Thursday, October 2, 2014

Saying Goodbye

This article originally was published July 30, 2003

The room was dark as I entered. The television was off and the only life in the air was generated from a ceiling fan that was circulating at a low rate. I knew it was going to be hard to take those initial steps into my grandma's house but I also knew I had to, no matter how much it hurt.

As I walked in, I saw her, the person who I've always considered the strongest woman I've ever met. But on this day she didn't have the energy to get up and greet me with a typical hug.

I knew this was coming, but it didn't smack me in the face until I walked into her house last week. After hearing the news in March that my grandma only had eight months to live due to rapid-moving bladder cancer, my initial reaction was to get on the first plane home to Massachusetts to see her. Unfortunately, it's not always possible to hop on a flight home whenever something tragic happens, so my trip east last week was my first visit since hearing the news, and could possibly be the last time I'd ever see her alive.

After hunching down to kiss her on the cheek, my mind started wandering through everything I knew and had experienced with this woman. She raised four incredible children (separated only by six years) in a small house that has about as much room as a Ford Expedition. With a husband who spent extended periods of time on the road for his work, she had to be the enforcer and the homemaker by herself, which is never an easy job. But she managed and made sure all four kids had an opportunity to make the most of their lives.

She religiously made the half-mile walk to her church every weekend. Just a few years ago, after the death of my grandfather, she took on the role of baby-sitter for my younger cousin's son. It brought a smile to my face to think about my grandma chasing an infant around that empty house.

And, more recently, I can think back to the times when I'd visit her and within minutes she'd have a heart-stopping, greasy breakfast ready for me. As much as I didn't think I needed more eggs, sausage or toast slathered in butter, I knew I could find the room in my stomach just to spend another 10 or 15 minutes in that cramped kitchen with her.

My mind then wandered to how her days now start and end in her recliner. She doesn't have the strength or energy to climb in and out of her bed. Watching her methodically use her walker to get to the bathroom was almost unbearable. Instead of her usual walking stride, she's been reduced to shuffling her right foot, sliding her walker a few inches and shuffling her left foot to catch up.

My daydreaming came to a screeching halt as I heard her say in a hushed tone, "I never thought it would come to this, Michael." Immediately, I was thrust back into reality. I spent another 45 minutes or so at her house and decided it was time to go. We both knew this was goodbye without having to say the words.

I walked out of the house and into the bright sunlight of the day, a sunlight my ailing grandma doesn't get to experience anymore. I wanted to rush back into the house and pull her out to the front porch for a look. But I knew I couldn't. My grandma doesn't have the strength to stand on the front porch anymore, but she's still the strongest person I've ever met.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Perfect Ending

This is how it was supposed to end.

One hundred yards standing between me and the marathon finishing line Sunday - and off to the right on the sidewalk I see my little 7-year-old rule-follower Lucy holding her "Run, Daddy, Run!" (perfect comma placement) sign. Then, leaping off the sidewalk and onto the course comes the wild, polka-dot-raincoat-wearing, 4-year-old Paige in a full sprint toward my exhausted body.

I'm running on fumes but Paige and I are in lock-step toward the finish line. If there had been any fluids left in my body, I'm sure they would have been pouring out of my eyeballs. Instead, we push to the end. Paige peels off before the official finish line. I cross, stare blankly at a lady congratulating me while slipping a medal over my neck, then receive my commemorative inaugural Iris Marathon finisher T-shirt. Perfect.

Five weeks earlier I never dreamed this was possible. Lying on a couch as my calves continued to twitch hours after my 23-mile failure, I had no plans to run another marathon...and seriously debated the purpose of lacing up the bright orange Sauconys again. Why train for four months if the race director is just going to screw up the bus transportation to the starting line and it's going to be a blistering (to a runner) 75 degrees on race day? Why give up my Saturday mornings to do long runs in the rain? Why forgo family hikes because I was too exhausted from the previous day's training run?

Within 24 hours of crashing and burning in Banks five weeks ago, I received an outpouring of support I never expected. Social media comments, texts, calls - it started the healing process. Two people (Deana in Mass. and Tom in Wisc.) suggested I sign up for another marathon in the near future to maximize my training. I wanted to punch them both in the face.

Five days later, unprompted, Paige looked at me and said, "Daddy, let's go running." I buckled her into our faded-red jogging stroller and off we went. It was five miles of her pointing at "landmarks" in our town (the cow mailbox, the highway bridge we cross, the excavators tearing up the road) and cackling with laughter while I ran with no timer, no watch and no cares. It was perfect.

Then, my mind started turning. Maybe I could do another marathon if one fell within 4-6 weeks of this one. Maybe I could double-down on my training. Maybe Allison wouldn't divorce me on the spot when I suggest doing another marathon after she was the only adult witness to how truly awful I looked after my last. Maybe I was a horrible person for wanting to punch my friends in their respective faces.

The plan was to tell as few people as possible figuring this would keep my nerves down and limit who I had to inform if I failed again (although I did consult a couple more marathon runners, Rich and Jerry, who immediately said to go for it), monitor the weather at the Iris Marathon (home of my fastest half-marathon ever, 1:37, in last year's race), and if it looked promising, I'd sign up a couple days ahead of time.

Sure enough, the forecast called for light rain and low-50s for race morning - perfect again. I signed up and did not receive divorce papers, so knew I was clear to run Sunday. Of course, the marathon is a unrelenting beast, so it's no surprise the skies opened with a hard downpour at Mile 20 (it stopped three miles later). But, it didn't matter. By that point I was determined - my stomach was fine, my hydration was solid and if I had to crawl the final six be it.

Turns out I didn't have to crawl. My pace slowed slightly down the stretch and I finished in 4:01, my best time ever. Six-weeks-ago Mike would have lamented missing breaking the completely arbitrary round number of 4:00 but today's Mike could not have cared less.

I finished. I got my medal. I took pictures with the kids at the finish line. I had a free beer afterward. 4:01. 4:21. 5:01. I didn't care - it wasn't a DNF - and I proved to myself and the girls that just because you fail once, doesn't mean you don't try again. Do they get this lesson at 7 and 4 years old? I have no idea. Considering Paige wanted to fist-fight Lucy and I when it appeared she was going to lose at Candyland later that day, no, she probably doesn't get it yet.

But, it's what kept me focused, determined and moving one foot in front of the other as I passed mile markers 23, 24, 25 and 26. It's what got me across that finish line. I hope that moment stays with them for a long time because it's something I'll never forget.

Monday, April 14, 2014


The ending was supposed to take place on the track behind the high school while the public address announcer read my name as I came down the home stretch. Allison, Lucy and Paige would be there, cheering, and I'd probably start crying. Then, the kids would fight over who got to wear my medal as I basked in the post-marathon glow.

Instead, my race ended when I slogged through thorny blackberry bushes and an unforeseen deep, wet swamp to climb from the race trail to the divided highway. Beaten, defeated and hardly able to move, I waited for our Mazda5 to pick me up where Highways 47 and 26 intersect, which was about 3 miles from the finish line. There was no cheering. There was no medal. There was just a quiet car and confused looks on the girls' faces.

Of course, the race didn't start as expected, which didn't help my cause. After getting to the town of Banks nice and early, hitting the restrooms (you marathoners know how many times we need a restroom before a race, it varies between "several" and "obsessive") and picking up my number, I got into a line for a bus. This was a point-to-point race so we parked at the finish and were to be bussed to the start. I eagerly jumped in line at 7:50 and waited. And waited. And waited. The late arrivers started forming a different line and when a bus finally showed up, guess who it picked up first? Of course, the other people.

By the time I got on a bus, it was 8:53. The race was scheduled to start at 9:30. We had a 40-minute bus ride ahead of us. And, after standing in line for an hour, I clearly needed to find a bathroom at the starting line. Plus, I had the joy of sitting 3-across on a freaking school bus seat due needing to fit as many people as possible on the long yellow chariot. I wanted to use the bus time to do final prep (applying sunblock and getting ready mentally), and instead spent the trip trying to breathe without bumping into the person next to me and playing a mean game of "who's going to blink first" with my bladder.

The bus issues forced the race starting time to be delayed, meaning the race was pushed deeper into the day's warmth. While everyone in Oregon has been waiting for sunny and 75 degrees, I feared it all week. I trained in 40-degree temps all winter. Rain. Cold. Wind. That's where I'm strong. 75 was going to be too hot. All sun would make it worse. There wasn't a single cloud in the sky as I looked up after executing the fastest pee/check bag/briskly jog to the start possible.

The race started and I tried to put all the early-day issues behind me. As usual, the first few miles sailed by but my splits were all over the place. I typically run every single mile within 5 to 10 seconds of each other, so this was the first sign something was wrong.

The next sign was my stomach distress by Mile 10. For those of you not quick with the math, that means I was staring down 16 more miles of stomach cramps. This also kept me from eating and drinking properly on the go, which in turn led to dehydration and exhaustion later in the race. I've never experienced stomach cramps during any training run. But, yup, it would happen early on race day.

By the mid-way point, I knew this wasn't going to be my day. I was doing mental math about how I could slow my per-mile pace and still hit my "C" goal of breaking four hours.

By Mile 18, things were coming apart. My only hope was I knew the trailhead where Allison, Paige and Lucy were waiting was coming up. More than an hour after the time I told them I expected to be there, I slowly jogged down the path and heard their screaming voices. Paige was proud to give me a bottle of water. Lucy was disappointed I had zero interest in the banana she was holding. Allison looked concerned when I mentioned not being sure if I'd finish.

By Mile 22, I was staggering. I couldn't run or walk in a straight line. I looked like Clark Griswold in "Vacation" as he roamed the desert in search of help when the family truckster broke down. We weren't in the forest anymore, so the sun was beating down. I convinced myself I could run about half a mile, then walk, then try to run again. Just before Mile 23, my calf seized, I stopped in my tracks and mentally checked out. There would be no "A", "B" or "C" goal. There would be no finish on the track. There would be no medal. My body locked up and I couldn't shuffle, couldn't walk. It was over.

A lady not affiliated with the race was riding her bike on the path. She looked at me and said, "I saw that guy up ahead struggling, but then I saw you looking worse, so I wanted to help." She sat with me, gave me sunblock (by this point I crisping up like a rotisserie chicken on the exposed path) and waited until I got through to Allison. I wish I could remember her name. I barely knew my own at this point.

The part that kills me is running is my thing. I spend most days like every other parent - making breakfast (and eating mine last), getting the kids ready for school, making lunches, figuring out dinner, refereeing endless fights between the girls, coaching their sports, putting all their needs first and on and on. I get it - that's your job as a parent and I seriously wouldn't change it for anything. But, running is that one "thing" I have. I don't play golf. I don't go out with the guys for beers after work. I don't play softball in the evenings. I don't play video games. I run. That's it.

And, somehow, running let me down yesterday - four months of training gone. Four months of the most training I've ever done in preparation for a marathon. Gone. I've now started five and finished four marathons, and the way I feel today I believe those will be my lifetime stats in the category.

My concern is the kids saw me not finish what I started. Lucy said, "Well, you missed it by 3 miles" (she is quick with the math). Paige could tell I was hurting and just wanted to keep hugging me. They've seen me limping around the house since and know something went wrong yesterday.

I take solace they can't get into my head, because not finishing what you started is way worse there than any physical ailment.