Why in the hell am I doing this?!
And, please, all you athletic types out there: spare me the "runner's high" crap. There is a point in any race of a reasonable distance where the shit simply hurts. The circumstances might change, but the runner's rendezvous with acute pain is a virtual guarantee for all except the most elite and fit folks.
Which, of course, means that most of us that have ever dragged our asses out of bed for a 5K or a 10K or a half marathon have felt that pain.
It could be one of those cold mornings, when it feels like someone has elected to take a blowtorch to your lungs. It could be one of those courses on hilly and uneven terrain where the muscles in your legs threaten to engage in full revolt if there is one more (and I mean one, damn it) hill on the horizon.
Why in the hell am I doing this?!
Here's the thing: I know why. I've known why since I first warily jumped on the treadmill in the winter of 2010-2011. I've known why since I laced up my running shoes for the first time (in a competitive fashion, at least) almost two years ago to this day: October 1, 2011.
And, given the last year of my life, I know it now more than ever.
(Please continue reading on the other side of the jump)
PRE-RACE (7:05 AM, yesterday): Let's stipulate something right off the bat. I am not an elite distance runner. Not for my age group ... and not for any age group, really. I am a perfectly serviceable middle-aged distance runner. For the 10K, which is on the menu on what promises to be an unseasonably warm Saturday, my personal best was on this same course last year: 48 minutes and 39 seconds. Today, I have a battle plan in place--consistent miles at 7:30, with an added minute or so for the fifth mile, which has the one truly daunting hill in the race. That gets me to the six-mile mark in 46 minutes. From there, run on courage for the last two-tenths of a mile. Target time is the low-47 minute range.
Despite my status as an average runner with average goals, I still get nervous as hell before races. Those nerves are calmed a bit today by the presence of my wife of 16 years, Kristina. We met in high school, and will celebrate our 23rd "anniversary" (we began dating on 10/7/90) on Monday. She took up running last fall, and has decided to try her first 10K today. I do find myself more relaxed when she runs with me, but even that will change when I slide my headphones over my ears, and await the command to start the race. Then, the nerves will kick in. They always have.
Those nerves! For all four years that I ran track in high school, they were omnipresent as I headed into the blocks. Distance running is a recent thing--in high school, a quarter-mile felt like a distance race to me. My event of choice was the hurdles, and it was in that event that I hit a career milestone on a warm April day during my senior year. It was an unexpected second-place finish that helped us secure another team victory over our rival school, against whom we had enjoyed a lengthy winning streak. Plus, not only had I run a personal best, but it was my first run under 17 seconds in the 110 meter high hurdles.
Or, so I thought.
That voice! With decibels to spare, it blared forth like a foghorn with that unmistakeable New Jersey accent that your typical high school kid in Southern California found both unsettling and faintly amusing. As I bounded up the stairs of the stadium to tell my coaches that I had finally cracked the 16-second bracket, that voice stopped me dead in my tracks.
"You ran 17.2!! Whaddya mean, 16.9?!"
When I excitedly explained that the woman (who was right on the damned finish line, might I add!) scoring the meet said my time was 16.9 seconds, the man who had been one of my coaches for going on two years waved a dismissive hand.
"Who you gonna believe? Some volunteer who doesn't know anything, or your coach who has been doing this for years?"
In that moment, quite frankly, I was willing to trust the professional judgment of the volunteer. And, I have to admit, I was a little pissed at the guy that nobody called "Coach Fish" or "Mr. Fish."
He was, always and forever, simply "Fish." Robert Fish, to be exact. In his late 40s at the time, a son of Paterson, New Jersey, who had made his way west and worked a variety of jobs before landing in teaching in his mid-30s. He started at a Catholic school just north of downtown L.A. (a unique spot for a Jewish kid from Jersey, to be sure) before heading out to the privileged suburbs that I called home. This was not your "nurturing" teacher. He had a name for his gruff, take-no-shit, "tell it like it is" approach to teaching and coaching. He called it "reality therapy," and he was more than willing to dispense said therapy to one and all.
As I sat in the bleachers, mumbling obscenities under my breath, there was no way that I could have possibly known that within five years, I would be coaching right alongside of him, the junior member on the staff for my alma mater.
And there was no way that I could have possibly known that he would become one of my coaching mentors, and also one of my closest friends.
MILE #1 (7:37 AM, yesterday): It's like Lucy and the football. I've run this race for three years. I could run it for 30 more years, and I will still manage annually to forget how damned crowded it is at the start. A community event, the Old Hometown Fair 10K draws such an immense crowd to the South Bay area of Los Angeles that it necessitates having two starting lines, on two separate streets. They merge about a half-mile down the road, and even at that merge, it is still tough to find running room. The first mile here, ultimately, is a never-ending series of sprints and stops, as I try to avoid trucking into some middle schoolers or group of middle-aged BFFs who are in jog/walk mode and yet inexplicably started at the front of the enormous pack. As a result, when I can get a sliver of daylight, I sprint for it. Which, ultimately, can wreck a strategy. I check my watch at the mile marker. 7:04. As odd as it sounds, in distance races, there is such a thing as "too fast." And I fear I have found it, right at the outset. That's almost my 5K pace. Did adrenaline and impatience wreck my plan before the race was 1/6 over?!
The whirs and clicks of the machine were oddly comforting, though the closeness of the machine to my body was considerably less so. I'm not as claustrophobic as some in my family, but I don't like being enveloped in a machine, either. Yet, there I was, flat on my back at an imaging clinic that specializes in heart scans.
I was there voluntarily, if a bit reluctantly. A stubborn shortness of breath led me to decide to get a scan done, even at the fairly lofty expense that came with it ($400, not covered by insurance). The good news: it came back with all major arteries free from blockage. Then, the bad news, which while not a surprise, still hit me pretty hard:
"Your heart is a bit enlarged. But that's really not unusual, you know, given your...size."
What the technician was trying very delicately to say is that I was obese. It probably didn't quite meet the textbook definition of morbidly obese, but I imagine that it was in the ball park. Standing just a fraction-of-a-fraction shy of five-foot-nine, I had just weighed in at a doctor's appointment at 272 pounds.
Even though the visit to the imaging clinic had eased my mind that an arterial blockage was not imminent, it was also an alarm bell for me. Men who are 37 years of age are not often concerned about heart attacks, nor should they be. But I had managed, through sloth and gluttony, to put myself in that exact position.
Thankfully, salvation came from a familiar location. The catalyst was my wife, who decided to embark on a diet plan, something that she had done intermittently in the past. What was more than a tad unusual was that, in solidarity, I joined her in the weight loss crusade.
Yup...the very man who had belittled the concept of dieting since shortly after my birth had decided to tag along. I told myself in the beginning that I was doing it so that she would have some support, and would be more likely to stick to her plan. "Misery loves company" and all that. I can admit now that it had as much to do with me as it did with her. Our son was just shy of his ninth birthday, and our daughter was 5. My dad had just celebrated his 80th birthday. I wanted to make sure that I gave my children the same opportunity that my dad had, against some odds, given to me. And that was less likely to happen in my present state. So, I jumped off the diet cliff hand-in-hand with Kristina.
On that day in March of 2010, the two of us combined to weigh about 490 pounds. Last week, we combined at about 334.
At first, I was able to shed weight just by eating less (dieting is so easy when you are 100 pounds overweight!). Soon, as the inevitable plateau settled in and my weight loss stagnated, it was evident that there needed to be an additional element to the plan.
That is when I started to run.
The irony of a guy who spent most of his adult life as a coach of track and field "taking up" running relatively late in his adulthood was not lost on anyone, I am sure. The first runs were halting ones on the treadmill. The first go-round was two ... minutes. At 6.0 mph. Seriously, that's all I could physically tolerate. Pace and endurance improved gradually, and by October of 2011, I was ready to run competitively. In the two years between then and now, I have run in over a dozen races of between 5K and 10K. I have also logged nearly 1,400 miles either on the treadmill and the road this year alone.
With every mile, I am running away from what I was four short years ago. I am running to ensure that I'll be around for my own kids as long as my dad was around for my brother, my sisters, my mother and me.
Believe me, I know what the hell I am doing this for.
MILE #2 (7:44 AM, yesterday): The second mile has a gently rolling uphill and downhill, and then it's flat. If you play your cards right, you can earn back any time you might have lost if your first mile went sideways on you. Mine, however, was too fast. So now comes the awkward dance of trying to maintain pace while not going "too fast," which is precisely what I had done in the first mile. As I run past the flag indicating the second mile marker, my watch reads "14:20." Quick mental math tells me that my second mile was a 7:16. That gives me a quick shot of confidence--I was pushing, to be sure, but it didn't feel all that fast. There is one cause for alarm, though: I am really starting to feel it. Yet again, I wonder if I am burning out early. After all, there is still more than four miles to go. Fatigue is hammering me, and, in reality, we've just gotten started.
Most kids, when they are kids, think everyone they care about will live forever. For whatever reason, I never was blessed with that kind of blind optimism.
It might have had something to do with matters as simple as age and physical appearances. My dad was just a few days shy of his 43rd birthday when I was born, and, in all candor, he looked older. It led to one of the funniest incidents of my youth. My older brother and I had gone out for an evening at the local auto races with Dad, and stopped for doughnuts on the way home. The high schooler at the counter greeted us with an unintentional shot at the old man:
"Hey kids! Out for a night with Grandpa, huh?"
I sometimes think I did everything a little bit earlier because I wanted to make sure Dad would be there for it (my mom is about nine years younger than my dad, so I was more confident about her being there for all the milestones). I was out of college in four years, married by the age of 24, and had my first child at 28. At every turn, he was there, a remarkably vital man who still tended to his car, his rosebushes and his eldest son's high school football team until the final weeks of his life.
That vitality had been sapped by July of last year, and in that horrible month, we came to know why. We already knew he had CLL (a form of leukemia that tends to be more slow-acting than other varieties), and we already knew he was in the early phases of congestive heart failure. Then in the second week of July, he fell into acute kidney failure. He recovered with miraculous speed, fast enough that in late July, my brother made the call that the three of us were going to head to Mammoth Lakes for an impromptu fishing trip. When others asked, with good intentions and good cause, if Dad would be up to that, my brother cut them short. We're going. It's as simple as that.
I'm not gonna lie: I grew up loathing these fishing trips. My brother, four years my elder, was always the athlete/outdoorsman. I was the guy who defined "roughing it" as those rare occasions when our cabin didn't have cable television. But I grew to appreciate them more as I got older. And I appreciated the last one most of all.
A few weeks after we came back from the mountains, we got the call. The kidney failure did not occur in isolation. It had a trigger: a form of bone cancer known as multiple myeloma. So we added another form of cancer to the scorecard that included congestive heart failure, leukemia and kidney failure.
And, despite it all, the old man was still tending to his yard and going to football games. A bit slowed perhaps, but still quick to say exactly what his son (the head coach) needed to do differently to avoid defeat the next week. That his health was in decline was hard to deny (though, in many ways, I worked hard to deny it at that time). But this seemed to be the textbook example of "raging against the dying of the light."
MILE #4 (7:59 AM, yesterday): The middle two miles of the 10K are all about maintenance. You can't meet your goals in the middle of a race, but you sure can piss them away. And sadly, on this day, a few factors are making it harder and harder to maintain. One is the heat. Here in Southern California, on days when the Santa Ana winds blow out of the canyons, it is usually right around this time that they arrive at the coast. It feels like, and in actuality it may well be, the temperature has gone up 15 degrees in the last 15 minutes. It's taken a toll on my pace, which has become progressively slower. The third mile was run at a 7:32 pace, which I would've been thrilled with in the start of the day. But with the first two miles where they were, this was significantly slower. Mile four? Even worse: 7:55. The overall time now sits at 29:47. While I am still "ahead of schedule," the pace feels like it is in free fall, and my legs feel like they've gained ten pounds of lead in each leg. What's worse: about a quarter-mile down the road is a left turn, and then "the Hill." Anyone who has run this race knows about the Rosecrans Hill. A lot of good races have been lost in that 300 to 400 yards of incline.
November had already been a physical and emotional strain long before the phone call.
I began the month at my parents' home, across the Los Angeles basin from my own. Dad had managed to break his leg weeks earlier in typical Dad fashion. With four different potentially fatal ailments, and in 95-degree San Gabriel Valley heat, he decided a sprinkler head desperately needed to be repaired, and that his octogenarian body was the man for the job. As he was getting up from a squatting position, he lost his equilibrium for a second and fell backwards, breaking his lower leg beneath him.
When my mom made her annual trip to see her sisters in Texas, the family took shifts staying with Dad, since he was still unable to walk due to his injury. I spent the four days prior to Election Day with him. There were some real moments of madness: trying to finish the pre-election crush of work for Daily Kos Elections was made a trifle more challenging by the best internet technology that the 1990s could buy at Mom and Dad's house, to be sure.
But there were moments to cherish. I learned why my dad had joined the Navy in 1950, why he had come to California in 1961. We watched UCLA's rising football squad crush Arizona, and saw my brother's high school football squad clinch a 33rd consecutive trip to the playoffs. I had trepidation about going to stay out there initially. Frailty is incredibly upsetting, especially when it is someone you love so much. But, when all was said and done, I wouldn't have traded those four days for anything.
By mid-November, however I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. The labor I put in for Daily Kos Elections had become, for all intents and purposes, a second job. I was still teaching full-time, and balancing the two was difficult. And though I cherished my time with my dad, seeing someone who had been so energetic for all my life in that state has been daunting.
Then the phone call came.
I had not talked to Fish in a few weeks. I knew his mother had passed away at the age of 94, and I had assumed he had gone back to Jersey to tend to family affairs. I further assumed, that since his mother had passed the week before Sandy, that he might've been stranded there. So not seeing him and not hearing from him was something I dismissed as a family matter. That left me unprepared for what followed.
His loss of appetite, which he had complained about at lunch with me in October, was being caused by pancreatic cancer. Advanced pancreatic cancer. Doctors were debating options, but there seemed to be few good ones.
For the decade prior, we had gone to Las Vegas on Super Bowl weekend. He was an old-school gambler, I was a rabid sports fan. It was always a blast. He closed his phone conversation with me on this optimistic note.
"Vegas isn't looking too good right now, but I am not closing the door on it just yet."
Twelve days later, on an overcast Sunday morning, he was gone.
MILE #5 (8:07 AM, yesterday): Ugh. That fucking hill. Last year, in an effort to avoid being completely exhausted for the last mile-and-a-half, I walked the hill. All I was trying to do was break 50 minutes, and I figured even with a 10-minute mile, I could get there. Even with the walk, my fifth mile was 8:57, and my sub-50 run was assured. Today, I ran the hill, trying to make up time. It worked ... when I crossed the five-mile marker, the overall time was 37:48. An 8:01 mile, nearly 30 seconds better than I had set aside for myself. It might be time to reassess goals. 47 minutes-and-change is looking like a near-certainty, barring a catastrophe. The 46-minute range is a legitimate chance. But, there is still over a mile to go. And that hill sapped a lot of strength. "Going on courage" might have to start a little early.
There was simply no time to process the loss of my friend and mentor. Four days after Fish's passing, Dad was admitted to the hospital. In the race to see which serious ailment was going to be the first to strike, it looked like congestive heart failure was going to take the lead.
He remained there for five days. I spent Friday night there with him (we stayed in shifts so that Mom could get some time to rest and decompress) watching the PAC-12 championship football game between UCLA and Stanford. When the nurse came in and noted with alarm that his blood pressure and pulse were elevated, I explained to him the simple cause: it was the fourth quarter, and UCLA was losing. That was a satisfactory response for the nurse, who went about his business.
But this hospital stay was different. There was no release with a four-week follow-up. This time, he was released to home hospice care. Though no one really wanted to say it out loud, we all knew what that meant.
The week after was chaos amid trying to have a semblance of normality. The on-campus memorial service for my friend and mentor was that Saturday, and I was the one officiating the ceremony. There were meetings about that with the staff that was organizing the affair, and with Fish's family. It was the first time I had seen them in years. Those are the moments where you start to regret a bit that it takes great moments of celebration and loss to bring people together. You start to wish that we would just do it. Just because. But that's not how it works, because, always, life simply gets in the way.
There were also family engagements, like my son's first performance with the middle school choir. It was a holiday program, and the songs rained down from angelic voices as I concealed my phone in my lap. That night, I retrieved text after text from my brother, updating me on Dad's condition.
"...And have yourself a Merry little Christmas, now."
The next day, I took off work to check on Dad, and to give Mom a little support. Chatty the night before, he was asleep the entire day. That Thursday night spurt of chatter, as it happened, would be his last words. After I left early in the evening on Friday, I came home only long enough for my brother to call me. The message was blunt, which appropriate for the situation:
Get back here. Now.
The entire family kept vigil that Friday night. His wife of 45 years, all four children, spouses, the grandchildren that were adults (the younger ones, like my own two kids, were kept away because it would simply be too difficult for them).
Late in the evening, around midnight, Mom told me to go home. You have a job to do tomorrow, she told me. You have to be there for Bob's family.
There is nothing you can do here now.
Saturday morning, at 8:30, the auditorium of Mira Costa High School was filled with hundreds of former athletes, students, parents and community members. I acted as a master of ceremonies, and offered my own eulogy towards the end. I was able to keep my emotions in check, by and large, and only lost it briefly on one line, a line I will never forget:
I know I am supposed to say that Fish was like a second father to me, but ... God blessed me with a pretty damned good first father.
I bit my lip pretty freaking hard, paused for a moment, and went on. There were funny stories, sad stories and the catharsis that comes with the closure a memorial can create. My closure, however, was far from over. At most, six people in that auditorium knew that I had left my own father's bedside, and would be returning there as soon as the ceremony ended. I felt a little bad that I brushed off and brushed by well-wishers, and was hustling out the door within minutes of the ceremony's conclusion. They would understand, though, that I had a far more important obligation awaiting me.
In the end, my mother swears he waited until I was out of the house. That Monday afternoon, as I left for an hour to help my wife return some boxes to her office in downtown Los Angeles, Dad finally stopped fighting. It was precisely at noon.
The following Saturday, hundreds filled a mortuary hall for the man that most knew as "Papa" Singiser. I spoke again, and someone afterwards offered me a very kind compliment. I almost said, "I've had some experience with this lately," but that seemed selfish and mean-spirited. But there was a shred of truth: I didn't want to be good at eulogies. I'd had quite enough of them, thank you very much, and if I can go a decade or two without doing it again, well ... that'd be fine by me.
MILE #6 (8:15 AM, yesterday): It sounds corny as Hell, and I know it. But as I near the finish line, no matter the distance of the race, I become acutely aware of two things. One is the medallion bouncing around in my back pocket. It is a U.S. Navy Medallion, which was given to our family at the memorial service for Dad. The other is the t-shirt I wear when I run these days. It has a quotation emblazoned on it: "I yell because I care." The quotation was a favorite of a coach I used to know named Robert Fish. In every race that I have run this year, those are the two things I carry with me, to put a little wind at my back. Today, that wind was absolutely necessary. The heat, the fatigue, the fast start. They're all wearing me down. It felt like my fastest mile. Instead, it was my second slowest. 7:50. I head down the final stretch of the race at 45 minutes 38 seconds. Ahead of schedule, but now I want something in the 46-minute range, dammit. With what little I have left, I head down a slight hill towards the finish line.
At dinner before the game, I had sworn to my mom that I was going to try to act as if this was just another game.
It wasn't, of course, not even close.
If you haven't figured it out yet in the first 10,000 words or so, football was an incredibly important agent of bonding for my family. My brother played into his collegiate years, and then became a coach. He has been one of the most respected men in his profession in his area, and has been a mentor to hundreds of kids in a working-class, tough-as-nails neighborhood just east of Los Angeles. For the 20 years he has worked there, my dad had basically adopted many of the kids as his own surrogate grandkids. Knights football had become the glue that connected my brother and Dad together.
Meanwhile, growing up, I was one of the star players ... on our school's Academic Decathlon team. My football prowess was as "enthusiast" rather than participant or coach—although ( and I have never forgotten this) my parents went to every AcaDec awards banquet, just as they had gone to every football game.
In all the years that my brother was a coach, Dad never missed a game, save for a couple of occasions when a chronically bad back got the better of him. He was such an institution on sidelines around the San Gabriel Valley that several coaches showed up to his memorial service, and the local high school sportswriter actually wrote a story on the event of his passing.
August 30 would mark the first football game without Dad on the sidelines. I knew how hard this was going to be for my brother. And I knew how heavy it was weighing on him. It seemed so inconceivable--a Friday night, under the lights, and Dad wasn't going to be there.
Or, so we all thought.
When I arrived at the stadium for the season opener, I noticed something right away that others missed, at least at first.
My dad's lawn chair, the one he had shuttled around to countless football practices, softball games, passing league tournaments, and the like, was sitting on the sidelines. Empty.
My brother had seen to it that he would be there, after all.
We all heal in our own ways. My brother put that chair on the sidelines of the first game of the season. When I race, I run with the Navy medallion given to our family in my back pocket. Some get tattoos over their hearts. Some give their next child the name of the departed, in a tribute that will last for generations to come.
In each instance, it is a small, symbolic (but critically important) way to make a statement. And that statement is simple: life goes on. There are races to be run, families to be raised, games to be played, work to be done.
But those we have loved and have left behind are still important to us. And while we go on, we do not forget. We never, ever forget.
Because to go on is so very difficult.
But to forget? That would be unthinkable.
But it was good enough. The record will reflect a time of 46:51. Not only faster than the low-47 I was aiming for when the sun rose this morning, but also over 90 seconds faster than I've ever run before. Less than 15 minutes later, my wife finished her first (and, at least the way she sees it right now, her last) 10K run. I said the runner's high thing was bullshit before, and I mean it. But there is something to this: doing something you never thought at one point in your life that you would be able to do is a tremendous feeling. I left the Manhattan Beach Pier with that exact sensation. Mission accomplished.
The timesheet reflects something that I already knew intuitively about my wife and I. We are stronger than we were last year, and stronger than we were before. At the end of the day, all we can pray for is to be a little stronger today than we were the day before. I didn't need a timesheet to confirm that for me, but it is nice to have that affirmation, just the same.
My 16th race of my adult life is in the record books. But there will be a 17th. And an 18th. And many more beyond that.
"Why in the hell am I doing this?!"
I am doing this because my parents ingrained from day one a simple spirit: you finish what you start. To be blunt, I busted my ass to get from my previous state of being to the much more physically and mentally healthy person I am today. And I'll be damned if I intend to take the easy way out and slide backwards. Mom and Dad did not raise a quitter.
I am doing this because running is my connection to a man who had mentored thousands of runners in his 30-plus years in coaching. I'd wager that Fish's proudest moment as a coach was not the myriad of high school track and cross-country stars he had guided. It was training his stepdaughter for her first marathon. I think he'd like to have tried to coach me up in the 5K and 10K. And, occasionally, I think of what he'd be yelling at me if he were on the side of the road.
And I am doing this because I was absolutely blessed beyond words to have both of my parents by my side and at my back for every great milestone for the first 40 years of my life, and I feel like I owe that, if not more, to my own son and daughter.
And if I can imbue half of the lessons onto them that my own father was able to impart to me, then I will have served them very, very well.
So, I run. Some of the time, I am running from things. But much of the time, I am running towards something. Something very special. Something I would never have seen or known had it not been for role models who are no longer here with me, yet still speak to me every single day.