Serious as a heart attack

As an athlete, I feel that I am on a journey to find ways to get better and more efficient in my training and my racing.  A clean eating and structured exercise regimen have afforded me a life where I am faster and leaner since turning 50 than I thought possible.  I feel that the mandate to “live long as prosper” from Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame has come true for me.  The onus is on me to maintain and pass along what I learn along this path.

I get and keep confidence to continue progressing by reviewing the positive aspects that science and experience teaches:  lean endurance athletes are at a reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.  Yet, like a normal person, I know that there are some documented risks and side effects and consequences with my regimen.  Until this weekend, those risks got nearly none of my attention.

This weekend was the National Championships in Duathlon, in Greenville, SC.  I will soon forget the competition, but I won’t forget my friend Ed’s heart attack on race day.

One of my sons watching the race noticed Ed holding his chest on run 1 on Saturday morning.  When I passed Ed on run 2, he looked like he was in bad shape, as his eyes were rolling in his head.  After the race was over and I was talking with friends and family during recovering, my cell phone rang.  Megan from medical at USA Triathlon told me that after Ed crossed the finish line, he had been taken by ambulance to the hospital and he had told her to contact me as his emergency contact.  I met up with Megan, gathered his stuff, and created a plan to go to the hospital to see him.  I spoke with his wife on the phone, assuring her that he was in good hands.  She was in TX, and we were in SC, so she started making plans to get to here as soon as she could.

When I reached the hospital, Ed looked like a Christmas tree, with tubes, screens and lights surrounding him.  Ed had a heart attack during the race but pushed through to the finish line, as he really wanted to wear the TeamUSA logo and compete internationally next year.  Indeed, within a few minutes of arriving, he asked if I knew his time and I he made the cut.  The doctors put a stint in his heart to release the blockage via an artery in his groin immediately upon arrival in the hospital, and the darn thing wasn’t even a few hours old when I walked in.  Didn’t matter to him.  “Was I fast enough to make it?” was all that he wanted to share.

“Ed, you just hard a heart attack!  Let’s see you on the path to recovery, first!” was what came out of my mouth.  What I wanted to say was something like, “are you flipping serious?  Like, serious as a heart attack?  You could have died, Dude!”  In this one rare instance, going way out of character, I chose not to speak what was on my mind.

As an endurance athlete, I “know” just like everyone else “knows” that there is some peer reviewed research and anecdotal evidence out there that conclude excessive endurance exercise can be bad.  In one peer reviewed paper, the effects of long term endurance exercise cause a, “pathologic structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries.”  Indeed, the story of the first marathon ends with the original runner, Pheidippides, dying upon completion of the event.  The author of the book, “The Complete Book of Running,” died of a heart attack while running at age 52, and a 55-year-old mountain biker died 1 mile from the finish line of a race that he had already completed 18 times.  Until this weekend, I glazed over those events, dwelling on it long enough only to say, “not me.”  Ed was the same way.

I met Ed racing at Powerman Zofingen years ago.  Ed is short and stocky, but he has a motor that never stops.  He was always quick to say, “go USA,” when we passed each other during the race, and he is known by many for saying encouraging words to those whom he competes with, regardless of their citizenship.  He is a consummate sportsman.  He is one of those guys whom I nearly always beat but feel no shame in losing to.  Ed and his wife support my school building efforts via The Nepal Project, and they are “givers” down to their cores.  I was fearful that he was about to give his life.

I had a lot of reasons to complain about my National Championship.  Since February, I have been fighting a strain in my quads that has made it difficult to push at either the intensity or the duration I needed to reach to be competitive.  During the first race, I lost one of my cycling shoes in transition, and it took assistance from two of the refs before I found it.  My chain came off as soon as I finally got on my bike, and my rear brake rubbed throughout.  Yet, compared to Ed, I had an uneventful race.

God uses catastrophic events like this to get our attention.  When I arrived in the hospital room Ed quickly became teary eyed, as I was the first person from his previous life to see and talk to him since his life changing event.  I tried to joke with him, telling him that this was most certainly a consequence of voting for Trump.  His chuckle and subsequent cough brought a smile to both of our faces.  The world will only see the bad and perceive that events like heart attacks are random acts we can’t yet fully predict, like Earthquakes and girls and guys who break up with each other over text message.

We know that mortality catches all of us and it is highly unlikely that anyone racing this weekend will be remembered for their athletic prowess 50 years from now.  Yet, it is the power of our relationships that evoke change.  I held Ed’s hand and told him that good would come of this, I sensed a connection that would outlast this moment, in this place, surrounded by the power of science that often isolates us from our Creator.

The next day, I decided not to compete.  I told everyone that I had an achy knee (true) and that I can’t stand riding at 20+ mph in the cold (also true).  The missing part of my story was the impact that spending time Ed had on my psyche.  I did not fear a heart attack.  It was my lack of drive to compete that kept me on the sidelines. Instead, I stood on the run section of the course with my sons, cheering on my friends and encouraging them…for Ed.  That is what he would have done, had he been allowed to leave the hospital.  I watched Marcus, Rob, Randy, Mike L, Kristen and bunch of folks whom I normally compete against give it their best when their best mattered.  Yes, it was cold and I wished I was racing, but I knew I did the right thing.

When we got back home Sunday afternoon, we unpacked our gear and put everything away.  I repaired a piece of power equipment and raked our long gravel driveway, to get the pot holes out of it, and reviewed the final numbers on this year’s tax return.   After dinner, I sat on the couch and watched TV, when I got a long text from Ed.  He was beside himself with joy.  His son who had had been estranged from him for years gave him a call.  He son felt something on his heart, and he decided to call his dad and talk.  The two of them spoke on the phone, and Ed was overjoyed to tears.  Oddly enough, on Day 2, Ed was already grateful for his heart attack.

It is with both joy and satisfaction that I am passing on my TeamUSA status for 2019 and letting my slot on the team hopefully roll down to Ed.  For any of you ahead of Ed in the 50 to 54-year-old age category who considering passing on competing in Spain next year, the one who will be getting your slot will make you proud.  He will make us all proud.

Ed shared last night that his heart scans showed no damage to the heart muscle.  Ed’s wife called me.  She said he wanted to go out for a run.

When I was creating my training schedule months ago, I had put in a week off as a transition cycle before I begin building for Worlds in Denmark this July.  Before this weekend, I hesitated thinking if that was a good idea or not.  No doubt, I will take this week off from running and cycling and be grateful that I am doing so by choice and not by mandate.

Cheers to Ed and all the good that comes from a heart attack.

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Thoughts from a friend

At the core of goal setting is a deep dive into your definition of what it means to make an impact with your time and resources while you are on the Earth.  Yet, goals are viewed as an end, not a means.  Too bad that isn’t true.

To many, the goal is the end.  Google “goal setting,” and it is likely that you end up on a page that lists out specific goals, with lots of stories about the people and how they achieved them.  You’ve seen the lists.  They include items like:

  • Achieve a physical milestone-lift such and such a weight, run a distance, etc.
  • Go to the Super Bowl/World Series/Master’s, etc.
  • Have a certain number of people follow you/like you/provide dopamine hits to your brain to justify the effort put into your social presence
  • Be a guest star on Oprah (yes, I read online that someone really has that as their goal)

It takes no effort at all to realize that the act of stating your goals exposes how shallow and self-centered we humans are when it comes to defining the value of goals.

After all, the true definition of the value of a human is the impact that they make in the lives of others, one decision at a time.

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Moments before puking

One of my best friends recently resigned from a job to take a new, lesser paying job, so he would have time to execute on what he thinks is his life purpose.  My friend is an engaging teacher, who loves to share his understanding of Biblical passages and blend them with anecdotal stories from the real world.

My friend’s tools include his understanding of ancient Greek and a cumulative total of the all the mornings he has spent listening to and reading the Bible.  My friend also adds to his exposure on the topic by listening to podcasts, both related and unrelated, while working out.  He immerses himself in scripture, as a discipline, like I do with running, cycling and strength training.

But there are literally tens of millions of people with the focus and dedication of my friend.  Those efforts don’t separate him from people like you and me.  But his life experiences do.

You see, his wife left him 7 years ago, using only a hand-written note to announce her departure.  Then, she convinced their two children to have nothing to do with him.  He has been intentionally separated from his children, grandchildren and their livelihood, based only on the words of a single, mentally ill woman.  He is recently recovering from a heart attack that he knows, deep down, was preventable.  My friend was given a 3rd chance.

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My friend, at Tengboche, on the way to Everest Base Camp

When I think about what persecution means, the visualization I get includes my friend.

Yet, with all that noise, the inner voice telling him, “you need to teach,” has been loud and is only getting louder.  His choice to take less money to have more time shows his courage to follow his heart and his intuition.  Best of all, My friend remarried, and his new wife supports him completely.    My friend had to experience pain and manage it, in ways that I can only imagine.

No pain, no gain.  You have heard that before.  What is missing in that phrase is whose pain and whose gain are we talking about.   My friend has taken his personal pain and is making it into our gain.  I look forward to hearing his latest teachings.

Sharing what you have learned from your pain is, after all, how you make an impact on humanity.

What pain have you experienced that you can share?

We are all listening.

Race reports and Waffle House

This entire blog was a discovery and a commitment that the things that pass through my mind as I train for and reflect upon big-deal events shouldn’t be kept to myself and the family and friends close enough to hear my stories.  Sharing here refines me as a person as I transcribe them, and it keeps me humble.

The concept of a race report has evolved.  If you google “triathlon race reports,” you can find lots of places where folks dump their “Here is what I did.  Here is what happened.  Here is what I learned.” commentary.  These writings now are a mini-part of history, and based on feedback I have received over the years, they make a difference to you.

Alex Gaura at the end of a 50K Ultra marathon
Father and Son at the finish line of a 50K race

Media tries to pull competition reports out of athletes during post event interviews, often before the athlete has processed what happened.  When the camera is running, the athlete defaults to a script of, “we played a great team today,” or “We were able to maintain our focus,” comments, knowing good and well that whatever they say would be held against them.  Truth be told, the athletes themselves have yet to formulate a coherent thought about what just happened.  How can they?  They haven’t debriefed in a safe environment with their peers and coaches.

When I watch my TV interview after my first World Championships, I see that I had no idea what I was saying.  The only thing I remember was committing to return one day, with my wife in tow, as I know she would love Portugal and Spain.  Hopefully, I will be able to honor that promise in 2019.

 

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Being Silly at the start of the National Championship

My race reports started when I got to participate on stages that I never dreamed of being allowed to stand on.  The primary reason I put them to pen was to address the fact that I was telling different parts of the same story to many different people.  And, my propensity to let my 2-foot-long fish to grow into a 3-foot-long fish by the end of the story’s third telling gets royally squashed when I put the details to pen.

A short and sweet race report often happens to my wife via text message after the event.  “Race is over.  Alex and/or I won our age groups.  Going to Waffle house.”  Sometimes, it takes the social form of a post on FB or Instagram.  I like stupid poses the best-reflects my own blend of silliness and discipline.  See above.

And yes, we really like Waffle House.  And yes, we know that you just fired us.

However, it is over that meal at Waffle House when we discover what happened and what we can perhaps do differently next time, to get better.  Amazing thing how such low-quality food cooked behind the counter can really change our thinking.  I’ll take another hot tea, please.

Why I do this?

I get asked, just like you do, ¨what did you do last weekend?”

As an endurance athlete at heart, my one sentence answers of distances traveled on bike and on foot can be viewed as prideful boasting or attempts to make a point.  Indeed, many people don’t know what to do with my answers and often respond with something that parallels, “that sounds uncomfortable,” or “why would anyone ever do that?”  Since I have had a couple of those responses in the last few months, I am writing this blog.  You see, my answers are a part of my faith.

At the core of the question, “what did you do with your free time?” lies the fundamental assumption that we all are striving for either more comfort or to maintain the joy that which we have found.  When they hear 100 miles of cycling or 50 miles of running, there is an unspoken conclusion that these events were NOT comfortable.  Some normal people  conclude that these events are a form of lunacy and create an outcome opposite of what would have happened if I had stayed with family at home.  Dead wrong.

I have not built my definition of comfort on those worldly premises.  Comfort is not a big house or an ever growing 401(k).  Comfort is not safe physical spaces filled with people you love and wholove you back.  As a Christian, I have a promise that following Christ will not be “comfortable” in the world’s definition.  Indeed, Christ tells us that the act of following him will result in suffering, and sacrifice is an inseparable part of Christian identity.

I find “comfort” when I am stripped down to raw emotion, unfettered with my thoughts or current events.  When my spirit and emotions are rubbed down to their barest of levels, I get insight into my own identity that doesn’t happen if I am going out to eat with family or working on yard projects.  In my Christianity, this is called faith “like a child,” because it is unencumbered by the world’s opinion.  I intentionally push myself to places that require heroic effort to reach.  Women with children understand this journey.  Women are quick and confident when they share how becoming a mother changed them more than any other life event.  I have spoken to female endurance athletes who say the act of childbirth has much in common with endurance racing.   The act of completing these tasks is cleansing and full of renewal.  Unfortunately, more people see endurance racing like going to funeral rather than childbirth.

Like all endurance athletes, though, there is baggage associated with these extremes.  There always is a “what’s next,” side to conversation with family, friends and peers, and it is nearly always assumed that there is a next one on the list. My wife is sure that I will never have enough of a challenge.  She hears me say, ¨”I will NEVER run the Badwater 135,” and hears, “maybe he will one day.”  It disturbs her.  She gets upset that I will get hurt.  She fears having a disabled husband who could have prevented the entire incident if he had just a bit more self-control.

Like most wives, she is right.  But there is more to it.

For those of you who seek traditionally defined comfort, you are normal.  But, do you really think that leaving behind an untested, well-preserved body is how God made you, or were his parables in the bible attempts at humor?

God tells a story in the book of Matthew called the parable of the talents.  In this story, talents are coins, but meant to serve as an analogy for God given gifts. In the story, a master entrusts each of three different servants with a fixed amount of coins.  Two of the servants invest their talents and yield a return.  When the master returns and seeks accountability for the gifts, they show what they did with their talents.  They are well received and respected by their master.  However, one servant fears failure and the risk associated with a bad outcome. He chooses not to use his talent but instead hides them awaiting his master’s return.

These talents are symbolic of the gifts that God gives us, and our bodies are one of them.  Using your body as God intended includes sacrifice and risking the unknown.  The obesity rate in our country shows how far Christian sacrifice has been replaced with Worldly comfort for modern Christians.  Using your body as it is intended to be used means that you must risk the unknown, and sometimes, that includes suffering.  In addition to the childbirth analogy, the adage quoted in nearly every gym of “no pain, no gain,” is an indication that in the world of fitness, suffering is a pre-requisite to achieving growth.

I cannot find comfort by hiding my gift under the rock of safety.  My faith calls me to find comfort in expanding my talents, and this necessarily includes using my body.

Risk aversion as a Christian is also problematic.  If we look at the servant who took no risk, the master responds to him, calling him, “lazy and evil.”  I have no interest in hearing that label applied to me on judgement day, considering who will be speaking it.  Just like sacrifice and suffering, help minimize the risk of heart disease and diabetes, I have the ability to control the outcome by saying, “yes,” when others say, “no,” and “no,” when others say, “yes.”

I want to die knowing I challenged the shallow definition of comfort and took my commitment to my faith as intended.  Last year, I feared both the Badwater Cape Fear and the Annapurna 100 Ultra Marathons.  This year, I am doing two World Championships with my son watching me.  Yes, I am scared, but that is a part of the reason I am doing it.

There is not enough space to write about the importance of asking what scares you and how it is impacting your choices to play it safe. The enemy wants you to play it safe.  The enemy is looking forward to you putting your “you” under a rock and awaiting Jesus to return in glory.  I, for one, am not going to listen to the enemy in this matter.

That is why I enjoy being an endurance athlete.

That is why I AM an endurance athlete.

 

Alex Gaura at the end of a 50K Ultra marathon

Jump Start on 2018

Athletically, 2017 ended on a high note. My son attempted AND completed his first Ultra Marathon, as the last race of the year.  I have so much gratitude as I review last year.

  • I didn’t get injured! Thank you, Pilates!
  • I attempted two difficult Ultra Marathons: Bad Water and Annapurna, and I was successful at both! I completed 5 Ultras in 2017-three years ago, I couldn’t run down the driveway without pain.
  • I PR’d a standard distance duathlon that just so happened to be a World Championships (WCH), after age 50! Yahoo!
  • I qualified for and signed up for a double World Championship in Denmark next year with my son. Two WCH in 2 days is exciting and requires a whole new sort of racing fitness that I have not ever tried to develop.
Alex Gaura at the end of a 50K Ultra marathon
Father and Son at the finish line of a 50K race

Success in 2018 will require a plan that addresses shortcomings and a plan to get better.

No one progresses in life without a deep dive into what could be improved upon and executing on a plan to get better.  This year, I want to inject some of those philosophies into my daily plan.

To run faster, I need to incorporate not just more running, but more speedwork into my running.  Too often, I train as if the next race is a marathon, and I head out for long, slow runs.  Those long runs benefit a lot of body systems, but they aren’t enough, if the plan is to get faster.  Starting in 2018, my 10-day training cycle includes 2 speed days, up from just 1.   As I get closer to competition, I will increase that to 3 speed days.

To bike faster, I decided I needed a disk rear wheel, hopefully to grant me about 2 mph.  I am already training hard and often on the bike, and the incremental increase with additional training would require more time than I invest today.   That 2 mph may not seem like much, but it is a nearly 10% increase, and all it cost me was a pair of shoes.  Long Story-I sold a pair of shoes in 2015 for some bitcoin.  I sold the bitcoin in December 2017 and bought a Reynolds Rear disk with the proceeds.  Yes, non-criminals are making money on bitcoin, too.

My weaknesses are flexibility and late-night eating.  I am certainly doing nightly stretching, but I am also taking time during the day to do some basic stretching, as well.  As a minor change, there is a part of Pilates class when I conveniently get up to go to the bathroom, as I hate rollovers.  I have decided that I can’t become more flexible if I keep avoiding that which I do not like.  I have since committed to staying in the class during rollovers.  Sounds silly but doing what you don’t like is part of growing up.  Isn’t that what we ask of others when we expect them to change their behavior?  Can’t lead if you don’t practice what you are preaching, right?

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TRX Training at a Pilates Studio

As I have repeatedly blogged, we all need “why” behind what we are doing that isn’t about us, if it is to have an impact on others.  My wife and I are down to one kid at home, our son Alex.    Next year, the “A” event is the World Championships, followed by 3 days of serious trail running with my son in the mountains of Jotenheimen in central Norway.  That will give me a period of 7 days when I engage in 2 WCH, then run 20 miles a day for 3 consecutive days.  I am calling this my “A Week.” With this being my son’s last summer at the house before heading to college, this trip to Norway represents his high school graduation gift.  I can’t express how grateful I am that he has embraced and even helped plan the events associated with our choice to go to Norway and see the home of Thor, Odin and the like.

I put off until last that which I am the least capable of doing something about, namely, late night eating.  We eat an early dinner, then, something “happens” between dinner and bed and I get a serious case of the munchies.  Sometimes, it includes wine, and that makes this worse!  I have a couple of ideas:

  • Pre-portion out the late-night snacks, so as to prevent spontaneous binge eating.
  • Just say, “no.”
  • Give myself a couple of “free” days each week, say, on Saturday and Wednesday, when I can feel less constrained and restrain myself on the other days.

I am going with the first one…

What is you plan for 2018?  What does it look like?  Have you vetted it with someone you either trust or has shown evidence that they have overcome what you haven’t been able to?

More importantly, why are you doing it?

Good reasons, good plans, good feelings, good citizenship-they go together.  Plan 2018 before Jan1, when the rest of the world attempts this task.

 

 

 

 

Balance-not something you find…it is something you make.

This year represented my 4th opportunity to compete in a World Championship level event in Duathlon.  Since there is no Intergalactic Championship to take part in, this year’s race in British Columbia, Canada represented the end of the road for competitive Duathlon in 2017.  Nothing bigger than a World Championship…at least, not yet.

World Championships are always memorable.  The Parade of Nations makes you feel like an Olympian, albeit with only half the number of countries represented.  Putting on the National Team uniform and knowing you represent the USA for all to see is humbling yet empowering to the spirit of adventure that lives in all of us.  The overwhelming sense of funk that all athletes exude when their race is over and they socialize with other athletes is the source of great olfactory assault, yet mildly reaffirming that you just finished something that is difficult and special.

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Running with Mike and Rob

 

The best part of the 2017 World Championship was getting along with other TeamUSA athletes.  Run 1 turned into a fun run with my friends Mike and Rob. We ran side by side for the first 5k, averaging about a 6 ½ minute mile and we all reached the transition point within 10 seconds of one another.  We talked to each other, often, keeping each other encouraged.  Rob said that our banter was the only thing that kept him going during those first 40 minutes of tough running.  The bike was super-fast, as the terrain was flat.  Run 2 was more of run 1, and I hit the finish line, setting a personal best for that distance, despite a few cramps.

 

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3 athletes and the coach from Liberty University

I got to meet some great people and connect with some old friends.  I traded clothing with a Team South Africa athlete, and I got to meet the coach of Liberty University Triathlon and connect him with my youngest son.  Can’t tell you how proud it would make me feel to have both of my sons attend Liberty!  Rob and I attended an essential oils party with a couple of girls on TeamUSA, Melissa and Kerry.  We laughed so hard that it hurt!  Lastly, getting to experience the solar eclipse, minutes after crossing the finish line is an event I don’t ever see replicating.

Each year’s World Championship has had a unique focus in my memory.  Year one, the top of mind item was trying to reconcile my desire to compete with a lack of training due to injury.  Year two, I was overwhelmed by the distance and effort required to complete Powerman Zofingen and was grateful to finish the race.  Year three challenged me in that I was trying to become a better Ultra Marathoner while simultaneously getting stronger on the bike.  This year, I attempted to have a greater balance of training, life and work, with Spirit a part of every task.

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Kerry and Melissa-too much fun.

After all, balance isn’t something you find.  It is something you create.

This year started with a far-fetched goal of competing and finishing the Badwater Cape Fear Ultramarathon in early March.  I hyper-exceeded goals there, coming in near the top in the standings, both for age and for overall.  The end of the year includes 3 Ultra Marathons in a 7-week window, including one in Nepal to raise money for school building and another with our scout troop to help boys develop into men.  Although neither event has happened yet, I am sure that joy will come while running with Nepali natives and with our scout troop.  Both events shall be my “highs” of 2017 with regards to fitness.

After all, seeking fitness for fitness sake is selfish.  Using fitness to build the Temple of God while helping others hits at the core value of the human experience.

It is my heart’s desire that each of your reading this, regardless of where you are in your fitness journey take a few moments to answer the question, “how can I use my fitness achievements to help others?”  No matter how many medals I hang on my wall, none of them are worth as much to me as the smile I see when I help another athlete achieve something new.

That is the balance that I want all of us to create.  That is the selfish application of fitness that can make you happy.  Give it away, and you will have more wealth in your heart than you can imagine.

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Before the Start of the Badwater.  Seems so long ago!

My bike now sits in the basement, with only a day or so a week of riding happening between now and the winter.  My running shoes are now my weapon of choice, and the finish line now has images of people I am running for, not of places to see and things to accumulate.  Follow the story on http://thenepalproject.org for ongoing updates of the impact of the Annapurna100 on the people of Nepal.

Because She Can’t

Athletes often get special treatment, paid to do what they love and show off their successes in front of a crowd that they would not otherwise have access to.  Athletes get to embrace glory and keep ornaments from their events like the starry dome that they think surrounds them.  Even those athletes who demonstrate unsportsmanlike behavior get accolades and affirmation from the audience they are meant to inspire.

My father recently passed along a bronze medal he earned at an event during the 1930s down to my son, sharing his moment of glory when he was a young athlete, with vision and mission in his heart.  My son kept that medal in his drawer, along with some other mementos from his family that he treasures.  It has a meaning beyond the effort that happened on that day that contains an intangible effect from being a part of a special moment.  My father’s worth was tested that day, and he grew up that day.  And, yes, the outcome is important, as our current culture of participation trophies and “every kid gets equal playing time,” will be our doom.

I argue that our spirit needs more than fun times, medals and glory to justify all the training and nutrition needed to run and bike at threshold.  I need a sustainable and humility based answer.  I must perform during training and on race day with others in mind, if I am to make a difference.

In my heart and soul, I know that taking care of my body is Worship.  A vocalist who writes and performs music has to determine if the focus is the crowd or their Creator.  I, too, must be aware of why I am putting on my uniform when those special days arrive.  A long time ago, I determined that if my answer to “why am I doing this” included phrases like, “get a bigger trophy” and “get my name in the paper” I have missed the point of why I am on this Earth.

11 WaterfallOur time on this Earth is weaved in series of relationships, like a Escher painting.  Before I do a “world championship” level event, I pick an individual to race “with me” who won’t be standing next to me at the starting line.  Sometimes, I know who it is for when I sign up a year in advance; other times, like this time, I didn’t know who it I was for until a few weeks before the starting gun.

This race, I dedicated to Betty Gaetan, my mother in law.  She has always been one of my biggest supporters and has told stories of my athletic “glory” to people whom I will likely never meet.  She is a groupie who happens to really love me.  Since July, she has been experiencing medical problems, and she still has another surgery in her near future.  Not only could she not perform the events that take place in a 55km duathlon, she can’t even come see me, either.

When I called her to tell her that I was going to push at this year’s World Championship for her, she was happy.  What I have not yet told, or anyone for that matter, is how she was there with me, on race day.

When the gun sounded, three of us on TeamUSA ran together for the first 10k, all finishing a few seconds apart.  We all ran quickly and were proud of our numbers, but what made the moment special is that none of us could have ran at that pace, for that long, without each other.  Thanks to Mike and Rob, for helping keep the pace.  Special thanks to Betty, for being there in spirit.  My friends saw us as a group of three.  In reality, I carried Betty with me.

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Lake Okanagan

Most of the bike ride take place on the shore of Lake Okanagan in central British Columbia.  Turning around at the checkpoint to begin this last leg back to transition, I set a visual focus on a Danish competitor in front of me, and I decided to chase him down and pass him.  It was an exhilarating feeling to run my power up to 300 watts and leave it there, to make my pass.  Once I got by him, I powered down to a more human number and looked at the beauty of the lake and how majestic it is.  My heart rate was holding at 150 and my body was in sync with what I was asking it to do.  I was purring on the bike saddle, and I had Betty’s spirit with me.  A few minutes later, the Dane passed me, looked over, and nodded his head, acknowledging that we were “game on” and would be passing each other for the rest of the race.  He tucked in front of me and ran his effort levels up, trying to hold me back.  No joy for him!  For the next 15 minutes, we passed each other two more times before racking our bikes and putting on running shoes.  I raced and paced that Dane, because Betty couldn’t.

When there was only 500 meters left till the finish line, I was greeted by a TeamUSA representative who handed me a US flag and cheered me on.  I upped my pace to nearly a 5:30 mile and held it all the way to the finish line.  As I approached the finish, the announcer called my name, and I held the flag high, thinking about Betty, knowing she couldn’t do that.

I did that race with her, for her.  And, the next time I see her, I am giving her that flag as a token on that day.  It isn’t the flag that will weave us together, but it does give us a token of our event, just like my father’s bronze medal is a token that my son treasures.

Although I don’t know what that flag will mean to her, it will mean more to me, as I am the one who gets to give it away.

Because she can’t.

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Betty Gaetan and my son, Michael, after a football game in 2011