By Jim Irish
As a teenager, Michael Regan yearned to connect with his father, John, a disabled Vietnam veteran. He discovered that connection through running.
John spent much of Michael’s youth working as a non-denominational pastor preoccupied with ministry in northeast Florida. During that period, Michael struggled with the role of a preacher’s kid.
“It wasn’t that he was unapproachable,” Michael says about his father with whom he shares a strong resemblance. “My experience with him the majority of my life was as a pretty strict parent.
“I wasn’t angry at the church or what they were doing so much as I was aggravated about being in the spotlight and having to deal with the perception of being a pastor’s son and what was expected of me.”
Michael experimented with sports hoping to find his niche. He tried football his freshman year at Pedro Menendez High School in St. Augustine but soon realized that he possessed little talent. The football coach, who doubled as the track coach, persuaded him to run track. Track and Michael, however, weren’t exactly compatible.
“I always seemed to lose count on what lap I was,” he recalls. “It felt more of a mindless, repetitive thing.”
Michael discovers a love for cross country running
Then in the fall of his sophomore year, Michael found his passion in cross country. Living in a rural area, he spent humid summer mornings running miles through the flat landscape.
“Honestly, it was probably the first thing that I was ever good at,” Michael says. “I loved the openness of cross country. I would spend most mornings running. There wasn’t much else to do. I lived in the country, pretty far from everybody...”
His father supported Michael’s efforts from the outset, driving him to local five-kilometer races and watching him compete in high school meets. Michael specifically remembers his father watching one of the high school time trials from the tailgate of his truck.
“He fell off the tailgate actually, he was so excited,” Michael says laughing.
He feels fortunate to have had his father watch him compete.
"I appreciate that I got to share that bit of growing up with him...," Michael says. "I'd say it was the first time I had genuinely poured everything I had into doing something."
John himself had competed in cross country in high school in New York, but he rarely mentioned it to his family. Michael had a glimpse of his father’s running from a few newspaper clippings from many years ago that his mother had shown him.
John's grave injury in Vietnam
Before completing high school -- for reasons unknown -- John enlisted in the Army in October of 1970. Deployed to Vietnam with the 82nd Airborne Division as a Specialist E-4, John worked with the 26th Engineers in mine-clearing operations near the U.S. military base on the central coast at Chu Lai. There, he stepped on an enemy mine that exploded on March 8, 1972 and lost his right leg. He was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, which he didn’t keep.
Michael says his father struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and also believes that he was exposed to Agent Orange, a herbicide sprayed by U.S. military planes to eliminate forest cover in Vietnam. John later contracted multiple sclerosis and for 18 months was confined to a wheelchair and struggled to talk.
“He was impacted by the effects of Vietnam,” Michael says about his father. “It was something that he never, ever talked about.
“He was very against what had gone on with all of it. That was one of the reasons he got rid of the medals. It wasn’t something he was proud about. He told me he had to deal every night with the decisions he made over there. It just changed him forever.”
Michael, meanwhile, continued to improve in cross country. In his junior season, he ran a personal record of 17 minutes, 37 seconds for five kilometers and was chosen as the MVP of the cross country team in 2008.
"...That's when we became a lot closer. I feel as though that was when he finally let down a wall that he had built up."
-- Michael Regan
“...That’s when we became a lot closer,” Michael says about his relationship with his father. “I feel as though that was when he finally let down a wall that he had built up.”
In an effort to accelerate improvement, Michael overtrained during the summer before his senior year, running 45 to 55 miles a week and bicycling another 50 to 60 miles a week. As a result, he developed stress fractures in both legs and wasn’t able to compete that year. He was also determined not to add weight to his 6-foot, 140-pound frame.
“I was obsessed with cutting down my time by any means possible,” he says.
Michael remembers being upset about his injuries and the inability to compete but his father remarking, “(It) must be nice to have an extra leg to break.”
“There were no excuses, and self-pity was not allowed in our house,” Michael says.
About six months after Michael’s high school graduation, John, a longtime smoker, died from lung cancer on Dec. 23, 2010 at age 59.
Michael learns about his father's past
In June of 2019 -- more than eight years after John’s death -- Michael received a Facebook message from a writer researching an article about a state championship cross country team from Ward Melville High School in East Setauket, N.Y. on Nov. 8, 1969. Was Michael aware that his father had been a vital member of that championship team?
“I had no idea,” Michael says. “I’m sure it was something he was real proud of. I’m sure it was a very important time in his life.”
For some reason, John never revealed the extent of his own running accomplishments to his family. John had finished in 12th place in the two-and-a-half-mile event at New York’s cross country Class B high school championships on the State University of New York at Albany campus and was instrumental in his school capturing the state team title that year.
“It could have been that he didn’t want to have that extra pressure on me,” Michael speculates, “... and that I had to perform at that same level. He was always very against parents who got involved in their kids’ training.”
Today, Michael, 27, continues to run and occasionally enters a local road race in St. Augustine to be a part of the community.
He has kept a greeting card to him from his father, dated June 24, 2008, after a high school race to determine the varsity roster.
"I just wanted you to know how proud I am of you. You have turned into a wonderful young man."
-- John Regan, writing to his son
“I just wanted you to know how proud I am of you,” John wrote. “You have turned into a wonderful young man. Your natural ability far exceeds what I had in my prime. Use what has been given to you wisely.”
Below a June 2019 Facebook entry with juxtaposed photos of him and his father in a military uniform at age 19, Michael wrote: “I’m a lot like you. Not a day goes by where I don’t wish you were here.”
Jim Irish is a freelance writer living near Austin, Texas.