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.

Advertisements

We had just finished an epic day of skiing when my friend David received an email from his sister inviting him to dinner down in Boston. “What are you doing in New Hampshire” she wanted to know, “it’s cold, cold, cold!”

Laughing, David remarked, “People just don’t understand us.”

There was no need to expand on who was meant by “us.” The older I get, the more acutely aware I am that my interest in the outdoors and fitness is something shared by relatively few. Most people stay inside when temps dip into the single digits. It makes sense but for me it’s not much fun.

I’m trying to do a better job of reaching out to the people in my life that share my interests. Community is a tremendous resource. It gives me energy, helps me focus and expands my knowledge base.

Weilding his tools

And I’m trying to do the same for my kids, Drew in particular. In a neighborhood of nice kids that groove on video games, the computer and their iphones, my bushy, blonde boy is often frustrated by his play choices. He likes the toys of his age as much as anyone but his first impulse is to be physical. To play outside, build a fort, run around or ride his bike. In the community he finds himself in, he’s often alone.  His sister has become his most frequent and best matched companion.

So this weekend, we headed up north for what he coined his “dream vacation”: A day of skiing at Attitash, followed by a day of ice climbing just outside of North Conway. In between, we swam in the hotel’s outdoor pool, he rolled in the snow before diving in. I went running and we sampled both Indian and Thai food with good results.

Joining us, were my cousin Patrick (29 years old) and my longtime friend David (late thirties). My wife had questioned my decision to invite them along and risk making Drew feel “out of the loop” but though I couldn’t really articulate it, I knew it was a good decision. Drew sees enough of me.

On the wall.

Patrick and David are hardcore kind of guys. They don’t complain about the cold, they don’t make you wait for them, they deal with what the day has provided and they’re just grateful to be out using their bodies. In other words, though they are not in his peer group, they created a nice, little community of friendship and interest that my son grew stronger on.

It took a bit of doing on my part, to get all the pieces in place for the weekend. It would have been easier to just do the weekend with Drew and myself. But it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as fun or powerful, for Drew and for me.


He exercises two hours every day. Sometimes, he still runs. He works in his garden. For kicks he does repeats on the stone staircase that connects the terraced portions of his property.

Speed isn’t a big part of his game these days. The years and what they held for him took that away. But his strength and endurance are still awesome.

When I met him, I gave him a hug. I’m not a hugging kind of guy but I wanted to get my heart close to him.

He is that kind of guy.

Special in a way that makes you want a part of him. To walk away with something that can make you better.

Fifty years ago, Louie Zamperini bought a bungalow just below the “Hollywood” sign. That icon to the legendary storytelling talent of America is a somewhat ironic symbol standing over Zamperini’s house. Despite his proximity to the movie studios, none of them have ever found it necessary to tell his story.

Laura Hillenbrand has told it. The author of Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand came across a snippet of Louie’s life while doing her research on the horse that brought her so much good fortune.

Louie surrounded by the author and Olympic Gold Medal swimmer, John Nabor.

As a kid, Louie was a nightmare. Drinking at five, a relentless thief, a social outcast and all too familiar to the police. In today’s world, he would have been put on Ritalin. Back then, his brother put him on the track. There, he found purpose.

Louie set the school-boy record in the mile. It stood for decades. At 19, though he’d only raced the distance a couple of times, he went to the Berlin Games and ran the 5,000. A final lap (:58) was run with such courage that despite losing, Zamperini was still offered the dubious honor of visiting Adolf Hitler in his box.

After the Games, it was on to USC and another national record in the mile; this too stood for decades.

World War II came and Louie went to war. A bombardier, his plane ditched in the Pacific, he and two crew members escaped the wreck and pulled themselves into a life raft. One of them died in the boat (the one that had no faith in their chances), Louie and his pilot survived. After losing almost a hundred pounds each, they landed on a Japanese held island and became prisoners of war.

Then Louie’s life got tough. For two and a half years, he was brutalized by a sadistic guard: a man that knew no bottom to his well of depravity.  Until, the end of the war the guard did everything in his power to dehumanize Zamperini, to kill his spirit, to obliterate his dignity.

In Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken, we learn how the guard failed.

For my current employer, I went out to interview Louis. We spent six hours together, I believe I am a better person for having done so. I’ve never felt so close to true greatness.

In all of his accomplishments, none are more impressive than this: Louie lives with no resentment.

Though his athletic career was ruined by his Japanese captors. Though they beat him within an inch of his life, starved him, humiliated him, killed his friends and took away all but his hope, Louie found it within himself to forgive each and every man that had done him harm.

At 93, he is at ease. Smiles are plentiful, pettiness non-existent.

We shot the interview, we had lunch, we talked about running. With the sun going down, I changed in his bathroom for a workout in Griffith Park. He told me he used to love running up there. I said I wished we could have gotten one in together.

He laughed. I hugged him again. This time he pulled me in tight. I drove away grateful

To see the piece I produced on Unbroken for the Today Show, please click on the link n in the upper right hand corner.


Love and Hate

03Jan11

Nona later in the day at Stratton. After "the incident"

I’ve had two nadirs as a parent both came high atop a ski slope.

Several years ago, at greater expense than I could afford, I took Lulu, Drew and myself skiing out in Utah. On day two or three, my cherubic young ‘un Jekylled at the prospect of skiing for the full day. Though we’d only taken a handful of runs, he had had enough. In response, I was selfish (cost of the tickets), vindictive (the word’s “mama’s boy” may have slipped out) and entirely disappointed with my son.

Raising my voice, I mocked him for a moment as he stood on his skis with tears in his eyes, defiance in his heart. He was going home and I had to take him there. On our way down the hill, I imagined how I must’ve looked chastising my five year old and inwardly cringed in a way I hadn’t since I’d quit drinking.

Then on Thursday, I had a very similar experience with Fiona. First run down Stratton, she struggled with her fears and her form and I let my inner asshole come roaring out. Had I skied by a person talking to his daughter the way I was talking to Fiona, I probably would have stopped and told him to a) grow up b) shut up c) give the child up for adoption because said person was clearly not fit for parenting.

Alas, the people schussing by me were either too blissed out to tune in to my asinine self or maybe they heard me and were just forgiving enough to sail by with a good thought for my daughter and a bit of pity for me.

On both of these occasions, I was “that guy.” The one we shake our head at, the one we talk disbelievingly of around the dinner table, the one we imagine flailing his way through life frustrated with all the people, places and things that just don’t go his way.

Truth be told, as bleak as these episodes were, they were the tiniest, fractional slice of my life as a Dad. I’ll try and keep that in mind, the next time I’m quick to judge a parent.

The bottomline is, I have always loved skiing. In my life, it’s held an iconic place, an act of rebellion against good sense and order. When I strap on the boards, I point ‘em straight downhill and hang on for dear life. When I graduated from college, I didn’t start a career, I moved out to Aspen.

My parents, grew up in the Depression, they were city kids, they didn’t get skiing. My Dad kind of disapproved of it. I destroyed my ankle on a snow fence when I was 13 and he looked pretty right in his assessment. I wore a cast for months and in the back of my mind, I’m sure I felt like a jackass for not heeding his warnings.

Skiing today, I know there’s still a little rebellion against Dad. I never had the courage to go against him when he was alive, so I do it now when I’m catching bugs in my teeth. 44 and flipping off my father with a pair of all mountain boards.

So, I guess that’s why it kills me when my kids have rebelled against me on the slopes. It’s an affront to my passion but more importantly a mockery of my own dissent.

Thankfully, despite my bad day in Utah, Drew loves to shred.

 

 

 

 

 

 


ENDLESS SUMMER

21Jul10

June got off to a rough start. Working with friends Shelby Campbell and Ryan Yeager, we produced a one-hour show on the Lance/Alberto Rivalry for Versus. It was great to dig so deep into cycling before the TdeF began but it didn’t provide much time for fitness. During the 12 day edit, Ryan and I didn’t see much sunshine. Generally, as the picture attests, we felt a bit like hostages. The show was well received and we had a fairly riotous time working together so in the end, it was worth the sacrifice.

Proof to the outside world, we're still alive.

Coming off that gig, I shot up to the Cape for several days with my nephews from Palo Alto and their father (the man that first got me interested in the Tour de France). They’re big football guys, so Drew, Fiona and I hooked up with them for a tremendous afternoon of passing drills. I also encouraged them all to join me in an adventure at Water Wiz and though we had no less fun than we did there last year, I’m sad to report there was just as much excess flesh.

Moving on to the Poconos and more family fun (but from Lulu’s side) we visited the Skytop Lodge. Before going, the only thing I thought I knew about the Poconos is that it’s where they filmed Dirty Dancing. My wife, however, who is something of an expert on the film, assured me that I was wrong in my filmic geographic bearings. Apparently Baby and Patrick Swayze got their groove on in the Catskills. The Poconos provided equal entertainment value. Not only did Grammy M and Grandpa Sol treat all of their children and grandkids to the whole weekend, they did so at a sportsmen’s mecca. My highlight came on the second day there when the activities list was as follows: breakfast, 2 1/2 hour MTB ride, swimming, lunch, horseshoes, volleyball, 1 hour MTB ride with Drew, a walk with Nonnie, family photo, gifts for the Grandparents (celebrating 25 years of wedded bliss) and dinner. Oh and falling asleep, I watched the recap of the Tour. With no TV in our bedroom (we call it the temple), hotel visits are truly special.

The palatial grounds of the Sky Top Lodge

Once the Tour got serious, I’ve been pretty much tied to the Stamford area but the fun just keeps rolling along. Last week, Nona took all the birthday money she’d saved and bought the only thing that she really wanted (besides a telephone, hoop earrings, a guitar and blonde highlights). Mrs T and I took her down to Cycle Fitness in Monroe for a brand new MTB. At first, I was certain she’d reach for the pink option they had out front but instead my little princess made it down the aisle until her gaze fell upon The Stomper, a fierce looking beast with knobby wheels and a rugged black and blue color scheme. Her eyes lit up, the seat was adjusted and she took it for a shaky ride in the parking lot next door. After doing a quick out and back, she confidently proclaimed the bike “hers” and we made the deal.  Still not a big fan of taking her steed on the single track, Fiona and I have been riding around the surrounding neighborhoods. She’s very good at shifting her gears and is getting more and more comfortable coming out of her seat for extra power. The other day I told her she looked like Alberto Contador, she grimaced and said she’d rather look like Lance.Nona astride The Stomper

My favorite thing about our rides is how it’s opened up her eyes to the idea of exploring. I’d forgotten how much freedom a bike represents to a kid. It’s just too bad that people drive so fast on our street. If it wasn’t like freaking Le Mans out there, I’d consider letting her and her brother do more riding on their own but it’s just too dangerous. I’m as big a speeder as anyone but I keep my lead foot for the highway. Wish more drivers would tone it down where people live.

Of course, I can’t mention one kid without the other. Drew joined me, Mrs T and our buddy Nate Dougall for a most outstanding race in Huntington State Park. Put on by YES Endurance Sports the race was the the third installment of their 4 event series. Mom, Drew and Nate took on the 5K while I ran my first race of the year in the 10K. Despite voicing some early morning fears, Drew finished in 4th place (overall) and the Current Mrs Thompson was right behind him as the winner in the Women’s competition. Of my experience, all I can say is, I suffered mightily. 10K has never felt so freaking long. Though I’ve run just about every trail at Huntington, I’d never run them when I was in this bad of shape and I hurt on a biblical level. Coming in at 50 minutes (!!!) I did manage to place 4th in the overall but I went home and said a little prayer of “thanks” that it was a small race. As I’m getting older here, I realize I don’t handle the heat well and I have a difficult time recovering coming off of hills. At Huntington it was over 90 and the vertical seemed endless on the back half of the course. The good news is that the final YES Event of the year will be in my home woods, Indian Ledge, on October 2nd. If anyone would like to come and run it with us, we’ll host a post race breakfast at the Madison Manse.

Of course everyone's smiling: the race is over.

Okay, that’s the update. If you have not been watching this year’s Tour de France, you’re missing out. Contador and Schleck are simply fantastic. On Thursday, they will kill themselves trying win the Col du Tourmalet. You don’t have to watch the whole thing, just tune in for the last hour, sit back and be amazed. It’s been my privilege to get close to alot of great athletes but none are tougher than these guys.


Tour de Tashua

07Jun10

Drew sports his favorite Fabian Cancellara shirt from the other Tour in July

Sometimes, Drew and I get on a bit of a sports binge. We try and slam as much activity into an afternoon as we can. Yesterday, was one of those days.

Starting off with lacrosse, we did our ritual 50-50, throwing a half-century’s worth of passes first righty then lefty. That was followed by some quick toss where we catch and throw in one motion.

Next up was 50 throws and catches of the football, no drops allowed. In honor of the coming World Cup, we then kicked around the soccer ball before breaking out the leather mitts for some baseball.

Soon enough, we’d passed about ninety minutes playing and I was ready to get back to the kind of busy work I like to get done over the weekend. That’s when Drew hit me with a very earnest, “what are we going to do next, Dad?”

A couple of nights before, Drew had come down after bedtime in tears. Lacrosse was ending on Saturday and he was sad that he wouldn’t have any sports to play over the summer. Drew’s got a nice group of friends but not many of them are athletes. Lego, Xbox and various games of the imagination take up most of their time.  I had made a mental note to do more to keep his body moving in the absence of an organized sport.

“What do you want to do?”

“Let’s ride our bikes. 50 laps around the neighborhood,” he suggested.

“Let’s make it 25. We’ll call it the Tour de Tashua.”

“Cool.”

Our neighborhood has a convenient loop that’s just over a third of a mile long. There’s a decent section that runs down a major road but there’s enough grass running alongside to ensure that we wouldn’t get hit by the cars that routinely break the speed limit on it. On the backside of the loop is a slow, steady incline but if you do it enough, it can make you wince.

Breaking out the bikes, we discovered Drew’s MTB had a flat. I changed the tire quickly only to discover the replacement tube had a hole in it as well. We tried to move his seat to his BMX bike but the shaft didn’t fit. Drew was looking at doing the 8 plus mile ride on a single geared bike that he can’t really sit on.

“I’m okay with it,” he assured me. And with that, we were off.

The past couple of months for Drew have been challenging athletically. He busted out of the gate in lacrosse season with two goals in his first game and looked like he’d set the world on fire. But a nasty case of Sever’s Disease soon had him hobbling on the field far more than he was flying. Most mornings, he’d come downstairs limping significantly. He was held out of practices and not allowed to condition with the team. Several times I asked him if he just wanted to sit out the rest of the season. Each time, his eyes would fill as he adamantly opposed the idea.

And the heel wasn’t the only thing holding him back. The kid’s growing in startling bursts and his coordination comes and goes like good weather in New England. One day he’s stick handling like a champ, the next he looks more Neanderthal than ubermensch.

Just that morning, I’d expressed some doubts as to just how far the little guy would go with sports, telling his mother that maybe he was more of a student than a sports stud.

But Drew has always had something really special on the bike. He took off down our driveway, turned right on to Madison and started hammering like a man possessed. Without a hint of injury or awkwardness, he banged out the circuits with a veteran discipline, hitting each one between 1:32-36.

A brutal, hill studded run earlier in the day had my legs a little less than responsive and from the start. I was chagrined to find myself working to keep up with my nine year old. Rarely laying off for the glide, he stood on his pedals for almost the entire 40 minutes it took us to complete the 25 laps.

The aerobic carnage of a full frontal cardio assault.

Each time we came to the backside hill, we’d climb shoulder to shoulder. I told him I felt like one of Lance’s teammates trying to keep up. He just smiled and kept hammering.

On the last lap, both of us were breathing hard and sweating heavy. Off the final turn, it’s uphill back to the house. He gapped me by about ten feet, pulled into the driveway and flopped onto the ground totally spent.

A giant smile stretched on his face, a full blast of fitness under his belt.


Girl Power

01Jun10

Mom and Fi strike a pre-race pose

The boys weren’t up for racing. I’m still out of shape (fat and aerobically challenged) and Drew has a bit of lingering Sever’s Disease, a painful condition related to growth spurts that makes running around something of a chore. So, it was up to the Thompson Girls to do the family proud and kick some serious road ass this Saturday at the Wilton 5K.

Nona woke up bare-chested and focused. When asked what she wanted for breakfast she said, “I’m hungry for racing.” I looked away so no one could see the tears rolling down my cheeks.

For the first time, my youngest had okay’d yours truly as her racing companion. Previously, she’d opted for the better loved (and more balanced) parent to take her from start to finish. I was goofy with excitement, loaded with butterflies and utterly charmed by Nona’s cool pre-race demeanor. Quiet as a mouse in the backseat, she exuberantly broke into song when Taylor Swift came on just a few minutes short of our destination:

If you could see that I’m the one who understands you

Been here all along, so why can’t you see?

You belong with me

Catching her in the rearview mirror bopping along to the beat with her high pony and giant brown eyes, I chuckled at the prospect of a teenaged Nonny trying to get a boy’s attention. Somehow, I don’t think it will be a frequent issue in my daughter’s life.

The Thompson Girls celebrate their strong efforts.

Anyway, it was a pan flat “out and back course with a lap around the high school track to begin and end the effort. We took a spot deep in the starting pack and went through the first hot mile at a conversational pace. Concerned with the heat and my own potential overzealousness, I made no comment on our speed, just told my little girl that she was doing great.

And she was. More than anything, Fiona seemed to be really enjoying herself. She didn’t care when people passed her, she didn’t complain about the sun blasting down on her and she never asked if we could slow down or walk. The only thing she did ask was if she could pour some water on her head at the aid station. I said “yes” and she did.

Cooled down and dripping, we had a fairly lengthy conversation about what “.1 mile” means, passed the two mile marker and then got down to business.

In a moderate, emotionless tone, I suggested that we pick up the tempo and close out the race strong. Though her breathing was a little heavy, I’ve been out with Fiona enough to know that she could drop it down a gear or two. “What do you say we catch that guy ahead of us? The one with the tattoo on his arm and shaved head.”

“And black shorts?” she wanted to know.

“Yeah, him.”

“Okay.” She put her head down and cranked it up.

I have to confess that I picked out this guy for what his physical appearance represented. Yes, he was a good candidate because he was about a hundred yards ahead of us and moving slow. But more important to me was that he looked like the kind of guy that could easily stuff me headfirst into my size 10 DS Trainers. Massive through the chest and shoulders his appearance was intimidating to say the least. In my mind, I thought beating him in a race would be instructive for my daughter, a good lesson in just how strong she is.

As we blew by him a minute later, I had the good sense not to look over my shoulder for my example’s reaction.

Nonny flaunts her bling.

Onto the track, Nonny really impressed. Keeping her form together, she ran down a thirtysomething woman then came up on a fiftysomething man. Off the last turn, you could tell he didn’t want this kid to do him in. He picked up the pace and so did she. I said, “Go hard, Beaner,” and with a Bernard Lagat like finishing kick she took it home, dropping the gray haired dude to come in second place for girls 12 and Under.

With a couple of water bottles in hand, Mrs T informed us that she was the fastest woman in the 40 plus set and Drew confessed that seeing all this fitness was too much for him. While we were out on the course, he spent his time running the stairs in the football stadium.

God help me, I love this family.