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2002: The Inaugural Ironman Wisconsin

It was a stretch of road somewhere in the middle of Wisconsin. A ditch deep with yellowing weeds flowed off the interstate shoulder, giving way to a stream shrouded in trees. The weather felt perfect for a late summer day – about 70 and clear. My bike rattled against the cooler in the back of the car. Right there, right on that nameless prairie in Wisconsin, I told Warren that I knew that I could do it. Warren agreed.

I pass that place on I-90 practically every year and remember where I committed to someone else that I would finish an Ironman. At that place, in that moment on the Friday afternoon before my first Ironman Wisconsin, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I decided to ignore my own ignorance. Thinking that I could do something and committing to someone else are two different things. But I committed. I’m glad I did.

That first year at Ironman Wisconsin, everything felt new. When Warren, Dave Mason and I took an afternoon practice swim, Warren had to borrow a swimsuit from Dave who, characteristically, brought a tie-dyed Speedo as a spare. We swam into the brisk water, looking back at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace rise out of the lake’s western shoreline, majestic, modern, gleaming. Once back on land, we posed for a photo.

21 Warren Dave and Scott in their sexy suits

I think that Dave wore a swimsuit under the towel but I don’t really want to know.

Dave and I took a bike ride onto the University of Wisconsin campus. We watched the marching band practice for the next day’s performance at the Badgers football game.

After collecting Margy and Katie at the airport, then eating dinner, we walked to the university’s creamery on campus. Did you hear that Wisconsin is known for its dairy products?

On Saturday morning, Margy, Katie and I strolled around the Farmers Market on Capitol Square to admire the fruits, vegetables and flowers harvested as summer began to give way to fall. We strolled down State Street to take in the quirky gift shops and the Birkenstock store where our ten-year-old daughter wanted to get shoes for a new school year.

My mom and sister, Lynn, joined us that afternoon. Their commitment: to wake early the next day, then race around the Wisconsin countryside and campus while I swam, biked and ran for just a bit more than 12 hours. Katie wore an Ironman “M-dot” logo painted on her cheek.

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Mom and Lynn did not commit to staying awake, only to cheer when called upon.

During that first Ironman, in the thrash of an 1,800 person mass swim start, I survived a panic attack and managed to complete the 2.4 mile early morning dip in the lake. I pedaled my bike 112 miles around the ripening corn fields near Mount Horeb and Cross Plains, then back into Madison.  Apartments lined the course where college guys lugged TV’s and coolers onto porches to keep track of the Packers and the runners, more the former than the latter. People ate outside at restaurants and bars along State Street. They spared no enthusiasm for our efforts or their beer.

The best part came at the east end of Capitol Square when Katie entered the course about 200 yards from the finish line. She grasped my hand and took off. I needed to slow her down. We crossed the finish line and Mike Reilly said something that he would repeat to me 20 more times including last Sunday evening.

“Scott Ross, you’re an Ironman.”

Until you hear those words for yourself, spoken to you, you can’t know how that feels.

Scott and Katie at Finish IMW 2002

With Katie, just after 7:00 p.m., September 15, 2002. 

Dave Mason and I returned to work the following Tuesday, but only nominally. I’d dial Dave’s office.

“You able to work?”

“No. You?”

“No. Want to go out and get ice cream?”

“I’ll be right over.”

And so it went for at least a week, both of us returning, in some portion, and only gradually, to the real world outside Madison and Ironman.

Groundhog Day

Maybe you remember the scene from Groundhog Day. Bill Murray and Andie McDowell were building a snowman in Punxsutawney’s town square. Bill Murray began to talk about how much he wanted kids so that he could woo Andie McDowell. A group of boys lobbed snowballs at them to begin a snowball fight. Bill Murray wisecracked while tossing snowballs. Andie McDowell laughed and joined in. It’s charming, a perfect convergence of circumstances on a romantic night. Uncharacteristically, Andie McDowell found Bill Murray attractive. But every time Bill Murray woke up to repeat the endless loop of a day that had become his life, the snowball fight felt forced and Andie McDowell slapped him when he tried to rekindle the magic that worked out just one time.

2019: The 17th Ironman Wisconsin

I arrived in Madison on a cool, cloudy early Friday afternoon. I raced to claim a parking spot in the hotel adjacent to Monona Terrace, the convention center hosting Ironman Wisconsin, serving as the transition area and site of the expo where sponsors sold endless supplies of tee shirts, visors, shoes and hydration products. I darted into the expo to buy a book, Finding My Voice by Mike Reilly, the man who had sung out my name and said “You’re an Ironman” 20 times. Then I stood on line waiting for him to sign the book. When my turn came, I shook his hand and asked if he would make out the inscription to Scott, Margy and Katie because Ironman is a team sport. I stammered out something to the effect that he had been there for some really important, really happy times for me. I said that my daughter and I had run Ironman Wisconsin together two years ago. Then I said that he was the best. He said thanks and we posed for a picture.

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Mike appreciated my finisher’s tee shirt from the inaugural Ironman Wisconsin. Mike served as the principal announcer for his 189th Ironman at Madison on September 8, 2019.

Later that afternoon, Margy and I walked down State Street. We visited some of the quirky gift shops that had been there since our first trip in 2002. The street retained its fundamental charisma but the Birkenstock store closed years ago, the Gap store more recently, perhaps both victims of Amazon and the increasingly evident homeless population.

Katie would not join us because she was off vacationing with her graduate school friends. Lynn wouldn’t return to Madison this year, either, with two kids of her own to raise. Mom took a year off after coming with us to Kona in 2018. Dave Mason wished me well by phone as he recuperated from having major knee surgery a month ago. And, of course, Warren had been gone for more than five years after demonstrating real endurance while living with, and dying from, a brain tumor.

On Saturday morning, I woke up in time for a chilly ride down an empty State Street, beside a silent band practice field and out to the Frank Lloyd Wright Unitarian Temple. Upon returning to our hotel, my training for Ironman Wisconsin 2019 ended. Margy and I opted for free breakfast in the hotel, skipping Marigold Kitchen, the fabulous breakfast place that made such a strong impression on us the first year. Katie called from the other side of the world on Facetime to let us know that she was having a wonderful vacation and to wish us luck the following day.

After signing off with Katie, Margy and I strolled around the Farmers Market to buy some gorgeous beets and onions, not knowing whether to eat them or put them on display.

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These people (not us) opted for the flowers at the Farmers Market.

After lunch, I took my bike to the far end of transition where I took a slot among those few athletes my age or older.

Back in the hotel room, we holed up. I rested and Margy worked on the spreadsheet that would guide her to viewing points on the bike and run courses. All told, she spent more than five hours revising her spreadsheet to maximize viewing opportunities on courses changed since our last Ironman Wisconsin. It was hard to tell who felt more nervous, Margy or me. I have always felt anxious before an Ironman but maybe Margy suffered more before IMW 2019 because this would be the first time she had served both as driver and navigator without anyone along to help.

Sunday: Race Day

Surprisingly, I slept well the night before an Ironman. I woke at 4:30 and commenced the necessary preparations almost without thinking: Brush teeth, shave, drink first Ensure, dress in race top and shorts, fill bike and run special needs (food and drink) bags, pull on Bowdoin sweatshirt, throw a Clif bar into my pocket, head out to drop off special needs bags and go to body marking.

On the street outside our hotel, the air felt cool and dense with a hushed energy suffusing the pre-dawn darkness. Some people talked, but quietly. Most passed one another as silently as shadows crowding the sidewalk. I deposited my special needs bags in the places marked “2400 to 2500+”  for the oldest participants.

I walked to the body marking area where a man waved his wide Marks-A-Lot felt-tipped pen overhead.

“Kona qualifying marker here!”

As he wrote “2460” on my bicep and forearm, he guaranteed me a slot in the World Championships. I wasn’t sure it worked that way but no sense arguing if he knew what he was doing.

I returned to our hotel room to spend an agonizing 40 minutes. Having to sit and wait without really having anything to do as the sun rose ever so slowly amplified my anxiety. Margy continued to consult maps and update her spreadsheet. I finally applied plenty of Body Glide and wrestled my way into my wetsuit. Time to leave. I asked Margy to zip me in. Time to go regardless of whether either of us felt ready.

At Monona Terrace, we jammed into a stairwell, inching down five flights to lakeshore level. Nervous men and women in wetsuits stepped slowly alongside equally nervous family members carrying signs saying “Go Heather” or “Jake” or “Nathan” or any of the names of around 2,000 people who would soon splash away from shore.

Margy walked me to a place beyond which only athletes could go. Quick hug and I disappeared into a tangle of indistinguishable human forms clad in black neoprene wetsuits and neon swim caps. I seeded myself among the “1:11:00 to 1:20:00” projected finish time swimmers. I thought of lemmings and cliffs. Mike Reilly stood among us as we neared the water. Nobody spoke except for Mike whose upbeat morning patter I have never felt much like trying. My stomach twisted. My mind spun, helplessly nervous. I patted Mike’s shoulder as I passed, saying once again, “You’re the best.”

About ten feet from the water’s edge, steel crowd barricades sorted us into five lanes. A mechanical beep counted down with four of the same tones, then one louder, higher-pitched sound. A volunteer standing right at water’s edge held up her hand, progressively folding her fingers toward her palm. Five fingers, four, three, two, one and then she waved five swimmers at a time into the choppy, gray-green water. Five swimmers every five seconds.

I had no more time to feel nervous. The high tone sounded, the woman waved and I plunged into the lake, watching the guy less than a foot to my left match my stroke. Paddle boarders lined the first few hundred yards to look for swimmers in trouble. Inflated resting spots affectionately called “lily pads” dotted the first leg of the course. Swimmers overcome with anxiety grabbed one of those pads or hoisted themselves onto a paddle board to recapture their breath.

When the first cool water splashed my face, I had gasped. It took time for my breathing to stabilize and become regular, for my stroke to lengthen and strengthen. The waves washed over me from behind. Sea gulls swooped overhead. Yellow triangular buoys showed the way, occasionally obscured by the height of the waves. The sound of the crowd and the music and Mike Reilly’s voice receded. Soon, I could only hear the splash of each of my hands entering the water with each stroke and the water whooshing over my ears. (I’m not that fast so the “whoosh” wasn’t all that loud.)

At 1,100 meters, we turned and the waves rolled over me from left to right. I tried to adjust my stroke to coincide with the wave motion but never quite got it right. In only 300 more meters, we turned again, straight into the wind. Stroke rhythm coordinated with wave action became almost impossible. I felt myself rise and fall over the crests moving toward me, my leading hand entering early one stroke, late another. This continued for the entirety of the longest leg of the race. I took comfort from the sights on the shore that I had passed 15 times before – cars driving on John Nolan Drive, Monona Terrace, the power plant. Each of these landmarks passed ever so slowly.

After two more left turns, the wind began to carry me back toward the place I had entered the water. With increasing frequency, my hands plunged into seaweed in shallower water. I could hear music when I turned my head to breathe and, occasionally, I heard Mike Reilly urging us back to shore.

My hand touched bottom on the slippery green concrete boat ramp. A line of volunteers stretched into the water. I stood up, shaky, off balance. I grabbed a volunteer’s arm. She grabbed me back and pulled me toward shore. Standing up so quickly after having swum in a horizontal position for more than an hour, I felt dizzy and disoriented. Everyone yelled but with two ears full of water, I couldn’t tell what anyone said. The music blared. People pointed. I turned left, beginning to trot on the wet pavement, then flopped down on my back so that two volunteers could peel off my wetsuit. We used to call these people “strippers” but I guess that the world has moved on….

Once back on my feet, if I wasn’t yet dizzy enough, I began to run hard up a helical drive toward the fifth floor of the Monona Terrace parking lot. Cheering fans left a fairly narrow path up the helix. Lots of ringing cowbells.

The rest of the day offered less sensory assault. I mounted my bike in a windbreaker, necessary for me to stay warm on a windy, cloudy 55 degree day. Nearing Verona, about 12 miles from Madison, a guy flew by me like I was standing still. I noted the number “60” on his calf, letting me know that he was in my age group. Maybe the same guy who body marked me marked him, too. My Kona slot went up the road and disappeared. He wouldn’t come back. As I lowered my head to focus on pedaling, my jacket snapped and flapped as I traversed roads lined by ripening cornfields, bordering cattle feedlots and steep, wooded hills.

I pulled off my windbreaker at mile 40. Margy had gotten her rhythm and spotted me frequently during the bike. The sky remained cloudy. I worked hard on the bike but never really developed a sweat, even while inching up the feared Stagecoach Hill. Guys with beards dressed in tight skirts and wearing high top basketball shoes urged us on, not that there is anything wrong with that.

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State Street with the Capitol in the background.

By the time I entered the run course, I knew that I couldn’t contend for a podium finish and while that disappointed me, I still threw down my best effort. It began to rain lightly. I pressed through the first lap under a heavy sky. On the second lap of the run, I began to wonder why I wanted to kill myself with effort if I had no chance of making the podium. As the last 13 miles dragged on, the gray sky gave way to deepening night. I increasingly gave myself the opportunity to walk through water stops. Then I offered myself permission to walk up the steepest portions of slopes like Observatory Hill. And each time I began to run following a walk, my legs ached, my stride shortened, my pace sagged.

By the time I hit 20 miles, I had given up on Ironman for good. I told myself that I had given Ironman my all. I had been lucky. I had qualified for Kona once, gotten selected once. I had run good races and bad. This wasn’t a good race but there was no sense scolding myself. There was also no sense doing this to myself ever again.

At mile 25, I promised myself I would run the last 1.2 miles. But I passed the sign at 25 while still walking. After 50 meters or so, I struggled to trot. My legs loosened. My breathing began to flow. I started to pass people. Sharp left turn, sharp right. State Street. The capitol building rose into the inky black night sky, shimmering white marble towering over the street below. Shallow uphill. More people lined the course urging me on.

“Almost there!”

“You’ve got this!”

Left turn onto Capitol Square. I smiled. I refused something to drink at the last water stop.

Right turn onto a steeper portion of the course. Flat part on the top. Sharper right. Faster, faster. Sweeping left. Shallow downhill.

With the capitol behind me, I faced blinding lights at the finish line just 200 meters ahead. I glanced at the spot where Katie used to join me so many years before, smiled, then picked up speed from a happy memory.

As he announced my name and home town, Mike Reilly noted that I was a “21-timer,” meaning that this would be my 21st Ironman finish. Then Mike repeated himself to me for the 21st time, saying three words that have never failed to thrill.

“You’re an Ironman!”

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A Life of Continuous Improvement – Not!

I usually tell myself the story of my life using broader themes drawn out over periods of time. For instance, I think about what my life was like as an elementary school student in Harlan, Iowa, or how it felt to live in San Pedro, California, after I graduated from business school and got married. Sure, I remember a few particular days or incidents but for the most part, I average out the experience, connecting individual days to create an impression of a longer period of time. As a practical matter, that’s the only way I can make sense of all of those days.

The way I recall life and live life differ. I live life by waking up in the morning, one morning at a time. I live that day, then I go to sleep. I wake up the next day to repeat a lot of what I did the day before. By the time I woke up on September 8, 2019, to run Ironman Wisconsin, I had woken up to a new day exactly 22,250 times before. With all of that repetition, all of that practice, you’d think that I would have gotten pretty good at living a day.

I suppose that I should adopt a more optimistic attitude. I should believe that I can live my life with continuous improvement. Given the chances that I have received to repeat something over and over again, including Ironman, I should get better and better at it.  Like each day, I should learn lessons from each Ironman, then apply those lessons to the next. Just take the best from my good race days and implement the improvements. Simple. Shouldn’t that make all future race days better? That’s not how it has worked for me.

Think about the snowball fight in Groundhog Day. The first time is magic. Everything comes together. It’s euphoria. That describes my first Ironman during that beautiful weekend in September 2002. The satisfaction I experienced when Mike Reilly called me an Ironman 17 years ago has kept me coming back all of these years. I want to feel that way again, if only for a day – even a moment. Call it an addiction, and like all addictions, in my case, probably poorly regulated and implemented.

Why can’t I recreate euphoria with each succeeding race? For the most part, Madison and Ironman remain the same. But some days, it’s beastly hot. Other days, it rains. Still other days, the wind blows hard. Once vital with quirky charm, State Street has lost a little of its luster with the passing years. Katie’s no longer a little kid, becoming someone almost unrecognizable from the girl who wore the Ironman decal on her cheek. The girl who grabbed my hand at the finish is a woman now, not a kid. (Dave Mason’s refusal to run an Ironman on a leg surgically repaired five weeks ago is inexcusable but beyond the scope of this blog.) Warren is gone but I have lived up to my word to him 21 times. I’m proud of that. And Margy is always there. So it’s a mix. Circumstances change. Sometimes people can join me. Sometimes they can’t. Who is there – wherever “there” is – makes a difference.

Shockingly, as someone who has run 21 Ironmans and 90 marathons, I don’t easily embrace change though I crave improvement. Think about it: that doesn’t work. We live our lives one day at a time, often with little apparent changing around us from day to day. So why is it that some days feel so wonderful and others so hard? Shouldn’t we have enough practice from repeating each 24-hour day that we figure it out and just make things better and better with each repetition?

In 2011, I had run 12 Ironmans with one goal: qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. But by the time I stepped into the chilly water of Lake Monona, I had pretty much given up hope. I had tried so many times and come close but never qualified. I had given up, hoping to find other satisfactions in the pursuit. Having let go of the dream, my swim went pretty well. On the bike, I rode like someone else, someone better, for no reason I could imagine. Then I set my jaw and ran it down, much to my surprise. So even in a life dominated by repetition of fruitless trial and error, sometimes there is happy surprise, ecstasy. And there really isn’t much to explain that. So while I am not so sure about continuous improvement, I firmly believe in serendipity and happy chance.

Andie McDowell felt attracted to Bill Murray after the snowball fight exactly once. Every succeeding time, she slapped him even though Bill Murray had an infinite number of chances to get it right. So Ironman Wisconsin this year kind of slapped me, too, but I’m not worrying about it very much. Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But what would you be if you didn’t try? You have to try. Who knows? Maybe next time that guy’s felt tip pen will work.

Postscript

Unlike most people, Margy actually does live a life of continuous improvement. Despite having no companions to help her navigate the course, Margy saw me an all-time record 50 times at Ironman Wisconsin 2019. The Dane County Sheriff’s Department and Madison City Police were not contacted for comment. Thanks, Marg.

For Mom, Ann, Lynn, Katie, Marcus, Dave and Warren, even still.

For Matt: 9/29/19. Go!

For Griffin: On to Louisville.

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Lemon ricotta buckwheat pancakes, Marigold Kitchen, September 9, 2019. Some things make it all worthwhile. Maybe Ironman isn’t that bad after all. 

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Maybe you are never alone in New York City, not even at 5:05 a.m. on an early November Sunday morning. I walked south on Madison Avenue from 60th toward the library at 42nd and 5th. A man in filthy clothes sorted through a trash bin near a lamppost. I gave him just a little bit of extra room as I passed. No one else was in sight.

Stores lining Madison offered displays featuring pictures of beautiful women and handsome men dressed impeccably, sparklingly jeweled. I wore running shoes, shorts, and a hooded poncho that I had saved from the 2018 Boston Marathon. Underneath the poncho, I wore a billed running hat, sunglasses and a trash bag with a hole cut in the top for my head. It was 42 degrees – chilly – and I was glad that I had sent Margy back to our friend Ruth’s apartment rather than to walk me to the New York Public Library where buses would take runners to the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge for the start of the New York City Marathon.

The dark street felt peaceful, intimate – and a little creepy. There were just two of us sharing Madison Avenue in Midtown: the man digging through the trash barrel and me. I didn’t feel like I belonged but if I did, was I part of the glamor gang featured in the windows or kin of the guy sifting through the trash barrel? I decided to stop thinking about it because any reasonable person looking at me in my poncho, trash bag, running hat, sunglasses and shorts would have pointed me in the direction of “my friend” digging in the trash.

At about 53rd, I began to see a few people who wore old sweatshirts and cheap rain suits that most intended to throw away at the runners’ village in Fort Wadsworth before we started the race. By the time I reached 42nd, the trickle of people just a few blocks north had become a deluge. Long lines of runners – thousands and thousands of runners – quietly snaked through paths formed behind barricades on the north and west sides of the library. Buses on the east side of the library stretched a full block to the south and three or four blocks to the north, forming two solid rows. Before boarding the buses, cops picked through runners’ bags using their flashlights. Volunteers asked us to show our race numbers. Once runners cleared security, other volunteers waved us onto buses. Once loaded, buses left the library almost simultaneously, forming a stream of aluminum hulks lumbering down the bumpy street. Meanwhile, buses behind us filled in the formation to bring yet more thousands of runners to the start.

We drove by warehouses and workshops lining New York Harbor as the sun rose orange in a clear blue sky. I chatted with a woman from Houston, a guy from Indianapolis and another guy from Houston. From Midtown Manhattan, it took almost exactly an hour to reach the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. From the start of the bridge, it took almost exactly an hour to reach the other end. It felt good to sit in a padded seat on a heated bus instead of damp ground, waiting outside on a chilly morning.

The sun continued into the sky as our bus inched across the bridge to the unloading point. We exited the buses and went through another security scan. Runners outnumbered police officers, but not by much. NYPD boats patrolled the harbor. NYPD helicopters circled overhead. A small plane pulled a Geico Insurance banner, something that I thought probably did not amuse the police.

In the runners’ village inside Fort Wadsworth, I suffered the usual long lines awaiting the privilege of peeing in a porta potty before the volunteers rounded us up and pointed us toward the starting line. We walked across sparse grass covered with straw to keep protect the ground from turning too sloppy and muddy.

The New York City Marathon started in four waves and I was in the first, that wave taking off at 9:50 a.m., nearly five hours after I had begun my walk to the bus. Each wave featured three groups: green, orange and blue. Our orange group ran on the south lanes of the Verrazano Bridge’s upper deck. My portion of the orange group lined up near the back of the first wave. The road to the bridge curved left from where I stood so I couldn’t see the starting line, nor could I see any of the thousands of runners assembled to run on the north lanes of the upper deck or those gathered to run on the lower deck.

I usually don’t pay close attention to the National Anthem but this time, I did. The woman sang the song without flourish but with power and purity that cut through the crisp morning air. The breeze from New York Harbor made the flags – not just the US flag, but many flags – flutter and buzz horizontally off their masts. Just as I replaced my hat, three NYPD helicopters flew in tight formation only a couple of hundred feet over more than 12,000 runners in Wave 1. A total of 40,000 more would start in the subsequent three waves. We were about to run 26.2 miles in one of the world’s greatest cities. At 60 years old, I was about to run a marathon with the help of 12,000 volunteers under the watchful eye of thousands of police (NYPD did not specify the exact size of the force assigned to this year’s marathon) and with the encouragement of 2.5 million spectators. Tears welled up in my eyes. Running a marathon is physical, partly, but it is also emotional and this setting moved me – the anthem, the sunshine, the runners packed around me, New York City, the fly over. I thought, “What makes me so lucky to be standing here, right here?”

A cannon – a very big cannon – fired. It startled and scared me. I felt the concussion in my chest. The runners cheered. Then, all around me, nothing happened. Nothing. For at least 30 seconds, we stood still. Then we began to walk, albeit very slowly.

“Pace seems tolerable to me,” I said to a guy walking beside me.

He didn’t laugh – or even smile. I decided that he might not speak English, though he could have been from Minnesota and just not found me the least bit funny. My family could empathize. Runners wore “Pura Vida” visors (Costa Rica), green tee shirts with the Brazilian flag, and many of the French had painted red, white and blue flags on their faces. The guy standing next to me when the cannon fired came from Amsterdam. Our ribbon of humanity, a United Nations in running shoes, began to jog, then to run as we crossed the starting line.

Scaling the approach to the bridge, then getting to the top of the bridge, constituted a very big hill, one a whole lot less noticeable in a car. I huffed and puffed and felt very much my age as younger runners jumped on top of a median wall separating the lanes. They snapped pictures with their cell phones, then scampered ahead of me. It felt like I was among the few runners who had left my cell phone behind for the race.

Near the top of the bridge, I looked out onto Manhattan, the skyline pasted into a robin’s egg blue sky, wind pushing waves into undulating patterns traced on the harbor’s ocean surface.

From that point, my impressions became scattered, fractal. In Brooklyn on Fourth Avenue, loud bands dotted the sidewalk in front of convenience stores and churches. A woman who had recently run the Western States 100 and I tried to figure out mile splits she needed to run a 3:25:00. A horn band playing at a sharp corner entering Greenpoint almost made me want to stop to listen.

On Lafayette, the street narrowed as we climbed the hill. The crowd got louder and closer. I saw Margy and Ruth. I thought that everyone who has run the NYC Marathon and come up Lafayette just has to love New York. Has to.

We passed through a quiet Jewish neighborhood in Williamsburg where the men wore broad-brimmed black hats, long beards and sideburns. Women wore conservative black dresses. I noticed how quiet the street felt and recalled that the NYC Marathon purposely omitted bands or aid stations in the neighborhood. Just not their thing. I felt really bad about the recent shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg but I hadn’t really known what to do about that before the race and didn’t know what to do at that moment, either. I just put one foot in front of the other and, metaphorically, thought that might make sense.

I saw Margy and Ruth again after the 14 mile marker.

Running up the Queensboro Bridge nearing the 15 mile mark felt really hard. Running down the bridge felt harder. My thighs had become stiff and with each step on the downhill, my thighs hurt a whole lot. Despite how much I hurt, I felt happy to be there. Gone were the days when I fretted about my pace, though I had done a bit of math on the bridge and knew that I was running well, at least for a guy in his seventh decade. Unlike years and marathons gone by, I didn’t worry about anyone who passed me. I didn’t worry if it was a guy in my age group or whether he looked like a good runner or a slug. If a woman passed me – and many did – I found myself thinking, “Good for her!” I wanted to be where I was, doing what I was doing. I didn’t want to be done. I wanted to be present with the struggle. How many more NYC Marathons would I run? Enjoy this one, every mile, every step.

Not many spectators came out in the Bronx. It was pretty quiet. We passed warehouses, gas stations and a few liquor stores. It felt a little perfunctory, like we were just there to check off a box noting that we had run in that borough.

In Harlem, I ran next to a local runner. A friend of his – clearly not himself a runner – ran out onto the course and screamed encouragement, gasping for air, running at full speed, weaving in and out of the other racers.

Fifth Avenue heading to Central Park traced a long – seemingly endless – uphill. I have ridden in a cab up that street, though, and it didn’t seem so bad from inside a car as it did on foot. While I stayed present with the struggle, I admit to being OK with getting this thing over with.

23, 24…finally 25. I had made it to the south end of the park but the run up the shallow slope of Central Park South let me know that Father Time had not given me a day pass to run the race. I chugged up the street with people cheering loudly, a band playing in the distance. The course would turn into Central Park at the stoplight, I thought. Once I got to the stoplight, I could see that I was only halfway up the hill.

I had wanted to re-qualify to run the NYC Marathon in 2019 but I had not wanted to put pressure on myself so I didn’t know the time standard. I knew that I was close to making it – and close to missing the cut off – but how close, I couldn’t say. I ran hard but hardly fast. Columbus Circle, band playing, tricky curb to step over getting into the park. The course bent left. Where was the finish? I couldn’t even hear it. I had passed the “800 meters to finish” mark what seemed like 1,500 meters back.

The finish line came into view. A seemingly endless stream of humanity poured across the line with me. I wobbled a little bit and walked about 100 meters to get a “heat sheet,” a mylar sheet used to keep us warm. The sun penetrated the tree canopy here and there. I felt warm at first under the heat sheet but soon cooled down. I walked another few hundred meters to get a “recovery bag,” a drawstring backpack made of mesh and clear plastic holding Gatorade, an apple, a recovery drink, a bottle of water and pretzels. A few hundred more yards and giddy volunteers handed us medals. Finishers packed the shady street like sardines. Without much remaining ability to move quickly, whether left or right, forward or back, we all bumped into one another staggering around like some sort of 16mm film we would have watched in junior high science class to illustrate Brownian motion. We kept walking. Runners getting post-race ponchos went left. A volunteer wrapped me in a blue poncho. The fleece inside felt good, though I needed help securing the velcro closures in front to keep the breeze from blowing in.

Suddenly, I found myself out on Central Park West. Barricades closed the street to both vehicles and spectators. No bands played, only a few volunteers offered congratulations to finishers moving unsteadily in their post-race waddle. I could see down the street all the way to Columbus Circle, nearly 30 blocks away. The sun shone brightly but it felt almost as peaceful and quiet as it had felt at 5:05 that morning. The runners all looked tired and only a few spoke, some on their cell phones, presumably trying to find their way to family and friends.

Back in 1988, I ran a marathon 53 minutes faster than I did in 2018. As a 29-year-old, I thought that I would run even faster in the future. I never did. During most of the intervening marathons, I regretted every minute added to my finish time, every runner who passed me. Once I started a race, I couldn’t wait to finish – and to finish fast. In 2018, I no longer really wanted to finish races but rather feared being finished. What would I do, who would I be, if I’m not running a marathon or an Ironman or up early in the morning to train?

It used to be that when a marathon didn’t go quite as I had hoped, I scolded myself. I’ve stopped that. I have chosen – rightfully, I believe – to emphasize the good fortune in being able to wake up in the morning, run a marathon (or an Ironman) and eat pizza afterward.

Looking back on the 2018 season, it ended well but offered its share of close calls and dark moments. I have wondered what would have happened to me if the downpour that doused Katie and me in front of Boston College during the Boston Marathon had lasted just a little longer or if the temperature had been just a few degrees cooler. I felt so cold that I don’t know that I could have finished – or even staggered to an aid station. I still don’t like to think about Katie’s collapse at a marathon near Portland on July 4th, though I am happy with her complete recovery. I think about making it to sea level in the Natural Energy Lab during the Ironman World Championship as the sun sank into the Pacific, dusk enclosed the sky, heat swallowed me whole, made me feel very alone and made me wonder whether running, walking or stopping made any difference. All three options seemed pretty much the same but I chose to keep running into the dark. So the New York City Marathon was a nice way to end the season – not too hot, not too cold, and no doubt that I would make it to the finish line just one more time.

New York showed me contrasts and contradictions. I felt very alone on an extremely prosperous street in an enormous city. I felt connected – even without my cell phone – comfortable and grateful among 52,000 runners, 12,000 volunteers, 2.5 million spectators and countless cops. I briefly made friends with a guy from Amsterdam and a woman from Long Beach, each of us ultimately finding our own way to Central Park. I learned more about struggling without regret, recognizing that there is only “this,” the moment in which I found myself. If I didn’t struggle, if I don’t struggle, would I prefer the alternative? I think not.

Just as I promised myself, I put one foot in front of the other to close out my sixth decade and enter my seventh. I made it to the end of one more season and to a New York Islanders hockey game the day after the race. I bought a piece of Junior’s cheesecake between the second and third periods. For the record, I didn’t feel like quitting before I finished this piece of cheesecake, not once – and it wasn’t even a struggle.

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Special thanks to Ruth Levin for hosting our NYC visit, Laurie Eustis for actually reading my blog despite knowing a lot of better stuff out there to read, and, of course, to Margy, who makes all of this possible. To Katie, for lending me a shoulder to lean on when getting back to the hotel in Boston after the 2018 marathon and for getting up once she fell down near Portland. Falling down is not so important. Getting up, is.

 

 

 

 

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018, Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

The volunteer snapped the sparkly red band onto my right wrist.

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“How do you feel,” she asked.

“Overwhelmed,” I said before my eyes filled with tears.

She stood up and reached over the table to give me a hug. Thus began my Ironman World Championship experience.

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Just before my hug.

If a triathlete dreams, Kona always plays a part. An amateur (also known as an “age group triathlete”) dreams of qualifying for Kona. Every triathlete dreams of winning Kona. It’s triathlon’s biggest prize, both to participate and to win. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to race Kona more than I.

In 2011, I placed third in my age group at Ironman Wisconsin, my 13th Ironman, good enough to make my dream come true. I wanted to qualify again to prove that the first time was not just luck. But as my 60th birthday approached, chances of returning appeared slim. I missed qualifying by one slot in 2014 and 2015. I had kind of given up, yet somehow I believed. Then Ironman selected me, at random, as one of 40 athletes to race Kona in celebration of the race’s 40th anniversary in 2018. I didn’t see that one coming. It never occurred to me that this would be the way I would get to relive my dream: all luck.

Thursday, October 11, 2018.

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Does this look like something out of one of your dreams? Me, too.

As a rule, Ironman athletes take themselves pretty seriously. The time and effort to train for an Ironman represent a pretty sober enterprise. Only a certain sort of person thinks that a three-hour bike ride followed by a two-hour run make for much fun. Ironman brings out people who are pretty driven, often in most everything that they do. So it would be no surprise to learn that of the 2,500 or so athletes competing at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, many worked as doctors, dentists, lawyers, executives – serious people with serious jobs and serious responsibilities. A lot of people counted on the people who raced the Ironman World Championship.

So those people entrusting serious matters to people standing around me on a sweltering parking lot on a Thursday morning might not have thought what was going on was funny. Not at all. A guy in a golf hat, white men’s briefs, running shoes and nothing else had grabbed a microphone to administer an oath. The thousand plus people gathered there had all raised their right hands and repeated after the guy in the golf hat. I won’t bother you with the full text but the gist of the oath was this: we all agreed not to wear our Speedos in public – not to the grocery store or to the gas station or anywhere other than training in a pool or at a race. Naturally, all of those with raised right hands were wore their underwear, running shoes, hats and nothing else. No one missed the irony.

Background: During Ironman’s early years, competitors visiting Kona thought nothing of wearing their Speedos out shopping or to the gas station or to restaurants or just to walk down the street. Locals weren’t all that enthused. So a couple of professional triathletes decided to try something to shame competitors into putting on clothes before going out into public: an Underpants Run. I know. This is kind of weird.

As Paul Huddle, once a professional triathlete, administered the pledge, I found myself thinking, “Oh, yeah. Banana hammock. I forgot that one.” I don’t think that Huddle’s sense of humor helped his triathlon career. Not one bit.

The crowd parted as Huddle and a small group of VIP’s pranced through the crowd and led us on a very slow jog along Ali’i Drive, the street where the Ironman World Championship finishes in front of Kailua Bay. Margy had intended to come take a few photos, then get as far from that crowd as possible. She ended up running along, though she was embarrassed to be fully clothed. Life can be funny that way.

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I wasn’t the only person with a suntan line where I usually wore my heart rate monitor strap. 

To qualify for the Ironman World Championship, one needs to place in the top two percent of his or her age group at one of 40 qualifying Ironman races. There are exceptions, like me, who get to race in Kona for other reasons but they are relatively few. Overwhelmingly, those competing in Kona look like physical specimens and they know it. Under ordinary circumstances, they might feel embarrassed to be seen in public in their underwear but on that sweaty Thursday morning, they felt all too happy to have everyone look at them. And not without some justification. What flesh remains on Kona competitors’ bones serves a single purpose: to propel the athlete forward, whether swimming in the ocean, riding a bike, or running. A little self celebration of this austere aesthetic suited these Kona Ironman competitors.

Once we finished the run, the lighthearted fun stopped. Cold. The athletes went back to their hotel rooms and AirBNB’s and began to take themselves seriously again, preparing for Saturday’s race.

A Historical Digression.

Ironman started on Oahu in 1978 as a bar bet. Who was the best athlete? Was it the winner of the 2.4 mile rough water swim near Honolulu or of the 112 mile bike ride that circled Oahu or of the Honolulu Marathon? Then someone had an idea: What about doing all three of those events, one after another and all in the same day? Ironman was born. The first three Ironman races occurred on Oahu. In 1981, the race moved to the Big Island of Hawaii with start and finish in downtown Kailua-Kona. (Kailua is the town and Kona is the district. Most people refer to the race and location simply as “Kona.”) The race wouldn’t bother so many people in Kona as it did in Honolulu and besides, the organizers needed to make the race harder. The barren lava fields north of Kona perfectly suited inflicting punishment. Seriously.

Friday, October 12, 2018.

My mom, sisters Ann and Lynn, brother-in-law Rick Long, Katie, Margy and I gathered for dinner the night before the race. We sat outside enjoying the cool ocean breeze at an Italian restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The sun began to set, a dark orange disk slicing into the horizon. Katie took 48 hours away from studying for her MBA at Northwestern to come see me race and arrived only a couple of hours before dinner, so this was our first chance sit and talk with her. The subject of private equity arose so my 84-year old mother asked Katie what private equity was. Katie said that Rick, as a finance professor, might better answer but she offered that there were many different types of private equity, then explained some of the common features. In that odd moment, I felt overwhelmed again. How could I be so lucky to have such a smart kid and a mom, both of whom were willing to travel half way across the continent and then half way across the Pacific Ocean to see me race? I sat with my very favorite people, wishing that the feeling of being together could never end. My eyes welled up but I don’t think anyone noticed.

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Ohana: Meeting of Team Rossman called to order.

Saturday, October 13, 2018. Ironman World Championship.

At 3:13, I woke up for good. I had slept solidly from about 9:00 to 1:15, fitfullly thereafter. At 4:45, I went down to “body marking” where a volunteer applied a cold, wet decal to my arm, marking me as “316.” I shivered in the damp morning air, nervous, scared, excited, focused.

Margy staked out a place under the banyan tree near the swim start for my sisters and Katie to join her. My mom and Rick reserved a spot near “Hot Corner” just up the hill, a place racers passed several times during the day. Katie kept me company on our hotel room balcony. She turned on her portable speaker and let me pick the songs to play softly as the sky turned silver near the horizon, pushing the midnight blue up,  overhead, then toward the western horizon. We watched people mill around anxiously – friends, family, volunteers, athletes.

I told Katie my mantra for the race: “Steady, strong, 60 and smiling.” She said that seemed like a pretty good mantra. Then she reminded me that I had suggested her mantra for the marathon near Portland that landed her in the hospital for 36 hours: “Trust yourself.” Sometimes Katie and I think that things are funny even when they aren’t.

It was time to go.

We walked down to a gate. I gave Katie a hug, then wandered into the transition area where athletes enter and exit the ocean, transition to bikes, and transition to the run. I decided to walk around to try to stop shaking before the swim. I looked up and saw a familiar face. I smiled. He stuck out his hand.

“Good luck out there today,” he said. It was Mark Allen, a six-time winner of the race. That felt like a good omen.

I watched starts for the pro men’s wave, then the pro women, as I stood near my family. My wave would come next. Mike Reilly’s voice boomed over the PA system and the music played. My family couldn’t hear me so I crossed my arms over my chest, sign language for “I love you,” put on my cap and swim goggles and walked toward the somber group of athletes walking slowly toward a set of carpeted stairs down into the ocean just off Kailua Bay Pier. Very fit lemmings.

“Hey, Scott!”

I turned around. It was Paul Phillips, a professional photographer from the Twin Cities. I waved and Paul took a few photos. I acted happy and relaxed.

I swam 100 meters or so to line up with almost 1,800 other age group men bobbing as waves rolled toward shore. I chose to wait for the start in the back of the field. At age 60, I counted as one of the older athletes and thought it would be a whole lot more fun to avoid having 1,600 or so guys swim over my back.

None of the guys around me sought a podium finish. One reached over and shook my hand. Another commented on just how incredible it felt to be part of this scene. A helicopter roared overhead. We heard music playing on shore. The sun shone brightly in a crystal clear sky. The water felt cool. Another guy asked how I felt.

“I feel just so incredibly lucky. Incredibly.”

“We’re all so lucky,” he said. “Really lucky.”

A cannon fired. I put my head down, taking care not to get kicked in the face. I swam ten meters, then ran into the swimmer in front of me. Everyone stopped in a huge pile up, scuttling around randomly like so many beetles on their backs. Guys had jammed up against the surfboarders holding the start line. In just a few seconds, we untangled and off we went.

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That’s me in the pile up in the upper lefthand corner, the one with the blue swim cap.

Swimming in the ocean felt quiet and rhythmic. With each stroke, I felt my body roll gently from side to side, heard the splash of each hand entering and exiting the water. Salt water swirled around my ankles and streamed across the tops of my feet. Excepting the soft sounds of my hands entering and exiting the water, I swam in cool silence, focusing on my breath, in and out, in and out.

As I neared the pier, I felt sorry to end my swim. I didn’t know if I would return to Kona to race and that felt sad.

At the stairs I had descended almost an hour and a half before, I rose to my feet just as a wave rolled onto shore. The wave swept me forward and I sprawled on the carpeted stairs, clambering on my hands and knees.

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Mercifully, the photographer waited until I stood up to take this photo.

I quickly found my feet and not all that quickly transitioned from swim to bike, taking too much time to carefully place my socks, shoes, shorts, chest strap, cycling/run jersey, suntan lotion, helmet and sunglasses. It would be a long day in the sun; better get it right. Small spots exposed to the hot Hawaiian sun without protection turn Maine lobster red.

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At the top of Palani Hill, about ten miles into the bike course. My forehead still has the striped sunburn to match the vents in my helmet.

The bike ride started with about a ten mile loop in Kona, then ascended Palani Hill onto the Queen K Highway, then proceeded north past the airport and on toward Hawi. If you grew up on the moon, the Queen K would feel familiar. To the rest of us, not so much. To be fair, the terrain varies. Some of it is sheer lava rock with almost no vegetation whatsoever. Some of it is lava rock with small tufts of grass here and there. As you might imagine, placing a lava rock field under the tropical sun in a humid climate, then topping it with a black asphalt road created an outdoor convection oven for an afternoon bike excursion. It felt like riding my bike inside a parked car on a hot day.

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Note the gap between my left sleeve and watch. Yeah, that got really sunburned.

Margy and Katie greeted me at the 32 mile mark, a wonderful lift.

In the industrial port of Kawaihae, the road turned right to begin an 18 mile or so climb into Hawi, a tiny town 800 feet above the Pacific. On the way, the weather cooled as we rose through several climatic zones. The breeze felt cool. Leafy trees and bushes swayed and rustled under whispy clouds that partially obscured the sun. As I climbed toward Hawi, I saw the many, many far faster athletes who had already made the turnaround and sped the opposite direction, toward Kona. I pedaled in a slower part of the pack but felt no regret. I could think of no place I would rather have been. I didn’t want the ride to end and looked forward to my brief visit to Hawi.

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Nearing Hawi.

Once I turned around, the wind blew gently at my back, the road descended, my speed climbed. The bike demanded attention; things could go wrong quickly at nearly 30 mph. Gradually, the cool gave way to heat at the bottom of the hill. A long climb rose in front of me. The gentle tailwind blew at the same speed I rode, making me feel as though the air had gone completely still. Sweat formed drops that fell from the brim of my helmet. Drip, drip, drip in staccato rhythm, splashing in small, silvery flashes against the top tube of my bike.

At the crest of the hill – about mile 80 – my family surprised me again. Katie had set up her portable speaker to play “Careful” by Guster, a favorite. My family cheered. I rode by a cop controlling the intersection.

“That’s my family,” I said.

“Never would have guessed,” he replied.

Back in Kona, I transitioned to the run after receiving another family welcome. My legs felt tremendously stiff after the 112 mile ride. I wasn’t sure that I could run. Slowly, ever so slowly, I started to trot, then, finally, to run.

The course followed a local highway that offered a bit of shade, a tremendous relief in the 90 degree heat. We turned west and then onto a narrow road, Ali’i Drive, that offered occasional ocean views and cool breezes off the Pacific. My family saw me at a turnaround on that road, another wonderful surprise for me but sobering for them. They saw a woman collapse there and need help. Fortunately, I missed seeing that.

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On Ali’i Drive.

Leaving town, the course climbed the very steep portion of Palani Hill. The late afternoon sun beat on my back. I decided to walk so as not to spike my heart rate. Katie leapfrogged me, running up the hill, occasionally stopping to cheer.

Back on the Queen K, only 17 more miles to go. Katie continued to leapfrog, stopping every quarter mile or so to encourage me until we reached mile 12, at which point she returned to town.

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Nearing the Natural Energy Lab.

 

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Clouds gathered along the mountain.

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Late in the day. Several runners visited this water stop before I arrived.

At mile 15 or so, the course descended into the Natural Energy Lab, a 1970’s federal project to explore alternative energy sources. The landscape formed a gentle bowl that killed the breeze and focused the deep orange glow of the sun sinking toward the horizon. Two aid stations featured some extremely enthusiastic and supportive volunteers but I had become kind of numb. Two miles into the Natural Energy Lab, I had descended to sea level again, sacrificing the elevation gained in a steady climb starting just outside Kona. I began to think that whether I ran or walked didn’t matter. None of this mattered much at all. The sports drink concentrate I kept in flasks on a belt to maintain my nutrition had begun to burn my throat. I switched to the Coke offered at aid stations. I wondered if I would ever get to sleep after I finished but the Coke seemed to help. I ran some, walked some.

I turned back up the hill toward the Queen K just as the sun touched the horizon. It must have been raining out over the mountain. An angry gray cloud clung to the high terrain. A rainbow slashed a wide stripe in front of the cloud. By the time I had run up to the Queen K, night had fallen. Sparsely scattered street lights and stop lights dotted the seven miles back to Kona. None of the runners around me spoke. In the darkness, I struggled to make out runners and upcoming aid stations. When I could see runners in front of me, I couldn’t tell if they were running toward me or if we were both heading the same direction. Nobody ran fast but it would have hurt to collide. The illuminated mile marker signs that the run course shoe sponsor had erected had mostly gone dark. I worried about tripping over a crack in the road or on one of those lane line reflectors glued to the pavement.

It seems like a prosaic goal for a world championship but I wanted to finish in time to see Katie off on her flight back to Chicago. I really didn’t know what time it was, but I felt like I had a shot. I accelerated.

At 24 miles, the road ascended the shallower but longer climb up Palani Hill on the Queen K. I just didn’t have the energy to run the whole thing so I walked a little, ran a little. At the top, tents where young people had gathered during the afternoon to drink beer, play loud music and cheer looked all but deserted in the darkness. Loud music remained but the few people cheering looked and sounded weary.

I rounded a corner to head down the steep portion of the hill that headed directly toward the finish line. I worried that as I picked up speed, one of my legs might buckle. At the bottom of the hill, the course turned left in pitch darkness. I got confused. I ran into the wrong lane. I heard Katie yell.

“Dad, no! Dad, get into the other lane!”

I couldn’t see. I felt so tired. No volunteer steered me through the blackness but I managed to correct course, knowing that I had only a mile or so to go. I could hear the music and the announcer at the finish line and see a white glow above buildings lining Ali’i Drive.

The course turned away from the finish. The joyful sounds coming from the finish area faded. The street fell quiet and completely dark, calm. A crescent moon hung in the western sky, illuminating thin clouds. It felt cool, windless.

Turning onto Ali’i Drive, I knew that the finish waited between a quarter and half mile away. It felt like I quickened my pace, though I probably went from a torpid slog to a slog. Sounds from the finish area became clearer. I began to hear names as each runner crossed the finish. But the road curved along the shore so I couldn’t see anything more than the glow rising over the darkened tee shirt shops and tattoo parlors lining the ocean side of the street. I felt conflicted. I felt so deeply tired, I just wanted to finish. At the same time, I wanted to slow down to make the moment last. A few people’s voices emerged from the dark to urge me on.

“You’re almost there.”

“You’ve got this one.”

“You’re amazing.”

I rounded the bend by the church and, suddenly, the lights of the finish area shone over the still waters of the bay. I ran without thinking, without feeling. I wanted to feel overjoyed. I wanted to feel grateful. But I only felt tired and relieved.

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At the finish line, a ramp elevated each finisher so that everyone could see him or her cross. As I climbed the ramp, I took off my hat to acknowledge the crowd. To my right, I heard crazy, wild cheering. Two volunteers grabbed me, taking me toward the post-finish area. Over my right shoulder, I saw Mom, Margy, Ann, Lynn and Rick. And though I didn’t see her, I heard a pure, sweet voice call, “Dad!”

Faith, Belief, Dreams.

To me, faith is about believing in something even after having kind of given up. The answer to prayers isn’t always yes. For a lot of people, the answer to their prayers is rarely yes. If belief implied receiving whatever you prayed to get, it wouldn’t really be belief; it would be knowledge. You would know what you could obtain and have the power to get it. Belief is more fickle, cloudier. I had given up on the prospect of returning to Kona. I never dreamed that I would return based only on luck. But when that chance came, it felt like grace, something not earned, not to be counted on, something inscrutable, yet something deeply connected to belief.

So I went to Hawaii to turn 60, finish an Ironman and run around on the street in my underpants. Dreams really do come true.

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Sunset on our last day in Hawaii.

Postscript: I met my goal. I finished with enough time to see Katie before she headed to the airport. We even had time for a meal, though we had to eat pretty fast.

I had another goal: I didn’t want to finish last in my age group. I wanted to prove I belonged there. I finished 44th of 72 men in my age group.

Special thanks to the most senior and junior members of Team Rossman.

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Who dreamed that we would celebrate my 60th birthday together – and in that way?

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My prized dinner buddy. Note the hat that Margy and Katie designed marking my 60th birthday and 20th Ironman.

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My dinner companion for the last 32 birthdays.

 

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The three Ross sisters.

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And to the trip’s other birthday boy, broken wrist and all. Thanks for making it work, Rick.

Without Team Rossman, there is no Rossman.

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At mile 25, he asked if she wanted to walk. She acted like she didn’t hear him.

At mile 25.5, she began to run in the ditch bordering the road. He retrieved her. Back on the road, she began to zig zag. They could see the finish line.

At mile 25.6, she sat down on the side of the road. Then she lost consciousness.

On luck, science and quitting. 

If you believe Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow and a Nobel Prize winner, we tend to underestimate the role of luck when good things happen in our lives. For instance, managers of successful businesses tend to overestimate the role of their skills and underestimate the good fortune of operating in a particularly strong economy or market. Likewise, an investor whose contrarian choices make her very rich when her investments increase dramatically more than the market in general may attribute her success to unusually keen insight and intelligence.

On the other hand, Kahneman would say that we tend to overestimate the role of our circumstances when we suffer misfortune. A business’ manager may cite rotten timing to introduce an innovative product that fell flat in a sagging economy, evading blame for mismanaging the product’s development or marketing. A similarly contrarian investor may lose a fortune despite a soaring market but may blame particular circumstances facing businesses and industries in which she chose to invest, ignoring the investor’s responsibility for poor investment choices.

So, when we fail, we tend to blame our circumstances and bad luck. When we succeed, we credit our intelligence and hard work. Of course, assigning the proportionate contributions of luck, skill, intelligence and hard work to any single life or any single event within a life is practically impossible.

A short essay on luck seems like a cold way to address that poor woman lying unconscious in a ditch, especially when that woman was our daughter Katie.

An ambulance collected Katie from the July 4th marathon held on Sauvie Island near Portland, Oregon, where Katie and Marcus were living while both worked at Nike. Marcus had paced Katie through 97% of the marathon. He tried to prevent Katie from running in the ditch but quickly stood helpless on the side of the road while Katie lay unconscious.

Plans to eat strawberry pie at in the finish area and attend an afternoon barbecue changed quickly, four liters of IV fluid administered rapidly replaced plans for a Gatorade or two followed by a post-race beer. Instead of catching a shuttle bus back to Portland, Katie and Marcus took the faster route in the racing ambulance. In her stupor, Katie kept trying to remove her oxygen mask.

When it appeared as if Katie was regaining consciousness, the EMT asked her name.

“Katie,” she said.

“And what is your birthday?”

“Katie,” she said.

36 hours and a battery of tests later, Katie left the hospital with the understanding that she had probably just suffered from profound dehydration. Everything checked out fine except for one thing: Katie couldn’t remember what signs of distress she might have missed. How could she have let things go so wrong?

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Katie enjoys a somewhat expensive post-race drink of water in an effort to rehydrate.

Digression.

Katie was a nordic skier in high school and a rower in college. Nordic skiers and rowers have virtual dashboards that they can consult during races to determine their level of exertion and distress – heart rate, muscular fatigue, respiration. The last thing a nordic skier or rower does before starting a race is to take that virtual dashboard and flip a master switch to the “off” position. No red lights flash, no needles strain at the peg on the right, no warning buzzers or bells sound. No, nordic skiers and rowers go as hard as they can despite acute distress. They tend to be young and races tend to be short relative to marathons. So it doesn’t matter how hard they go; they’ll probably live. Nordic skiers and rowers don’t know when to quit.

Science.

Following her July 4th experience, at my suggestion, Katie visited my coach, Jared Berg, at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. If Katie couldn’t remember the race, much less the signals she missed (or ignored), maybe Jared could test her to make sure that there were no otherwise undetected problems and could instruct Katie on the things she must do in the future to avoid a repeat ambulance ride.

On her way with Marcus from Portland to Evanston where Katie and Marcus will attend business school, they stopped in Boulder so that Katie could submit to science. Jared ran Katie through some of the tests I had suffered the prior November. Jared made Katie run on a treadmill wearing a mask measuring CO2 output. He poked her finger and measured lactate. He assessed her musculature and energy storage. In short, Jared made Katie a lab rat and measured everything.

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Katie prior to learning that the treadmill test would involve multiple finger pricks to draw and test blood.

Then Jared asked Katie about the race. How much water had she drunk? How many calories had she taken in on the course? How much sports drink did she consume? Jared scratched down some facts and figures. He concluded that Katie should have collapsed about two hours, forty-five minutes into the race. Katie outperformed, yielding to gravity and unconsciousness, cozying up with the pavement, at about 3:20.

So Jared gave Katie a wealth of information, all backed by careful measurements. Science. Jared restored Katie’s enthusiasm, not by giving her a pep talk but by equipping her with science. Jared let Katie know the exact heart rates at which she should train and race, the amount of liquids to drink, the number of calories to consume.

Sports, particularly endurance sports, romanticize will power. People talk about “pushing through the pain” or “running through the wall.” These acts of will have their place. Marathons and Ironmans are hard: That’s the whole idea. There are lots of chances to quit, so convincing yourself not to quit is the point. Less negotiable, however, are needs for simple things: food and water at a sustainable pace. Should your will power push you beyond the limits your body will endure when deprived of hydration or nutrition, your body takes over. Biology and chemistry make decisions that the most determined mind won’t. Your body shuts you down. Gravity beckons.

Luck.

Strangely, this brings us back to luck. For reasons none of us can entirely explain, some of us can bear a tremendous amount of athletic punishment and keep going. Others sensibly heed the signals that say, “stop or die.”  Call someone lucky if she can push through almost unbearable exertion and deprivation. But maybe it’s OK to call someone lucky if he listens to the still, small voice that says “enough.” Until your body robs you of the option to keep going, knowing when to quit is subtle and difficult.

Luck comes in additional forms. In 2011, I was lucky that only two faster guys showed up in my age group at Ironman Wisconsin. In 2014 and 2015, I was unlucky that two faster guys showed up in my Ironman Wisconsin age group and I had to stay home in October while they raced the Ironman World Championship in Kona. (In 2014 and 2015, I was in a smaller age group and needed to finish in the top two to qualify for Kona; in 2011, I needed only to finish in the top four.)

In 2018, unbeknownst to me, I entered a drawing in which my name was allegedly drawn at random. I was one of 40 entrants in Ironman events throughout the world selected to race the 40th Ironman World Championship. This time, my appearance in Kona will be all luck. And I had so wanted to qualify to race Kona again to prove that 2011 had not just been luck.

Life and endurance sports are similar. The people who work harder tend to get luckier. But some of the hardest working people end up with almost nothing but bad luck. Some people ignore science and seem to thrive. (Think of perfectly healthy lifetime smokers or runners who don’t take a sip of liquid during a marathon.) Others eat nothing but Whole Foods-sourced meals, exercise frequently and get brain tumors. (Think of Warren.) It’s a strange mixture, each of us inheriting or earning different amounts of skill, will, intelligence and luck. Separating that which we can successfully control to thrive and that which we can’t control is a lifetime enterprise.

Grass and rock.

So I look forward to racing Kona again in 2018. I cannot deny the role of luck in affording me the chance to enter Kailua Bay, the sun just rising above the palm trees and church steeple on the eastern horizon. Later in the afternoon, when I crest Palani Hill for the second time to head out onto the lava fields, I need to hold science dear, to observe its limits, to drink and eat enough to run by the desiccated tufts of grass that poke out of deep crevices in the swirls of brown lava rock. How do those tufts of grass grow there under the sweltering sun where heat bends light wavering on the horizon? Even in nature, some things just don’t know when to quit. They hang on, shrouded in the mysteries of luck, science and persistence.

Postscript.

Katie and Marcus have made it to Evanston and will start business school this week. Katie will take a break long enough to come to Kona to see me race the Ironman World Championship on October 13th. Margy, my mom, sisters and brother-in-law Rick Long will be there, too. It will be a long day. Best that they mind their nutrition, hydration, and sunscreen, too. I already feel enormous gratitude that they will cross half the country and half of the Pacific Ocean to be there for me. Talk about luck.

 

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“This doesn’t feel as bad as I expected,” Katie said as we left the Marriott Copley Place. Light rain fell from a cold, gray sky. Wind blew from the east at maybe ten or 15 miles per hour.

“Not that bad,” I agreed.

We walked a few blocks toward Copley Square. As we stepped beyond the side of a building, the wind pushed me hard enough that I stepped right foot over left to regain my balance. Staggered, we changed course at the urging of a volunteer who directed us to Boylston Street just beyond the finish line.

“It will be a lot less windy there,” he said.

We took his advice and joined a thickening stream of runners and spectators heading toward the buses that would take runners just over 27 miles from Boston Common to Hopkinton. People tried to avoid the puddles formed from overnight rain. Runners wore garbage bags with holes cut in the top for their heads. Others wore cheap raincoats and pants. Some runners covered their hats and shoes with plastic bags. On any other day in Boston’s Back Bay, the police might have approached people dressed like that and tried to direct them to the appropriate social service. On Patriot’s Day, the cops pulled up their collars and scrunched their necks down to stay warm. Staying dry was a lost cause for everyone.

People complain when weather reports differ. No one likes unreliable forecasts. For Boston on Marathon Weekend, predictions had varied for each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday but for Monday, Patriot’s Day/Marathon Monday, forecasts completely agreed. Chances of rain for any particular hour on Monday ranged from 60% to 100% but the forecasts all predicted a 100% chance of rain while Katie and I would be on the course. Forecasters hate blowing a 100% prediction that would undermine their credibility. We took the meteorologists seriously.

On Sunday night, after having eaten pasta at an Italian restaurant in the North End, Katie grew anxious. She wanted a stocking cap to stay warm. We called around. Most stores had either rotated their merchandise to more seasonal inventory, closed before 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday night or just didn’t answer the phone at all. Marcus and Katie managed to flash Marcus’s Nike ID at the already-closed Nike store on Newbury Street. They had completely sold out of cold weather gear as runners bought layers to prepare for Monday. Meanwhile, Margy found two hats advertising the Lenox Hotel on Boylston. We bought them from people wearing New Balance gear, neglecting to mention that both Marcus and Katie worked for Nike. (Whether the hat purchases violated Nike HR policies was an investigation we neglected, given the weather.) Those hats turned out to have been purchases of true genius.

By the time we took the traditional family photo before Katie and I boarded the bus to Hopkinton, our feet were already very wet and cold. We took seats near the back of one of the thousands of school buses that transported runners to Hopkinton. The bus’s windows didn’t fully close so that during our ride, rain occasionally splashed us from the windows left slightly ajar and from the emergency door in the roof. A woman sitting in front of us went on at great length about the disastrously bad weather in which she ordinarily ran. Her husband sat beside her and said a word, maybe two, on the one-hour drive. Two women from Minnesota seated beside us chatted quietly in their Goodwill store rain suits.

We exited the bus at Hopkinton High School and walked carefully onto athletic fields that overnight rains and 10,000 runners had thus far turned into a quagmire. (What those fields became after all 30,000 runners had gone through I can’t imagine.) Katie and I sought space under a giant tent populated with huddling runners who looked like the most destitute of refugees. We found a finisher’s poncho on the ground, abandoned by a runner who left to start in Wave 1. (We were set for Wave 2.) We sat on the poncho and beside the woman’s cast off shoes and hand warmers. Katie and I each took a used hand warmer. The woman, like Katie, had brought a pair of old shoes and socks to wear before the race started, then changed into a dry pair to go to the start line.

Katie and I timed our departure from the tent perfectly, stepping gingerly through the inch-deep muck. I looked down at my Kona commemorative shoes splattered with mud. Katie changed into her latest and greatest dry Nikes and we walked down the hill toward the start and our last chance bathroom stop about 3/8 of a mile away, thanking cops and volunteers along the street. Katie’s race shoes were mostly wet by the time we reached our start corral.

The race began without fanfare – no songs or speeches. We heard a distant start gun and away we went in a steady rain, wind blowing harder and softer depending upon the tree cover. At one point, I mentioned to Katie that the weather had improved. Within a few seconds, it began to rain really hard.

Nearing the halfway mark of the race, my legs had stiffened. I noticed that I could not form a seal with my mouth on the sports drink bottles I carried on a belt. I took to pouring the drink into my mouth without sealing my lips. This seemed like a warning. A few miles later, Katie tossed a cup after grabbing a drink from an aid station. The wind caught the cup and blew it directly into the bridge of my nose. We laughed at that but spoke sparingly, communicating only as needed to stay together.

About a quarter mile from Wellesley College, we heard the women out in full force despite the weather. Bawdy signs and deafening, high-pitched cheers couldn’t help but lift everyone’s spirits, me included. It didn’t last that long, at least not for me. My right wrist felt like there was a band on it. There wasn’t. I had lost the cotton glove I wore on that hand when I had given Katie a Clif Shot Block. I had not gone back to collect the glove and risk getting stampeded. So I ran like Michael Jackson on a budget, wearing a giveaway white cotton glove only on my left hand, a hand that had pretty much lost sensation except for the feeling that there was something between my fingers. As we descended the big hill in Wellesley, my legs hurt more than usual. Meanwhile, Katie kept track of our mile splits. She had stopped announcing times and chose to simply encourage me, rejecting my apologies for holding her back, as I most certainly was doing.

At Boston College, the course descended a fairly steep hill. The BC kids who bothered to come out and brave the weather cheered fanatically, boisterously. Suddenly, the rain came down fiercely – an absolute deluge. Katie threw her head back and laughed maniacally like she used to do while skiing as a little kid, refusing to turn, choosing to go as fast as her skis would take her. I tried to laugh but I couldn’t. The 42 degree rain penetrated to my core.

Katie and I had started the race in sweatshirts that we ditched within a few miles. Katie retained a nifty Nike jacket that she could stuff into its own pocket and then strap to her waist, though she never got warm enough to take that jacket off. While it was not entirely waterproof, it did a decent job retaining at least some heat. A tight-fitting, long sleeve shirt that had done well for me on a 55 degree day in the rain was not warm enough for me on a 37 to 44 degree day. We both wore our Lenox Hotel stocking hats once touched by New Balance representatives, something we did not let bother the warmth the hats provided.

By the time we reached Boston College at around 21 miles, I realized that I was getting confused. Of course, if you realize that you are confused, maybe you are still OK. Even so, I felt wary. More than anything, though, I knew that if I stopped running, stopped exerting, I risked hypothermia. Put otherwise, stopping to walk was as good as quitting.

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Margy and Marcus taking a quick snap on their way to a five-spotting day.

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Impressionist view just after the right turn onto Boylston. Weather: 1, iPhone X: 0.

The last few miles passed in a blur, though my pace had fallen dramatically. I couldn’t see that well through rain-spattered glasses but I saw runners turning right on Hereford. I checked and Katie ran on my right. We turned up the rise on Hereford and saw Margy and Marcus one last time, the fifth of the day, a new record on Boston’s multiple-sighting hostile course. We turned left down the slope on Boylston toward the finish line sitting an awfully long way away. I didn’t so much run as slogged. At about 50 yards from the finish, I held out my right hand. Katie grabbed it in her left and we crossed the line hand-in-hand.

We walked through the finish area for what seemed like a very long distance before we made it to the hooded finisher ponchos. I leaned heavily on Katie, my arm over her shoulder. She steadied me, her left arm around my waist. Katie asked a volunteer to wrap me in two ponchos, a process that took a long time as they tried to fish my arms through the holes in the ponchos. Katie used her knowledge of downtown Boston to sneak me through a shortcut back toward the hotel. A long, warm shower didn’t stop all of my shivers so I climbed into bed and piled on blankets. Eventually, I emerged, ready for post-race pizza therapy.

Who knows how many marathons we have left to run together? Katie’s abilities have left mine far behind. She should run some marathons to improve her own PR and to qualify again for Boston, something we did not manage for her this year at Boston. Thanks to her help, though, she got me to the finish line in time for me to qualify as a geezer in 2019. Meanwhile, Katie looks forward to her career, business school and, who knows, maybe her own family. Other obligations may intrude on marathon training and racing for Katie. But even if those obligations crowd running marathons off her calendar, neither of us will ever forget the Boston Marathon in 2018, even if we both live to be 100.

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The weather on race day presented few photo opportunities but here are a few photos from the weekend.

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At the Boston Marathon Expo getting our numbers. The Boston Marathon is large enough that there were eight Rosses between “Katie” and “Scott” despite our identical qualifying times.

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Waiting for the bus from the Expo back to Boston Back Bay in a frigid gale on Sunday, though this beat being back home in Minnesota for 13 inches of snow.

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In a last-minute email to participants, Boston Marathon officials noted that running in clear trash bags would be allowed. Here is the shelf slot in the Star Market near Copley Square once holding clear trash bags.

Postscript: Congratulations to Matt Wiegand on running 3:02 in awful conditions even after one of his family’s cars had been towed from their AirBNB. Quite a recovery. Thanks to Sarah Long, Laurie Eustis and the Schneider family, especially Marcus, for getting together with us and for following Katie and me on the course. And, as always, thanks so much to Margy for absolutely everything.

 

“Being a novice is safe. When you are learning how to do something, you do not have to worry about whether or not you are good at it. But when you have done something, have learned how to do it, you are not safe any more. Being an expert opens you up to judgement.”

“H” is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Plot Synopsis.

For those of you who have not read my blog in a while, here is what happened last year.

Boston

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Boston Marathon. Katie and I ran Boston together for the first time. Though we stuck together into the Newton hills, we got separated in the crowd there. Katie tried to wait and find me but had to go on. She finished nine minutes in front of me. I struggled in the heat. This made me feel very proud of Katie and very disappointed in myself.

Madison

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Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin. Katie made a last-minute decision to enter Ironman 70.3 in Madison in early June as a proof of concept for Ironman Wisconsin in September. Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin was brutally hot. Katie forgot her running shoes in the car and commandeered her mother’s shoes to run the first part of the course. Even with the shoe swap, Katie ran the run course within nine seconds of my time.

Madison Again

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Ironman Wisconsin. This was the thrill of a lifetime. After swimming in our respective waves, Katie with the youngsters, me with the forgetful retirees, we joined up in transition and remained together for the rest of the day, finishing Katie’s inaugural Ironman hand-in-hand. I struggled on the run but had excellent company.

Minneapolis and St. Paul

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Twin Cities Marathon. Katie opted out of TCM so that she could cheer for her boyfriend, Marcus Schneider, as he ran his first marathon in a terrific 2:52. I ran 3:28 on three weeks’ recovery from Ironman Wisconsin.

New York City Marathon. I ran another 3:28 on a chilly, damp, blustery November day for my first New York City Marathon, my 85th marathon finish over all. My time was within ten seconds of my Twin Cities Marathon time just over a month before. (When counting, I include the 19 Ironman marathons within my lifetime total of 85 marathons.)

Sinking. You would think that I had run enough marathons to know what I was doing and to perform consistently. Throughout the 2017 racing season, however, I struggled at paces and points on courses that previously would have been no sweat. Boston had been a collapse. At Ironman Wisconsin, I needed to walk some (OK, a lot) of the marathon course. Twin Cities and NYC were OK but I had run marathons much faster just a year earlier. I fretted. Never mind that, even on a terrible day at Boston, I qualified again. Likewise, I got a guaranteed entry for NYC while running my third marathon in less than three months.

Like most people, I have formed an idea of myself. That idea incorporates my history as a triathlete and runner – who I have been as an athlete, not necessarily who I have become. I identify with running a 2:37:26 marathon in 1987. I think of myself qualifying for Kona at Ironman Wisconsin in 2011. I recall setting a course record for “grand masters” (really old guys) at the 50K Afton Trail Run in 2012. That’s the way I choose to think of myself.

But I am not the novice to whom the opening quote refers. Instead, I am experienced and subject to judgment, mostly my own, regarding my performance while doing things at which I have a lot of experience.

It’s hard to view my athletic performance objectively and comprehensively. Through the years, I  occasionally ran fast and occasionally completely blew up, frittered away an opportunity to run a great race while in peak condition simply because I went out too hard or ate something truly stupid the night before a race. A fair assessment of my athletic career would acknowledge the good races but also remember that there had been far more suboptimal performances. You can’t have your best day every day when it comes to racing. But once I had run 85 marathons and 19 Ironmans, I felt less inclined to let myself off the hook when it came to stupid pacing, nutrition or hydration. I should know better.

At the close of the 2017 racing season, instead of sitting back and reflecting with satisfaction on what had been wonderful in so many ways, I chose to regret, learn and try to improve for the coming year. At Ironman Wisconsin in 2018, I would race for the first time as a 60 year-old. This would be my best chance – maybe ever – to qualify again for Kona. After qualifying at Madison in 2011 and racing Kona in 2012, I wanted to prove to everyone – mostly to myself – that qualifying had been no fluke. I wanted to show that I had been good enough to get back to Kona. In 2013, I raced Ironman Wisconsin badly. In 2014 and 2015, I very narrowly missed qualifying, coming in one slot away each time. 2016 brought another poor performance at Madison and in 2017, Katie and I stuck together for the finish, not for an attempt to qualify.

Unfortunately, qualifying as a 60 year-old requires one thing: I would need to win my age group. In the 55-59 age group, about 100 men race Ironman Wisconsin every year, ensuring that there are two qualifying spots for Kona. (As a rule, to get an age group slot, you need to either win your age group or finish in the top two percent.) In the 60-64 age group, there are usually 50 to 60 competitors, so there is only one qualifying slot.

Men who race Ironman into their 60’s usually do so only after having enjoyed athletic success. Only a very few guys get up off the couch at 60 and think to themselves, “Maybe I should do an Ironman.” While the group of competitors in 60-64 is small, they are almost all competent.

My athletic performance, however, had begun to slide as I neared 60. Of course, nobody else over 60 finds that they are as fast as they were a decade or two earlier, maybe even just a year or two earlier. At 60, it’s pretty clear that your mind is trapped aboard a sinking ship, your body. The trick, if you want your sinking ship to qualify for Kona, you need to make sure that your ship sinks more slowly than the next guy’s. Simple enough, but in today’s Ironman world, everybody has a coach, everybody has an aero helmet, everybody has carbon fiber wheels, everybody trains year round. Everybody’s ship is sinking. Everybody knows it. Everybody is bailing water as fast as they can – and bailing that water scientifically.

I decided that when it came to racing in 2018, I would leave no stone unturned. So, when it came to turning over rocks, what better place to go than Boulder?

Boulder

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Just in case running on a treadmill with a mask to restrict breathing is not unpleasant enough, let me poke holes in your finger every few minutes. Same finger, of course. Jared Berg administering my “tri-cation.”

Calling Boulder. With this cheery sinking ship metaphor firmly in mind, I began to try to figure out what I could do to sink more slowly. I contacted my coach of 14 years, Jared Berg, and arranged a trip to Boulder, Colorado, where he worked at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. For two days, I paid a handsome sum to become a lab rat. Jared measured my body fat with calipers, analyzed the composition of my muscles, strapped a mask onto my face and made me run on a treadmill, strapped another mask onto my face and made me pedal a bicycle, made me strip to my running shorts to jump and scuttle around while an array of cameras tracked my movements, analyzed my run gait, took video of me in an endless pool, made me talk about what I ate and stuck my finger to draw blood.

The lab rat life is not for me and paying a lot gave the enterprise no cachet. Even without much in the way of glamor, the news was mostly good for an old guy: I was in decent shape. Jared formulated heart rate zones and running and biking paces that would facilitate purposeful, scientific training. With Jared’s help, I could improve enough to race competitively the following September in Madison. But there was just one thing: My heart rate kept bouncing up to very high levels while my perceived level of effort remained modest.

“You should probably get that checked out,” Jared said. “By a cardiologist. Just in case.”

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So far as I could tell, I was in good shape so long as I didn’t drop dead in the middle of a workout from some cardiac event. Welcome to the “golden years.”

Rochester

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Calling Rochester. I scheduled an appointment at the Mayo Clinic to meet with a sports cardiologist and a PhD. My cardiologist, Dr. Todd D. Miller, (there are lots of Dr. Millers at Mayo) went through the reams of paperwork I brought with me from Boulder and from workouts recorded on my Garmin heart rate monitor. He paged through each slowly. He asked a lot of questions. In sum, my answers amounted to, “I feel fine but my heart rate seems to pop up without me really feeling it.”

Boulder is an expensive place to be a lab rat. Rochester is an astonishingly expensive place to be a lab rat. Dr. Miller dispatched me to three technicians who wired me up for a little treadmill trot. In each case, before attaching an electrode, the tech abraded my skin and dabbed the rough spot with conductive fluid. You’ve heard of rubbing salt in the wound? Yeah, like that. Of course, they strapped a mask on me and told me to run on a far more expensive treadmill than the University of Colorado could probably afford. Thank goodness that Dr. Tom Allison, the PhD overseeing my testing and a former 2:21 marathoner, ordered an extended testing protocol due to my athletic background. As I feared, a longer, more expensive treadmill test was not a more pleasant treadmill test.

Doctors Miller and Allison met with me after my frantically difficult little indoor run. They talked in code.

“Well, he does have some PACs,” Dr. Allison said.

Dr. Miller raised his eyebrows a little. He used his index finger to trace the bumpy line across page after page. He read slowly and carefully. Finally, he said, “I see that.”

The doctors spent time explaining everything to me but, as it turned out, a slight but benign irregularity of my heartbeat, premature atrial contractions or “PAC’s,” fooled my Garmin and other heart rate monitors into thinking that I had a high heart rate when, in fact, my heart rate was very normal.

The doctors agreed that I was going to die, just not from a cardiac event any time soon. Then, thanks to Margy, they encouraged me to take a day off from working out every now and then – maybe even a week or a month sometimes. Dr. Miller checked the readout and did some calculations. He told me that, given my VO2 max, I should be able to run a marathon about 38 minutes faster than I recently had. He used cutting-edge medical science to call me a slacker.

So much for fearing for my life while out on runs. But it had made so much sense: My deteriorating performance derived from some medical condition. Mayo scienced this theory into quick but expensive submission. I was fine. I should rest a little more and maybe I could run a lot faster. I left Mayo thinking that I had turned over every rock. Now it would be up to me train hard for Madison while nursing the slim hope of qualifying for Kona one more time.

Tampa Calling.

On January 23rd, while getting ready to leave for yoga class, my cell phone rang. It was an 813 area code number, Tampa. I knew Tampa as “Call Center Central” and suspected that this might be an opportunity to hear a timeshare pitch or receive computer help from an earnest-sounding man located in India wanting to remedy “serious security problems” he had noticed on my computer. Despite my better judgment and hurry to get to class, I answered the call. 

“This is Mary Kate Williams from Ironman,” the woman said.

I have raced enough Ironmans that a call from the headquarters didn’t really surprise me. Mary Kate asked if I had seen the Facebook Live presentation that morning. I told her that I hadn’t. I didn’t admit that I had never heard of Facebook Live and would have no idea how to get into a Facebook Live session. She explained that Ironman had instituted a drawing for 40 athletes to race Kona in 2018 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Ironman World Championship. She said that Mike Reilly had gone onto Facebook Live and announced the winners of that random drawing earlier that morning.

Mary Kate paused. Then she said I was one of the winners.

I should have been elated. Instead, I felt suspicious. I had expected an annoying timeshare offer or computer scam. Now this woman offered me something that seemed ridiculously improbable. Maybe my friend Dave Mason was playing a very elaborate trick. I asked questions.

“Do I have to pay for my Kona slot or is it free?”

“No, you have to pay.” (“That sounds like Ironman,” I thought.)

“It’s about $1,000, right?”

“A little less than that but close enough.”

“And what happens to my Ironman Wisconsin entry for September? Do I have to cancel that and just get a partial refund of my fee, $150 or something like that?” I asked.

“No, we have a new policy that would let you defer that entry until Ironman Wisconsin 2019.”

“Do you know Nicole Geller? She helped my daughter Katie and me at Ironman Wisconsin last year.”

“Yeah, Nicole is one of my favorites. She is an athlete so she really gets it. She works in an office close to me here,” Mary Kate said.

That was legit. It squared with what I knew of Nicole. This was getting real. 

 I walked downstairs to Margy’s office so that she could overhear. Margy didn’t look up; she was concentrating on her computer.

I began to worry that Mary Kate’s program might only be for athletes who had never been to Kona. If so, I would not be eligible. 

“You know that I have already been, but just once, right?”

“Yeah, I can see that here,” Mary Kate said.

Margy looked up. 

Margy whispered at me, “Are you going to Kona?”

I nodded and whispered back, “Yes, I think so.”

Margy turned back to her computer and began typing. Then she looked up and said, “October 13th.”

“I called because I tried to send you an email and it bounced back. Active.com must have an old email address for you,” Mary Kate said.

This totally checked out. I had spent hours on and off through the years trying to get Active to change my email address from an old work address. Now I felt very confident that this was legit. I started to tear up.

“How did I win? I didn’t even know that I entered a drawing.”

“Everyone who entered a 2018 Ironman event was entered and that is how your name got into the drawing.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Margy was on the Delta website.

“Did it have anything to do with the fact that IMW in September would have been my 20th Ironman?” I asked.

“No, your name was just drawn at random.”

I was running out of questions but I still didn’t quite believe it.

Mary Kate paused, then said, “I called to see if you want to accept the invitation to Kona or not. I have an email all set to go for you if you say “yes.” I just need your correct email address. You don’t have to go.”

I gave her my current email address and said something like, “Yeah, Kona is expensive but…it’s Kona!”

“So do you want to go to Kona?” Mary Kate asked.

I had begun to tremble. I felt a little teary and overwhelmed by a decision that was no decision at all.

“Yes.”

“OK, I’ll send this email in just a minute. It has a link to the Facebook Live video with Mike announcing the winners of the drawing. It also has rules for the “40 for 40” program.”

I asked Mary Kate to let Nicole Geller know that Mary Kate had spoken with me and to thank Nicole again for how nice she had been to Katie and me in Madison. Mary Kate said that she would do that and that I should see her email in just a minute. 

Margy and I walked back up to the laundry room so that I could continue to change clothes for yoga. I still felt uncertain about what had just happened. I looked at my phone and saw the email. Mary Kate’s story held up. Margy gave me a hug and off I went, still unsure of what had just happened. Yoga first, then Kona.

Hawks and Rocks.

This event reminded me of my book.

“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”

“H” is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

So I had spent lots of time worrying. Was my health failing? Had I fallen completely out of shape? Was I too old to race anymore? How could I possibly get back to Kona? It was the last question that vexed me most. I might do everything – everything – in my power, train hard, eat well, rest strategically, race my best day, and Kona may remain just beyond reach. That didn’t feel great. It felt like life.

I had left no stone unturned. I worked every conceivable angle in Boulder, checked everything else in Rochester. And while everything was basically fine, I had no answer as to how, exactly how, I could get back to Kona. Then there was a random drawing and a telephone call, two rocks I would not have thought to look underneath. 

Aloha, again.

Facebook Live. Later that day, I found out how to watch Mike Reilly on Facebook Live. I watched the video dozens of times, just to be sure.

 

San Diego

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Screenshot from the video of Mike Reilly announcing my name. 

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People forget years and remember moments. -Ann Beattie

Day had turned to night some time ago. We were walking now, the quiet of a cool night enveloping us. We had just completed a stretch of the course that ran in front of bars, restaurants and college town stores. The crowd had been enthusiastic but the spectators were starting to get tired, too. The course turned onto a silent street. For a brief while, it was just the two of us, Katie and me, walking. The last glow of day had turned to a deep, deep blue in the western sky outlining the majestic old red brick Science Building. Katie moved faster. I walked a step behind. I said something to her. She said something to me. Seven words, total. We fought back tears. A minute of silence passed.

“OK, let’s start to run when we get to that street and turn right.”

Katie nodded.

September 2002

Fifteen years, almost to the day, had passed since Katie put her hand in mine. Our ten-year old daughter and I ran the last 100 yards of the first Ironman Wisconsin. If you ask her, she would say that’s when a dream began. I wasn’t that bold. I couldn’t picture having Katie by my side for practically an entire Ironman.

Body Glide

Like most hobbies, Ironman has insider tips and tricks. Several pre-race briefings for each Ironman race let participants know what to expect and share a few of those tips and tricks. Having done 18 prior Ironman races, I had ceased to learn much at athlete briefings but since this was Katie’s first Ironman, I recommended that we go.

In a conference center ballroom with about 200 participants, an Ironman staffer gave the briefing. The staffer advised those new to Ironman about the best use of special needs bags, large plastic bags into which each participant places items to access at the midpoint of each of the bike and run legs of the race. He suggested that salty snacks always taste good. Then he made one more suggestion.

“For those of you who don’t know about the product Body Glide, I suggest that you go buy some. Throw it in your run special needs bag. By the time you’ve run 13 miles, I guarantee you will know exactly where to apply it.”

That got a laugh from true believers like me. Body Glide had done wonders for me through the years. It helped my wetsuit slide on over my legs and prevented chafing under my arms on the run. Those who have ever applied deodorant to chafed underarms following a marathon understand why this is a very big deal. (Hint: Applying my Old Spice after a marathon has occasionally made it feel as though the flames of hell were licking my underarms, if that gives you the picture.)

Practice Ride

For years, I had touted my traditional Friday afternoon bike ride but I had last enjoyed company on that ride 15 years ago. Friday afternoon got away from us; we meant to take both a bike ride and swim but no longer had time. Katie knew how much I liked the bike ride and insisted that we go.

We rode around Capitol Square and down State Street. I narrated the final mile of the run course. Then I told Katie that I really couldn’t tell her how she would feel when rounding the last corner and heading into the finish chute. She would need to feel that for herself.

We rode up Bascom Hill, the terror of the run course, then west to the marching band practice field. From a couple of blocks away, we could hear the University of Wisconsin Marching Band play “Rhapsody in Blue.” We parked our bikes against the chain link fence and watched the kids hop-step to the music while belting out Gershwin. The band director stopped the band several times, in each case wanting bigger, bolder.

“Sell it! Sell it!”

I silently hoped that he would not hop in the van with our family on Sunday. Clearly, he was not easily pleased and would find our Sunday afternoon marathon shuffle on the running path nearby lackluster.

Our next stop was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Temple. Confession: I am a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan but we had no time for me to bore Katie with noting the horizontal aspect of the stone work and its contrast to the steep roof of the cathedral. Even so, it meant a lot to me for Katie to experience something that I so enjoy.

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Practice Swim

Katie felt nervous about the swim. I didn’t wonder why. For 15 years, Katie had watched me begin Ironman races with roughly 2,500 other swimmers thrashing and bobbing in a frothy sea of chaos. It’s scary. Fortunately, Ironman recently consulted the U.S. Constitution’s Eight Amendment and learned that mass swim starts crossed into “cruel and unusual” territory. Ours would be a six wave start beginning with the professionals at 6:40 a.m., Katie’s wave of younger triathletes at 6:45, and ending with my geezer wave (more like a ripple) of women over 50 and men over 55. This would segregate us into more manageably-sized groups of roughly 400 swimmers each and avoid the dreadful thrash. Unfortunately, the swimmers bearing the heaviest testosterone load would start five minutes behind Katie. So Katie faced the unenviable prospect of being an aquatic doormat for two or three waves of mercilessly competitive swimmers coming up behind, through and over her.

We decided to swim on Saturday morning at just about the same time we would race the following day so that Katie could get used to the natural conditions – the sun rising, the chilly water, the bright blue sky.

We pulled on our wetsuits. (Thanks, Body Glide!) Katie repeated her emergency procedures. If dunked by an overly vigorous swimmer proceeding directly over her, she would make it to the surface, tread water, sight down the orange and red buoys marking the course, take a few breast strokes, then lower her head and keep swimming.

Once zipped into our wetsuits, we entered the water exactly where we would leave shore 24 hours later. Katie lowered her face into the water and took some pretty strong breaths but she didn’t hyperventilate as she had feared. We took a few strokes onto the course and began to swim more smoothly. The sun cast the Monona Terrace convention center in orange against the bright blue sky. Rhythm took over. Gulls flew overhead. Sounds from land receded, replaced by the swishing of each stroke. It would have been unkind for me to let that last.

I began to harass Katie. I started by swimming up directly behind her and knocking into her feet with each stroke, much as happens when a swimmer drafts behind another to let the front swimmer do the hard work. Not satisfied that I had upset her, I swam close beside her, my left arm interfering with the stroke of her right. Her rhythm remained steady. Finally, I put my left hand on her right shoulder and pushed her down. Katie popped up and looked at me.

“Dad, I know what you’re doing.”

I smiled and said, “Excellent! Let’s swim back.”

Cavalry

Des Moines restauranteurs and merchants grieve every year during Ironman Wisconsin weekend. Many think that the Iowa-Iowa State football game draws people from Des Moines to Ames or Iowa City but its really just our family leaving for Madison. Here we are going to dinner the night before the race.

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L-R, front: Katie, Harper Cope, Davis Cope (a broken finger, not THE finger), Ann Long, Margy. L-R, rear: Rick Long, Matt Wiegand, Tom Cope, Lynn Cope, the Paterfamilias.

I climbed into bed at about 9:30, lapsed into a lasagna-induced coma and slept soundly until 1:30. I wouldn’t sleep again for 23 hours.

4:58 a.m., Sunday, September 10th, Race Day

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5:00 a.m.

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5:47 a.m.

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The Hilton Monona Terrace Hotel provides coffee makers in each guest room.

5:52 a.m.

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Katie makes waiting look easy. Don’t be fooled.

6:05 a.m.

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Time to go.

6:31 a.m.

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Chase vehicle featuring war paint.

6:38 a.m.

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Seven minutes before casting our daughter to fate.

If I told you that I felt comfortable watching Katie walk off into the sea of wetsuits and neon swim caps, it would be a lie. Margy and I watched, feeling anxiety bordering on panic. The announcer, Mike Reilly, simply said, “go, go, go,” and Katie’s wave thrashed off.

“Where is she? Do you think that we can see her” Margy asked.

I looked, too, then pointed to where I thought she might be, then shrugged. We saw only splashing and identical green and pink swim caps bobbing into the distance.

I started 20 minutes later with a firm purpose: Catch her.

While I had felt almost unbearably nervous for the two days preceding the race, I needed only 100 yards or so in the water before I realized how I had wasted so much anxiety. The rhythm of my stroke comforted me. The huge orange sun entirely cleared the eastern horizon and the sky hung dark blue straight over my head. I felt relaxed and reminded that this place, this lake, this race, this was where I belonged. Halfway through the swim, I looked to see the capitol dome extend straight up over the middle of Monona Terrace, a sight I had described to Katie many times. I hoped that she had seen it, too.

The Ironman VIP services director, Nicole Geller, lent me an arm as I exited the water. She had been enormously kind to Katie and me. She heard our story and wanted us to finish what we had started 15 years before. I asked if she had seen Katie but she couldn’t hear me over the music. Volunteers yanked off my wetsuit and I ran up the Monona Terrace parking ramp helix.

“Katie’s a minute-and-a-half ahead of you,” Margy shouted.

The fates had tossed our daughter out of Lake Monona unscathed.

Having numbered myself among Body Glide’s true believers, I used my enthusiasm for the product and years of experience as a triathlete to try something new on race day. (Those of you who know triathlon can see this one coming from a mile away.) I had put Body Glide on my arms. It made getting into my wetsuit a snap. Ordinarily, the sleeves of my wetsuit were tough to negotiate but on that particular day, no sweat. Body Glide is not water soluble and remained very much on my arms as I attempted to put on a light, white, long sleeve shirt to protect me from the sun during the bike ride. The Body Glide that made getting into and out of my wetsuit so easy made getting into my shirt practically impossible. The polyester stuck to my arms as if the shirt was made of Gorilla Tape. It didn’t do the shirt much good but I finally got it over my head and arms, but not before driving my heart rate into the red zone.

8:28 a.m. 

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Katie prematurely enthuses about the 112 mile bike leg.

8:45 a.m. 

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The smile that melts my heart: late summer, cool morning in Madison – and 110 miles to go. 

I taught Katie how to ride a bike when she was 4 1/2 so I prefer not to criticize our daughter’s bike handling skills. This is the last I will mention them. After having ridden her triathlon bike around 200 miles, total, to prepare for a 112-mile race, her riding skills reflected her time in the saddle. Her proof of concept triathlon, the Ironman Wisconsin Half Ironman, featured a couple of falls at aid stations, the most dangerous place on Ironman race courses. Some riders hammer through at dizzying speed. Others pull over and stop. Some foolhardy volunteers wade out too far into bike traffic offering water, Gatorade and food, making riders brake hard or swerve. Other volunteers prudently remain affixed to the curb, requiring the riders to hit one another to get the food or drink offered. Suffice it to say that we believed it best for me to be the dad and to go hunt for food and drink, leaving Katie to stay well clear of each aid station melee. I’d cater her ride.

Noon

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Katie gloating on the virtues of youth while leading me up yet another hill. 

12:31 p.m.

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Davis and Harper Cope with Matt Wiegand. More cowbell! Harper succumbs momentarily to Ironman’s challenge.

2:03 p.m.

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When is that Tour de France thing anyway?

After about 7 1/2 hours on a narrow leather saddle, it felt good to stand up. Really, really, really good. Good like you can’t believe good. Katie and I felt confident that once the run began, we had this one. During the latter stages of the bike, though, it had become difficult for me to take nutrition.

4:47 p.m.

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Bascom Hill. Running, for now. 

As we approached Bascom Hill, I told Katie that there was something seriously wrong with her – and with anyone else running Ironman Wisconsin – if this thought was not front of mind at this point on the course: What’s really wrong with golf, anyway?

6:00 p.m. at the Run Turn Around

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At this precise point on the course, we looked 100 yards ahead and saw the finish, then needed to turn around to run another 13 miles. Katie smiled. I wasn’t so sure. 

Name Calling

So it had gotten dark. I didn’t feel cold – yet. We needed to keep walking.

“Once we hit the 25 mile marker, no more walking. Let’s run it in,” I said.

“Agreed,” she said.

We had ceased to be talkative.

As planned, we broke into a slow run at the sign along a darkened street. We passed a house where some college boys had watched pro football on their front step a few hours before. The course took a sharp left. We saw State Street with its shops, restaurants and bars a block ahead. The course made a very sharp turn right and, suddenly, there it was. The state capitol building towered above us, high on a hill, lit brilliant white against the black sky. Katie started to cry. We picked up speed.

We passed the last water stop without grabbing anything to eat or drink. We were inside a half mile. No time to stop. Once by the water stop, we began to hear the music and the crowd in the finish area. We turned right. The hill steepened. We sped up. The street along Capitol Square was dark and quiet. Spectators had concentrated near the finish.

We took a right hand turn and I surveyed runners so that we could position ourselves for the best finish photo. I saw that we would quickly overtake two runners ahead of us but a guy running by himself ahead of us had begun to pick up speed, too. The animal spirits had gotten hold of me. I said one last thing to Katie.

“Pass him.”

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Executing our pass at the entry to the finish chute.

It wasn’t a sprint but it wasn’t far from a sprint, either. Mike Reilly, the iconic Ironman announcer, called our names and let the crowd know that we were father and daughter. Then he said it to us both, but mostly to Katie. At least that’s the way I heard it.

“You are an Ironman.”

Once Mike Reilly calls you by name and then calls you a name, it’s permanent. It never goes away. You never forget it and it never gets old.

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Rejoined by our team captain. 

Tell Then Show

Katie is fully grown. She is capably creating her life as an adult. As each day passes, I can teach her less and less that she doesn’t already know. Soon, maybe even now, Katie has more to teach me than I have to teach her. Maybe IMW 2017 was part of this transition. With less to teach, I increasingly need to show. Katie had run the last few hundred yards of Ironmans with me so she knew what that felt like but she couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to put her face in the cold water under a giant orange sun in the early morning only to finish in the dark of a cool evening. Katie couldn’t have known what it would feel like to ride her bike and look out over farm fields just beginning to turn golden brown under the crystal blue sky of a very late summer day. Katie had cheered for me for years but knowing the profound gratitude of having family cheer for you from sun up to well beyond sundown was beyond her grasp.

Now she knows.

Postscript

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The packing list I used to ensure that Katie and I had everything we needed to cover 140.6 miles. 

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Here are turn-by-turn directions for the bike course. Since Ironman modified the bike course this year, Margy spent between four and five hours modifying her spreadsheet to see us on both the bike and the run. The result? Team Ross-Ross saw us 45 times during the day. So far as Katie and I know, no other spectators saw their athletes anywhere near so many times, nor cheered so enthusiastically. We are tremendously grateful to Margy/Mom, the most competent person we know.

6:13 a.m., Monday, September 11th at the finish line of Ironman Wisconsin

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Sleeping after an Ironman is surprisingly hard. Katie and I went to bed well after midnight and woke before 6:00 a.m. We decided to take a walk to Starbucks, then around Capitol Square. The grandstands had been disassembled and hauled away. The finish arch was gone. Only some stray paper cups and some folded tents gave any hint of what had happened on that very spot only nine or so hours before. But we will always remember.

Eden Prairie, Minnesota, 5:39 p.m., Monday, September 11

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Reality revisited: Our wetsuits, singlets and other assorted wet, sweaty and otherwise dirty gear had spent more than 24 hours getting very, very angry in these plastic bags.

7:41 a.m., Tuesday, September 12th, Frisco, Texas

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Katie cut off her Ironman weekend wristbands and rejoined the real world before walking into the office.

Thank you.

Thank you to Margy Ross aka Mom, aka team captain, Ironman’s reigning navigating, driving and cheering champion. Thanks to my sister and her family, Lynn Ross-Cope, Tom, Davis and Harper Cope. Thanks so much to my other sister and brother-in-law, Ann and Rick Long. Special thanks to our niece’s boyfriend, Matt Wiegand, who came to Madison even without Sarah just because Matt is (a) so into it and (b) preparing for Mike Reilly to call him a name.  Thanks to Marcus Schneider without whose help, love, and running support Katie couldn’t run, run, run like she runs, runs, runs. And of course, thanks to Nancy/Mom/Nanna who is always there for Katie and me. Calling this crew “the best” is always accurate but always inadequate. Katie and I can’t thank you enough – ever.

In honor of Lisa Lander Holmberg whose birthday comes around at about the time of IMW every year. Katie now knows the place on the course where we will always remember you. For Warren Thornthwaite and his patch of wildflowers that grow along the road near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Most of all, for Bob Ross, captain of the 1952-1953 Grinnell College swim team. Without you, neither Katie nor I would have put our faces into the cold water and set off.

Scott and Katie at Finish IMW 2002

Inaugural Ironman Wisconsin, September 2002. Katie’s tee shirt commemorated her finish in that year’s Iron Kids triathlon, the only triathlon that she had run before June 11, 2017.

Some Guy

A light breeze blew off the lake. It rustled a few of the deep green spring leaves. The sun lit the sky, orange at the eastern horizon, deep blue to the west. A compact guy came toward me on the running path. Lean but not skinny, closely-trimmed gray hair showed beneath his baseball hat. His skin was tan and wrinkled. He ran steadily and smoothly, but not fast. His form was strong, efficient. I thought of this guy later in my story of the 2017 Ironman Wisconsin 70.3.

Physical

“Hold your hands out like this,” the doctor said.

She illustrated, holding her hands straight out in front of her, palms facing down.

I imitated.

“Yeah, I see,” she said. “Now touch your nose with your left index finger like this.”

She took her left index finger and placed it on the tip of her nose.

I followed, having no trouble, though I wondered whether this proved more about my neurological function or the size of my nose, a hard target to miss.

This was my first physical since 2005. While I felt fit to finish the week’s upcoming half Ironman, I also knew that fitness did not necessitate health.  “Fitness” described the ability to do something in particular, like competing in a triathlon. “Health” described presence of overall normal physical function and absence of significant disease or risk factors.

My 2005 physical had been an ego boost. On a family vacation to Canyon Ranch, a spa near Tucson, I visited a clinic attached to the spa. My family – on both sides – had a rich tradition of killing its eldest males by heart attack. I had no reason other than family history to get checked out; it seemed like a good idea.

The clinic drew blood, then set me up with a doctor a day or two later. At my appointment, the doctor glowed. He usually didn’t get to provide this much good news. All of my blood tests were well within acceptable ranges, some falling desirably outside those ranges.

I explained my workout habits. The doctor nodded approvingly. I asked if there was anything else that I should do to break with family tradition.

“You could have a heart scan to check for calcification occluding your arteries,” the doctor said.

“And if that turns out OK, what else should I do?” I asked.

“Wear a seat belt.”

I got a heart scan and scored a zero: No calcification, no occlusion – at least so far as the test could show. A clean bill of health. So I wore a seatbelt, worked out and ate as usual and felt pretty smug about the whole thing.

My 2017 physical differed. I wanted the doctor to check something: My left hand trembled. Sometimes it trembled more than others but it pretty much always trembled.

“Don’t let me push your hands down.”

“Bend your wrists like this and don’t let me push them toward you.”

After the doctor finished, I asked, “Essential tremor?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Interesting that it’s localized on your left side. Expect it to eventually move to your right hand, too.”

The doctor reviewed two drugs that I could use. One would compromise my athletic performance. The other drug seemed to have fewer side effects.

“No,” I said. “I’m not dropping things, I can type and write and function normally. If it gets bad enough that I can’t get along normally, we’ll have another discussion. Otherwise, this is just annoying, not really problematic.”

The doctor agreed but she didn’t exactly glow as the doctor had 12 years ago.

“See you in a year,” she said.

Healthy? Yeah. Smug? Nope.

Gimmick

Wikipedia says that Gypsy Rose Lee was an American burlesque entertainer and star of stage, screen and television, famous for her striptease act. She said that “everyone’s gotta have a gimmick.” I found mine when I ran my first marathon (without the striptease part, thank you very much). Then I ran a half Ironman. Years passed. Totals mounted. 81 marathons, 18 Ironmans, lots of half Ironmans, and too many 10K’s and 5K’s to count. I identified myself by what I did: I ran long, hard races. I conceived myself inseparably from training and racing.

The tremor in my left hand reminded me that while I may have swum, biked and run away from the family plot populated with heart attack victims, the clock was running. I might escape a heart attack but not mortality.

Just Do It

“So do you guys think that I should do it?” Katie asked.

Margy said, “Maybe you should. We’d be there to support you.”

“Dad?”

I stayed quiet.

“Dad?”

“I’m thinking for a minute,” I said.

After a pause, I said, “I think that you should definitely do it.”

One week before the 2017 Ironman Wisconsin 70.3, I told our 25 year-old daughter to enter a race for which she had very minimally prepared. (A “70.3” is a half Ironman with a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run.) Katie had ridden her new bike for only a few miles outside, less than the bike leg distance in the race just one week away. She had owned a wetsuit for three days but had never swum in it. She had never trained in open water. And I told her to enter the race. My advice bordered on criminal.

Never mind that Katie had won the Dad Vail Regatta in 2014 in a torrential downpour with 40 mph winds. Never mind that Katie and her boat won the Head of the Charles Regatta and the New England Rowing Championship. Never mind that Katie had cruised to three marathons that each easily qualified, or re-qualified, her to run Boston. Swimming in a lake with minimal preparation while hundreds of people splashed, kicked and hit her would be nuts under these circumstances. Ironman Wisconsin bike courses were notoriously hilly. Katie had her hands full simply trying to stop her bike, extract her foot from the pedal and step down without falling over. And after that, a half marathon would ensue.

You’d think I didn’t love her.

Forecast

Once Katie had paid the entry fee, she looked at the weather forecast: 91 degrees Fahrenheit, humid and windy.

Madison

On the Friday before the race, Katie’s unreasonably indulgent boyfriend, Marcus Schneider, flew from Portland, OR to Chicago. Nike works summer hours on Fridays and Marcus just happened to be at his computer when Katie found a cheap flight for him to O’Hare. We picked him up late that night and headed back to Madison. Our niece, Sarah Long, accompanied her boyfriend, Matt Wiegand, to Madison for his first half Ironman. Matt’s mom, Lori, came along, too. Given the forecast, this seemed like a heartless way to sacrifice our young.

Dinner

On Saturday night, several members of our Wildflower gang, Emmerson Ward, Todd Phelps, Steve Mayeron and I, assembled for dinner. Todd, a former US Army rifleman, told a story about spending weeks stalking a squirrel that had chewed a hole in his home’s roof, then took up residence in his attic. The squirrel like to run laps in the attic after Todd and his wife went to bed.

Todd used a 0.22 cal. pellet gun in urban Highland Park, MN to shoot the squirrel while an eight year-old girl had an outdoor birthday party in the yard next door. The girls would have taken a dim view of Todd shooting a cute squirrel during the party. The police might have taken an even dimmer view of a guy in hunting clothes with a rifle right next to a little girl’s birthday party. In the end, only the squirrel departed with regrets.

Todd, Emmerson, Steve and I each talked about how we felt before the upcoming race. I said that two of my last three races had been poor performances. I felt apprehensive. I said that my family all gave me such terrific support that I hoped the race the next day would be different, that I would perform well.

“My family doesn’t come to see me have a bad day. It just kills me when I go out and perform poorly for them,” I said.

Todd looked at me strangely. He said, “Maybe they just come for you.”

It was a bolt from the blue. My family wanted me to do well but they weren’t there just to see a good performance. They were there for me. Period. I had never thought of it quite that way. Rather, I had always felt responsible for running a fast time so that they could have a good time.

I can’t explain why, but I thought of the old guy running around Staring Lake. That’s who I wanted to be, I thought, that guy. Maybe not fast. Maybe not on the podium. Just a guy out there keeping after it.

Shoes

Margy and I agreed. She and Marcus would follow Katie on race day. Katie needed the support more than I did.

The sun rose hot over Lake Monona. Sweat dripped from under my swim cap and seeped out the cuffs of my wetsuit sleeves and legs. After I said my good byes, I lined up with the swimmers intending to finish at about the time I planned to finish, too. Once I got going, the cool water calmed me. I caught occasional glimpses of the Wisconsin state capitol on that familiar horizon. I built a rhythm.

Once back on land, I was on my own. It scared me to think of Katie in the water. I mounted my bike and tried to think good thoughts. I remembered a song I used to sing to Katie before she went to sleep:

“I love you Katie,

Oh yes I do.

I love you Katie,

and I’ll be true.

When you’re not near me,

I’m blue (so blue).

Oh Katie,

I love you.”

That was all I could do while I rode my bike by the foot-tall corn stalks quivering in the hot wind. The temperature climbed. The long, winding bike ride ended and a single loop run around Lake Monona began.

The sun beat down. I silently sang the song. I tried not to worry about Katie. I thought about who I wanted to be. I put one foot in front of the other.

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Katie safely in motion on the bike.

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Katie either overcoming her shyness in front of a camera at age 25 or asking exactly how she could stop this thing without killing herself. 

Unbeknown to me, Katie had survived the swim and bike only a little worse for wear. Both of her knees bled from tipping over on her bike, twice, as she tried to stop at aid stations to get Gatorade. Her calf bled from embedding the teeth of her bike’s chainring into the back of her leg.

Margy watched Katie transition from bike to run. Suddenly, Katie looked up.

“Where are my shoes?” she yelled at Margy.

Note: This is not the first time that Katie shouted accusingly at one or more of her parents when Katie herself had misplaced something.

“I don’t know,” Margy shouted back.

Katie frantically dug through her gear inside the transition area. Finally, Katie looked up.

“Throw me your shoes.”

“What?”

“I said, throw me your shoes.”

Margy and I believe that parental indulgence should end when your child has graduated from college and works as a consultant with an unconscionably high billing rate. Sometimes, Margy and I do not act entirely in accordance with our beliefs.

Margy pitched herself onto the ground, unlaced her shoes and threw them into the transition area. A mad scramble ensued. Katie ran onto the course in her mother’s shoes. Margy called Marcus, whose backpack contained Katie’s shoes. Margy chased Katie barefoot for about a half mile. Eventually, Marcus, Margy, Katie, Margy’s shoes and Katie’s shoes all intersected. Moments later, Katie ran on.

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They promised that the run course would go around a lake. They didn’t promise that it would be flat. Bloody knees but wearing her own shoes.

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Katie’s face shows the strain of the preceding 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and stifling temperatures. And maybe just a bit of youth, too. 

Finished

Though I walked through aid stations to ensure that I drank enough, I ran the rest of the course. The heat washed over me in waves, relieved infinitesimally by the strong south wind that blew in our faces for the last two shade-free miles.

I finished. Sarah, Lori and Matt were there to greet me. Matt had beaten me by 18 minutes. I laid down in the grass. Sarah brought me water, chips, pretzels and a sandwich. After a Diet Coke, I revived.

Sarah tracked Katie’s progress on her phone.

“She’s at about 6 1/2.”

A few minutes passed while we lounged in the shade.

“Eight now.”

A few minutes later, Sarah checked her phone again.

“She’s at ten. Margy and Marcus are coming to the finish area. Katie’s running about nine-minute miles.”

Margy, Marcus, Sarah, Matt, Lori and I took spots along the fence by the finish line.

Katie ran up the last hill, rounded a corner and her cheering section erupted.

Inheritance

My grandfathers were fine men. My grandmothers gracious. My dad, an exceedingly fine man; my mother remains incomparable. But in some ways, I have tried to follow my own path. In some respects, I have fallen short. In other respects, I have avoided their mistakes while substituting my own. The extent to which I have succeeded has yet to be judged, something I hope to put off for a while. I don’t know that old guy’s name, the guy I saw running, but in some way, I’m following him, too.

Looking over my shoulder, I see some of the inheritance I will leave. It follows a path up a hill and into the shade covering a finish line.

My family is far from finished producing fine people.

For Sarah, Adam, Matt, Hannah, Harper, Davis and Marcus but, especially and forever, for Katie.

And, as always, thank you so much, Margy.

Some photos from the day:

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I struggled with Katie’s wetsuit. Katie smiled for the camera.

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The Ancient Mariner, Katie and Matt Wiegand, who had a spectacular Ironman 70.3 debut in Madison.

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Nothing like a tight, black wetsuit on a sunny, hot summer’s day.

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Spreading joy to all who surrounded her, momentarily overcoming her camera-shyness, Katie approaches the swim start.

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At the finish: Katie and Scott

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Next?

Postscript: I entered the water well before Katie, then swam and biked a bit faster than she did. Though we did not run together, times from each of our runs closely matched. I placed 318th overall in the run. Katie, despite her shoe snafu, ran only four seconds slower, placing 319th. “If you’re not near me, I’m blue….”

Wishing my brother-in-law Rick Long a speedy recovery from his hip replacement yesterday and his upcoming knee replacement tomorrow. 

 

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“Sit on the right side,” I suggested. “Maybe next to the window.”

Katie and I boarded one of the 100 or so school buses lined up between Boston Garden and Boston Common. It was about 7:15 a.m. on Patriot’s Day. We wore sweatshirts we intended to throw away. Katie wore some hideous orange and green pajama bottoms with “Irish” and “Get Lucky” printed on them. No guessing why we found them on the Target sale rack.

Already bright in the eastern sky, the sun filtered through gray, bare trees. The air felt warm. Katie opened the bus window.

The first bus in the line moved. Ours followed. Katie clapped. We were on our way.

We drove through Back Bay and merged onto Interstate 90. People around us got to know their seat mates. Nervousness makes runners chatty. We had an hour or so to ride. Then we had two more hours to sit on the grass beside Hopkinton High School. Buses stretched into the distance ahead and back as far as we could see.

“Is this why you wanted me to sit here?” Katie asked.

She pointed to the Charles River. Rowers paused in a boat near shore to receive instruction from a coach. A single skull rowed northwest. A four pulled steadily in the opposite direction leaving four perfectly round swirls in the water behind.

I nodded “yes.” I had thought about this moment.

“This is where I trained for this race almost every morning,” Katie said. “So this is where I rowed Head of the Charles and where I trained for the Boston Marathon. Pretty cool.”

The river disappeared behind a building. We headed west.

The moment had been a long time coming.

The Start

Parenting is a long build up. You dream big dreams for your kids but you have to take it a step at a time. There is no single moment, not one life’s lesson that makes your kid all you dream he or she can be. It’s a long, slow road when they are little and over in a flash when they leave for college.

Standing on an embankment facing the Hopkinton High School, I realized that I had suffered a lack of vision. Katie and I were about to walk toward the start area a half mile down a gently sloping hill. I held out my hands and made a shape just about the size of an eight pound baby.

“This big,” I said.

“What are you talking about?” Katie said.

“This is how big you were when you were born. I didn’t imagine this day coming.”

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Precocious child: She read the tee shirt.

Katie won her heat in the toddler trot during Twin Cities Marathon weekend when she was four. She ran track and cross country in high school but was most noted for being a good sport rather than for being fleet. She was a better high school Nordic skier, the fastest girl on her team.

In college she found her sport. Katie was an accomplished and decorated rower winning some of the most prestigious college races. But the transition from rower to runner wasn’t obvious. Not all rowers are fast runners or vice versa.

Rowers and Nordic skiers race harder and suffer mightily, more severely than any other athletes I know. Katie demonstrated something more important than aerobic endurance or foot speed. Katie had grit.

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After talking smack to the four year-olds she clobbered in the toddler trot. With Nancy “Nanna” Ross, Twin Cities Marathon weekend 1996. 

Some Lady in A Purple Nike Shirt

While Katie and I bounced around in a bus for more than an hour, Margy and Marcus had a chance encounter. Marcus wore his Bowdoin tee shirt. A small woman with gray hair walked toward Marcus and Margy and asked if Marcus had gone to Bowdoin. Marcus said he had. She extended her hand.

“Bowdoin class of ’79,” the woman said.

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Take a look. There’s a building named after her on the Nike campus. Yeah, a building.

It took Margy a few seconds, then she was thunderstruck, starstruck.

The three of them chatted. Marcus had run with Joan Benoit Samuelson’s son Anders at Bowdoin. Joanie had just left her daughter at the buses like Margy had. Like Marcus, Joanie’s daughter Abby also worked at Nike. The three discussed the weather and the prospects for Katie and Abby to go out and race on what threatened to be a hot day. They exchanged email addresses so that Marcus and Abby could make contact once back in Portland at Nike. Margy and Joanie agreed to get in touch.

Back in Hopkinton

Katie and I ditched our sweats in big bags for donation to the poor. Then, under a bright blue sky, we strolled down a small town street with thousands of other runners. Neighbors stood in their yards and cheered as we walked by.

On the main street, Katie and I stood in Corral 5 of Wave 2 waiting for the Boston Marathon to start. It was 10:25 a.m. The sun felt hot. We were on the opposite side of a small hill that hid the start line. We heard someone say, “You’re underway.” Neither Katie nor I heard a start gun or the National Anthem or anything. We could just see people at the crest of the hill begin to walk. In another minute, we began to walk, too.

“Careful, Peanut. You’ll start to run and then suddenly stop dead, then start running again.”

We began a slow jog. Within ten seconds, we were stopped. Katie gave me a big smile. We began to move again and crossed the start line almost exactly three minutes after our wave officially started.

At Boston, runners sort into waves and corrals that very, very tightly group runners according to qualifying times. This is good and bad. The good: Few in front have placed themselves ahead of faster runners. Not many posers get in the way, though there are always a few cheaters. The bad: With a group so tightly clustered, runners stay clustered. For the first few miles, it was hard to place one foot in front of the other without clipping someone ahead or getting into the way of someone behind.

Katie and I ran as close together as possible, separating only as necessary to pass someone or to let someone pass us. Some people were determined to work their way up through the crowd. Others relaxed. Most stayed steady. The animal spirit in Katie rose. She was one of the passers.

The west-northwest tailwind did little to cool us. The air felt still, the sun hot. Savings and loan signs showed temperatures in the low 70’s early, mid 70’s later. Shade from trees on the south side of the road felt good but without leaves, even the shady spots weren’t all that cool.

The crowd thinned. Katie and I ran closer together. Where possible, we ran tangents, the inside of the curves, to keep the race distance as short as possible.

In Wellesley, we ran through the “Wellesley College Scream Tunnel.” The girls held naughty, suggestive signs and offered kisses. Some runners took them up on the offer, though most kisses were planted on cheeks.

After the mile 15 marker, the long Wellesley downhill started. My thighs, left hamstring and Achilles tendon hurt. Katie and I stuck together for the long uphill. At mile 18, Katie got through the water stop about 30 yards ahead of me. I struggled to catch up. I ran aggressive tangents to regain Katie’s side at mile 19 or so.

At mile 21, Katie turned to me.

“How are you, Dad?”

“Bad. You go ahead.”

Katie shook her head “no.”

My thighs hurt with every step. One of my calves threatened to cramp. I altered my gait to keep running. I had seen Katie turn to look for me several times. I lost sight of her between Newton’s first big hill and Heartbreak Hill.

Katie slowed her pace hoping I would catch her. I kept at it as best I could, trying to catch up. I couldn’t. I walked through the water stop at mile 23. I walked another 200 to 400 yards trying to regroup. The thought that Katie might wait kept me running. I wanted her to get her best possible time. But I was hanging on, hoping to finish.

Katie crossed in 3:25:46, more than nine minutes faster than required to qualify for Boston again in 2018, though both she and I will use our faster 2016 Twin Cities Marathon time of 3:18 to enter. I finished just a little over ten minutes after Katie and felt lucky to have stayed right side up. I had passed at least two runners who had gone down hard within sight of the finish line.

Plans

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” – Woody Allen

So here was the plan. Katie and I would run this marathon like we had run our two recent Twin Cities Marathons: Side-by-side, step-for-step, stride-for-stride. Like most parents, I wanted to be right there to help Katie along. But, like most parents, it didn’t work out that I was able to stay with my kid as long or as far as I wanted. She needed to push ahead and that was OK. It wasn’t the plan for that day but it was the ultimate plan.

Maybe this was my parenting metaphor. I did absolutely everything I knew how to do, everything I could, to set Katie up for success. We ran together side-by-side, step-for-step, stride-for-stride for 18 miles. Then my help became inconsistent. I showed up again, helped for a little bit, then faded. She was on her own. We hadn’t talked about it, didn’t plan it or acknowledge it at the time, but I had passed the torch.

I feel fiercely proud of Katie and hope that I taught her well. It’s her torch to carry.

Plane

I sat down extremely stiffly into the middle seat on our Tuesday morning flight to Minneapolis. The guy by the window asked if I had run the marathon. I said that I had.

“So how many marathons have you run?”

“81”

“I meant how many total marathons have you done,” he said, looking a little puzzled.

“Well, I have run four Boston Marathons. Yesterday’s was my fourth Boston but it was my 81st marathon over all,” I said, hoping to clarify.

He looked surprised. Margy leaned forward and nodded to confirm the count.

“That’s a lot,” he said.

“Feels like a lot right now,” I said. My legs felt like I had run all 81 the day before.

Thanks

Thanks to Margy Ross, who engineered all of our travel, spotting and cheering us four times on this year’s Boston Marathon course. Thanks to Marcus Schneider for flying across an entire continent to support us. Thanks to Holly and Jeff Schneider for good dinner conversation and great support on the course and beyond. It was nice to meet Andrew, too. Thanks to Dale and Barbara Edmunds for offering their driveway in Wellesley for parking. Thanks to both Emilys, Luisa and Doug. You were right where we needed you. Thanks to all of our friends and family for cheering us on, whether in Boston, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Maine, North Carolina or elsewhere. We have the most wonderful support we could imagine – and maybe not even imagine.

For Bob Ross. The aerobic capacity came from somewhere. I blame him. Mostly, though, he modeled grit. 

Pictures from the Weekend

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At the Expo: Shilling for Adidas.

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All swoosh: Katie with Marcus Schneider near Boston Common before boarding the bus for Hopkinton.

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25 years after the hospital picture: Katie grown up, parents unchanged. 

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After the race: Margy and Marcus wisely kept their distance.

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Katie’s oil painting of  Bob Ross, Grinnell College, Class of ’53, pictured circa 1980 engaged in a thoroughly non-aerobic sport. 

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Graph

If a line is drawn from the lower left corner of a graph toward the upper right corner and another line is drawn from the upper left to the lower right corner, those two lines will converge.

Inevitable

I am good at dealing with the inevitable so long as I can do it later.

Wisconsin

Those of you brave enough to have read my most recent blog post know that I was not pleased with my performance at Ironman Wisconsin 2016. My one-time Ironman swami, Dave Mason, used to set goals for his race performances. He would establish a best conceivable time, a great time, an expected time and a mom still loves me time. I considered my results at Ironman Wisconsin to fall in the mom still loves me category. I didn’t ask Mom directly but she remained civil following the race.

“That’s really good!”

If you are a parent, I dare you to tell me that you haven’t done this: Your child puts effort into something like a crayon drawing or swimming across the width of a pool. You say, “That’s really good!” But you are thinking, “That’s so cute.” You praise the effort. You try to make your kid feel good. You don’t offer your honest assessment which is: Keep at it.

As happens among athletes- drones all- Katie and I discussed our training during the summer leading up to the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon. Occasionally, Katie snapped a photo of the computer screen containing her mile splits from a recent run. Whether we discussed her training during a phone conversation or I examined a photo of her run splits, I said, “That’s really good.” But here is what I was thinking: She’s going to kill me at Twin Cities if I try to keep up with her.

In the Garden

So there I was in Australia’s Royal Botanic Garden a few days after Ironman Wisconsin. I had realized that I took great pride in two things: the results of my parenting and my athletic accomplishments. And that was pretty much it. Of course, my season’s “A” race, Ironman Wisconsin, had been a disappointment and undermined, somewhat, the pride I took in recent athletic accomplishment. So, one of the two things in which I took pride wobbled. Maybe I had lost it. Maybe for good.

My goal for the Twin Cities Marathon was to run every step with Katie and to help her do her best. (Isn’t that what I had been trying to do for Katie with everything, not just running a marathon?)

I realized that Katie’s loyalty would not easily permit her to run up the road ahead of me if I could not maintain a pace that pushed her along. And I hated the idea of her holding back to run with me.

Flight

Katie arrived on Wednesday before the race. We discussed our optimal plan: Run every step together. There was a back up plan but we discussed it reluctantly. Her boyfriend, Marcus, would come to watch the race. If needed, he could run ahead from point to point beside the course to offer Katie encouragement even if I had not been able to keep up. Marcus ran track and cross country at Bowdoin and Dartmouth. He was fast. He could offer support if I couldn’t. I insisted that Marcus remain off the course if this happened. No “banditing” and no cheating by pacing Katie.

Family

Metropolitan Des Moines emptied and four hours later, our house filled. My mom, sisters, brothers in law, nephew, nieces, my niece’s boyfriend, Marcus and Katie. It became a swirl, a practice run for Thanksgiving, a simulation of an Ironman mass swim start. I plunged my hands into my green rubber gloves and my green rubber gloves into the dish water. Margy cooked like mad and kept a steady stream of pots, pans, dishes, bowls, knives, forks, spoons, cutting boards and odd utensils coming my way. We laughed, ate, washed dishes, watched football, ate, laughed, washed dishes and repeated.

Here is how we celebrated my 58th, my brother in law Rick’s 57th and Marcus’s 25th birthdays on the day before my 29th Twin Cities Marathon.

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My niece’s boyfriend, Matt Wiegand, would race Twin Cities, too. He had trained very hard all summer. He wanted to qualify to run the Boston Marathon in April 2018. He would need to run fast. For men his age, 24, he needed to run at least a 3:05:00, something that I could scarcely remember being young enough to do.

Our family feared that maybe Katie, Matt and I lacked proper motivation. They figured that signs could change that.

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My niece, Harper, is eight. My nephew, Davis, is 11. Kids get snide earlier than in my day. 

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Obvious but to the point.

 

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Requires explanation?

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My favorite.

Sleep

I slept poorly the night before the race. I envisioned Katie about three strides ahead looking over her shoulder. I felt unable to close the gap. I heard myself telling Katie to go ahead. I could see her look back, turn to face ahead, then press on without me.

Perfect

For reasons unexplained, save for two races, one very hot and the other very rainy, the Twin Cities Marathon weekend has attracted perfect weather. Sunday, October 9, 2016, offered no exception. The sun rose and colored the downtown buildings pink and orange. The sky directly overhead shone bright blue and the air sat still in the upper 30’s. Katie and I walked up to Matt in the start corral. He’s tall. He wasn’t hard to find. We wished him good luck, then walked back to join runners of our expected pace. The announcer said “four minutes.” Katie and I took our jackets and threw them to the side of the street to be collected for charity. We wore singlets, shorts, baseball hats and cheap cotton gloves. I wasn’t sure if I shivered from the cold or the excitement.

The horn sounded. We crossed the start line a few seconds later, then began to run.

After a few blocks, the field spread enough that Katie could run beside me.

“How do you feel, Dad?” she asked.

I paused for just a second and said, “I feel really, really good.” And I did.

State of mind

I knew the state of mind I wanted to cultivate. Many people believe that athletic performance depends upon a fierce mind, a mind that makes your jaw jut out, your teeth clench, your fists harden and your muscles contract. I am sure that works for some people in some sports. For most people in most sports, one optimally cultivates a relaxed, focused mind. I knew that I needed to concentrate on what I was doing but not so hard that it increased stress. I wanted to pay careful attention to my breath – and to Katie’s – so that neither of us developed a deficit. What we needed to do was to find a sustainable state of mind and exertion. We needed to cast everything else aside and slide along the razor’s edge of running as fast as we could, no faster.

Naturally, the world we passed intruded. Both Katie and I were moved, almost to tears, by the pealing bells of the Basilica of St. Mary on Hennepin Avenue. The pack of runners at that early point bobbed along in close quarters and the soft sound of their shoes striking the pavement, the runners’ deep breaths, were sounds I could hear along with the bells. Steaming breath pulsed from the runners in front of us, passing over their shoulders, illuminated white by the bright sun at our backs.

As Katie and I pulled to the right at the five mile water stop to collect paper cups to drink, a woman ran in and clipped my heels, speeding by between me and the volunteers handing out the cups.

“Stay off my feet,” I said.

“Don’t slow down,” she replied.

“It’s a water stop,” I said, emphasizing the word “stop.”

I offered a sincere assessment of her intelligence but that did not appear to inspire contrition.

“Look at her run and how she is dressed, Dad,” Katie said. “I think that we’ll see her later.” (Assuming that my prior 79 marathons had water stops every two miles, she stomped on my feet while I ran through my 1,028th marathon water stop.)

Team Ross, Ross, Ross, etc. met us near the six mile mark, our family’s 29th rendezvous at that very place.

After picturing running away from a singing Justin Bieber, I don’t remember too many details. I told Katie about upcoming turns and instructed her to work to the right or left sides of the course so that we would follow the shortest route.  As the race progressed, I stopped saying what to do and just gestured left or right. Katie configured her running watch to provide current pace. In 2015, we had averaged 7:44 miles, so this year Katie consulted her watch and, if our pace exceeded 7:45 per mile, Katie would say, “A little hot, Dad.” I’d slow down but within a minute or two, Katie would repeat, “A little hot, Dad.” During the entire run, Katie never once said that we should speed up.

At 13 miles, I took my first and only look at a wristband marked with race splits we needed to run so that Katie could qualify for the Boston Marathon. We were about 10 minutes ahead after 13 miles – about half way. For comparison, we were nine minutes ahead in 2015 after 19 miles. At just about this time, the 3:15 marathon pace group passed us very slowly. If we stuck with them, which we did not intend to do, we would beat our goal time by 20 minutes. The pace team leader for the 3:15 group held a stick with four balloons. For several miles thereafter, I watched those balloons creep ahead of us ever so very slowly, meaning that we were holding a pace only a tiny bit slower than 20 minutes ahead of our goal.

“A little hot, Dad,” Katie said again. I couldn’t help chasing the balloons.

Near mile 17, West River Road rimmed the Mississippi River. The trees cast deep shade. The temperature had risen into the 50’s but the shade felt good. We were working hard. An older woman stood alone beside the road. She “cheered.”

“Go,” she said monotonously. “You look amazing.” She sounded like a somnambulistic robot.

“Severe caffeine deficiency,” I offered.

Katie giggled.

“Tragic. Don’t let it happen to you.”

Katie said that she had seen the effects for herself and would be careful.

A couple of miles later, we crossed the Franklin Avenue Bridge and looked south along the chasm formed by the Mississippi River. The river banks stood completely enmeshed in hardwoods just beginning to turn from green to yellow, red and orange.

Soon enough, we passed the woman who clipped my feet at the five mile water stop. She had tied her heavy clothing to her waist and plodded along. I didn’t see her. Katie neglected to mention it to me. Katie said that we were going fast enough that the woman was easy to miss.

Marcus met us at the bottom of the marathon’s steepest hill. Katie and I pushed. Once we crested the hill, we felt gassed. There was Marcus again, looking rested, tanned and ready. Once I caught my breath, I asked Katie if she would mind if I punched Marcus in the nose for being so much faster than we were. She didn’t hesitate to agree: it was an excellent idea. (Did I mention that fatigue in a marathon makes some people irritable?)

Once on Summit Avenue, it was easy to get caught up in either the grandeur of St. Paul’s most prestigious, mansion lined street or the fact that we were climbing up a steady grade for nearly two miles. What mansions?

Shortly after passing the intersection with Snelling Avenue, Katie and I heard surf music. It was the Zingrays, a band that has played at the same spot on the course for decades. As we passed the guitar player, I waved. He nodded. We reached the top of the hill. It was almost all downhill from there. But it wasn’t easy.

The temperature hadn’t reached 60 but Katie and I sought the little shade offered on the south side of the street. I was not sure if we had slowed down or if Katie had grown weary of scolding. She said “A little hot” occasionally but began to omit “Dad” from the sentence, the economy reflecting our fatigue. We became very quiet and stopped looking at one another, choosing to look straight ahead. We managed a weak nod or wave when Marcus swooped in to encourage us.

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Late in the race on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I am inviting Marcus closer so that I can punch him in the nose for running so much faster than we could. He declined.

We turned slightly left. The road dipped. The James J. Hill Mansion appeared on our right. I pointed to the top of the St. Paul Cathedral. Less than half a mile to go. The downhill steepened sharply. My thighs hurt. “A little hot, Dad.”

The street bottomed out on a bridge over Interstate 94 and turned slightly uphill. We felt that. The capitol building looked very white and very close. Less than 200 yards to go. We pressed hard.

At 50 yards from the finish line, Katie and I held out our hands. We clasped hands, crossed the line together, stopped, looked at our watches, then hugged.

My watch said “3:18:35.”

“That’s really good,” I said. I meant it.

Katie had qualified for the Boston Marathon by more than 16 minutes. (We learned later that she had finished in the top three percent of women age 22-29.)

Found

Whatever I had lost in Madison four weeks earlier, I felt that I had found again somewhere near the Basilica of St. Mary. Maybe it was the bells that helped me get it back.

The graph that I described to begin this post features two lines. The line moving from upper left to lower right represents Katie. As she grows older, her marathon times will decrease – four minutes from 2015 to 2016. The other line, the one that runs from lower left to upper right represents me. As I grow older, my marathon times will rise. This is inevitable, inescapable. But in 2015 and 2016, those two lines, Katie’s and mine, converged. During two races run one year apart, we ran every stride together. My line intersected hers and we both ran just a little bit faster, probably because we are better together than we are separately. Eventually, Katie will need to go up the road without me. It’s inevitable but an eventuality that I will deal with well. Tomorrow. Or maybe next year. Almost certainly by the year after…

So for one October day in each of 2015 and 2016, my sources of pride converged. We ran well. We were together. It was a sunny day.

Another Marcus gets the last word:

Of all nature’s gifts to the human race, what is sweeter to a man than his children? -Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator, writer (106-43 BCE)

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Katie and Scott after showers and therapeutic application of pizza.

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Team Ross, Ross, Ross, etc. showing inspirational artwork. Front: Harper Cope, Davis Cope. Rear: Katie, Scott and Matt Wiegand, whose 2:58 marathon was way more than good enough for an April 2018 rendezvous in Hopkinton. 

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Obligatory photo of Katie with Marcus to demonstrate that I did not punch him in the nose after all. I couldn’t catch him. 

Thanks to Lynn, Tom, Davis and Harper Cope; the increasingly civil Nancy aka “Nanna” or “Mom” Ross; Ann, Rick and Sarah Long; Matt Wiegand and Marcus Schneider. Extra special thanks to Margy Ross for her superhuman hosting, navigation and driving with scant regard for traffic laws aka “guidelines” on race day. Our family’s support on race day is just the tip of the iceberg. Katie and I are so very, very grateful for the love and support of our family and friends every day – usually without handmade posters.

Postscript: The official Twin Cities Marathon race results for 2016 list Katie’s finish time as 3:18:36 and my time as 3:18:35. Keep trying, Katie. Maybe someday…