smoke clouds and silver linings

In endurance sport and in just about all of life’s challenges, the best-laid plans often go awry.

In late summer I joined Team in Training, the athletic charitable program for the Leukemia and Lymphoma society, to fundraise in Soren’s honor while preparing to race my 20th Ironman triathlon at Ironman Lake Tahoe, on September 21st.  I did so know knowing 1) my fitness was suspect, my time was short, and I had even considered retiring 2) I’d never raised money for anything as an athlete and 3) Lake Tahoe involved major logistical challenges. But Team in Training was the signature charity of the Tahoe race, and the exceptional difficulty of the course somehow made the “representative suffering” that we do that much more significant.

Training went well, and fundraising went even better, shockingly so. It was relatively easy, thanks to you, your creativity, and your well-wishes. The logistics of getting to Tahoe presented some hurdles, first with a cancelled flight and an extra night in Phoenix en route, and next, much more worrisome, with unpredictably hazardous air quality in the area because of the King Fire. When I checked in Friday afternoon it was beautiful, and so too was Saturday through midday. But the wind shifted Saturday afternoon, and then all of Squaw Valley and the north Lake Tahoe area filled with smoke.

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Race morning, all 2500+ athletes were ready to start on the shoreline. We were all anxious about the challenges of the course but race weather looked to be great. But as we stood at the starting line (and I on the front line), the first-ever announcement to cancel an Ironman race was made. It was a stunner:  ultimately, the right decision for everyone’s health, but gut-wrenching nevertheless. I wound up doing the entire 2.4mi swim with some of the pro athletes anyway – why waste a beautiful morning for a workout?
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I caught an earlier flight out the next morning to arrive in NH late Monday night. Alternative race options seemed limited. I was fit, but my head was scrambled and work demands were magnifying. So right after taking Soren to school on Tuesday morning, I went out and ran 12 miles hard, just to clear my mind and use my fitness. And then a few hours later, I received an email with the crazy possibility to race a new Ironman in Chattanooga the following Sunday, September 28th. Was it even feasible? Would my newly sore legs actually heal? Would my family even put up with it (Soren said, “dad, you just got home!”)? Why even bother? We had already raised a lot of money…$8,000!  The primary mission was accomplished.

Then (as always) Erika said two simple but telling things: 1) I was fit now, so I might as well use that fitness, and 2) although I hadn’t raced an Ironman since 2011, I’d trained for two of them in 2013 (Lake Placid, when Soren got sick) and 2014 (Lake Tahoe). The entire family had sacrificed to allow me to train; that’s the challenge, the race is the celebration. So, race I would. I burned the rest of my frequent flier miles, found the cheapest lodging, car, etc I could find, told the bike shipment company to route my bike to Chattanooga, and headed out, simply, to go race an Ironman in my Team in Training kit, and represent it well.

Thank goodness for Southern hospitality. The city of Chattanooga was meant to host this race. Getting there, registered, and ready to race was easy, allowing me time to preview the course and focus.

The following morning at oh-dark-30, for the first time in 20 Ironmans, I didn’t have friends or family with me in person. Yet I knew I had a huge crowd with me in spirit. I knew I’d bottle that emotion and support and draw from it throughout, and whenever times got rough, I’d remind myself that no challenge in a race even deserves comparison to the challenges that Soren and other blood cancer patients endure. Heck, it’s not even as hard as being a parent or a loved one of a patient.

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Cut to the chase: I did the 2.4 mile downriver swim in a ridiculously fast 42 minutes and was soon the first amateur on the road. The rolling bike course was four miles longer than the usual 112 miles because of traffic concerns, but I hit the 100 mile mark in 4:22 (a PR) and the final transition in 5:06. The course was fast and the weather was ideal: cloudy with sprinkles in the high 60s. The run was always going to be the challenge because I couldn’t do many miles following my knee surgery this year, so I did a planned cycle of 9 minutes of running, 1 minute walking. Even still, for most of the fairly hilly run on concrete I held steady near the front of the race.

Between miles 14 and 16 I hit a true low patch and a few amateurs passed me. I looked inward as I downed Coke. I saw the “Soaring for Soren” band on my wrist, reflected on the sacrifices, and gathered my resolve. After that point I actually got better and held it together for the remaining 10 miles, that is until the last 500 meters when I stopped repressing those emotions. The finish chute was a mix of high fives, smiles, cheers and tears, as I finished in a best-ever time of 9 hours, 23 minutes, 3rd place among men 40-44, sixth amateur, and 35th of 2300+ finishers. And yes, I earned my 8th trip to Kona in 2015 for the World Championships. [If you’d like some humor, go to this link, click on the finish line video and scroll to 1:30.]

I could go on about the sacrifices and how much this race meant, but you already know this. Honestly, I’m simply stunned that I executed the race as well as I did. I can’t think of any real mistakes throughout the entire day, which is amazing given how many mistakes I typically make any given nine hours.

Now the last thing you’ll hear from me is that this was somehow meant to be, because from our introduction to this cause, to this crazy story here, none of it was preordained. We just make the best of what we have. With the example that Soren set, and your support for him and us, it’s a lot easier for me to find silver linings. And what once seemed daunting, the immense physical challenge of racing and logistically executing an Ironman, now seems relatively simple and pure.

Thank you all so much for your support.

PS:  A very telling before and after shot from Apple Harvest Day, 2013 and 2014. And fingers crossed for another checkup at Dana-Farber tomorrow.

boys gangnamappleharvest2014

smoke clouds and silver linings