Birds with wings expanded.

The Gift of Roots and Wings

The Columbia Classic was a 15 kilometer race which follows the historic Columbia River Highway from the Women’s Forum viewpoint to the foot of Oregon’s famous Multnomah Falls. I ran the race with my son, David, thirteen years ago. Although the Columbia Classic is no more, memories of that race linger with me. It was an experience that marked my life . . . and the life of my son.

David has been a runner since finished his first Portland Marathon “Kids Fun Run” at age two. His first trip across the finish line was in a stroller while his mom jogged along behind several of his older siblings. During his grade school years, David was fortunate enough to have a PE teacher who took running seriously and organized running programs for his students. Before David had finished grade school, he was running cross country and track.

When David was young, I would take him on short runs, gradually increasing the distance to two miles. As he grew older, we increased the distance and before long we were doing five and six mile training runs together. David kept wanting to increase his mileage, but as a 13 year-old, I insisted that he limit his distance while his bones and body were growing. But the Columbia Classic 15k caught his attention and pretty soon he was showing me the running brochures and suggesting that we run it together. After weeks of his relentless urging, I signed the entry forms and sent in the check.

Race day finally came. David was excited. I was happy to be with my son and to share a sport that we both love. This was going to be fun!

When the horn sounded and we were off running. I took off fast, only to realize after several minutes that my pace was too fast for a nine-miler. I told David that we needed to slow down. But I could see that David was itching to take off. Other runners were slipping past us. I knew that David wanted to run with the leaders, not just cruise along with the mid-pack runners.

We had planned to run this race together. But I knew as we reached the first mile marker that I needed to set my son free. He needed to run his own race and I needed to run mine. Taking a deep breath between strides I said, “David, take off, son, and I’ll see you at the finish line.”

He glanced at me to catch the look in my eyes. “Are you sure, Dad?” he asked.

“Yes, David, I am sure,” I replied.

We ran on together for a few more yards.

“Are we still having fun, Dad?” he asked, wondering if I really meant what I had suggested.

I reassured him with my words, “Yes, David, we are still having fun.”

I gave him a sweaty grin and off he went.

trees and road

There are moments in life which I will always remember. This was one of them. I wasn’t sure whether I was sad, proud, or both as I watched my son wind through the crowd of runners to catch up with the lead runners. Before long, he had disappeared into the crowd and left me with my memories.

I remembered one of David’s first “fun runs.” He had been so excited about the event that he had put on his tee-shirt and had forgotten to put on his running shorts. The oversized tee-shirt covered him well until his mother tried to tuck it in for the race. Little David was horrified to discover that he was short-less! After a few tears, he realized that nobody would know and he ran the race with just his shirt and shoes!

I remembered the fun we had one morning when we ran a six mile section of the Oregon Coast together–just David and I, the sand, and sea gulls. I remembered his ribbons, his awards, his joy at finishing well, his tears at an unexpected stumble and defeat.

Now he was growing up and was running a 15 kilometer race on his own! And I knew that this race was a defining moment in his running career and in our relationship as father and son. We had passed a milestone. I was sure that our running would never be quite the same after this race. Yet I was happy that David had the confidence, desire and determination to run his own race.

David finished the Columbia Classic in 59:18, the fourteenth runner across the finish line. When I came in 16 minutes later he was waiting for me at the finish line. He handed me an ice cream and put his arm around me! “How did you do?” I asked. He told me the story of his race as the ice cream cooled our dry mouths and satisfied our post-race hunger.

Several days later I met David at the back door as we were both starting out for our morning run. “Want me to run with you,” I asked. He hesitated and then replied, “Thanks, Dad, I think I’ll run this one by myself today.” “Great,” I replied. “I’ll see you at breakfast.”

As a parent of four, I have always said that the two best things you can give your children are “roots” and “wings.” Roots refers to the confidence and assurance that you will always be there for them to help and encourage in times of needs. By wings, I mean the freedom to develop as an individual, with personal goals and commitments. During the Columbia Classic on July 18, 2002, David sprouted his wings. I knew we would still run races together, but now he would be on his own, setting his own goals, and running his own race. And I was happy to know that my son had embraced my gift of roots and wings.


Postscript: David now runs for the Nike Trail Elite team. He finished a 2.17 marathon last year and placed 20th in the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Race in June. (I didn’t run those races with him.)

About J. Carl Laney

J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Discipleship: Training from the Master Disciple Maker” (2018).