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Monthly Archives: May 2013

Once published, I feared that my last post would leave people with the wrong impression. I had a wonderful time last weekend at Wildflower. The weekend was sad, confusing, hilarious, tragic, scary, exhilarating, and funny. Triathlon has never been about swimming, biking and running, not for me anyway. Triathlon is a backdrop, a pretext. It’s a canvas on which we create something entirely our own – and usually not something that we had planned. Triathlon is about choosing. It’s about choosing to spend time with people who make me happy every time, all of the time, no matter what.

As for Wildflower 2013, I loved every minute.

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Come hither.

DSC_0149Karma is like Newton’s physics. Karma is cause and effect. Newton’s physics hold that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. After my weekend at Wildflower, I can reconcile neither.

Thursday: 101

Warren pulled up to the curb in a rented gray minivan. We greeted one another just as we have for the past eleven years. I loaded the bike and my bag.

“You want me to drive?”

“No, I’m good,” Warren replied.

The late afternoon sun shone warm through a brilliantly clear sky as we merged onto Highway 101 heading south from San Francisco Airport toward Warren’s home in Menlo Park. At that time of day, 101 is one of the country’s busiest freeways. Warren merged smoothly, then hugged the left side of our lane, frequently riding on the raised reflective domes glued to the white lines dividing ours from the next lane to our left.

“After the operation, I have had a hard time with my left hand but I have also had a harder time with spatial orientation on my left side.”

My right hand slowly moved to the handle on the pillar by the window.

We chatted just like we have every year.

Traffic came to an abrupt stop in the lane to our right. A driver from that lane swerved left and cut us off so that he could avoid slowing down.

“He picked the wrong guy to cut off,” Warren said with a sly grin.

My grip tightened.

“I can drive, if you want.”

“No, I’m good,” Warren said, the wry grin appearing again.

The left wheels of the van buzzed on the stripe.

“I just wanted to say that, this weekend, I want to be totally flexible, to help in any way….” I had to stop mid-sentence. I couldn’t talk. I had wanted to offer support and help and willingness to do anything that I could but, instead, I began to cry. I hadn’t cried yet over Warren’s situation and I apologized. This was absolutely and completely the opposite of my intentions.

Warren reached over and put his hand on my shoulder. His right hand. I at once felt grateful for the same old Warren, kind, comforting, my friend. I also longed for him to put both hands on the wheel.

As we pulled into his driveway, I threatened to get out and kiss the ground in celebration of safe passage. Warren laughed.

“Can I have the keys to open the back?” I asked.

I slipped the keys in my pocket before I unloaded my bike box and duffel.

Friday: Confirming the Higgs Boson

Warren took me to meet his friends at the linear accelerator.

A small free-standing clinic building stood on the perimeter of the El Camino Hospital grounds in Mountain View, California. That’s where Warren went for radiation treatments. He thought it would be OK if I went in with him to see the machine. The two technicians who greeted us there couldn’t have been nicer. Warren and I walked into the room and there in front of me stood the cleanest, scariest and probably most expensive machine that I have ever seen, a Varian linear accelerator. (Yes, Margy, even cleaner, scarier and more expensive than my convertible.)

They showed me the custom mold made to position Warren’s head precisely each time they apply radiation. They demonstrated the laser guide marks used to ensure positioning.

I asked if they provide a discount if they confirm the existence of the Higgs Boson while irradiating Warren. They giggled.

“Can I put a bag of microwave popcorn right here while you are at it?” Warren asked from beneath the mask that made him look a little like Jason from the Halloween movies.

More giggles.

“Actually, does this thing turn up to 11?” I asked. “We’re kind of in a hurry.”

The women giggled again.

“Are you related to Warren?” one asked.

“No, I’m just a friend.”

“You must be a very old friend,” she offered.

“Scott is a very good friend,” Warren qualified.

I looked at Warren locked into position under that machine, bolted into his mask. The woman motioned me out of the room and I looked at the 18 inch-thick sliding door slowly closing behind me. I began to walk fast, then faster.

“You can wait in the waiting room or the lobby” she said to my back as I picked up speed.

Safely outside, I cried for the last time during the weekend.

Friday evening: No table

We arrived in Paso Robles later than usual, hot and tired from our drive and our walk in Lake San Antonio Park to get our race packets. Our favorite restaurant, Tavolo Buono, had no tables. We went to the town square just as night fell. We walked to check out a few restaurants. Increasingly, Warren brushed lamp posts and trash containers on his left, occasionally making solid contact.

We sat down to dinner at a new favorite, Artisan. We told stories about previous Wildflower weekends, the year it rained and the hot year that Warren brought cup after cup of Gatorade to Dave Mason and me under an oak tree. We had a lot of laughs.

I remembered the Christmas party in 1984 when Warren and I met.

“You could have sat at the table with the cool people, Warren. I’m pretty sure of that. Instead, you sat with Margy and me. Now look.” I made a frowning face to indicate that Warren had missed a good opportunity all those years ago.

“No, I’m satisfied with my choice,” Warren said. “I sat at the right table.”

When we stood up at the end of dinner, Warren walked right into the table to his left. He apologized in the charming and disarming way that only Warren could.

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Saturday: A simple plan

Warren and Elizabeth would watch my wave start the swim, then planned to walk the half marathon run course. If everything went well, Warren and Elizabeth would finish shortly before I completed my race. Everything didn’t go well.

Part of the half marathon course was crowded with bikes and did not seem safe for walking, so Warren and Elizabeth walked the lakeshore instead. Warren had a hard time negotiating deep sand and rocks, especially those beneath his left foot. He fell. A stump low and left tripped him and he fell again, this time skinning his knee. Elizabeth wisely got Warren to a water stop, then back to the medical tent in the finish area.

If it was hot on the course, the medical tent had been pitched on the outer perimeter of hell. The staff was prepared for heat exhaustion, dehydration and sunburn; not so much post-operative neurological care. Warren felt lousy and vomited to prove it. Paramedics loaded Warren into an ambulance, Elizabeth hopped in and they headed for a hospital in Templeton, California. Elizabeth left the rented minivan keys with race services so that I might join them later.

Meanwhile, I had a pleasant swim and a decent bike. I fretted about the heat and worried about Elizabeth and Warren. I had made only one promise: I would finish as soon as I could to hasten our post-race Mexican dinner.

At the top of Nasty Grade, a 1,000 vertical foot climb starting at mile 40 of the bike, lies a knife ridge overlooking Lake Nacimiento on the left, Lake San Antonio on the right. Birds of prey hang on the thermals blowing up the ridge and tall, brown grass moves in waves stretching all the way down to the lakeshores several miles away. For each of the last 11 years, I have used this high promontory to feel grateful, deeply grateful. It is the place I use to count my blessings. I always think of Katie and Margy and my family and friends, including the friends with me at Wildflower. I counted their blessings, too. (No charge, this being a philosophical exercise and all.)

This year, the blessings did not total up quite like before, though I still felt lucky. I was deep in thoughts about luck, gratitude and karma when I heard a man groan loudly in front of me. I looked up to see the rider sit bolt upright, then topple over onto the pavement. His legs had completely cramped. I stopped to help. I picked the bike up off him after freeing his feet from the pedals. He scuttled on his back like a beetle. Another rider got off his bike and pulled the guy out of the middle of the road. I parked the man’s bike by some bushes. A race official stopped just ahead and came to provide help. I couldn’t do much more, so I saddled up and headed down the scariest hill on the course – 43 mph, according to my bike computer.

The run course did not trace the perimeter of hell; it plunged straight through. Parts of the trail followed deep crevices in the hills, fully exposed to the sun and completely shrouded from the wind. It was so hot. My feet made scratching sounds on the sand and rocks and dust of the loose surface beneath me. Dust caked my legs and my originally white shoes were now gray and speckled with sweat, mud, water and Gatorade. None of the runners chatted. It was entirely quiet except for the sound of shoes tentatively gripping the trail and labored breathing. It dawned on me that this wasn’t fun.

Emerging from the trail, the course followed a paved park road from about mile nine down a steady slope to the turnaround at mile ten. At this point, I should have felt relieved. I was headed downhill and on pavement. I knew, though, that from mile 10 the road went back up the slope fully exposed to the hottest of the afternoon sun. I made the turn and discovered that my worries were justified. The sun poured down on me as if it were physically pressing on my skin. I began to wonder why I ever raced at all. I wasn’t noble or brave or disciplined or smart or happy. I just did the only thing that I could: I put one foot in front of the other and pushed on. It seemed like this part of the course must have been a metaphor. There are just times when you haven’t any real alternative, no clever solution or creative dodge. You just have to endure and take everything one step at a time.

At mile 12, the course headed downhill for the last mile. This should be good news but the downhill is so steep that it felt like someone was sticking knives into my thighs with each step, my feet slapping the pavement awkwardly, running faster than I could fully control. Bike riders descended the hill at dizzying speed. I stayed right and braced as I heard each approaching freewheel buzz behind me, then pass.

At the finish, a guy greeted me. He must have heard my name announced as we came through the chute.

“Are you from Eden Prairie?”

I recognized the guy as someone with whom I had spoken out on the bike. He had done Kona last year.

“Yeah.”

“I’m from south Minneapolis. I live in Dana Point, now,” he said.

We spoke for just a minute and I excused myself.

“I need to get together with my buddy.”

“Sure,” he said, “Nice to meet you.”

Neither Warren nor Elizabeth were where Warren always stood to meet me after the race. I went to the meet up place beneath the oak tree where Warren had brought Dave and me so many Gatorades years before. I waited for about ten minutes, then I knew that there was trouble.

I got to my gear bag in transition and checked my phone. Elizabeth had left me a text.

“Scott, We are in ambulance en route to Twin Cities Hospital. Charleen at Event Headquarters has keys and will greet you. Sorry. Elizabeth.”

The Wildflower staff helped me gather everything. I headed up the steep, dusty slope while carrying my bag and those of Elizabeth and Warren while pushing my bike. It’s the fourth leg of the race at Wildflower.

Once in the van, Margy helped me navigate to the hospital in Templeton, California, and began to manage logistics, a task at which she knows no peer. I walked into the emergency room and the nurse at the desk asked, “Do you need to be seen?” I realized how I must have looked with my hair matted, my face caked with salt and my legs dirty and wobbling as I limped in from the van.

“No, I’m here to see Warren Thornthwaite.”

“Down this hall and take your first left. He is straight ahead at the end. Trauma 1.”

As I turned the corner, Warren looked at me and grinned. He saw the stiff-legged walk. I smiled back.

Once in the room, a nurse drew the curtain and left quickly.

“There is something going on that has the staff all jacked up,” Warren said. “We are kind of on hold here.”

Soon, I heard a woman sobbing inconsolably. “I just want to know that he is going to be OK.”

More people came. Nurses darted in and out of our room to get supplies. They apologized each time. We told the nurses to help next door and not to worry about us. I heard the word “helicopter.” Then I heard “Fresno.” A man said that he had already lost a child just a couple of years before.

“I need to take care of this family,” he said.

Every once in a while, an exiting nurse did not pull the curtain quite closed. I could see a man crying. He looked like an old friend of mine. I saw police and paramedics. More family gathered. Then things settled down.

(We learned later that a young boy had been found in a neighbor’s swimming pool but he hadn’t been found in time. The helicopter would take his body to Fresno to harvest his organs for transplantation.)

It was quiet outside now and the nurses came into Warren’s room. The doctor let us know that he was trying to get Warren into the hospital near his home but that the hospital there did not want to accept him since Warren would need admission through the ER. Meanwhile, Templeton did not have a neurosurgeon on staff and would not keep Warren. He needed to go someplace that offered dedicated neurological care. The negotiations took time. It was better for doctors to talk to doctors but some doctors were unavailable, others less helpful. I felt the helplessness that so many people experience every day after they are sucked into the vortex of the health care system.

It was quiet.

I checked my phone.

“Warren?”

“Yes.”

“I have good news and bad news.”

“Bad news first.”

“Warren, I am very put out with you.”

Warren glanced sideways. For a second, it looked like he might be worried that I would express disappointment in his judgment for having exerted himself in a way that made him sick or in the fact that I needed to spend Saturday afternoon and evening in a hospital.

“Uh oh. Why?”

“You’ve stolen my limelight, Warren. You know that I’ve been trying to make the podium at Wildflower for ten years.”

Warren turned his head to look at me straight on. He began to smile.

“Third, Warren. I came in third in my age group. I missed second by only ten seconds.”

“You should go. The awards ceremony isn’t until later. You could make it.”

“No,” I said. “I’m exactly where I want to be.”

About an hour later, negotiations concluded and the ER doctor said that everything was set. An ambulance should be set shortly to take Warren to San Luis Obispo, 30 minutes away over a mountain pass.

“Are you guys brothers?” the doctor asked.

“Practically, yes,” Warren said.

I smiled.

The ambulance paramedic, Taylor, arrived a few minutes later. She said that this wouldn’t be a “lights and siren” ride.

“Then you can’t possibly expect us to pay full price,” I said.

Taylor smiled.

“No lights, no siren, no tip,” Warren said.

“Well, Arnell here will at least drive fast,” Taylor said.

And he did.

I felt my career prospects brighten as I chased an ambulance at close range at 70 mph over the pass between Templeton and San Luis Obispo. Fog had begun to close in over the hills and into the valley. It was getting dark and the van lights reflected bright back at me in the chrome bumper as the ambulance lurched and swayed.

As Taylor was delivering Warren in the ER, I apologized.

“I must smell like the wrath of God.”

“Sorry. You don’t even rate on our scale. You don’t smell like poop. You don’t smell like vomit. Besides,” she said, “you actually care how you smell. Most of the people we deal with don’t care at all.”

At about 9:30, the neurosurgeon arrived to check on Warren. He was a slender, bald man with a bushy mustache.

“Where did you have your craniotomy?” he asked. “Stanford? UCSF?”

Warren said that he had had the procedure at El Camino in Mountain View.

“They were running a special,” I offered.

It looked like the doctor almost, but not quite, thought that I was funny.

At about 10:00 p.m., we were all tired and very hungry. Elizabeth and I got directions to a nearby Mexican restaurant. We decided to celebrate Cinquo de Mayo a couple of hours early.

When we left the hospital, it had grown completely dark and was eerily quiet. A heavy mist surrounded us on our way to the restaurant. We ordered take out from a place that used to be a Taco Bell, then Taco Roso, then, ironically, Cinquo de Mayo.

Back in Warren’s room, the lights had been turned down low. The hospital was quiet. It was dark and still outside. We spread out our meal – corn tortillas, rice, beans and burritos – on the hospital bed table.  We rolled the table up to Warren. Outside, it had begun to rain. We were all too tired to talk. I moved my chair away from the wall and right next to Warren’s bed. Warren reached over and put his hand on my shoulder.

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Karma and Newton

It’s the disproportionality of life that I don’t understand. Karma holds that some small act may provoke profound consequences years later, maybe even in a later life. Ultimately we can’t know why good things or bad things happen to us. After watching it unfold, I can’t imagine what bad thing someone could ever do, in this life or another, to deserve losing a child. A few wayward cells divide peculiarly and Warren has a brain tumor. Just when I want to reject the disproportion of life, to adopt Newton’s fairness of equal and opposite action and reaction, I pause to think that the same process of cell division that went badly for Warren is fundamentally what brought us Katie. It is a universe that operates by process, not by magic, but that does not offer explanations that trace effect back to cause. It’s still a world of wonder.

Warren may have screwed up by not sitting at the cool people’s table at the Christmas party in 1984 but the consequences of that seemingly insignificant mistake will be something I think about next time I cross the ridge at the top of Nasty Grade and look out over Lake San Antonio and Lake Nacimiento gleaming blue in the distance.