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At mile 25, he asked if she wanted to walk. She acted like she didn’t hear him.

At mile 25.5, she began to run in the ditch bordering the road. He retrieved her. Back on the road, she began to zig zag. They could see the finish line.

At mile 25.6, she sat down on the side of the road. Then she lost consciousness.

On luck, science and quitting. 

If you believe Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking Fast and Slow and a Nobel Prize winner, we tend to underestimate the role of luck when good things happen in our lives. For instance, managers of successful businesses tend to overestimate the role of their skills and underestimate the good fortune of operating in a particularly strong economy or market. Likewise, an investor whose contrarian choices make her very rich when her investments increase dramatically more than the market in general may attribute her success to unusually keen insight and intelligence.

On the other hand, Kahneman would say that we tend to overestimate the role of our circumstances when we suffer misfortune. A business’ manager may cite rotten timing to introduce an innovative product that fell flat in a sagging economy, evading blame for mismanaging the product’s development or marketing. A similarly contrarian investor may lose a fortune despite a soaring market but may blame particular circumstances facing businesses and industries in which she chose to invest, ignoring the investor’s responsibility for poor investment choices.

So, when we fail, we tend to blame our circumstances and bad luck. When we succeed, we credit our intelligence and hard work. Of course, assigning the proportionate contributions of luck, skill, intelligence and hard work to any single life or any single event within a life is practically impossible.

A short essay on luck seems like a cold way to address that poor woman lying unconscious in a ditch, especially when that woman was our daughter Katie.

An ambulance collected Katie from the July 4th marathon held on Sauvie Island near Portland, Oregon, where Katie and Marcus were living while both worked at Nike. Marcus had paced Katie through 97% of the marathon. He tried to prevent Katie from running in the ditch but quickly stood helpless on the side of the road while Katie lay unconscious.

Plans to eat strawberry pie at in the finish area and attend an afternoon barbecue changed quickly, four liters of IV fluid administered rapidly replaced plans for a Gatorade or two followed by a post-race beer. Instead of catching a shuttle bus back to Portland, Katie and Marcus took the faster route in the racing ambulance. In her stupor, Katie kept trying to remove her oxygen mask.

When it appeared as if Katie was regaining consciousness, the EMT asked her name.

“Katie,” she said.

“And what is your birthday?”

“Katie,” she said.

36 hours and a battery of tests later, Katie left the hospital with the understanding that she had probably just suffered from profound dehydration. Everything checked out fine except for one thing: Katie couldn’t remember what signs of distress she might have missed. How could she have let things go so wrong?

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Katie enjoys a somewhat expensive post-race drink of water in an effort to rehydrate.

Digression.

Katie was a nordic skier in high school and a rower in college. Nordic skiers and rowers have virtual dashboards that they can consult during races to determine their level of exertion and distress – heart rate, muscular fatigue, respiration. The last thing a nordic skier or rower does before starting a race is to take that virtual dashboard and flip a master switch to the “off” position. No red lights flash, no needles strain at the peg on the right, no warning buzzers or bells sound. No, nordic skiers and rowers go as hard as they can despite acute distress. They tend to be young and races tend to be short relative to marathons. So it doesn’t matter how hard they go; they’ll probably live. Nordic skiers and rowers don’t know when to quit.

Science.

Following her July 4th experience, at my suggestion, Katie visited my coach, Jared Berg, at the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center. If Katie couldn’t remember the race, much less the signals she missed (or ignored), maybe Jared could test her to make sure that there were no otherwise undetected problems and could instruct Katie on the things she must do in the future to avoid a repeat ambulance ride.

On her way with Marcus from Portland to Evanston where Katie and Marcus will attend business school, they stopped in Boulder so that Katie could submit to science. Jared ran Katie through some of the tests I had suffered the prior November. Jared made Katie run on a treadmill wearing a mask measuring CO2 output. He poked her finger and measured lactate. He assessed her musculature and energy storage. In short, Jared made Katie a lab rat and measured everything.

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Katie prior to learning that the treadmill test would involve multiple finger pricks to draw and test blood.

Then Jared asked Katie about the race. How much water had she drunk? How many calories had she taken in on the course? How much sports drink did she consume? Jared scratched down some facts and figures. He concluded that Katie should have collapsed about two hours, forty-five minutes into the race. Katie outperformed, yielding to gravity and unconsciousness, cozying up with the pavement, at about 3:20.

So Jared gave Katie a wealth of information, all backed by careful measurements. Science. Jared restored Katie’s enthusiasm, not by giving her a pep talk but by equipping her with science. Jared let Katie know the exact heart rates at which she should train and race, the amount of liquids to drink, the number of calories to consume.

Sports, particularly endurance sports, romanticize will power. People talk about “pushing through the pain” or “running through the wall.” These acts of will have their place. Marathons and Ironmans are hard: That’s the whole idea. There are lots of chances to quit, so convincing yourself not to quit is the point. Less negotiable, however, are needs for simple things: food and water at a sustainable pace. Should your will power push you beyond the limits your body will endure when deprived of hydration or nutrition, your body takes over. Biology and chemistry make decisions that the most determined mind won’t. Your body shuts you down. Gravity beckons.

Luck.

Strangely, this brings us back to luck. For reasons none of us can entirely explain, some of us can bear a tremendous amount of athletic punishment and keep going. Others sensibly heed the signals that say, “stop or die.”  Call someone lucky if she can push through almost unbearable exertion and deprivation. But maybe it’s OK to call someone lucky if he listens to the still, small voice that says “enough.” Until your body robs you of the option to keep going, knowing when to quit is subtle and difficult.

Luck comes in additional forms. In 2011, I was lucky that only two faster guys showed up in my age group at Ironman Wisconsin. In 2014 and 2015, I was unlucky that two faster guys showed up in my Ironman Wisconsin age group and I had to stay home in October while they raced the Ironman World Championship in Kona. (In 2014 and 2015, I was in a smaller age group and needed to finish in the top two to qualify for Kona; in 2011, I needed only to finish in the top four.)

In 2018, unbeknownst to me, I entered a drawing in which my name was allegedly drawn at random. I was one of 40 entrants in Ironman events throughout the world selected to race the 40th Ironman World Championship. This time, my appearance in Kona will be all luck. And I had so wanted to qualify to race Kona again to prove that 2011 had not just been luck.

Life and endurance sports are similar. The people who work harder tend to get luckier. But some of the hardest working people end up with almost nothing but bad luck. Some people ignore science and seem to thrive. (Think of perfectly healthy lifetime smokers or runners who don’t take a sip of liquid during a marathon.) Others eat nothing but Whole Foods-sourced meals, exercise frequently and get brain tumors. (Think of Warren.) It’s a strange mixture, each of us inheriting or earning different amounts of skill, will, intelligence and luck. Separating that which we can successfully control to thrive and that which we can’t control is a lifetime enterprise.

Grass and rock.

So I look forward to racing Kona again in 2018. I cannot deny the role of luck in affording me the chance to enter Kailua Bay, the sun just rising above the palm trees and church steeple on the eastern horizon. Later in the afternoon, when I crest Palani Hill for the second time to head out onto the lava fields, I need to hold science dear, to observe its limits, to drink and eat enough to run by the desiccated tufts of grass that poke out of deep crevices in the swirls of brown lava rock. How do those tufts of grass grow there under the sweltering sun where heat bends light wavering on the horizon? Even in nature, some things just don’t know when to quit. They hang on, shrouded in the mysteries of luck, science and persistence.

Postscript.

Katie and Marcus have made it to Evanston and will start business school this week. Katie will take a break long enough to come to Kona to see me race the Ironman World Championship on October 13th. Margy, my mom, sisters and brother-in-law Rick Long will be there, too. It will be a long day. Best that they mind their nutrition, hydration, and sunscreen, too. I already feel enormous gratitude that they will cross half the country and half of the Pacific Ocean to be there for me. Talk about luck.

 

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“This doesn’t feel as bad as I expected,” Katie said as we left the Marriott Copley Place. Light rain fell from a cold, gray sky. Wind blew from the east at maybe ten or 15 miles per hour.

“Not that bad,” I agreed.

We walked a few blocks toward Copley Square. As we stepped beyond the side of a building, the wind pushed me hard enough that I stepped right foot over left to regain my balance. Staggered, we changed course at the urging of a volunteer who directed us to Boylston Street just beyond the finish line.

“It will be a lot less windy there,” he said.

We took his advice and joined a thickening stream of runners and spectators heading toward the buses that would take runners just over 27 miles from Boston Common to Hopkinton. People tried to avoid the puddles formed from overnight rain. Runners wore garbage bags with holes cut in the top for their heads. Others wore cheap raincoats and pants. Some runners covered their hats and shoes with plastic bags. On any other day in Boston’s Back Bay, the police might have approached people dressed like that and tried to direct them to the appropriate social service. On Patriot’s Day, the cops pulled up their collars and scrunched their necks down to stay warm. Staying dry was a lost cause for everyone.

People complain when weather reports differ. No one likes unreliable forecasts. For Boston on Marathon Weekend, predictions had varied for each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday but for Monday, Patriot’s Day/Marathon Monday, forecasts completely agreed. Chances of rain for any particular hour on Monday ranged from 60% to 100% but the forecasts all predicted a 100% chance of rain while Katie and I would be on the course. Forecasters hate blowing a 100% prediction that would undermine their credibility. We took the meteorologists seriously.

On Sunday night, after having eaten pasta at an Italian restaurant in the North End, Katie grew anxious. She wanted a stocking cap to stay warm. We called around. Most stores had either rotated their merchandise to more seasonal inventory, closed before 8:00 p.m. on a Sunday night or just didn’t answer the phone at all. Marcus and Katie managed to flash Marcus’s Nike ID at the already-closed Nike store on Newbury Street. They had completely sold out of cold weather gear as runners bought layers to prepare for Monday. Meanwhile, Margy found two hats advertising the Lenox Hotel on Boylston. We bought them from people wearing New Balance gear, neglecting to mention that both Marcus and Katie worked for Nike. (Whether the hat purchases violated Nike HR policies was an investigation we neglected, given the weather.) Those hats turned out to have been purchases of true genius.

By the time we took the traditional family photo before Katie and I boarded the bus to Hopkinton, our feet were already very wet and cold. We took seats near the back of one of the thousands of school buses that transported runners to Hopkinton. The bus’s windows didn’t fully close so that during our ride, rain occasionally splashed us from the windows left slightly ajar and from the emergency door in the roof. A woman sitting in front of us went on at great length about the disastrously bad weather in which she ordinarily ran. Her husband sat beside her and said a word, maybe two, on the one-hour drive. Two women from Minnesota seated beside us chatted quietly in their Goodwill store rain suits.

We exited the bus at Hopkinton High School and walked carefully onto athletic fields that overnight rains and 10,000 runners had thus far turned into a quagmire. (What those fields became after all 30,000 runners had gone through I can’t imagine.) Katie and I sought space under a giant tent populated with huddling runners who looked like the most destitute of refugees. We found a finisher’s poncho on the ground, abandoned by a runner who left to start in Wave 1. (We were set for Wave 2.) We sat on the poncho and beside the woman’s cast off shoes and hand warmers. Katie and I each took a used hand warmer. The woman, like Katie, had brought a pair of old shoes and socks to wear before the race started, then changed into a dry pair to go to the start line.

Katie and I timed our departure from the tent perfectly, stepping gingerly through the inch-deep muck. I looked down at my Kona commemorative shoes splattered with mud. Katie changed into her latest and greatest dry Nikes and we walked down the hill toward the start and our last chance bathroom stop about 3/8 of a mile away, thanking cops and volunteers along the street. Katie’s race shoes were mostly wet by the time we reached our start corral.

The race began without fanfare – no songs or speeches. We heard a distant start gun and away we went in a steady rain, wind blowing harder and softer depending upon the tree cover. At one point, I mentioned to Katie that the weather had improved. Within a few seconds, it began to rain really hard.

Nearing the halfway mark of the race, my legs had stiffened. I noticed that I could not form a seal with my mouth on the sports drink bottles I carried on a belt. I took to pouring the drink into my mouth without sealing my lips. This seemed like a warning. A few miles later, Katie tossed a cup after grabbing a drink from an aid station. The wind caught the cup and blew it directly into the bridge of my nose. We laughed at that but spoke sparingly, communicating only as needed to stay together.

About a quarter mile from Wellesley College, we heard the women out in full force despite the weather. Bawdy signs and deafening, high-pitched cheers couldn’t help but lift everyone’s spirits, me included. It didn’t last that long, at least not for me. My right wrist felt like there was a band on it. There wasn’t. I had lost the cotton glove I wore on that hand when I had given Katie a Clif Shot Block. I had not gone back to collect the glove and risk getting stampeded. So I ran like Michael Jackson on a budget, wearing a giveaway white cotton glove only on my left hand, a hand that had pretty much lost sensation except for the feeling that there was something between my fingers. As we descended the big hill in Wellesley, my legs hurt more than usual. Meanwhile, Katie kept track of our mile splits. She had stopped announcing times and chose to simply encourage me, rejecting my apologies for holding her back, as I most certainly was doing.

At Boston College, the course descended a fairly steep hill. The BC kids who bothered to come out and brave the weather cheered fanatically, boisterously. Suddenly, the rain came down fiercely – an absolute deluge. Katie threw her head back and laughed maniacally like she used to do while skiing as a little kid, refusing to turn, choosing to go as fast as her skis would take her. I tried to laugh but I couldn’t. The 42 degree rain penetrated to my core.

Katie and I had started the race in sweatshirts that we ditched within a few miles. Katie retained a nifty Nike jacket that she could stuff into its own pocket and then strap to her waist, though she never got warm enough to take that jacket off. While it was not entirely waterproof, it did a decent job retaining at least some heat. A tight-fitting, long sleeve shirt that had done well for me on a 55 degree day in the rain was not warm enough for me on a 37 to 44 degree day. We both wore our Lenox Hotel stocking hats once touched by New Balance representatives, something we did not let bother the warmth the hats provided.

By the time we reached Boston College at around 21 miles, I realized that I was getting confused. Of course, if you realize that you are confused, maybe you are still OK. Even so, I felt wary. More than anything, though, I knew that if I stopped running, stopped exerting, I risked hypothermia. Put otherwise, stopping to walk was as good as quitting.

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Margy and Marcus taking a quick snap on their way to a five-spotting day.

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Impressionist view just after the right turn onto Boylston. Weather: 1, iPhone X: 0.

The last few miles passed in a blur, though my pace had fallen dramatically. I couldn’t see that well through rain-spattered glasses but I saw runners turning right on Hereford. I checked and Katie ran on my right. We turned up the rise on Hereford and saw Margy and Marcus one last time, the fifth of the day, a new record on Boston’s multiple-sighting hostile course. We turned left down the slope on Boylston toward the finish line sitting an awfully long way away. I didn’t so much run as slogged. At about 50 yards from the finish, I held out my right hand. Katie grabbed it in her left and we crossed the line hand-in-hand.

We walked through the finish area for what seemed like a very long distance before we made it to the hooded finisher ponchos. I leaned heavily on Katie, my arm over her shoulder. She steadied me, her left arm around my waist. Katie asked a volunteer to wrap me in two ponchos, a process that took a long time as they tried to fish my arms through the holes in the ponchos. Katie used her knowledge of downtown Boston to sneak me through a shortcut back toward the hotel. A long, warm shower didn’t stop all of my shivers so I climbed into bed and piled on blankets. Eventually, I emerged, ready for post-race pizza therapy.

Who knows how many marathons we have left to run together? Katie’s abilities have left mine far behind. She should run some marathons to improve her own PR and to qualify again for Boston, something we did not manage for her this year at Boston. Thanks to her help, though, she got me to the finish line in time for me to qualify as a geezer in 2019. Meanwhile, Katie looks forward to her career, business school and, who knows, maybe her own family. Other obligations may intrude on marathon training and racing for Katie. But even if those obligations crowd running marathons off her calendar, neither of us will ever forget the Boston Marathon in 2018, even if we both live to be 100.

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The weather on race day presented few photo opportunities but here are a few photos from the weekend.

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At the Boston Marathon Expo getting our numbers. The Boston Marathon is large enough that there were eight Rosses between “Katie” and “Scott” despite our identical qualifying times.

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Waiting for the bus from the Expo back to Boston Back Bay in a frigid gale on Sunday, though this beat being back home in Minnesota for 13 inches of snow.

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In a last-minute email to participants, Boston Marathon officials noted that running in clear trash bags would be allowed. Here is the shelf slot in the Star Market near Copley Square once holding clear trash bags.

Postscript: Congratulations to Matt Wiegand on running 3:02 in awful conditions even after one of his family’s cars had been towed from their AirBNB. Quite a recovery. Thanks to Sarah Long, Laurie Eustis and the Schneider family, especially Marcus, for getting together with us and for following Katie and me on the course. And, as always, thanks so much to Margy for absolutely everything.

 

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

“H” is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Plot Synopsis.

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

Boston

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

Madison

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

Madison Again

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

Minneapolis and St. Paul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boulder

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

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

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

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

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

Rochester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tampa Calling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s about $1,000, right?”

“A little less than that but close enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Margy looked up. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

Hawks and Rocks.

This event reminded me of my book.

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

“H” is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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

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

Aloha, again.

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

 

San Diego

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Screenshot from the video of Mike Reilly announcing my name. 

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People forget years and remember moments. -Ann Beattie

Day had turned to night some time ago. We were walking now, the quiet of a cool night enveloping us. We had just completed a stretch of the course that ran in front of bars, restaurants and college town stores. The crowd had been enthusiastic but the spectators were starting to get tired, too. The course turned onto a silent street. For a brief while, it was just the two of us, Katie and me, walking. The last glow of day had turned to a deep, deep blue in the western sky outlining the majestic old red brick Science Building. Katie moved faster. I walked a step behind. I said something to her. She said something to me. Seven words, total. We fought back tears. A minute of silence passed.

“OK, let’s start to run when we get to that street and turn right.”

Katie nodded.

September 2002

Fifteen years, almost to the day, had passed since Katie put her hand in mine. Our ten-year old daughter and I ran the last 100 yards of the first Ironman Wisconsin. If you ask her, she would say that’s when a dream began. I wasn’t that bold. I couldn’t picture having Katie by my side for practically an entire Ironman.

Body Glide

Like most hobbies, Ironman has insider tips and tricks. Several pre-race briefings for each Ironman race let participants know what to expect and share a few of those tips and tricks. Having done 18 prior Ironman races, I had ceased to learn much at athlete briefings but since this was Katie’s first Ironman, I recommended that we go.

In a conference center ballroom with about 200 participants, an Ironman staffer gave the briefing. The staffer advised those new to Ironman about the best use of special needs bags, large plastic bags into which each participant places items to access at the midpoint of each of the bike and run legs of the race. He suggested that salty snacks always taste good. Then he made one more suggestion.

“For those of you who don’t know about the product Body Glide, I suggest that you go buy some. Throw it in your run special needs bag. By the time you’ve run 13 miles, I guarantee you will know exactly where to apply it.”

That got a laugh from true believers like me. Body Glide had done wonders for me through the years. It helped my wetsuit slide on over my legs and prevented chafing under my arms on the run. Those who have ever applied deodorant to chafed underarms following a marathon understand why this is a very big deal. (Hint: Applying my Old Spice after a marathon has occasionally made it feel as though the flames of hell were licking my underarms, if that gives you the picture.)

Practice Ride

For years, I had touted my traditional Friday afternoon bike ride but I had last enjoyed company on that ride 15 years ago. Friday afternoon got away from us; we meant to take both a bike ride and swim but no longer had time. Katie knew how much I liked the bike ride and insisted that we go.

We rode around Capitol Square and down State Street. I narrated the final mile of the run course. Then I told Katie that I really couldn’t tell her how she would feel when rounding the last corner and heading into the finish chute. She would need to feel that for herself.

We rode up Bascom Hill, the terror of the run course, then west to the marching band practice field. From a couple of blocks away, we could hear the University of Wisconsin Marching Band play “Rhapsody in Blue.” We parked our bikes against the chain link fence and watched the kids hop-step to the music while belting out Gershwin. The band director stopped the band several times, in each case wanting bigger, bolder.

“Sell it! Sell it!”

I silently hoped that he would not hop in the van with our family on Sunday. Clearly, he was not easily pleased and would find our Sunday afternoon marathon shuffle on the running path nearby lackluster.

Our next stop was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unitarian Temple. Confession: I am a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan but we had no time for me to bore Katie with noting the horizontal aspect of the stone work and its contrast to the steep roof of the cathedral. Even so, it meant a lot to me for Katie to experience something that I so enjoy.

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Practice Swim

Katie felt nervous about the swim. I didn’t wonder why. For 15 years, Katie had watched me begin Ironman races with roughly 2,500 other swimmers thrashing and bobbing in a frothy sea of chaos. It’s scary. Fortunately, Ironman recently consulted the U.S. Constitution’s Eight Amendment and learned that mass swim starts crossed into “cruel and unusual” territory. Ours would be a six wave start beginning with the professionals at 6:40 a.m., Katie’s wave of younger triathletes at 6:45, and ending with my geezer wave (more like a ripple) of women over 50 and men over 55. This would segregate us into more manageably-sized groups of roughly 400 swimmers each and avoid the dreadful thrash. Unfortunately, the swimmers bearing the heaviest testosterone load would start five minutes behind Katie. So Katie faced the unenviable prospect of being an aquatic doormat for two or three waves of mercilessly competitive swimmers coming up behind, through and over her.

We decided to swim on Saturday morning at just about the same time we would race the following day so that Katie could get used to the natural conditions – the sun rising, the chilly water, the bright blue sky.

We pulled on our wetsuits. (Thanks, Body Glide!) Katie repeated her emergency procedures. If dunked by an overly vigorous swimmer proceeding directly over her, she would make it to the surface, tread water, sight down the orange and red buoys marking the course, take a few breast strokes, then lower her head and keep swimming.

Once zipped into our wetsuits, we entered the water exactly where we would leave shore 24 hours later. Katie lowered her face into the water and took some pretty strong breaths but she didn’t hyperventilate as she had feared. We took a few strokes onto the course and began to swim more smoothly. The sun cast the Monona Terrace convention center in orange against the bright blue sky. Rhythm took over. Gulls flew overhead. Sounds from land receded, replaced by the swishing of each stroke. It would have been unkind for me to let that last.

I began to harass Katie. I started by swimming up directly behind her and knocking into her feet with each stroke, much as happens when a swimmer drafts behind another to let the front swimmer do the hard work. Not satisfied that I had upset her, I swam close beside her, my left arm interfering with the stroke of her right. Her rhythm remained steady. Finally, I put my left hand on her right shoulder and pushed her down. Katie popped up and looked at me.

“Dad, I know what you’re doing.”

I smiled and said, “Excellent! Let’s swim back.”

Cavalry

Des Moines restauranteurs and merchants grieve every year during Ironman Wisconsin weekend. Many think that the Iowa-Iowa State football game draws people from Des Moines to Ames or Iowa City but its really just our family leaving for Madison. Here we are going to dinner the night before the race.

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L-R, front: Katie, Harper Cope, Davis Cope (a broken finger, not THE finger), Ann Long, Margy. L-R, rear: Rick Long, Matt Wiegand, Tom Cope, Lynn Cope, the Paterfamilias.

I climbed into bed at about 9:30, lapsed into a lasagna-induced coma and slept soundly until 1:30. I wouldn’t sleep again for 23 hours.

4:58 a.m., Sunday, September 10th, Race Day

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5:00 a.m.

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5:47 a.m.

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The Hilton Monona Terrace Hotel provides coffee makers in each guest room.

5:52 a.m.

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Katie makes waiting look easy. Don’t be fooled.

6:05 a.m.

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Time to go.

6:31 a.m.

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Chase vehicle featuring war paint.

6:38 a.m.

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Seven minutes before casting our daughter to fate.

If I told you that I felt comfortable watching Katie walk off into the sea of wetsuits and neon swim caps, it would be a lie. Margy and I watched, feeling anxiety bordering on panic. The announcer, Mike Reilly, simply said, “go, go, go,” and Katie’s wave thrashed off.

“Where is she? Do you think that we can see her” Margy asked.

I looked, too, then pointed to where I thought she might be, then shrugged. We saw only splashing and identical green and pink swim caps bobbing into the distance.

I started 20 minutes later with a firm purpose: Catch her.

While I had felt almost unbearably nervous for the two days preceding the race, I needed only 100 yards or so in the water before I realized how I had wasted so much anxiety. The rhythm of my stroke comforted me. The huge orange sun entirely cleared the eastern horizon and the sky hung dark blue straight over my head. I felt relaxed and reminded that this place, this lake, this race, this was where I belonged. Halfway through the swim, I looked to see the capitol dome extend straight up over the middle of Monona Terrace, a sight I had described to Katie many times. I hoped that she had seen it, too.

The Ironman VIP services director, Nicole Geller, lent me an arm as I exited the water. She had been enormously kind to Katie and me. She heard our story and wanted us to finish what we had started 15 years before. I asked if she had seen Katie but she couldn’t hear me over the music. Volunteers yanked off my wetsuit and I ran up the Monona Terrace parking ramp helix.

“Katie’s a minute-and-a-half ahead of you,” Margy shouted.

The fates had tossed our daughter out of Lake Monona unscathed.

Having numbered myself among Body Glide’s true believers, I used my enthusiasm for the product and years of experience as a triathlete to try something new on race day. (Those of you who know triathlon can see this one coming from a mile away.) I had put Body Glide on my arms. It made getting into my wetsuit a snap. Ordinarily, the sleeves of my wetsuit were tough to negotiate but on that particular day, no sweat. Body Glide is not water soluble and remained very much on my arms as I attempted to put on a light, white, long sleeve shirt to protect me from the sun during the bike ride. The Body Glide that made getting into and out of my wetsuit so easy made getting into my shirt practically impossible. The polyester stuck to my arms as if the shirt was made of Gorilla Tape. It didn’t do the shirt much good but I finally got it over my head and arms, but not before driving my heart rate into the red zone.

8:28 a.m. 

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Katie prematurely enthuses about the 112 mile bike leg.

8:45 a.m. 

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The smile that melts my heart: late summer, cool morning in Madison – and 110 miles to go. 

I taught Katie how to ride a bike when she was 4 1/2 so I prefer not to criticize our daughter’s bike handling skills. This is the last I will mention them. After having ridden her triathlon bike around 200 miles, total, to prepare for a 112-mile race, her riding skills reflected her time in the saddle. Her proof of concept triathlon, the Ironman Wisconsin Half Ironman, featured a couple of falls at aid stations, the most dangerous place on Ironman race courses. Some riders hammer through at dizzying speed. Others pull over and stop. Some foolhardy volunteers wade out too far into bike traffic offering water, Gatorade and food, making riders brake hard or swerve. Other volunteers prudently remain affixed to the curb, requiring the riders to hit one another to get the food or drink offered. Suffice it to say that we believed it best for me to be the dad and to go hunt for food and drink, leaving Katie to stay well clear of each aid station melee. I’d cater her ride.

Noon

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Katie gloating on the virtues of youth while leading me up yet another hill. 

12:31 p.m.

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Davis and Harper Cope with Matt Wiegand. More cowbell! Harper succumbs momentarily to Ironman’s challenge.

2:03 p.m.

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When is that Tour de France thing anyway?

After about 7 1/2 hours on a narrow leather saddle, it felt good to stand up. Really, really, really good. Good like you can’t believe good. Katie and I felt confident that once the run began, we had this one. During the latter stages of the bike, though, it had become difficult for me to take nutrition.

4:47 p.m.

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Bascom Hill. Running, for now. 

As we approached Bascom Hill, I told Katie that there was something seriously wrong with her – and with anyone else running Ironman Wisconsin – if this thought was not front of mind at this point on the course: What’s really wrong with golf, anyway?

6:00 p.m. at the Run Turn Around

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At this precise point on the course, we looked 100 yards ahead and saw the finish, then needed to turn around to run another 13 miles. Katie smiled. I wasn’t so sure. 

Name Calling

So it had gotten dark. I didn’t feel cold – yet. We needed to keep walking.

“Once we hit the 25 mile marker, no more walking. Let’s run it in,” I said.

“Agreed,” she said.

We had ceased to be talkative.

As planned, we broke into a slow run at the sign along a darkened street. We passed a house where some college boys had watched pro football on their front step a few hours before. The course took a sharp left. We saw State Street with its shops, restaurants and bars a block ahead. The course made a very sharp turn right and, suddenly, there it was. The state capitol building towered above us, high on a hill, lit brilliant white against the black sky. Katie started to cry. We picked up speed.

We passed the last water stop without grabbing anything to eat or drink. We were inside a half mile. No time to stop. Once by the water stop, we began to hear the music and the crowd in the finish area. We turned right. The hill steepened. We sped up. The street along Capitol Square was dark and quiet. Spectators had concentrated near the finish.

We took a right hand turn and I surveyed runners so that we could position ourselves for the best finish photo. I saw that we would quickly overtake two runners ahead of us but a guy running by himself ahead of us had begun to pick up speed, too. The animal spirits had gotten hold of me. I said one last thing to Katie.

“Pass him.”

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Executing our pass at the entry to the finish chute.

It wasn’t a sprint but it wasn’t far from a sprint, either. Mike Reilly, the iconic Ironman announcer, called our names and let the crowd know that we were father and daughter. Then he said it to us both, but mostly to Katie. At least that’s the way I heard it.

“You are an Ironman.”

Once Mike Reilly calls you by name and then calls you a name, it’s permanent. It never goes away. You never forget it and it never gets old.

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Rejoined by our team captain. 

Tell Then Show

Katie is fully grown. She is capably creating her life as an adult. As each day passes, I can teach her less and less that she doesn’t already know. Soon, maybe even now, Katie has more to teach me than I have to teach her. Maybe IMW 2017 was part of this transition. With less to teach, I increasingly need to show. Katie had run the last few hundred yards of Ironmans with me so she knew what that felt like but she couldn’t possibly know what it felt like to put her face in the cold water under a giant orange sun in the early morning only to finish in the dark of a cool evening. Katie couldn’t have known what it would feel like to ride her bike and look out over farm fields just beginning to turn golden brown under the crystal blue sky of a very late summer day. Katie had cheered for me for years but knowing the profound gratitude of having family cheer for you from sun up to well beyond sundown was beyond her grasp.

Now she knows.

Postscript

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The packing list I used to ensure that Katie and I had everything we needed to cover 140.6 miles. 

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Here are turn-by-turn directions for the bike course. Since Ironman modified the bike course this year, Margy spent between four and five hours modifying her spreadsheet to see us on both the bike and the run. The result? Team Ross-Ross saw us 45 times during the day. So far as Katie and I know, no other spectators saw their athletes anywhere near so many times, nor cheered so enthusiastically. We are tremendously grateful to Margy/Mom, the most competent person we know.

6:13 a.m., Monday, September 11th at the finish line of Ironman Wisconsin

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Sleeping after an Ironman is surprisingly hard. Katie and I went to bed well after midnight and woke before 6:00 a.m. We decided to take a walk to Starbucks, then around Capitol Square. The grandstands had been disassembled and hauled away. The finish arch was gone. Only some stray paper cups and some folded tents gave any hint of what had happened on that very spot only nine or so hours before. But we will always remember.

Eden Prairie, Minnesota, 5:39 p.m., Monday, September 11

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Reality revisited: Our wetsuits, singlets and other assorted wet, sweaty and otherwise dirty gear had spent more than 24 hours getting very, very angry in these plastic bags.

7:41 a.m., Tuesday, September 12th, Frisco, Texas

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Katie cut off her Ironman weekend wristbands and rejoined the real world before walking into the office.

Thank you.

Thank you to Margy Ross aka Mom, aka team captain, Ironman’s reigning navigating, driving and cheering champion. Thanks to my sister and her family, Lynn Ross-Cope, Tom, Davis and Harper Cope. Thanks so much to my other sister and brother-in-law, Ann and Rick Long. Special thanks to our niece’s boyfriend, Matt Wiegand, who came to Madison even without Sarah just because Matt is (a) so into it and (b) preparing for Mike Reilly to call him a name.  Thanks to Marcus Schneider without whose help, love, and running support Katie couldn’t run, run, run like she runs, runs, runs. And of course, thanks to Nancy/Mom/Nanna who is always there for Katie and me. Calling this crew “the best” is always accurate but always inadequate. Katie and I can’t thank you enough – ever.

In honor of Lisa Lander Holmberg whose birthday comes around at about the time of IMW every year. Katie now knows the place on the course where we will always remember you. For Warren Thornthwaite and his patch of wildflowers that grow along the road near Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Most of all, for Bob Ross, captain of the 1952-1953 Grinnell College swim team. Without you, neither Katie nor I would have put our faces into the cold water and set off.

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.