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

“H” is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Plot Synopsis.

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

Boston

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

Madison

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

Madison Again

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

Minneapolis and St. Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boulder

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

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

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

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

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

Rochester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tampa Calling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s about $1,000, right?”

“A little less than that but close enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margy looked up. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Hawks and Rocks.

This event reminded me of my book.

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

“H” is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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

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

Aloha, again.

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

 

San Diego

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Screenshot from the video of Mike Reilly announcing my name. 

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One Comment

    • Ward, Emmerson H - Plymouth
    • Posted April 11, 2018 at 4:55 pm
    • Permalink
    • Reply

    Amazing story, Scott. I can’t believe it.

    Perhaps a cosmic connection?

    I can’t wait to cheer you on at Kona this year!

    Emmerson


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