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On Saturday, July 2nd, I ran my fifth Afton Trail Run 50K. It was hard.

Absolutely.

In 2001, I had run with my friend, Dave Mason, for a year or so preceding his first Ironman. I had always wondered whether I could run an Ironman but now Dave would be my guinea pig. If he couldn’t complete an Ironman, I gave myself little chance. But if he could….

Dave flew off to Germany and I waited. Following races online was not a thing back then. Dave finished. When he returned, I asked.

“Do you think that I could finish an Ironman?”

Dave looked me squarely in the eye and did not skip a beat.

“Absolutely,” he said.

My heart soared.

“But I’m not going to tell you that the marathon doesn’t suck because it does.”

I had stopped listening after “absolutely.” Though maybe I should have listened more to the part about the marathon, Dave had just changed my life. Without Dave expressing the confidence that I could finish an Ironman, I would not have been brave enough to try. But Dave had done an Ironman and he knew what it took. So when he said that I could run an Ironman, too, I listened.

I have thought back on that conversation hundreds, maybe thousands, of times. While I am very, very grateful for Dave’s confidence, that exchange has stood as an example of how we never really know when we might say or do something that changes someone else’s life. I don’t think that Dave meant to affect me so profoundly, only to offer an honest assessment and friendly encouragement. But the fact remains that his quick expression of confidence transformed me.

And Margy may never forgive him.

Before the 2016 Afton Trail Run.

I got into the car at about 4:50 a.m. and drove east. Only after I had driven 15 miles or so did the sun begin to draw a thin yellow line across the deep blue horizon, separating land from sky. As I approached Afton State Park, a couple of cars ahead of me, and one behind, turned right to trace the hilly ribbon of road in the dim orange glow of early morning. Dew on the grass glimmered silver and green.

In the parking lot, I ran into Kevin Bass, a friend from when Jared Berg coached us. Kevin had taken up adventure racing – Chile, China, etc. He described these multi-day races as he put on a backpack with a huge water bladder in back and two conventional water bottles attached to shoulder straps. An enormous pocket between the straps covered his chest and carried his iPod, energy gels, Clif Bars and who knew what else. Officials at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth recently said that he couldn’t use that pack in their race. It looked too much like a suicide vest. I feigned agreement with Kevin: the race officials were being unreasonable. I also thought about applying the term “suicide vest” when gearing up for a 50K trail run.

About 200 of us milled around in front of John Storkamp, the Afton Trail Run race director, as he gave instructions. I looked around at the other runners and picked out the guy who had been favored to win last year. In fact, he had been picked to win by a lot – and to break the course record for “Grand Masters,” those runners age 50 and older. Turned out my friend John Maas beat the guy and so did I, even though the favorite last year was only 50 and in his first year of eligibility in our age group. This year, at age 57, I didn’t think I had much of a chance against him. He would run smarter; I was sure of it.

I confided in Kevin that I was nervous. I wanted to do well but eight years into our age group and, well … that guy was going to clean my clock. It was Kevin’s turn to be disingenuous. He assured me that I could do well, even win, especially since my friend and defending Grand Masters champion, John Maas, had chosen not to run.

John Storkamp continued his briefing. He showed us some small orange flags like those used in lawns to mark where the TV cable is buried when workers have to dig nearby. Those flags were to appear on our left at points on the course where we could turn one way or the other.

“Just keep the flags on your left,” he said. “If they are on your right, turn around and run the other way. And if you don’t see flags for too long a time, you might be lost. If that happens, just find another runner and buddy up. Most of the people racing today train on this course. Somebody will help you.”

And with that guidance, John admitted having nothing more to say so he told us to start.

The first hill descended rapidly on loose gravel with a very sharp turn at about 500 yards. Nervous runners going too fast often slip, and some fall, at the first turn. I stayed upright.

I ran with my age group’s favorite. I stayed close behind but soon determined that he was going out fast, far too fast, for me to keep up.

At the first aid station, my friend John Maas stood watching. He called out when he saw me.

“Run your race. Be smart, man.”

“I’m trying,” was all I could think to say but I wondered what could possibly be smart about running a 31 mile race with 4,600 vertical feet of climbing.

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Early in the race, with company.

Solitude.

Except when I swim, I train alone. I don’t consider this an appealing characteristic.

Years ago, when Dave Mason and I trained together, our bike and run paces matched. It worked well, though Dave was clearly the more clever. At the base of a long or steep hill, Dave would ask, “So how is Katie doing?” He knew that I couldn’t help but answer  in extensive – and breathless – detail. It was his chance to make me work harder climbing a hill while he conserved. It took me far too long to figure out the trick. I felt like a moron. But Dave moved back to his hometown years ago and I haven’t found a compatible training partner to replace him.

So I enjoy the solitude of an early morning ride or run. I love having the rising sun all to myself as I move under my own power, my breath the only sound interrupting the chirping birds or rustling leaves.

Training alone gives me time to think, some of which is wasted on repeating thoughts over and over again. Other times, I think about the same thing but in a slightly different way and what once stymied me becomes clear. Unfortunately, I spend far more time on useless repetition than insight.

When I race, I don’t think about things that differ much from when I train. After all, shouldn’t racing simply be a more intense version of training? You train over and over so that you can go out and do the same thing wearing a number.

The most difficult aspect of racing is managing feelings. If my effort lags, I feel bad physically or someone passes me, it is hard not to get discouraged, not to scold myself. During most marathons, ultra-marathons and Ironmans, I swear off endurance athletics entirely. It’s just too hard, I tell myself. Not worth it. Negative thoughts slow me down but they can be incredibly hard to avoid when pushing myself. The link between exertion and emotion is strong. But this year’s Afton felt different. I remained remarkably buoyant both physically and emotionally. In fact, I resolved an issue that troubled me for a very long time, even before the end of the first lap.

Unlike any other race I run, at Afton, I spent most of the time completely alone – no spectators, no fellow runners. The trails were narrow and even if there were spectators, they wouldn’t find many places to stand. Every once in a while, I passed a runner or another runner passed me. Aid stations came along, but they were few and far between. That left me mostly with my thoughts and the trees, something I had practiced.

At the halfway point (15.5 miles) I ran to the aid station at the start/finish line. I felt pretty chipper and looked forward to the second lap. A very nice woman volunteer began to refill my water bottle.

“Is there anything else, anything at all, I can help with?” she asked.

“Quick, make me ten years younger,” I replied.

She laughed and while I didn’t know it at the time, the day’s fun was pretty much over.

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The flags are supposed to stay on my left. Ahem.

Beginning of the End.

Exactly 3:41:00 into my race, I checked the flasks of nutrition concentrate on my belt. I had made it into the 23rd mile and had less than eight to go. I was out of nutrition. Ordinarily, I would have consumed one flask per hour but I had prematurely emptied all of my flasks so I needed to run at least an hour to the finish without additional calories. I had also grown dehydrated despite sipping from my water bottle throughout the race. Did I say something about how scolding myself doesn’t make me run faster?

My Garmin watch beeped as I passed the 26 mile mark. I had practically run a marathon and felt OK, all things considered. At just about that same time, I noticed that my pace began to slow, my left foot ached from stepping on sharp rocks. Only five miles to go, just a bit more than the distance from our house around a nearby lake. How hard could that be?

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A disingenuous smile for the camera.

Hills.

Despite thinking that only two substantial hills remained, I learned the hard way that there were actually four. One of the hills featured an extremely narrow, rocky snowshoe path (without the snow) and I needed to stop running and walk, if briskly. I grabbed small trees that lined the path to hoist myself up the steep hill.

During the last three miles, three or four runners passed me. My attitude remained positive but I wanted that lady at the halfway mark to have done what I asked. No way would these runners have passed me if she had lopped ten years off my age.

I walked up the final hill, “Meatgrinder.” (No explanation required.) Last year on Meatgrinder, I had passed the guy favored to win my age group. This year, he was nowhere to be seen. I believed that he had finished well ahead of me. In fact, I imagined that he had showered, shaved, eaten and was trying to figure out what to grab for dessert.

The Winner!

I ran up onto a sunny, flat plain. The course followed a dusty path through waist-high grass now dry in the warm sun.  Though the finish line remained out of sight, I heard music playing over loudspeakers. Finally, flags saying “Finish” appeared. As I crossed the line, I tried to make it look like I was a whole lot fresher than I actually was. I walked ten yards or so to the timer’s table. A volunteer asked my age.

“57,” I said, realizing that my voice sounded thin and reedy. I continued to breathe hard.

“We’ve been waiting for you!” she said. She handed me the framed picture given to the winner of the Grand Masters Men.

“I won?” I said.

She smiled and nodded yes.

Then I made this mistake: “I don’t believe it!”

I felt sure that last year’s favorite had finished well ahead of me but I couldn’t be sure; maybe he resigned before the finish. After all, he had blown it last year.

“Who do you think might be ahead of you?”

I told her.

She and another volunteer checked the results. They conferred with one another, whispering. She walked back to me.

“Yes, he’s in,” she said. “Do you see him around here?”

She held out her hand, silently suggesting that I give back the Grand Masters winner’s prize. I complied. Then we walked through the crowd of runners eating picnic food. Most of the runners had finished the 25K (sissies!) and were eating their second hamburger or hot dog.

I scouted around and called the the Grand Masters winner’s name but couldn’t find him.

The woman volunteer said, “You have been so nice, I wish that I could give this to you.” She motioned to the winner’s picture that she held in her hand.

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The Ride.

On the way back to my car, I walked by a family. The husband/dad carried an infant in a “high tech meets high touch” 21st century backpack that featured a canopy protecting the baby from the sun. The mom/wife tried to keep a toddler from darting into the roadway even though there were no cars coming. The toddler was skilled in dipping his shoulder and accelerating just as the mom was about to grab him.

“So what kind of race are they having today?” the dad asked.

“A trail run.”

“Oh, how long?”

“Well, either 50K or 25K.”

“How many miles is that?”

“Either 31 miles or 15.5 miles,” I replied.

The mom took a good look at me and spotted the “50K” on my race bib. She looked a like she didn’t quite know what to think.

“May I ask a favor?” I said, looking down at my left shoe.

“Sure,” said the mom.

“See that key right there? Can you untie that shoe and hand me the key? For me to bend down right now might not work so well.”

The mom seemed to understand. To see me literally fall on my face trying to reach the key probably did not appeal. She tugged on my shoelace for a while, struggling, then handed me the key.

“Thanks,” I said. “Have a great day”

They watched me wobble off on muddy legs, sweaty clothes clinging.

I called Margy from the car to let her know that I was safely off the course. I heard how weak my voice sounded as I left a voicemail. No wonder that family had looked me over so cautiously. I left another voicemail, this one for Katie. As I reached the park exit, I got my mom on the phone and we chatted until I had almost reached home.

Place.

I once read that we are who we are only in relation to other people. As I drove toward home, I recalled the story about Dave Mason encouraging me to try an Ironman. I thought about the people I had spent time with that day and the time I spent alone. How had all of these people influenced me: Kevin Bass, Dave Mason, Margy, Katie, my mom, the mom who untied my shoe, the lady at the aid station who failed to make me younger, even the volunteer at the finish line? I considered the influence each had, some for only a moment, some for a lifetime. But I also wondered what effect I might have had on each of them. I have almost always been grateful for the effect others have had on me but have thought less – and usually more dubiously – about the effect I might have had on others. I hoped that I had been kind and reassuring and that, maybe, I had helped or encouraged them. At the very least, I hoped that I hadn’t smelled too bad. (Fat chance.) The thought that my words or actions could be as powerful as Dave Mason’s scared me a little, though I couldn’t possibly imagine having said anything so important or influential. Then again, you never know.

As I turned onto Boulder Pointe Road and neared home, I thought back to the race. I recalled the feeling of running where the pack had strung out along the course, the dirt path dished smooth and grass brushed my calves. I recalled how it felt to run completely on my own with only the sound of my breath and the sun warming my shoulders.

 

 

 

 

My Boston Marathon story from 2016 requires a bit more patience than my usual blog posts. Paul Revere, my dad, Walter Payton, two high school boys from Harlan, Iowa, and Katie make appearances here that I hope will make sense by the end. Here goes.

Our New Car. Nelson Pontiac called. Our new car would be ready Monday. Dad had ordered a white 1967 Pontiac Catalina station wagon with blue vinyl seats, AM radio and air conditioning similar to the one pictured above. Dad always liked a fresh new car. We looked forward to picking it up.

Monday was cool, clear and sunny in Harlan, Iowa, population 5,000. I don’t remember the day in Mrs. Howe’s second grade class or hearing the fire whistle blow 15 minutes after I got home. Harlan had a volunteer fire department and in 1967, a siren downtown on top of the fire station summoned firemen. Pretty much everyone in town knew when there was a fire.

My dad, Bob, worked at a small bank owned by another family in town. The bank backed onto an alley adjacent to the fire station. When he heard the siren, Dad would have stood up from his desk, walked quickly toward the back door, unlocked the two deadbolts, and hustled down the stairs into the alley, then run with his distinctive gait less than 40 yards before rounding the corner and stepping into the 1930s-era brick fire station next to city hall.

Missing a right leg, Dad used a prosthetic. His license barred him from driving a car without automatic transmission but if he was the first one onto a truck, Dad got into the driver’s seat, started the engine, turned on the lights, cued the siren, depressed the clutch, shifted into gear and made sure that everyone held on.

As Dad’s truck left the station, I am not sure he knew what awaited at the small white house a few blocks south of “The Square,” Harlan’s one square block downtown area. A woman had been ironing clothes. She took a break for just a few minutes to go out to her garden to water a rose. She could keep an eye on the house from there. But by the time she noticed the smoke, flames engulfed her house. Her three year-old, two year-old and twin infants were taking a nap in the bedroom.

It was just about 3:40 p.m. and two boys walking home from the World War I-era brick high school came to the burning house. One of the boys’ mothers stood outside and said, “Clinton, there’s babies in there!”

A neighbor supplied a fire extinguisher. The trapped children’s mother pointed to the room where they had been sleeping. The boys, Clinton and Brent Petersen, made one trip in and brought out the three year-old girl and laid her in the grass. They returned once again and brought out the two year-old boy, laying him in the grass. By the time the boys returned to find the infant twin boys, the heat was too intense, the smoke too thick. Clinton and Brent crawled out of the house, lucky to have made it out alive.

The two and three-year old kids laid in the grass, unconscious as the fire trucks and ambulance arrived.

One of the firemen put on a respirator, fireproof coat, pants, boots and helmet and tried to crawl across the floor to get to the infants’ room. He didn’t make it. The heat was too intense. He crawled back out. Another tried and achieved the same result.

My dad volunteered. He took off his leg and put on the fireproof gear, the respirator. The other firemen tied a rope around his waist. If Dad had gotten into trouble, the other firemen would have used the rope to pull him out. Dad could also have followed the rope to return the same way he had come through the smoke and flames. Dad crawled into the house and hugged the floor.

The 120th Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon stands for a lot of things. Runners think that it is about them and it is, partially.

Paul Revere. The Boston Marathon runs on Patriots’ Day, a holiday celebrating the battles of Lexington and Concord. For those of you Longfellow fans, his poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride”immortalized Revere’s midnight ride through the streets of Boston to alert the city to the British troops’ approach preceding those battles.

Spring. The Boston Marathon marks the arrival of spring in one of America’s most historic cities – and a day off of school for kids. Without a school holiday, it might not be possible to haul so many runners from Boston Common to Hopkinton and the starting line. Hundreds of school buses, buses as far as you can see, line up to take runners the 26 or so miles west to the runners’ village near Hopkinton High School, which certainly can’t operate with 28,000 runners on its grounds, helicopters flying overhead and snipers on the roof.

Qualify. Qualifying for Boston represents many runners’ highest personal athletic aspiration, a chance to number among the relative few who can run the qualifying times for respective ages and genders.

2013. In 2013, Boston’s finish line was also the site of one of our country’s worst incidents of domestic terrorism. The chaos that ensued immediately following the explosions and in the several days following riveted the world’s attention. As we walked toward the expo to pick up my race number on the Friday preceding the race, we passed an empty storefront. Daffodils in pots lined the storefront and a handwritten sign on the darkened window said simply, “No More Hurting People.” A few people paused to look at the flowers just beginning to bloom and small memorials to people who were injured or died on that very spot. People remember.

The story of the Boston Marathon weaves these themes together – achievement, history, community, tragedy, healing. If sport can provide a venue for heroism, Boston seems like the place.

Heroes According to an App. The Boston Marathon, predictably, has an app for cell phones. It offers a paperless way to keep track of marathon weekend activities and to follow individual runners’ progress along the course on race day. To follow a runner, app users enter information on their participant in a section of the app entitled “My Heroes.”

A New Midnight Ride. A couple of Katie’s friends participated in a hybrid marathon-midnight ride event the night before the marathon. At midnight, a group of bike riders took off from the start line in Hopkinton and followed the course all the way to the finish line. I am not certain if they shouted that the “British are coming” or  just shut up and rode. The extremely early morning pancake breakfast near the marathon finish line has no known historical antecedent.

Race Morning. Margy, Katie and I returned to Boston Common early on race morning. It was the same place we had seen Katie and her friends run the BAA 5K the preceding Saturday. We snapped a few photos and I boarded a school bus. Our bus driver, Sandy, gave us an extremely thorough safety briefing. She pointed out the first, second, third and fourth choice means to get out of the bus if something bad happened. I couldn’t tell if the briefing derived from heightened vigilance since 2013.

Heather from Gettysburg sat by me. Heather was 4’10”, a PE teacher with two kids. We talked for the entire hour as the bus rolled toward Hopkinton, mostly about our kids. The conversation paused for a few moments as I looked out the bus window onto the Charles River and all of the local college rowing teams gliding along the course of the Head of the Charles Regatta that Katie had rowed for four years at Bowdoin. I bragged on Katie and hoped again that parental pride is only a venal sin, not a mortal one.

Once delivered to the runners’ village, Heather and I found a spot on a grassy lawn about the size of a football field ringed entirely by porta-potties. We continued our conversation as the sun rose warm and bright in a clear blue sky. I shed the garbage bag that had kept me warm on the walk to the buses, then my hooded sweatshirt, then my long-sleeve tee shirt. Sitting in my singlet and shorts, I began to perspire.

When called on the PA system, I said goodbye to Heather and dutifully made my way across a parking lot and down a quarter mile hill toward the start area along with a sea of synthetic-clad people. (I was in the second of four waves of approximately 7,000 each.) We sauntered down the hill toward yet another galactic complex of porta-potties. Last chance. I jogged to the far corner of the parking lot to take advantage of the shortest lines. All of my experience at running marathons had been good for something.

Corralled. I stepped into my corral, about 1,000 runners grouped according to qualifying time. I heard the starting gun sound a thud over the crest of the hill about 300 yards ahead. Then we just stood there. It took more than a minute before we even began to walk while 5,000 runners ahead crept toward, then across, the start line.

Finally Running. Of the run, I remember relatively little of note. Only about four miles into the race, I noticed a very fit looking woman on the side of the road sobbing inconsolably. Another fit looking woman hugged the crying woman. It appeared that the crying woman’s day was over almost before it had started. I wasn’t sure why.

Hello? Shortly after passing the crying woman, I experienced a personal marathon first. A woman said in a very snippy voice, “No, I am not talking to myself. I am talking on the phone.” Apparently, a runner near her thought that she was the marathon equivalent of a crazy bag lady conducting a monologue with herself. The lady held the microphone attached to her headphones up to her mouth and resumed her conversation. “Meet me at the 20 mile mark,” she said. I sighed and felt glad that she wasn’t texting.

Sweet Caroline. The sun felt hot as we traced the course through the modest cities of Ashland and Natick. We heard the Fenway Park Red Sox game favorite, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, several times.

The Path in Front of Me. While running, I couldn’t help thinking about the runners who had come before me. Years ago, runners wore leather-soled shoes and ran over unpaved roads. Of course, there was Johnny Kelley, a man who ran in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin, finished 58 Boston Marathons, won two, finished second seven times, finished in the top five 15 times and ran his last full Boston Marathon at age 84. Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (without wearing a race number) in the mid-60’s and Katherine Switzer was famous for trying to run the race with a number, then getting physically attacked by a marathon official trying to remove her from the course. Bill Rodgers won three straight, 1978, 1979 and 1980. Bowdoin College’s own Joan Benoit Samuelson won in 1979 and 1983, then went on to win the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles. If anyone deserved to wear laurels for running 26.2 miles, these people did.

Matter? So the Boston Marathon is, at least in part, about heroes, people whose ordinary lives ascend to higher planes, people whose names we know, whose accomplishments we admire. I admit that I felt just a bit ennobled by running the same streets as Boston Marathon immortals who had run before me. Just one problem: Does running marathons, no matter how fast, no matter how many, matter? Or at least does running fast or multiple marathons matter? If it doesn’t matter, why do people consider these – and other – athletes heroes? Put otherwise, who is a hero?

Wellesley. Running in the cool shade of the tall pine trees on the north side of the Wellesley College campus is one of my favorite places on the course. The Wellesley girls line the road and cheer loudly but sweetly. For some reason it reminded me of Guster’s version of “All the Way Up to Heaven” on “Lost and Gone Forever: Live.”

Back on the Marathon Course, Literally. Ironically, my entry into the city of Newton marked another personal marathon first. I found myself on my back looking straight up into the clear blue sky all the way up to heaven. It happened like this: While concentrating on running the inside line of a turn marked with tall traffic cones holding a plastic ribbon dividing spectators and runners, I neglected the heavy rubber feet on the bottoms of the cones. Those feet extended about eight or nine inches out from the bottoms of the orange cones. I must have clipped one of the bases with my left foot, then sprawled under the ribbon and onto the pavement. As I fell, I rolled onto my back. A few runners beside me gasped but kept running. A man, who I didn’t really see, came to my aid. He asked if I was OK. At first, I didn’t respond but finally said “yeah” when he asked again. Still kind of stunned, I just started running again. A woman held up the ribbon so that I could pass beneath and reenter the course. It happened that fast and I am very sorry that I didn’t thank the man for his help.

Brave. I thought a little more about heroes. To be a hero, I thought that you needed to do something brave. But that didn’t seem quite enough. (As you can tell, my running pace must not have been so fast; I had a lot of time to think.) Then I thought that to be a hero, someone needs both to do something brave and something that matters. Running a marathon is brave because you just know that it’s going to hurt but nothing much other than your comfort changes as a result of finishing a marathon. For instance, bungee jumping is brave but doing it really doesn’t produce any result that matters.

Persistence and Determination and Then What? Maybe people believe that the persistence and determination to run a marathon or an Ironman – or many marathons and Ironmans – would also make a person brave in a bad situation when action really matters. We’d look to them when the chips were down – raging rivers, burning buildings, the fog of intense battle, the works. Those with the fortitude to shine in intense, exhausting athletic pursuits should have the right stuff to do something heroic, something both brave and something that matters when the chance arises. For my part, I hope never to prove the assumption one way or the other. I hope never to encounter the burning house, freezing river, or world war, thank you.

No War for Dad. The military never wanted my dad’s help. The lack of a right leg made him “4F” and that always made him feel bad, maybe that much more so because his dad served in France during World War I. It was important to my dad’s generation to serve in the military whether in World War I, World War II or the Korean War. I have wondered whether Dad felt like he was robbed of the chance to be brave, maybe even a hero, while wearing a U.S. military uniform.

1967: Our Trip to Nelson Pontiac. It was starting to get late so I asked my mom if we were going to pick up the car that night. Mom said that we were. I said that I was excited and that Dad must have been excited, too. Mom said that Dad had had a very sad day. She said that the fire had been very bad, that two babies had died. She said that Dad had tried to save them but that he couldn’t. As an eight year-old, I couldn’t quite understand. I couldn’t imagine anything my dad couldn’t do.

We went to Dairy Queen that night. Dad was especially quiet. I asked Dad about the fire. He told me about putting on all of his gear. He told me about the rope. Then he told me about crawling along the floor. It was a small house. He knew exactly where he needed to go. He knew exactly what he needed to do. But he said that he couldn’t make it through the heat. He couldn’t see anything through the smoke. The fire was burning all around him. He said that by the time he was trying to reach them, the babies may already have died.

Once the fire had been extinguished, my dad volunteered again, this time to recover the  two infants’ bodies. He and his friend carried the tiny bodies out of the blackened house.

I am not entirely sure how my dad felt when he gave Bill Nelson the keys to our old car and put his three kids, ages eight, almost five and almost two, into the back seat of his brand new station wagon. It was a pretty quiet drive as we returned to our house on the western edge of town, the sun slipping low into a clear Iowa sky.

Harlan to Boston. You may wonder how running the Boston Marathon made me think of my dad and a fire in Harlan, Iowa, 49 years ago. It’s a fair question.

Heroes create a path for the rest of us to follow. Maybe if we do something brave, something that matters, we will have followed our heroes’ examples. So here I was following the path run by Johnny Kelley, Bill Rodgers, Bobbi Gibb, Katherine Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson and thousands of others. Why this path? Did it matter?

Harlan Tribune, April 13, 1967. In 1967, nobody used a cell phone to video volunteer firefighters crawling into a burning house. Nothing there to “go viral,” though the local newspaper covered the fire including pictures of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of the three year-old girl on the lawn and of the charred crib where the infants died. The story did not belabor the failed attempts to rescue the babies, though it did name the three firemen who entered the burning house with “breathing apparatus and lines even before the hoses.” To say more might have made my dad and the other firemen who unsuccessfully crawled into the flaming house feel even worse.

Our family didn’t subsequently discuss the fire. I think that the subject just made Dad feel sad. It’s hard to know how often he thought of that fire in the years following. I doubt he felt like much of a hero given the lack of discussion and the failure to save the twin babies. I can disagree with his conclusion now but it doesn’t do much good.

Walter Payton and Our Driveway. So 49 years have passed since that clear, spring day in Southwest Iowa. And it’s been more than 20 years since my dad died. Without a doubt, he was my hero. I also idolized Walter Payton. Inexplicably, the Chicago Bears neglected to draft me despite the fact that I lettered in football all four years at Grinnell College. I didn’t join Walter in the Bears’ offensive backfield. Their loss.

The long run from Hopkinton gave me time to ask how my heroes inspire me to live differently than I would have except for their example. Have I really followed their path? Maybe more importantly, what path have I left? What happens to someone who follows the rope that I trail behind? I don’t have good answers but one small remembrance has become habit.

34. Every time I do strength work – sit ups, lunges, squats – I count. Walter Payton wore “34” on his jersey so whenever I reached 34, I paused to remember him. I remembered how joyfully he played football, how when tackled especially hard, he bounced up, smiled, helped the tackler to his feet, patted him on the back, tossed the ball to the referee and trotted back to the huddle. I remembered Payton’s distinctive high-stepping gait as he neared the goal line. When he reached the end zone, he waited patiently for a teammate to arrive, then handed him the football, allowing his teammate to spike it. Football, even NFL football, for Walter Payton was joyful and generous.

After a time, I recognized that my ties to Walter Payton were not so strong as those to my dad. Maybe it would mean more to think of my dad when I reached the count of 34.  I remembered my dad saying over and over again how lucky he felt, how contented he would feel when he drove into the driveway of our white house with the big tree in the front yard and a healthy family in the car with him. Not many people would draw equivalence between my dad driving up our driveway and Walter Payton high-stepping into the end zone but I saw a similar joy, generosity and dignity, a strangely equivalent triumph.

Sometimes heroes don’t manage to pluck the drowning person from the rushing river or pull the person off the tracks before the train rolls through. To matter, do heroes need to succeed in what they set out to do? How many people do something really brave but don’t quite do what they set out to accomplish? I guess that heroes jump in, never quite knowing what will happen. I doubt Dad thought about the floor falling out from under him in the burning house and how it would have been if the three of us kids and Mom had to go pick up the new car without him.

So any time I do strength work now and count 34, I take a figurative tug on the rope and say to myself, “Bob’s boy.”

Finish. Margy and Katie saw me at the appointed spot on the course near the finish and I slogged in. My race had been neither immortal nor a disaster. I had just made it from start to finish, a privilege that I probably did not fully appreciate. After crossing the line, I looked back at the course and wondered what it would be like in a year to finish the race with Katie.

Postscript: The two and three year-old children rescued from the fire recovered. Clinton and Brent Petersen, the high school boys who rescued two of the four kids, became local heroes. The fire burned hot enough to melt light fixtures in the bedroom and kitchen. The house and all of its contents were a complete loss estimated to total $3,500. No home has been rebuilt on the site.

Photos from the weekend:

Upper left: Katie and Margy before Saturday morning’s BAA 5K.

Lower left: Marcus Schneider, Katie, Pete Edmunds and Taylor Stockton after the BAA 5K. Pete and Taylor did the midnight bike ride on the Marathon course.

Right: Me waving with a little less than a mile to go.

 

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Bob Ross in a painting by Katie Ross. From a photo taken circa 1979.

Thanks to Margy and Katie for making the weekend in Boston great, as always. Thanks, too, to Marcus Schneider, Pete Edmunds, Taylor Stockton, Luisa Lasalle and Emily Carr.

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We get up in the morning, feelin’ tired.
Sometimes we feel good, sometimes we feel bad,
But we gonna do it with feelin’.
From the root to the fruit, that’s where everything starts.
What you say to you. Don’t stop.

Angelo Dundee, Muhammad Ali’s trainer.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015 at 3:08 pm text exchange:

Scott: Wrist bands for each of us if you want. I put clear tape on each to laminate.

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Katie: Awesome!!! Thank you!

Scott: Do you want me to pick up some shot blocks for you? What is your favorite flavor?

Katie: Yes please!! Raspberry. Ah I’m so pumped!!!

(The wrist bands pictured above show the exact 8:12 per mile pace required to run a marathon in 3:35:00, the qualifying time Katie would need to run for the Boston Marathon.)

Friday, October 2, 2015.

Katie had come to Minneapolis and worked from home all day while Margy and I were away. When we returned, I noticed that Katie had been eating her Shot Blocks, glorified – and expensive – gum drops laced with electrolytes for endurance athletes.

“I see that you have been eating your Shot Blocks,” I noted. “You realize that I bought you the exact number you would need to meet your calorie requirements for the marathon?”

Katie looked surprised.

“How were we supposed to carry all of those anyway?” she responded. She was right. So we worked on a plan that would provide her a mix of nutrition from Powerade at water stations and Shot Blocks pulled from a pouch I would carry on race day. We had it down to a science.

Bowdoin College Spring Break, March 2014.

Katie never took a beach vacation for spring break in college. Instead, she spent her spring breaks with her rowing team in cinder block “cottages” at Camp Robert Cooper (“Camp Bob”) in South Carolina. The accommodations were gray but at least the ice was out; back at Bowdoin, ice still covered the river on which they rowed. Bowdoin used Camp Bob to sort the team using “seat races.” Seat races attempt science by using control and experiment groups. A boat composed of a team rows a set course against another boat. Then one rower is switched out of the boat for another and they race again. The races continue until the team has determined the fastest combination of rowers in each seat.

As a senior and team captain, Katie stayed in the stroke (rearmost) seat of a boat, a spot of which she was assured while others swapped in and out of her boat. Seat races had proceeded for quite a while when a younger rower spoke up.

“Has anyone else noticed that no matter who is in her boat, Katie always wins?”

When thinking about running the Twin Cities Marathon in 2015, I thought it seemed like a good idea to jump into Katie’s boat. After all, I had cast my entire genetic lot with her anyway. Might as well run together.

Saturday, October 3, 2015.

The incomparable Courtney Payne sent Katie a link to a Radio Lab show about human limits. Courtney and Katie had rowed together for three years at Bowdoin. Katie and I listened. The show featured Julie Moss, the woman who crawled to the finish line of the 1982 Hawaii Ironman. After having led the race most of the day, Julie collapsed within just a few yards of the finish. While Julie laid on her back ten yards from the finish line, she watched the winner run by. Julie had pooped her pants on national TV and commented that it couldn’t get any lower than that. Then Julie said that she heard a voice somewhere deep down inside her.

Julie Moss in 1982

Julie Moss in 1982

“Get up,” the voice said.

She did.

Sunday, October 4, 2015. Race day.

We drove along the empty downtown streets of a predawn Sunday morning. I hadn’t expected this to be the most emotional part but it was. Katie and I have had a long-running dispute. What is the best-ever John Mayer song? I have always favored “No Such Thing.” Katie has always liked “Daughters.” But on this morning, Katie ran the iPhone and got to choose the music. It was only fair. This was to be her second marathon but the first during which she got to “let the dogs off the leash” and go for it. (At 15, she ran the Des Moines Marathon with Margy and me mostly at our pace, not hers.) This marathon was all about Katie.

Katie had trained really hard, not something with which she was unfamiliar. As a college rower, she knew the predawn chill of a fall morning in a northern state. I felt the stillness of the morning outside, the sky lighting wispy clouds pink over gray pavement. Meanwhile, we were getting pretty charged up. Katie seemed more excited than nervous. I felt nervous and responsible. It would fall to me to try to help Katie if the morning’s Twin Cities Marathon got tough. And marathons all have a funny way of getting tough. Go figure.

As we neared the parking ramp, Katie cued “No Such Thing,” and I was touched that she would pick my favorite. Then John Mayer sang these words:

And all of our parents
They’re getting older
I wonder if they’ve wished for anything better

I glanced at Katie, then looked straight ahead. I blinked a couple of times and sniffled.

We drove to a parking spot and jumped out to put on our sweatshirts and pull on our trash bags. I am resolutely old school when it comes to marathon apparel. When I began running marathons in the mid-80’s, most marathoners took big black trash bags and tore a hole in the bottom, then slipped the bag on to stay warm in the morning before a race. Bags with draw strings are the best; you can cinch the drawstring around your waist. I have become a lifelong fan of trash bags for this purpose and still love the terrarium feel of a trash bag drawn tight around my waist on a chilly, breezy morning.

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So you don’t get the incorrect idea, here I model properly fitted pre-marathon attire; at the 2015 Boston Marathon with Margy and Katie.

The day before, I had enlisted my mom’s help to fold two trash bags so that we could cut out a head hole in the bottom of each. On Sunday morning, when I began to pull my bag over my head, I noted that mine had two holes. I showed Katie and the tension broke as we laughed. I chivalrously took the bag with two holes and handed Katie hers. She unfolded her bag and began to put it on – but had to choose which of the two head holes to use. For the moment, our pre-race jitters disappeared and our laughter echoed off the concrete walls, floor and ceiling in the empty parking ramp right above the bail bond office.

We managed to show up in the start area with time to attend to last minute details. We worked our way into an appropriate spot among the other runners. The sun hung low in the sky behind us and lit the buildings west of us with a warm orange glow. We looked down the course. A helicopter circled. As she has always done when excited, Katie grinned with her teeth clenched tight and we exchanged a hand slap routine adopted from “The Parent Trap” when Katie was in grade school.

The air horn sounded and we heard a cheer. For ten or 15 seconds, no one around us moved. Then we saw people ten yards in front of us begin to walk, then five yards in front of us. We began to walk, then jog. It took us more than 30 seconds to cross the start line after the air horn sounded. I instructed Katie to go first. I would follow tightly behind; we couldn’t run side-by-side during the first few hundred yards because of all of the jostling. Katie moved swiftly into a small gap where I joined her. We came out of the worst of the crowd and began to run beside one another. I listened carefully to her even breathing and watched her smooth gait.

We looked up the long ribbon of bobbing humanity stretching along Hennepin Avenue. At the top of a rise nearing the western edge of downtown, we looked toward the Walker Art Center’s Sculpture Garden and heard the sound of the Minneapolis Cathedral’s bells chiming full bore. For whatever reason, those sights and sounds always affect me.

“This is so cool,” Katie said.

I smiled as we headed down the hill toward a sharp left turn, the bells still ringing pure and sweet into a perfectly blue sky.

The first miles of the race passed remarkably well as we threaded through southwest Minneapolis, first passing the stately old homes in Kenwood, then by Lake of the Isles and Lake Calhoun, the still water shimmering smooth, bright and cold. When we passed our family beside Lake Calhoun, I forgot to toss my sweatshirt and needed to make a “U” turn. Katie went ahead but made me pay; it was hard work to catch up.

By Lake Harriet, we felt cool shade and a slight breeze.  To the west, the sun illuminated the far shore. Immediately to our east, a wooded embankment sheltered the course and discouraged spectators from standing nearby. For a few minutes, we could only hear the breathing of the runners around us, their feet striking the ground with light thumps and scratching sounds.

“It hasn’t sorted out yet, Katie,” I offered. “People are still passing and getting passed but we will soon be surrounded by the people we will run with all the way to the finish.”

I began to point out runners to whom we should pay attention. An even pace developed through years of marathon experience will win out over “surge and sag” speeds run by fast but impatient young men. (This, sadly, I know from experience.) An older guy just in front of us ran a smooth, steady pace. The sinewy muscles in his calves snapped taut with each foot strike, then loosened as his leg extended behind him. In mid-stride, the skin of his legs was a little loose and wrinkled behind his knees as it covered knotty veins. But when his feet touched down, that leg stood in sharp relief featuring long, lean muscles. This was one of the guys who would be steady, steady, steady.

“Pay attention to this guy, Kate.”

She nodded.

Then I felt self conscious and glanced behind me just to see if anyone was studying my legs.

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Katie making fun of my circa 2003 tri outfit. Plenty of miles left.

Katie and I both wanted to encourage one another during the race but, oddly, not one single time did either of us urge the other to go faster. I habitually “one-stepped” Katie, meaning that I ran just one step ahead of her no matter how fast she went. She had become (mostly) tolerant of this but, on race day, Katie wanted to exercise discipline necessary to run 8:12 miles. So, as my one step became two or three, Katie would say, “Dad, easy.” And I would dial my pace back. Meanwhile, if Katie went too fast, particularly after a water stop or an inspiring band played along the course, I would say, “A little hot there.”

At the ten mile mark, I consulted one of the wrist bands that I had made for the two of us. We were four minutes ahead of pace.

Katie said, “OK, Dad, we have plenty of time in the bank. From here until 19, let’s just concentrate on running 8:00’s.”

Katie was afraid of “blowing up,” finding herself in the last few miles of the race without energy to run. It wasn’t an unreasonable fear. But I could see that Katie’s gait had not deteriorated, her breathing was smooth and even. I pressed.

“Dad, easy.”

At mile 16, I looked carefully at Katie. Her training plan included no runs longer than 16. I couldn’t see anything wrong with her, though I had begun to feel like I had been on my feet a good long while. I hoped that she would not become apprehensive because she had entered terra incognito in the distance beyond her longest training run.

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Nine fingers for nine minutes to the good.

At the east end of the Franklin Avenue Bridge, our family stood to cheer. I held up nine fingers to let them know that we were nine minutes ahead of pace. “Nine minutes to the good,” I thought, but I knew that the hardest miles of the course were all in front of us.

In St. Paul, near mile 21, we approached the course’s hardest hill. I had prepared Katie for this several times including a training run along the last 11 miles of the course. A woman pulled up alongside us.

“You guys are a metronome!” she said. “I’ve been pacing off you.”

“We’re a team,” I responded. “You can be on our team, too.”

The woman smiled and accepted our invitation as we rounded a sweeping left hand turn and faced a steep hill extending about a quarter mile. Katie temporarily ditched caution. She dug in and pushed up five or six yards in front of me. For a moment, I thought that she might have gapped me and this would be the last I would run with her. Then I remembered how determined I felt about crossing the line together. I pressed.

Another song lyric popped into my head. It was a song by The Alan Parsons Project that I used to listen to in college.

“Who can say why you and I are Gemini?”

I enjoyed the celestial image of the two of us composed of stars in a clear, dark sky suspended above that cursed hill. The celestial quickly gave way to the terrestrial: Katie was kicking my butt as she raced ahead up the hill. Still, this was a closeness that I suspect that few fathers and daughters ever experience. I felt enormously close to Katie. “Chip off the old block,” I would have said – if I could have caught my breath.

We reached the top of the hill together and entered a short flat portion of the course before continuing the climb toward mile 23.

“Regroup here,” I fairly whispered. “It goes up just after the left hander.”

My friend Drew ran up and offered us orange slices. We declined but thanked him. I introduced Katie. He said that we looked awesome. I could tell that he meant it. We turned the corner and headed up Summit.

“Stay right. Let’s get the shade,” I said.

The temperature had not yet reached 60 but it still felt good to be in the shadows of the full trees just beginning to show fall colors.

After we passed the cheerleaders and students from the University of St. Thomas, it became quieter – or maybe I just tuned everything out except for Katie’s breath. On only one or two occasions did Katie say, “Dad, easy.” Mostly we just put our heads down and climbed the gentle but persistent slope until we approached Snelling Avenue. The hill got steeper. We passed only a few spectators. They offered tepid encouragement.

“Surf band at the top,” I said to Katie.

No response. I checked her gait. Her breathing sounded steady but deep. I could tell that she was suffering. We were all suffering. We passed the surf band and reached the crest of the hill, the highest point on the course. It would be almost all downhill from there. I turned toward Katie and shouted, “Katie, you did it!” Katie said later that this startled her. I hadn’t yelled at her during the entirety of the race, only offered quiet warning when she had gone too fast or guidance regarding the side of the street on which to line up for the  next curve.

Summit Avenue passed from the shady, older, uphill part to a sunny, slightly downhill portion. A puff of breeze blew in our faces. Katie had fallen in behind me, maybe to let me shield her from the wind. I hoped that she had not spent too much energy on the hill. Then she pulled up alongside. I didn’t look except to see out of the corner of my eye that she was OK – OK that is for just having run 23 miles – and needing to run three more. I looked at my watch, then at my pace wristband: more than ten minutes to the good.

Ordinarily, at this time of a race I would have let my mind go as blank as I could make it. I would have let the miles go by without thinking of anything and without noticing how uncomfortable I had become. I would have sunk into the rhythm of my steps. But every time I caught myself drifting, I looked over at Katie and remembered that we needed to stick together and bring it into the finish. At that stage, there were very few times that either Katie or I corrected one another’s pace. Increasingly, I had ceased to focus on Katie’s condition and had begun to focus on my own. Yeah, I still had gas in the tank, but not a lot. Best to just keep going and hope that she would stay at my right shoulder – and that I could stay at her left.

We hit the 25 mile mark and I shouted one last time, “OK!” I don’t think that Katie heard. We both knew that “the hay was in the barn” unless something dramatic happened. I ran through the list of horribles in my mind, the things that could go wrong: I could have had a heart attack (highly unlikely), we could have gotten hit by a car straying onto the course (equally unlikely, though we had seen a car on the course near mile 24), or Katie and I could have had a mutual “Forrest Gump Moment” and just decided it wasn’t worth it (not happening).

Katie shouted when she spotted the St. Paul Cathedral dome as we passed the James J. Hill House. From there, we ran about 60 yards up a very shallow climb, then spotted the finish about 500 yards ahead. The course followed a steep downhill lined by police officers posted every 25 yards or so just in case a threatened Black Lives Matter protest tried to block the course (it didn’t). I thanked each cop as we passed.

Nearing the bottom of the hill, I greeted Jim and Denise D’Aurora, friends from my time on the TCM board. Then we began a slight 250 yard uphill into the finish. I started to execute a pass so that Katie and I could run side-by-side for our finish photo. Katie issued one last speed warning.

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In the finish chute. Note how we each wear our hats and hold our left hands.

We clasped hands as we crossed the line.

We stopped for a moment after finishing to give one another a big hug. I looked at my running watch. We had crossed about ten seconds before. My watch said 3:22:43. More than twelve minutes to the good. Katie had easily qualified for Boston.

We made it through the finish area and reunited with our family. My mom said that it must have been an awfully proud moment for me. She’s known me a while.

I recalled the John Mayer song we had heard on the way to the parking ramp. Years ago, when I had first heard the song talking about all of our parents getting older, I had assumed that the aging parents were other people but here I was, one of the aging parents. I felt awfully grateful to be part of Katie’s race. Grateful for my family. As for wishing for anything better, I couldn’t think of a thing.

Science.

Katie and I had the Twin Cities Marathon down to a science. Katie had trained with discipline and intensity following a well-regarded plan. Each of us formulated exact nutrition and hydration strategies. We used GPS-enabled watches to monitor our pace and time. We wore wristbands showing us precise times at which we needed to pass each mile marker. In the end, though, we pretty much tossed all of this out the window. Instead, we ran with feeling. We felt deep down inside. We looked to one another. And we ended up running so much faster than we ever would have dared to plan.

Numbers.

Katie needed to run an average of 8:12 miles to finish in 3:35:00 to qualify for Boston. We ran 3:22:32 for an average pace of 7:44 per mile. Katie placed 67th of 1,130 women in the 22-29 age group, roughly the top 5.9%.

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Does age win over beauty? The official results show Katie and I finishing with the same time but I finished one place in front of her. Case closed.

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Left to right: Scott, my mom, Nancy, Katie, my sister, Ann, my brother-in-law, Rick, Margy and my niece, Sarah. Thank you so much.

From the root to the fruit, that’s where everything starts.

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Katie contemplating the Boston Marathon as a youngster, “8:12’s, are you serious? No sweat.”

For Dad, the unlikeliest person I have ever known to use a sentence including the word “I” with “can’t.”

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Lake Monona, September 13, 2015, at 6:25 a.m.

The sun had just risen fiery orange to illuminate a few wispy clouds on the eastern horizon beyond Lake Monona. The winds were calm, the lake placidly flat to reflect a perfect early fall sky. I bobbed in the water and looked overhead from east to west. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Monona Terrace appeared almost red, painted by the first rays of sun. Other people – more than 2,500 of them – joined me in the water, each wearing a black wetsuit and neon green or fluorescent pink swim cap. Maybe there had been a more perfect morning but I couldn’t remember it.

While I bobbed, I thought a lot about a line from the Book of Esther.

“But you were born for a day such as this.” – Esther 4:14

Esther’s story is a little complicated. A Jew by birth, then orphaned, Esther became a queen who had not disclosed her origins to the king before she learned of a plot to rob and kill the kingdom’s Jews. Esther summoned strength by believing that she was born for that exact time and place. The fate of many thousands of people was up to her. In the end, she used bravery, charm and intelligence to get the king to prevent harm from coming to the kingdom’s Jews and saw to it that the man who perpetrated the plot was caught and punished.

Swimming?

In my case, I had not come out for an early morning swim to save anyone from pillage or murder. I was doing something frivolous and non-sectarian: Ironman is equally perilous to Jews and gentiles alike. But, like Esther, I felt like I was where I belonged at just the right time doing something really big. I tried to summon strength by believing that I was somehow born for this moment.

Strange as it may sound, I simultaneously felt profoundly grateful and scared out of my mind: grateful for my family watching from the shore and scared to death. I was not so scared of death as concerned that I would look foolish. I worried that if I did not do well, I would look like an idiot for having so fruitlessly expended so much time and effort training and racing. And my failure would be public; anyone can look up race results online. Then somebody shot off a cannon and the water around me boiled with more than 5,000 arms and 5,000 legs all heading for a red triangular buoy almost a mile away. For a few moments, I reconsidered; I was scared of death after all.

The first few hundred yards of an Ironman swim are far more chaotic than they look from shore. In the water, I couldn’t see much. I collided with swimmers on both sides as we all struggled to navigate. When we tried to untangle, a swimmer came up from behind and swam over us. Someone kicked me in the arm, another in the side and another on the shoulder. Sometimes my stroke ended up on someone’s back and I tried not to dunk him or her but that only slowed me down, thus risking being swum over again. After a few minutes of this sort of aquatic wrestling match, I ran out of breath. I needed to regroup. Eventually, my breath returned but it wasn’t easy. And I wasn’t out of the woods. Just before the first turn, someone’s heel registered firmly in my left eye socket. The left goggle rested askew, tilting slightly down my left cheek. It stayed watertight so while I couldn’t see much, I kept going.

Into the Fields

Riding out of Madison and into the surrounding fields felt very much like moving from the last of summer into the first of fall. Soybean fields shone yellow, grasses in the ditches stretched out parched and tan. Orange and yellow leaves of just a few trees here and there stood out from their neighbors showing off the first colors of the coming season. We rode along, mostly silently. I looked around to take it all in.

At the 80 mile mark, I felt a little tired but offered myself consolation: only 32 more miles of biking before the marathon.

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My sister Lynn letting me know that this was a race and that I might want to think about going faster.

An Afternoon Run

The temperature had only risen into the low 70’s by the time I shed the bike and began to run. Even that practically perfect day still felt hot. I put ice into my running hat every chance I got. Then I tried to forget everything except placing one foot in front of the other. I tried not to want anything. I focused on being where I was and doing what I was doing. I told myself that was what was meant for me.

Team Rossman

Margy, Katie, my sister Lynn, my mom and Katie’s childhood friend now living in Madison, Haley Lillehei, formed Team Rossman and they had a date with destiny. 2015 marked Team Rossman’s all time record: They saw me a total of 44 times during the race. Biblical. Over an 11.5 hour day, they saw me approximately every 15 minutes. Put differently, on a 140.6 mile course, they saw me, on average, every 3.2 miles. This was not just a feat of mathematical and navigational excellence. It required diplomacy to sweet-talk skeptical cops into parking illegally “just for minute,” athleticism to run up and down steep hills to intercept me along tree-shrouded running paths and dedication to the proposition that traffic laws don’t apply on Ironman Wisconsin day.

Team Rossman didn’t just settle for seeing me as many times as possible. They kept me up to date with my pace and place. Everyone had an assigned role, including family members not in Madison. My sister Ann monitored the Ironman website from Des Moines, as did my niece Sarah in Minneapolis. They relayed analysis to my sister Lynn who took all incoming calls. Lynn briefed Katie, the group’s fittest runner. Katie stayed off the course but ran near me briefly as I biked and ran to let me know whether I had gained or lost ground. Back in the car, Katie navigated. Margy oversaw the entire operation according to her master spreadsheet, which made Eisenhower’s plan for Normandy look lightweight. When it was too far to jump from the car and run to an observation point on the course, my mom’s job was to sit tight and appear vulnerable – but not abducted – should police approach the car while parked illegally.

As the afternoon wore on and I neared the 18 mile mark of the run, Katie said that the first three guys in my age group were probably too far up the road to catch but it was certainly possible that one of them would blow up. I held steady and protected fourth rather than risking overextending and needing to walk.

With about four miles to go, Katie said that they would see me at the finish. By the time I reached the 25 mile mark, trees formed an arch that shrouded the entire street. A cool, light breeze made it feel like fall again. From there, I pushed uphill toward the capitol as it gleamed white in the late afternoon sun. I felt happy and relieved but worried that someone in my age group might be gaining on me. At the top of the hill, I picked up speed as I headed down the finish chute. I let the slight downhill carry me.

The Catch

The catchers who met me just beyond the finish line hoisted my arms over their shoulders and tried to assure themselves that I was OK before they let me go rejoin my family. It was an on again, off again deliberation. I would let go and begin to walk, then I would list and they would grab me.

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

I didn’t answer but insisted on taking my arms off  their shoulders. I walked unsteadily and they grabbed me again. Finally, I met my family at the end of the chute and we returned to our hotel only a hundred or so yards away.

Once back in the room, Margy helped remove my race gear and I sat down in the tub making heavy use of the grab bars. We had a handicap room and that seemed entirely appropriate for the way I felt. She used a hand held shower to wash me off. I had a hard time catching my breath and coughed empty, dry, and raspy. It became clear that I had not left any race out on the course.

Eventually, Margy lugged me out of the bathtub and I put on clothes. We went to the hotel restaurant where I stared at a sandwich without wanting to eat despite having expended nearly 7,000 calories during the race.

The Morning After

Though I may have gotten even less sleep the night after the race than I did the night before the race, Monday morning dawned bright and beautiful. Then I stepped out of bed and felt as though I had been in a car accident, maybe two.

Margy and Katie left early to catch flights. Margy departed for Los Angeles, Katie for Detroit. I hated to see them go but I felt awfully proud of them and grateful for all that they had done for me. My sister Lynn and mom agreed to stay and accompany me to the awards ceremony. Having placed fourth in my age group, I would receive an award. Without friends or family there, it would have seemed almost as if it had not happened. I felt like a kid at a hotel swimming pool ordering my mom to watch – at 57, no less.

One Slot

My age group included 107 athletes, men 55-59. Given the way slots for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii were allocated, I knew that there would be two slots. If for some reason two of those who finished in front of me did not claim their slots, I would go to Hawaii. But few competitors in Madison traditionally give up their slots.

When it came time for our age group to go up on stage, the guy in second failed to show. I began to think that there was a chance.

The awards ceremony ended about 20 minutes before the Kona slot allocation. As we waited, I was not really concerned about getting a slot. I felt confident that at least two of the guys who finished ahead of me would accept.

The Kona slot ceremony was wonderful. People were overjoyed as the announcer called them to the podium. Each wobbled on stiff legs to receive a lei made of plastic flowers and wandered over to the registration table. Occasionally, someone turned down a slot and the person who received that slot erupted, families and friends cheering and jumping up and down. It was almost certainly more fun to watch the slot allocation than to watch the race.

Finally, the announcer called my age group. He read the name of the winner. Silence. He called the winner’s name again. Silence again. “Going once, going twice, gone.” I reflexively bent forward and looked at the floor. First place had passed and second place had no-showed the awards ceremony. What seemed impossible suddenly seemed possible.

The announcer called the second place finisher’s name. I saw his eyes track to the back of the room and acknowledge the second place finisher coming toward the podium. Then the announcer called the third place finisher’s name. I saw the guy in third stand and walk toward the podium.

“Moving on to men 60-64….”

I stood to leave but a woman in front of us reminded me that if a slot in the older age groups went unclaimed, maybe it would roll back into my age group. I sat down.

The man in 70-74 declined his slot. An official from Ironman spread out her papers to determine the age group to which the slot would allocate. She whispered to the announcer and handed him a sheet of paper.

“The last allocated slot from Ironman Wisconsin goes to the men’s 50-54 age group…”

And it was over. For the second year in a row I had finished one spot away from going to Kona.

Esther Again

Esther had the satisfaction of being the exact right person in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. She was clever and brave. She saved a lot of people. In short, she was really, really good at what she did. I envy Esther though I have no particular designs on having a Book of Scott in the Bible.

For my part, I regretted being good at something but not quite as good as I wanted to be. Perhaps I was the Ironman equivalent of the Philistines, the guys in the Bible who were always a day late and a dollar short. (Maybe a gold piece short; let’s not quibble.) Maybe my sense of destiny on that perfect morning, of being meant to do something special on a sunny fall day was just me flattering myself. Was I OK at Ironman? Sure, but back in biblical terms, I couldn’t even picture my name making a run at a book in the Gnostic Gospel. Even so, after saying good bye to my mom and Lynn, I had plenty of time to think as I-90 stretched west across Wisconsin in front of me. Who is ever as good at anything as they want to be? Even presidents, the leaders of the Western World, are humbled by the difficulties of their jobs. David Letterman never got Johnny Carson’s chair. How many jockeys have won 2/3 of the Triple Crown? I guess that not quite being exactly who you want to be is part of the human condition.

But the drive from Madison to Minneapolis took a very long time. Maybe that sense of destiny had less to do with what I was doing than who I was with. Maybe that perfect fall day was perfect because of who I was with: my mom, Lynn, Margy and Katie. Who else had the chance to enjoy the support and love of their family like I experienced on Sunday? I have raced 2,390.2 miles of Ironman and never seen their like. Whether I won or not seemed not to dim their enthusiasm.

I read once that we all are who we are only in relation to other people. If that’s true and I am even a faint reflection of my family, that’s a grand enough destiny for me.

By the Numbers

Margy did a bit of post-race analysis. Oh to be young again… Here is what she said in an email to Team Rossman:

“Scott was playing with younger kids on the playground yesterday. #1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8 in his age group were 55 years old. #5 was 56. After Scott, the next 57-year old finished in #9 at 12:23 (about 50 minutes later than Scott).”

I finished in 11:32:26, 4th of 107 in my age group.

Upon finishing Ironman Wisconsin in 2015, I had completed 75 marathon or ultra marathon-distance running races. Ironman Wisconsin marked my 17th Ironman.

I entered Ironman Wisconsin 2016 on the Friday before Ironman Wisconsin 2015. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.

A Few Photos from the Weekend

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Sunday morning. Dropping off my bike special needs bag near the Capitol.

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I love the smell of magic marker in the morning. With one of the 3,500 volunteers who make the weekend.

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Margy and I waiting for sunrise over Lake Monona.

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Cleaning my goggles before entering the water.

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Good bye before the swim. The photo our attorney would have used to illustrate the value of careful estate planning.

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Passing through Cross Plains, Wisconsin.

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Along the shore of Lake Mendota. Head down.

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17

Thank you to Margy, Katie, Mom, Lynn, Haley, Ann, Sarah, Rick, Adam, Tom, Davis, and Harper: Sunday and always. For Dad and WT.

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Cloudy, cool.

Several weeks ago, I woke up for a four-hour training ride. I consulted a weather app on my phone. Fortunately, the app predicted a zero percent chance of precipitation.

I started early. The weather was cool and cloudy, humid. Not many people were up and about at that hour on a Saturday morning.

I had ridden about an hour and fifteen minutes when it began to rain, lightly at first. Then it rained softly but steadily. I rode to a sheltering overhang on a nearby auto dealership. The rain splattered in a straight line on the sidewalk beneath the edge of the roof above. I pulled out my phone to see how long the rain might last. Once again, the app promised a 0% chance of precipitation that morning. And for the next two hours and 30 minutes, the app proved to be 100% wrong.

The rain stopped for the last 15 minutes of my ride. Here is what my bike looked like after I arrived home.

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Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are probably right.” Henry Ford

For 2015, the Afton Trail Run implemented a new system. A web page showed who had entered both the 50K and 25K races. The pages displayed each participant’s name, age, and city of residence. The page also projected finish times based on each participant’s prior race history. Perhaps because I had not run the race last year, the page omitted to project my finish time, though it noted that I was 56 years old in an age group ranging from 50 to infinity.

The page offered a projected finish time for a relative youngster in my age group, an experienced ultra marathon runner who had just turned 50. The website predicted that he would finish 11 minutes faster than my best ever time on the course and faster than any other member of our age group. I figured that this guy (let’s call him the “Inevitable”) had ample time to stop to read the morning paper and still beat me with plenty of time to spare.

While I always enjoyed Afton, it had always been very difficult. The course followed trails on the eastern border of Minnesota overlooking the St. Croix River. The course traced a series of climbs and descents. The Afton 50K website said that the course offered 4,670 vertical feet of climbing. And, just as hard and maybe harder, the course offered 4,670 vertical feet of descending.

Saturday morning, July 4th, race day.

I woke up at 4:00, grabbed a little breakfast and began my hourlong drive to Afton. The sun rose blood orange over the horizon. Apparently, forest fires up in Canada had spread smoke into the upper atmosphere and made the sunrises and sunsets gorgeously dramatic.

When I got out of the car, dew dampened my feet as I wandered through runners milling around nervously near the start. John Maas, a farmer from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, had pressed me pretty hard during at least two of our races at Afton. John and I greeted one another and looked around to see if we could spot the Inevitable. We did. He wore nice gear and a confident expression. It looked like we wouldn’t see him again until the picnic following the race.

The race director stood on a stepladder and addressed the 200 or so runners gathered there. He didn’t need to use a microphone. He got down from the stepladder and told us to go. The race had started. John and I began the steep downhill right out of the start running side-by-side. The pace was stupid fast. John and I watched the Inevitable pull away even as we ran far faster than we thought wise. We eased back.

As John and I ran, the course provided vistas every now and then looking out over the St. Croix River valley. A humid Minnesota summer morning sky rested bright but heavy. At a few places, we saw a few runners dotting the course in front of us. The Inevitable was visible, at least for the first few miles. After that, though, he was much too far ahead. I told John that I thought that we had seen the last of him.

We had plenty of time so John told me a story. Four years ago, when he was 50, John ran a 100 mile race. With 40 miles to go, he was eighth. He began to overtake people. With less than seven miles to go, John was second. A fan encouraged him. “You can do it!” the fan said. John said that, at the time, this irritated him. He laughed and said that you get a little grouchy after running 93 miles. (I wouldn’t know. I hope I never do.) Anyway, John poured himself into it. With a mile to go, John caught up with the guy in first place, passed him and went on to win his first big race.

John said that the lesson was for us to just “play our own game.”

“You never know,” he said, “maybe he will just come back to us. 50K is not that long a race but plenty can happen.” (I form friendships easily with people exhibiting peculiar views of the term “long.”)

At mile 21, we descended a steep, rocky slope down to the St. Croix River. I had been running ahead of John as we visited but the downhill hurt my thighs. John seemed unaffected and ran ahead, a few yards at first, then 50, then 100, then he was gone.

I didn’t feel so bad. John had the legs that morning and I didn’t. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. The Inevitable was probably at least 10 minutes ahead and on his way to a course record. John would beat me, too. So I took what wisdom I could from the morning’s chat and just played my own game. I ran the downhills as fast as I could but it was often no faster than a walk. I ran most of the uphills but allowed myself to walk several, too. This is no sin in trail running; sometimes it is more efficient to walk uphill briskly. Most trail runners develop a knack for feeling the slope of an uphill and break into a fast walk once the slope steepens to a certain pitch.

Alone, I was left to ruminate. In the past, I could have run those hills, both up and down. I scolded myself and felt the sun beat down when I emerged from the woods into a treeless field overlooking the river. I let negative thoughts take control. I slowed down.

After plunging back into the woods, a runner approached from behind. We chatted for a few minutes, then I pulled over to let him by. It had felt good to have company and I had picked up the pace, even if I ultimately needed to let him pass.

Just about a mile from the finish I began to climb the last big hill on the course, a hill called “Meat Grinder.” (I needn’t explain the name.) I lifted my chin and looked up. The Inevitable’s back appeared about 100 yards ahead. He was walking, slowly. I swallowed hard and dug in, though I knew that if I came up on someone that late in the race that I could pass him easily. And I did.

The last several hundred yards stretched along a ridge with tall grass lining a narrow dirt path. The sun shone brightly, hot but moderated by a light breeze. I saw the tent over the timer’s table and heard music playing faintly for the people gathered near the finish line at the post-race picnic.

I crossed the line and received a vigorous handshake from the race organizer. John greeted me, too. He held the framed picture that each age group winner receives. We shook hands and he offered me a shoulder to steady myself.

I lost but felt happy. It would be hard to find anyone nicer than John. He had worked me very hard, not just that morning but during several prior races. I’d like to think that I pushed him a little bit, too. Maybe I helped him get to the finish line. I think that we helped each other. He deserved to win and I felt genuinely happy for him.

The Inevitable crossed the line not long after I had. He did not look so good. His friends and family gathered around to help. I felt sorry for him. He hadn’t bragged. Rather, he fell victim to a prediction that he did not make. An algorithm announced that he would trounce both John and me. So far as the website was concerned, the Inevitable really needn’t have shown up. This was a coronation – at least so far as the algorithm was concerned. By the looks of him at the finish, he should have taken the opportunity to phone this one in if that chance had been offered.

It’s embarrassing to admit that after 73 marathons or ultra marathons, I had so easily conceded defeat to an electronic system that predicted winners and losers. I had reconciled to losing before I started. I had feared that it would be pointless for me to show up; the Inevitable was going to beat me badly. Just as erroneous, I thought that I was likely to beat John once again. Instead, I think that John and I helped one another through friendly rivalry. I also wonder if the Inevitable paid any attention to the time the algorithm had predicted. If so, it was way too fast and blew him out before the final miles.

I learned (again) that you never know how things will come out, at least with respect to running a 31 mile race over big hills on a warm weekend. You still need to show up. Maybe if I had paid less attention to the algorithm and more attention to my own pace – played my own game – I would have raced much better. To be fair, I still lost, just as the algorithm would have predicted, but I lost to someone whom I greatly respect and admire – and probably someone that the algorithm would have said that I would have beaten again. Last Saturday, though, both the algorithm and I were wrong: John had the legs and he ran away from all of us. In the end, I think that John just had a feeling deep inside his chest and he pushed hard when it got really tough. I doubt that there is an algorithm to reliably predict that.

Even at age 56, I’m still competitive. I want to win. But maybe it is an encouraging sign that I can feel so happy to see one of my competitors beat me. I might not have felt that way even just a year or two ago. I was OK with it on July 4th, though, and may need to adapt to that perspective more as time goes on. I want my good days of racing but I hope to be gracious in acknowledging others who are just better than I am that day. That’s racing. That’s life.

Maybe next year I won’t check to see who else enters Afton. That way I won’t have the opportunity to believe my own press one way or another. Instead, maybe I will just show up and hope to run with John Maas as long as I can – or as long as he can run with me. If that happens, it will be a good day no matter who wins. And I will believe what I feel inside my chest.

There are some things that you can look up using Google and feel confident in the answer. There are some things that you can’t. I’m not sure that there is a firm rule to distinguish when to believe Google and when not. Maybe if the result depends on somebody’s heart and determination, I had best exercise caution when consulting my phone or computer. So, you read it here first: Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Of course, here you are reading that on the internet.

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Preface

You may no longer care to read about my experiences at the Boston Marathon or in California at the Wildflower triathlon. I have held this post for quite some time while trying to divine some coherent meaning from three consecutive weekends spent traveling – first to Boston, then to Wildflower, then to California again for a memorial for my friend Warren Thornthwaite who died exactly one year before the service. I think that I learned something during these trips but am not sure that this post adequately communicates what I learned or if it will be interesting to others.

Here goes…

Sunday Morning, April 19th

In 2014, Katie and I ran together on the day before the Boston Marathon. On that day, we looked forward to Boston becoming her home. We ran along the Charles River and down Boylston Street. Boston brimmed with possibilities.

In 2015, Katie and I took a similar run. We headed out of the hotel and ran to Boylston. The sun had come up but it was chilly – even crisp – for a late April morning. A cool wind blew in our faces. In the distance, we spotted the marathon finish area, the bleachers, the cops, the people taking selfies, all of the runners in their Boston Marathon jackets. For many we saw, the trip to Boston was a pilgrimage to marathon Mecca. For Katie, Boston represented a different kind of Mecca. Boston was the place for the adult Katie to reverse roles in her relationship with me. She had become the one “in the know,” the one to show me around a big city.

Katie and I squinted looking into the sunshine as we ran. Katie moved quickly; I kept pace. She accelerated a little. I held.

I worked hard, harder than I wanted to work on the day before a race, but I did not want to hold Katie back. So I stayed with her. I tried to suppress the sound of my heavy breathing. I dug in.

“Uh, Dad,” she said, “This is a little fast for me.”

“What?” I replied. “I thought I was running fast to keep up with you.”

“No, I was running fast to keep up with you.”

“No! This is killing me. Let’s both slow down.”

We eased back and stopped talking much. We settled into a rhythm as we looked out over the Charles River. I no longer needed to slow down to run with Katie; I needed to speed up. Katie had grown up and I couldn’t say exactly when that had happened.

Monday Morning, April 20th: Race Day

2015 - Boston Marathon Before Start

The sky hung thick and gray but it wasn’t raining. It felt chilly – about 45 degrees. I gave Margy and Katie hugs, then boarded a big yellow school bus. I waved good bye through the foggy window. Once our bus filled, we chugged off in a procession of dozens of school buses snaking through Boston toward Hopkinton.

After we left urban Boston and entered the countryside, I looked up just in time to see the driver turn on the windshield wipers. The line of yellow buses stretched over the crest of a distant hill, immersed in a cloud of gray road spray. The caravan rumbled over the horizon. The sky darkened.

I sat in my running shoes, shorts, two sweatshirts, running hat and a garbage bag. A guy from Canada sat next to me. We talked hockey. The rain intensified. The driver turned the wipers to “high.”

The guy beside me looked about my age. We had plenty of time to talk about our kids, work and running while riding a bus from the marathon finish line to the start.

We looked out at the wet morning. The trees had only begun to sprout tiny leaves. A light green haze hung over the brown and gray woods.

The ride dragged on. How could it be that we would run back through the rain and the cold and the wind to the place we had boarded the bus?

We exited the freeway and entered the small town of Hopkinton. A cop waved us through a busy intersection. A line of buses pulled up to Hopkinton High School and runners unloaded with legs stiff from sitting in seats proportioned for kids. Runners made their way quickly through the light rain. I headed into a huge tent with open sides. It rained harder. We hadn’t room to sit so we all stood. I struck up a conversation.

“So how old are you guys?”

They were both in their 50’s.

One explained that he had gotten into marathon running as a way to train for a charity boxing match. I told him that I had previously thought running marathons and triathlons was about as dumb as it got. Now I stood corrected.

He smiled.

“So how long are we going to keep doing this?” I asked.

The guy who had done the boxing answered.

“I don’t really know,” he said, then thought for a minute before he added, “Well, Father Time is undefeated.”

We all laughed and looked outside. It kept raining. Only another hour and a half to wait.

After about an hour, I looked outside. Porta potties rimmed the field surrounding the tent. I decided that I had time for one last trip before moving to the parking lot, then down the 3/8 mile walk to the start area. The damp wind chilled me as I waited in the light rain. My teeth chattered.

That task accomplished, I walked slowly toward the parking lot, then down the long hill. Special Operations guys had gathered by a police car. They wore baseball caps and looked pretty relaxed for wearing full body armor and carrying machine guns.

By the time I reached the starting area, I shivered with cold and nervousness. Only reluctantly – and at the very last minute – did I give up the garbage bag that had kept me dry. Then I shed the “Boston” sweatshirt that I had bought the day before. I kept my Grinnell College sweatshirt on, thinking that I might need it for the first five miles or so. I was right.

A woman got on the PA system and sang us a song about running. She let us know that we could buy her song on iTunes. The wind picked up and blew straight into our faces. The starting gun sounded. About 7,000 of us in Wave 2 of 4 walked slowly toward the start line about 150 yards ahead. By the time I crossed, we had room to jog slowly, after about 50 yards, we trotted, then in another 50 yards, we ran.

For all that the Boston Marathon is legendary, the first miles of the course passed unremarkable homes in small towns on a quiet country road. A few runners around me talked. Most of us just ran silently. After four miles, I pulled off the course and placed my thoroughly worn out Grinnell sweatshirt on a fire hydrant. I ran on feeling a little sad to have left a favorite behind.

The rain began in earnest. Our feet made soft splashing sounds as they struck the pavement. Even fewer people talked. The rain blew into our faces. A woman beside me ran straight through a long line of puddles and splashed me. My socks soaked the water up from the soles of my feet. The cold crept up my arches and onto the tops of my feet. My socks squished inside my shoes.

Fewer people lined the course in 2015 than the year before. What few signs there were curled in the rain. Lettering streaked. Spectators threw most signs down onto nearby sidewalks or into yards. People along the curb pulled up their hoods and scrunched up their shoulders toward their ears while turning away from the driving rain.

I saw Margy and Katie near the 15 mile mark in Wellesley. They had rigged up garbage bags to cover their raincoats. They said that they were pretty cold but getting by. The downhill started. I had more than ten miles to go. By the bottom of the hill, my thighs hurt like thunder. The rain picked up. I chose to think about other things.

I dwelled on a recording we heard on the preceding Saturday night. Katie helped with a book club at work. The national head of her consulting practice had chosen “The Boys in the Boat,” a book about the 1936 US men’s Olympic rowing team. He found out that Katie was a former college rower and enlisted her help. Katie contacted the author’s publicist to see if he would join the conversation. He did and we heard Katie interact with the author. I was accustomed to Katie as a competitive rower but I had not previously heard her speak in a work setting. Sure, it had been her voice but the manner was unfamiliar; she sounded like an adult.

The Wellesley downhill ended and the uphill brought me back to the task at hand. My body felt warm enough to keep running but I feared needing to walk. And my thighs asked, asked urgently, for me to walk. But if I walked, I would have chilled so quickly that the race would have been over. Strangely, it was the downhills that hurt, that made me want most to walk. Boston’s uphills were hard but it was the downhills that doled out the punishment. The braking action of downhill running was so out of sync with the way that I had been running before Wellesley that the new way in which I was using my thighs to run downhill hurt a whole lot. But in the intensifying rain, I couldn’t stop.

After several more miles and hills, I safely ascended Heartbreak Hill. The course proceeded mostly downhill from there. Hard as I tried to push, I had no closing kick. I did, however, have a closing slog. I labored through Brookline and into Boston. Turn right, turn left and there was the finish line in the distance. It seemed to take almost as long to reach the finish as it had to ride the bus 26 miles in the opposite direction.

I crossed under the banner and looked for a race volunteer to give me a silver foil poncho. My hands felt numb with cold. I needed help. A volunteer draped a poncho over my shoulders and fastened the front. The wind occasionally lifted the poncho ala Marilyn Monroe crossing a subway grate. I tucked the poncho between my elbow and my ribs to keep it in place. My fingers could not yet grip. Ahead of me I saw the backs of a sea of runners all in identical ponchos. It looked like I had entered an alien procession marching toward Boston Common. I wondered if anyone had thought to say, “Take me to your leader.”

I stood in a crowd of stinky, wet, foil-clad runners mixed with equally wet, tired spectators in black raincoats. It took Margy and Katie a long time to sort through the crowd and come to the corner of the Boston Common closest to the finish line. Eventually, I spotted Katie and we made our way over to a cab that Margy alertly hailed. Without the cab, I may not have made it back to the hotel.

The cabbie struck me as not ordinarily inclined to emote but he appeared particularly unenthusiastic about me stiff-leggedly dropping into the passenger seat beside him. I was covered with road grime and, despite the cool temperatures, I must have sweat enough to smell like the wrath of God.

Once back at our hotel, I moved quickly toward the shower. My teeth chattered as I stripped the wet, clinging clothes. Unfortunately, upon stepping into the stream of warm water I learned that I had gotten chafed, chafed a whole lot, chafed in some really bad spots. (Let your imagination run wild. Yeah, there.) While it shouldn’t have surprised me, I yelped in pain. I tried to enjoy the wonderful feeling of warming up but it hurt too much. I finally got warm enough to stop shaking. I exited the shower and toweled off. It felt good to be dry.

11 days later, Friday, May 1st

We looked out at the hills along the 101 south of San Jose. 2015 marked my 13th consecutive annual trip to Wildflower. The sights had become familiar. Usually, the hills were lush and vibrant. This year, the hills were dotted with a few green trees here and there but were mostly a drab tan, tinder dry.

My friends Emmerson Ward, Elizabeth Wright and I had crammed three bikes, all of our bags and a big red cooler into a rented Kia minivan. Emmerson, a four-time Wildflower finisher, had come with me from Minneapolis. Elizabeth was my friend – and my friend Warren’s wife. We picked her up in Menlo Park before hitting the road.

I always enjoyed the conversation during the three-hour trips from the Bay Area to Lake San Antonio near Paso Robles. Emmerson described the horse ranch on which he lived near Afton, Minnesota, the new chicken coop, the pygmy goats and what a wonderful place the ranch was for his kids to grow up (both human and goat). We talked about Elizabeth’s fitness business. We also talked about Warren. Our itinerary had been honed during prior trips to Lake San Antonio with Warren. Warren had died almost exactly a year before and we found reminders of him at various places on our way.

A big part of Wildflower was always the drive and the natural surroundings. We passed through Gilroy, the garlic and cherry capital. Shortly thereafter, irrigated lettuce fields lined 101. Neat rows of grape vines on Old Jolon Road displaced the lettuce. The vineyards gave way to hills too steep to cultivate. A few cattle grazed indifferently on the dusty brown hillsides. The eastern flanks of the hills supported live oaks draped in moss, deep green, almost gray. When the hills yielded to open fields, wild mustard grew thinly, leaving a golden cloud hovering just above the sandy soil and crackly dry grass. In a few places, small, hardy patches of purple lupine lined the road’s shoulder. Warren had taught me to identify the wildflower species but California’s four-year drought had left precious few on which to practice.

Scott, Elizabeth and Emmerson at Wildflower May 2015

At the top of the hill overlooking what had been Lake San Antonio, Elizabeth, Emmerson and I snapped a picture looking out at a vast, dry lake bed. We could see the “bathtub ring” that marked where water had usually lapped against the shore. Instead, we saw only loose sand under what had previously been the Wildflower swim course.

Saturday, May 2

The race organizers made adjustments for the drought. Here was how it would go: The course featured the unusual triathlon format of swim, transition, run, transition, bike, transition, run. For those of you counting, this made Wildflower a four-leg triathlon (a “quadrathlon?”). The course used what was left of Lake San Antonio for the swim. The lake covered only 4% of its past acreage. Ordinarily nearly 80 miles around, for the 2015 race, the lake might have been three miles in circumference.

We arrived at Lake San Antonio early on race morning after driving through fog that drifted through the valleys. I recalled places that Warren and I had stopped in 2004 or 2005. The wildflowers had grown thick in the ditches and across the hills that year. That morning a decade ago, we looked out and saw the same fog rising from the lakes and snaking through the valleys. It had been a perfect morning and we had lost our tough guy cred by stopping to take pictures of flowers. One of the hardest triathlons in the country would have to wait. But in 2015, the wildflowers were few and it had been two years since Warren last visited Lake San Antonio.

Once we arrived at the venue, Elizabeth rode her bike to the transition area for her race, the somewhat shorter mountain bike triathlon. Emmerson and I took a bus and descended into a separate long course transition area. Emmerson and I watched the professional athletes start, then swim across the mirror-flat lake. By the time the pros reached the far end of the 1.2 mile out-and-back swim course they had bisected the lake and nearly reached the far shore.

Emmerson’s swim start time approached. We snapped a photo, I gave him a hug and said that I would see him at the finish. I watched as he disappeared into the group wearing indistinguishable black wetsuits and pink swim caps.

Emmerson and Scott at Wildflower May 2015

I jogged up the long, steep boat ramp in time to see Elizabeth before my swim. Another quick hug. Then I returned to my gear arrayed on the rough boat ramp concrete. I pulled my wetsuit on slowly. The sun climbed through the sky and warmed me. As I walked slowly toward the start, the professional triathletes ran out of the water, struggling to extricate themselves from their wetsuits. At that moment in particular, I missed Warren. For years he had zipped up my wetsuit along the back, fixed the strap and told me that it was going to be a great day. I had to trust my imagination that he would have said the same thing in 2015.

I swam without distinction other than to have gone so far off course that a kayak paddler yelled at me and pointed me back onto the proper vector. I passed several people. The cool water coursed through my wetsuit and my arms created a steady rhythm to which I synchronized my breath.

The run up the boat ramp from the swim nearly finished me. I breathed so hard by the top that I couldn’t imagine running the rest of the 2.2 miles to the second transition. When the course dipped into the dry lake bed and traversed fine, loose sand, I wondered what more the race organizers could do to slow me down – and this was just the beginning. At the former swim exit near the end of the 2.2 miles, I climbed yet another boat ramp, this one a bit easier than the first. Still, it looked like it would be a very long day.

On the bike, I noticed how much of the countryside had succumbed to the drought. Cattle restlessly wandered parched fields, uninterested in the bone dry grass crumbling beneath their hooves. Even so, pockets of lupine hugged the shoulder of the road, clouds of wild mustard floated over fields. Nature had not given up. Small colonies of resistance held out. I felt hopeful.

As I approached Nasty Grade just after mile 40, I began to scale the 1,000 foot vertical climb over two or three miles. The wind that had cooled me out on the flats died on the climbing side of the hill. Sweat poured from under my helmet and seeped into my eyes. My eyes burned and I blinked in an effort to see.

I finally reached the top. On my left, I saw Lake Nacimiento. While low, that lake had largely survived the drought. A hawk played the breezes blowing up the steep slope. On my right, I looked down to see what used to be Lake San Antonio. There were only sand and dust and first growth weeds that had quickly moved in after the water had moved out. It was on this ridge that I had so many times before felt profoundly grateful. Ordinarily, I would have climbed a tough hill and found myself looking down on two beautiful lakes. But in 2015, one of those lakes was gone.

For reasons I can’t explain, I thought of something that I missed – and I never suspected that I would miss such a thing. Though I missed the healthy Warren most of all, I also missed the sick Warren. I remembered tucking him in for a nap and making sure that the blankets covered his feet. No drafts – it had become an obsession, first at his house, then at the hospital.

I remembered something that had happened just a year before: The nurses arrived to bathe Warren, change the sheets and reposition him. It hurt him. His neck had bent and it was hard for him to turn his head. The nurses were mostly gentle but efficient. They moved quickly. They rolled Warren onto his right side. I saw him grab for the bed rail with his right hand as his left arm flopped uselessly onto the mattress. He looked scared.

“This is not doing a lot for my confidence,” he said softly.

I placed my hand firmly on his left shoulder to stabilize him and stood where he could see me.

“I’ve got you,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Warren said.

I laughed a little and said that I wasn’t sure that I could do much good.

“I’m not joking,” he said more forcefully, more clearly, “I’m glad you’re here.”

I remembered looking straight ahead out the window. The sun shone brightly on the trees swaying gently outside. I took off my glasses and wiped each eye on the sleeves of my tee shirt and put my glasses back on. Once Warren had been placed on his back again, I walked to the foot of the bed and tucked in the sheets and blankets to avoid any breezy spots. Nary a stray breeze, not if I could help it.

Why this episode occurred to me at that particular place wasn’t clear but I understood how much I missed being useful to Warren – being able to take care of someone who really needed care. That he had appreciated me made it so satisfying – and that much more a loss once he died. Feeling needed is not to be taken for granted and perhaps at this place, the place I had always felt grateful, I also appreciated having been useful.

A few (grueling) miles later, I got off my bike and headed onto the run. The breeze felt good but the sun was hot. The course rounded a long righthand turn. The wind blew from behind me and I felt like I ran in completely still air. Sweat poured into my eyes again and I tried to blink it away.

At four miles, I crested a hill and headed down toward an aid station. I recognized Emmerson from the back. He was walking.

“There he is!” I said.

Emmerson greeted me weakly.

“I may need to take a DNF (“did not finish”),” he said. “I just can’t get my heart rate down, even if I walk.”

I slowed down and asked him to tell me more so that maybe I could help. He urged me to go on. He said that he would stop at the aid station just a few yards ahead and assess the situation. I felt torn but he told me again to keep going. I complied but felt bad.

At about nine miles, I spilled water on my leg and shoe. The shoe instantly attracted the fine dust that billowed with each step and settled into a splatter pattern in brown on the blue nylon mesh of my shoe. Dark brown dust clung to my legs above the socks that began the day white.

From that point, I didn’t think much at all. I put one foot in front of the other and tried not to wish for more than the next step, then the next.

At the finish, I felt entirely spent. Emmerson waved to me from the fence lining the finish chute. Elizabeth spotted me grabbing a Gatorade. I walked over and asked if I could take a few minutes just to sit and gather myself. She said, “Sure.” It took more than a few minutes but, eventually, I stood up and the three of us got our bikes and transition bags. We pushed our bikes up the steep, dusty hill from which we once could have looked back to see shimmering Lake San Antonio, a vista that had been replaced with sand and weeds.

We honored tradition and drove to Salinas. We exited the freeway and headed toward a failed Chevy’s restaurant rebranded as “Hacienda.” I got out of the seat and waddled toward the door, still wearing the long sleeve white shirt I had worn to bike and run. None of us had showered. We hobbled up to the hostess stand.

“Are you here to see the fight?” the hostess asked.

“I don’t want to fight anyone,” I offered.

“No, the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight,” she said. “Twenty dollars.”

“Twenty dollars for what?” I inquired.

“To get in.”

“And what else?” I persisted.

“Nothing; that’s just to get in,” she said.

“I don’t want to see the fight. Is there a place we can sit and not see the fight and not pay $20?”

“No, the whole restaurant is set up for the fight.”

I looked and saw several large screens. Most of the tables had filled with fight fans.

“Are there any other good Mexican restaurants nearby?” I asked.

“Let me ask my manager.”

She returned and referred us to Pancho Villa’s, a place down the road and across the freeway.

We limped back to the car, hungry, tired, sore and stinky.

We drove along the frontage road, crossed the freeway and found a dubious looking restaurant with a hand painted sign. The building looked as though it had been built in the 70’s to house a fast food restaurant that probably didn’t make it. In fact, it occurred to me that succeeding occupants had not made a go of it there either.

We walked in and saw diners at only two tables. Two guys straight out of “Breaking Bad” sat in the corner. I assumed that they had gotten there in the monster pickup truck parked near the door. A Mexican family sat in an alcove away from the Breaking Bad guys. Our waitress appeared to be the owner. She gave us menus.

The “Big Burrito” had been repriced. A sticker with a handwritten “$7.99” obscured the original price. I opted for fajitas and a big lemonade, noting that I had not urinated for nearly 12 hours. Not a great sign.

The owner brought us a basket of chips and two dishes of salsa. I snagged a chip. Fantastic. The fajitas were wonderful, too, and Emmerson assured us that the Big Burrito was worth every penny of the $7.99.

So, just 11 days after a complete soaking during the Boston Marathon, there I was in the middle of the California drought. Nothing had really gone as I had planned. The things to which I had looked forward were not all that great. It would be hard to call the wet, cold Boston Marathon all that much fun. But I had really enjoyed listening to the recording of Katie participate in a book club discussion. After the soaking suffered in Boston, I looked forward to running on a warm, sunny day in California. Even that had not quite gone to plan. It was hot – way too hot. Both Emmerson and I had suffered. Meanwhile, who would have expected me to feel grateful for a memory of time I had spent with Warren in the hospital when he was so terribly sick? Who would have expected to love a meal at a restaurant named “Pancho Villa’s?”

That things often don’t go as planned is hardly newsworthy. All of us know that. What I learned on my trips was that I found some of my greatest satisfactions in relatively ordinary and unexpected places. I even learned that one of my most gratifying memories of Warren arose from a very, very sad time. Having a role caring for someone who appreciated me was deeply fulfilling. Meanwhile, seeing my efforts to raise Katie pay off was even more satisfying. On that one, I got to skip the sad part and enjoy only the good.

Warren’s death affected me. It was a warning. My name was on a list and it was moving toward the top. It might not matter if I worked out or ate all of the right foods or took all of the right vitamins. His death represented a certain futility. Was there much benefit in trying to do all of the right things?

Warren’s death also tested what it meant to get older. Was aging simply a process of reaching a peak and thereafter giving up life’s pleasures one by one? As time passes, friends and family members die, physical skills erode. When Warren died, I didn’t expect to return to Wildflower. I didn’t expect a lot of things to ever quite be as fun again as they once were. Once someone as important as Warren was gone, was I consigned to a life not quite as good as before? Was that the inevitable consequence of growing older? Was aging just a process of building a life full of friends, family and possibilities, then watching them slowly fade away?

I decided not. I had had a great time in Boston and California. Was it the same as it had been during prior years? No, a lot had changed – and I had suffered a significant loss. But if I stopped for only a few moments and tallied my losses versus my blessings, things had come out differently than I might have expected. Things were still good and many things were even better.

Maybe the lesson was to spend time with great people like Margy, Katie, Emmerson and Elizabeth. Good things happen with great people. Maybe I felt grateful because I knew that I had spent all of the time I could with Warren and that we both had appreciated it.

Maybe the lesson was that if only I did not close myself to possibility, to the possibility that life can offer great things in unexpected places at unexpected times, things could be just as much fun as ever. Sure, Warren was gone, gone forever, and I would always miss him. There was no one to replace him and probably never would be. But Warren would not willingly consign us to a future never quite as good as it was when he was alive. Warren would have wanted us to have fun and to be open to possibility.

In the end, though, I was certain of only one thing: Warren would have gotten the Big Burrito and eaten every last bite. I thought of him as we  pushed our plates away and watched the sun sink slowly over traffic flowing north on US 101.

Saturday, May 9th: The First Anniversary of Warren’s Death

Katie, Margy and I returned to California to remember Warren at Asilomar in Pacific Grove. About 45 friends and family members joined us. We had a Quaker-style memorial service during which many of us shared memories of time with Warren. I spent most of the service looking down at a picture I had taken of Warren about ten years ago. I propped the picture against the leg of the chair in front of me. The memorial service was unexpectedly hard but offered one last nice surprise. As I sat looking down, Katie stood up. She took just a few minutes to remember that Warren’s memory had inspired her and her rowing teammates on the day after Warren died. She said it beautifully.

Once the service ended, we walked to the beach. To remember Warren, all of us grabbed a shell or rock and threw it into the ocean. My rock skipped once, then knifed into a wave. Our rocks and shells disappeared and we were left to watch waves roll up onto the shore, one after another after another.

2015 - Katie and Scott on Beach in Pacific Grove

As Warren was not physically in attendance, it fell to Katie to make fun of me. Warren would have been proud.

Autumn

If Ironman Wisconsin marks the first day of autumn, the Twin Cities Marathon marks the end of autumn’s warm, colorful days. Through the years, the Twin Cities Marathon has offered starting temperatures in the 20’s all the way up into the 70’s but usually it has been chilly. It has snowed. It has rained. I especially recall splashing through an inch of water covering Minnehaha Parkway as the rain got ahead of the storm sewers. Most years, though, the weather has been almost perfect, crisp and clear. The maples have reached peak colors and the temperatures have stayed in the 40’s and 50’s, perfect for running. It’s hard not to love Minnesota on marathon day, especially from the Franklin Avenue Bridge above fiery maples lining the banks of the Mississippi all the way to the horizon.

This year, marathon day started a little cooler than usual, about 34 degrees with a western breeze that made it feel colder. Margy dropped me off and I headed toward the start in a long sleeve shirt and shorts. I draped a garbage bag over me to stop the wind. (I cut out a place to stick my head and neck out, just so you get the proper visual.) It had turned cloudy after the radiantly red sunrise had disappeared beneath dense, high clouds.

The first person I saw was Paul Phillips, an endurance athletics photographer. Paul’s hands were full but we exchanged a hug. I told him how much I had enjoyed a poster-sized photo of the sun rising over the Ironman World Championship start in Kailua Bay, Hawaii, that Paul had given me the year I ran that race. Paul said that it was no problem. He said that he would leave for Kona the following day. He was going to shoot one more event thereafter, then take care of a knee that had been giving him problems for a long time.

The start area felt dark on a downtown street wedged between tall, gray buildings. It was cold and breezy. I struck up conversation with a woman beside me. It became clear that she would finish, shower and eat lunch by the time I could find my way to the end of the course. She wished me luck.

My friend, Jim. D’Aurora sang the National Anthem. And we began.

My animal spirits awoke once the race started but not to the extent that they did years ago. I knew the course like the back of my hand and found it easy to just settle in and think about little other than trying to keep going. I did notice a new favorite homemade sign. It said, “Chafing the dream.”

Jim Kirkham stood in his usual spot. When he was a teenager, Jim skinned a wolf or coyote (I have tried not to get close enough to tell for sure), then used the fur to make a hat and mittens that he wears every year on marathon day. Both he and his wife Shelley gave me high fives. I wished that I had brought my Purell.

The course wound along Lake Calhoun where I met Margy. She had come to collect the long sleeve shirt that I no longer needed now that I had warmed up.

“It’s pretty gross,” I said, not breaking stride.

Margy reached out and grabbed the shirt, holding it at arm’s length. I heard several people nearby laugh. Who needed the Purell now?

Not long thereafter, I saw Terry and Kathy Lee, Kathy and Kerry Ynestad, and Julie Hull, friends of mine from the triathlon community, each of whom has cheered for me on too many occasions to count. Along that section of the course, a man from Chicago running beside me said, “You are pretty much the mayor of this stretch.” I smiled and felt grateful.

A bit farther on, I spotted another friend and former TCM board of directors president, Ron Abrahamson and his wife Gloria.

“Hi Ron, how are you doing?”

He had just taken a sip of coffee. He looked surprised to see me.

“Look good Scott,” he said as he tried to get his coffee down. “How are you?”

“Very well, thank you,” I said, realizing how silly this sounded when running as fast as my legs would carry me.

At about mile 18, I felt a little tired. This should not have come as much of a surprise. I had run Ironman Wisconsin exactly 28 days before. And on this weekend, I had chosen to participate in the “Ultra Loony Challenge,” a Twin Cities Marathon weekend event involving a 10K and 5K on Saturday morning followed by the marathon on Sunday. I had placed first in my age group in the 10K  among all participants. After the 5K, I was in first place in my Ultra Loony Challenge age group and 8th of 112 over all. The 5K was especially fun because I ran it with my friend Bob Boisvert. In years past we ran with his son Parker but this year Parker ran on ahead. Neither Bob nor I wanted to run as fast as Parker would now that he had grown. Parker was just a little kid when we first started running together but now he left Bob and me behind. My overall pace for the two races was good and I had been encouraged by the results of Saturday’s events. I went into the marathon hoping to win my Ultra Loony Challenge age group. As is so often the case in life, I dedicated effort to something that meant next to nothing.

Crossing the Franklin Avenue Bridge at mile 19, the skies were gray and the Mississippi valley did not light up with its usual intensity. It was beautiful, just more austere. From the middle of the bridge, the course turned downhill and I tried not to think. I just wanted to collect my breath and to focus on running. Only running.

The course left the Mississippi River and climbed a steep hill approaching the University of St. Thomas. A gradual right turn preceded a sharp left. Then the course ascended slowly and steadily. It felt like I had thrown out an anchor. By mile 24, the course had flattened and friends from the local running store, Adam Lindahl, Mark Feyereisen and his wife Wren cheered for me. Adam had a microphone, loudspeakers and was wearing kind of a creepy mouse mask. (Don’t ask me why.) But theirs was the pick up that I needed.

Just before mile 26, the course plunged downhill in front of the towering St. Paul Cathedral. A huge American flag hung above the finish line. Friends who remained on the TCM board, including Bob Boisvert, called to me from the VIP tent as I approached the finish line. I waved and felt enormously grateful – for my friends, for the memories, for my family.

I finished (about 40 minutes slower than I had in 1988 when I ran my fastest marathon) and felt glad to have Margy meet me there. I also smiled at the thought that I had completed my 72nd marathon. How many more? Who knows?

Once we were in the car and heading toward home, Katie called. We heard about training as a new management consultant in New York, her weekend in Austin, and trip to Dallas for more training. Yeah, her, the little blond kid I used to lift over the snow fence to stand with me for a picture after the marathon.

Lots has changed since I ran my first Twin Cities Marathon in 1987. I entered law school and graduated. Katie was born. We built a house. I had several jobs. I served on the TCM board, then hit my term limit. Katie grew up, graduated twice and got a job as a management consultant in Boston. Now she is the one heading off for a professional career in a big city far away.

I thought back to a chance encounter earlier in the weekend. Another former TCM board member and I ran into one another after I finished the 10K on Saturday morning. Years ago, he and I had clashed over a subject that I had since come to regret. We had made up after that incident, acknowledging that we had honest differences regarding a matter of policy, not personal differences. As we had stood out of the wind on Saturday morning, he looked around at the festivities and said something that rang in my ears.

“Well, it certainly looks like they are getting along just fine without us.”

I shook my head slowly and reluctantly to agree. Life goes on.

We all view ourselves in a particular way. Our view of ourselves is a complicated mix of the things we do, where we live and who we count as our friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances. In my case, after having run so many marathons, they have become part of the way I view myself. But running a marathon is all about moving on, relentlessly, persistently, steadily. It’s not the numerical accomplishment of running 26.2 miles or the total number of marathons finished. It’s the accumulation of words of encouragement gleaned over the years. It’s the memory of people who were there for the first marathons but have passed on. It’s about the kids who weren’t even born when I ran my first Twin Cities Marathon, who watched many marathons from my sisters’, mom’s or wife’s arms and are now almost as old as I was when I ran my first. It’s adjusting to the people who were much younger when I started racing and are now much older – including me. It’s about finishing a race even when you feel terrible – with 16 miles to go. It’s about the days when everything goes absolutely right. It’s about thinking that you are in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

So how and when do you move on? When do you hold on? It’s hard to think of my identity shifting as everything around me changes. More than anything, the last year has been all about changes, big ones. I’m fortunate; the changes have been good, maybe great. I’m not complaining. The last year has brought so much to celebrate.

So I’ll try to adapt, to move on, to recognize the way that things really are now. But I will also remember. I’ll remember the kind words of encouragement, the wind blowing cool and strong across my face as I ran toward the finish line and the feeling of Katie’s small hand in mine as we walked toward the car a long time ago.

Leaves

It’s been windy here in Minneapolis. Many of the colorful leaves are scattered on the ground. I enjoy them there, too. They make a skittering sound when they blow around on our driveway and sidewalk. Winter is on its way.

Postscript

In the 10K, I finished first of 47 men aged 55 to 59. In the marathon, I placed 12th of 295 men in my age group. In the Ultra Loony Challenge, I finished first in my age group and fifth over all of 84 people dumb enough to finish anything entitled “Ultra Loony.”

80 percent of life is showing up. -Woody Allen

Friday, September 5, 2014.

I stood on a small patch of grass looking out at the water. It was a sunny Friday afternoon in Madison. A light breeze blew in off Lake Monona. The temperature was in the low 70’s. A dozen or so swimmers were entering or exiting the water at the swim start area for Ironman Wisconsin. A dozen or so more swam near the triangular orange and yellow buoys that marked the course. Unlike the way the scene would appear on Sunday morning, the feeling was relaxed, even lazy. The swimmers’ strokes were smooth, regular, metronomic.

One of the swimmers was our daughter Katie. After watching ten Ironman races, she had decided that she wanted to see what swimming in Lake Monona would be like. It was Katie’s first trip back to Madison to watch Ironman Wisconsin since she had gone away to college. Now she was a graduate with an apartment and a job as a management consultant waiting for her in Boston in just a few weeks. Twelve years ago, she was ten and in fifth grade when I ran my first Ironman. Today she was plying the waters by herself, swimming into the distance.

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Katie, Friday afternoon, 2014.

I looked around. It was the same place that I had stood twelve years before. In fact, it was the very place where we took this picture:

21 Warren Dave and Scott in their sexy suits

Practice swim, Friday afternoon, 2002. The police did not show up in time to question our fashion sensibilities.

Warren, Dave Mason and I had taken a practice swim on a similarly nice Friday afternoon in 2002. The little patch of grass at Lake Monona was exactly the same as it had been twelve years before. But so much had changed. Warren had died in May 2014. Dave had not run an Ironman in years and now had a wife and great daughters of his own. Katie had grown up. Aside from the patch of grass, all that was the same seemed to be my inexplicable interest in running yet another Ironman that coming Sunday, my 16th.

Numbers.

When preparing for this Ironman, I had worked hard to remain positive. My numbers weren’t good. Usually, a few weeks before Madison, I would have a breakthrough, a workout during which I would run, ride or swim fast with little conscious effort. This year was different. I struggled to even go fast enough to get my heart rate up. The breakthrough workout never came. I was 36 hours away from the race without the assurance that I was in good condition. I had done everything I thought that I reasonably could. I even made a list. I wrote that I had increased my training time, worked hard on strength exercises, taken up yoga to increase flexibility, taken off my shirt when mowing the lawn to develop a tan for the long day in the sun at Ironman, increased my dietary supplements – my list even included cleaning and lubricating the chain on my bike. Even after compiling (and padding) the list, I had a hard time believing that I would turn in a good Ironman performance. I worried that I would have expended so much time and effort but would ultimately let my family, friends and myself down. I shared my concerns with my family and prepared them for a tepid performance.

While I remained pessimistic, even on that warm Friday afternoon on the shore of Lake Monona, I comforted myself with a thought: I told myself to be open to the possibility that something good would happen. Just show up and see how it goes, I told myself. I had done all of the work. Backing away now was unthinkable. Just show up.

My customary pre-race anxiety had gripped me. I don’t know exactly why, but during the couple of weeks preceding an Ironman, I get really nervous. This peaks during the last couple of days before the race. The nervousness and discomfort were difficult to take and made me wonder if running an Ironman was worth it anymore. Maybe this would be my last Ironman, I thought. Maybe I should just run Sunday, suffer a blah performance and acknowledge that I had reached my “use by” Ironman date.

Saturday, September 6th.

I woke early and rode my bike through the quiet, chilly, dim morning. Local growers were setting up at the farmer’s market on Capitol Square. People dressed in sweatshirts and long pants. Several stands were selling mums. Steam rose from styrofoam coffee cups. A few people in Badger red were walking around ahead of the football game that afternoon. Fall was coming.

I only rode long enough to ensure that my bike worked, then went back to get Katie. We ran the last mile of the course in reverse, then back. I narrated what it felt like to come into the last mile and to ascend the hill toward the capitol and finish line. We grabbed some breakfast and strolled around the farmer’s market. Then I gathered my bike and transition bags and walked them over to the transition area. The mood there was still cheerful, the sun bright and the afternoon air warm. Once I dropped off my bike and bags, there was not much left to do but stay off my feet and feel nervous.

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Sure I can remember my number. Reading it on the bag without my glasses, however….

On Saturday afternoon, Katie and Margy went back and forth to the hotel business center to print something. Finally, Katie said that they couldn’t print what they wanted, so she asked me to read something on her computer. She handed me her laptop. On the screen were scans of handwritten letters from the crew members of her boat during her final rowing season at Bowdoin. The girls wrote to offer me encouragement as I approached my big race of the year. They wanted to reciprocate for all of the support that Margy and I provided them at regattas we had attended on the East Coast and in England. Each of the girls cited something that I had said or done that made a difference for them. This hit me like a ton of bricks. It simply had not occurred to me that what I said or did made any difference for the crew. I was there to cheer because I wanted to be there; I cheered because I felt like cheering. It didn’t occur to me that I was having much impact. Suddenly, I was confronted with the realization that what I had done out of sheer enthusiasm had helped the girls – and even inspired them to try to help me under similar circumstances. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I read each note. I felt awfully lucky that Katie got to spend her senior year with such wonderful friends and lucky that I had met them.

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Sharing a laugh in the rain with the crew of the Gibbons after they had won the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, May 2014.

Shortly after reading the letters, and drying my eyes, Margy, Katie and I went out so that Katie could take another swim. My sisters, Ann and Lynn, brother-in-law Rick and nephew Adam showed up to watch Katie emerge from the water. It always feels great when my family arrives at an Ironman; talking with them helps me forget the almost overwhelming tension I feel as the race approaches.

Sunday, September 7th.

I woke up (extremely) early on race morning. The streets of Madison were dark except for the traffic lights flashing yellow and the capitol building bathed in bright white light. Racers wore sweats and moved quietly to do final checks on their bikes, put a few items in their transition gear bags and get their bodies marked with their race numbers. Katie walked with me as she had so many times before. I approached a very nice woman and took off my shirt in the cool morning air. (Sounds like a more interesting exchange than it actually was.) She marked “2819” on my upper arms and “56” on my left calf. (2819 made me one of the older competitors and the 56 on my calf proved it. Note that the number on a person’s calf lets racers know whether the person overtaking them  – or who they are overtaking – is in their age group. It helps track the competition.)

IMG_9704

The moment before the nice woman realized that I was probably a member of AARP.

“Do you want me to put it on your wrist, Dad?” Katie asked.

I thought about it for a second and said sure.

Katie borrowed the magic marker from the woman who had applied my race number. On the inside of my left wrist, Katie wrote “WT” as she and the Gibbons crew had done the morning after Warren had died and just before their championship race at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia.

I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and we walked back to the room. I don’t think that we said much.

My family and I gathered near the swim start at 6:30. We snapped a few photos, exchanged hugs, then Margy, Katie and I walked toward the swim start. I gave each of them goodbye hugs, told them that I loved them and entered the dense crowd of neoprene-clad racers moving ever so slowly toward the swim start. (Yeah, it really does smell like car tires in that crowd.)

I looked up and the sun was rising, painting the sky a beautiful orange. The water was calm, the winds light. The temperature was pleasant and despite a nervousness so intense that I simply can’t describe it, there was also a growing conviction that I was exactly where I wanted to be – where I needed to be.

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In the water waiting for the swim start, I noticed that they didn’t play the songs that I liked anymore. No more “It’s a Beautiful Day” by U2 or “Clocks” by Coldplay. The music had moved on. I remembered that the nice lady marked “56” on my calf.

I don’t remember that much after the cannon sounded. The first 200 or 300 meters of an Ironman swim start are always the same. Random, frothy, arms, legs, got my head up for a breath, someone kicked me, my eye socket hurt, I got pushed underwater, go, go, go. Then things smoothed out. I got a rhythm and the morning settled in. The water temperature felt wonderful and I enjoyed the regularity of my stroke. I “came back into my breath” as they said in yoga. At only one point after the start do I remember the swim becoming unpleasant. A man in a special swim cap designating him as among the top one percent of Ironman triathletes tried to pass me at a turn. He grabbed the back of my thigh and pulled, dunking me so that he could go around. I am not proud of this but I grabbed his thigh and dunked him back. I said something that I am not proud of either but will not repeat that here.

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That’s him in the lower part of the picture grabbing my leg. See? View from the 14th floor of the Hilton Monona Terrace.

The swim went a little better than I expected. The numbers were looking up. I got out of the water and through transition without an issue.

“Head in the boat, Dad. Head in the boat.”

It was Katie. She placed her hands to each side of her face as if creating a horse’s blinders.

“This is all you, Dad. You know this course like the back of your hand.”

Thanks to Steve Jobs and some overworked iPads, once out on the bike course my family let me know that I had come out of the water sixth in my age group. Pretty good. The numbers were looking up.

My bike went fine, though I recall having been passed by three guys in my age group. (Remember the numbers marked on calves?)

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“Head in the boat, Dad.” Katie and my nephew Adam.

Early in the run, my family let me know that I was in eighth.

“Head in the boat, Dad. Nobody knows this course like you do. You own this thing.” More Katie.

Ultimately, my family would see me 41 times during the race. (One short of the family record. NBC Sports was green with envy.) Each and every time they saw me, they offered encouragement and, when they could, they let me know how I was doing relative to the competition. At mile 2 of the run, I passed a guy who had been a close competitor of mine for years. When I next saw Katie, I raised my right hand, extended my thumb and pointed backward.

“Sid’s back there,” I said.

Katie brightened and screamed at the top of her lungs.

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Only 24 miles left to run; free junk food at the finish line.

Sometimes, my family showed me hand signals to indicate my age group place. As the afternoon progressed, they needed only one hand.

“Number four is about a hundred feet ahead,” Margy said. “Get him, but at your pace.”

Sometime later on the second and final lap of the marathon, I saw my sister Ann look up from the iPad and flash three fingers. I nodded.

At mile 22, Katie ran up to me and let me know that I was taking lots of time out of the guy in second but he was ten minutes ahead. I knew that he would need to slow to a walk or stop for me to catch him. I decided that I had to stay steady and not go so hard that I risked blowing up; I could lose third by trying in vain to chase second.

At the 25 mile mark I smiled and began the climb up to Capitol Square. The sun was in its lazy afternoon phase, not yet yellow or orange but not so bright or hot. The shadows lengthened and the air cooled. Crowds lined State Street enjoying a late afternoon beer. I could smell the pizza. I skipped the last water stop; I would have plenty of chance to drink in just a half mile.

I ran up the gentle slope, turned right up the steep portion of Capitol Square, then took another right on the flat section. I could hear the music and the announcer clearly. The course bent left. I picked up speed and saw the crowd lining the barricades, then came into the chute. I could see the finish line. I went harder. I crossed the line, smiled, took a little help getting my walking feet and found my family.

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IMW finish, 2014. My lights were not quite back on yet when this picture was taken.

Then I remembered what it was like to stand in the same place twelve years before.

Scott and Katie at Finish IMW 2002

IMW finish, 2002. The lights would dim considerably after this picture was taken.

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IMW finish, 2014.

Monday, September 8th.

Ironman Wisconsin is a qualifying race for the Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii. Slots for Kona are distributed to age groups according to the relative number of athletes competing in those age groups; provided, however, that if you win your age group, you qualify for Kona regardless of how many competitors there are in your age group. For instance, the men’s 35-39 age group may have six slots for 300 competitors while a man who was 72 years old had only himself in his age group. Six from 35-39 won slots and the 72-year old man got a slot, too. Ironman Wisconsin offers 50 total slots and is the first qualifying race for the world championship in October 2015. Slots don’t come easily and, as a rule, if you finish within the top two percent of your age group, you go to Kona.

For men 55-59, approximately 100 guys competed. That meant that my age group offered two slots. Sometimes qualifiers turn down their slot. They may have a conflict. Sometimes, qualifiers qualify many times and may simply not want to go to Hawaii again. This year, Ironman required Hawaii qualifiers to show up at the awards ceremony to claim their slot. It was possible that someone may not have known and screwed up their travel plans so as to miss going to the ceremony. So I hoped would be the case with Bruce from Cincinnati or Andre from Poland, the guys who finished in front of me in our age group.

Margy had left for Arizona earlier that morning. Katie and I sat down at the awards ceremony hoping that Andre had messed up. Two guys who looked about my age sat down beside me and began speaking in a foreign language.

“He looks like Grandpa,” I said to Katie. My father-in-law was born in Poland.

Katie squinted and looked at his wrist band to see his race number.

“It’s him,” she whispered.

The announcer called our age group to the side of the stage. Bruce and I exchanged pleasantries before going up to get our trophies. No travel plan fiasco for Bruce.

In the end, Bruce and Andre claimed their Hawaii slots and no mathematical mumbo jumbo allocated another slot to the men age 55-59 – to me. Had I not been to Hawaii in 2012, that would have hurt lots more. Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved, loved, loved to have returned to Hawaii but I had my turn. It was great. I hope to go back but Andre and Bruce seemed like nice guys and they beat me fair and square. Even so, if I only had five more miles on the run, I could have caught Bruce….

I did all that I could. I couldn’t have gone faster, not that day. I gave it my best. I showed up and something wonderful did happen. Next year, I’ll just have to show up one more time – and hope that Bruce and Andre have something else going on that day.

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That’s me, second from right. Any questions as to why I am not so hot on the bike?

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The cheerful Ironman bridesmaid.

Epilogue

The day after Ironman Wisconsin is always the first day of fall for me. I feel relaxed and am more aware of the leaves turning from green to yellow, orange, and red. Ironman Wisconsin has become a secular holiday, something on my calendar every year that causes me to reflect, not just on the race but on what has happened in the preceding year and years since I have been racing.

Katie has gone from a wide-eyed ten year-old to an experienced endurance athlete who offered coaching and support that made a material difference for me. Within months, other people my age will pay handsomely for her work as a management consultant. Maybe some year soon, Katie will run an Ironman. Maybe I will be the one saying “head in the boat, Katie.” I feel pretty chipper today, thank you, but I can’t help but wonder how many post-Ironman Mondays will come and go before Katie’s advice to me will cease to be athletic encouragement and instead become the better judgment I need to heed as old age clouds my own. (Katie probably thinks that day arrived about the time that she entered ninth grade.)

Katie and I drove across Wisconsin heading home. We stopped in Osseo because I thought that I wanted a Dairy Queen. I filled up the car while Katie went inside. She came back.

“Dad, they’re playing that song. You know that one that starts with ‘Ladies and gentlemen, as you know we have something special for you here at Birdland this evening, a recording from Blue Note Records.”

It was the jazz-rap group Us3 playing “Cantaloop.” Warren had introduced me to that song twelve years ago in Madison and it had become our essential fire up triathlon song through the years. But the song was recorded in 1993 and it had been years since I had heard it on the radio or any place other than my stereo or iPod. Now here we were in Western Wisconsin at a combined gas station and Dairy Queen. What were the chances that that song, that very song, would be playing at that very moment right there?

I looked at my wrist. The WT written there had faded a bit the day before with the lake water and the suntan lotion and the sweat but it was still there. It was still very much there.

One might be tempted to say that Ironman ends up being all about who shows up – and in my case, the wrong guys showed up, Bruce and Andre. While I hope that those two start to sleep in a lot more or take up golf or both, I am convinced that the right people did show up at Ironman Wisconsin this year. I could never even make it to the start line without the right people and they were there. They always show up for me. Margy absolutely makes this happen. Nobody in the world could offer the support that she does – or get my family onto the course to see me 41 times during the day. Ann, Rick and Adam are steadfast and equally handy with cheering, iPad race tracking, navigating and just plain being people I admire. Lynn makes us laugh and that’s important on a long Ironman day. If it’s not funny, it’s stupid. And sometimes it’s not that funny. I never have to wonder where Lynn is on the course; she’s always there for me.

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The in crowd. Katie, Margy, Ann, Lynn, Rick, and Adam. I am the one in neoprene.

Special thanks to the crew of the Gibbons who are collectively and individually the nicest girls I have ever met. I suggest, however, that if you meet them, don’t accept their offer to race. They concede nothing – to anyone.

For WT. He keeps showing up, even in Western Wisconsin.

For Katie. The sun rises and sets for me wherever you are.

Friday

“Can you call me?”

It was the text that I had anticipated, dreaded, for about a week. It came from Warren’s wife, Elizabeth.

It was early evening in Philadelphia. We were fighting traffic in an unfamiliar city. I didn’t want to return the call until we were able to stop so that I could concentrate. But by the time we had arrived at our hotel, Elizabeth had texted me that perhaps we could talk later.

Margy and I were in town for the Dad Vail Regatta, the largest collegiate rowing regatta in the United States. Approximately 125 colleges competed in over 175 races held on Friday and Saturday on a six-lane, 2,000 meter course on the Schuylkill River just northwest of downtown Philadelphia. It was the last domestic regatta of Katie’s college career. We had wanted the weekend to be special for her.

I sent texts to Elizabeth to let her know that I was available. Finally, a little after ten, Warren’s brother Bob texted me to let me know that Warren was gone. I talked to Bob and Elizabeth briefly, then called a few people close to Warren, people who I thought should receive the news by phone from a friend rather than through email or text.

Warren had become so sick that I wasn’t entirely sorry he had died; no more suffering. Even so, I felt sadder than I anticipated. It was the finality. I kept thinking that there would be no more conversations, no laughs, no trips to Wildflower, no more shared favorite music. He was just gone forever.

I didn’t sleep much.

Saturday

Katie and her boat had made a decision that I questioned. Instead of entering the Division II/III category for four-rower boats with coxswains, they had decided to row in the “Open” or Division I category. So, instead of rowing against other small colleges like Bowdoin (enrollment approximately 1,839), they took on Division I schools, schools that national media have cited as football “powerhouses.” They did this for at least two reasons. The girls wanted to race tough competition to prepare for the summer’s upcoming trip to England where they would row in the Women’s Henley Regatta. More importantly, the girls believed that they could win.

In their first heat, Bowdoin had taken on Florida (enrollment approximately 50,000), Virginia Commonwealth University (enrollment approximately 31,000), Clemson (enrollment approximately 21,000), and Penn State (enrollment approximately 98,000). Katie’s boat had rowed the course in 7:06 and the nearest competitors came in at 7:20. There were five additional heats featuring schools like Army, Drexel, Temple, UConn, Northwestern, MIT, Villanova, Purdue, NC State…the list went on but no boats got any closer; Bowdoin’s was the fastest of 35 boats in the first heats.

Note that rowing is a club sport at Bowdoin; Katie will never win a varsity letter for her four years of rowing. There is no recruiting. There are no rowing scholarships. The team sells hats, tee shirts and sweatshirts to raise money. They stay in people’s homes when away for regattas whenever they can. Even in the relatively low-budget world of Division III sports, club rowing operates on a shoestring budget.

Saturday’s weather forecast had looked iffy, so Katie and her boat had rowed hard to attain the best qualifying time in Friday’s first heat. If the weather prevented semi-final and final races on Saturday, the fastest time would win. Even so, Katie felt that they had rowed hard in their Friday heat but not all out. “About 90 percent,” she estimated.

Early on Saturday morning, Margy and I talked before leaving our hotel and heading to the regatta. We wondered when we should tell Katie that Warren had died. We decided that she would not have time to absorb the news before her first race of the day, the semi-finals held in the early morning, and that we should wait until after that race finished. Should she be fortunate enough to move on to the finals, we could tell her and she would have time to regroup before the 3:23 pm race.

We arrived at the venue and listened as Katie and her boat’s crew talked. The girls exuded a quiet confidence. It wasn’t a swagger or an attitude disposing the girls to boast. Their confidence, their belief in themselves, showed up in their discussion of strategy. The girls carefully considered how they wanted to race. But they only talked about the amount by which they wanted to win. Did they want to “let the dogs off the leash” and go all out and win by a lot, thus risking that they might be fatigued when racing in the final? Or did they want to go out, get ahead and stay ahead only by a boat length or two, thus saving energy for an all-out push in the final? They never seemed to consider what to do if they fell behind. It never seemed to occur to them.

Bowdoin’s head rowing coach, Gil Birney, gathered the girls before they were to launch for the semi-finals. Gil provided a mix of strategy and inspiration. When I had talked to Gil earlier about Katie’s boat and crew, Gil said that they were so good that he just tried to stay out of their way. This deflection was predictably modest and completely untrue; Gil was a master of his craft. After Gil’s briefing, the team put all hands into the middle and shouted, “Go Black!”

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Then the girls went through their own routines. They stayed in a tight huddle and sang a song softly, dancing to the rhythm.

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Then they turned more rambunctious and gave one another painful hand slaps.

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The girls hoisted the 42 foot boat onto their shoulders and walked slowly toward the dock to launch.

Courtney Payne, left, and Katie.

Courtney Payne, left, and Katie.

Then, just as she was about to get onto the dock, I told her, “Concede nothing – to anyone.” She smiled and waved, set up her boat, received some last-minute coaching from Gil, and headed out onto the river. The boat pointed downstream, the girls rowed lazily, then turned back up river toward the start.

Katie and I have a set of hand gestures that dates back to “The Princess Diaries” when she was in second or third grade.

 

Pinky squared.

Pinkie squared.

I told Gil about Warren’s death and said that Margy and I had decided to talk to Katie after she finished her morning semi-final race. We did not think that it was right to keep the news from her – and we believed that she would learn sooner rather than later, probably the next time she got on Facebook, something all college kids seem to do several times an hour. Gil agreed and offered his condolences. He said that he thought that Katie could rally in time for the finals.

The semi-finals, featured 18 boats out of the 35 that had entered the Open division. Katie’s heat proved to be yet another coast. This time, the Bowdoin boat went into the lead, then held their ground without overexerting. I stood by Gil as the boats came into the finish line.

“Look at how much harder the other boats are rowing,” he said. “We’re at a 31 or 32 and they’re going all out.”

Gil was referring to stroke rate. A racing pace would have been 35 or 36 strokes per minute while a merely strong and steady rate would be more like the 31 or 32 that Katie’s boat held.

Watching the Bowdoin women's varsity one boat at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia

Watching the Bowdoin women’s varsity one boat at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia with Gil Birney.

In a subsequent heat, the University of Massachusetts turned in a faster time than Bowdoin. Now Bowdoin had to hope that the weather held and that there would be a final that afternoon. I looked at my iPhone and the chances of rain at 4:00 pm were 80%. The little symbol on the phone showed a dark cloud with a lightning bolt. A thunderstorm would bring racing to a halt – and maybe cancel the rest of the regatta. A cancellation before the final would leave Bowdoin in second place.

Katie was all smiles as she got off the water and began to change into more comfortable clothes. I hung around the tent to offer rowers and their parents sandwiches and drinks while Katie changed. Then I looked over my right shoulder and saw Margy hugging Katie. Katie was crying. She had intended to post on Facebook so that her friends would know the results of the semi-finals but had been greeted with news of Warren’s death. She dissolved. It wasn’t the way that she wanted to find out. It wasn’t the way we wanted her to find out.

Katie had known Warren for her entire life and his illness and impending death had been difficult for her. She couldn’t hear about Warren’s situation without crying. Now, here she was on a day that should have been thoroughly happy. Eventually, Katie’s teammates surrounded her, giving her hugs, offering support, sharing her sadness. The girls decided to return to their hotel rooms to rest and prepare for finals – the rowing final coming up at 3:23 that day and their college finals to begin on Monday following the regatta.

Once the girls had returned to the rowing venue after a couple of hours away, it appeared that Katie had rallied. Before the crew began their customary routine, Katie’s teammate Courtney asked if it was OK if they did “that thing.” Katie nodded yes.

Courtney went around to each member of the boat’s crew and inscribed a small “WT” on the inside of each girl’s right wrist in honor of Warren. The girls placed a “WT” on my wrist, too, and I put one on Margy’s wrist.

My right wrist.

My right wrist.

The skies had darkened and clouds hovered over the western horizon but the weather was holding when Katie’s boat set out. The girls rowed slowly downstream in the direction of downtown Philadelphia. The air was thick with humidity. The trees were a light spring green with leaves not yet fully out. The sun felt warm, even through the sky was cloudy. A haze clung to the river valley.

Before coming to an old arch bridge, the girls turned the low, long, narrow boat around, then headed back up the river for one last race. Margy and I began our walk to the grandstand after offering the girls cheers that the girls may not have heard over the traffic on Interstate 76 near the river’s opposite bank.

We found seats in the grandstand near other Bowdoin parents and crew alumni who had been Katie’s former teammates. The skies continued to darken. The last race before Katie’s featured Bowdoin’s second varsity women’s boat. Before that second varsity race started, it began to rain. It was a shower at first but became a strong, steady rain. The announcer let us know that racing had been halted temporarily after the second varsity boat finished.

Then the rain eased. The announcer said that Katie’s race was underway. I stood up and went to the railing near the water. Looking up the race course offered a view of the Schuylkill River laying at the bottom of a steep valley covered with hardwood trees. 1,000 meters up the course was a very tall steel bridge where the boats turned slightly to starboard, then came straight into the finish just beyond the grandstands. I stood and strained to see the boats coming toward the bridge. Then, suddenly, the rain came pounding down. The wind picked up – from a slight breeze to a 40 mph gale, gusting and swirling. Rain squalls lashed the river surface suddenly foaming with white caps. Cardboard, paper, bags, leaves and branches flew through the air. The crowd outside the covered grandstand surged in to get under cover. The bridge upstream disappeared, then the opposite shore disappeared, both behind the thick curtain of rain and wind. I could see only 100 to 200 meters. Katie’s former teammates said that there was no way to race under those conditions. They said that the race had probably been canceled. I worried that one or more of the boats would capsize or swamp with waves crashing over the bow. I thought of Katie and wondered how she would get her feet out of the shoes attached tightly to the bottom of the boat if the boat sank.

After what seemed like a very, very long time, one boat emerged from the sheets of rain 400 to 500 meters up the course. Another boat came into view, then another. Finally, all six boats appeared to be upright and still rowing. The wind continued to push against them. With each stroke, when oars went into the water, huge plumes of spray exploded and sailed over and into the boats and rowers. But the girls kept rowing.

As the boats approached the grandstands, I strained to see. Which boat was in the lead? Was it a close race? Who was in second? Finally, I could make out the white hull, white oar blades, black uniforms and white hats. I saw the “6” on Mary Bryan Barksdale’s back. Bowdoin. The girls, our girls, were in the lead, struggling against the wind.

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

As the boats passed the grandstands, it was a clear that Bowdoin was well ahead, ultimately finishing seven seconds before the University of Massachusetts. I still couldn’t see much. Pictures that I saw later showed that Katie and Courtney had broken into tears immediately upon finishing. The girls reached back and forward to hug the rower in front or in back of them. Race officials instructed the girls to row their boats to their docks as quickly as possible and to get off the water to avoid the dangerous weather. Ordinarily, the girls would have rowed back to the grandstands, gotten out of their boat, received medals and jackets and posed with a trophy. Before they rowed away, the girls all looked at us in the stands, held up their right wrists and pointed to the “WT” written there.

It took time for Margy and me to walk down to meet Katie. Debris was strewn across the regatta grounds now puddled with muddy water. Rowers, coaches, parents and spectators were soaked and spattered with mud. Margy and I walked quickly but took care not to fall or get hit by boats that the crews hauled back to racks and trailers. When we approached the Bowdoin Rowing tent, Katie ran toward us. She was crying.

She told us her story. After leaving the dock, it had rained on their way up to the start area but it wasn’t bad. Then, while waiting to line up, the rain intensified. Katie said that all at once it occurred to her: The lake at Wildflower had been dry, empty. Now she was in Philadelphia near where Warren had gone to school and the rain…it was Warren! The boats lined up to race but the officials held the start because of the bad weather. Then a small patch of sunlight opened up in the sky over the start area. (No such sunshine had been visible to Margy and me near the finish.) Katie thought it was Warren again, now with sunshine for her and her boat. The officials said “go.”

Katie said that it began to rain hard shortly after they had begun the race but that the wind had come up strongly, suddenly and without warning. At one point on the course, the wind had actually blown the boats backward. She said that the only good thing was that the wind had blown her boat backward less quickly than the other boats in her race. Sophie, Katie’s boat’s coxswain couldn’t see in the driving rain. She wasn’t sure that the girls could hear her directions in the wind. She ended up bailing water out of the boat believing that there was little else she could do. Meanwhile, the Bowdoin boat slowly pulled ahead and approached the finish. In the end, it took more than two minutes longer to finish the final than it had to finish the first heat (7:06 versus 9:09). Katie commented that it might have been the slowest winning time of any Dad Vail race in history.

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

 

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

Copyright 1997 - 2014, row2k.com

 

Belief

Belief is the sincere conviction that something is true, even if you can’t prove it. Many times, whether what you believe is actually true doesn’t much matter. It’s what believing makes you do that counts.

Proving supernatural intervention is not so easy. That it was Warren who brought the rain missing from California back to Philadelphia seems unlikely. After all, I spent a lot of hours with Warren looking for things around his house that he wanted to pack for the trip to Wildflower but had forgotten exactly where they were. Giving him credit for a rainstorm and a brief view straight up through the clouds to the sun and heavens beyond seems like a bit of a stretch. But whether it’s true or not is entirely beside the point. Katie believed it was true.

In reaction to Warren’s death, Katie’s teammates rallied to her side. They offered her love and support. Suffering became a shared burden, ultimately more bearable together than if borne alone. That sadness brought the girls together; sadness transformed to strength.

Is there an afterlife? I don’t know how anyone could possibly prove it one way or another. What I do know, though, is that Warren’s influence extended beyond his lifetime and affected people he never met. Who would have ever guessed that Warren’s life and death would provide sadness, strength, inspiration and, ultimately, belief to a girls rowing team from a small college in Maine?

Last Thursday, the day before the Dad Vail Regatta, had someone asked all 1,839 of Bowdoin’s students whether they thought that their school’s women’s rowing team could defeat the likes of Penn State, UConn, Massachusetts, North Carolina State, Clemson, Northwestern, Villanova and 27 other schools, I bet that 1,834 would have said “no.” Of the five students who would have said “yes,” four of them grabbed oars and one sat in the coxswain’s seat. They were the five right girls in the right place at the right time. All five believed. And maybe they had more than a little help from a sixth person that four of them never met.

Happy Mother's Day, one day early.

Happy Mother’s Day, one day early.

After the race; still raining.

After the race; still raining. Left to right: Mary Bryan Barksdale, ’15, Courtney Payne, ’15, Sophie Berube, ’16, Emily Martin ’15, Katie Ross, ’14.

Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta 2014 Champions

Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta 2014 Champions

I don’t know if Elizabeth plans to have a funeral or memorial service for Warren. For me, looking out onto a windswept Schuylkill River and seeing five college girls absolutely overwhelmed with joy point to their wrists marked with “WT” is an awfully nice way to remember Warren. He was loved. He’ll be missed. He inspired.

 

Note: The photos above from Row2K.com are used without permission; provided, however, that I have ordered and paid for two sets of each print. 

 

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Limits

For many, endurance athletics represent an opportunity to test personal limits, to push beyond a point previously unexperienced. Since this was to be my twelfth trip to Wildflower, I did not think that I would face much of a test. I was wrong.

Saturday, April 26, 2014: Room 4221

El Camino struck me as a hospital designed primarily to house patients, not someplace built to suit medical equipment. Sun poured in through large windows that looked out on trees and park land. Quiet, clean and modern. Margy and I boarded the elevator and pushed the button for the fourth floor. We exited the elevator, walked past the nurses’ station and tiptoed into Warren’s room. Warren’s wife, Elizabeth, his brother, Bob, and nephew, Martin, were gathered there.

“Look, honey, here are Scott and Margy,” Elizabeth said to Warren.

Warren looked pale, his neck goitered from the Dexamethasone used to control the swelling around his brain tumor. Warren was bald. He laid in his hospital bed covered with an old quilt. His head turned to the right. His left side was now limp and practically useless from his face down through his arm, hand and leg. Warren opened his eyes narrowly, his right eye more than his left. He looked at Margy and said hello.

Without smiling or offering a hint of irony, Warren asked, “Where’s Scott?”

“Scott’s right there, sweetie,” Elizabeth said. I had been careful to stand to Warren’s right so that he could see me. I knew that he had a hard time seeing anything on his left. The brain tumor had created neurological deficits, mostly on his left side. It was unclear whether he had been unable to see me, did not recognize me or was just kidding.

Elizabeth and I went to a lounge to get another chair. We sat to talk. Elizabeth began to cry. She said how hard it had been for her to go from fighting the tumor to “this.” Since late March 2013, Warren and Elizabeth had done all in their power to battle Warren’s glioblastoma – radiation, a vaccine treatment developed in the U.K., Avastin, CCNU, Temodar – I had lost track of all of the drugs. Now “this” meant ceasing the fight against the tumor, conceding defeat and starting to emphasize “comfort.” We returned to Warren’s room with the chair.

Warren took part in conversation but only occasionally and, when he did, he spoke slowly and very softly. I usually needed to lean toward Warren to hear his voice, even if the room was otherwise quiet. His participation in conversations lasted a minute, maybe two, then he rested. Much of the time, he slept, while other times he just closed his eyes.

Sunday

Warren felt pressure behind his right ear, possibly because his head was cocked to the right and his ear was buried beneath pillows carefully arranged to try to support his head. A series of folded towels and sheets served as impromptu wedges used to prop up the pillow on Warren’s right. We tried to get him to look toward his left. When Elizabeth adjusted Warren’s head, he winced. More than once, he urged her to be careful but did not scold. So when the nurses arrived to bathe Warren, change the sheets and reposition him, it hurt him. The nurses were gentle but efficient. They moved quickly. They rolled Warren onto his right side. I saw him grab for the bed rail with his right hand as his left arm flopped uselessly onto the mattress. He looked scared.

“This is not doing a lot for my confidence,” he said softly.

I placed my hand firmly on his left shoulder and stood where he could see me.

“I’ve got you,” I said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Warren said.

I laughed a little and said that I wasn’t sure that I could do much good.

“I’m not joking,” he said more forcefully, more clearly, “I’m glad you’re here.”

I looked straight ahead out the window. The sun shone brightly on the trees swaying gently outside the window. I took off my glasses and wiped each eye on the sleeves of my tee shirt and put my glasses back on. Once Warren had been placed on his back again, I walked to the foot of the bed and tucked in the sheets and blankets to avoid any breezy spots. This became something of an obsession and in the coming days, nary a stray breeze got underneath Warren’s covers, not if I could help it.

Our daughter, Katie, had known Warren since she was just a few weeks old. Warren took ski trips with our family. He visited our house when in Minneapolis for work. Warren and Katie had gone out to pick up pizza to bring to our hotel room the night after I finished my first Ironman in 2002 when Katie was ten. Katie had a very hard time with Warren’s illness.

“Please tell Warren thank you for being such a good friend to my parents. I have learned a lot about how to be a good friend by watching Warren.”

When we conveyed this message, Warren’s eyes opened very wide and he turned to look straight at me.

“Mark that one as a success!” he said with all of the emphasis he could push from his chest.

We said that we hoped that Warren felt pride in Katie and in his nephew Martin. Warren had been important to both of them and both seemed to be coming out well. Warren said that he did feel pride but that Margy, Bob, Bob’s wife Donna and I had done most of the work and should receive most of the credit.

“But it didn’t happen without you,” I noted.

Warren managed a slight smile and then his eyes narrowed. He rested again.

Monday

Elizabeth had left for a while to say goodbye to Martin. Warren felt nauseous. Margy and I scurried around to get a plastic pan to hold under Warren’s chin. He had thrown up the day before. It was largely blood.

“It sucks to be me right now,” Warren said. He paused briefly.

“That’s not entirely true. I have you two and Elizabeth and Bob and Martin,” Warren noted.

“The luck runs both ways,” I said, “but I think that we got the better end of the deal. I think that we are even luckier to count you as our friend.”

Warren smiled and rested again.

Tuesday

Margy taught a course in downtown San Francisco at the Hyatt Fisherman’s Wharf. I helped her set up the room, then registered the students. It was a perfect day outside, sunny and warm for San Francisco. Elizabeth had lined up three groups of visitors for Warren so that would be a full day for them. I decided to stay in the city. I put on shorts and a tee shirt, then headed out for a walk, not certain where I was going.

Starting at Fisherman’s Wharf, I strolled toward the Transamerica building. Walking along Columbus, I spotted Coit Tower on a hill to my left. I turned that direction in hopes of climbing to the top of the hill to take in the view of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, the Bay Bridge and downtown San Francisco. I had gone only a couple of blocks when the hill steepened. I looked to my left and saw a huge Catholic cathedral. A few people were coming in and out.

I don’t much believe in intercessory prayer. It comes down to a matter of fairness: I have never been able to understand why God would prioritize my requests over those of millions suffering from starvation, war, political and religious persecution…the list goes on. My concerns were usually pretty small potatoes but on that sunny day, I believed that my concerns had some substance.

I walked up and pulled the iron handle on a thick, dark wooden door. The air inside the cathedral was cool and smelled old but pleasant. The only light entered the cathedral through stained glass windows. The floor creaked under the footsteps of a couple of people walking, otherwise it was entirely quiet. I sat in a pew. It was hard and erect.

Of course, I thought about Warren. Nothing about his situation seemed fair. Since my objection to intercessory prayer was one of fairness, how was it that God would be fair when considering prayers but allow such unfairness on earth? It was hard for me to believe that fairness counted for nothing with God but I had no evidence that it carried much weight, either.

I recalled a program on the radio when Sir John Polkinghorne, a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest, talked about prayer. Polkinghorne said that prayer had application in “cloudy” matters. By that he meant that our world works systematically under a certain set of rules. Those rules, however, offered some variability, some randomness. While it was useless to pray for snow in the summer, it may, however, be useful to pray in certain circumstances where something could just as easily go one way as another. He even used the case of someone suffering from an illness. God may intercede in matters subject to reasonable uncertainty.

So, I took his word for it. Who am I to question a theoretical physicist and Anglican priest who has been knighted by the Queen of England? But I stuck to my notions of fairness; I didn’t ask for anything for myself. I also asked only for things that I believed were reasonably possible. I kept it simple. I asked for meaningful comforts and hoped that my requests would sway things in Warren’s direction. It was worth a shot.

Wednesday

Warren seemed to feel better. He wanted to drink water from a straw. I tried to help. Elizabeth had warned me that Warren easily got water “down the wrong pipe.” I tried my best; I tried to give Warren the opportunity to hold the water in his mouth and to swallow it deliberately. I tried to give him only a tiny bit of water. In each case, Warren choked and coughed. The water went down the wrong pipe. Instead of helping, it felt like I was hurting. Warren and Elizabeth reassured me. They said that they knew that I was doing my best, that it wasn’t my fault but I felt like I was torturing Warren when I so desperately wanted to help.

Thursday

Warren did not wake up when I got to the hospital and slept for the next two hours. I stayed in the room while Elizabeth took a short walk and when she went downstairs to the cafeteria. I was worried about her. She was getting little sleep, little exercise and little to eat. I wanted her to take a nap.

Elizabeth and I agreed that we would take turns going to lunch. When Elizabeth returned from her lunch, I headed toward the elevator. I had made it only about 50 feet when Elizabeth poked her head out into the hall.

“Scott, come back. Warren wants to say something to you.”

I turned around and came back into the room. I sat in the chair on Warren’s right side. Warren’s eyes were open wide, not like the half-shut position that they normally assumed.

“I just want to tell you how much I appreciate you being here and how much I appreciate you,” Warren said.

“I’m exactly where I want to be and I am with the people I want to be with,” I said.

Warren looked at Elizabeth and said, “Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate?”

It sounded funny. Warren was leading a cheer with a voice that was weak, his timing slow, halting and unsteady but they both said, “Scott, Scott, Scott” in unison.

Warren grew tired again. That was our last conversation.

At about 3:00, I encouraged Elizabeth to take her nap. Warren had just received a shot of pain medication. He was lying with mouth open, soundly, deeply asleep.

“You’ve got this?” Elizabeth asked.

“Got this?” I asked in a mocking tone. “Look at him. Of course I’ve got this.”

Elizabeth smiled and began to clear the fold out chair on which she had spent nights in the hospital.

Then Warren coughed softly. Elizabeth and I looked at him, then she went back toward the chair.

Warren coughed again, this time a little more vigorously. He remained fast asleep. He coughed a little more. Then Warren coughed harder. A little blood came out. I arranged a towel under his chin. He tried to clear his throat and coughed again. More blood. Elizabeth stood bedside while I walked quickly to the nurses’ station. Warren’s nurse, Irene, came right away.

Warren started to cough violently, trying to clear his throat between coughs. Irene turned on the suction and asked Warren to open his mouth. She stuck the hose in. I watched blood fill the tube and turn loops toward the wall and into a container mounted there. The container was clear and had markings on the side showing the volume of blood and saliva gathered. Warren was now fully exerting himself, coughing with all of his might, clearing his throat and biting the suction hose. It wasn’t clear that he was conscious. Irene gently instructed him to let go of the hose. He complied sometimes and sometimes not.

Irene asked me to get an absorbent pad from the dispenser on the wall. She called for more nurses. I spread the pad under Warren’s chin and across his chest. She asked me to get a wash cloth, wet it and then wring it out. I handed it to her and she placed it on Warren’s forehead which was now beet red from exertion. His eyes bulged but didn’t really open; they were rolled up into his head. Mostly, I just saw the whites of his apparently uncomprehending eyes.

The nurses arrived and Irene instructed all of us to grab the bottom sheet. Then on a three count, we lifted Warren and repositioned him in the bed, higher this time to put him more upright. Maybe that would make it easier for him to clear his throat.

With one very violent cough, I felt blood spatter my arm, leg, shorts and shirt. I stood beside Elizabeth and patted her on the back. She patted mine.

“Are you two OK?” Irene asked.

We both said “yes.”

I changed the pad after the first became too bloody. I threw the old pad away and replaced the towel under Warren’s chin.

After almost 15 minutes, a nurse from the respiratory therapy unit came. She did a “deep suction” on Warren’s throat and got lots of blood. Her hose was small in diameter but long so that she could stuff it deeply down Warren’s throat. A ribbon of blood raced down the clear pipe into the portable suction machine. That seemed to do the trick. Warren ceased to cough and his head went back, his mouth opened. He appeared completely spent and fell into a deep sleep.

Elizabeth and I looked at one another and each raised our eyebrows. There wasn’t much to say.

Then it occurred to me: My prayers had been answered. The answer was “no.”

I left for the airport without saying goodbye to Warren. I didn’t want to wake him and I didn’t feel that we had unfinished business. He knew how I felt about him.

Friday

California had suffered a terrible drought. As Steve Mayeron and I drove south of Gilroy on 101, the hills to the west towered over the flat lettuce fields soaking under irrigation sprinklers sweeping back and forth. A gauzy shroud of mist threw the hills into soft relief. It looked a little drier than usual but the hills were still green and lush.

Steve and I were the only two members of our Wildflower gang running the race in 2014. While I was sorry that other guys hadn’t joined us, I couldn’t imagine a better travel companion. He was as nice as Warren but prompt. Each previous year, Warren would wake up on Friday morning and inform me that he needed to start packing – at just about the time I had calculated that we needed to leave to pick up our race packets. It’s a wonder I didn’t kill him but he had a predictable charm that made it impossible to be mad at him. Instead, I’d scoot around gathering his bike, toting bags to the van, and complain in a teasing way until we hit the road.

With Steve, it was different in some ways but in others much the same as it had been with Warren. Steve and I talked about family, work, religion and a lot about music. I warned Steve that one of our friends, Dave Mason, hypothesized that these long car trips to Wildflower with me gave Warren his brain tumor. Steve laughed at that one. Then he shifted slightly in his seat toward the door.

As we neared Lake San Antonio, the site of the Wildflower triathlon, the California landscape turned parched and gray. Even so, Steve and I commented on the beauty of the surrounding hills. The wild mustard still thrived, painting yellow ribbons on the dusty brown fields. A few patches of lupine cast purple into areas of deep shade.

To enter the park, we needed to stop and get a day pass. Volunteers, mostly college kids from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, worked the gate. A girl approached our car in a volunteer tee shirt and shorts under a tutu. All of the girls working the gate were wearing tutus and appeared to be having fun. (Since when is wearing a tutu not fun?) She asked if we wanted a race weekend program. I said yes. She handed me the 100 page magazine and I flipped to an article on page 44. I pointed to the picture on the page and held it out for her to see. The photo showed Warren and me in hospital gowns sharing a hospital bed.

“That’s you!” she exclaimed.

I started to cry.

“It’s kind of a sad story,” Steve offered.

I had been in contact with the Wildflower people last year to thank them for their help when our 2013 trip went wrong and Warren needed a ride to a hospital in an ambulance, first to Templeton, then to San Luis Obispo. The Wildflower organization had inquired about Warren and I had pointed them to my blog and said that it told about our experience. They asked me to write a short excerpt and I did, but I didn’t really know how it would be used. Now here we were, Warren and I pictured in the race program with the story of our 2013 Wildflower weekend.

I dried my eyes and we drove toward the parking lot and packet pick up. On our way, we crested a hill that offered a gorgeous view of Lake San Antonio and the hills stretching beyond the far shore. As we came to the point offering the prettiest vista, I prepared to stop and take it all in. But to my astonishment, I looked out and saw no lake, no water at all. None. This huge lake had simply disappeared, leaving in its place a desolately dry and dusty plain. We had known that the swim would take place in a different area than in years past but we had thought that the lake was merely low, not gone.

The view of Lake San Antonio in 2013. There was no water visible from this vantage point in 2014.

The view of Lake San Antonio in 2013. There was no water visible from this vantage point in 2014.

The athlete registration tent was pitched on an enormous parking lot. The temperature was 95 degrees but felt hotter over the asphalt. An older man in a volunteer tee shirt waved me over to his station. He asked my name. I told him.

“Scott Ross?” he said. “I remember you. You’re very fast.”

I handed him my photo ID and USA Triathlon card.

Though I was a bit taken aback to be remembered as fast by a stranger, I said something like, “Well, last year went pretty well for me….”

The volunteer tipped his head back so that he could read my ID through his bifocals.

“Scott Ross from Eden Prairie, Minnesota,” he said, considering each word. “I must have confused you with someone else.”

The race organizers have a stage on which they provide live music, weekend announcements, professional triathlete interviews and instructional lectures. The organizers asked if I would mind giving a brief interview about my Wildflower experiences and about Warren. I showed up at the appointed time. Julie Moss greeted me. For those of you who do not follow triathlon closely, Julie almost singlehandedly made triathlon famous. In 1982, Julie led the Hawaii Ironman to within 100 meters of the finish when she fell, completely exhausted. She tried to get up but kept falling back down. Finally, she decided to crawl to the finish line. ABC’s Wide World of Sports filmed the whole thing. It was agonizing. A crowd gathered around her, shouting encouragement. Medical personnel wondered whether they should pick her up and put her into an ambulance. She was so close…then in all of the commotion, Kathleen McCartney passed Julie. McCartney barely registered on camera as she skirted the crowd. Kathleen McCartney won after trailing Julie Moss up until the last few meters of the race. Few triathletes remember Kathleen McCartney’s name. Most know Julie Moss and without “The Crawl,” it’s not clear that triathlon would have become as popular as it is today.

Julie Moss in 1982

Julie Moss in 1982

When she greeted me, Julie couldn’t have been nicer. She said how happy she was that I had come and how sorry she was about Warren’s illness. She asked how he was doing.

“I’ve spent the last week or so at the hospital with him. I don’t really have a happy story to tell.”

It was hot on stage. Pepper Daniels, a local DJ at “The Crush 92.5” interviewed me. He didn’t want to push me too hard because Julie must have told him that Warren was not doing so well. A crowd sat in the shade and looked up at the stage. I told Pepper that for Warren and me, Wildflower wasn’t much about swimming, biking and running. It was about appreciation. Not many people run triathlons unless they have a lot going right for them. Warren and I used the trip to Wildflower every year as an opportunity to appreciate our good luck, the people around us, the beautiful natural setting, health enough to run a triathlon. This seemed to resonate with the crowd.

After it was over, Pepper and Julie were extremely gracious. Julie gave me a hug and a poster that she asked me to take back to Warren. The race owners had signed the poster and offered their best wishes to Warren. I felt like we had recruited a community to keep Warren in their thoughts.

Julie Moss and I fully hydrated.

Julie Moss and I while both fully hydrated.

Saturday

The race itself was anticlimax compared to what preceded it. A small, remote patch of Lake San Antonio still held water. We swam there and the course took practically every inch of water available; we swam pretty close to the shoreline surrounding the course. With each wave of swimmers starting, we kicked up deep, fine silt that turned the water inky black. I couldn’t see anything at all underwater until I was 200 yards out from the start.

Instead of proceeding from swim to bike, as is customary in triathlon, we needed to run 2.2 miles from the remote swim area to the usual transition area where we would mount our bikes for the same 56-mile course, then go out on a half marathon course shortened by 2.2 miles to give us credit for the run from swim to transition.

The short swim-to-bike run cut across the dry lake bed. It felt peculiar to run this year what I had swum each of the preceding eleven years. Dust fine as powdered sugar rose in puffy plumes with each footstep. My legs turned streaky gray with dust and water dripping from my triathlon suit.

I thought of little other than Warren while riding. At the top of Nasty Grade, a 1,000 vertical foot climb just after mile 40 of the bike leg lay a knife edge ridge. Each year, this was the place where I most deeply considered my good fortune. I watched the birds of prey riding the thermals off the rising breeze as they hovered apparently stationary over the tall grass fields below. On my left, I saw Lake Nacimiento, blue and calm below stretching south and west as far as I could see. But it was different this year. Usually, on my right, I could see Lake San Antonio also sparkling blue. This year, Lake San Antonio was gone, replaced with dry weeds and dust. It seemed symbolic.

I had intended to fully expend myself on the race to honor Warren and in that, I succeeded. I ran my hardest on trails deep with dust, arid and hot. The sun poured down. The breeze died in the valleys sliced in two by the trail. It occurred to me that the Boston Marathon only 12 days before had been tough but only about a third as tough as Wildflower. Then it occurred to me: Neither Wildflower, nor Boston, nor any Ironman were very tough. Not at all. I had seen tough and this was nothing.

When I finally crossed the finish line, I formed a “W” across my chest using extended thumbs and forefingers. I felt like I had taken every opportunity to appreciate Warren, to be with him and to honor him. I had given it my best. No regrets.

Epilogue

Ordinarily, we seek challenges to prove the limits of our capabilities and to expand those capabilities. Sometimes, challenges find us even when we are not looking. The challenges that I did not seek are those that I will remember. It was trying to figure out how to be the best friend possible when there was little that anyone could do. It was watching a dear friend truly suffer. It was standing in, refusing to turn away. It was confronting the relentlessness of time and appreciating how truly short, fleeting and precious it is. In the end, it’s an odd mix. I feel like I proved that I could do more than I had ever thought but now feel a profound, permanent sense of loss directly alongside an enormous sense of gratitude. I am so lucky to have had Warren as a friend for so many years.

For Warren, forever. 

A photo retrospective of our Wildflower weekends through the years

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A favorite photo of WT. From the 2005 Wildflower trip.

A favorite photo of WT. From the 2005 Wildflower trip.

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Overlooking Lake San Antonio in 2004.

Warren and Elizabeth at Wildflower in 2004

Warren and Elizabeth at Wildflower in 2004

At Wildflower in 2013

At Wildflower in 2013

Wildflower 2014: Thank you to Elizabeth Wright for sharing, standing in and demonstrating the true meaning of endurance to me, Margy for making everything she picks up better than it was before she puts it down, Martin Thornthwaite for becoming such a justifiable object of pride, Bob Thornthwaite for being there in thick and thin, now mostly thin, Steve Mayeron for understanding, Julie Moss and all of the Wildflower staff and volunteers for their generous spirit and support, the nurses at El Camino Hospital for their care and empathy, and Katie Ross for being everything to me.

At the time I published this post on May 6, 2014, at approximately 4:00 pm, Warren remained in El Camino Hospital in extremely serious condition. 

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