It is two days before my first marathon ever, and the only thing I am thinking about is my race-day shirt.
I hadn’t run more than 4 miles up until March of this year, when I got a credit card fraud alert that New York Road Runners had charged me $250 for winning a lottery entry into the marathon. I had just turned 40, and this wasn’t the type of birthday lottery I imagined winning, but it made sense.
My marathoner dad, Dr. Harold Galena, had only started running when he was 40. A road-running Rabbi Akiva, he became a staple of the suburban Philadelphia Jewish community, and he was seen at ungodly hours running around town with his Radio Shack earphones and short shorts. My siblings and I would all try to avoid his sweaty post-run hugs. He ended up running 18 marathons, until one morning he went out for a run and was struck and killed by a car. He was just 56. And I was just 26.2 years old — like the miles of a marathon — and I became a lost deer in headlights. I longed for just one more of those smelly post-run hugs.
When my dad would ask my siblings and me to run with him, we’d always pass, telling him that we, too, would start when we’re 40.
And I did. Throughout my own marathon training, I’d often see early-morning runners around his age and build, with a straggly beard and 1980s-style headphones, and do a double-take, hoping it was him. And I’d smirk. Always running with me.
So turning 40, a dad myself, it felt like a good time to walk (or in this case run) in his footsteps and have my shirt say FOR DAD. I almost got the courage to just write HAROLD on my front of my shirt, so strangers would cheer for him as they cheered for me. But I had another inspiration to consider in dedicating this run: my daughter Ayelet.
So much of this race is emotional and mental and so much of it is a celebration of your pain. Wearing your heart on your sleeve, literally.
Just 2 years old when she died after a pretty public bout with a genetic disease and subsequent bone marrow transplant that left my wife and me — along with 60,000 blog followers, many of them strangers — fighting, praying, hoping for her recovery, and her return home from an isolated transplant floor in Cincinnati, Ohio. A light in the Jewish community, Ayelet tore down barriers and reminded us that life is all we got. And since nobody can understand or comprehend a child with a disease, the people following our family’s story came through in a big way, with donations and mitzvah projects and tehillim (psalms) and Facebook shares that amplified the miracle of Ayelet.
Still, she lost her bout and we lost our dear daughter. And since then, little Ayelet has become a constant reminder to me to live harder, more passionately and with a sense of empathy in and beyond our local Upper West Side circle of friends. But saying that, and living with loss and depression, are two different things.
Thankfully, we’ve had two beautiful children since we lost Ayelet, but she is with us, with me, every day. If you look closely at a parent or anyone who has experienced loss, look at their eyes, beyond the surface, you will see the wells of tears that if you were to throw a penny down, would hear no bottom splash. Endless emotions that often stay below the surface.
And I knew with this marathon, the wells would come up to the surface and Ayelet would be on my shoulder, on my mind, in the cradle of my arms with each passing mile. She and my dad would bring me to the emotional place that every marathoner will experience when they hit that last third and need otherworldly inspiration beyond energy gels and Gatorade.
On top of all this my friend Josh, who is a young dad of two and battling colon cancer, has a team — including his wife, Shari — running for him to raise money for Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (please consider donating). I could not even think of passing up an opportunity to run for him, too. Because if my doctor dad, and my illuminating daughter taught me anything, it’s to fight for those who need cheers, for those who need uplifting.
As for my shirt, I compromised and put FOR DAD and RUN FOR HAROLD on the front and AYELET on the back. My guardian angels. I am writing #believeinJG, my friend Josh’s team hashtag, on my shirt, too.
May we all be uplifted this marathon Sunday — and may we continue to run to help those in need.