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My father, myself: joy at the finish line

Why do people run marathons?

"I've asked myself that question 37 times," said my former colleague Sharon Linstedt. "Maybe because there's nothing like crossing the finish line."

Even if you've never done it or thought about doing it, it's hard not to wonder what pushes otherwise sane people to try to run 26.2 miles. I stood at the starting line at the Buffalo Marathon two weeks ago looking at the faces of the people all around me, wondering. But it didn't seem like the right time to ask.

So I did the next best thing we can do in 2012: I put the question to my friends on Facebook.

"For me, it was about setting a goal that seemed unreachable, and then reaching it," said my former colleague and onetime running partner Liz Kahn. "I decided instead of just running and running to nowhere, to run TOWARD something. It made a difference."

Mark St. George and I knew each other 30 years ago when we were in the same CYO chapter. He said his marathon decision was "an exploration of potential" that started with the five-mile Turkey Trot about 10 years ago.

"Marathons and Ironmen races are simply great lessons on what is possible and the power of sustained and incremental change," he said. "It really does show the biggest obstacle you'll face in life is often that gray 'stuff' between your ears."

"When you cross the finish line with the best runners in the world [even if it is a few hours later!], it is an amazing feeling," said Maggie Carr Marren, another friend from my teen years and the daughter of one of my favorite teachers. "Being able to accomplish what you set your mind to, does carry over to other parts of your life."

The common theme for marathoners is finding out whether we are capable of what appears impossible. That's why I have done two. I had one additional reason.

My father the runner spent four decades nagging me to join him. I always hated running but thought I would give him a thrill by doing one race with him five years ago. So I did, and I figured that would be it. But I kept going. The more I ran, the more I enjoyed it, the healthier I got, and the more I wanted to try to go farther and faster. In 2010, I ran a half-marathon.

Suddenly, a marathon seemed possible. But I wanted more than just to run it; I wanted my father to see me do it.

You wouldn't know it to look at him or to try to keep up with his frenetic pace, but he has had some health issues. It began to dawn on me a few years ago that he isn't going to be here forever. I didn't want to be the guy who does something he has always wanted to do and then says, "I only wish [person who inspired achievement] was here to see it." I wanted him to be there at the finish line and to know that he was the reason I was quite literally following in his footsteps.

He was there when I did the first one, but I walked a lot near the end, and I felt like I owed it to both of us to do better, to be better. So when I was running down Delaware Avenue last month, at mile 25, when my body was pleading with me to stop, I sped up. With the end in sight, I saw my dad. He started jogging with me. All of the emotion I had been holding inside began letting go.

When it was over and I could finally stop running, I couldn't stop saying "I did it" to anyone who was nearby. What I didn't say out loud was the second half of that thought: "And thank you, God, for letting him be there to see it."

As it turns out, there really is nothing like crossing that finish line.