Remembering My Dad Through Running & Writing

The Man That Wasn't, remembering my dad

My sister (left), my dad and me (right) on a trip to Florida in 1982.

My very first post on “Run, Karla, Run!” back in October 2009 was about remembering my dad through running the Bank of America Chicago Marathon.

That marathon was an emotional one for me. The race on October 11, 2009 marked the 6th anniversary of my father’s death in the city of my youth.

In The Chicago Marathon Homecoming Run, I wrote:

Just after the 12-mile mark, the marathon course tracks past The Merchandise Mart, where my dad worked during his glory days. I spent many weekends at my dad’s office when I was growing up. I can never pass the Mart without thinking of him. He was a workaholic, but more importantly, he was an alcoholic.

And after the race, I wrote in The Chicago Marathon: A Run Down Memory Lane:

As we crossed the Chicago River near the 12-mile marker, we passed the building where my dad once worked. “That’s the Merchandise Mart,” one of the pace team leaders yelled to the group. “It’s the largest office building in the world.” I bowed my head and prayed for strength. Not for me, but for him. At some point during his life, he’d lost the strength he once had; he died of alcoholism at the age of 58.

Last month marked the 10th anniversary of this death.

Now I’m remembering my father in print, once again, with “The Man That Wasn’t: My Father’s Slow Suicide.”

My dad never knew me as a runner. For a decade, I hated running, thanks to a bone tumor in my leg just below my knee. The surgery that changed my life, and opened up the world of running to me, happened just two months after my father died.

My dad with Mickey Mouse.

My dad with Mickey Mouse.

That realization occurred to me as I ran the Walt Disney World Marathon earlier this year. My dad used to take my sister and me to Walt Disney World every year when we were kids. I wrote a post about it, Wine & Dine Half Marathon Invokes Disney Memories, as I set out to run my first Disney race. Being at Walt Disney World is among some of the happiest memories I have of him, largely because he was always happy when we were there.

As I circled Epcot’s World Showcase in mile 25 of the Walt Disney World Marathon, I thought about my dad and my trips there with him. But remembering my dad is often a messy endeavor. Suddenly, I thought about all he’s missed in the last 10 years. It was just after we stopped in Morocco for a picture with Jasmine and Aladdin. Epcot’s Morocco is where my husband, Phil, proposed to me after our first runDisney race in 2011.

My father never met Phil. My dad missed my wedding and my sister’s, which was just one month after he died. He missed my transformation from loather to lover of running—a transformation that inspired me to make covering the sport as a reporter and blogger my career. He missed the birth of his two grandchildren and the opportunity to watch them grow. He’s missed taking them to Walt Disney World, an honor I’ve had three times. And most of all, he’s missed all the amazing things that might have happened in his own life.

run Disney, Disney running, Walt Disney World Marathon, Cinderella in rags, Jacque the mouse, running costume

Running the Walt Disney World Marathon with my husband. (Photo:

These thoughts went swirling through my mind like a tornado. I broke out sobbing while I ran, dressed as Cinderella in rags with Phil as Jacques the Mouse by my side.

Marathons have that effect on me. I often become emotionally vulnerable while I run.

But this time it was overwhelming. I cried so hard I couldn’t breathe and I had to walk to calm myself down.

It was not unlike the scene in Cinderella, when she sobs beside the fountain in her tattered gown, lamenting that she’ll never go to the ball.

Well, there I was at a ball of my own, so to speak, with my own Prince Charming by my side. The problem was my father would never see the joy I’ve found in life. A joy that somehow eluded him. Suddenly my own joy was heart-rending.

Now, 10 months after that race and 10 years after my father’s death, I’m remembering him in a new way: by giving his story a new life. The Big Roundtable, a new platform for long-form narrative nonfiction published “The Man That Wasn’t: My Father’s Slow Suicide.” The piece was also excerpted at, which chose it as one of its “Must Clicks” over the weekend.

The Big Roundtable’s motto is: “A home for writers with true stories they need to tell.” If ever there was a story I needed to tell, this is it. This is my father’s story, and in many ways, the beginning of my own.

I started the project with a single word on my mind: Why? My investigation was inspired by James Baldwin’s seminal essay, “Notes of a Native Son” from the book of the same name.

“It was better not to judge the man who had gone down under an impossible burden. It was better to remember: Thou knowest this man’s fall; but thou knowest not his wrassling.”

Why did my father live and die the way he did? What was his wrassling?

Little did I know what I would discover—family secrets that might have been his undoing. These revelations led me to view my father in a new profound way—not as the man he was or wasn’t, but as the man he could have been.

If you’re so inclined, please read “The Man That Wasn’t” at or the excerpt at, and share it with anyone you think might benefit from it. At The Big Roundtable, you’ll also find an entire collection of narrative nonfiction that really sings, and stories that simply had to be told.

As always, thank you for reading.

Karla Bruning


Karla Bruning is a regular contributor to, the host of NYRR's On The Run web + TV show, and a race announcer at events like the TCS New York City Marathon. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now she freelances as a running reporter. She's run 7 marathons, 20 halves, 6 triathlons, sings in an '80s cover band, spoils her dog + travels compulsively.

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11 2013

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