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Category Archives: Kona 2012

Scott and Katie at Finish IMW 2002

Inaugural Ironman Wisconsin, September 2002. Katie’s tee shirt commemorated her finish in that year’s Iron Kids triathlon, the only triathlon that she had run before June 11, 2017.

Some Guy

A light breeze blew off the lake. It rustled a few of the deep green spring leaves. The sun lit the sky, orange at the eastern horizon, deep blue to the west. A compact guy came toward me on the running path. Lean but not skinny, closely-trimmed gray hair showed beneath his baseball hat. His skin was tan and wrinkled. He ran steadily and smoothly, but not fast. His form was strong, efficient. I thought of this guy later in my story of the 2017 Ironman Wisconsin 70.3.

Physical

“Hold your hands out like this,” the doctor said.

She illustrated, holding her hands straight out in front of her, palms facing down.

I imitated.

“Yeah, I see,” she said. “Now touch your nose with your left index finger like this.”

She took her left index finger and placed it on the tip of her nose.

I followed, having no trouble, though I wondered whether this proved more about my neurological function or the size of my nose, a hard target to miss.

This was my first physical since 2005. While I felt fit to finish the week’s upcoming half Ironman, I also knew that fitness did not necessitate health.  “Fitness” described the ability to do something in particular, like competing in a triathlon. “Health” described presence of overall normal physical function and absence of significant disease or risk factors.

My 2005 physical had been an ego boost. On a family vacation to Canyon Ranch, a spa near Tucson, I visited a clinic attached to the spa. My family – on both sides – had a rich tradition of killing its eldest males by heart attack. I had no reason other than family history to get checked out; it seemed like a good idea.

The clinic drew blood, then set me up with a doctor a day or two later. At my appointment, the doctor glowed. He usually didn’t get to provide this much good news. All of my blood tests were well within acceptable ranges, some falling desirably outside those ranges.

I explained my workout habits. The doctor nodded approvingly. I asked if there was anything else that I should do to break with family tradition.

“You could have a heart scan to check for calcification occluding your arteries,” the doctor said.

“And if that turns out OK, what else should I do?” I asked.

“Wear a seat belt.”

I got a heart scan and scored a zero: No calcification, no occlusion – at least so far as the test could show. A clean bill of health. So I wore a seatbelt, worked out and ate as usual and felt pretty smug about the whole thing.

My 2017 physical differed. I wanted the doctor to check something: My left hand trembled. Sometimes it trembled more than others but it pretty much always trembled.

“Don’t let me push your hands down.”

“Bend your wrists like this and don’t let me push them toward you.”

After the doctor finished, I asked, “Essential tremor?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Interesting that it’s localized on your left side. Expect it to eventually move to your right hand, too.”

The doctor reviewed two drugs that I could use. One would compromise my athletic performance. The other drug seemed to have fewer side effects.

“No,” I said. “I’m not dropping things, I can type and write and function normally. If it gets bad enough that I can’t get along normally, we’ll have another discussion. Otherwise, this is just annoying, not really problematic.”

The doctor agreed but she didn’t exactly glow as the doctor had 12 years ago.

“See you in a year,” she said.

Healthy? Yeah. Smug? Nope.

Gimmick

Wikipedia says that Gypsy Rose Lee was an American burlesque entertainer and star of stage, screen and television, famous for her striptease act. She said that “everyone’s gotta have a gimmick.” I found mine when I ran my first marathon (without the striptease part, thank you very much). Then I ran a half Ironman. Years passed. Totals mounted. 81 marathons, 18 Ironmans, lots of half Ironmans, and too many 10K’s and 5K’s to count. I identified myself by what I did: I ran long, hard races. I conceived myself inseparably from training and racing.

The tremor in my left hand reminded me that while I may have swum, biked and run away from the family plot populated with heart attack victims, the clock was running. I might escape a heart attack but not mortality.

Just Do It

“So do you guys think that I should do it?” Katie asked.

Margy said, “Maybe you should. We’d be there to support you.”

“Dad?”

I stayed quiet.

“Dad?”

“I’m thinking for a minute,” I said.

After a pause, I said, “I think that you should definitely do it.”

One week before the 2017 Ironman Wisconsin 70.3, I told our 25 year-old daughter to enter a race for which she had very minimally prepared. (A “70.3” is a half Ironman with a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mile run.) Katie had ridden her new bike for only a few miles outside, less than the bike leg distance in the race just one week away. She had owned a wetsuit for three days but had never swum in it. She had never trained in open water. And I told her to enter the race. My advice bordered on criminal.

Never mind that Katie had won the Dad Vail Regatta in 2014 in a torrential downpour with 40 mph winds. Never mind that Katie and her boat won the Head of the Charles Regatta and the New England Rowing Championship. Never mind that Katie had cruised to three marathons that each easily qualified, or re-qualified, her to run Boston. Swimming in a lake with minimal preparation while hundreds of people splashed, kicked and hit her would be nuts under these circumstances. Ironman Wisconsin bike courses were notoriously hilly. Katie had her hands full simply trying to stop her bike, extract her foot from the pedal and step down without falling over. And after that, a half marathon would ensue.

You’d think I didn’t love her.

Forecast

Once Katie had paid the entry fee, she looked at the weather forecast: 91 degrees Fahrenheit, humid and windy.

Madison

On the Friday before the race, Katie’s unreasonably indulgent boyfriend, Marcus Schneider, flew from Portland, OR to Chicago. Nike works summer hours on Fridays and Marcus just happened to be at his computer when Katie found a cheap flight for him to O’Hare. We picked him up late that night and headed back to Madison. Our niece, Sarah Long, accompanied her boyfriend, Matt Wiegand, to Madison for his first half Ironman. Matt’s mom, Lori, came along, too. Given the forecast, this seemed like a heartless way to sacrifice our young.

Dinner

On Saturday night, several members of our Wildflower gang, Emmerson Ward, Todd Phelps, Steve Mayeron and I, assembled for dinner. Todd, a former US Army rifleman, told a story about spending weeks stalking a squirrel that had chewed a hole in his home’s roof, then took up residence in his attic. The squirrel like to run laps in the attic after Todd and his wife went to bed.

Todd used a 0.22 cal. pellet gun in urban Highland Park, MN to shoot the squirrel while an eight year-old girl had an outdoor birthday party in the yard next door. The girls would have taken a dim view of Todd shooting a cute squirrel during the party. The police might have taken an even dimmer view of a guy in hunting clothes with a rifle right next to a little girl’s birthday party. In the end, only the squirrel departed with regrets.

Todd, Emmerson, Steve and I each talked about how we felt before the upcoming race. I said that two of my last three races had been poor performances. I felt apprehensive. I said that my family all gave me such terrific support that I hoped the race the next day would be different, that I would perform well.

“My family doesn’t come to see me have a bad day. It just kills me when I go out and perform poorly for them,” I said.

Todd looked at me strangely. He said, “Maybe they just come for you.”

It was a bolt from the blue. My family wanted me to do well but they weren’t there just to see a good performance. They were there for me. Period. I had never thought of it quite that way. Rather, I had always felt responsible for running a fast time so that they could have a good time.

I can’t explain why, but I thought of the old guy running around Staring Lake. That’s who I wanted to be, I thought, that guy. Maybe not fast. Maybe not on the podium. Just a guy out there keeping after it.

Shoes

Margy and I agreed. She and Marcus would follow Katie on race day. Katie needed the support more than I did.

The sun rose hot over Lake Monona. Sweat dripped from under my swim cap and seeped out the cuffs of my wetsuit sleeves and legs. After I said my good byes, I lined up with the swimmers intending to finish at about the time I planned to finish, too. Once I got going, the cool water calmed me. I caught occasional glimpses of the Wisconsin state capitol on that familiar horizon. I built a rhythm.

Once back on land, I was on my own. It scared me to think of Katie in the water. I mounted my bike and tried to think good thoughts. I remembered a song I used to sing to Katie before she went to sleep:

“I love you Katie,

Oh yes I do.

I love you Katie,

and I’ll be true.

When you’re not near me,

I’m blue (so blue).

Oh Katie,

I love you.”

That was all I could do while I rode my bike by the foot-tall corn stalks quivering in the hot wind. The temperature climbed. The long, winding bike ride ended and a single loop run around Lake Monona began.

The sun beat down. I silently sang the song. I tried not to worry about Katie. I thought about who I wanted to be. I put one foot in front of the other.

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Katie safely in motion on the bike.

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Katie either overcoming her shyness in front of a camera at age 25 or asking exactly how she could stop this thing without killing herself. 

Unbeknown to me, Katie had survived the swim and bike only a little worse for wear. Both of her knees bled from tipping over on her bike, twice, as she tried to stop at aid stations to get Gatorade. Her calf bled from embedding the teeth of her bike’s chainring into the back of her leg.

Margy watched Katie transition from bike to run. Suddenly, Katie looked up.

“Where are my shoes?” she yelled at Margy.

Note: This is not the first time that Katie shouted accusingly at one or more of her parents when Katie herself had misplaced something.

“I don’t know,” Margy shouted back.

Katie frantically dug through her gear inside the transition area. Finally, Katie looked up.

“Throw me your shoes.”

“What?”

“I said, throw me your shoes.”

Margy and I believe that parental indulgence should end when your child has graduated from college and works as a consultant with an unconscionably high billing rate. Sometimes, Margy and I do not act entirely in accordance with our beliefs.

Margy pitched herself onto the ground, unlaced her shoes and threw them into the transition area. A mad scramble ensued. Katie ran onto the course in her mother’s shoes. Margy called Marcus, whose backpack contained Katie’s shoes. Margy chased Katie barefoot for about a half mile. Eventually, Marcus, Margy, Katie, Margy’s shoes and Katie’s shoes all intersected. Moments later, Katie ran on.

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They promised that the run course would go around a lake. They didn’t promise that it would be flat. Bloody knees but wearing her own shoes.

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Katie’s face shows the strain of the preceding 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and stifling temperatures. And maybe just a bit of youth, too. 

Finished

Though I walked through aid stations to ensure that I drank enough, I ran the rest of the course. The heat washed over me in waves, relieved infinitesimally by the strong south wind that blew in our faces for the last two shade-free miles.

I finished. Sarah, Lori and Matt were there to greet me. Matt had beaten me by 18 minutes. I laid down in the grass. Sarah brought me water, chips, pretzels and a sandwich. After a Diet Coke, I revived.

Sarah tracked Katie’s progress on her phone.

“She’s at about 6 1/2.”

A few minutes passed while we lounged in the shade.

“Eight now.”

A few minutes later, Sarah checked her phone again.

“She’s at ten. Margy and Marcus are coming to the finish area. Katie’s running about nine-minute miles.”

Margy, Marcus, Sarah, Matt, Lori and I took spots along the fence by the finish line.

Katie ran up the last hill, rounded a corner and her cheering section erupted.

Inheritance

My grandfathers were fine men. My grandmothers gracious. My dad, an exceedingly fine man; my mother remains incomparable. But in some ways, I have tried to follow my own path. In some respects, I have fallen short. In other respects, I have avoided their mistakes while substituting my own. The extent to which I have succeeded has yet to be judged, something I hope to put off for a while. I don’t know that old guy’s name, the guy I saw running, but in some way, I’m following him, too.

Looking over my shoulder, I see some of the inheritance I will leave. It follows a path up a hill and into the shade covering a finish line.

My family is far from finished producing fine people.

For Sarah, Adam, Matt, Hannah, Harper, Davis and Marcus but, especially and forever, for Katie.

And, as always, thank you so much, Margy.

Some photos from the day:

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I struggled with Katie’s wetsuit. Katie smiled for the camera.

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The Ancient Mariner, Katie and Matt Wiegand, who had a spectacular Ironman 70.3 debut in Madison.

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Nothing like a tight, black wetsuit on a sunny, hot summer’s day.

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Spreading joy to all who surrounded her, momentarily overcoming her camera-shyness, Katie approaches the swim start.

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At the finish: Katie and Scott

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Next?

Postscript: I entered the water well before Katie, then swam and biked a bit faster than she did. Though we did not run together, times from each of our runs closely matched. I placed 318th overall in the run. Katie, despite her shoe snafu, ran only four seconds slower, placing 319th. “If you’re not near me, I’m blue….”

Wishing my brother-in-law Rick Long a speedy recovery from his hip replacement yesterday and his upcoming knee replacement tomorrow. 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

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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%.

Version 2

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

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.)

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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. 

Bucket List

I’m not big on bucket lists, probably because I am not yet willing to concede mortality. I really haven’t seen mortality work out well for other people in the long run.

For many years, casual conversations with new acquaintances have come around to running.

“So, you look like a runner.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you run marathons?”

“Yes.”

“Have you ever run Boston?”

Having answered “no,” I could see the expression on their faces change. I was tempted to explain, to say how many marathons I had run, what my marathon PR was, even to talk about my recent age group results. Then I looked into their eyes and decided to skip it. They were pretty sure that because I had not run Boston, I was a hack. The die was cast. This judgment stung less if the person I met asked what was the longest marathon I had run or how many miles Boston is versus other marathons. Once I had said that I had not run Boston, my new acquaintance’s judgment could not be redeemed.

Sure, I had other reasons to run Boston but I kept coming back to this one: I wanted to temper the judgment of people just meeting me, even if they knew nothing about marathons other than that Boston is a very famous marathon. It’s probably not a great idea to let judgments of ignorant people drive your behavior. Even so, I entered Boston the morning after completing Ironman Wisconsin. Lacking my own ignorance of endurance athletic events has not improved my judgment.

Flow

Running the Boston Marathon was not the only reason for our trip to Boston. Our daughter, Katie, rows for Bowdoin College. On the Saturday morning before Monday’s marathon, Katie and her boat rowed in the Greater Boston Invitational.

The morning air was crisp, breeze strong and skies brilliantly blue. The river was high and ran brown, swift and turbulent. Rowing up river to the start would take time and energy. Then it would be tricky, even dangerous, to turn the nearly 60 foot boat around. This meant taking the narrow, twitchy racing shell and turning it perpendicular to the churning current. Even experienced rowers were cautious and concerned.

Katie’s boat was fast. They had been instructed to get out front in their first heat and to keep Amherst just off their stern, expending only that energy necessary to keep Amherst about a boat length behind. The object was not to taunt Amherst but that was the effect. As it happened, Katie and her boat executed that tactic perfectly, though it is not clear just exactly how annoyed Amherst felt. Katie said that it was actually harder than racing all out. The discipline to slow down and control stroke rate was more difficult than responding to the animal spirits that naturally rise when racing.

In the finals, Bowdoin’s coach told the girls to let the horses out. And they did.

It’s tempting to think of strength as the shuddering motion of a weight lifter jerking a barbell from floor to mid-thigh, mid-thigh to chest, then, with a pained grunt and red face, pressing the barbell overhead. The strength of Katie’s boat differed. It was the strength of unison and grace, four rowers and the coxswain acting in perfect synchronization. Smooth muscles, broad shoulders, open faces fixed in concentration. It looked too smooth, too fluid, too quiet to be powerful. But Katie’s boat opened a gap on the other boats in the finals and that gap just kept widening. The other boats became increasingly small off Bowdoin’s stern. Turns out that it was crushing strength delivered at the ends of perfectly orchestrated oars pulled by four college girls organized by a tiny coxswain stowed in the bow.

Tell the truth. If you saw these girls on the street, would “strong” be the first word that came to your mind?

 

Image Bowdoin College Rowing Club Women’s Varsity 1 Boat. Left to right: Katie, Emily, Sophie, Courtney and MB.

The 2014 Boston Marathon

Advice from a School Bus

Two bits of advice for running a marathon: First, get some sleep the night before. I got none. I worried about my friend Warren who had recently entered the hospital. His brain tumor had progressed and it had become too difficult to stay home. I hoped that he was comfortable. I worried that I would not hear my alarm. I worried about the race. I worried about Katie soon moving to Boston, a big city, a great city, but not exactly the cocoon into which a dad fancies gently depositing his daughter.

My second bit of advice involves point-to-point marathons like Boston. Don’t pay too much attention to the drive from the finish area out to the start. The Boston Marathon course runs from rural Hopkinton east toward downtown Boston. At around 6:15 a.m., I joined more than 32,000 other runners and boarded one of 588 buses near the finish line in downtown Boston. I was to start in the first wave of runners at 10:00, almost four hours after boarding the bus.

I sat near a 25 year-old math teacher from Wisconsin named Chris. This would be his second marathon. Chris and I watched the miles roll by the fogged windows of the school bus as the rising sun painted inbound Boston traffic orange. Cars crept along in the opposite lane as we headed from the urban heart of Boston into the wooded outskirts.

Most runners chatted amicably. Others closed their eyes and tried to rest. Chris and I noticed how long it had taken us at highway speeds before we arrived at the start. It looked like an awful long way back to where we caught the bus to begin. We decided that it was probably best not to think too much about how far we had come on the bus and how far we needed to go to get to the finish line.

Walking from the buses to the high school grounds in Hopkinton that formed the “runners village,” a guy beside me pointed out police snipers on the roof of the gymnasium. Military helicopters whirred overhead.

Chris and I stuck together and staked out a spot on an athletic field near the Hopkinton high school. I had brought a garbage bag to use as a disposable shell for warmth. We put the garbage bag on the ground and sat out of the breeze. The field was sparsely populated when we first sat down but soon teemed with runners who queued up to use the port-a-potties that rimmed the field. The lines grew so long that runners went to the bathroom, grabbed their Gatorades and got into line again. (Katie, I don’t think that this is the “circle of life” that they sang about in “The Lion King” but I can’t be certain.)

Chris and I were in the first of four waves of approximately 9,000 runners each. Chris was in Corral 3, I in Corral 9 of that first wave. I was among the “worst of the first.” Runners placed in the first wave were the fastest runners and were segregated within waves by corral according to expected finish times. The public address announcer called each corral into a parking lot for staging, then sent them on a 0.7 mile walk toward the start line.

When my corral was called, I tossed my sweatshirt onto a pile gathered for donation to charity and began my long walk. The road to the start area was narrow and lined with modest homes. Temporary fences separated us from a few spectators and lots of cops standing in their bulletproof vests. I looked down at the pavement and saw my shadow. I saw my misshapen hat, the one I have used since the 2002 Ironman Wisconsin. I saw my skinny legs and lithe shape. The shadow reassured me. I could do this thing.

If I Can Get to the Start

In Corral 9, I looked up a hill onto the horizon. There I spotted the sign for Corral 4. This meant that I could not see the starting line or the 4,000 runners closest to the start. I amended my confident statement to myself: I knew that I could finish if I could make it to the start. It was the starting part that now seemed dubious.

A guy from Texas stood beside me. He said that he was coaching an athlete to ride the Race Across America, a bike race often requiring that racers ride more than 24 hours without stopping.

“That’s pretty sick,” I said with the authority of someone standing in Wave 1 at the Boston Marathon.

“By the time you are training for RAAM,” he said, “you are likely missing some of the signposts that something is off.”

Then the guy described his own issues with his shoulder following a bike accident. He talked about simultaneously suffering a deep bone infection, using an antibiotic pump, indoor training rides and qualifying for the Ironman World Championships. Even in this sea of fitness zealots, this guy stood out as a certifiable wack job. This conversation was curiously reassuring. At least I knew what things would look like when the cheese slid entirely off my own cracker.

We were too far back to hear the public address announcer or the starting gun. We knew that the race had begun when we saw runners near the crest of the hill in the distance begin to walk slowly over the top of the hill. We crept ever so slowly to begin, then walked. Finally, near the starting line, some guys began to jog. At the crest of the hill, I spotted the starting line banner overhead. When I got to the timing mats at the start line, I looked up to see that the race had started six-and-a-half minutes earlier. So far as I could tell, we received no credit for the distance we had covered just to get to the starting line.

The Boston Marathon course proceeded by degrees from rural to urban. Tree enshrouded ponds gave way to used car lots. Then the homes improved, going from small, sparsely distributed homes to mansions. Transmission and muffler shops gave way to Starbucks and Paper Source. Each town marked its border with banners, Natick, Newton, Wellesley, Brookline. The terrain undulated with the biggest hills in Newton and Wellesley.

The crowds, thinner at first, built through the course. Spectators don’t usually think that a marathon is about them so much as it is about the runners. Actually, a marathon is very much about the spectators, the inspiration they provide, the inspiration that they receive. This was never more so than the 2014 Boston Marathon. After all, it was the spectators, not the runners, who bore the brunt of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. The 2014 event was the biggest collective psychotherapy session in history. Countless signs said “Boston Strong” while others simply said “Martin” to commemorate the youngest fatality of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings. A few signs were sad but the overwhelming majority were celebratory, only emphasizing what this race was regaining, not what had been lost. Most signs were made by hand. Some supported friends or family but most said something personal to support the Boston Marathon as a community – runners, spectators, cops, volunteers. To come out and cheer was an act of defiance, catharsis and strength. It was a way to reclaim territory and tradition that Bostonians felt had been taken away, if only temporarily.

So people picnicked in their yards. College kids lined the course in front of Wellesley and Boston College. The Wellesley girls yelled so loudly that my ears rang. Students in Tufts hats worked several water stops. Little kids held up hands looking for high fives from runners. We were all looking for ways to connect again, to recreate the community that it was before.

The crowds along the course had been sparser early on in Hopkinton but swelled steadily as we neared Boston. I have run no other race during which people cheered so loudly, so sincerely, so constantly. By the time we were near Boston University the spectators lined the course several people deep. What had been enthusiastic cheers became a constant din; it was like the sound of crowds cheering home runs in an indoor major league baseball stadium – but these home runs kept coming so frequently as to not let the spectators stop clapping and cheering for even a second.

Nearing the finish, most marathons thin out. You cross the line by yourself or with one or two others. In Boston, I shared my finish with a steady flow of runners. It felt good to share.

Before the Start

Earlier that day, while we were sitting in the field on the garbage bag, Chris asked for advice. This was, after all, only his second marathon. I was happy to help. I had run my first marathon long before Chris was born. I told Chris what I knew about the topography of the course and how the hills would affect pacing. I suggested places at which he should pay particular attention to his pace. I told him about nutrition and hydration. He said thanks.

I paused and reflected for a few seconds. “All that may be helpful,” I said, “but it is not my real advice.”

Chris looked a little puzzled.

I thought for a few more seconds about all of those perfectly clear mornings when Warren and I had raced Wildflower. I remembered the warmth of the sun and the smell of the breeze blowing off Lake San Antonio. I recalled the blue green lake rimming the brown, grassy hills dotted with live oaks. Then I thought of Warren lying in the hospital in Mountain View. I hoped that he was comfortable.

“You never know when you will have another day like this,” I offered. “This is a great opportunity and it may not ever come again. Look up at the clear sky and feel the sunshine, hear the sounds of other runners around you and listen to the crowd cheering you on. Take it in. Take it all in.”

Chris smiled at me as he stood to leave. We shook hands and he disappeared into a sea of runners gathering in the parking lot before they walked down the hill.

Boston Strong

I still don’t know what people mean by “Boston Strong” but I was sensitive to the many ways that I saw strength on my trip to Boston. I think that strength derives from many sources and comes in many forms. American society has a special affinity for the rugged individual, the person strong enough to stand on his or her own but my weekend in Boston proved that a whole bunch of people working for the same purpose are a lot stronger than any one of us, whether it was a crew of unlikely looking college girls or a million people standing along a marathon course cheering for 32,000 runners. Sometimes strength is graceful and beautiful. Sometimes it’s just getting up in the morning and putting one foot in front of the other because there is no other choice. Sometimes it’s just someone holding up a handmade sign with your name on it.

Image Katie and I shortly after I finished the 2014 Boston Marathon

 

Special thanks to Collin and Paula Burke who came to see the race and bought me Boston pizza afterward. And, as always, thanks to Margy for marshaling all logistics. Margy makes everything look easy, especially the hard stuff.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

It was a little after 2:00 on a chilly Saturday afternoon in the middle of Hedge Road just about 100 meters from Warren’s house. Margy and I had shown up just in time for Warren’s afternoon walk and Elizabeth offered to let me take over with the gait belt. The sturdy, two-inch strap was secured with an industrial-strength buckle and encircled Warren’s chest right beneath his sternum. We had made it from Warren’s kitchen over the threshold to the porch, down the slope from the porch to the driveway, across the curb and gutter and down the street. Each of these passages was the product of supremely conscious effort – both on Warren’s part and Elizabeth’s. Warren did not so much “walk the talk” as he “talked the walk.” By that, I mean that Warren narrated what he wanted to do in minutest detail. By talking his way through each step, he sought to recruit his entire nervous system to do as he said and thought. 

“Left out, look up, eyes on the prize, engage the core, stand straight,” Warren said as we walked slowly down the street. We needed to rest several times in the first 100 meters but Warren said that he wanted to get his rhythm going. Elizabeth looked at me.

“So, Scott, do you want to try?” Elizabeth said.

“Sure,” I said.

Now it was my turn. Elizabeth showed me how to hold the gait belt with my palm up. I stood to Warren’s left with my right hand tight on the belt and my left hand at the ready to steady Warren by pushing on his chest or grabbing under his left arm. As I grabbed hold of the gait belt and we began to walk again, Warren moved without much rhythm. His left foot was supported by a velcro cuff around his ankle. That cuff, in turn, was strapped to Warren’s shoelace to hold his left toes up. Without the cuff and strap, Warren would scuff his left foot and might easily trip. Perilous. Warren began by stepping ahead with his left foot, then brought his right foot only as far forward as his left. It was a motion that omitted moving both left and right feet forward in symmetrical alternating fashion. As he moved through each step, I could feel his balance shift. I gripped the gait belt tighter. My bicep turned rigid.

“Straighten up a little, honey,” Elizabeth said. She sounded every bit like the experienced fitness instructor that she is. Warren is lucky to have someone with Elizabeth’s skills to help him. Warren shifted his weight to the left.

“Engage the core,” Warren said and stepped ahead once more.

We took a break. We had gone 25 meters or so. Warren said that it was his left gluteus muscle that had atrophied and tired easily. So, we needed to help him stand straight and tall – not so much by physical force applied through the gait belt as by coaching. There were, however, limits to coaching. Warren could not simultaneously walk and converse. Warren needed to apply the full force of his mental faculties to walk and walk only. So it ended up being two gently overlapping monologues: Elizabeth coached posture and breathing while Warren coached his own legs and torso.

“Am I holding the gait belt at about the right tension WT?” I asked.

“You’ll know if it’s too tight,” he said. “So long as my eyes aren’t bulging, you’re probably OK.”

Warren used a cane called a “Sure Foot.” It was a regular cane with a foot at the bottom approximately two inches by six inches. The foot pivoted but was damped by springs front and back that helped the foot maintain stable contact with the ground with each placement and push off. He held the cane in his right hand while I steadied him on the left, occasionally placing my hand on his chest to keep him from pitching a bit too far forward or under his arm to keep him from tripping if his left foot scuffed. I was surprised at how hard this was for me. My bicep ached and I found myself completely focused on each step.

“Now we are going to get a rhythm,” Warren declared. And we did.

Warren found a tempo that facilitated a slow but steady walk. For the most part, Warren did not strain at the gait belt and kept his weight centered over his feet. We proceeded for more than 100 meters before he needed a rest.

“That was great!” he said.

“That was really good, sweetie,” Elizabeth agreed.

“It just feels so good to get out of the house, out here in the sunshine with the leaves and the trees and the fresh air. This is perfect,” Warren declared.

“Are you OK, Scott?” Elizabeth asked. I would have preferred to have been cast into the pits of hell before I would admit how stiff and sore my bicep and wrist had become from the grip I maintained on Warren’s gait belt. Besides, Warren had made the call: It was a perfect afternoon.

“Great!” I said.

May 1, 2005

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Warren and I were on our way from Paso Robles, California, to Lake San Antonio for the Wildflower triathlon. The weather had been great: Rains had swept through central California at just the right times and in just the right amounts. In the weeks following the rain, the weather had cleared and wildflowers lined the road ditches, stretched across fields and scaled the steep bluffs.

“That’s wild mustard, the yellow ones,” Warren said. “And the purple is lupine.”

We had to get out of the car to look, to take it all in. The sun was just cresting the horizon to the east, casting deep shadows into the valleys and brilliant light across the live oak savannahs and grassy hills. And there we were, on our way to get our man cards punched by running one of the toughest triathlons in the world. But instead of hurrying to the venue to get numbered and rack our bikes, we were wandering around in ditches taking pictures of the rising sun and the beautiful wildflowers. Warren and I have never entirely satisfactorily played the role of he-men.

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“This is just perfect,” Warren said at the time and I agreed. That year, and every year before and after at Wildflower, we used that drive to count our blessings, to inventory our good luck and all of the things that had gone right for us.

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

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

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Back on our walk, it struck me how little Warren had changed despite the infirmities imposed by his glioblastoma. It was a perfect day and Warren was willing to declare it so, to make it so.

On our way back to his house, some kids were playing soccer on the street.

“Stop,” Warren said to me. He couldn’t both walk and avoid the soccer fray. Any unexpected thing that got into his way – a car, someone walking their dog, a stray soccer ball – all of those would “overload the channel” as Warren said. Even the leaves and seed pods on the street risked throwing him off balance if they caused his left foot to scuff or stopped his cane from taking firm purchase on the road surface.

“Let’s head in,” Warren said. “This has been great.”

Back in the house, we unbundled Warren after he had safely taken his seat in his wheelchair. This was not a trivial task because Warren’s left hand and arm were not much within his control and were not easily extracted from his sweatshirt. The fingers of Warren’s left hand naturally curled up toward his palm, though he consciously extended those fingers while he walked. Unfortunately, the concentration required to get the sweatshirt off did not permit getting his left hand to operate, his elbow to bend or his arm to rise. I made sure to gently clear his pinkie from the space between his wheelchair brake and tire. Fortunately, Margy and I freed him from his sweatshirt without relieving him of any teeth or a fingernails.

Warren chose to keep his helmet on, even in the wheelchair. Warren’s helmet looked like a hockey helmet, just more expensive. A medical prosthetics manufacturer made the helmet just for Warren because Warren’s skull was missing an approximately two-inch diameter section that got infected this summer and needed removal. So, like a baby, Warren had a “soft spot” in his skull, a space only covered by his scalp. He let me touch it. I felt it bulge slightly. The intercranial fluid was pushing out at that spot with swelling due, in some part, to tumor regrowth. The helmet did not just protect the soft spot, it protected Warren’s entire head. Much of the skull’s strength depends upon forming a complete unit. Remove part of the skull and the strength is compromised. It’s like punching a small hole in an egg. The egg is pretty strong if intact but extremely easily broken if perforated. If Warren fell with his compromised skull, he could really get hurt. Keeping the helmet on – even while seated – seemed like a good idea.

After Warren’s nap, we tried to look at MRI images of Warren’s brain on a CD from El Camino Hospital in Mountain View. We couldn’t make the computer cooperate, so Elizabeth and Warren showed us a video that Elizabeth had taken during a visit to UCSF Medical Center. Warren and Elizabeth (wisely, I think) had videoed Dr. Jennifer Clarke, Warren’s neuro-oncologist as she assessed Warren’s MRIs. Dr. Clarke showed how the tumor had progressed through MRIs taken in succession a few months apart. It was clear, even to a layperson like me, that the tumor had “progressed” and was exerting more pressure on the brain. Then Dr. Clarke recapped some of the treatments Warren had undergone thus far: Temodar, carbo platen, CCNU and the DC-Vax vaccine regimen that Warren had begun in London about a month before. Dr. Clarke noted that she hoped that the vaccine treatment would soon provide some help. She even acknowledged that some swelling may have arisen from the vaccine uptake, but she was not at all sure. Then Dr. Clarke spoke more slowly, pausing as she considered various alternatives. She was searching for therapies that might prove helpful. In each case, she said something like, “I am not wildly enthusiastic about….” After thoughtfully regarding the possibilities, she said that she thought Warren should begin Avastin. The video ended there. It was very helpful because the combination of the MRIs and the doctor’s considerations could be played over and over so that there was no need to wonder what she had really said. More telling, however, was Dr. Clarke’s tone and tempo as she sought to determine what might help given the tumor’s reluctance to yield to the treatments thus far. It wasn’t a “feel good” video except to say that it appeared that Dr. Clarke was a thorough, thoughtful and very humane person, just the sort of doctor I would want if I ever ended up in a similar spot.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Margy and I spent much of the day running errands – getting soil amendments to plant flowers in Warren’s and Elizabeth’s yard, buying a CD changer to replace Warren’s aged and skipping CD changer, then doing small chores around the house. It felt great to be up and around, to do things that needed to be done.

We got reflective stars and stripes to place on Warren’s helmet and cane because on Saturday evening we noted that it might be hard to see Warren and Elizabeth if they took a walk at or after sunset. Margy artfully arranged those stars and stripes to give Warren’s helmet a fun, racy look. Of course, it was difficult to tell if we had adequate reflectors on the helmet so I suggested a test: We would leave Warren in the street after dark and if he got run over, we would need to apply more stickers to his helmet. If he was not run over, the stickers were adequate. Warren and I got the giggles about this and he admired my dedication to scientific method without specifically making time to actually carry out the experiment. Warren and I have been fortunate through the years in not trying out many of the things that we have dreamed up together, this registering prominent among them.

Warren felt good so we went downtown for dinner. We found a parking spot and got Warren into his chair. I pushed. As we entered the restaurant in downtown Palo Alto, I couldn’t help seeing people look at us. I wanted to tell them that Warren was just fine, that he could think and talk. I wanted to tell them that this wasn’t anyone’s fault; he hadn’t wrecked a motorcycle or been run into by a drunk driver. This was just the result of some wayward strand of DNA, a seed deep inside his body that had sprouted in a very unfortunate way. In the end, I just smiled and we joked with a few people in the elevator, as much to amuse ourselves as to let them know that we were OK – within the expanded reaches of what OK can be. After dinner, I told Warren that I was in a hurry to get out of there and that maybe we should take the stairs instead of the elevator. Warren laughed and made the sound that a runaway wheelchair would make careening down a staircase.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Margy and I visited for a couple of hours before Warren and Elizabeth headed out to Warren’s dentist appointment. We took a nice walk. Warren got an even better rhythm than on Saturday. Once we got back inside, we had fun remembering things from the early years of our friendship dating all the way back to 1984.

We decided to take this group shot:

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Before they left, Warren showed us his parlor trick. When he tried to move his left hand, his left leg moved.

“I think that this stuff is just fascinating,” Warren said.

Margy would not be able to come back down to visit Warren later in the week and needed to say good bye. That was very sad.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Elizabeth had not scheduled help for the afternoon and would leave Warren with me. On my way to their house, I stopped at Los Gallos, a Mexican restaurant in an ancient strip mall near Warren’s house. Los Gallos is a “cash only” establishment where they read off the ticket number to pick up your burrito in English and in Spanish. I ordered Warren two Super Burritos, one BBQ chicken and one veggie. He would eat one for lunch and save the other for a later meal. Warren’s appetite hadn’t suffered.

Warren and Elizabeth had just gotten home from an appointment and we decided to take our walk right away, saving lunch for later. The sun shone brightly on us as we headed out onto Hedge Road once again. It had warmed up nicely and I noticed that I was sweating. Warren got some good tempo but needed frequent breaks, too. Elizabeth had left us alone, just the two of us walking on a beautiful day, the crisp leaves in the trees swishing softly in the breeze. It was up to me to help Warren with his posture and balance. I noted that it was less fun than I had anticipated to jerk him around by his gait belt but that criticizing his walking and posture was surprisingly satisfying. Warren laughed.

On our return, I laid out our Los Gallos lunch. Elizabeth joined us, though she chose to eat something (much) healthier than Los Gallos. I noted that, at least in Warren’s case, chips and burritos were not the enemy. Warren reached for one of the cups of salsa that remained in the center of the table.

“Oh, I put yours right there,” I said, pointing to the cup of salsa just at the tip of his fork. Then I realized my mistake. I had put the salsa on his left side where he would not see it at all unless I pointed it out to him. Warren turned far to his left and spied the salsa with his right eye.

“If there is some food that you want to save for yourself, Scott, put it on his left side,” Elizabeth offered slyly. I said that I would keep that in mind for future meals and would likely use that with anything chocolate.

Elizabeth went to work and Warren and I used the opportunity to shop on Amazon for Elizabeth’s Christmas presents. Warren let me take the mouse and we got several things that I was sure Elizabeth would really like. Then Warren said that it was time for his nap.

Warren’s bed had a half dozen pillows at the head of the bed and two wedge-shaped pillows near where his hips would rest. There was a grab bar affixed to the bed frame side to help Warren hoist himself up, lie down gently and to prevent falling out of bed. It took a little time for me to pull back the covers and to arrange the pillows “just so.”

“Princess and the pea,” I muttered.

“Exactly,” Warren agreed.

I had arranged Warren on the bed and in proximity to his pillows according to his instructions before heading out to do the dishes from lunch. It felt wonderful to pull the covers down over Warren’s feet to stop any cold drafts, to get everything just right. I realized that it had been a long time since I had last tucked anyone in. I had missed it. I also realized how few people I had to take care of. Katie was away at college, I was no longer working, and no longer on the TCM board. As it turned out, I probably got much, much more out of taking care of Warren than he got out of me taking care of him.

As soon as Warren was all tucked in, I left the room with the door slightly ajar in case Warren needed anything. As I took two or three steps down the hall, I heard…

“Scott?”

“Yes.”

“Did you put my phone in here?”

“Yeah.”

“How about my headset?”

“Yes, Warren. Just call when you need me.”

I stepped away from the door again and headed toward the kitchen to do dishes.

“Scott?”

“Yes, Warren.” I hadn’t made it very far.

“Is my stylus there?”

“Right by your phone and headset,” I said. “Sleep tight.”

I turned toward the kitchen again.

“Scott?”

“WHAT!” I feigned irritation. Warren’s admin Peggy working in the office next door snickered.

“I’ve been drinking water before I nap,” Warren said. “From that Virgin Islands glass.”

“I bet you have,” I said in my testy voice. “How about if I look for the Virgin Islands glass but if I don’t find it you are going to drink water from any glass and you are going to like it, too, right?”

More snickers from the office. Warren laughed, too.

I found the Virgin Islands glass and filled it with water, then placed it by the phone, headset and stylus. As it turned out, I felt really happy to have found just the right glass after all.

We didn’t have that much time after Warren’s nap before Elizabeth came home. Warren and I had done a little research on Avastin. The Genentech site advised glioblastoma patients with great certainty about the side effects that may occur. For instance, 55% of glioblastoma patients taking Avastin get infections. The site didn’t offer much encouragement about the primary effects of the drug and disclaimed either shrinking tumors or extending lives. I guess that’s what happens when you let lawyers write your marketing materials.

It was time for me to go. I hugged Elizabeth and told her to take care of herself, that by doing so she could take best care of Warren. Then I bent down and hugged Warren. I told him that he had taught me a lot through the years and that I loved him.

It was dark outside and quiet except for the leaves rustling in the trees as I walked across Hedge Road one more time.

December 14, 2013

If my post leaves you feeling sorry for Warren, that’s your choice – a very understandable choice, too. It is not, however, the choice Warren has made for himself. Warren could feel supremely sorry for himself. Nobody would think less of him. Warren has chosen gratitude instead. He takes every opportunity to count his blessings, whether it is the great medical care he has received, the people who care for him deeply – especially Elizabeth – or just the warmth of the sun on a clear day. I am sure that Warren has bad days and that can’t be helped when contending with a disease for which there is no known cure. But Warren chooses not to have bad days. He doesn’t let stuff get him down, even big stuff. What would be the point?

I hope always to be able to take for granted those things that I have now, like the ability to walk without giving it a thought. Should I lose even those seemingly simple things, I can’t imagine facing them as bravely – even as cheerfully – as Warren. I am satisfied to make simple choices that Warren has taught me, to be grateful for so much good that passes without notice, to treat life’s small inconveniences as just that and, most of all, to feel grateful for the people who care about me, especially WT.

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