The Running Track
by Rebecca Park (United States)
Audio: "The Running Track," read by Gabrielle Lieberman-Miller
It’s 10 p.m, the only overlapping time for a high school student and an employed parent. Everything around my father and me—the chilliness of the night wind dancing through our shirts, the beautiful skyline of the Han river, the soothing sound of the crickets—fulfill the criteria for a peaceful evening.
Except that it isn’t. As we approach the river, the sight between its two bridges is my worst nightmare: my dad’s running track—the most horrifying thirty minutes of my childhood.
As I stretch my leg on the cold stone steps, I dread the next half an hour. My dad, on the other hand, looks quite happy. He’s been smiling all the way here, thrilled that his teenage daughter has agreed to go running with him for the first time in years.
My dad used to make me run with him every single day in elementary school. If I couldn’t keep up with him, he would make me run back as well. I always thought this was ridiculous; how could a seven year old keep up with a former college football player? Every day, I would find an excuse not to go, but it never worked against my dad.
My willingness today seems voluntary, but in actuality, my mom, who has been worried about my relationship with my dad, gave me no choice. She had noticed the silence during our first family dinner when I returned home from boarding school. His awkward, “So, how are you doing?” and my nervous fidgeting made our father-daughter relationship seem like an uncomfortable reunion between friends.
But he doesn’t need to know that my presence wasn’t my idea. He doesn’t need to know that I groaned and complained to my mom until the moment my dad appeared in the hallway wearing his sneakers and a goofy grin on his face.
I tie my shoelaces as tightly as possible, hoping it will boost my speed even the slightest bit. We start off slow, as if we are briskly walking. Then, slowly, we move faster, and I remind myself to take deep breaths.
As I get caught up in the fear of imminent exhaustion, my eye catches a familiar tennis court. The halfway mark! Usually, this is where my breath gets heavy or my legs start to cramp. But my body is strangely light. I look around for the first time, the sounds of the gentle river, the sparkling lights from the bridge.
I notice something else. My dad is behind me, and the distance between us is growing. This distance is not unusual, but the placement is. I am in front. This is a day I never imagined. I slow down for my dad, but he waves his hand in the air, telling me not to mind him and keep going.
Running in front of him just doesn’t seem right. I always imagined how happy I would be to outrun him for once. But now, him waving his hands, urging me to go on, doesn’t yield the feeling of accomplishment that I imagined. All I can notice is his fast-paced breathing and the paleness in his face. The figure of a former football player is gone. I always knew that people get older, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I never envisioned it happening to him. I give him a bittersweet smile and turn back. I run as fast as I can.
The burning sensation in my thighs escalates with each step, and as every second passes, my legs get heavier and my lungs beg for oxygen. But I don’t stop. The confusion of role reversal turns into frustration and translates into my running. The light fist I’m holding gets tighter, and my strides get bigger. It is painful, but I feel a strange relief in the burn. Perhaps this is why people run.
I don’t turn back around until I reach the end of the track. I fear turning around. I want to believe he’s only a few steps behind me. When I turn, I see nothing in the darkness at first. It’s as if he has vanished, a modern-day Eurydice. If I had not turned around, he would have been by my side by now.
A few minutes later, I catch a glimpse of his silhouette. The differences in him seem more pronounced farther away: the extra space in his gray shirt that used to be so tight on him; the slight tremble in his leg as he runs; and the clear exhaustion on his face.
If the roles were reversed, with me in last place, the expectation would be that we must run home as punishment for not being fast enough. But we walk back together, slowly. He proudly exclaims, “Wow, my daughter is faster than me now!”
I force an awkward smile. Standing closer to my dad, I see his thinning and graying hair and the fine lines on his face. I return home, carrying an uneasy burden, the realization of change.
After he showers, we sit at the dining table together. Like the first dinner of break, we are both silent. But I feel no need to break it. There is a connection in our silence, an understanding between each other. When my mother enters the room, he begins to describe a wonderful run. The way he paints our experience in no way resembles what I observed. Finally, I realize it, the thing that I had never understood in all my childhood years: my dad doesn’t have the words to tell me he loves me. To him, the sound of his love for me is the sound of our feet hitting the pavement together. Who knows how much longer his knees will support the execution of his love language?
As I pass him the water, I ask, “Are you free to run tomorrow?”
He looks surprised, but soon a wide smile spreads across his face, and he responds, “Of course.”
Rebecca Park, 18, is a junior high school student from Seoul, South Korea, attending boarding school in Michigan. She enjoys creative writing as well as reading.
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5/17/22, 4:27 PM
5/16/22, 11:40 AM
I am waiting with anxiety what does she doesto fight back these things which are very complicate to handle for a teenager...... I am Very anxious because I am in the same situation..... So I want to know what will she do.....
5/15/22, 3:16 PM
This is such a wonderful piece. I love it so much!
Rain Wind Thunderstorm
5/13/22, 10:46 AM
You are really good at writing. And at such a young age! If you don't mind me saying so, your writing style is warm and cozy. And also at the same time, very deep, meaningful and relatable. I especially loved the "The Reflection" part.
5/13/22, 9:28 AM
I really wanna know what does she does to fight back these things which are hard to handle for a teenager.
5/11/22, 2:37 PM
I loved every word of this. Maybe because I am relating too hard. I hardly possess any of the love or filial piety I am expected to have towards my family. I am dubious of anything my grandmother says to me and have long learned to just swallow it all with a smile though I question how much I know. And. Just. Knowing. That you will be forgotten by your extended family for the rest of the year but still held up to their expectations. Thank you for writing this! I'll always remember a beautiful #ownvoices story :).
5/10/22, 6:57 AM
I really am curious about how she is gonna fight this situation and will she be able to fulfill her dreams which she once had
5/6/22, 2:03 PM
Ooh I really love this! What a great ending too. Fellow students, we've got this!
5/6/22, 1:53 PM
I love this piece so much. Novels and writing rarely makes me cry, but this was just too relatable.
5/6/22, 1:51 PM
This was so beautiful, and created such a detailed image in my mind!
5/6/22, 11:35 AM
I thought that was a truly insightful piece. As a teen writer myself, your words were a refreshing reminder of the meaning behind adolescence. Thank you for bringing your writing into the world, and hope to see more of it soon.