Thanks, Dad

Thanks, Dad

I started running when my dad started running. It was the late-1970s running boom, and my dad was in his 40s.

His older brother had recently had a triple bypass. Heart disease ran in their family, and the doctor who treated his brother told my dad (who already had high blood pressure) that he was headed down the same path if he didn’t do something differently.

Blog PhotoMy dad took up running, and it became a lifelong passion for him. And for me as well.

We logged many miles together on the country roads around my hometown of Arthur. We ran many small-town 5K and 10K races. I ran alongside him during his first marathon (the 2000 Chicago Marathon -- he ran two other Chicago Marathons after that one).

My dad always encouraged me -- in track meets in high school, in area road races, in marathons and triathlons. He supported me in my time goals for races, but he never spoke to me about any race or event without giving me the same piece of advice: Have fun.

Blog PhotoHe certainly had fun. He also had time goals but he always enjoyed what he was doing, whether or not he met his goal.

He ran until he was in his late 70s, when back problems forced him to stop. He wasn’t happy with his doctor’s advice to give up running, and he talked many times about ignoring it and going running again, much to my mother’s dismay. Instead, he took up biking and did several area rides. He and I rode together several times in the Amish Country Tour around Arthur. But running was always his first love.

I was planning on running the Illinois Marathon Relay this spring. After my dad died at the end of February, I knew I wanted to run it with his running buddies (also friends of mine) from Arthur. In the years my dad was running lots of area races, so were Kenny Miller and Duane and Andi Schlabach, all Arthur natives. They and my dad ran many races together.

Blog PhotoWe ran the relay as Team Henk in memory of my dad. (Henk was his nickname.) After we crossed the finish line, Duane recalled a phrase my dad often said at the finish of a race: “We finished in the same day we started.”

Afterward, my teammates told some stories about their years of going to races with my dad. About a goofy runner who was one of his age group competitors and who drove my dad a little crazy. About the nickname they gave my dad -- “Zippy,” after the name of a race they had run. And the story I’d heard many times from my dad about the only time Duane ran out of gas on the way to a race when my dad was with him. He never let Duane forget it.

We drove to all the Illinois Marathon Relay exchange zones in Duane’s car, and I briefly wondered before the race if Duane had filled up his gas tank.

One of my favorite things that people said or wrote to me after my dad died was this: “He will run beside you, cheering you on, giving you comfort, and loving you forever more, just as in life.”

When I run, I think of him cheering me on.


Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at, or follow her at Her blog is at


Photos: Top, Jodi Heckel poses with her father, Neil Henkel, after the Illinois 5K in 2011. Middle: Neil Henkel runs a half marathon at the Valley of the Sun Marathon in Arizona in February 2001. Bottom: Team Henk, from left, Andi Schlabach of Monticello, Kenny Miller of Shelbyville, Jodi Heckel and Duane Schlabach of Monticello, poses for a photo at the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon Relay on April 28.


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