When I was a boy, I wanted to be like my Dad. Since he had excelled in football (achieving Georgia All-State status as a 138 pound tackle) my first vision was to follow in his footsteps as an athlete. But during my first 7 educational years, I attended 12 different schools, including two in South Georgia, and never had the opportunity to join a team. Finally, in the 7th grade I got my chance to play baseball. I was terrible. In trying to make up for dropping an easy pop fly I quickly made a powerful throw toward home plate. Unfortunately the ball sailed over the catcher, over the backstop and out of the stadium.
As a fat 13 year old, one of the largest kids in my class, I signed up for football. During the game that I can't forget, I was the last defensive player between a breakaway opponent and the goal. The ball carrier was tiny—seemingly half my size. We collided and I went down while he jogged into the end zone. The coach told me later that he thought that it would be best for the team and me if I tried another sport.
My father took the positive approach and suggested that I sign up for the cross country team. I never will forget the trip we took to buy my first pair of real running shoes. During high school and college I connected with Dad by telling him about my workouts, and we discussed training ideas. But during this period, he did not find time to exercise. The association with the cross country kids, over a 5 year period, transformed me from a fat, lazy kid, with poor grades, into a hard working athlete, on the honor roll. I could sense that he was proud of me, but he never talked about this.
Dad became very sedentary and by age 50 he exceeded his All-State weight by over 65 pounds. What concerned me was that he was showing the signs of poor health. Having helped other 50+ couch potatoes get into running, I felt it my duty to offer coaching advice. I bought him comfortable shoes and clothing and Dr. Kenneth Cooper's AEROBICS book in 1970. Each time I suggested exercise, he told me about his varicose veins, asthma, football knee, and had a few other excuses, when needed.
Two years later he attended the 25th reunion of his Moultrie High School class. At a gathering of his former football teammates, he learned that only 12 out of 25 were alive. On the long drive back to Atlanta he remembered each one, realized that they had been victims of lifestyle diseases. Dad remembered the warnings given by myself, his doctor, Dr. Cooper's book, etc. and knew that he could be the next one to leave this world.
The next day he decided to be an athlete again and tried to run around the park in front of his office. He couldn't make it from the first telephone pole to the second one. This was a major wake up call to his pride. Every other day, he would sneak out, at dusk, and try to get to the next pole. Within 6 months he made it 3 miles around the park. One year after he began, he finished the Peachtree Road Race (6.2 miles) in Atlanta.
Over the next three decades, Elliott Galloway became an age group competitor in road races throughout Georgia, and completed more than 50 marathons. At the age of 75, his doctors asked him not to run any more marathons because of a heart arrhythmia. He made a deal with the doctors with the condition that he be allowed to run three more: “the original” in Athens Greece, his hometown Atlanta Marathon and The Boston Marathon.
My Dad and I ran together in his final marathon, the 1996 Boston. This was the 100th running of the oldest continuously run event at the classic distance. I will remember this run for the rest of my life. His goal was to break 6 hours and we did it: 5:59:48. Never before had I spent 6 hours+ talking with my Dad, hearing stories he hadn't told me before, and at times, pulling him along. When asked by others about his time in the race he said he would have run a lot faster if I hadn't held him back. I didn't argue.
Dad founded an innovative school in 1969: The Galloway School. I was the Physical Education person (alias “playground referee”) during the first year. I saw my father quietly build teamwork between teachers, parents, and children so that each could take responsibility for their own lifelong learning. During the next year it hit me that Dad was doing more that developing a great school, he was helping thousands to improve the quality of their lives through thinking, health, and working together.
On July 4th, Elliott Galloway, 87, attempted to finish the Peachtree Road Race for the 36th year in a row. Before the halfway point he knew that it was not his day and got a ride home. Feeling guilty for his first “non finish” in his career, he took a nap, and then tried to run a hilly course in his neighborhood. He tripped, hit his head, and experienced a brain hemorrhage that took his life.
Whether encouraging others to go from one telephone pole to another, or solving problems at the school he founded, my Dad inspired me to never give up, while helping others.
I want to be like him, when I grow up.
Note: Olympian Jeff Galloway has helped over a million runners and walkers get into exercise and/or continue to reach their goals through his run/walk schools, retreats on the Florida panhandle, training programs and books. Subscribe to his FREE e-newsletter and blog at www.JeffGalloway.com