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My trip to Kona came to an end yesterday on a National Rental Car bus between the return lot and Boston Logan International Airport. It was an end to my trip so improbable and audacious that I had not even bothered to dream it.

The Charter.

Today I get to write about the part of my story that has most interested me. That is not so much the part that deals with training or even racing Kona. It’s the part that deals with what comes after now that I have been granted my wish, my day in the sun.

The Twin Cities in Motion board of directors enacted term limits. I wrote the bylaws provision implementing a rule that prevents board members from running again after having served ten years. I voted against adopting the bylaw provision that I wrote. It was not my idea and I hated the thought of ever leaving the TCM board. On the Wednesday night after returning from Kona I was engaged in the process of interviewing prospective board members to take my place. I was still wearing my “Kona Athlete” wristband and an “Ironman World Championship” golf shirt. Clearly, I had not gotten over Kona and relished the attention that my fellow board members lavished on me and my accomplishment. Whether I admitted it or not, I wanted people to keep asking questions so that, in my answers, I could hang on to my time in Kona, to relive the swim start in Kailua Bay, the windy ascent to Hawi on my bike or the pitch black run on the lava fields coming back from the Natural Energy Lab.

My dear friend, Dr. Charlie Fazio, and I spoke after the meeting. He put it to me succinctly.

“You’ve done Kona. So what are you going to do now?”

It was so absolutely like Charlie to say only a few words but to expose the very most important question.

Here I was in the twilight of both my race at Kona and my tenure on the TCM board. These two things had defined me for years and were about to become increasingly small dots in my rear view mirror.

The Itinerary.

Four weeks ago, Margy and I met in Boston and drove to Brunswick to visit Katie for Parents Weekend. The following Sunday, we boarded a plane for LAX, then Kona. The Sunday following the Ironman, we flew overnight from Kona to LAX to Minneapolis. The following Friday, I met Margy (inbound from Phoenix) in Boston to see Katie row the Head of the Charles Regatta, the world’s largest regatta and capstone for her fall rowing season.

Our prior trips to Head of the Charles had featured gentle fall sun and colorful maples lining the grassy banks of the river separating the MIT and Harvard campuses. As a Midwesterner, I always felt a long way from home, immersed in the traditions of Boston, rowing and the prestigious universities bustling with happy energy. At no time did I feel like I was back in Des Moines.

From the start, this trip felt different. Margy had a dreadful cold and it was a complete miracle that she had dragged herself from Kona to Phoenix to Boston. That she was bound for Warsaw directly after Sunday’s race would represent a feat of endurance and determination that embarrassed my quaint efforts in Kona only a week before.

Instead of the sunny mid-October skies that had greeted us on prior regatta weekends, the sky was thick and gray, spitting rain that forecasts predicted would get even worse for the race. We drove from the airport to a bagel joint near the regatta to collect Katie, then headed to our hotel.

Margy and Katie were too busy with writing (Margy on her fifth book) and studies (Katie with “Politics of Development”) to do anything other than hole up in our hotel. I went out for a walk on the slick streets and soon felt discouraged from venturing more than a few blocks.

For dinner, we walked to the North End for Italian food. We figured that Katie could do with some carbo loading for the next day’s race. The rain had picked up and we all hunkered down into the hoods of our rain jackets. Crossing the Government Center’s massive outdoor commons Katie turned to me.

“Dad, do you think that I could do an Ironman?”

“Yes,” I said without hesitating.

“How long would it take me to train?” she asked.

“About a year, I think.”

“If I do one, I want to do it with you.”

Her emphasis on “with” let me know that she did not just want to enter the same race; she wanted to race side by side through the entire event.

I smiled and said, “Absolutely. Any time.” I smiled and we trudged on. The rain did not feel so bad.

Lost.

I woke up early on Saturday morning and slipped out of the room while the girls slept. It would be my first run since Kona. I met a guy in the lobby. He was outfitted in all of the right Dry Fit gear, Newton running shoes, running hat and an “M Dot” tattoo on his calf. Even so, it looked like he had not run an Ironman this year, maybe for several years. His features were not taut and trim but were full and soft. I asked him  for directions to the running path on Storrow Drive so that I could run the regatta race course. He obliged but did not notice my “Kona Athlete” wristband, somewhat to my disappointment.

I tried to follow his directions but it was completely dark and I soon found myself hopelessly lost between the North End and the TD Garden. Under a bridge, I nearly stepped on several homeless men sleeping on the running path, then came to a dead end. I turned around and needed to thread my way through the men in their sleeping bags under the bridge. I felt pretty good physically but had to admit that between the light rain, complete darkness and feeling totally lost, I was not having much fun. I managed to re-orient and run on Boston Commons and along a boulevard nearby, admiring the brownstone houses.

Back at the hotel, I discovered that a combination of my fatigue from Kona and poor judgment in running so far made me extremely sore. Things hurt after only an hour run that almost never hurt. My hips were killing me, my groin was sore and my hamstrings ached. It was hardly a triumphant return to running.

The weather began to clear as we got into the car, left the hotel and drove toward the regatta. We drove on Storrow Drive along the regatta race course. Katie narrated, rehearsing for herself each segment of the upcoming race. She identified beaches, bridges and boathouses, each with its significance and distance into the race. She had prepared thoroughly and had even gone so far as to have the course as the background on her computer screen. Every chance she had gotten, she imagined herself on the Charles, noting where the port rowers would need to pull especially hard or where getting through one of the bridges’ archways would be particularly tricky. (Whose child is this?)

At the regatta, Bowdoin had racked its boats under some colorful maple trees that sheltered us from the increasingly warm sun that had now taken over the clear blue sky. Katie spent her time nervously checking her oar lock and asked her coach, Gil Birney to check it out. Gil disassembled the oar lock, lubricated it and reassembled it. I remembered the first time we met Gil.

The Handshake.

Just a little more than two years ago, we were hustling around the Bowdoin campus, parents soon to live without our daughter and our daughter soon to live without her parents. We attended all of the events we could, maybe an effort to distract ourselves from thinking too much about what was to come: ceasing to be the family that we had always been.

Katie and I were crossing central campus when we noticed a rowing shell on slings in the spot that the very most kids and parents needed to pass for all of the many activities. A man stood in the bright sun with long, wavy gray hair sticking out the back of his baseball cap. He wore a long-sleeved, blue chambray shirt and Carhartt pants that looked pretty well shot. His face was deeply tanned and creased in a way that made it look like he had spent most of his life outside. He looked like a perfect Maine lobsterman or commercial fisherman. For all I could tell, he might have come to campus straight from fixing the transmission in his pickup. (I learned later that he is an ordained minister, former coxswain for the Williams College rowing team and is married to the former first lady of Maine. But that is a story for another time.)

As we approached, he introduced himself as Gil Birney, the head coach of the rowing club. Katie shook his hand and introduced herself.

“I’ve heard of you,” Gil said, not letting go of Katie’s hand. A friend of Katie’s had earlier declined Gil’s invitation to join the team but gladly gave Katie up in an effort to move on.

“We could get you out onto the water and teach you to row,” Gil said.

“I’ve been on a rowing team the last two summers,” Katie responded.

Gil’s light blue eyes narrowed and his smile widened.

“Well that’s just fine,” Gil said.

I could see that he increased the pressure of his grip, still shaking Katie’s hand. He pulled her just a bit closer.

Launch.

There wasn’t much need to ask Katie if she felt nervous. We sat on plastic bags from the grocery store, trying to keep our bottoms dry on the grass still wet from the rain the day before. The sun shone hot and humid. Katie didn’t have much to say and chose to lean against a snow fence in the shade and stay off her feet.

“Do you want Dad to run along with the boat?” Margy asked.

“Yes, definitely,” Katie said.

It would have been a relief if she had said otherwise. I still felt sore and did not know if I could run from the finish and launch area back down the course to see Katie and her boat go toward the start, then race back to see them at the same places before the finish. It was hot and I was pretty hobbled. In addition, I did not look forward to boarding a plane smelling like I had run a 7K, which was just about the distance I figured that I needed to cover at a strong clip to see the boat. No use debating it, though, because I really did want to do it because I knew that Katie wanted me there.

We hugged. I whispered in Katie’s ear, “Concede nothing to anyone. Nothing.”

Katie nodded and silently walked over to join her teammates.

Katie and her crew hoisted the boat and carried it to the river, then rowed away. Margy and Katie’s boyfriend, Collin, walked to a bridge to see the boat come back up the course. I ran to one bridge where I yelled loudly enough to startle some of the spectators, then ran along the river, shouting encouragement the entire time as the crew paddled easily toward the start. I was very hot and very sweaty and very conspicuous. After Katie and her boat had gotten beyond the reach of my voice, I limped over to a park bench to wait in the shade. I struck up a conversation with an Australian couple. He had rowed an eight earlier that morning and they asked about my Ironman shirt. I gratefully acknowledged that I had raced just one week before but it felt a little trivial. I was now in a different bubble totally dedicated to rowing. I was no longer amongst those true triathlon believers in Kona drowning in all of their obscure Ironman considerations. I was in a world that intersected the triathlon world in that we mutually respected the discipline, determination and athleticism that our sports shared. But it wasn’t my world, it was theirs and Katie’s and that of thousands of other rowers gracefully plying the waters lining the United States’ most prestigious academic city.

At Head of the Charles, boats start in an order determined by their last year’s finishing place. So, the first boat, Hamilton College, started first, and each boat thereafter started ten seconds after the preceding boat. It is relatively easy to determine if a boat is going faster than its nearby competition by seeing whether it has overtaken boats starting ahead of it or, conversely, if the boat has been overtaken by those behind it. There were 38 boats in the Women’s Collegiate Fours division, including the single entry from Bowdoin.

Once the first women’s four came into view, I excused myself and wished the Aussies well, then mounted the  bridge nearby. Katie’s boat had started fifth and was in the process of overtaking the third boat, having passed the fourth starter. Now I was screaming at the top of my lungs, sprinting to the opposite side of the bridge as Katie’s boat passed beneath. Once by, I ran very, very hard along the shore shouting, then back up another bridge approach. I could not conceive that Katie had not heard me. From there, I cut the course, running along Harvard Street by Harvard Stadium. The parking attendant at the drive into the stadium eyed me somewhat apprehensively, a 54 year-old man running in jeans and without a shirt. I couldn’t blame him.

I intercepted Katie’s boat only a few hundred meters from the finish. More screaming. I was spent, too, and reverted more frequently to calling her “Peanut,” our pet name for her as a little kid. I wove through the crowd, who apprehensively parted for the wild-eyed Midwesterner gleaming with sweat and holding a tee shirt in his hand.

As Katie’s boat crossed the finish line, I saw Katie drop her oar to the water and slump over, too exhausted to even hold her head up. The other girls reacted similarly. They had finished without any gas left in their tanks.

It took some time for the girls to cool down and return to the dock. I walked over to Gil. I could tell that he didn’t have a good feeling about this race.

“What happened out there?” He said, his blue eyes flashing. “Did they lose their steering? Why did they come around so wide?”

I demurred, saying that I had not been able to see much of the last turn. Gil went back to pacing at the dock, waiting for the girls to return.

We had time only for a few photos with Katie and a hug, then Margy and I ran to our rental car, Margy leading the way, me limping. I drove aggressively. We needed to get Margy to the airport with enough time to make an international flight. We drove into the National lot and yanked our roller bags out of the trunk. I needed to put my raincoat into my bag and the rental car jockey scolded me for blocking a lane. I ignored him and then gave chase to Margy who was already boarding the bus. I was sweating again. The bus driver held the door open until the bus was crowded. People stood in the aisle. Margy checked her watch disapprovingly. The bus lumbered over some bumps at the lot exit, people swaying precariously, then accelerated toward the terminal.

Margy pulled out her iPhone.

“I wonder if the results are in yet,” she said. She keyed in the URL. I looked over her shoulder. The results showed up tiny on her phone screen. Here is what it said:

Status: 1 Finished: Bowdoin College K. Ross Bow: 5 Time: 19:14.11 Delta: (blank space) % 0.00

I blinked. Margy didn’t say anything for a few seconds and then said, flatly, “They won.”

“Yeah,” I said, equally flatly.

“They won?” I asked.

“They won,” Margy said.

“They won,” I said, now forming a declarative statement where I had previously asked a question.

They won.

The results, for those uninitiated to rowing, showed that the Bowdoin College women’s four boat had finished first with Katie Ross as the “stroke,” the rower sitting in the back of the boat to whom all of the other rowers in the boat look to set their stroke length and cadence. Bowdoin had finished in 19 minutes, 14.11 seconds. Their “delta” showed that there was no time between their boat and the winner. (They had won by 5.49 seconds.)

We called Katie. Like us, she was not so ecstatic as disbelieving. She said that she hadn’t dreamed of winning the Head of the Charles because it seemed so improbable, so audacious that she had dared not dwell on it. She said that Bowdoin had never won Head of the Charles but had once put a boat into second place, back in 1999. She said that Gil talked about that boat like they were legends, super humans. Now…. She let her thoughts drift without articulating.

What Now?

I had not known what would happen once I finished Kona. How would I answer Charlie’s question? As it turned out, I didn’t provide the answer. Instead, it was Katie who replied to Charlie.

By the time I showed up in Boston, I had worn my “Kona Athlete” wristband for too long. I had risked becoming boring and boorish, somehow lost in the fog of an accomplishment that I could not quite get over.   People around me had been interested all week long but time was marching on and one more story about the lava fields risked an abrupt – and justified – change of subject.

So things have turned out exactly as they should, exactly as I would have hoped. The really cool thing that I did has receded into the past, displaced by something really cool that our daughter did – something even cooler. Events recede in time and cease to maintain their importance. Time marches on and, if we are lucky, it will be our children who more and more do the cool, significant things.

I thought again: Status: 1 Finished: Bowdoin College K. Ross Bow: 5 Time: 19:14.11 Delta: (blank space) % 0.00 and smiled.

Home.

I arrived home last night and went upstairs to our bathroom. I have arranged all of the wristbands from my Ironmans under the edge of the lights that illuminate the mirror over my vanity. I took out my pocket knife and cut off my “Kona Athlete” wrist band, placing it alongside the others on the mirror, just below the picture of Katie as a kindergartner. I took care, however, not to damage the wristband that Katie gave me on Parents Weekend. Here is what it says:

SCOTT ROSS IM KONA 2012

CONCEDE NOTHING

SOAK UP EVERYTHING

WITH YOU FOR 140.6

BUDDIES FOREVER

I looked at the fourth line, dwelling on it for a moment and wondering what, exactly, Katie meant.

Head of the Charles, October 20, 2012, Bowdoin College Women’s Four. 19:14.11. Gold. From left to right: Mary Bryan “MB” Barksdale ’15, Katie Ross ’14 (stroke), Bonie Cao ’13 (coxswain), Samantha Burns ’13, Catherine “Cat” Yochum ’15.

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2 Comments

  1. Scott (and Katie) – there’s little to say, just warm and good thoughts and wishes to you, after the congratulations, of course.

    Jon Sugar and Nan Barbas

  2. A Huge congratulations to Katie and the Bowdoin College Women’s 4! What an amazing accomplishment! Hold on to this fantastic energy forever!


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