If a line is drawn from the lower left corner of a graph toward the upper right corner and another line is drawn from the upper left to the lower right corner, those two lines will converge.
I am good at dealing with the inevitable so long as I can do it later.
Those of you brave enough to have read my most recent blog post know that I was not pleased with my performance at Ironman Wisconsin 2016. My one-time Ironman swami, Dave Mason, used to set goals for his race performances. He would establish a best conceivable time, a great time, an expected time and a mom still loves me time. I considered my results at Ironman Wisconsin to fall in the mom still loves me category. I didn’t ask Mom directly but she remained civil following the race.
“That’s really good!”
If you are a parent, I dare you to tell me that you haven’t done this: Your child puts effort into something like a crayon drawing or swimming across the width of a pool. You say, “That’s really good!” But you are thinking, “That’s so cute.” You praise the effort. You try to make your kid feel good. You don’t offer your honest assessment which is: Keep at it.
As happens among athletes- drones all- Katie and I discussed our training during the summer leading up to the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon. Occasionally, Katie snapped a photo of the computer screen containing her mile splits from a recent run. Whether we discussed her training during a phone conversation or I examined a photo of her run splits, I said, “That’s really good.” But here is what I was thinking: She’s going to kill me at Twin Cities if I try to keep up with her.
In the Garden
So there I was in Australia’s Royal Botanic Garden a few days after Ironman Wisconsin. I had realized that I took great pride in two things: the results of my parenting and my athletic accomplishments. And that was pretty much it. Of course, my season’s “A” race, Ironman Wisconsin, had been a disappointment and undermined, somewhat, the pride I took in recent athletic accomplishment. So, one of the two things in which I took pride wobbled. Maybe I had lost it. Maybe for good.
My goal for the Twin Cities Marathon was to run every step with Katie and to help her do her best. (Isn’t that what I had been trying to do for Katie with everything, not just running a marathon?)
I realized that Katie’s loyalty would not easily permit her to run up the road ahead of me if I could not maintain a pace that pushed her along. And I hated the idea of her holding back to run with me.
Katie arrived on Wednesday before the race. We discussed our optimal plan: Run every step together. There was a back up plan but we discussed it reluctantly. Her boyfriend, Marcus, would come to watch the race. If needed, he could run ahead from point to point beside the course to offer Katie encouragement even if I had not been able to keep up. Marcus ran track and cross country at Bowdoin and Dartmouth. He was fast. He could offer support if I couldn’t. I insisted that Marcus remain off the course if this happened. No “banditing” and no cheating by pacing Katie.
Metropolitan Des Moines emptied and four hours later, our house filled. My mom, sisters, brothers in law, nephew, nieces, my niece’s boyfriend, Marcus and Katie. It became a swirl, a practice run for Thanksgiving, a simulation of an Ironman mass swim start. I plunged my hands into my green rubber gloves and my green rubber gloves into the dish water. Margy cooked like mad and kept a steady stream of pots, pans, dishes, bowls, knives, forks, spoons, cutting boards and odd utensils coming my way. We laughed, ate, washed dishes, watched football, ate, laughed, washed dishes and repeated.
Here is how we celebrated my 58th, my brother in law Rick’s 57th and Marcus’s 25th birthdays on the day before my 29th Twin Cities Marathon.
My niece’s boyfriend, Matt Wiegand, would race Twin Cities, too. He had trained very hard all summer. He wanted to qualify to run the Boston Marathon in April 2018. He would need to run fast. For men his age, 24, he needed to run at least a 3:05:00, something that I could scarcely remember being young enough to do.
Our family feared that maybe Katie, Matt and I lacked proper motivation. They figured that signs could change that.
My niece, Harper, is eight. My nephew, Davis, is 11. Kids get snide earlier than in my day.
Obvious but to the point.
I slept poorly the night before the race. I envisioned Katie about three strides ahead looking over her shoulder. I felt unable to close the gap. I heard myself telling Katie to go ahead. I could see her look back, turn to face ahead, then press on without me.
For reasons unexplained, save for two races, one very hot and the other very rainy, the Twin Cities Marathon weekend has attracted perfect weather. Sunday, October 9, 2016, offered no exception. The sun rose and colored the downtown buildings pink and orange. The sky directly overhead shone bright blue and the air sat still in the upper 30’s. Katie and I walked up to Matt in the start corral. He’s tall. He wasn’t hard to find. We wished him good luck, then walked back to join runners of our expected pace. The announcer said “four minutes.” Katie and I took our jackets and threw them to the side of the street to be collected for charity. We wore singlets, shorts, baseball hats and cheap cotton gloves. I wasn’t sure if I shivered from the cold or the excitement.
The horn sounded. We crossed the start line a few seconds later, then began to run.
After a few blocks, the field spread enough that Katie could run beside me.
“How do you feel, Dad?” she asked.
I paused for just a second and said, “I feel really, really good.” And I did.
State of mind
I knew the state of mind I wanted to cultivate. Many people believe that athletic performance depends upon a fierce mind, a mind that makes your jaw jut out, your teeth clench, your fists harden and your muscles contract. I am sure that works for some people in some sports. For most people in most sports, one optimally cultivates a relaxed, focused mind. I knew that I needed to concentrate on what I was doing but not so hard that it increased stress. I wanted to pay careful attention to my breath – and to Katie’s – so that neither of us developed a deficit. What we needed to do was to find a sustainable state of mind and exertion. We needed to cast everything else aside and slide along the razor’s edge of running as fast as we could, no faster.
Naturally, the world we passed intruded. Both Katie and I were moved, almost to tears, by the pealing bells of the Basilica of St. Mary on Hennepin Avenue. The pack of runners at that early point bobbed along in close quarters and the soft sound of their shoes striking the pavement, the runners’ deep breaths, were sounds I could hear along with the bells. Steaming breath pulsed from the runners in front of us, passing over their shoulders, illuminated white by the bright sun at our backs.
As Katie and I pulled to the right at the five mile water stop to collect paper cups to drink, a woman ran in and clipped my heels, speeding by between me and the volunteers handing out the cups.
“Stay off my feet,” I said.
“Don’t slow down,” she replied.
“It’s a water stop,” I said, emphasizing the word “stop.”
I offered a sincere assessment of her intelligence but that did not appear to inspire contrition.
“Look at her run and how she is dressed, Dad,” Katie said. “I think that we’ll see her later.” (Assuming that my prior 79 marathons had water stops every two miles, she stomped on my feet while I ran through my 1,028th marathon water stop.)
Team Ross, Ross, Ross, etc. met us near the six mile mark, our family’s 29th rendezvous at that very place.
After picturing running away from a singing Justin Bieber, I don’t remember too many details. I told Katie about upcoming turns and instructed her to work to the right or left sides of the course so that we would follow the shortest route. As the race progressed, I stopped saying what to do and just gestured left or right. Katie configured her running watch to provide current pace. In 2015, we had averaged 7:44 miles, so this year Katie consulted her watch and, if our pace exceeded 7:45 per mile, Katie would say, “A little hot, Dad.” I’d slow down but within a minute or two, Katie would repeat, “A little hot, Dad.” During the entire run, Katie never once said that we should speed up.
At 13 miles, I took my first and only look at a wristband marked with race splits we needed to run so that Katie could qualify for the Boston Marathon. We were about 10 minutes ahead after 13 miles – about half way. For comparison, we were nine minutes ahead in 2015 after 19 miles. At just about this time, the 3:15 marathon pace group passed us very slowly. If we stuck with them, which we did not intend to do, we would beat our goal time by 20 minutes. The pace team leader for the 3:15 group held a stick with four balloons. For several miles thereafter, I watched those balloons creep ahead of us ever so very slowly, meaning that we were holding a pace only a tiny bit slower than 20 minutes ahead of our goal.
“A little hot, Dad,” Katie said again. I couldn’t help chasing the balloons.
Near mile 17, West River Road rimmed the Mississippi River. The trees cast deep shade. The temperature had risen into the 50’s but the shade felt good. We were working hard. An older woman stood alone beside the road. She “cheered.”
“Go,” she said monotonously. “You look amazing.” She sounded like a somnambulistic robot.
“Severe caffeine deficiency,” I offered.
“Tragic. Don’t let it happen to you.”
Katie said that she had seen the effects for herself and would be careful.
A couple of miles later, we crossed the Franklin Avenue Bridge and looked south along the chasm formed by the Mississippi River. The river banks stood completely enmeshed in hardwoods just beginning to turn from green to yellow, red and orange.
Soon enough, we passed the woman who clipped my feet at the five mile water stop. She had tied her heavy clothing to her waist and plodded along. I didn’t see her. Katie neglected to mention it to me. Katie said that we were going fast enough that the woman was easy to miss.
Marcus met us at the bottom of the marathon’s steepest hill. Katie and I pushed. Once we crested the hill, we felt gassed. There was Marcus again, looking rested, tanned and ready. Once I caught my breath, I asked Katie if she would mind if I punched Marcus in the nose for being so much faster than we were. She didn’t hesitate to agree: it was an excellent idea. (Did I mention that fatigue in a marathon makes some people irritable?)
Once on Summit Avenue, it was easy to get caught up in either the grandeur of St. Paul’s most prestigious, mansion lined street or the fact that we were climbing up a steady grade for nearly two miles. What mansions?
Shortly after passing the intersection with Snelling Avenue, Katie and I heard surf music. It was the Zingrays, a band that has played at the same spot on the course for decades. As we passed the guitar player, I waved. He nodded. We reached the top of the hill. It was almost all downhill from there. But it wasn’t easy.
The temperature hadn’t reached 60 but Katie and I sought the little shade offered on the south side of the street. I was not sure if we had slowed down or if Katie had grown weary of scolding. She said “A little hot” occasionally but began to omit “Dad” from the sentence, the economy reflecting our fatigue. We became very quiet and stopped looking at one another, choosing to look straight ahead. We managed a weak nod or wave when Marcus swooped in to encourage us.
Late in the race on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I am inviting Marcus closer so that I can punch him in the nose for running so much faster than we could. He declined.
We turned slightly left. The road dipped. The James J. Hill Mansion appeared on our right. I pointed to the top of the St. Paul Cathedral. Less than half a mile to go. The downhill steepened sharply. My thighs hurt. “A little hot, Dad.”
The street bottomed out on a bridge over Interstate 94 and turned slightly uphill. We felt that. The capitol building looked very white and very close. Less than 200 yards to go. We pressed hard.
At 50 yards from the finish line, Katie and I held out our hands. We clasped hands, crossed the line together, stopped, looked at our watches, then hugged.
My watch said “3:18:35.”
“That’s really good,” I said. I meant it.
Katie had qualified for the Boston Marathon by more than 16 minutes. (We learned later that she had finished in the top three percent of women age 22-29.)
Whatever I had lost in Madison four weeks earlier, I felt that I had found again somewhere near the Basilica of St. Mary. Maybe it was the bells that helped me get it back.
The graph that I described to begin this post features two lines. The line moving from upper left to lower right represents Katie. As she grows older, her marathon times will decrease – four minutes from 2015 to 2016. The other line, the one that runs from lower left to upper right represents me. As I grow older, my marathon times will rise. This is inevitable, inescapable. But in 2015 and 2016, those two lines, Katie’s and mine, converged. During two races run one year apart, we ran every stride together. My line intersected hers and we both ran just a little bit faster, probably because we are better together than we are separately. Eventually, Katie will need to go up the road without me. It’s inevitable but an eventuality that I will deal with well. Tomorrow. Or maybe next year. Almost certainly by the year after…
So for one October day in each of 2015 and 2016, my sources of pride converged. We ran well. We were together. It was a sunny day.
Another Marcus gets the last word:
Of all nature’s gifts to the human race, what is sweeter to a man than his children? -Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator, writer (106-43 BCE)
Katie and Scott after showers and therapeutic application of pizza.
Team Ross, Ross, Ross, etc. showing inspirational artwork. Front: Harper Cope, Davis Cope. Rear: Katie, Scott and Matt Wiegand, whose 2:58 marathon was way more than good enough for an April 2018 rendezvous in Hopkinton.
Obligatory photo of Katie with Marcus to demonstrate that I did not punch him in the nose after all. I couldn’t catch him.
Thanks to Lynn, Tom, Davis and Harper Cope; the increasingly civil Nancy aka “Nanna” or “Mom” Ross; Ann, Rick and Sarah Long; Matt Wiegand and Marcus Schneider. Extra special thanks to Margy Ross for her superhuman hosting, navigation and driving with scant regard for traffic laws aka “guidelines” on race day. Our family’s support on race day is just the tip of the iceberg. Katie and I are so very, very grateful for the love and support of our family and friends every day – usually without handmade posters.
Postscript: The official Twin Cities Marathon race results for 2016 list Katie’s finish time as 3:18:36 and my time as 3:18:35. Keep trying, Katie. Maybe someday…