You may no longer care to read about my experiences at the Boston Marathon or in California at the Wildflower triathlon. I have held this post for quite some time while trying to divine some coherent meaning from three consecutive weekends spent traveling – first to Boston, then to Wildflower, then to California again for a memorial for my friend Warren Thornthwaite who died exactly one year before the service. I think that I learned something during these trips but am not sure that this post adequately communicates what I learned or if it will be interesting to others.
Sunday Morning, April 19th
In 2014, Katie and I ran together on the day before the Boston Marathon. On that day, we looked forward to Boston becoming her home. We ran along the Charles River and down Boylston Street. Boston brimmed with possibilities.
In 2015, Katie and I took a similar run. We headed out of the hotel and ran to Boylston. The sun had come up but it was chilly – even crisp – for a late April morning. A cool wind blew in our faces. In the distance, we spotted the marathon finish area, the bleachers, the cops, the people taking selfies, all of the runners in their Boston Marathon jackets. For many we saw, the trip to Boston was a pilgrimage to marathon Mecca. For Katie, Boston represented a different kind of Mecca. Boston was the place for the adult Katie to reverse roles in her relationship with me. She had become the one “in the know,” the one to show me around a big city.
Katie and I squinted looking into the sunshine as we ran. Katie moved quickly; I kept pace. She accelerated a little. I held.
I worked hard, harder than I wanted to work on the day before a race, but I did not want to hold Katie back. So I stayed with her. I tried to suppress the sound of my heavy breathing. I dug in.
“Uh, Dad,” she said, “This is a little fast for me.”
“What?” I replied. “I thought I was running fast to keep up with you.”
“No, I was running fast to keep up with you.”
“No! This is killing me. Let’s both slow down.”
We eased back and stopped talking much. We settled into a rhythm as we looked out over the Charles River. I no longer needed to slow down to run with Katie; I needed to speed up. Katie had grown up and I couldn’t say exactly when that had happened.
Monday Morning, April 20th: Race Day
The sky hung thick and gray but it wasn’t raining. It felt chilly – about 45 degrees. I gave Margy and Katie hugs, then boarded a big yellow school bus. I waved good bye through the foggy window. Once our bus filled, we chugged off in a procession of dozens of school buses snaking through Boston toward Hopkinton.
After we left urban Boston and entered the countryside, I looked up just in time to see the driver turn on the windshield wipers. The line of yellow buses stretched over the crest of a distant hill, immersed in a cloud of gray road spray. The caravan rumbled over the horizon. The sky darkened.
I sat in my running shoes, shorts, two sweatshirts, running hat and a garbage bag. A guy from Canada sat next to me. We talked hockey. The rain intensified. The driver turned the wipers to “high.”
The guy beside me looked about my age. We had plenty of time to talk about our kids, work and running while riding a bus from the marathon finish line to the start.
We looked out at the wet morning. The trees had only begun to sprout tiny leaves. A light green haze hung over the brown and gray woods.
The ride dragged on. How could it be that we would run back through the rain and the cold and the wind to the place we had boarded the bus?
We exited the freeway and entered the small town of Hopkinton. A cop waved us through a busy intersection. A line of buses pulled up to Hopkinton High School and runners unloaded with legs stiff from sitting in seats proportioned for kids. Runners made their way quickly through the light rain. I headed into a huge tent with open sides. It rained harder. We hadn’t room to sit so we all stood. I struck up a conversation.
“So how old are you guys?”
They were both in their 50’s.
One explained that he had gotten into marathon running as a way to train for a charity boxing match. I told him that I had previously thought running marathons and triathlons was about as dumb as it got. Now I stood corrected.
“So how long are we going to keep doing this?” I asked.
The guy who had done the boxing answered.
“I don’t really know,” he said, then thought for a minute before he added, “Well, Father Time is undefeated.”
We all laughed and looked outside. It kept raining. Only another hour and a half to wait.
After about an hour, I looked outside. Porta potties rimmed the field surrounding the tent. I decided that I had time for one last trip before moving to the parking lot, then down the 3/8 mile walk to the start area. The damp wind chilled me as I waited in the light rain. My teeth chattered.
That task accomplished, I walked slowly toward the parking lot, then down the long hill. Special Operations guys had gathered by a police car. They wore baseball caps and looked pretty relaxed for wearing full body armor and carrying machine guns.
By the time I reached the starting area, I shivered with cold and nervousness. Only reluctantly – and at the very last minute – did I give up the garbage bag that had kept me dry. Then I shed the “Boston” sweatshirt that I had bought the day before. I kept my Grinnell College sweatshirt on, thinking that I might need it for the first five miles or so. I was right.
A woman got on the PA system and sang us a song about running. She let us know that we could buy her song on iTunes. The wind picked up and blew straight into our faces. The starting gun sounded. About 7,000 of us in Wave 2 of 4 walked slowly toward the start line about 150 yards ahead. By the time I crossed, we had room to jog slowly, after about 50 yards, we trotted, then in another 50 yards, we ran.
For all that the Boston Marathon is legendary, the first miles of the course passed unremarkable homes in small towns on a quiet country road. A few runners around me talked. Most of us just ran silently. After four miles, I pulled off the course and placed my thoroughly worn out Grinnell sweatshirt on a fire hydrant. I ran on feeling a little sad to have left a favorite behind.
The rain began in earnest. Our feet made soft splashing sounds as they struck the pavement. Even fewer people talked. The rain blew into our faces. A woman beside me ran straight through a long line of puddles and splashed me. My socks soaked the water up from the soles of my feet. The cold crept up my arches and onto the tops of my feet. My socks squished inside my shoes.
Fewer people lined the course in 2015 than the year before. What few signs there were curled in the rain. Lettering streaked. Spectators threw most signs down onto nearby sidewalks or into yards. People along the curb pulled up their hoods and scrunched up their shoulders toward their ears while turning away from the driving rain.
I saw Margy and Katie near the 15 mile mark in Wellesley. They had rigged up garbage bags to cover their raincoats. They said that they were pretty cold but getting by. The downhill started. I had more than ten miles to go. By the bottom of the hill, my thighs hurt like thunder. The rain picked up. I chose to think about other things.
I dwelled on a recording we heard on the preceding Saturday night. Katie helped with a book club at work. The national head of her consulting practice had chosen “The Boys in the Boat,” a book about the 1936 US men’s Olympic rowing team. He found out that Katie was a former college rower and enlisted her help. Katie contacted the author’s publicist to see if he would join the conversation. He did and we heard Katie interact with the author. I was accustomed to Katie as a competitive rower but I had not previously heard her speak in a work setting. Sure, it had been her voice but the manner was unfamiliar; she sounded like an adult.
The Wellesley downhill ended and the uphill brought me back to the task at hand. My body felt warm enough to keep running but I feared needing to walk. And my thighs asked, asked urgently, for me to walk. But if I walked, I would have chilled so quickly that the race would have been over. Strangely, it was the downhills that hurt, that made me want most to walk. Boston’s uphills were hard but it was the downhills that doled out the punishment. The braking action of downhill running was so out of sync with the way that I had been running before Wellesley that the new way in which I was using my thighs to run downhill hurt a whole lot. But in the intensifying rain, I couldn’t stop.
After several more miles and hills, I safely ascended Heartbreak Hill. The course proceeded mostly downhill from there. Hard as I tried to push, I had no closing kick. I did, however, have a closing slog. I labored through Brookline and into Boston. Turn right, turn left and there was the finish line in the distance. It seemed to take almost as long to reach the finish as it had to ride the bus 26 miles in the opposite direction.
I crossed under the banner and looked for a race volunteer to give me a silver foil poncho. My hands felt numb with cold. I needed help. A volunteer draped a poncho over my shoulders and fastened the front. The wind occasionally lifted the poncho ala Marilyn Monroe crossing a subway grate. I tucked the poncho between my elbow and my ribs to keep it in place. My fingers could not yet grip. Ahead of me I saw the backs of a sea of runners all in identical ponchos. It looked like I had entered an alien procession marching toward Boston Common. I wondered if anyone had thought to say, “Take me to your leader.”
I stood in a crowd of stinky, wet, foil-clad runners mixed with equally wet, tired spectators in black raincoats. It took Margy and Katie a long time to sort through the crowd and come to the corner of the Boston Common closest to the finish line. Eventually, I spotted Katie and we made our way over to a cab that Margy alertly hailed. Without the cab, I may not have made it back to the hotel.
The cabbie struck me as not ordinarily inclined to emote but he appeared particularly unenthusiastic about me stiff-leggedly dropping into the passenger seat beside him. I was covered with road grime and, despite the cool temperatures, I must have sweat enough to smell like the wrath of God.
Once back at our hotel, I moved quickly toward the shower. My teeth chattered as I stripped the wet, clinging clothes. Unfortunately, upon stepping into the stream of warm water I learned that I had gotten chafed, chafed a whole lot, chafed in some really bad spots. (Let your imagination run wild. Yeah, there.) While it shouldn’t have surprised me, I yelped in pain. I tried to enjoy the wonderful feeling of warming up but it hurt too much. I finally got warm enough to stop shaking. I exited the shower and toweled off. It felt good to be dry.
11 days later, Friday, May 1st
We looked out at the hills along the 101 south of San Jose. 2015 marked my 13th consecutive annual trip to Wildflower. The sights had become familiar. Usually, the hills were lush and vibrant. This year, the hills were dotted with a few green trees here and there but were mostly a drab tan, tinder dry.
My friends Emmerson Ward, Elizabeth Wright and I had crammed three bikes, all of our bags and a big red cooler into a rented Kia minivan. Emmerson, a four-time Wildflower finisher, had come with me from Minneapolis. Elizabeth was my friend – and my friend Warren’s wife. We picked her up in Menlo Park before hitting the road.
I always enjoyed the conversation during the three-hour trips from the Bay Area to Lake San Antonio near Paso Robles. Emmerson described the horse ranch on which he lived near Afton, Minnesota, the new chicken coop, the pygmy goats and what a wonderful place the ranch was for his kids to grow up (both human and goat). We talked about Elizabeth’s fitness business. We also talked about Warren. Our itinerary had been honed during prior trips to Lake San Antonio with Warren. Warren had died almost exactly a year before and we found reminders of him at various places on our way.
A big part of Wildflower was always the drive and the natural surroundings. We passed through Gilroy, the garlic and cherry capital. Shortly thereafter, irrigated lettuce fields lined 101. Neat rows of grape vines on Old Jolon Road displaced the lettuce. The vineyards gave way to hills too steep to cultivate. A few cattle grazed indifferently on the dusty brown hillsides. The eastern flanks of the hills supported live oaks draped in moss, deep green, almost gray. When the hills yielded to open fields, wild mustard grew thinly, leaving a golden cloud hovering just above the sandy soil and crackly dry grass. In a few places, small, hardy patches of purple lupine lined the road’s shoulder. Warren had taught me to identify the wildflower species but California’s four-year drought had left precious few on which to practice.
At the top of the hill overlooking what had been Lake San Antonio, Elizabeth, Emmerson and I snapped a picture looking out at a vast, dry lake bed. We could see the “bathtub ring” that marked where water had usually lapped against the shore. Instead, we saw only loose sand under what had previously been the Wildflower swim course.
Saturday, May 2
The race organizers made adjustments for the drought. Here was how it would go: The course featured the unusual triathlon format of swim, transition, run, transition, bike, transition, run. For those of you counting, this made Wildflower a four-leg triathlon (a “quadrathlon?”). The course used what was left of Lake San Antonio for the swim. The lake covered only 4% of its past acreage. Ordinarily nearly 80 miles around, for the 2015 race, the lake might have been three miles in circumference.
We arrived at Lake San Antonio early on race morning after driving through fog that drifted through the valleys. I recalled places that Warren and I had stopped in 2004 or 2005. The wildflowers had grown thick in the ditches and across the hills that year. That morning a decade ago, we looked out and saw the same fog rising from the lakes and snaking through the valleys. It had been a perfect morning and we had lost our tough guy cred by stopping to take pictures of flowers. One of the hardest triathlons in the country would have to wait. But in 2015, the wildflowers were few and it had been two years since Warren last visited Lake San Antonio.
Once we arrived at the venue, Elizabeth rode her bike to the transition area for her race, the somewhat shorter mountain bike triathlon. Emmerson and I took a bus and descended into a separate long course transition area. Emmerson and I watched the professional athletes start, then swim across the mirror-flat lake. By the time the pros reached the far end of the 1.2 mile out-and-back swim course they had bisected the lake and nearly reached the far shore.
Emmerson’s swim start time approached. We snapped a photo, I gave him a hug and said that I would see him at the finish. I watched as he disappeared into the group wearing indistinguishable black wetsuits and pink swim caps.
I jogged up the long, steep boat ramp in time to see Elizabeth before my swim. Another quick hug. Then I returned to my gear arrayed on the rough boat ramp concrete. I pulled my wetsuit on slowly. The sun climbed through the sky and warmed me. As I walked slowly toward the start, the professional triathletes ran out of the water, struggling to extricate themselves from their wetsuits. At that moment in particular, I missed Warren. For years he had zipped up my wetsuit along the back, fixed the strap and told me that it was going to be a great day. I had to trust my imagination that he would have said the same thing in 2015.
I swam without distinction other than to have gone so far off course that a kayak paddler yelled at me and pointed me back onto the proper vector. I passed several people. The cool water coursed through my wetsuit and my arms created a steady rhythm to which I synchronized my breath.
The run up the boat ramp from the swim nearly finished me. I breathed so hard by the top that I couldn’t imagine running the rest of the 2.2 miles to the second transition. When the course dipped into the dry lake bed and traversed fine, loose sand, I wondered what more the race organizers could do to slow me down – and this was just the beginning. At the former swim exit near the end of the 2.2 miles, I climbed yet another boat ramp, this one a bit easier than the first. Still, it looked like it would be a very long day.
On the bike, I noticed how much of the countryside had succumbed to the drought. Cattle restlessly wandered parched fields, uninterested in the bone dry grass crumbling beneath their hooves. Even so, pockets of lupine hugged the shoulder of the road, clouds of wild mustard floated over fields. Nature had not given up. Small colonies of resistance held out. I felt hopeful.
As I approached Nasty Grade just after mile 40, I began to scale the 1,000 foot vertical climb over two or three miles. The wind that had cooled me out on the flats died on the climbing side of the hill. Sweat poured from under my helmet and seeped into my eyes. My eyes burned and I blinked in an effort to see.
I finally reached the top. On my left, I saw Lake Nacimiento. While low, that lake had largely survived the drought. A hawk played the breezes blowing up the steep slope. On my right, I looked down to see what used to be Lake San Antonio. There were only sand and dust and first growth weeds that had quickly moved in after the water had moved out. It was on this ridge that I had so many times before felt profoundly grateful. Ordinarily, I would have climbed a tough hill and found myself looking down on two beautiful lakes. But in 2015, one of those lakes was gone.
For reasons I can’t explain, I thought of something that I missed – and I never suspected that I would miss such a thing. Though I missed the healthy Warren most of all, I also missed the sick Warren. I remembered tucking him in for a nap and making sure that the blankets covered his feet. No drafts – it had become an obsession, first at his house, then at the hospital.
I remembered something that had happened just a year before: The nurses arrived to bathe Warren, change the sheets and reposition him. It hurt him. His neck had bent and it was hard for him to turn his head. The nurses were mostly gentle but efficient. They moved quickly. They rolled Warren onto his right side. I saw him grab for the bed rail with his right hand as his left arm flopped uselessly onto the mattress. He looked scared.
“This is not doing a lot for my confidence,” he said softly.
I placed my hand firmly on his left shoulder to stabilize him and stood where he could see me.
“I’ve got you,” I said.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Warren said.
I laughed a little and said that I wasn’t sure that I could do much good.
“I’m not joking,” he said more forcefully, more clearly, “I’m glad you’re here.”
I remembered looking straight ahead out the window. The sun shone brightly on the trees swaying gently outside. I took off my glasses and wiped each eye on the sleeves of my tee shirt and put my glasses back on. Once Warren had been placed on his back again, I walked to the foot of the bed and tucked in the sheets and blankets to avoid any breezy spots. Nary a stray breeze, not if I could help it.
Why this episode occurred to me at that particular place wasn’t clear but I understood how much I missed being useful to Warren – being able to take care of someone who really needed care. That he had appreciated me made it so satisfying – and that much more a loss once he died. Feeling needed is not to be taken for granted and perhaps at this place, the place I had always felt grateful, I also appreciated having been useful.
A few (grueling) miles later, I got off my bike and headed onto the run. The breeze felt good but the sun was hot. The course rounded a long righthand turn. The wind blew from behind me and I felt like I ran in completely still air. Sweat poured into my eyes again and I tried to blink it away.
At four miles, I crested a hill and headed down toward an aid station. I recognized Emmerson from the back. He was walking.
“There he is!” I said.
Emmerson greeted me weakly.
“I may need to take a DNF (“did not finish”),” he said. “I just can’t get my heart rate down, even if I walk.”
I slowed down and asked him to tell me more so that maybe I could help. He urged me to go on. He said that he would stop at the aid station just a few yards ahead and assess the situation. I felt torn but he told me again to keep going. I complied but felt bad.
At about nine miles, I spilled water on my leg and shoe. The shoe instantly attracted the fine dust that billowed with each step and settled into a splatter pattern in brown on the blue nylon mesh of my shoe. Dark brown dust clung to my legs above the socks that began the day white.
From that point, I didn’t think much at all. I put one foot in front of the other and tried not to wish for more than the next step, then the next.
At the finish, I felt entirely spent. Emmerson waved to me from the fence lining the finish chute. Elizabeth spotted me grabbing a Gatorade. I walked over and asked if I could take a few minutes just to sit and gather myself. She said, “Sure.” It took more than a few minutes but, eventually, I stood up and the three of us got our bikes and transition bags. We pushed our bikes up the steep, dusty hill from which we once could have looked back to see shimmering Lake San Antonio, a vista that had been replaced with sand and weeds.
We honored tradition and drove to Salinas. We exited the freeway and headed toward a failed Chevy’s restaurant rebranded as “Hacienda.” I got out of the seat and waddled toward the door, still wearing the long sleeve white shirt I had worn to bike and run. None of us had showered. We hobbled up to the hostess stand.
“Are you here to see the fight?” the hostess asked.
“I don’t want to fight anyone,” I offered.
“No, the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight,” she said. “Twenty dollars.”
“Twenty dollars for what?” I inquired.
“To get in.”
“And what else?” I persisted.
“Nothing; that’s just to get in,” she said.
“I don’t want to see the fight. Is there a place we can sit and not see the fight and not pay $20?”
“No, the whole restaurant is set up for the fight.”
I looked and saw several large screens. Most of the tables had filled with fight fans.
“Are there any other good Mexican restaurants nearby?” I asked.
“Let me ask my manager.”
She returned and referred us to Pancho Villa’s, a place down the road and across the freeway.
We limped back to the car, hungry, tired, sore and stinky.
We drove along the frontage road, crossed the freeway and found a dubious looking restaurant with a hand painted sign. The building looked as though it had been built in the 70’s to house a fast food restaurant that probably didn’t make it. In fact, it occurred to me that succeeding occupants had not made a go of it there either.
We walked in and saw diners at only two tables. Two guys straight out of “Breaking Bad” sat in the corner. I assumed that they had gotten there in the monster pickup truck parked near the door. A Mexican family sat in an alcove away from the Breaking Bad guys. Our waitress appeared to be the owner. She gave us menus.
The “Big Burrito” had been repriced. A sticker with a handwritten “$7.99” obscured the original price. I opted for fajitas and a big lemonade, noting that I had not urinated for nearly 12 hours. Not a great sign.
The owner brought us a basket of chips and two dishes of salsa. I snagged a chip. Fantastic. The fajitas were wonderful, too, and Emmerson assured us that the Big Burrito was worth every penny of the $7.99.
So, just 11 days after a complete soaking during the Boston Marathon, there I was in the middle of the California drought. Nothing had really gone as I had planned. The things to which I had looked forward were not all that great. It would be hard to call the wet, cold Boston Marathon all that much fun. But I had really enjoyed listening to the recording of Katie participate in a book club discussion. After the soaking suffered in Boston, I looked forward to running on a warm, sunny day in California. Even that had not quite gone to plan. It was hot – way too hot. Both Emmerson and I had suffered. Meanwhile, who would have expected me to feel grateful for a memory of time I had spent with Warren in the hospital when he was so terribly sick? Who would have expected to love a meal at a restaurant named “Pancho Villa’s?”
That things often don’t go as planned is hardly newsworthy. All of us know that. What I learned on my trips was that I found some of my greatest satisfactions in relatively ordinary and unexpected places. I even learned that one of my most gratifying memories of Warren arose from a very, very sad time. Having a role caring for someone who appreciated me was deeply fulfilling. Meanwhile, seeing my efforts to raise Katie pay off was even more satisfying. On that one, I got to skip the sad part and enjoy only the good.
Warren’s death affected me. It was a warning. My name was on a list and it was moving toward the top. It might not matter if I worked out or ate all of the right foods or took all of the right vitamins. His death represented a certain futility. Was there much benefit in trying to do all of the right things?
Warren’s death also tested what it meant to get older. Was aging simply a process of reaching a peak and thereafter giving up life’s pleasures one by one? As time passes, friends and family members die, physical skills erode. When Warren died, I didn’t expect to return to Wildflower. I didn’t expect a lot of things to ever quite be as fun again as they once were. Once someone as important as Warren was gone, was I consigned to a life not quite as good as before? Was that the inevitable consequence of growing older? Was aging just a process of building a life full of friends, family and possibilities, then watching them slowly fade away?
I decided not. I had had a great time in Boston and California. Was it the same as it had been during prior years? No, a lot had changed – and I had suffered a significant loss. But if I stopped for only a few moments and tallied my losses versus my blessings, things had come out differently than I might have expected. Things were still good and many things were even better.
Maybe the lesson was to spend time with great people like Margy, Katie, Emmerson and Elizabeth. Good things happen with great people. Maybe I felt grateful because I knew that I had spent all of the time I could with Warren and that we both had appreciated it.
Maybe the lesson was that if only I did not close myself to possibility, to the possibility that life can offer great things in unexpected places at unexpected times, things could be just as much fun as ever. Sure, Warren was gone, gone forever, and I would always miss him. There was no one to replace him and probably never would be. But Warren would not willingly consign us to a future never quite as good as it was when he was alive. Warren would have wanted us to have fun and to be open to possibility.
In the end, though, I was certain of only one thing: Warren would have gotten the Big Burrito and eaten every last bite. I thought of him as we pushed our plates away and watched the sun sink slowly over traffic flowing north on US 101.
Saturday, May 9th: The First Anniversary of Warren’s Death
Katie, Margy and I returned to California to remember Warren at Asilomar in Pacific Grove. About 45 friends and family members joined us. We had a Quaker-style memorial service during which many of us shared memories of time with Warren. I spent most of the service looking down at a picture I had taken of Warren about ten years ago. I propped the picture against the leg of the chair in front of me. The memorial service was unexpectedly hard but offered one last nice surprise. As I sat looking down, Katie stood up. She took just a few minutes to remember that Warren’s memory had inspired her and her rowing teammates on the day after Warren died. She said it beautifully.
Once the service ended, we walked to the beach. To remember Warren, all of us grabbed a shell or rock and threw it into the ocean. My rock skipped once, then knifed into a wave. Our rocks and shells disappeared and we were left to watch waves roll up onto the shore, one after another after another.
As Warren was not physically in attendance, it fell to Katie to make fun of me. Warren would have been proud.