This photo is on the wall next to my hallway. As I leave for a run I always glance at it. Cornelis – Kees – Dorsman must have been about 18 or 19 years old, meaning the shot is from around 1930. He is winning this race with overwhelming strength, long before he would have two daughters, seven grandchildren and a flock of great-grandkids.
When I got to know my grandfather (Opa Kees) in the early 1970s he was still a runner. A strong, active man whose athleticism was visible in the way he moved. He would often take my cousins and me for a run in the woods. We loved it, as kids. I think I could taste, sense the freedom and independence of running, even then.
In my book I credit Opa with passing along the necessary genes and passion for running fast and well. (In the time of the picture he was also a serious rower, sailor and track-and-fielder.) I picked up his enthusiasm.
It was an active, healthy lifestyle, and it suited me temperamentally.
In the summer of 2006 I became aware that I had been losing the athletic attitude, like something too heavy to carry, something I could no longer hold. For decades I had been smoking, drinking and working, leading a sedentary life with gradually increasing jeans sizes. I had lost the joy of running altogether. It was a life devoid of the vibrancy I knew running could bring – a life that did not suit me.
Just as Opa was getting sick –he would pass away in the Fall of 2006– I started making incremental changes, finding again the joy of speeding past trees and water on your own two feet. They were small and hesitant steps, not groundbreaking, Moses-like insights and changes; the way these things go outside Hollywood.
He was a man of the outdoors until the end. He traveled and explored, hiked and climbed. During my last visits we would still walk slowly, about 400 meters, the distance at which he triumphed as a young man. We would talk and joke, enjoy the air and the rain. I’m glad that I got to tell him then that my first marathon was imminent. I think he understood I was trying to find a way back to the boy who ran and walked the dunes at the North Sea with him.