

And the moment we’re in will never return.

So in that hour, it’s on me, as an Endurance Dad, first to only accept invites that deserve such distinction, and then to embrace the pressure as a signal that I’m still growing, even as an aging endurance athlete. 

In these select days, I must embody the strength, commitment, and passion that bridge between the idealized version of myself and the hope I have for my son. It turns out that this tension, which I lament and grapple with constantly, is less something to be solved, and actually a pressure that my son will inherit, if he’s as fortunate, as a guiding light in his own life.

41 responses to “The endurance dad dilemma”

  1. Luke B says:

    Encouraging to see other people confronting the same challenges that I am. I recently had to withdrawal from a planned fall 100 miler because it felt like my real priorities (wife, 3 yr old, 1 yr old, and work) were getting out of balance with the level of training I had previously been accustomed to. I have since taken some time to think about how I can still be present for my family, be a responsible employee, and train at a level that allows me to feel fulfilled. Part of that means reducing mileage and/or being flexible with off days, but if I plan well and am intentional about how I spend my time I am confident that I will still have a meaningful experience, even though it might not be “optimal” for performance.

    And I definitely second the comment about running with your kids – my most rewarding runs have been pushing my girls in the double Bob, even if that means sacrificing mileage or structure of a workout. So cool to have them out there and to set a positive example!

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