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Calum “Cal” Neff: Racing Toward Fatherhood

Roughly 48 percent of fathers say they spend too little time with their kids. Houston-based runner Cal made a choice to change this aspect of his life. His commitment to fatherhood is now setting records.

Interviewed by Sara G. Stephens

HFM: You’re a former collegiate runner who is setting world records. How and when did your love of running begin?

CN: I graduated from the University of Houston in 2007 and was a member of the cross country and track teams. My first race was in 1988 at the age of four years old at the Cajun Cup 1k. My father was running that day, and it was common for me to spectate during his races. But this time I had my very own bib number (I still have it saved to this day), and I never stopped since then. By eight years old I was joining him at his adult training group runs, and at nine I beat him for the first time in a 10k! My passion for running continues to evolve as I find different disciplines and races to do.

HFM: Today you’re a family man. Tell us about your family.

CN: I have an amazing wife, Julie, who is also a fantastic mother to our two children, Alessandra (4) and Holland (2). We are also expecting our third daughter in March this year, so in addition to our dog, also female, I am completely outnumbered! Aley and Holly love to run themselves and also really enjoy coming along for a stroller ride during my training and racing.

HFM: At some point you decided you needed to spend more time with your daughters. Tell us about this self-discovery.

CN: Shortly before Alessandra arrived, my wife asked when this whole ‘having a kid thing’ would be real, because it’s very different for a father: we don’t get pregnant, we don’t nurse, we’re technically no longer required. My response was “probably when she asks to borrow my truck.” But in all seriousness, I saw right away the importance of a father is just to be present. I also feel a huge sense of importance to show them EVERYTHING, to think that every single sight, touch, taste, smell, and sound in this world is brand new to them, gives you a new perspective on life.

HFM: So you decided to share your workouts by taking the kids along for the ride in a stroller. Tell us about your first such outing.

CN: As soon as Aley was old enough for a running stroller we were down at Memorial Park doing loops. Immediately you could see the enjoyment of being outside, seeing nature, being fully exposed and covering lots of ground, and of course, if you’re familiar with Memorial Park, the people watching is an important part of it too. It was a time where I would pack up some snacks and supplies and get out just the two of us, when there is no mom to rely on the relationship changes for the both of us. Even without the stroller I’ve incorporated both our girls in the gym time too. We’ll put on some music for them to dance or project a movie on the wall while I work out on my Zero Runner. They are already forming a positive view of a healthy lifestyle.

HFM: This October, you and Alessandra set the world record for the fastest marathon run with a stroller, finishing the Toronto Marathon in 2:31:21—a time which is only nine minutes off your own personal record. Do you think this is a representation of your bonding?

CN: We were a great team out there during the marathon–she sat back and enjoyed a tour of Toronto. Having her there with me was certainly a boost and very emotional to share. Because she was old enough, I hope she will remember it for the rest of her life.

I think I run better when I’m running for someone else. Earlier in the year I had run the Katy Half Marathon with the younger (and lighter) one, Holland, for a new Guinness World Record of 1 hour 11 minutes. I didn’t want to deal with that sister dynamic of only the youngest having a world record, so I really needed to get Aley her own. Of course now I have to think up a third record come March.

HFM: Do you think your daughters will continue to embrace your love of running as they grow older?

CN: “I want to go running” is Holland’s first sentence, which she’ll say while rapidly running in place. Aley has already done three one mile races: trail, cross country, and road as well as an adventure race, Texas Treasure Quest, where we teamed up (no stroller). I’m careful not to push it on them, it has to be their idea and something they are passionate about, otherwise they won’t enjoy it.

HFM: How does a father-daughter relationship differ from a father-son or mother-daughter relationship?

CN: I’m definitely more of a tough love and rough and tumble play, my dad very much let me be independent, especially in the outdoors, and it’s a similar ‘stand back and observe’ approach I find myself taking, but always ready to catch them should they fall from too high. It’s important to have that contrast from their mother even for girls. At the same time I’m also very caring and have recently come to the realization that I am essentially setting the standard for who they will look at marrying and caring for them one day, so I better set that bar as high as I possibly can.

HFM: What are the negative impacts of fathers not spending enough time with their daughters?

CN: I don’t think my girls would have all the exposure, communication tools, or experiences they need to thrive in life without ‘daddy time’. Not that my wife wouldn’t do a good job on her own or that children that have lost their dad can’t succeed in life. But I think the perspective and the type of role model a father provides cannot be replaced. You don’t have to be breaking world records either, honestly I don’t think my kids know or understand that part, it’s all the small things that make the difference: like bedtime and meals, playtime and showing them how a good husband acts towards his wife.

HFM: What advice or words of wisdom do you have for parents who have not made family time a priority?

CN: I know it’s easy for everyone to find their own space in the house, find their own screen, and shut everyone else out for an entire day. Sometimes the best thing to do is just get outside. It strips all those physical and digital barriers away. It gives opportunity to hold hands, laugh together, to share a real experience. Inside the home, meal-time should be given more attention rather than a quick task that needs to be completed. It really is the one time a day you can get everyone together in one place. I’ve also found a lot of value in the bedtime routine, helping getting the girls ready and in bed at a reasonable hour is a special time we share. Finally, bring your kids everywhere—find a way that they can be a part of every aspect of your life.

 

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