A veteran track and field observer looks for meaning in the most
challenging year of his life and finds it in an unexpected meeting with an Olympic champion.
Thursday, May 29, 2013
A Ride for Robert
by Mark Cullen
Dedicated to Wes VanHooser
An Evening with Mike
It's the first “Distance Night in Eugene” - May 27, 2011 - the evening before the Prefontaine Classic. Now an annual event, this is when the world's greatest distance runners assemble to set the course of running for the year - and sometimes the foreseeable future.
Tonight, Mo Farah has his breakthrough win in the 10,000m in one of the top 20 times ever run, and his startling performance presages his London and Moscow double golds. His blistering last lap gets this savvy crowd’s attention – who could ever match that?
Uncommon is common at Hayward Field, where stars mingle readily with the night and night gives the stars all the space they need.
I run into my friend, Mike Johnson, head coach of the Western Oregon University team. I am privileged to join him and his family for the entire evening.
Our talk turns to the best: your five favorite performances ever?
As we stand in this hallowed hall of American distance running, Mike and I share a possibly unexpected entry: Robert Harting, we say, the 2009 World Championships.
Harting was a heavy favorite to win the discus in front of his rabid hometown crowd in
. He lost the lead to Poland's Piotr
Malachowski in the fifth of six rounds. With the crowd going wild - I was
privileged to be in the stadium - Harting tossed a lifetime best. Berlin
Malachowski had one chance left, but it was clear from the point of release that his dreams would not come true. Like a wounded bird, his disc gave up and dropped well short of Harting's golden Championship record.
Harting is known for his exuberant celebrations, and at the end of his competitions, the fewer garments he's wearing, the better he has performed. He shreds his tops and performs joyful victory laps.
In London, he celebrated his Olympic gold medal by ripping off his singlet, wrapping himself in the German flag, and storming over the hurdles set for the women's final.
Know that he is 6' 7" (2.01m), 287 lbs. (130kg).
The crowd chanted as he soared over each row and - gifted athlete - he never came close to clipping a hurdle.
"You know I love this sport," I say to Mike. "I love appreciating it."
Yet I've always kept a respectful distance between myself and these terrific athletes. An unexpected encounter with even one during the course of a World Championship alters my experience and memory of the event.
Trine Hattestad, Norway's javelin world record holder and World and Olympic champion, will likely not remember the 45 seconds we spent together in Seville in 1999.
I'll never forget it.
Kip Keino and LaShawn Merritt will likely not remember the moment we converged on passport control in Helsinki in 2005. I introduced the gold medalist of the past to the gold medalist of the future, but there was an understanding that my name was beside the point.
Earlier, a ripple had passed through the airplane as word spread that Kip Keino was on board.
“If this plane goes down,” I said to my neighbor, “it’s not us who will be in the headlines tomorrow.”
Cheerfully he chimed in, “Also on board…”
* * *
"But if I ever have the chance to meet Robert Harting and let him know what it was like to be in the stadium that night..."
"Yes," Mike agrees, "that would be a special moment."
The Voice of God
October 1972. My family was worried.
After 17 consecutive years of school, I took a year off.
“Mark is dropping out of college!”
I knew that wasn’t true. I was torn between history and journalism as majors and did not want to make a mistake.
I had attended Hampshire College in Massachusetts in its very first year, and as it was too much like my high school, it was time for a change. A year after my parents moved to Seattle, I enrolled as a sophomore at the University of Oregon.
The legendary journalism professor, John Hulteng, visiting from Stanford, taught my introductory journalism class. He was eager for me to major in the subject, but I had been on a path for history since I was three years old when my parents gave me the book, America and Its Presidents.
That same fall I enrolled in Bill Bowerman’s beginning jogging class. A week after he was named head coach of the ’72 US Olympic Track and Field team, forty of us gathered near a tunnel of the West Grandstand of Hayward Field and waited for who we assumed would be the 49th graduate assistant coach.
Out walked Bowerman.
He turned, looked up at us, and bellowed, “Hi, I’m your coach!”
On the track below us, Pat Tyson, Gary Barger, Arne and Knut Kvalheim, Craig Brigham, Mac Wilkins, and Steve Prefontaine were doing intense workouts.
We watched in awe.
When Bowerman said he was our coach, he meant it. He wrote and posted every one of our workouts. He came to recognize us on campus, and even if he didn’t know our names, he always acknowledged us.
One month into running with this great coach, I needed a long run and entered the Eugene half-marathon. I was delighted to finish well under two hours in my very first race, my years on “the dark side” – that would be soccer – having served my distance base well.
Bowerman recognized me in the Autzen Stadium parking lot and walked my way. I couldn’t believe he was going to talk with me.
“Why’d ya stop?”
“Because I’ve been running for only a month.”
This may have been, in his cantankerous worldview, one of the ten or so reasonable answers he received in his entire life. He softened, asked my time, and was genuinely pleased with the result. I was back in his good graces.
Every week Bowerman posted a revised roster of the forty of us – an updated ranking based on our workouts as well as results from intrasquad races on the on-campus cross country course.
Four columns of ten. I started near the top of the fourth and gradually moved through the third.
There was a weekly race, usually against a community college. Before each one our team manager, a tall, longhaired Texan named, fetchingly, Tex, read through the roster. The first seven who indicated their availability were that week’s team.
Each week I sat in agony hoping he’d get to my name, and in late October, Tex finally did. We ran in Bend against the Central Oregon Hot Dogs. Two-time Olympic biathlete, Jay Bowerman, son of William J., was a member of their team. We had our own name: Bowerman’s Hamburgers. We were, after all, raw meat.
This showdown between July 4th barbecue fodder gave rise to my favorite headline; from the Oregon Daily Emerald: “Meats Meet Meats in Dual Meet.”
We ran on a dusty course on a hot day. In a sport in which low score wins, we scored 33 points. I worked my way into our top five and was a point scorer that day for a University of Oregon cross country team.
“I scored a third of our team’s points today!”
I went to the first track meet of the ’72 season and never missed another for the next five years. Well, except for June that year when my mother put her foot down regarding the untimely conflict between my sister’s wedding and the NCAA Championships in Eugene.
Section A, row 5, seat 5.
I remain baffled that there was even a question. I gave the tickets to my roommate, Kyle Jansson, my friend to this day.
Three months later I found myself in my native Massachusetts and went to a soccer field in Deerfield to watch a childhood friend play. As I pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a Lincoln Continental limousine, a rare sight in this part of rural Massachusetts.
During the game, a familiar face became apparent to me. I let him be a father and left him alone. I was introduced to his wife and explained my dilemma.
She said, “He loves to have this kind of conversation with the next generation, and he’d love to have this conversation with you. Go ask him.”
“In journalism school you will learn a specific style of writing,” he said. “Avoid journalism school at all costs. Take all the English, history, and political science you can get your hands on, and you will learn to think about what you’re writing about, and the writing will come.”
“Thank you, Mr. Cronkite.”
Often people say they’ve received direction from the voice of god.
I, in fact, have.
History in a Duffel Bag
My sense of history informed my seven-and-a-half year running career, which ended in injury after I ran the 1979 Boston Marathon.
I have long suffered the slings and arrows of being called - not always enthusiastically - a pack rat. I always thought I was saving items for their historic value, a potential that, granted, was usually more evident to me than anyone else.
For reasons I still don’t know, I ended up with my older sister’s green Army duffel bag in my dorm room in Eugene.
In it I placed every pair of running shoes I wore from 1971-79, a total of 28.
A little company named Blue Ribbon Sports was in the process of becoming Nike.
I put all six pairs of my Blue Ribbon Sports running shoes in the duffel bag, and kept three of the boxes.
My podiatrist, Dr. Dennis Vixie, was designing shoes for Nike.
“Here, try these.”
Waffle Trainer prototypes.
Did I mention those cool advertising brochures Nike produced during their first year?
I have almost every one.
A dear friend finally convinced me to put one pair in my safe deposit box.
The Bowerman waffle iron shoes.
One of three hundred pairs made by him by hand.
A rarity among rarities, mine are among the very few he made from a spike plate.
Authenticated by Nike royalty Geoff Hollister, Nelson Farris, and Dennis Vixie.
I even remember Geoff selling shoes from the back of his vehicle at the ’72 Olympic Trials.
He had parked in my dorm’s parking lot.
I pulled in to park.
Next to history.
A Guy Named Wes
I'm not quite sure when it was that 2012 began to fall apart for me.
It certainly wasn't the Olympic Trials in Eugene where I witnessed Ashton Eaton's decathlon world record, the third time I’ve seen a new standard set. Nor was it the last day of the Olympics when I realized that my entry in a highly respected international Olympics prediction contest was to win silver.
Had I only thought of it, this might well have led to some shirt-ripping of my own, though at 60, there seemed to be dramatically fewer times when people might actually have wanted me to do it.
Things began to unravel the second Sunday in July when I sat on an old deck chair and it collapsed. The only thing between the wooden deck and my tailbone was a thin piece of canvas.
The deck won.
I was lucky that I had cracked my tailbone and not broken it, as a break requires a surgical repair. But that was hard to appreciate when standing was far easier than sitting for many months to come.
Four days later I was standing outside when I heard a crash inside my house.
A large painting had not been rehung properly, and one of the few remaining emblems of my Dutch family’s life that evaporated in World War II had come crashing down. It didn’t just fall; it fell over the arm of the couch and ripped in four directions.
Two down and I was nervous about the third.
* * *
Fatigue is insidious.
It doesn’t take hold of you in a day; rather, it slowly and imperceptibly takes a little of yourself, bit by tiny bit, until you forget what it was like to be rested. For four years I suffered from fatigue so disabling I was napping several hours almost daily.
Increasingly, I was frightened.
Most especially by the dismal history on my mother’s side of the family. She and her two brothers all died at 75 of heart disease.
“How’s that for genetic programming?” we used to joke.
It felt less and less like a joke.
Our bodies are always speaking to us, if only we will listen. I gave up red meat, followed quickly by the wine I so loved to match with foods.
I was listening, but uncertain as to what.
My annual physical exam came to have a predictable ending.
“Shouldn’t I be taking a statin, given my high cholesterol and family history?”
My sleep doctor and internist, trusted providers to this day, understandably put fatigue into the sleep apnea bin and focused on treating the known condition.
My sleep doctor and internist, trusted providers to this day, understandably put fatigue into the sleep apnea bin and focused on treating the known condition.
When I was 52, a heart scan registered 0/400, meaning I had no arterial plaque whatsoever. Memorably, my doctor turned to a resident and said, "He's my first zero."
Eight years later: 8/400, still exceptionally low for a 60 year old. But to me, eight points meant I was headed in the wrong direction. Now there was arterial plaque where none had been before.
“OK,” said my internist, relenting at last, “I’ll write you a prescription for a statin, but before you fill it, you have to see the director of cardiac rehabilitation at Swedish Hospital.”
Dr. Sarah Speck, who is nothing if not brilliant, has a cardiac wellness business which then was getting off the ground. She approved me to continue walking within a limited range of effort – far less than the heartbeat of over 140 I register when attacking a poor hill near my house in Seattle. Her business includes a small gym with cutting edge diagnostic equipment. Each staffer has a degree in exercise physiology.
Wes VanHooser, a star soccer player who had just graduated from Seattle University, did my intake interview. For an hour, Wes listened to me pour out my fears.
“Why don’t we do a stress test?” he asked.
This calmly delivered suggestion was not really his to make, but he was the first to perceive I was at the stage that it was necessary.
Days later, I looked over Wes’s shoulder as two lines on the printout, one blue and one red, diverged.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That’s just you being tough,” he replied, not quite the answer I was expecting. He explained I was pushing myself into oxygen debt, further proof of my propensity for thrashing myself.
Not long after, as the intensity of the test ramped up near its end, Wes turned pale.
“How are you feeling?”
“Well, I have some discomfort near the top of my collarbone, but that’s just my breathing.”
That was not my breathing.
Two weeks later, the full meal deal stress echocardiogram showed both that I had the physical fitness of a 39-year-old and that something was very wrong with my heart.
The only way to find out what was to go in and look.
I did not quite perceive the seriousness of the situation until I met with Dr. Speck’s nurse, Terry, to schedule the procedure.
“Our next available time slot is in 13 days,” she said.
“Let’s see,” I replied. “Monday the 12th. I have a meeting.”
Terry froze me with a look. If my heart wasn’t going to nail me, Terry’s death stare certainly would.
“Actually, I can miss that meeting…”
The next thirteen days were the most frightening of my life. I had worked so hard in the stress echo test that something felt different – ominously different. Dr. Speck gave me permission to keep walking, but I chose not to.
As I entered Swedish Hospital, I thought as I approached the registration desk, “Well, if I go down now, at least I’ll be going down in the right place.”
In an angioplasty, a tube is inserted into your femoral artery and threaded into your heart. A contrast dye is injected and doctors evaluate the degree of blockage, if any.
The angioplasty showed a blockage so serious it required a stent. Remarkably, there was no plaque anywhere else, and the heart scan almost had been right, with just one small exception.
The scan shows only hard plaque, not soft. The soft had attached to that small amount of hard and, unseen by the scan, had built up a blockage of 85% in the artery aptly named the ‘widow maker.’
I am by now used to the sound people make when they see the before and after images of my heart: they suck in their breath. Low whistling comes next. The space through which blood was getting to my heart was almost immeasurable.
No wonder I was exhausted.
Dr. Speck later explained that I worked so hard in the stress test that I might well have dislodged some plaque and made my condition even worse.
Over time, Dr. Speck revealed herself to be perplexed. “This just doesn’t make sense,” she said. “How could someone with your level of fitness have an 85% blockage?”
She checked the boxes for genetic testing.
The mystery of generations of dismal health on the Dutch side of my family came unraveled.
I carry two genes in rare combination. One causes me to produce cholesterol at a rate 55% higher than normal; 10% of the population carries this gene. The other is known as the ‘stickiness’ gene. This charmer causes all that plaque to adhere much faster than normal.
A possibly deadly combination.
My survival beat astronomical odds.
There are few feelings in my life better than offering this explanation to my family. Now we all can find out if we carry one or both genes, and if so, with diet, exercise, medicine, and sleep, much can be done to ameliorate the effects of this genetic dynamic duo.
* * *
It’s a well-known phenomenon that after positive life altering experiences, people feel gratitude and appreciation to a degree they have never before experienced. In his book, 14 Minutes, Alberto Salazar is openly skeptical of this bit of mysticism, but I’ve found it endures.
I’ve always thought of myself as an appreciative person, as one who tries to find the good, but I’ve never experienced appreciation and gratitude so profoundly. I was surprised that through all of this I had cried only once. This was unusual for me, as I’ll tear up over moments of beauty even more readily than moments of distress.
The only time I had come to tears was in the hospital when it was suspected I was having internal bleeding from my femoral artery. My soft-spoken nurse, Naveen, became a general. He ordered me to bed. Alarms sounded, lights flashed, an emergency team rushed in. False alarm, but those few tears were tears of abject fear.
I kept waiting for the dam to burst.
Man with a Mohawk
I enrolled in a three-month, three-day-a-week cardiac rehabilitation program at Swedish. Even saying the name of the program was difficult for me at first, but as I passed through the halls of this venerable hospital, I came to appreciate my good fortune.
One afternoon, as I stood in line at the hospital’s Starbucks, a young women wheeled her beau in behind me. He was a strapping man, perhaps 27, and to see someone so strong and healthy in a wheelchair looked incongruous. His distinctive look was defined by a tall Mohawk.
One side of his scalp was punctuated by a large, Z-shaped scar. I can only imagine the conversation. “How can we operate on his brain and preserve his magnificent Mohawk at the same time?”
Grace comes in many forms.
I looked at his partner and then at him. He and I looked each other in the eye and nodded.
I think of him
On a dank January evening, I drove home from the cardiac class along 12th Avenue on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. A young father was trying to beat the 6:00pm pickup deadline at his child’s daycare across the street. I stopped mid-block in rush hour traffic, and a driver from the other lane took my cue. The young father looked at me as though he had just been given a reprieve.
A bashful smile, a gentle wave - then he dashed across.
Perhaps it’s easier to give reprieves - no matter how small - when you’ve been given one yourself.
Two weeks after my life-altering procedure, it was Thanksgiving.
Giving thanks was never like this.
I took Uncle Walter’s advice and majored in history. The writing bug, however, never left.
I wrote one-third of the 1976 Olympic Trials Souvenir Program and never had more fun than covering events for its daily supplement. Who knew that Bruce Jenner stories would have such traction almost four decades later?
Through the late 70s, I wrote race reports and athlete profiles for the World Publications tabloid, On the Run. My big break was supposed to have been a cover story on Gerry Lindgren, but the paper folded a week before my deadline. I still have 85 pages of transcripts of interviews with the Sparrow as well as his coach, Tracy Walters.
The Stinky Foot, Lindgren’s legendary Tacoma running store, was where I conducted three interviews with him. When I returned to clarify several details, he had famously disappeared.
Work took over as my history teaching career took a surprising turn into athletics administration and a policy making role in Washington State high school athletics.
It was Don Kardong who said after the ’76 Olympics that he wanted to find a job that would allow him to continue to train at a high level, and so he got a job teaching.
He wondered why his mileage fell to 20 miles a week.
So it was with my writing.
* * *
The day before the ’76 men’s marathon Olympic Trials, I sat in a meeting room in race headquarters in Eugene, and was not introduced to the men on either side of me until this impromptu gathering was over.
A fairly animated discussion took place: with Frank Shorter and Billy Rodgers heavy favorites for the first two spots on the Olympic team, who would take the third? It took a long time to get a word in, but finally I said, “Don Kardong,” and they all turned and looked at me.
“Because he has the best balance of distance strength and track speed in the field. If he’s close to third at 20 miles, watch out.”
That got interested nods and murmurs of, “OK, we’ll watch for him, too.”
Kardong was fourth at 20 miles and took coveted third by 56 seconds over his Stanford teammate, Tony Sandoval.
To my left was Joe Henderson, editor of Runner’s World magazine, and to my right, the voluble coach of the Greater Boston Track Club, Billy Squires.
Henderson graciously told this story in his Runner’s World report on the race, concluding with, “Kardong wasn’t even on my list, which shows how much I know.”
The 1988 Seoul Olympics took place in late September and early October. I had entered the Track and Field News Olympic prediction contests several times before, but this time I was coaching cross country and decided I’d show my runners there was more to the sports world than Michael Jordan.
What was intended as a thumbnail sketch of each event turned into a preview of all 47, with an explanation of each of my medal picks. Twenty-four pages later, I was finished. This became a quadrennial exercise and in 2012, I posted it online. My blog, trackerati, was born.
* * *
Summer of 2013. Early July. Nine months after my greatest trial, I was beginning to find my stride again.
As I parked in the neighborhood near Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, British Columbia, for the Harry Jerome Classic, I pulled in behind Canadian Olympian and national javelin champion, Curtis Moss, and at the end of the meet he invited me to join him and his coach for dinner.
We were joined by other coaches and athletes, and it turned into one of those memorable track and field evenings when people who have never met bond through our common language. I told his coach about my fledgling website, and he emailed me a few days later to say that a press pass was waiting for me for that Saturday’s Victoria International Classic.
So it was that the great Canadian coach, Don Steen, Dad of ’88 Olympic decathlon bronze medalist, Dave, got me my first press pass since the ‘76 Olympic Trials – a brief interlude of 37 years.
I thought to send a link to my article about the Canadian meets to Track and Field News, and much to my delight, they posted it in the left hand column, “Today’s Headlines,” for the world – well, my world – to see.
It was exhilarating. For the first time, I began to find joy again, and going to the two Canadian meets revived me.
Hours after the Victoria meet my elderly Dad suffered a massive, disabling stroke.
Even though he was in Maine and I in Seattle, I kept long-distance vigil through the summer and did not venture far from home.
I took up race walking, of a sort, and twice traveled to Portland to work with a coach. She marveled at my lack of flexibility: my true physical inability to master the style after many years of running in a straight line.
Undaunted, I entered a 5k and was delighted to make my goal of breaking 12:00 per mile pace my first time out. This earned me 8th out of 8 in my age group, tough company when it’s the Bowerman Athletic Club 5k on the Nike campus in Beaverton.
At the beginning of August I felt that biennial tug and arrived in Moscow for the last seven days of my seventh World Championships. I pledged to write every day, and kept in touch with Sieg Lindstrom, Track and Field News’s Managing Editor, with whom I’d struck up a correspondence after the Canadian meets.
T+FN is certainly the most prominent track and field resource in the United States and, with Great Britain’s Athletics Weekly, one of two key sites in the world. Far more than the track and field world tunes in during World and Olympic championships, and the T+FN center column, “Today’s Best Reading,” has achieved holy grail status among track writers.
It’s hard for me to understate the importance of this publication in my life. I’ve read it since my days at Oregon, and several times I’ve joined their tours to World and Olympic Championships. Through these I have made more friends than I can count, most especially the track and field family I affectionately call “my posse,” whom I first met in Sevilla in 1999, the very same night I met Trine Hattestad, in the very same place.
The Moscow tour stayed in several hotels and, knowing my posse, I registered at one of the hotels in the hope of finding them there. I wrote Sieg to let him know I’d made it and asked him where he was staying. We were all at the same hotel.
I put the word out that I’d like to meet Sieg and the result became almost comical.
Every morning at breakfast: have you found Sieg yet? No.
One of the tour staffers, Doug, became my seeking-Sieg general, and every day he said some version of ‘but he was just here!’ I hadn’t seen a photo of Sieg, but I’m convinced that at some point he and I were mere feet from each other.
One evening I did a sunset trek to Red Square and retraced the route I took with 23 students on a bitterly cold January night in 1986.
I sat ringside in an outdoor restaurant and watched the human parade.
I was startled by what sounded like boots with metallic toes marching on the rocks of Red Square. Images of a bygone era came to mind. I jumped, expecting the military, and instead saw a young woman go by in six-inch heels, a form of intimidation altogether different than the kind favored by previous dictators.
Christmas carols have always held deep resonance for me, and suddenly over the restaurant’s sound system came the haunting melody of one of my favorites, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming.” I was touched by the image of the resilient rose blooming, against all odds, in the midst of winter.
It’s one thing to know this may be the last time I’ll have a night like this, I thought. It’s quite another to know I might never have had it at all.
* * *
On Friday of the World Championships, I decide to head to Luzhniki Stadium for the morning sessions to see what they have to offer. I used to attend these religiously, but came to feel at the end of each Worlds I had only skimmed the host city.
This morning it’s the shape of the sunlight that captures my attention. On one of my color-coded index cards, I jot down “Teardrop of Sunlight,” and four hours later post an article by that name.
At midnight I return to my hotel from post-meet festivities with my posse and fire up my ten-year-old laptop. Remarkable how seamlessly it works here in the land of comcast.nyet.
There’s a message from my longtime dear friend and teaching colleague, Sue Patella, and Supa asks if I’ve seen the front page of the Track and Field News website.
I hurry to the site and scroll up and down the left side. The absence of my article surprises me just a little, it apparently having dropped off already. I’d noted before that material comes in so quickly during major meets that a posting might not stay there long, but even this seems quick to me.
But I do understand; after all, it’s Friday of the World Championships.
My eye drifts to the center column.
I burst into tears.
A Ride for Robert
Ever since the addition of Friday’s Distance Night in Eugene, I’ve done myself the favor of flying.
I’ve got this one down.
The 5:30pm nonstop from Seattle. Arrive at 6:35, pick up the rental car, make a beeline to Hayward Field in time for the men’s 10,000m at 7:50.
It’s 2013 and I’m in the waiting area at Sea-Tac Airport.
I’m on the phone with my nephew, George, who has just graduated from college. He and a buddy are at Crater Lake as part of a national parks tour that is so similar to the one I did when I graduated that I wonder what else is genetic.
A shadow passes.
“George,” I whisper, almost a hiss. “George,” I say even more insistently.
“Robert Harting just walked by.”
“Who’s Robert Harting?”
“The Olympic and three-time World champion in the discus. He must be on my plane to Eugene.”
George cracks up. He knows how important this is to me.
“I’m going to introduce myself to him and hope that I embarrass myself as little as possible.”
“Well, Uncle Mark, good luck with that.”
And so I tell Robert Harting what it was like to be in the stadium that night.
When you pick up a rental car at Mahlon Sweet Airport in Eugene – it must do something good for the soul to always come home to a place called Mahlon Sweet – there’s only one way out. The exit funnels you past the airport’s main entrance.
There looms Robert, busily consulting his phone, looking up and down and seeming perplexed.
On my way out I had noted the absence of a Nike limousine, and having learned, in fact, that you do live only once, I pull over, roll down the window, and say, “Robert, may I offer you a ride to your hotel?”
He peers in and it takes a moment to register.
“Yes. Thank you.”
I take, surprisingly, only one wrong turn on a route I know well, and we are driving along the banks of the Mackenzie River.
This man is not the man of the shirt-ripping public persona the world knows. Here he is in person: quiet and thoughtful, insightful and introspective.
Truly a gentle man.
I ask him of his interests beyond the track, the travel, the business – he is, indeed, a corporation.
“Well,” he says, “I enjoy working on my Masters - doing the research, reading, writing - I very much enjoy the writing.”
“Well,” I ask, “what is your topic?”
The single greatest accomplishment of my life is that I did not drive into the Mackenzie River.
Startled, I explain my collection, and he becomes animated. We agree that he’ll get in touch by email and I’ll send him my inventory and notes. Later, I think of two books he might like as well. He doesn’t have a card, but I give him mine.
Friends are skeptical. “Do you really think you’ll hear from him?”
“Yes,” I answer with calm assurance.
It’s remarkable how well you can come to know someone in a short period of time. He is a man of honor and I’m quite sure I’ll hear back.
Later that evening, Keninisa Bekele, the greatest male distance runner of the last decade, jogs his victory lap at Hayward Field. I extend paper and pen and the following week present his autograph to a twelve year old student of mine whose family is from Ethiopia.
Standing next to me as I encounter Mr. Bekele is the photographer, Marty Stitsel, a Seattle-area running compatriot from the ‘70s, who invites me to join him for dinner. I’m sitting two down from Doris Brown Heritage, five-time world cross country champion and women’s distance running pioneer.
As I walk back to my hotel, I wonder if I should just leave now, as a weekend which begins with Robert, Keninisa, and Doris is clearly not going to get any better. I stay for the Prefontaine Classic the next day anyway, the universe having twisted my arm.
Three weeks later, my inbox:
“Hi, Mark, this is Robert…”
Much of my life has returned to normal now, except that at work, people assess what’s on my plate every time I eat. Challenging physical fitness activities have replaced lengthy naps. I’m sleeping far better and even had the opportunity to celebrate an overuse injury.
Life is the same but normal is not.
Often I wonder how fast the plaque built up the first time and when my fight to slow it, and its inevitable return, will intersect. In my new world, tick-tick-tick is not always the sound of my heartbeat.
Nonetheless, I more than take joy in being here, at my remarkable luck at having walked in to have this addressed, and long I will wonder how I can possibly adequately thank Wes VanHooser.
My joy and excitement about the possible are back. After all, I’m here to experience them and awake and alert enough to appreciate them. I started writing again and just wish I could let Professor Hulteng know. I missed him by one year.
Meeting Robert at the end of an arduous year meant that magic still could happen - though, of course, the real magic happened on an operating table at Swedish Hospital.
But to get there, sometimes a different kind of magic is required: a guy named Wes breaks protocol and saves your life.
* * *
Today is 364 days since I met Robert.
As there is no men’s discus at the Prefontaine Classic this year,
I’ll have to find another way of getting those books to him.
But tomorrow I’ll fly to
You just never know who’s going to be on that plane.