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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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“Sit on the right side,” I suggested. “Maybe next to the window.”

Katie and I boarded one of the 100 or so school buses lined up between Boston Garden and Boston Common. It was about 7:15 a.m. on Patriot’s Day. We wore sweatshirts we intended to throw away. Katie wore some hideous orange and green pajama bottoms with “Irish” and “Get Lucky” printed on them. No guessing why we found them on the Target sale rack.

Already bright in the eastern sky, the sun filtered through gray, bare trees. The air felt warm. Katie opened the bus window.

The first bus in the line moved. Ours followed. Katie clapped. We were on our way.

We drove through Back Bay and merged onto Interstate 90. People around us got to know their seat mates. Nervousness makes runners chatty. We had an hour or so to ride. Then we had two more hours to sit on the grass beside Hopkinton High School. Buses stretched into the distance ahead and back as far as we could see.

“Is this why you wanted me to sit here?” Katie asked.

She pointed to the Charles River. Rowers paused in a boat near shore to receive instruction from a coach. A single skull rowed northwest. A four pulled steadily in the opposite direction leaving four perfectly round swirls in the water behind.

I nodded “yes.” I had thought about this moment.

“This is where I trained for this race almost every morning,” Katie said. “So this is where I rowed Head of the Charles and where I trained for the Boston Marathon. Pretty cool.”

The river disappeared behind a building. We headed west.

The moment had been a long time coming.

The Start

Parenting is a long build up. You dream big dreams for your kids but you have to take it a step at a time. There is no single moment, not one life’s lesson that makes your kid all you dream he or she can be. It’s a long, slow road when they are little and over in a flash when they leave for college.

Standing on an embankment facing the Hopkinton High School, I realized that I had suffered a lack of vision. Katie and I were about to walk toward the start area a half mile down a gently sloping hill. I held out my hands and made a shape just about the size of an eight pound baby.

“This big,” I said.

“What are you talking about?” Katie said.

“This is how big you were when you were born. I didn’t imagine this day coming.”

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Precocious child: She read the tee shirt.

Katie won her heat in the toddler trot during Twin Cities Marathon weekend when she was four. She ran track and cross country in high school but was most noted for being a good sport rather than for being fleet. She was a better high school Nordic skier, the fastest girl on her team.

In college she found her sport. Katie was an accomplished and decorated rower winning some of the most prestigious college races. But the transition from rower to runner wasn’t obvious. Not all rowers are fast runners or vice versa.

Rowers and Nordic skiers race harder and suffer mightily, more severely than any other athletes I know. Katie demonstrated something more important than aerobic endurance or foot speed. Katie had grit.

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After talking smack to the four year-olds she clobbered in the toddler trot. With Nancy “Nanna” Ross, Twin Cities Marathon weekend 1996. 

Some Lady in A Purple Nike Shirt

While Katie and I bounced around in a bus for more than an hour, Margy and Marcus had a chance encounter. Marcus wore his Bowdoin tee shirt. A small woman with gray hair walked toward Marcus and Margy and asked if Marcus had gone to Bowdoin. Marcus said he had. She extended her hand.

“Bowdoin class of ’79,” the woman said.

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Take a look. There’s a building named after her on the Nike campus. Yeah, a building.

It took Margy a few seconds, then she was thunderstruck, starstruck.

The three of them chatted. Marcus had run with Joan Benoit Samuelson’s son Anders at Bowdoin. Joanie had just left her daughter at the buses like Margy had. Like Marcus, Joanie’s daughter Abby also worked at Nike. The three discussed the weather and the prospects for Katie and Abby to go out and race on what threatened to be a hot day. They exchanged email addresses so that Marcus and Abby could make contact once back in Portland at Nike. Margy and Joanie agreed to get in touch.

Back in Hopkinton

Katie and I ditched our sweats in big bags for donation to the poor. Then, under a bright blue sky, we strolled down a small town street with thousands of other runners. Neighbors stood in their yards and cheered as we walked by.

On the main street, Katie and I stood in Corral 5 of Wave 2 waiting for the Boston Marathon to start. It was 10:25 a.m. The sun felt hot. We were on the opposite side of a small hill that hid the start line. We heard someone say, “You’re underway.” Neither Katie nor I heard a start gun or the National Anthem or anything. We could just see people at the crest of the hill begin to walk. In another minute, we began to walk, too.

“Careful, Peanut. You’ll start to run and then suddenly stop dead, then start running again.”

We began a slow jog. Within ten seconds, we were stopped. Katie gave me a big smile. We began to move again and crossed the start line almost exactly three minutes after our wave officially started.

At Boston, runners sort into waves and corrals that very, very tightly group runners according to qualifying times. This is good and bad. The good: Few in front have placed themselves ahead of faster runners. Not many posers get in the way, though there are always a few cheaters. The bad: With a group so tightly clustered, runners stay clustered. For the first few miles, it was hard to place one foot in front of the other without clipping someone ahead or getting into the way of someone behind.

Katie and I ran as close together as possible, separating only as necessary to pass someone or to let someone pass us. Some people were determined to work their way up through the crowd. Others relaxed. Most stayed steady. The animal spirit in Katie rose. She was one of the passers.

The west-northwest tailwind did little to cool us. The air felt still, the sun hot. Savings and loan signs showed temperatures in the low 70’s early, mid 70’s later. Shade from trees on the south side of the road felt good but without leaves, even the shady spots weren’t all that cool.

The crowd thinned. Katie and I ran closer together. Where possible, we ran tangents, the inside of the curves, to keep the race distance as short as possible.

In Wellesley, we ran through the “Wellesley College Scream Tunnel.” The girls held naughty, suggestive signs and offered kisses. Some runners took them up on the offer, though most kisses were planted on cheeks.

After the mile 15 marker, the long Wellesley downhill started. My thighs, left hamstring and Achilles tendon hurt. Katie and I stuck together for the long uphill. At mile 18, Katie got through the water stop about 30 yards ahead of me. I struggled to catch up. I ran aggressive tangents to regain Katie’s side at mile 19 or so.

At mile 21, Katie turned to me.

“How are you, Dad?”

“Bad. You go ahead.”

Katie shook her head “no.”

My thighs hurt with every step. One of my calves threatened to cramp. I altered my gait to keep running. I had seen Katie turn to look for me several times. I lost sight of her between Newton’s first big hill and Heartbreak Hill.

Katie slowed her pace hoping I would catch her. I kept at it as best I could, trying to catch up. I couldn’t. I walked through the water stop at mile 23. I walked another 200 to 400 yards trying to regroup. The thought that Katie might wait kept me running. I wanted her to get her best possible time. But I was hanging on, hoping to finish.

Katie crossed in 3:25:46, more than nine minutes faster than required to qualify for Boston again in 2018, though both she and I will use our faster 2016 Twin Cities Marathon time of 3:18 to enter. I finished just a little over ten minutes after Katie and felt lucky to have stayed right side up. I had passed at least two runners who had gone down hard within sight of the finish line.

Plans

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” – Woody Allen

So here was the plan. Katie and I would run this marathon like we had run our two recent Twin Cities Marathons: Side-by-side, step-for-step, stride-for-stride. Like most parents, I wanted to be right there to help Katie along. But, like most parents, it didn’t work out that I was able to stay with my kid as long or as far as I wanted. She needed to push ahead and that was OK. It wasn’t the plan for that day but it was the ultimate plan.

Maybe this was my parenting metaphor. I did absolutely everything I knew how to do, everything I could, to set Katie up for success. We ran together side-by-side, step-for-step, stride-for-stride for 18 miles. Then my help became inconsistent. I showed up again, helped for a little bit, then faded. She was on her own. We hadn’t talked about it, didn’t plan it or acknowledge it at the time, but I had passed the torch.

I feel fiercely proud of Katie and hope that I taught her well. It’s her torch to carry.

Plane

I sat down extremely stiffly into the middle seat on our Tuesday morning flight to Minneapolis. The guy by the window asked if I had run the marathon. I said that I had.

“So how many marathons have you run?”

“81”

“I meant how many total marathons have you done,” he said, looking a little puzzled.

“Well, I have run four Boston Marathons. Yesterday’s was my fourth Boston but it was my 81st marathon over all,” I said, hoping to clarify.

He looked surprised. Margy leaned forward and nodded to confirm the count.

“That’s a lot,” he said.

“Feels like a lot right now,” I said. My legs felt like I had run all 81 the day before.

Thanks

Thanks to Margy Ross, who engineered all of our travel, spotting and cheering us four times on this year’s Boston Marathon course. Thanks to Marcus Schneider for flying across an entire continent to support us. Thanks to Holly and Jeff Schneider for good dinner conversation and great support on the course and beyond. It was nice to meet Andrew, too. Thanks to Dale and Barbara Edmunds for offering their driveway in Wellesley for parking. Thanks to both Emilys, Luisa and Doug. You were right where we needed you. Thanks to all of our friends and family for cheering us on, whether in Boston, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Maine, North Carolina or elsewhere. We have the most wonderful support we could imagine – and maybe not even imagine.

For Bob Ross. The aerobic capacity came from somewhere. I blame him. Mostly, though, he modeled grit. 

Pictures from the Weekend

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At the Expo: Shilling for Adidas.

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All swoosh: Katie with Marcus Schneider near Boston Common before boarding the bus for Hopkinton.

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25 years after the hospital picture: Katie grown up, parents unchanged. 

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After the race: Margy and Marcus wisely kept their distance.

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Katie’s oil painting of  Bob Ross, Grinnell College, Class of ’53, pictured circa 1980 engaged in a thoroughly non-aerobic sport. 

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Graph

If a line is drawn from the lower left corner of a graph toward the upper right corner and another line is drawn from the upper left to the lower right corner, those two lines will converge.

Inevitable

I am good at dealing with the inevitable so long as I can do it later.

Wisconsin

Those of you brave enough to have read my most recent blog post know that I was not pleased with my performance at Ironman Wisconsin 2016. My one-time Ironman swami, Dave Mason, used to set goals for his race performances. He would establish a best conceivable time, a great time, an expected time and a mom still loves me time. I considered my results at Ironman Wisconsin to fall in the mom still loves me category. I didn’t ask Mom directly but she remained civil following the race.

“That’s really good!”

If you are a parent, I dare you to tell me that you haven’t done this: Your child puts effort into something like a crayon drawing or swimming across the width of a pool. You say, “That’s really good!” But you are thinking, “That’s so cute.” You praise the effort. You try to make your kid feel good. You don’t offer your honest assessment which is: Keep at it.

As happens among athletes- drones all- Katie and I discussed our training during the summer leading up to the 2016 Twin Cities Marathon. Occasionally, Katie snapped a photo of the computer screen containing her mile splits from a recent run. Whether we discussed her training during a phone conversation or I examined a photo of her run splits, I said, “That’s really good.” But here is what I was thinking: She’s going to kill me at Twin Cities if I try to keep up with her.

In the Garden

So there I was in Australia’s Royal Botanic Garden a few days after Ironman Wisconsin. I had realized that I took great pride in two things: the results of my parenting and my athletic accomplishments. And that was pretty much it. Of course, my season’s “A” race, Ironman Wisconsin, had been a disappointment and undermined, somewhat, the pride I took in recent athletic accomplishment. So, one of the two things in which I took pride wobbled. Maybe I had lost it. Maybe for good.

My goal for the Twin Cities Marathon was to run every step with Katie and to help her do her best. (Isn’t that what I had been trying to do for Katie with everything, not just running a marathon?)

I realized that Katie’s loyalty would not easily permit her to run up the road ahead of me if I could not maintain a pace that pushed her along. And I hated the idea of her holding back to run with me.

Flight

Katie arrived on Wednesday before the race. We discussed our optimal plan: Run every step together. There was a back up plan but we discussed it reluctantly. Her boyfriend, Marcus, would come to watch the race. If needed, he could run ahead from point to point beside the course to offer Katie encouragement even if I had not been able to keep up. Marcus ran track and cross country at Bowdoin and Dartmouth. He was fast. He could offer support if I couldn’t. I insisted that Marcus remain off the course if this happened. No “banditing” and no cheating by pacing Katie.

Family

Metropolitan Des Moines emptied and four hours later, our house filled. My mom, sisters, brothers in law, nephew, nieces, my niece’s boyfriend, Marcus and Katie. It became a swirl, a practice run for Thanksgiving, a simulation of an Ironman mass swim start. I plunged my hands into my green rubber gloves and my green rubber gloves into the dish water. Margy cooked like mad and kept a steady stream of pots, pans, dishes, bowls, knives, forks, spoons, cutting boards and odd utensils coming my way. We laughed, ate, washed dishes, watched football, ate, laughed, washed dishes and repeated.

Here is how we celebrated my 58th, my brother in law Rick’s 57th and Marcus’s 25th birthdays on the day before my 29th Twin Cities Marathon.

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My niece’s boyfriend, Matt Wiegand, would race Twin Cities, too. He had trained very hard all summer. He wanted to qualify to run the Boston Marathon in April 2018. He would need to run fast. For men his age, 24, he needed to run at least a 3:05:00, something that I could scarcely remember being young enough to do.

Our family feared that maybe Katie, Matt and I lacked proper motivation. They figured that signs could change that.

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My niece, Harper, is eight. My nephew, Davis, is 11. Kids get snide earlier than in my day. 

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Obvious but to the point.

 

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Requires explanation?

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My favorite.

Sleep

I slept poorly the night before the race. I envisioned Katie about three strides ahead looking over her shoulder. I felt unable to close the gap. I heard myself telling Katie to go ahead. I could see her look back, turn to face ahead, then press on without me.

Perfect

For reasons unexplained, save for two races, one very hot and the other very rainy, the Twin Cities Marathon weekend has attracted perfect weather. Sunday, October 9, 2016, offered no exception. The sun rose and colored the downtown buildings pink and orange. The sky directly overhead shone bright blue and the air sat still in the upper 30’s. Katie and I walked up to Matt in the start corral. He’s tall. He wasn’t hard to find. We wished him good luck, then walked back to join runners of our expected pace. The announcer said “four minutes.” Katie and I took our jackets and threw them to the side of the street to be collected for charity. We wore singlets, shorts, baseball hats and cheap cotton gloves. I wasn’t sure if I shivered from the cold or the excitement.

The horn sounded. We crossed the start line a few seconds later, then began to run.

After a few blocks, the field spread enough that Katie could run beside me.

“How do you feel, Dad?” she asked.

I paused for just a second and said, “I feel really, really good.” And I did.

State of mind

I knew the state of mind I wanted to cultivate. Many people believe that athletic performance depends upon a fierce mind, a mind that makes your jaw jut out, your teeth clench, your fists harden and your muscles contract. I am sure that works for some people in some sports. For most people in most sports, one optimally cultivates a relaxed, focused mind. I knew that I needed to concentrate on what I was doing but not so hard that it increased stress. I wanted to pay careful attention to my breath – and to Katie’s – so that neither of us developed a deficit. What we needed to do was to find a sustainable state of mind and exertion. We needed to cast everything else aside and slide along the razor’s edge of running as fast as we could, no faster.

Naturally, the world we passed intruded. Both Katie and I were moved, almost to tears, by the pealing bells of the Basilica of St. Mary on Hennepin Avenue. The pack of runners at that early point bobbed along in close quarters and the soft sound of their shoes striking the pavement, the runners’ deep breaths, were sounds I could hear along with the bells. Steaming breath pulsed from the runners in front of us, passing over their shoulders, illuminated white by the bright sun at our backs.

As Katie and I pulled to the right at the five mile water stop to collect paper cups to drink, a woman ran in and clipped my heels, speeding by between me and the volunteers handing out the cups.

“Stay off my feet,” I said.

“Don’t slow down,” she replied.

“It’s a water stop,” I said, emphasizing the word “stop.”

I offered a sincere assessment of her intelligence but that did not appear to inspire contrition.

“Look at her run and how she is dressed, Dad,” Katie said. “I think that we’ll see her later.” (Assuming that my prior 79 marathons had water stops every two miles, she stomped on my feet while I ran through my 1,028th marathon water stop.)

Team Ross, Ross, Ross, etc. met us near the six mile mark, our family’s 29th rendezvous at that very place.

After picturing running away from a singing Justin Bieber, I don’t remember too many details. I told Katie about upcoming turns and instructed her to work to the right or left sides of the course so that we would follow the shortest route.  As the race progressed, I stopped saying what to do and just gestured left or right. Katie configured her running watch to provide current pace. In 2015, we had averaged 7:44 miles, so this year Katie consulted her watch and, if our pace exceeded 7:45 per mile, Katie would say, “A little hot, Dad.” I’d slow down but within a minute or two, Katie would repeat, “A little hot, Dad.” During the entire run, Katie never once said that we should speed up.

At 13 miles, I took my first and only look at a wristband marked with race splits we needed to run so that Katie could qualify for the Boston Marathon. We were about 10 minutes ahead after 13 miles – about half way. For comparison, we were nine minutes ahead in 2015 after 19 miles. At just about this time, the 3:15 marathon pace group passed us very slowly. If we stuck with them, which we did not intend to do, we would beat our goal time by 20 minutes. The pace team leader for the 3:15 group held a stick with four balloons. For several miles thereafter, I watched those balloons creep ahead of us ever so very slowly, meaning that we were holding a pace only a tiny bit slower than 20 minutes ahead of our goal.

“A little hot, Dad,” Katie said again. I couldn’t help chasing the balloons.

Near mile 17, West River Road rimmed the Mississippi River. The trees cast deep shade. The temperature had risen into the 50’s but the shade felt good. We were working hard. An older woman stood alone beside the road. She “cheered.”

“Go,” she said monotonously. “You look amazing.” She sounded like a somnambulistic robot.

“Severe caffeine deficiency,” I offered.

Katie giggled.

“Tragic. Don’t let it happen to you.”

Katie said that she had seen the effects for herself and would be careful.

A couple of miles later, we crossed the Franklin Avenue Bridge and looked south along the chasm formed by the Mississippi River. The river banks stood completely enmeshed in hardwoods just beginning to turn from green to yellow, red and orange.

Soon enough, we passed the woman who clipped my feet at the five mile water stop. She had tied her heavy clothing to her waist and plodded along. I didn’t see her. Katie neglected to mention it to me. Katie said that we were going fast enough that the woman was easy to miss.

Marcus met us at the bottom of the marathon’s steepest hill. Katie and I pushed. Once we crested the hill, we felt gassed. There was Marcus again, looking rested, tanned and ready. Once I caught my breath, I asked Katie if she would mind if I punched Marcus in the nose for being so much faster than we were. She didn’t hesitate to agree: it was an excellent idea. (Did I mention that fatigue in a marathon makes some people irritable?)

Once on Summit Avenue, it was easy to get caught up in either the grandeur of St. Paul’s most prestigious, mansion lined street or the fact that we were climbing up a steady grade for nearly two miles. What mansions?

Shortly after passing the intersection with Snelling Avenue, Katie and I heard surf music. It was the Zingrays, a band that has played at the same spot on the course for decades. As we passed the guitar player, I waved. He nodded. We reached the top of the hill. It was almost all downhill from there. But it wasn’t easy.

The temperature hadn’t reached 60 but Katie and I sought the little shade offered on the south side of the street. I was not sure if we had slowed down or if Katie had grown weary of scolding. She said “A little hot” occasionally but began to omit “Dad” from the sentence, the economy reflecting our fatigue. We became very quiet and stopped looking at one another, choosing to look straight ahead. We managed a weak nod or wave when Marcus swooped in to encourage us.

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Late in the race on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. I am inviting Marcus closer so that I can punch him in the nose for running so much faster than we could. He declined.

We turned slightly left. The road dipped. The James J. Hill Mansion appeared on our right. I pointed to the top of the St. Paul Cathedral. Less than half a mile to go. The downhill steepened sharply. My thighs hurt. “A little hot, Dad.”

The street bottomed out on a bridge over Interstate 94 and turned slightly uphill. We felt that. The capitol building looked very white and very close. Less than 200 yards to go. We pressed hard.

At 50 yards from the finish line, Katie and I held out our hands. We clasped hands, crossed the line together, stopped, looked at our watches, then hugged.

My watch said “3:18:35.”

“That’s really good,” I said. I meant it.

Katie had qualified for the Boston Marathon by more than 16 minutes. (We learned later that she had finished in the top three percent of women age 22-29.)

Found

Whatever I had lost in Madison four weeks earlier, I felt that I had found again somewhere near the Basilica of St. Mary. Maybe it was the bells that helped me get it back.

The graph that I described to begin this post features two lines. The line moving from upper left to lower right represents Katie. As she grows older, her marathon times will decrease – four minutes from 2015 to 2016. The other line, the one that runs from lower left to upper right represents me. As I grow older, my marathon times will rise. This is inevitable, inescapable. But in 2015 and 2016, those two lines, Katie’s and mine, converged. During two races run one year apart, we ran every stride together. My line intersected hers and we both ran just a little bit faster, probably because we are better together than we are separately. Eventually, Katie will need to go up the road without me. It’s inevitable but an eventuality that I will deal with well. Tomorrow. Or maybe next year. Almost certainly by the year after…

So for one October day in each of 2015 and 2016, my sources of pride converged. We ran well. We were together. It was a sunny day.

Another Marcus gets the last word:

Of all nature’s gifts to the human race, what is sweeter to a man than his children? -Marcus Tullius Cicero, statesman, orator, writer (106-43 BCE)

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Katie and Scott after showers and therapeutic application of pizza.

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Team Ross, Ross, Ross, etc. showing inspirational artwork. Front: Harper Cope, Davis Cope. Rear: Katie, Scott and Matt Wiegand, whose 2:58 marathon was way more than good enough for an April 2018 rendezvous in Hopkinton. 

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Obligatory photo of Katie with Marcus to demonstrate that I did not punch him in the nose after all. I couldn’t catch him. 

Thanks to Lynn, Tom, Davis and Harper Cope; the increasingly civil Nancy aka “Nanna” or “Mom” Ross; Ann, Rick and Sarah Long; Matt Wiegand and Marcus Schneider. Extra special thanks to Margy Ross for her superhuman hosting, navigation and driving with scant regard for traffic laws aka “guidelines” on race day. Our family’s support on race day is just the tip of the iceberg. Katie and I are so very, very grateful for the love and support of our family and friends every day – usually without handmade posters.

Postscript: The official Twin Cities Marathon race results for 2016 list Katie’s finish time as 3:18:36 and my time as 3:18:35. Keep trying, Katie. Maybe someday…

1970

Dustin Hoffman starred in the movie “Little Big Man.” His character, Jack, looked back on his life as a 121 year-old. Jack came west as a settler, was raised as a Cheyenne, tried his hand at gunfighting and medicine shows, scouted for the cavalry, experimented with the hermit life, was married twice, survived Custer’s Last Stand, and sat at the foot of an old Indian man, Old Lodge Skins, who instructed him in the Cheyenne view of creation. The movie bounced around in time as Jack told his own story.

In the movie’s last scene, Jack was still a young man accompanying. One day, Old Lodge Skins dressed in full chief’s regalia and declared that, “It is a good day to die.” The two walked to a serene Indian burial ground on the spectacular plains. Old Lodge Skins laid down on his back facing the darkening skies, determined to die a solemn, noble death. In only a short time, his face relaxed. He laid completely still, quiet, peaceful. His spirit appeared to have departed.

Then, almost as if the heavens grew heavy and sad, it began to rain. First, a few drops, then steadily. As the rain picked up, Old Lodge Skins’ eyelids twitched when struck by rain drops. Finally, he sighed heavily and opened his eyes.

He looked up and said, “Some days the magic works; some days it doesn’t.”

The two decided to go get something to eat.

Saturday, August 27th, two weeks and one day before

For my last long workout before Ironman Wisconsin, I needed to ride my bike five hours, fifteen minutes, then run an hour. I began indoors on my trainer for an hour or so, waiting until the sun rose. I checked my iPhone weather app before riding outside. There was a chance of rain at 8:00 or so but otherwise it looked cloudy and cool. The pavement was dry so I headed for Watertown, Minnesota, about 30 miles away. With about ten miles to go, it began to rain – softly, at first. Then the rain intensified. By the time I reached my favorite Watertown convenience store, it was a downpour and about 63 degrees. I hurried through my stop to get back on my bike. I needed to ride hard to stay warm. It didn’t work. As furiously as I pedaled, I couldn’t stay warm. Rain pelted my helmet and sunglasses with a plastic thudding sound.

Somewhere between Watertown and home, I was in trouble. I was losing heat, shivering and saw no place to take shelter. I tried to figure out whether to call Margy or divert to a friend’s house nearby. The rain let up a little and I pedaled harder. By the time I neared the Twin Cities, I was still shivering but getting warmer. In the end, the rain stopped, I pedaled home, dried off and headed out for a run.

Friday, September 9th, two days before

The Friday before the 15th annual Ironman Wisconsin was chilly and rainy. Katie, Margy and I drove across western Wisconsin under a pewter sky, spray blowing onto our windshield from tractor trailers we passed on the hills overlooking long, green valleys.

Once safely checked in to our hotel, I went to the Monona Terrace conference center to stand in line for an hour and honored a long tradition. At Ironman races, athletes need to weigh in. The medical staff needs to know athletes’ state of dehydration if they require medical attention during the race or shortly after finishing. (One year, I lost 13 pounds before entering the medical tent. I received medical attention.) In the basement of Monona Terrace, volunteers weighed each competitor and wrote the weight on an emergency information card. Each year, however, I asked not to be told my weight. Despite being pretty scrawny, I just didn’t want to know if I had excess weight to haul around 140.6 miles.

The volunteer who weighed me complied with my request and passed me to another volunteer who verified my information. The second volunteer showed me my weight, almost exactly what I weighed as a sophomore in high school.

I returned to our hotel room and began to lay out my gear. I sorted gear into bags for each of the swim to bike and bike to run transitions. I removed my wetsuit to hang it up. When turning the wetsuit right side out, I noticed a big tear at the bottom of the zipper on the back. It was a very bad spot, the place that the wetsuit most needed to be strong. Margy encouraged me to return to the expo to see if I needed a new wetsuit and, if so, to buy one from a friend there.

My friend had ceased to work for the wetsuit company but a nice young man helped me. We looked at several wetsuits, including my torn 14 year-old wetsuit. Not surprisingly, he thought I had gotten my money’s worth from the old suit and encouraged me to try on several of his wetsuits, each of which was on sale for 40% off as it was near the end of the season. The young man sized me up as a “small tall.”

I tried on one suit, then another, then back to the first suit again, each time enlisting the young man’s help to ensure proper fit. After a half hour of wrestling myself into and out of skin tight wetsuits, I was a sweaty mess but I had a wetsuit that felt right.

I turned to the young man and asked, “How’s it look?”

“It looks like you could use another meal,” he opined.

He got the sale anyway.

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When I was in grade school, our family doctor once called me “Groceries.”

For our 14th Ironman Wisconsin weekend, Margy, Katie and I wanted to try someplace new for Friday night dinner. Margy hailed an Uber. The driver pulled up almost instantly. He spoke exuberantly with an accent I couldn’t quite identify. When he learned that I intended to compete in the Ironman that Sunday, he gushed.

“I adore you!”

Margy, Katie and I later agreed that he probably meant that he “admired” me but I was not eager to correct adoration.

Saturday, September 10, one day before

I woke up early, really early, but the girls slept. I sat in a chair quietly trying to calm myself. Though it was to be my 18th Ironman, I felt almost crippled by nervousness. It happened every year and anticipating my 18th Ironman felt no more comfortable or familiar than anticipating my first. Maybe I was worried about performing well. Maybe I was worried about disappointing my family. Maybe I was worried that this would finally be the year that the challenge would be just a little bigger than my ability and that I would not finish.

It grew light enough to ride so I grabbed my bike and sneaked out. I rode up Martin Luther King Drive and onto Capitol Square where people were setting up stands for the Farmers’ Market. Spring rolls, squash, cheese, flowers – people quietly unloaded the contents of their trucks and arranged displays in the gray early morning light.

I rode down State Street beside darkened windows. Only a handful of people passed. It felt quiet and still like only a college town can early on a weekend morning. It began to mist, then the mist built to rain. I looked down at a bead of water that encircled my front tire. With a sizzling sound, the tire drew water from the pavement and flung it 360 degrees. I turned back toward the hotel. The Farmers’ Market people had put on their raincoats and scrunched up their shoulders. They kept working.

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On Saturday afternoon, I dropped off my bike and transition bags. I ran into this guy, Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman. When he says, “You’re an Ironman,” you are.

I nursed my nerves through the rest of the morning and by the afternoon, the sky had cleared. I rode a bike beside Katie as she ran ten miles in preparation for the Twin Cities Marathon coming up four weeks later. We planned to run together and hoped that we could qualify once again for the Boston Marathon. Katie’s stride looked smooth and strong. I had no doubts that she was ready.

At the south end of Lake Monona, Katie and I stood at the top of a hill overlooking the swim course, buoys stretching toward the brilliant white Capitol dome in the distance. The sky was royal blue with a few puffy white clouds. The wind whipped the water into a chop. A few people swimming looked like pulsing specks of white bobbing on the waves.

My sister Ann and brother-in-law Rick showed up about the time Katie completed her run. Margy and Rick marshaled a computer and several maps to figure out places to see me on the new bike course, not an insignificant task. Margy was reluctant to see me fewer times than the previous year’s all time record, 44 times during the 140.6 mile, 12 hour day. The planning session lasted nearly two hours. I hoped not to slow down so much that I made their job easier.

Our niece Sarah and her boyfriend Matt showed up in time for dinner. It was subdued and I headed for bed even earlier than my very early usual. As customary for the night before an Ironman, I slept poorly.

Sunday, September 11, the day of

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5:15 a.m. after dropping off my “special needs” bag for the halfway point on the bike.

Katie accompanied me to the parking lot atop Monona Terrace, something she did first when she was ten years old. It was quiet except for the gas motor generators powering portable lights. Volunteers marked race numbers on our upper arms, ages on our calves. In the background, Mike Reilly spoke calmly, reassuringly over the PA system.

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The racers think that Ironman is about them and, it is, partially. It is also about the two thousand or so volunteers who absolutely rock the day, year after year. I do adore her.  

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Year after year, there is no peer: Team Rossman. Rick Long, Ann Long, Scott “Groceries” Ross, Margy, Katie, Sarah Long and Matt Wiegand. 

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Strangest thing: The University of Minnesota, The University of Chicago and Grinnell College all called practically simultaneously. They want their degrees back. 

My family rendezvoused near the swim start. We took a few pictures, then I gathered Katie and Margy to walk me toward the swim start. Once the crowd became impassably dense, we hugged, said that we loved one another. Goodbye. Katie and I did our customary hand slap routine from the movie “The Parent Trap” and I inched toward the arch over the entry to the water. The music blared. No one talked. I looked down and saw only wetsuit legs and bare feet until I stepped into the lake. My heart pounded so hard I thought that it showed through my new wetsuit. Then I pushed off the squishy lake bottom. I took my first swim stroke, then another. I felt calmer. I put my head down and looked at the green lake bottom as I developed a rhythm. Soon, I found myself bobbing with approximately 2,700 other wetsuit clad triathletes waiting to start, all intending to go the very same place at the very same time in just a few minutes.

Mike Reilly encouraged everyone to remember September 11, 2001. A firefighter sang the National Anthem. Someone fired a cannon and 2,700 people began to thrash. Despite having survived 17 prior Ironman starts, I can’t adequately explain the chaos of a mass swim start. Everyone should have gone the same direction but people veered a little one way or the other and collided.  An arm landed on top of my  back. Two swimmers on either side converged and I was stuck with nowhere to put my arms into the water. People kicked me all over, but fortunately this year, not in the face. It was hard not to swallow a little water and, for brief moments, I felt as though I might drown. That got my complete attention. It was terrifying but only for a second or two before I recovered my composure.

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The boiling throng heads toward the first turn.

Several hundred yards into the race, I was getting along pretty well. The worst of the crowd scene had sorted itself out. Then a swimmer lodged himself firmly on my back, his chest resting slightly below my behind. I took a couple of strokes but he seemed satisfied to stay where he was. So I bent my right knee and felt back with my foot. I placed the ball of my foot firmly but gently on his sternum. Once so placed, I pushed off hard. I felt his chest lift out of the water and ceased to feel him on my legs or feet. I wasn’t unhappy.

Upon exiting the water, my time was more than three minutes slower than my swim the year before. So much for the new wetsuit.

On the bike, Katie told me that I had exited the water in 17th position in my age group. Usually, I had finished the swim somewhere between sixth and eighth. I felt pretty  discouraged and that mood lingered through the first lap of the 112 mile bike course. How could I have been so slow?

On the second lap of the bike, I recovered my equanimity and rode as fast as my pencil thighs allow. (Translation: Not fast.) I enjoyed the strong tailwind and brilliant sunshine for the last 16 or so miles of the ride. I felt like I had set up a good run.

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I made good time on the first lap of the run and my family let me know that I was gaining ground on my age group competitors. Still, I was placed somewhere in the teens within the 55-59 age group and I was not passing many of my peers. At the turnaround heading out onto the second lap, I felt like I could picture the rest of the run, all of it. I needed only to be patient, not to want to be anywhere else or to want to go faster than I could steadily run. The turnaround point at the top of Capitol Hill marked a place I usually had felt tired during prior races. But it was different this time. I felt good.

At about mile 16, on a long downhill slope with shade and a nice breeze, I suddenly ran out of gas. I just didn’t have what I needed to keep running. I mentally ticked off a list of possible explanations: Maybe I had not drunk enough water and had become dehydrated. Maybe my weight had been a little low and my long endurance fat burning capacity may have been compromised. Maybe I had not taken in enough calories from the concentrate bottles strapped to my waist. (Later that evening, when Margy took those bottles from my belt, she noted that I had left about an hour’s worth of concentrate there despite having carefully planned for four hours of nutrition. Little wonder I might have not had enough energy.)

It might also have been mental. Maybe I just ceased to see the point. Why was I beating myself to death if I wasn’t even going to crack the top ten? I began to walk.

I felt bad when my family saw me walking. Katie tried to rally me, to give me permission to walk a while, then to regroup but I kind of felt finished. She walked with me for a while and I ran some but did not sustain the effort. I was not a very communicative dad and spent most of my time looking down at the pavement.

From that place, I ran and walked about eight miles, breaking into a full run at the 25 mile mark. I could not face walking during the last 1.2 miles.

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I like to finish with the sun a bit higher in the sky.

 

I ran down the finish chute, saw my family and leaned heavily onto the volunteer “catchers,” the guys who propped up finishers to make sure that we were OK and get us through the finish area without falling. I needed their help for just a minute, then felt strong enough to keep walking. I refused to have my picture taken and walked toward the hotel. It struck me that I had not even looked at the clock when I finished. It could have taken me 12:30 to finish, I thought. Then I heard Mike Reilly announce that the 12 hour mark had just passed. So it had been a bit better than I had feared but I still felt ashamed for walking so much.

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There for me at the start; there for me at the end. Ironman 18. Rick, Ann, Katie, Groceries, Margy, Sarah and Matt. This was the 42nd time that they saw me on race day!

 

Tuesday, September 13th, two days later

I was only interested in eating a mix of caramel and cheese popcorn. We got it at Costco. It was a big bag. It was a lot to eat but I was not discouraged.

Monday, September 19, eight days later in Sydney, Australia

“Is that the first time you have looked at your results?” Margy asked.

“Yup.”

“I’m surprised, Margy said.

Often, after finishing an Ironman, I wanted to see the results even before they were in. In 2016, it had taken me eight days to get the nerve to even look.

In blog posts from years past, I have not recited the numbers for fear that I would sound as if I was bragging. Since the numbers this year helped me make excuses, I felt differently. 2016 was my fourth year in a five year age group. Of the 13 guys who finished ahead of me in our age group, 10 were in their first year (55 year-olds in the 55-59 age group). One was in his second year. Three of us in the top 14 were in our fourth year. I was the last of those three. Younger competitors appeared to enjoy an advantage.

The finishers ahead of me in my age group weren’t just young, they were very fast. Even on my best day, I could not have positioned myself for Kona and had little chance to place top five.

There were 154 in our age group and, as the 14th finisher, I was inside the top ten percent, not a disaster but far short of my hopes and expectations. In my age group, I had placed 3rd in 2011, 3rd in 2014 and 4th in 2015 at Ironman Wisconsin.

All this said, it troubled me that I dedicated so much time to training and yet so poorly managed my nutrition and my emotions. A better mental game would have dramatically improved my result. Why wasn’t I smarter after 17 prior Ironman finishes?

I could go on but I won’t. It was a disappointment, not a disaster, and there will be a next year and, I hope, a year after that. That disappointment whet my appetite to improve.

Thursday, September 22, 11 days later, somewhere in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia

The sky had darkened to steel gray over the Sydney harbor. The wind picked up and it began to drizzle onto the palm trees. Several birds picked at the grass.

I had read something recently that said we understand our lives in retrospect but need to live our lives looking forward. I was still thinking about Ironman Wisconsin, trying to understand it and to frame it within my life. I realized that I am most proud of two things: the results I have helped to achieve as a parent and my endurance athletic accomplishments.

Of course, I was very proud of all of my family, not just Katie. But I didn’t think that I had much to do with the rest of my family’s educations, careers, spouses or raising their children. I counted myself part of a good lot but couldn’t take credit for all that my family had accomplished.

Academic degrees and distinctions, jobs and other stuff that should have made me prouder than qualifying for Kona or running a 2:37 marathon didn’t. Maybe my retrospective understanding was not so sound but there it was.

For the past 11 days, I had been working the numbers pretty hard to make myself feel good about Ironman Wisconsin. That I had walked so much of the marathon spoiled satisfaction I might have taken from finishing in the top ten percent of my age group. Was it dehydration, lack of nutrition or just missing the spirit to keep running? I didn’t know.

At almost 58 years old, I realized that I needn’t state excuses. No one expected me to be who I once was in the water, on the bike or in my sneakers. But I also realized that I wanted to keep going and did not really know how to frame it.

When I rode beside Katie in Madison, I told her that I kept doing Ironman for one reason: I didn’t know how to quit. Walking in the Royal Botanic Gardens halfway across the world, I still didn’t know how and had no intention of doing so. As I stick with it, I hoped to do so gracefully, accepting the inevitable diminution of my abilities. It was graceless to complain if I could still finish an Ironman. Best to enjoy memories of past accomplishments and occasional modest triumphs to come. Most importantly, I needed to appreciate what I had, not to dwell upon what I had lost. Let the disappointments go. I hoped to keep firmly in mind how lucky I had been.

Up next: Twin Cities Marathon 2016 with Katie. It will be my 29th TCM and 80th marathon.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

My Boston Marathon story from 2016 requires a bit more patience than my usual blog posts. Paul Revere, my dad, Walter Payton, two high school boys from Harlan, Iowa, and Katie make appearances here that I hope will make sense by the end. Here goes.

Our New Car. Nelson Pontiac called. Our new car would be ready Monday. Dad had ordered a white 1967 Pontiac Catalina station wagon with blue vinyl seats, AM radio and air conditioning similar to the one pictured above. Dad always liked a fresh new car. We looked forward to picking it up.

Monday was cool, clear and sunny in Harlan, Iowa, population 5,000. I don’t remember the day in Mrs. Howe’s second grade class or hearing the fire whistle blow 15 minutes after I got home. Harlan had a volunteer fire department and in 1967, a siren downtown on top of the fire station summoned firemen. Pretty much everyone in town knew when there was a fire.

My dad, Bob, worked at a small bank owned by another family in town. The bank backed onto an alley adjacent to the fire station. When he heard the siren, Dad would have stood up from his desk, walked quickly toward the back door, unlocked the two deadbolts, and hustled down the stairs into the alley, then run with his distinctive gait less than 40 yards before rounding the corner and stepping into the 1930s-era brick fire station next to city hall.

Missing a right leg, Dad used a prosthetic. His license barred him from driving a car without automatic transmission but if he was the first one onto a truck, Dad got into the driver’s seat, started the engine, turned on the lights, cued the siren, depressed the clutch, shifted into gear and made sure that everyone held on.

As Dad’s truck left the station, I am not sure he knew what awaited at the small white house a few blocks south of “The Square,” Harlan’s one square block downtown area. A woman had been ironing clothes. She took a break for just a few minutes to go out to her garden to water a rose. She could keep an eye on the house from there. But by the time she noticed the smoke, flames engulfed her house. Her three year-old, two year-old and twin infants were taking a nap in the bedroom.

It was just about 3:40 p.m. and two boys walking home from the World War I-era brick high school came to the burning house. One of the boys’ mothers stood outside and said, “Clinton, there’s babies in there!”

A neighbor supplied a fire extinguisher. The trapped children’s mother pointed to the room where they had been sleeping. The boys, Clinton and Brent Petersen, made one trip in and brought out the three year-old girl and laid her in the grass. They returned once again and brought out the two year-old boy, laying him in the grass. By the time the boys returned to find the infant twin boys, the heat was too intense, the smoke too thick. Clinton and Brent crawled out of the house, lucky to have made it out alive.

The two and three-year old kids laid in the grass, unconscious as the fire trucks and ambulance arrived.

One of the firemen put on a respirator, fireproof coat, pants, boots and helmet and tried to crawl across the floor to get to the infants’ room. He didn’t make it. The heat was too intense. He crawled back out. Another tried and achieved the same result.

My dad volunteered. He took off his leg and put on the fireproof gear, the respirator. The other firemen tied a rope around his waist. If Dad had gotten into trouble, the other firemen would have used the rope to pull him out. Dad could also have followed the rope to return the same way he had come through the smoke and flames. Dad crawled into the house and hugged the floor.

The 120th Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon stands for a lot of things. Runners think that it is about them and it is, partially.

Paul Revere. The Boston Marathon runs on Patriots’ Day, a holiday celebrating the battles of Lexington and Concord. For those of you Longfellow fans, his poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride”immortalized Revere’s midnight ride through the streets of Boston to alert the city to the British troops’ approach preceding those battles.

Spring. The Boston Marathon marks the arrival of spring in one of America’s most historic cities – and a day off of school for kids. Without a school holiday, it might not be possible to haul so many runners from Boston Common to Hopkinton and the starting line. Hundreds of school buses, buses as far as you can see, line up to take runners the 26 or so miles west to the runners’ village near Hopkinton High School, which certainly can’t operate with 28,000 runners on its grounds, helicopters flying overhead and snipers on the roof.

Qualify. Qualifying for Boston represents many runners’ highest personal athletic aspiration, a chance to number among the relative few who can run the qualifying times for respective ages and genders.

2013. In 2013, Boston’s finish line was also the site of one of our country’s worst incidents of domestic terrorism. The chaos that ensued immediately following the explosions and in the several days following riveted the world’s attention. As we walked toward the expo to pick up my race number on the Friday preceding the race, we passed an empty storefront. Daffodils in pots lined the storefront and a handwritten sign on the darkened window said simply, “No More Hurting People.” A few people paused to look at the flowers just beginning to bloom and small memorials to people who were injured or died on that very spot. People remember.

The story of the Boston Marathon weaves these themes together – achievement, history, community, tragedy, healing. If sport can provide a venue for heroism, Boston seems like the place.

Heroes According to an App. The Boston Marathon, predictably, has an app for cell phones. It offers a paperless way to keep track of marathon weekend activities and to follow individual runners’ progress along the course on race day. To follow a runner, app users enter information on their participant in a section of the app entitled “My Heroes.”

A New Midnight Ride. A couple of Katie’s friends participated in a hybrid marathon-midnight ride event the night before the marathon. At midnight, a group of bike riders took off from the start line in Hopkinton and followed the course all the way to the finish line. I am not certain if they shouted that the “British are coming” or  just shut up and rode. The extremely early morning pancake breakfast near the marathon finish line has no known historical antecedent.

Race Morning. Margy, Katie and I returned to Boston Common early on race morning. It was the same place we had seen Katie and her friends run the BAA 5K the preceding Saturday. We snapped a few photos and I boarded a school bus. Our bus driver, Sandy, gave us an extremely thorough safety briefing. She pointed out the first, second, third and fourth choice means to get out of the bus if something bad happened. I couldn’t tell if the briefing derived from heightened vigilance since 2013.

Heather from Gettysburg sat by me. Heather was 4’10”, a PE teacher with two kids. We talked for the entire hour as the bus rolled toward Hopkinton, mostly about our kids. The conversation paused for a few moments as I looked out the bus window onto the Charles River and all of the local college rowing teams gliding along the course of the Head of the Charles Regatta that Katie had rowed for four years at Bowdoin. I bragged on Katie and hoped again that parental pride is only a venal sin, not a mortal one.

Once delivered to the runners’ village, Heather and I found a spot on a grassy lawn about the size of a football field ringed entirely by porta-potties. We continued our conversation as the sun rose warm and bright in a clear blue sky. I shed the garbage bag that had kept me warm on the walk to the buses, then my hooded sweatshirt, then my long-sleeve tee shirt. Sitting in my singlet and shorts, I began to perspire.

When called on the PA system, I said goodbye to Heather and dutifully made my way across a parking lot and down a quarter mile hill toward the start area along with a sea of synthetic-clad people. (I was in the second of four waves of approximately 7,000 each.) We sauntered down the hill toward yet another galactic complex of porta-potties. Last chance. I jogged to the far corner of the parking lot to take advantage of the shortest lines. All of my experience at running marathons had been good for something.

Corralled. I stepped into my corral, about 1,000 runners grouped according to qualifying time. I heard the starting gun sound a thud over the crest of the hill about 300 yards ahead. Then we just stood there. It took more than a minute before we even began to walk while 5,000 runners ahead crept toward, then across, the start line.

Finally Running. Of the run, I remember relatively little of note. Only about four miles into the race, I noticed a very fit looking woman on the side of the road sobbing inconsolably. Another fit looking woman hugged the crying woman. It appeared that the crying woman’s day was over almost before it had started. I wasn’t sure why.

Hello? Shortly after passing the crying woman, I experienced a personal marathon first. A woman said in a very snippy voice, “No, I am not talking to myself. I am talking on the phone.” Apparently, a runner near her thought that she was the marathon equivalent of a crazy bag lady conducting a monologue with herself. The lady held the microphone attached to her headphones up to her mouth and resumed her conversation. “Meet me at the 20 mile mark,” she said. I sighed and felt glad that she wasn’t texting.

Sweet Caroline. The sun felt hot as we traced the course through the modest cities of Ashland and Natick. We heard the Fenway Park Red Sox game favorite, “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, several times.

The Path in Front of Me. While running, I couldn’t help thinking about the runners who had come before me. Years ago, runners wore leather-soled shoes and ran over unpaved roads. Of course, there was Johnny Kelley, a man who ran in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin, finished 58 Boston Marathons, won two, finished second seven times, finished in the top five 15 times and ran his last full Boston Marathon at age 84. Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (without wearing a race number) in the mid-60’s and Katherine Switzer was famous for trying to run the race with a number, then getting physically attacked by a marathon official trying to remove her from the course. Bill Rodgers won three straight, 1978, 1979 and 1980. Bowdoin College’s own Joan Benoit Samuelson won in 1979 and 1983, then went on to win the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984 in Los Angeles. If anyone deserved to wear laurels for running 26.2 miles, these people did.

Matter? So the Boston Marathon is, at least in part, about heroes, people whose ordinary lives ascend to higher planes, people whose names we know, whose accomplishments we admire. I admit that I felt just a bit ennobled by running the same streets as Boston Marathon immortals who had run before me. Just one problem: Does running marathons, no matter how fast, no matter how many, matter? Or at least does running fast or multiple marathons matter? If it doesn’t matter, why do people consider these – and other – athletes heroes? Put otherwise, who is a hero?

Wellesley. Running in the cool shade of the tall pine trees on the north side of the Wellesley College campus is one of my favorite places on the course. The Wellesley girls line the road and cheer loudly but sweetly. For some reason it reminded me of Guster’s version of “All the Way Up to Heaven” on “Lost and Gone Forever: Live.”

Back on the Marathon Course, Literally. Ironically, my entry into the city of Newton marked another personal marathon first. I found myself on my back looking straight up into the clear blue sky all the way up to heaven. It happened like this: While concentrating on running the inside line of a turn marked with tall traffic cones holding a plastic ribbon dividing spectators and runners, I neglected the heavy rubber feet on the bottoms of the cones. Those feet extended about eight or nine inches out from the bottoms of the orange cones. I must have clipped one of the bases with my left foot, then sprawled under the ribbon and onto the pavement. As I fell, I rolled onto my back. A few runners beside me gasped but kept running. A man, who I didn’t really see, came to my aid. He asked if I was OK. At first, I didn’t respond but finally said “yeah” when he asked again. Still kind of stunned, I just started running again. A woman held up the ribbon so that I could pass beneath and reenter the course. It happened that fast and I am very sorry that I didn’t thank the man for his help.

Brave. I thought a little more about heroes. To be a hero, I thought that you needed to do something brave. But that didn’t seem quite enough. (As you can tell, my running pace must not have been so fast; I had a lot of time to think.) Then I thought that to be a hero, someone needs both to do something brave and something that matters. Running a marathon is brave because you just know that it’s going to hurt but nothing much other than your comfort changes as a result of finishing a marathon. For instance, bungee jumping is brave but doing it really doesn’t produce any result that matters.

Persistence and Determination and Then What? Maybe people believe that the persistence and determination to run a marathon or an Ironman – or many marathons and Ironmans – would also make a person brave in a bad situation when action really matters. We’d look to them when the chips were down – raging rivers, burning buildings, the fog of intense battle, the works. Those with the fortitude to shine in intense, exhausting athletic pursuits should have the right stuff to do something heroic, something both brave and something that matters when the chance arises. For my part, I hope never to prove the assumption one way or the other. I hope never to encounter the burning house, freezing river, or world war, thank you.

No War for Dad. The military never wanted my dad’s help. The lack of a right leg made him “4F” and that always made him feel bad, maybe that much more so because his dad served in France during World War I. It was important to my dad’s generation to serve in the military whether in World War I, World War II or the Korean War. I have wondered whether Dad felt like he was robbed of the chance to be brave, maybe even a hero, while wearing a U.S. military uniform.

1967: Our Trip to Nelson Pontiac. It was starting to get late so I asked my mom if we were going to pick up the car that night. Mom said that we were. I said that I was excited and that Dad must have been excited, too. Mom said that Dad had had a very sad day. She said that the fire had been very bad, that two babies had died. She said that Dad had tried to save them but that he couldn’t. As an eight year-old, I couldn’t quite understand. I couldn’t imagine anything my dad couldn’t do.

We went to Dairy Queen that night. Dad was especially quiet. I asked Dad about the fire. He told me about putting on all of his gear. He told me about the rope. Then he told me about crawling along the floor. It was a small house. He knew exactly where he needed to go. He knew exactly what he needed to do. But he said that he couldn’t make it through the heat. He couldn’t see anything through the smoke. The fire was burning all around him. He said that by the time he was trying to reach them, the babies may already have died.

Once the fire had been extinguished, my dad volunteered again, this time to recover the  two infants’ bodies. He and his friend carried the tiny bodies out of the blackened house.

I am not entirely sure how my dad felt when he gave Bill Nelson the keys to our old car and put his three kids, ages eight, almost five and almost two, into the back seat of his brand new station wagon. It was a pretty quiet drive as we returned to our house on the western edge of town, the sun slipping low into a clear Iowa sky.

Harlan to Boston. You may wonder how running the Boston Marathon made me think of my dad and a fire in Harlan, Iowa, 49 years ago. It’s a fair question.

Heroes create a path for the rest of us to follow. Maybe if we do something brave, something that matters, we will have followed our heroes’ examples. So here I was following the path run by Johnny Kelley, Bill Rodgers, Bobbi Gibb, Katherine Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson and thousands of others. Why this path? Did it matter?

Harlan Tribune, April 13, 1967. In 1967, nobody used a cell phone to video volunteer firefighters crawling into a burning house. Nothing there to “go viral,” though the local newspaper covered the fire including pictures of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation of the three year-old girl on the lawn and of the charred crib where the infants died. The story did not belabor the failed attempts to rescue the babies, though it did name the three firemen who entered the burning house with “breathing apparatus and lines even before the hoses.” To say more might have made my dad and the other firemen who unsuccessfully crawled into the flaming house feel even worse.

Our family didn’t subsequently discuss the fire. I think that the subject just made Dad feel sad. It’s hard to know how often he thought of that fire in the years following. I doubt he felt like much of a hero given the lack of discussion and the failure to save the twin babies. I can disagree with his conclusion now but it doesn’t do much good.

Walter Payton and Our Driveway. So 49 years have passed since that clear, spring day in Southwest Iowa. And it’s been more than 20 years since my dad died. Without a doubt, he was my hero. I also idolized Walter Payton. Inexplicably, the Chicago Bears neglected to draft me despite the fact that I lettered in football all four years at Grinnell College. I didn’t join Walter in the Bears’ offensive backfield. Their loss.

The long run from Hopkinton gave me time to ask how my heroes inspire me to live differently than I would have except for their example. Have I really followed their path? Maybe more importantly, what path have I left? What happens to someone who follows the rope that I trail behind? I don’t have good answers but one small remembrance has become habit.

34. Every time I do strength work – sit ups, lunges, squats – I count. Walter Payton wore “34” on his jersey so whenever I reached 34, I paused to remember him. I remembered how joyfully he played football, how when tackled especially hard, he bounced up, smiled, helped the tackler to his feet, patted him on the back, tossed the ball to the referee and trotted back to the huddle. I remembered Payton’s distinctive high-stepping gait as he neared the goal line. When he reached the end zone, he waited patiently for a teammate to arrive, then handed him the football, allowing his teammate to spike it. Football, even NFL football, for Walter Payton was joyful and generous.

After a time, I recognized that my ties to Walter Payton were not so strong as those to my dad. Maybe it would mean more to think of my dad when I reached the count of 34.  I remembered my dad saying over and over again how lucky he felt, how contented he would feel when he drove into the driveway of our white house with the big tree in the front yard and a healthy family in the car with him. Not many people would draw equivalence between my dad driving up our driveway and Walter Payton high-stepping into the end zone but I saw a similar joy, generosity and dignity, a strangely equivalent triumph.

Sometimes heroes don’t manage to pluck the drowning person from the rushing river or pull the person off the tracks before the train rolls through. To matter, do heroes need to succeed in what they set out to do? How many people do something really brave but don’t quite do what they set out to accomplish? I guess that heroes jump in, never quite knowing what will happen. I doubt Dad thought about the floor falling out from under him in the burning house and how it would have been if the three of us kids and Mom had to go pick up the new car without him.

So any time I do strength work now and count 34, I take a figurative tug on the rope and say to myself, “Bob’s boy.”

Finish. Margy and Katie saw me at the appointed spot on the course near the finish and I slogged in. My race had been neither immortal nor a disaster. I had just made it from start to finish, a privilege that I probably did not fully appreciate. After crossing the line, I looked back at the course and wondered what it would be like in a year to finish the race with Katie.

Postscript: The two and three year-old children rescued from the fire recovered. Clinton and Brent Petersen, the high school boys who rescued two of the four kids, became local heroes. The fire burned hot enough to melt light fixtures in the bedroom and kitchen. The house and all of its contents were a complete loss estimated to total $3,500. No home has been rebuilt on the site.

Photos from the weekend:

Upper left: Katie and Margy before Saturday morning’s BAA 5K.

Lower left: Marcus Schneider, Katie, Pete Edmunds and Taylor Stockton after the BAA 5K. Pete and Taylor did the midnight bike ride on the Marathon course.

Right: Me waving with a little less than a mile to go.

 

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Bob Ross in a painting by Katie Ross. From a photo taken circa 1979.

Thanks to Margy and Katie for making the weekend in Boston great, as always. Thanks, too, to Marcus Schneider, Pete Edmunds, Taylor Stockton, Luisa Lasalle and Emily Carr.

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Cloudy, cool.

Several weeks ago, I woke up for a four-hour training ride. I consulted a weather app on my phone. Fortunately, the app predicted a zero percent chance of precipitation.

I started early. The weather was cool and cloudy, humid. Not many people were up and about at that hour on a Saturday morning.

I had ridden about an hour and fifteen minutes when it began to rain, lightly at first. Then it rained softly but steadily. I rode to a sheltering overhang on a nearby auto dealership. The rain splattered in a straight line on the sidewalk beneath the edge of the roof above. I pulled out my phone to see how long the rain might last. Once again, the app promised a 0% chance of precipitation that morning. And for the next two hours and 30 minutes, the app proved to be 100% wrong.

The rain stopped for the last 15 minutes of my ride. Here is what my bike looked like after I arrived home.

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Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are probably right.” Henry Ford

For 2015, the Afton Trail Run implemented a new system. A web page showed who had entered both the 50K and 25K races. The pages displayed each participant’s name, age, and city of residence. The page also projected finish times based on each participant’s prior race history. Perhaps because I had not run the race last year, the page omitted to project my finish time, though it noted that I was 56 years old in an age group ranging from 50 to infinity.

The page offered a projected finish time for a relative youngster in my age group, an experienced ultra marathon runner who had just turned 50. The website predicted that he would finish 11 minutes faster than my best ever time on the course and faster than any other member of our age group. I figured that this guy (let’s call him the “Inevitable”) had ample time to stop to read the morning paper and still beat me with plenty of time to spare.

While I always enjoyed Afton, it had always been very difficult. The course followed trails on the eastern border of Minnesota overlooking the St. Croix River. The course traced a series of climbs and descents. The Afton 50K website said that the course offered 4,670 vertical feet of climbing. And, just as hard and maybe harder, the course offered 4,670 vertical feet of descending.

Saturday morning, July 4th, race day.

I woke up at 4:00, grabbed a little breakfast and began my hourlong drive to Afton. The sun rose blood orange over the horizon. Apparently, forest fires up in Canada had spread smoke into the upper atmosphere and made the sunrises and sunsets gorgeously dramatic.

When I got out of the car, dew dampened my feet as I wandered through runners milling around nervously near the start. John Maas, a farmer from Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, had pressed me pretty hard during at least two of our races at Afton. John and I greeted one another and looked around to see if we could spot the Inevitable. We did. He wore nice gear and a confident expression. It looked like we wouldn’t see him again until the picnic following the race.

The race director stood on a stepladder and addressed the 200 or so runners gathered there. He didn’t need to use a microphone. He got down from the stepladder and told us to go. The race had started. John and I began the steep downhill right out of the start running side-by-side. The pace was stupid fast. John and I watched the Inevitable pull away even as we ran far faster than we thought wise. We eased back.

As John and I ran, the course provided vistas every now and then looking out over the St. Croix River valley. A humid Minnesota summer morning sky rested bright but heavy. At a few places, we saw a few runners dotting the course in front of us. The Inevitable was visible, at least for the first few miles. After that, though, he was much too far ahead. I told John that I thought that we had seen the last of him.

We had plenty of time so John told me a story. Four years ago, when he was 50, John ran a 100 mile race. With 40 miles to go, he was eighth. He began to overtake people. With less than seven miles to go, John was second. A fan encouraged him. “You can do it!” the fan said. John said that, at the time, this irritated him. He laughed and said that you get a little grouchy after running 93 miles. (I wouldn’t know. I hope I never do.) Anyway, John poured himself into it. With a mile to go, John caught up with the guy in first place, passed him and went on to win his first big race.

John said that the lesson was for us to just “play our own game.”

“You never know,” he said, “maybe he will just come back to us. 50K is not that long a race but plenty can happen.” (I form friendships easily with people exhibiting peculiar views of the term “long.”)

At mile 21, we descended a steep, rocky slope down to the St. Croix River. I had been running ahead of John as we visited but the downhill hurt my thighs. John seemed unaffected and ran ahead, a few yards at first, then 50, then 100, then he was gone.

I didn’t feel so bad. John had the legs that morning and I didn’t. Even so, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged. The Inevitable was probably at least 10 minutes ahead and on his way to a course record. John would beat me, too. So I took what wisdom I could from the morning’s chat and just played my own game. I ran the downhills as fast as I could but it was often no faster than a walk. I ran most of the uphills but allowed myself to walk several, too. This is no sin in trail running; sometimes it is more efficient to walk uphill briskly. Most trail runners develop a knack for feeling the slope of an uphill and break into a fast walk once the slope steepens to a certain pitch.

Alone, I was left to ruminate. In the past, I could have run those hills, both up and down. I scolded myself and felt the sun beat down when I emerged from the woods into a treeless field overlooking the river. I let negative thoughts take control. I slowed down.

After plunging back into the woods, a runner approached from behind. We chatted for a few minutes, then I pulled over to let him by. It had felt good to have company and I had picked up the pace, even if I ultimately needed to let him pass.

Just about a mile from the finish I began to climb the last big hill on the course, a hill called “Meat Grinder.” (I needn’t explain the name.) I lifted my chin and looked up. The Inevitable’s back appeared about 100 yards ahead. He was walking, slowly. I swallowed hard and dug in, though I knew that if I came up on someone that late in the race that I could pass him easily. And I did.

The last several hundred yards stretched along a ridge with tall grass lining a narrow dirt path. The sun shone brightly, hot but moderated by a light breeze. I saw the tent over the timer’s table and heard music playing faintly for the people gathered near the finish line at the post-race picnic.

I crossed the line and received a vigorous handshake from the race organizer. John greeted me, too. He held the framed picture that each age group winner receives. We shook hands and he offered me a shoulder to steady myself.

I lost but felt happy. It would be hard to find anyone nicer than John. He had worked me very hard, not just that morning but during several prior races. I’d like to think that I pushed him a little bit, too. Maybe I helped him get to the finish line. I think that we helped each other. He deserved to win and I felt genuinely happy for him.

The Inevitable crossed the line not long after I had. He did not look so good. His friends and family gathered around to help. I felt sorry for him. He hadn’t bragged. Rather, he fell victim to a prediction that he did not make. An algorithm announced that he would trounce both John and me. So far as the website was concerned, the Inevitable really needn’t have shown up. This was a coronation – at least so far as the algorithm was concerned. By the looks of him at the finish, he should have taken the opportunity to phone this one in if that chance had been offered.

It’s embarrassing to admit that after 73 marathons or ultra marathons, I had so easily conceded defeat to an electronic system that predicted winners and losers. I had reconciled to losing before I started. I had feared that it would be pointless for me to show up; the Inevitable was going to beat me badly. Just as erroneous, I thought that I was likely to beat John once again. Instead, I think that John and I helped one another through friendly rivalry. I also wonder if the Inevitable paid any attention to the time the algorithm had predicted. If so, it was way too fast and blew him out before the final miles.

I learned (again) that you never know how things will come out, at least with respect to running a 31 mile race over big hills on a warm weekend. You still need to show up. Maybe if I had paid less attention to the algorithm and more attention to my own pace – played my own game – I would have raced much better. To be fair, I still lost, just as the algorithm would have predicted, but I lost to someone whom I greatly respect and admire – and probably someone that the algorithm would have said that I would have beaten again. Last Saturday, though, both the algorithm and I were wrong: John had the legs and he ran away from all of us. In the end, I think that John just had a feeling deep inside his chest and he pushed hard when it got really tough. I doubt that there is an algorithm to reliably predict that.

Even at age 56, I’m still competitive. I want to win. But maybe it is an encouraging sign that I can feel so happy to see one of my competitors beat me. I might not have felt that way even just a year or two ago. I was OK with it on July 4th, though, and may need to adapt to that perspective more as time goes on. I want my good days of racing but I hope to be gracious in acknowledging others who are just better than I am that day. That’s racing. That’s life.

Maybe next year I won’t check to see who else enters Afton. That way I won’t have the opportunity to believe my own press one way or another. Instead, maybe I will just show up and hope to run with John Maas as long as I can – or as long as he can run with me. If that happens, it will be a good day no matter who wins. And I will believe what I feel inside my chest.

There are some things that you can look up using Google and feel confident in the answer. There are some things that you can’t. I’m not sure that there is a firm rule to distinguish when to believe Google and when not. Maybe if the result depends on somebody’s heart and determination, I had best exercise caution when consulting my phone or computer. So, you read it here first: Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Of course, here you are reading that on the internet.

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Preface

You may no longer care to read about my experiences at the Boston Marathon or in California at the Wildflower triathlon. I have held this post for quite some time while trying to divine some coherent meaning from three consecutive weekends spent traveling – first to Boston, then to Wildflower, then to California again for a memorial for my friend Warren Thornthwaite who died exactly one year before the service. I think that I learned something during these trips but am not sure that this post adequately communicates what I learned or if it will be interesting to others.

Here goes…

Sunday Morning, April 19th

In 2014, Katie and I ran together on the day before the Boston Marathon. On that day, we looked forward to Boston becoming her home. We ran along the Charles River and down Boylston Street. Boston brimmed with possibilities.

In 2015, Katie and I took a similar run. We headed out of the hotel and ran to Boylston. The sun had come up but it was chilly – even crisp – for a late April morning. A cool wind blew in our faces. In the distance, we spotted the marathon finish area, the bleachers, the cops, the people taking selfies, all of the runners in their Boston Marathon jackets. For many we saw, the trip to Boston was a pilgrimage to marathon Mecca. For Katie, Boston represented a different kind of Mecca. Boston was the place for the adult Katie to reverse roles in her relationship with me. She had become the one “in the know,” the one to show me around a big city.

Katie and I squinted looking into the sunshine as we ran. Katie moved quickly; I kept pace. She accelerated a little. I held.

I worked hard, harder than I wanted to work on the day before a race, but I did not want to hold Katie back. So I stayed with her. I tried to suppress the sound of my heavy breathing. I dug in.

“Uh, Dad,” she said, “This is a little fast for me.”

“What?” I replied. “I thought I was running fast to keep up with you.”

“No, I was running fast to keep up with you.”

“No! This is killing me. Let’s both slow down.”

We eased back and stopped talking much. We settled into a rhythm as we looked out over the Charles River. I no longer needed to slow down to run with Katie; I needed to speed up. Katie had grown up and I couldn’t say exactly when that had happened.

Monday Morning, April 20th: Race Day

2015 - Boston Marathon Before Start

The sky hung thick and gray but it wasn’t raining. It felt chilly – about 45 degrees. I gave Margy and Katie hugs, then boarded a big yellow school bus. I waved good bye through the foggy window. Once our bus filled, we chugged off in a procession of dozens of school buses snaking through Boston toward Hopkinton.

After we left urban Boston and entered the countryside, I looked up just in time to see the driver turn on the windshield wipers. The line of yellow buses stretched over the crest of a distant hill, immersed in a cloud of gray road spray. The caravan rumbled over the horizon. The sky darkened.

I sat in my running shoes, shorts, two sweatshirts, running hat and a garbage bag. A guy from Canada sat next to me. We talked hockey. The rain intensified. The driver turned the wipers to “high.”

The guy beside me looked about my age. We had plenty of time to talk about our kids, work and running while riding a bus from the marathon finish line to the start.

We looked out at the wet morning. The trees had only begun to sprout tiny leaves. A light green haze hung over the brown and gray woods.

The ride dragged on. How could it be that we would run back through the rain and the cold and the wind to the place we had boarded the bus?

We exited the freeway and entered the small town of Hopkinton. A cop waved us through a busy intersection. A line of buses pulled up to Hopkinton High School and runners unloaded with legs stiff from sitting in seats proportioned for kids. Runners made their way quickly through the light rain. I headed into a huge tent with open sides. It rained harder. We hadn’t room to sit so we all stood. I struck up a conversation.

“So how old are you guys?”

They were both in their 50’s.

One explained that he had gotten into marathon running as a way to train for a charity boxing match. I told him that I had previously thought running marathons and triathlons was about as dumb as it got. Now I stood corrected.

He smiled.

“So how long are we going to keep doing this?” I asked.

The guy who had done the boxing answered.

“I don’t really know,” he said, then thought for a minute before he added, “Well, Father Time is undefeated.”

We all laughed and looked outside. It kept raining. Only another hour and a half to wait.

After about an hour, I looked outside. Porta potties rimmed the field surrounding the tent. I decided that I had time for one last trip before moving to the parking lot, then down the 3/8 mile walk to the start area. The damp wind chilled me as I waited in the light rain. My teeth chattered.

That task accomplished, I walked slowly toward the parking lot, then down the long hill. Special Operations guys had gathered by a police car. They wore baseball caps and looked pretty relaxed for wearing full body armor and carrying machine guns.

By the time I reached the starting area, I shivered with cold and nervousness. Only reluctantly – and at the very last minute – did I give up the garbage bag that had kept me dry. Then I shed the “Boston” sweatshirt that I had bought the day before. I kept my Grinnell College sweatshirt on, thinking that I might need it for the first five miles or so. I was right.

A woman got on the PA system and sang us a song about running. She let us know that we could buy her song on iTunes. The wind picked up and blew straight into our faces. The starting gun sounded. About 7,000 of us in Wave 2 of 4 walked slowly toward the start line about 150 yards ahead. By the time I crossed, we had room to jog slowly, after about 50 yards, we trotted, then in another 50 yards, we ran.

For all that the Boston Marathon is legendary, the first miles of the course passed unremarkable homes in small towns on a quiet country road. A few runners around me talked. Most of us just ran silently. After four miles, I pulled off the course and placed my thoroughly worn out Grinnell sweatshirt on a fire hydrant. I ran on feeling a little sad to have left a favorite behind.

The rain began in earnest. Our feet made soft splashing sounds as they struck the pavement. Even fewer people talked. The rain blew into our faces. A woman beside me ran straight through a long line of puddles and splashed me. My socks soaked the water up from the soles of my feet. The cold crept up my arches and onto the tops of my feet. My socks squished inside my shoes.

Fewer people lined the course in 2015 than the year before. What few signs there were curled in the rain. Lettering streaked. Spectators threw most signs down onto nearby sidewalks or into yards. People along the curb pulled up their hoods and scrunched up their shoulders toward their ears while turning away from the driving rain.

I saw Margy and Katie near the 15 mile mark in Wellesley. They had rigged up garbage bags to cover their raincoats. They said that they were pretty cold but getting by. The downhill started. I had more than ten miles to go. By the bottom of the hill, my thighs hurt like thunder. The rain picked up. I chose to think about other things.

I dwelled on a recording we heard on the preceding Saturday night. Katie helped with a book club at work. The national head of her consulting practice had chosen “The Boys in the Boat,” a book about the 1936 US men’s Olympic rowing team. He found out that Katie was a former college rower and enlisted her help. Katie contacted the author’s publicist to see if he would join the conversation. He did and we heard Katie interact with the author. I was accustomed to Katie as a competitive rower but I had not previously heard her speak in a work setting. Sure, it had been her voice but the manner was unfamiliar; she sounded like an adult.

The Wellesley downhill ended and the uphill brought me back to the task at hand. My body felt warm enough to keep running but I feared needing to walk. And my thighs asked, asked urgently, for me to walk. But if I walked, I would have chilled so quickly that the race would have been over. Strangely, it was the downhills that hurt, that made me want most to walk. Boston’s uphills were hard but it was the downhills that doled out the punishment. The braking action of downhill running was so out of sync with the way that I had been running before Wellesley that the new way in which I was using my thighs to run downhill hurt a whole lot. But in the intensifying rain, I couldn’t stop.

After several more miles and hills, I safely ascended Heartbreak Hill. The course proceeded mostly downhill from there. Hard as I tried to push, I had no closing kick. I did, however, have a closing slog. I labored through Brookline and into Boston. Turn right, turn left and there was the finish line in the distance. It seemed to take almost as long to reach the finish as it had to ride the bus 26 miles in the opposite direction.

I crossed under the banner and looked for a race volunteer to give me a silver foil poncho. My hands felt numb with cold. I needed help. A volunteer draped a poncho over my shoulders and fastened the front. The wind occasionally lifted the poncho ala Marilyn Monroe crossing a subway grate. I tucked the poncho between my elbow and my ribs to keep it in place. My fingers could not yet grip. Ahead of me I saw the backs of a sea of runners all in identical ponchos. It looked like I had entered an alien procession marching toward Boston Common. I wondered if anyone had thought to say, “Take me to your leader.”

I stood in a crowd of stinky, wet, foil-clad runners mixed with equally wet, tired spectators in black raincoats. It took Margy and Katie a long time to sort through the crowd and come to the corner of the Boston Common closest to the finish line. Eventually, I spotted Katie and we made our way over to a cab that Margy alertly hailed. Without the cab, I may not have made it back to the hotel.

The cabbie struck me as not ordinarily inclined to emote but he appeared particularly unenthusiastic about me stiff-leggedly dropping into the passenger seat beside him. I was covered with road grime and, despite the cool temperatures, I must have sweat enough to smell like the wrath of God.

Once back at our hotel, I moved quickly toward the shower. My teeth chattered as I stripped the wet, clinging clothes. Unfortunately, upon stepping into the stream of warm water I learned that I had gotten chafed, chafed a whole lot, chafed in some really bad spots. (Let your imagination run wild. Yeah, there.) While it shouldn’t have surprised me, I yelped in pain. I tried to enjoy the wonderful feeling of warming up but it hurt too much. I finally got warm enough to stop shaking. I exited the shower and toweled off. It felt good to be dry.

11 days later, Friday, May 1st

We looked out at the hills along the 101 south of San Jose. 2015 marked my 13th consecutive annual trip to Wildflower. The sights had become familiar. Usually, the hills were lush and vibrant. This year, the hills were dotted with a few green trees here and there but were mostly a drab tan, tinder dry.

My friends Emmerson Ward, Elizabeth Wright and I had crammed three bikes, all of our bags and a big red cooler into a rented Kia minivan. Emmerson, a four-time Wildflower finisher, had come with me from Minneapolis. Elizabeth was my friend – and my friend Warren’s wife. We picked her up in Menlo Park before hitting the road.

I always enjoyed the conversation during the three-hour trips from the Bay Area to Lake San Antonio near Paso Robles. Emmerson described the horse ranch on which he lived near Afton, Minnesota, the new chicken coop, the pygmy goats and what a wonderful place the ranch was for his kids to grow up (both human and goat). We talked about Elizabeth’s fitness business. We also talked about Warren. Our itinerary had been honed during prior trips to Lake San Antonio with Warren. Warren had died almost exactly a year before and we found reminders of him at various places on our way.

A big part of Wildflower was always the drive and the natural surroundings. We passed through Gilroy, the garlic and cherry capital. Shortly thereafter, irrigated lettuce fields lined 101. Neat rows of grape vines on Old Jolon Road displaced the lettuce. The vineyards gave way to hills too steep to cultivate. A few cattle grazed indifferently on the dusty brown hillsides. The eastern flanks of the hills supported live oaks draped in moss, deep green, almost gray. When the hills yielded to open fields, wild mustard grew thinly, leaving a golden cloud hovering just above the sandy soil and crackly dry grass. In a few places, small, hardy patches of purple lupine lined the road’s shoulder. Warren had taught me to identify the wildflower species but California’s four-year drought had left precious few on which to practice.

Scott, Elizabeth and Emmerson at Wildflower May 2015

At the top of the hill overlooking what had been Lake San Antonio, Elizabeth, Emmerson and I snapped a picture looking out at a vast, dry lake bed. We could see the “bathtub ring” that marked where water had usually lapped against the shore. Instead, we saw only loose sand under what had previously been the Wildflower swim course.

Saturday, May 2

The race organizers made adjustments for the drought. Here was how it would go: The course featured the unusual triathlon format of swim, transition, run, transition, bike, transition, run. For those of you counting, this made Wildflower a four-leg triathlon (a “quadrathlon?”). The course used what was left of Lake San Antonio for the swim. The lake covered only 4% of its past acreage. Ordinarily nearly 80 miles around, for the 2015 race, the lake might have been three miles in circumference.

We arrived at Lake San Antonio early on race morning after driving through fog that drifted through the valleys. I recalled places that Warren and I had stopped in 2004 or 2005. The wildflowers had grown thick in the ditches and across the hills that year. That morning a decade ago, we looked out and saw the same fog rising from the lakes and snaking through the valleys. It had been a perfect morning and we had lost our tough guy cred by stopping to take pictures of flowers. One of the hardest triathlons in the country would have to wait. But in 2015, the wildflowers were few and it had been two years since Warren last visited Lake San Antonio.

Once we arrived at the venue, Elizabeth rode her bike to the transition area for her race, the somewhat shorter mountain bike triathlon. Emmerson and I took a bus and descended into a separate long course transition area. Emmerson and I watched the professional athletes start, then swim across the mirror-flat lake. By the time the pros reached the far end of the 1.2 mile out-and-back swim course they had bisected the lake and nearly reached the far shore.

Emmerson’s swim start time approached. We snapped a photo, I gave him a hug and said that I would see him at the finish. I watched as he disappeared into the group wearing indistinguishable black wetsuits and pink swim caps.

Emmerson and Scott at Wildflower May 2015

I jogged up the long, steep boat ramp in time to see Elizabeth before my swim. Another quick hug. Then I returned to my gear arrayed on the rough boat ramp concrete. I pulled my wetsuit on slowly. The sun climbed through the sky and warmed me. As I walked slowly toward the start, the professional triathletes ran out of the water, struggling to extricate themselves from their wetsuits. At that moment in particular, I missed Warren. For years he had zipped up my wetsuit along the back, fixed the strap and told me that it was going to be a great day. I had to trust my imagination that he would have said the same thing in 2015.

I swam without distinction other than to have gone so far off course that a kayak paddler yelled at me and pointed me back onto the proper vector. I passed several people. The cool water coursed through my wetsuit and my arms created a steady rhythm to which I synchronized my breath.

The run up the boat ramp from the swim nearly finished me. I breathed so hard by the top that I couldn’t imagine running the rest of the 2.2 miles to the second transition. When the course dipped into the dry lake bed and traversed fine, loose sand, I wondered what more the race organizers could do to slow me down – and this was just the beginning. At the former swim exit near the end of the 2.2 miles, I climbed yet another boat ramp, this one a bit easier than the first. Still, it looked like it would be a very long day.

On the bike, I noticed how much of the countryside had succumbed to the drought. Cattle restlessly wandered parched fields, uninterested in the bone dry grass crumbling beneath their hooves. Even so, pockets of lupine hugged the shoulder of the road, clouds of wild mustard floated over fields. Nature had not given up. Small colonies of resistance held out. I felt hopeful.

As I approached Nasty Grade just after mile 40, I began to scale the 1,000 foot vertical climb over two or three miles. The wind that had cooled me out on the flats died on the climbing side of the hill. Sweat poured from under my helmet and seeped into my eyes. My eyes burned and I blinked in an effort to see.

I finally reached the top. On my left, I saw Lake Nacimiento. While low, that lake had largely survived the drought. A hawk played the breezes blowing up the steep slope. On my right, I looked down to see what used to be Lake San Antonio. There were only sand and dust and first growth weeds that had quickly moved in after the water had moved out. It was on this ridge that I had so many times before felt profoundly grateful. Ordinarily, I would have climbed a tough hill and found myself looking down on two beautiful lakes. But in 2015, one of those lakes was gone.

For reasons I can’t explain, I thought of something that I missed – and I never suspected that I would miss such a thing. Though I missed the healthy Warren most of all, I also missed the sick Warren. I remembered tucking him in for a nap and making sure that the blankets covered his feet. No drafts – it had become an obsession, first at his house, then at the hospital.

I remembered something that had happened just a year before: The nurses arrived to bathe Warren, change the sheets and reposition him. It hurt him. His neck had bent and it was hard for him to turn his head. The nurses were mostly 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 to stabilize him 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 remembered looking straight ahead out the window. The sun shone brightly on the trees swaying gently outside. 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. Nary a stray breeze, not if I could help it.

Why this episode occurred to me at that particular place wasn’t clear but I understood how much I missed being useful to Warren – being able to take care of someone who really needed care. That he had appreciated me made it so satisfying – and that much more a loss once he died. Feeling needed is not to be taken for granted and perhaps at this place, the place I had always felt grateful, I also appreciated having been useful.

A few (grueling) miles later, I got off my bike and headed onto the run. The breeze felt good but the sun was hot. The course rounded a long righthand turn. The wind blew from behind me and I felt like I ran in completely still air. Sweat poured into my eyes again and I tried to blink it away.

At four miles, I crested a hill and headed down toward an aid station. I recognized Emmerson from the back. He was walking.

“There he is!” I said.

Emmerson greeted me weakly.

“I may need to take a DNF (“did not finish”),” he said. “I just can’t get my heart rate down, even if I walk.”

I slowed down and asked him to tell me more so that maybe I could help. He urged me to go on. He said that he would stop at the aid station just a few yards ahead and assess the situation. I felt torn but he told me again to keep going. I complied but felt bad.

At about nine miles, I spilled water on my leg and shoe. The shoe instantly attracted the fine dust that billowed with each step and settled into a splatter pattern in brown on the blue nylon mesh of my shoe. Dark brown dust clung to my legs above the socks that began the day white.

From that point, I didn’t think much at all. I put one foot in front of the other and tried not to wish for more than the next step, then the next.

At the finish, I felt entirely spent. Emmerson waved to me from the fence lining the finish chute. Elizabeth spotted me grabbing a Gatorade. I walked over and asked if I could take a few minutes just to sit and gather myself. She said, “Sure.” It took more than a few minutes but, eventually, I stood up and the three of us got our bikes and transition bags. We pushed our bikes up the steep, dusty hill from which we once could have looked back to see shimmering Lake San Antonio, a vista that had been replaced with sand and weeds.

We honored tradition and drove to Salinas. We exited the freeway and headed toward a failed Chevy’s restaurant rebranded as “Hacienda.” I got out of the seat and waddled toward the door, still wearing the long sleeve white shirt I had worn to bike and run. None of us had showered. We hobbled up to the hostess stand.

“Are you here to see the fight?” the hostess asked.

“I don’t want to fight anyone,” I offered.

“No, the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight,” she said. “Twenty dollars.”

“Twenty dollars for what?” I inquired.

“To get in.”

“And what else?” I persisted.

“Nothing; that’s just to get in,” she said.

“I don’t want to see the fight. Is there a place we can sit and not see the fight and not pay $20?”

“No, the whole restaurant is set up for the fight.”

I looked and saw several large screens. Most of the tables had filled with fight fans.

“Are there any other good Mexican restaurants nearby?” I asked.

“Let me ask my manager.”

She returned and referred us to Pancho Villa’s, a place down the road and across the freeway.

We limped back to the car, hungry, tired, sore and stinky.

We drove along the frontage road, crossed the freeway and found a dubious looking restaurant with a hand painted sign. The building looked as though it had been built in the 70’s to house a fast food restaurant that probably didn’t make it. In fact, it occurred to me that succeeding occupants had not made a go of it there either.

We walked in and saw diners at only two tables. Two guys straight out of “Breaking Bad” sat in the corner. I assumed that they had gotten there in the monster pickup truck parked near the door. A Mexican family sat in an alcove away from the Breaking Bad guys. Our waitress appeared to be the owner. She gave us menus.

The “Big Burrito” had been repriced. A sticker with a handwritten “$7.99” obscured the original price. I opted for fajitas and a big lemonade, noting that I had not urinated for nearly 12 hours. Not a great sign.

The owner brought us a basket of chips and two dishes of salsa. I snagged a chip. Fantastic. The fajitas were wonderful, too, and Emmerson assured us that the Big Burrito was worth every penny of the $7.99.

So, just 11 days after a complete soaking during the Boston Marathon, there I was in the middle of the California drought. Nothing had really gone as I had planned. The things to which I had looked forward were not all that great. It would be hard to call the wet, cold Boston Marathon all that much fun. But I had really enjoyed listening to the recording of Katie participate in a book club discussion. After the soaking suffered in Boston, I looked forward to running on a warm, sunny day in California. Even that had not quite gone to plan. It was hot – way too hot. Both Emmerson and I had suffered. Meanwhile, who would have expected me to feel grateful for a memory of time I had spent with Warren in the hospital when he was so terribly sick? Who would have expected to love a meal at a restaurant named “Pancho Villa’s?”

That things often don’t go as planned is hardly newsworthy. All of us know that. What I learned on my trips was that I found some of my greatest satisfactions in relatively ordinary and unexpected places. I even learned that one of my most gratifying memories of Warren arose from a very, very sad time. Having a role caring for someone who appreciated me was deeply fulfilling. Meanwhile, seeing my efforts to raise Katie pay off was even more satisfying. On that one, I got to skip the sad part and enjoy only the good.

Warren’s death affected me. It was a warning. My name was on a list and it was moving toward the top. It might not matter if I worked out or ate all of the right foods or took all of the right vitamins. His death represented a certain futility. Was there much benefit in trying to do all of the right things?

Warren’s death also tested what it meant to get older. Was aging simply a process of reaching a peak and thereafter giving up life’s pleasures one by one? As time passes, friends and family members die, physical skills erode. When Warren died, I didn’t expect to return to Wildflower. I didn’t expect a lot of things to ever quite be as fun again as they once were. Once someone as important as Warren was gone, was I consigned to a life not quite as good as before? Was that the inevitable consequence of growing older? Was aging just a process of building a life full of friends, family and possibilities, then watching them slowly fade away?

I decided not. I had had a great time in Boston and California. Was it the same as it had been during prior years? No, a lot had changed – and I had suffered a significant loss. But if I stopped for only a few moments and tallied my losses versus my blessings, things had come out differently than I might have expected. Things were still good and many things were even better.

Maybe the lesson was to spend time with great people like Margy, Katie, Emmerson and Elizabeth. Good things happen with great people. Maybe I felt grateful because I knew that I had spent all of the time I could with Warren and that we both had appreciated it.

Maybe the lesson was that if only I did not close myself to possibility, to the possibility that life can offer great things in unexpected places at unexpected times, things could be just as much fun as ever. Sure, Warren was gone, gone forever, and I would always miss him. There was no one to replace him and probably never would be. But Warren would not willingly consign us to a future never quite as good as it was when he was alive. Warren would have wanted us to have fun and to be open to possibility.

In the end, though, I was certain of only one thing: Warren would have gotten the Big Burrito and eaten every last bite. I thought of him as we  pushed our plates away and watched the sun sink slowly over traffic flowing north on US 101.

Saturday, May 9th: The First Anniversary of Warren’s Death

Katie, Margy and I returned to California to remember Warren at Asilomar in Pacific Grove. About 45 friends and family members joined us. We had a Quaker-style memorial service during which many of us shared memories of time with Warren. I spent most of the service looking down at a picture I had taken of Warren about ten years ago. I propped the picture against the leg of the chair in front of me. The memorial service was unexpectedly hard but offered one last nice surprise. As I sat looking down, Katie stood up. She took just a few minutes to remember that Warren’s memory had inspired her and her rowing teammates on the day after Warren died. She said it beautifully.

Once the service ended, we walked to the beach. To remember Warren, all of us grabbed a shell or rock and threw it into the ocean. My rock skipped once, then knifed into a wave. Our rocks and shells disappeared and we were left to watch waves roll up onto the shore, one after another after another.

2015 - Katie and Scott on Beach in Pacific Grove

As Warren was not physically in attendance, it fell to Katie to make fun of me. Warren would have been proud.

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.