The author (center) teamed up with her sister Lauren and their dad to compete in a local triathlon relay.
Monica Prelle(Photo)
The author (center) teamed up with her sister Lauren and their dad to compete in a local triathlon relay.
The author (center) teamed up with her sister Lauren and their dad to compete in a local triathlon relay. (Photo: Monica Prelle)

The Long Run

After losing her father to Alzheimer’s disease, one writer reflects on her relationship with grief and running—and the connections between the two

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As my sisters and I walked through the front door of the nursing home in Valencia, California, Dad ran past the reception desk with two nurses in close pursuit. Dressed in blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, he did not look like a runner, but you could see it in his stride.

Dad had been a runner for as long as I can remember. Growing up, I watched him run races and eventually started jogging with him. I could spot his tall frame lumbering from a distance. He was a heel striker who was always pushing the pace.

The nurses chasing after him seemed less worried than inconvenienced. A receptionist behind the desk pushed the sign-in sheet toward us. It was late afternoon, and staff members were setting up tables in the dining room. Across the hallway, seniors were gathering for punch in a sitting room where visiting musicians played at a weekend happy-hour reception.

Dad was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at 58. When he was 64, the degeneration had progressed to the point of needing help. He got lost in the neighborhood he had lived in for over 30 years. He left the stove on. He couldn’t speak in complete sentences, and he wandered outside at night. He was a danger to himself.

We worried about him getting hit by a car or burning down the house. My sisters and I worried about Mom’s health, too. As his primary caregiver, the stress was taking a toll on her body. She had dark circles under her eyes and had lost an unhealthy amount of weight. So we moved Dad into a care facility. The place was close to home, it had nice landscaping, and we could visit easily and often. Still, it was the hardest decision of any of our lives. It felt like giving up.

As he ran by that day, Dad smiled, looking over his shoulder at us, his three girls. He laughed wildly and kept running. That was two years before he died. The disease was ravaging his brain, and at the moment he was sprinting down the hallway as if it were a childish game of chase.

The author and her dad stretching before a race
The author and her dad stretching before a race (Monica Prelle)
The author’s dad running the Los Angeles Marathon
The author’s dad running the Los Angeles Marathon (Monica Prelle)

Dad was a hurdler at first, but he banged up his knees on enough barriers that he switched to the middle distances in high school. Later in life, when he had a family, he ran local 5K and 10K community races. Then he started training for a marathon.

He rose earlier and earlier as his marathon training progressed, getting the miles in before we woke up and he went to work. On the weekends, he ran long and ate mountains of food, more food than I’d ever seen anyone eat before.

When race day finally came, all five of us piled into the family van and drove to downtown L.A. It was the spring of 1990, the fifth annual Los Angeles Marathon. We arrived while it was still dark so Dad would have plenty of time to make his way to the beginning of the course.

It was damp and cool: perfect marathon weather, Dad said. We watched the mass of brightly clad runners jogging across the starting line. There were so many participants that some, including Dad, would walk more than a mile before starting the race.

After we sent Dad off with good-luck wishes, my mom, sisters, and I bundled up in blankets in the park near the start while waiting for the runners to complete the race’s loop through the city. The distance—26.2 miles—was farther than I could imagine as a ten-year-old. Dad was a superhero.

Running was Dad’s reprieve, his time alone, a time to think. It was his joy. A way to stay fit. The one thing he did for himself. He kept a log of race results and personal bests in a black three-ring binder. He’d dreamed of breaking the four-hour barrier in the marathon and trained so much that the soles of his Asics constantly needed to be repaired with shoe glue.

After a few hours, we lined up along the fence and waited for the runners to return. When we finally spotted Dad, we cheered as loud as we could. He stretched out an arm, waving at us as he ran to the finish line. His smile was more like a grimace, but proud nevertheless.

A post-event trophy in hand...
A post-event trophy in hand... (Monica Prelle)
...and another with her older sister, Lauren (left)
...and another with her older sister, Lauren (left) (Monica Prelle)

I was six years old when I first laced up with him. Dad was a runner, so I wanted to be a runner, too. Early one morning, while Dad was getting ready for a race, I watched him making coffee and putting on his shoes from the top of the stairs.

“Munchkin,” he said, “do you want to run with me?”

I nodded and hurried to get dressed.

“It’s too hot,” Mom objected.

It was July 4, 1985. Dad always ran the annual Independence Day 5K that preceded the hometown parade. If I was going to run, my older sister, Lauren, wanted to go, too.

“We’ll take it slow,” Dad said. Mom relented.

I don’t remember much about the race, only that my sister threw up at the finish line and I won an age-group award. From then on, I was a runner. Lauren was a swimmer, and my oldest sister, Eva, a cheerleader. While they would participate in local races once in a while, Dad and I were the dedicated runners in the family. It was our common denominator. We ran together after homework and before dinner. Sometimes we talked, but mostly we enjoyed each other’s company in silence.

When I started competing in youth track and high school cross-country, Dad was my biggest fan. His cheers were louder than the rest. I can still see him on the course, waving his arms, yelling excitedly. He was always there for each of us in whatever we chose to do.

Dad did not have the same idealistic childhood, though. When he was 13, he and his younger sister watched their father put his suitcase in the car and drive away, leaving to be with another woman and her child. He called once and never came back.

It was one of those things in our family that we all knew but never spoke about. Looking back now, I understand how lucky we were. My sisters and I were the center of Dad’s universe.

Running was Dad’s reprieve, his time alone, a time to think. It was his joy. A way to stay fit. The one thing he did for himself.

After running competitively during most of my childhood, I quit the track team as an angsty high school senior. I’d been sick, unknowingly, with mononucleosis for weeks, and when I thought I was ready to compete again, my coach demoted me to junior varsity. I’d been a top runner since freshman year, but rather than working my way back to fitness and earning a varsity spot, I gave up and left the team.

If Dad was disappointed, he didn’t mention it. In my twenties, I moved to the mountains, and instead of running, I found joy in snowboarding, backpacking, and mountain biking. But running had shaped the person I had become, and it felt like a piece of me was missing. I also lost that connection to Dad.

After he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and as the disease progressed, Dad grew increasingly confused. But running was automated. He continued to lace up and head out the front door, even as his internal computer broke down. His feet took him to familiar places, but when he looked up from the pavement, he found himself a world away and not sure how to get home.

One time, the police dropped him off. Another, he called Mom to pick him up. He was scared and frustrated. He stopped running as often. Then one day, he just wasn’t running any longer. It was as if a field of wildflowers in peak bloom had dried up all at once.

Alzheimer’s is called the long goodbye. And it is, but his death also felt sudden. I was at work, sitting under the fluorescent office lights when Mom called—and Mom never called. She sounded faraway, distant. I expected the news, yet it felt like the oxygen had been sucked out of the atmosphere.

He was 66. I was 30. I’d been visiting him weekly on my days off from work, including the afternoon before, so it didn’t fully make sense: One day my dad was alive and running. Then he was gone, swept out with the spring tide.

After the initial shock of Dad’s death wore off, I immediately went back to my busy life. I was doing anything but mourning his loss. I was newly married, working as a restaurant manager, and writing.

A few years later, I started running while in grad school. I had a young dog that was wild off-leash, I couldn’t control him from my bike, and walking was too slow for him, so we ran. I found my stride. The joy of running returned, and it felt like a way to remember Dad.

Dad’s middle name was Valentine, and because of this, he acted as though February 14 was his day. When the holiday came around each year, he’d decorate the breakfast counter with teddy bears and chocolate and roses. On the first Valentine’s Day after I started running again, I began seeing heart-shaped rocks on the trail. They seemed to rise out of the ground toward me. Once I started noticing the hearts, they were everywhere. It was then that I realized Dad was running with me.

Years went by. I pretended to be fine. But I had built a wall around the grief.

I would keep running. I would be strong. I would be strong until I had no strength left.

Waiting for a race to begin
Waiting for a race to begin (Monica Prelle)
Lauren (front), the author, and their father amid the starting-line crowd
Lauren (front), the author, and their father amid the starting-line crowd (Monica Prelle)

People say grief is like the ocean, that it comes in waves. Or like a river, it ebbs and flows. I also like to think of it as a long run. The Long Run.

At first it seems daunting. You don’t know how you will keep going through it all. But you don’t have a choice, so you put one foot in front of the other. People cheer you on, but other times you are deeply alone. Some miles feel awful, but once in a while, you are energized. You feel OK. You think, I can do this. Then you hit a low again. The lowest low. You stumble outside of your body. Left foot, right foot. You keep running.

Eight years after my Dad’s death, my marriage fell apart. During this time, I was out on a run in Mammoth Creek Park, in the forest near my house. Sunlight flashed through the trees, casting shadows on the dirt. The creek was high from recent rain, and it churned and swirled and spilled over the banks. Damp needles of Jeffrey pines smelled bright in the cool early-winter sun. It was a trail I knew well, one that I ran often.

But that day I stumbled, my legs spinning until I came tumbling down, hitting the ground hard. Arms outstretched. Heart pounding.

“Gravity!” Dad, a high school physics teacher, would yell as he threw a chalkboard eraser into the air before it came crashing down.

My marriage had failed, and my dad was dead. A rogue ocean wave swept over the jetty. Heavy rain flooded the river and breached the dam. The runner had hit the proverbial wall. I realized I wasn’t just mourning my relationship: I was still, acutely, mourning my dad.

The dirt was cold. Everything throbbed. I gasped for air.

The author (center) running the Los Angeles 5K
The author (center) running the Los Angeles 5K (Monica Prelle)
The author connected to her dad (left) through running, even after his death.
The author connected to her dad (left) through running, even after his death. (Monica Prelle)

We didn’t talk about the disease. It’s only after someone is gone, as Maya Angelou once wrote in a poem, that “Our memory, suddenly sharpened, / examines, / gnaws on kind words / unsaid, / promised walks / never taken.”

His handwriting was the first thing to go. It was shaky. Entire words were omitted from sentences. He became aloof in conversation. He grew more distant, as if he were in a small boat on a meandering river, drifting away. You could see the panic in his eyes.

After he moved into the care facility, we picked him up and took him on “field trips.” One time, riding in the car, he turned his ball cap sideways and made faces at a young boy in the car driving next to us. When the boy made faces back, Dad squealed with delight. Later, when I told mom about it, she sighed. There is no dignity in dying, she told me. He would hate this, she said, if he knew.

When I took him to his favorite Chinese restaurant, the manager asked to talk to me. She told me he used to eat lunch there. She said he rode his bike to the restaurant and stood at the counter, but he didn’t know how to order, and he didn’t know how to pay. She said he handed his wallet to the cashier; they took the money out and handed his wallet back. Then one day he stopped coming to the restaurant. She worried. She wondered if he had a family. She wondered what had happened to him.

Dad and I shared a plate of broccoli beef and orange chicken. It was the last time he ate there.

In the throes of a long, slow disease, there are many lasts. Sometimes Dad would announce them; other times they just happened.

“This is the last car I’ll ever buy,” he once said. And it was.

“This is the last time I’m going to Mammoth,” he said after a cold and snowy weekend visiting me in the mountains. It was.

At Christmas one year, he announced he no longer wanted books. He’d always been a reader. Books were all over the house—left open facedown to mark the page—by different reading chairs and on the nightstand. He had read everything by Stephen Hawking twice and enjoyed John Grisham, Tom Clancy, and Tom Robbins.

Dad didn’t want to talk about why he couldn’t read anymore, but no more books.

No one knows when his last run was, exactly. The transformation was as slow as the disease until, one day, all of a sudden, he was no longer running.

Visiting the Alzheimer’s home with my sisters that day, we watched Dad run down the hallway with two nurses in tow. He ran past reception, past the lobby pianist, and past seniors pushing walkers to the dining room. He pushed open a side door and ran out of the building.

My sisters and I turned around and went back out the front entrance. He was running around the corner of the building, through the parking lot, and directly toward us. The nurses were close behind.

The three of us lined up along the entryway to the building like we had when we were kids on the side of a race course. He turned, running up the path to the front door.

“Go, Dad!” my sisters yelled. “Go!”

Glancing over his shoulder at us, he beamed, running back into the building.

People say grief is like the ocean, that it comes in waves. Or like a river, it ebbs and flows. I also like to think of it as a long run. The Long Run.

In the months that followed, he jogged laps around the small garden path in the care center’s courtyard. Sometimes he jogged up and down hallways. Once in a while, he would run out the front door with nurses chasing after him, coaxing him back with the promise of a cookie.

Eventually, his brain would stop telling his body how to function. The runner in him, long forgotten. He needed a higher level of care and was moved to another home. Alzheimer’s was consuming his body; bones protruded, and his skin sagged. He looked more like an ancient bristlecone pine than the marathon-running father I’d known most of my life.

One day, not too long ago, running through the old neighborhood, I stopped in the park a few blocks from home. Watching a father and his two girls kicking a soccer ball around, I was reminded of simpler times, the pure joy of a carefree childhood. Before illness and divorce. Before mortality became reality. Back then, there were few worries, no stress, no grief.

When grief finally came to me, when I hit the wall, I kept running. All you can do is keep going, step by step. But instead of running from the grief, I ran with it. I carried it with me. I slowed down and gave in to it. This long run is not a race. No one will win. There is no true finish line, and it is never really over, but at some point, the pain subsides and good memories flourish.

It’s taken many years to forget the sick times and remember my dad for the person he was. Today I still feel the loss—it will always be there—but now I am comforted by remembering the happy times.

Growing up, we did not have intimate conversations, but Dad taught me how to love by being present. To show up for the people you care about. Some days in the Alzheimer’s home, we looked at old pictures, but we mostly sat in silence. All those years of running together, we were at ease saying nothing. Some things didn’t need to be said.

Before I left, I’d often ask him, “You know I love you, right, Dad?” He’d stare at the space in front of him. His eyes were the same green I’d known forever, the same eyes I see when I look in a mirror, yet he was distant. Sometimes he’d turn toward my voice. Finally, one day, just before he died, he shouted, “Yes!” as if it was the stupidest question I’d ever asked.

Lead Photo: Monica Prelle