It was one of the most shocking moments of my young life. On a late spring evening, my sister, father and I were playing catch with a football. I was about 11, my father, 52. For as long as I could remember, he’d had the white hair of a grandfather and the executive paunch of someone who enjoyed a highball and a good meal far more than an hour’s exercise in the backyard. In fact, to the best of my recollection, this was the only time in my life I played anything with him outdoors.
We were in Waterloo, Belgium back in the late Seventies. My Dad had moved us over there as part of his dogged climb up the corporate ladder of ITT. From a Depression era kid that grew up on a fireman’s salary, he’d found his way to Notre Dame and Harvard Business School. Riding on scholarships derived from hard work and undeniable intelligence, my father was the first in his family to go to college. Over a couple of decades, he parlayed that education into university teaching positions before ultimately jumping into Big Business. He was a serious man with no weekend clothes. That night he played with my sister and me, he wore a white t-shirt, suit pants and an old pair of winged tips. Dad didn’t do “sneakers.”
And Dad didn’t do much exercising. At 43, a two-pack-a-day smoker, he’d had a major heart attack on a work trip to Puerto Rico. It cost him over a month in the hospital. Given the best ideas of medicine at the time, he was encouraged to not push things physically and he mostly followed orders.
On that evening in Waterloo, as the sun refused to yield to even the 10 o’clock hour, I was running pass patterns and Dad was chucking sister Mary and I the ball. We had a big yard that backed up to a cow pasture and hitting us in full stride took some effort given the lengths we could run. My white haired father was getting red faced and sweat was starting to stain his T shirt.
I’m not sure of my siblings’ experience but I always got nervous when Dad showed any sign of exertion. For my imagination, it was a short trip from “effort” to “deathbed” where my father was concerned. Some kids grow up in fear of their Dad taking a drink or beating their Mom, or running off with another woman, I grew up scared that my father’s heart would explode.
That very idea crossed my mind as I watched him clearly enjoying himself but breathing hard. Sometimes, with yard work, I’d seen him break into a sweat but this was entirely new. Dad was playing. Something about the evening, maybe it was the wet smell of the grass or the warm last licks of the sun but my serious old man was playing like a boy more my age than his.
When I sent a return pass well over his head, he turned on his heel to retrieve the ball and treated me to that shocking moment. My Dad started to run.
I read somewhere that nothing says “panic” quite as forcefully as a middle aged man in full flight. If that individual happens to be in winged tips, the effect is even more profound. Believe me, I panicked when I saw my Dad’s sprint to the ball. In all of my eleven years, I’d never seen him run. Until that evening, I probably didn’t know that he could run. Seeing him do so, I immediately wanted him to stop to safeguard his heart. But I also wanted him to run like this on every night. My Dad and I had a contentious relationship, but in that moment he ran away from me, he seemed more human. I felt closer to him in the few brief seconds the distance between us grew.
Four years later, my Dad died in his sleep from a massive coronary. I never saw him run again. That evening in the Belgian spring was the only time we ever tossed the ball around.
A month ago, I turned fifty. I run almost every day. On many of those days, I think of him. In the dash of our time together there wasn’t a lot of play. But what there was made a difference for me. And the older I get, the more I appreciate that night and that man.
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The voice at the end of the line was a studied blend of concern, regret and distance. It was obvious that all content and delivery was shaped in anticipation of my response. After a brief exchange of pleasantries and a weighty pause, I heard this: “Drew just isn’t at the same level as the other candidates.”
My first born was rejected from my alma mater. The admissions councilor who’d waxed so glowingly of his attributes after Drew’s interview was calling to tell me that there were better kids available. His future lay in wait somewhere else.
“You’re making a mistake,” I said.
The woman, ensconced in her colonial era office, was unmoved but promised me that she was appreciative of how I must feel.
“Go fuck yourself,” I thought but managed not to say.
This fall, Drew entered as a Freshman at another school. He played soccer, won the Coach’s Award, studied very hard for all A’s and began running: first, on the cross-country team and now, the indoor track team. As a runner, he’s blossomed beyond anything my wife and I had imagined possible. His future is bright.
Today, in his debut at the distance, Drew qualified for the State meet in the 3,000. We’ve been told, this is a pretty special deal for a Freshman. A full five seconds under what his coaches thought would be his best time possible. Drew ran consistent 78 second quarters and saved a little something for the end. His pace extrapolated over two miles was 5:06 per.
Above me and to my left, a parent friend went on at some length about Drew’s talent and performance. I didn’t want to feign humility but I also didn’t want to be an ass. So, I mostly kept silent and smiled.
Driving home from the track meet, my mind wandered back to my alma mater’s assessment of Drew. While I’m immature enough to want to call them up and deliver an update on Drew’s current “level,” I’m also aware that the school has a process and my son didn’t fit it. And that’s a very good thing because he definitely has a place, a leadership and a purpose at the school that did want him.
In some of my recent races, I could have pushed a little bit harder to move up a place or two. I could have gone to the red place, where I can’t hear anything, where my peripheral vision goes away and everything hurts. But I chose not to. I finished comfortably and had fun.
It’s possible, I could have fought for and won a place for Drew at my alma mater. I could have got my “crazy” on and beaten on some doors. There’s no doubt in my mind, he would have comfortably exceeded what I achieved there. But I am glad I did not. He’s his own man with his own school and he’s doing just fine.
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Tags: alma mater, distance running, High School Sports, prep school, rejection, track
America makes up 5% of the world’s population but accounts for 80% of the pain medication consumed. Our annual pain relief intake is equivalent to every American taking pills every four hours for three solid weeks. I read this yesterday on CNN.com (http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/08/health/us-uk-pain-sgmd/index.html?hpt=hp_bn13) and it got me thinking about pain.
If you’ve ever dropped in on a Catholic mass, you’ve probably spent some time considering the totemic idea of Christ hanging from the cross. Kind of hard to miss, most churches have the crucifix center stage, right above the altar. It’s the single most indelible image of the Catholicism I remember growing up with and it’s one that I’ve had a dynamic relationship with over the years.
There can be few fates worse or more painful than hanging from a cross until death. As a child and then a teenager, my time in church bounced between a loose connection with the service, a variety of sexual reverie and frequent consideration of just how compelling the image of a dying Christ was to me. He suffered for my sins I was told, He loved me that much.
Later, when I was in the throes of alcoholism, I came upon a new way of life, a new program that suggested to me that, “pain was the touchstone to spiritual growth.” Over the years (25 and counting), I’ve learned that there is a direct proportionality realized between the amount of pain I can walk through and the quality of my sober life. This isn’t to suggest that I generally advocate seeking pain out but when I do come in contact with it, be it physical, mental or spiritual, I’ve tried to see it as an opportunity to grow, to do something different, to try a new way.
For some pain, there is no doubt, no more sensible response than medication. Though I may be wrong, I can’t imagine the terminal patient deriving much benefit from “toughing out” their final days. If someone’s mental anguish is so great that they cannot function and medication provides them opportunity to make a start at living positively, by all means, dose them up. But 80% of all the pain meds in the world? We’ve got to be overdoing it.
In an ironic spiritual twist, one of the reasons I left the Catholic Church was that I didn’t want my kids to grow up with such a gruesome image of God. For me, the loving part of God was too hard to see, too easy to miss in Christ’s suffering on the cross. Now, I’m concerned I might have kept my kids from learning one of life’s essential lessons: that great rewards can come from the worst kinds of suffering.
The past few months, I haven’t been able to run hard because of my ruptured plantar fascia. It’s taken away one of my favorite spiritual practices. I like to run so hard that I am humbled into asking God for help. Weird, I know, but when I physically put myself in a state of enormous suffering, my connection to my Higher Power is at its strongest. Truth be told, hard days on the trail or track, are kind of like my time on the cross, they are the acts that bring me closer to Him.
That’s not to say, I don’t feel a spiritual connection when I’m looking at my family around the dinner table. Or when a loving dog comes by and puts her head in my lap. I certainly feel His presence when I enjoy success at work or experience unadulterated kindness or epic beauty. But in terms of acute, “I need something bigger than me to get through this” humility, nothing quite does it like suffering on the run. I seek the pain out and when I feel it, I get to a better place.
A few months ago, when the pain in my foot got so bad, I didn’t have a single waking moment that I was not in pain, I finally went to a doctor. This guy is supposed to be the best “Runner’s Doctor” in Manhattan. He writes for a number of periodicals and is frequently consulted as an expert by my colleagues in the media. After a 2 minute discussion of my injury, he whipped out a needle that looked like something borrowed from Dr Frankenstein, told me to “take it like a man” and shoved it into my heel. To say, “It hurt” is equivalent to saying “Paris is a nice town.” But the pain subsided in my heel in two short days. In five more days, just as the Good Doctor had promised, I was running again.
Loaded up with cortisone, I felt nothing. When it wore off, I was right back where I’d been before the shot. No progress, the pain was the same. A lesson learned, I’ve given up on this “Best Doctor.” Long term, I may seek out another one but for now, I’m going to keep doing what I probably should have been doing all along. Using this pain as a motivator to change, to grow, to try different things.
It reminds me of what they were trying to tell me when I was sitting in church, all those years ago.
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Tags: christ, cnn, medication, pain, running, sobriety
Willie Nelson works out 5 times a week. He rides his bike, likes to swim and even does some running. I’d put this bit of information in the Top Ten of the most surprising things I learned in 2012. I met Willie when I produced a segment with him on the TODAY Show. He had a book, Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die, he was plugging. In preparation for the segment, I had a long phone conversation with Willie, spent a good part of the morning with him and his family when he was at the show and, yeah, I read the book too.
I wouldn’t call myself a Willie Nelson expert but I really like his music and I’ve liked it for a long time. That he’s still cranking out quality well beyond his 70th birthday is impressive. Frankly, he’s a bit of a hero of mine.
Which is interesting. Tomorrow morning, there’s going to be a lot of talk of heroes from the Super Bowl. Someone’s going to step up and put on a performance that will excite minds, defy the odds and create a historic place in the pantheon of television’s biggest night. Because of what they do in that 60 minutes of game, some men will be remembered and revered for a very long time.
Heroes have been on my mind this month. One of my biggest heroes, Lance Armstrong, confessed on Oprah that he doped through all 7 Tour de Frances. The world reacted in horror. The man’s been pilloried like a child molester and hundreds of scribes and talking heads have sharpened their knives and sliced away any vestige of heroism Lance once had.
Lance is still my hero. I never thought he was a particularly good guy. I never thought he was clean. But I always thought he was the strongest man at the Tour de France and I always believed that what he meant and did for the cancer community far outweighs what any other athlete in the world has done for society since Ali.
Now, he’s known as a cheater, a liar, someone that destroys peoples lives.
On Sunday evening, Ray Lewis is taking the field for the Baltimore Ravens. Leading up to this game, purportedly the last of an impressive career, Lewis has been celebrated as a first ballot Hall of Famer, one of the most important and respected leaders in the game. A couple of weeks ago in Denver, NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell gave Lewis a big, warm pre-game hug like they were the closest of friends. In 2000, Ray Lewis was involved in the murder of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub. Initially charged with the crime, Lewis made a deal with the DA and agreed to testify against two of his friends: they got off. No one has ever done any time for these murders. Lewis has never explained what happened to the suit he wore that night. It disappeared.
This week, Lewis was accused of using antler spray to recover from a triceps tear he suffered earlier in the season. This kind of injury usually takes 6 months to recover from Lewis was back in just over two months. Antler spray contains one of the active ingredients in HGH, it’s a PED and verboten in the NFL.
There’s a good chance that Ray Lewis just might be the hero of the Super Bowl. The spotlight will certainly be on him. Next year, he’ll be an analyst on ESPN. They call him “Sugar Ray.”
When I was a kid, I never understood the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy discovers the man behind the curtain. Her realization that the Wizard was a fiction was lost on me. But I get it now. Like every hero I can think of, what they appear to be in a magazine article or a book or a Sunday football game isn’t the totality of what they are. But the Wizard was a fake, Lance and Ray are real.
Hanging out with Willie and his family, I was impressed by his young, incredibly talented son. Just 23 years old, the kid showed me some of his artwork. With his literal, Old Man, they were warm and tender.
I said to Willie in a quiet moment, “You’re quite a family man.”
He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I haven’t always been.”
Willie lost his first son to suicide. In his younger years, Willie drank a lot, ran with a tough crowd and made a lot of bad choices. By his own admission, he wasn’t a good guy.
But you know what? He’s still someone I look up to, someone I can learn from, someone that inspires me. Just like Lance. As for Ray Lewis, I can’t stand the guy but I can appreciate why people call him a “hero.” On the field, he was without equal. After his trouble with the law, by all accounts, Lewis turned his life around and became a pillar in the Baltimore community, one that desperately needs some foundation.
Honestly, all three of these men are better than me. They reached a level of success that I’ve only dreamt of. I can try and diminish their achievement by focusing on their flaws, their very bad behaviors but doing that doesn’t make me feel any better and it doesn’t really take away from what they’ve done.
My heroes are human and thank God, cause so am I.
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Tags: Lance Armstrong, Ray Lewis, Super Bowl, Willie Nelson
Ghengis Khan introduced the world to the first mail system and the concept of diplomatic immunity. I didn’t know this, as I didn’t know there was such a thing as North Korean cuisine and that if you knew the right people, you could have it for dinner in Ulam Bator. I’d never been to Mongolia but my dinner companion had. He is a documentary filmmaker for National Geographic and I was having dinner with him because I’d decided to stretch a bit.
Friday night had snow in the forecast. A week of bitter cold was kissing off with a road slickening couple of inches. The last thing I felt like doing, was driving into the city. I could go home, sit on the couch, watch a movie with my wife and simply hang out.
But I didn’t.
I schlepped into Manhattan and despite the huge chorus of negativity I listened to in my head, I showed up at a very hip Korean restaurant, high above 32nd street and had a blast. Good food, better conversation. I met 3 new people and I liked them all intensely. One of them, I may work with some day.
3 months ago, my Achilles tendons had become so tight, that I couldn’t bare to have a massage therapist touch them. Years of ambivalent attention to my flexibility in my lower legs led to plantar fasciitis over the summer and then a plantar fascia rupture in a race this fall. I’m still recovering: every day is painful. Every day is a reminder that my pain is of my making. I could’ve stretched, I could’ve taken the time, I could have avoided the stupidly exquisite pain of that rupture but I didn’t.
I’m 47. I’m pretty solid on how I feel about most things. I know what I like. I have good friends and honestly, most days, I’m not looking for new ones. My Achilles are not the only part of me that lack flexibility.
Since getting hurt, I’ve had no other option but to get serious about stretching. There’s no magic to the process, it’s about giving it the time and doing it consistently. Running is still a somewhat tortured experience but it is getting better and when I get a massage my Achilles can be part of the therapy. I can bear to have people touch them. If this were the sole benefit of stretching, I think it would be enough. But I’m hopeful that I realize much more of an upside. Some day, I want to run without this burning feeling in my heel. Some day, I think I’m going to be able to explode up a hill the way I used to (on a good day).
Flexibility helps our joints to function smoothly through the full, appropriate range of motion for a given task. When flexibility is below optimal, we suffer. Inflexibility around the joints leads to irritation, leads to inflammation, leads shortly to misery.
To stay flexible I’ve got to stretch. Whether it’s taking 15 minutes to do my routine at night for my hamstrings, calves and glutes or making the drive into the city for a dinner with unmet companions. When I make the effort, when I consistently work on my flexibility, I’m a happier man, in every way.
Tonight some friends invited us to come over and hang out in their hot tub. My first impulse was to pass. I like these people quite a bit and I felt bad that we were turning them down. Then I thought about what that hot water might mean for my flexibility, changed my mind, we signed up for the soak.
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3 miles in, it was clear he was staying right where he was. On a “low to high” trail run, friends, Jack and Lindsay bracketed my son Drew between us. 12 years old, the 6.5-mile run was longer than he had ever gone before. A flat beginning along a creek, now transitioned to a series of climbs up one side of the valley wall. Though nothing brutal, the vertical was enough to take the serious fight out of most people but Drew was ready to make it clear, he was not most people.
In my son, adolescence is in its full awkward bloom. His body’s getting longer, the parts of his face look like they’re struggling to get to know each other. Cheeks that were once cherubic are sinking, his brow is dropping and his smile’s become something recognizable but not exactly familiar. The evolutionary process is both fascinating and frightening. I can’t wait to see what this growth spurt will become but I’m slightly unnerved by how quickly its happening.
A couple of years ago, Jack and I used to spend time wondering how long Drew would be able to turn early promise as a runner into vanquishing his father. At the time, I was still pretty fast and High School seemed like the most likely period for Drew to move to the front. But I’ve had a lot of injuries in the past couple of years and I’ve eaten more than I should have. In contrast, Drew’s “promise” has hardened into a cold reality. On my heels as we started climbing, his breathing quickened but didn’t labor. His tempo surged with the steepness. At the top of each climb, when I checked in with him, I could taste a bothersome confidence in his answers.
If you’ve ever spent a day at the beach, you might have had the unsettling realization that the little camp you’ve created to enjoy the day is suddenly about to be overrun by a rising tide. It’s on you before you know it, threatening sandcastles and blankets. You’re brilliant day now sodden by the force of nature.
Running yesterday, I felt a force of nature at my back. My twelve year old, my friend, my student is about to swallow me up. Last year, I felt it on the ski hill. He’d gone from following me down the trail to racing me. As he got closer to matching my speed, he started taking bigger risks. The kid never said a word about it but I could feel his desire growing every time out, his focus sharpening on taking me down. On the run, the distances between us had always been too big for that kind of competition. Until now. He can feel it, I’m certain of that, he may not have the idea fully formed in his head but somewhere in his cortex is a white hot signal telling him to keep pushing, something good’s going to happen.
In the 1979 film, The Great Santini, for the first time in his fictional life, Robert Duvall loses a “one on one” game of basketball to his teenaged son. Rather than conceding to the inevitable with grace, Duvall’s character reacts with outrage and tries to humiliate his son but only shames himself. I always loved this scene. To the filmmakers, I’m grateful for showing me how not to handle this seminal moment.
I don’t like losing to anyone but I’m looking forward to losing to Drew. I can feel how much the event is going to mean to him. Like an incoming tide, there’s nothing I can do about it but make way.
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Tags: father/son, The Great Santini, Trail Running
I popped out of my subterranean trainstop, hooked a right and saw my first one. A businessman rushing to his morning’s work, ordinary in every way except for the dark smudge on his forehead: the telltale sign of a faithful Catholic on Ash Wednesday, a practitioner in the religion I was raised in. My guilt was immediate, a reflexive acknowledgement that as a religious man, I’ve failed. Too lazy, too unmoved, too many questions and incongruities, I stopped going a few years after my first child was born. Had him baptized but fled for good when in the height of the sex scandals in Boston, a certain priest on the first Sunday of Advent spent his entire sermon exhorting his congregation to commit “now” to giving significant dollars to the church over the coming year. Nobody was asking but I thought, at the time, there were more pressing matters to discuss. I left, tried some other churches then gave up all together.
The past few weeks, I’ve really struggled to stick with my training. There have been way more mornings when I’ve elected to stay in bed than hit the road. Too cold, too lazy, too unmotivated. And I’ve suffered because of it.
At work, I’ve felt directionless, at home, irritable and distracted unable to connect with the people I love with the kind of focus I expect of myself.
This morning, however, when the alarm went off at 4:45, I was able to swing my feet out of bed. In the dark, I got dressed, fought off the temptation to sit down with a cup of coffee and the internet news and instead, walked out the door and started running.
In my sleep, I’d had troubling dreams. Images of what might have been, different possibilities in the direction of my life. They had woken me up through the night and left me shaken.
Since I first started running at 10 years old, I’ve liked where my mind has gone as my body’s worked. My thoughts streamline, I enjoy some clarity and on many occasions, I’ve had some good actionable ideas. Most importantly, I’ve never felt mentally worse coming off a run. I’ve always felt better, a little more at peace with the world.
10 minutes in this morning, I was still wrestling with my dreams. The exotic but rarely productive land of “what might have been” took up huge swaths of my interior landscape.
Then the road tilted up and my morose reverie got pushed aside as my mind snapped on to getting my body to meet the increasing challenge. Shortening my stride, picking up my turnover and adjusting my torso just a bit, I was suddenly aware of the comfort I derive from the ritual of my running; that, no matter what’s going on in my head, the practice of the exercise overrides my thought process and delivers me to a better place.
After 46 minutes, I was back in my driveway and on my way to the same job, the same commute, the same reality. But I was different, time at my church had offered me a bit of salvation. And I was grateful for it.
Ash Wednesday, kicks off the Lenten season, a time for Catholics (and other Christians?) to prepare for Easter. It’s a time for self denial, repentance and prayer. I probably won’t be spending any time at the church of my childhood but I can put a few of the season’s principles to good use.
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