Running Through Grief

Earlier this month, after a lengthy illness, my father, Robin Wilkins, passed away at the age of 80. I was alone by his side when he AJW's Taproom died and while it was brutally sad in the moment, there was something relieving about his passing as well. Truly, it felt to me like he was moving on to a better place.

Like many fathers of sons, my dad was a lifelong supporter of my athletic pursuits. From little league baseball, to intercollegiate golf, and, ultimately, to my adult passion of ultramarathon running, my dad was always my biggest fan, sitting in the front row, literally and figuratively, to be there for me if and when I needed him. It’s not even been a month and I already miss that.

Over the years, I have written often in this space about the healing power of long distance running. I have waxed philosophical about the ways in which running has provided purpose in my life and also given me the strength to manage transition and loss. And so it was, not surprisingly, that I sought solace in running upon my father’s death. It was not as easy to do as I thought it would be.

On my first run after his passing I stumbled along for a couple of miles until I was overcome with emotion and just walked back to the house. I felt empty, unfulfilled, unable to find strength or energy in this thing that I love so much. The next day was a little bit better. I was able to complete a favorite four-mile loop and I kept my emotions in check. On the third day, which was the day of the memorial service at which I was scheduled to speak, I began to find a little groove. Spending the six miles around the roads of my childhood served to focus my grief towards productivity and, ultimately, gave me the strength to address the congregation at my dad’s service.

Robin Wilkins and AJW at the 2008 Vermont 100 Race

Robin Wilkins crewing AJW at the 2008 Vermont 100 Race. Photo: Joan Wilkins

As is the case when a loved one passes away, eventually, I had to return to my normal life, traveling back to Pennsylvania to my job as the head of a small, country school. Settling back into the work rhythm was difficult, but my daily run provided structure, giving me a place each day to reflect on my father’s legacy and to gain strength from his memory. Today, almost three weeks after his death, running continues to provide me with the sustenance I need to move into the future without my dad knowing that the past I had with him has made me who I am.

I am sure there are many ways for people to work through grief, and for some people it’s easier than others. For example, my mother, herself a bestselling author, has re-channeled her energy into her writing which had been dormant for a period of months while she was taking care of my dad. Finding her writing voice again has been for her like finding my step on the run has been for me. A place of hope, a place of love, and a place of healing. While he is no longer physically in that first row cheering me on, I will continue to feel his presence each and every day as I forge into the pre-dawn darkness and seek purpose and direction in my daily run. It’s all I can really do and all I really want to do.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week Beer of the Week - Antietam Tropical Magic Sour Ale

My dad was an early aficionado of sour beers and this week’s Beer of the Week is a great little sour from Antietam Brewery in Hagerstown, Maryland. Antietam’s Tropical Magic Sour Ale has a strong taste of pineapple and mango with a nice sour bite at the end. Surprisingly thirst quenching for such a robust beer, Tropical Magic goes great with food and also on its own.

Call for Comments

  • Have you used running to work through a period of grief?
  • Who are some of your best supporters in life and running who have passed on?