Of Mom and Memories: A Dog Day Comeback for the Ages

By BILL SHRALOW | Sep 13, 2017
Courtesy of: Bill Shralow Rhoda Robin Shralow shares a hug with her granddaughter, Samantha Shralow, on the Loveladies bay beach in 2013.

I’ve run the Dog Day 5-miler in Harvey Cedars almost every August for the past 25 years or more. Despite the pain, it’s one of my favorite races. It’s a summer tradition on a gorgeous course, draws close to 900 runners and hundreds of spectators, and is always followed by a swim and a good Island meal.

I missed the race last year because my mom died the night before.

I normally preregister well in advance of the race on the third Sunday in August. But I held off last year when my mom, Rhoda Robin Shralow, was hospitalized in late July.

It had started with a cough a couple weeks earlier. Looking back, maybe she seemed a bit tired in the prior months. But mostly Mom had kept to her busy schedule of taking care of family, friends and her family therapy clients. By the time she went into the hospital, we thought it was pneumonia, and canceled the annual family vacation.

The melanoma diagnosis came on a hot Monday in early August. They told us it could be fought with immunotherapy, but the going would be tough for a while. We settled in for what we thought would be a long haul – keeping vigil over Mom, the core of the family, who had always cared for us.

So I’d be making a game-day decision on the Dog Day depending on how she was doing. Mom loved all things LBI, including the Dog Day tradition. In years past, other family and friends ran and we all partied together afterward. Mom was always interested in how my race went. Until the very end, which none of us expected so quickly, I had thought I might be able to drive down, jump in the race, and come back with some LBI shells and treats for her. But that didn’t happen. Twelve days after the diagnosis, she was gone.

My mom was warm and kind, tough and smart, a fiercely devoted friend and accomplished professional, a tenaciously hard worker and the most caring person I’ve ever known. She loved to laugh and she loved to hug. Most of all, she loved her family. Her death has been tough for all of us, especially my dad. At 81, he has to remake himself and his life. The months after Mom died were among the hardest of my life. It shifted my universe, and I stumbled.

I went through my longest period of non-training in decades, gained close to 15 pounds, and felt no desire to lace up the shoes and head out. But slowly, the long, dark winter lifted. The days got longer, blossoms returned to branches, and I started running again.

Something else happened as the weather warmed and sunlight lengthened: I realized how much my memories of Mom and summer are interwoven. Mom lived for the family vacation on LBI each summer, surrounded by her children, grandchildren, spouses, friends and relatives. It was the highlight of her year. The summer wind reminded me of all the things we loved: laugh-filled mini-golf at Flamingo, big home-cooked family meals with three generations around a bountiful table, watching July 4 fireworks splash the sky all up and down the Island and mainland. 

With thoughts of the Island came thoughts of the Dog Day Race. I checked the date and, as the solar calendar would have it, this year’s race would fall on the one-year anniversary of Mom’s death.

Trying to forge a “comeback” at age 55, even though I was never very fast, with a full-time job and all the demands of modern life is a humbling experience. In fact, it’s been one long lesson in learning to let go of the competitive aspect and live the moment. I kept at it and decided I would run Dog Day. I preregistered as I had in the past.

On race day, my dad came along to watch me run. Anyone who knows the course knows that, even though it’s flat, it’s difficult. The main reason is the unrelenting sun; there’s absolutely no shade. This year’s race came on a gorgeous day – warm with low humidity and a breeze – but still that wilting sun.

To me, the key to Dog Day is holding back early. The field is so big and deep – lots of good runners show up every year – it’s easy to get swept up in a pace over your head. But go out too fast and you suffer big-time later, because, after 3 miles under the sun, the last 2 miles always feel longer than that.

So I held back, held back, held back. I didn’t really let myself race until I passed 2 miles. Then, gradually, I increased intensity. Not until the 4-mile mark did I let myself go all out, despite the gnawing in my lungs and stomach, knowing it wouldn’t go on forever. The last mile is a long, straight, punishing stretch down Long Beach Boulevard, where the horizon seems to recede, taking with it the turn for home in front of the firehouse. I have suffered greatly there many times.

But this year in the final mile, I let go of all attachment to a result by way of a time or place. Though I didn’t slow down, I realized in a way I never have before that it wasn’t the time that mattered.

I told myself to see my mom in the crystalline blue sky, and I saw her purity. I told myself to feel my mom in the salt air and west wind, and I felt her earthiness. I looked and saw her in the faces of the smiling grandmas and grandpas and their little grandkids lining the Boulevard, clapping and cheering. 

I made it to the finish line just before the dry heaves hit.

I caught my breath and found my dad, who had been cheering with the crowd along that long, final straightaway. We ate some lunch, got ice cream in Mom’s honor, took a swim, and headed to the cemetery two hours west, outside Philly. There, we placed shells and coral on the graves of Mom and other relatives, a variation on the Jewish tradition of placing small stones on grave markers to honor the dead.

The weather was perfect. Bright green trees overlooked the silent graveyard and waved in a breeze. Mom would have loved to be on the Island that day, surrounded by her family and friends. And though I know nothing will ever be the same now that she is gone, not even the Island, this special place is still there to remind me of the precious times together, so fleeting yet enduring forever.

Bill Shralow is a marketing communications manager in Philadelphia and a former SandPaper writer.

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