Without question, my dad is the biggest influence on my athletic life. Somewhere, there is a picture of me in a football helmet with dad holding up a pillow as a blocking sled. I think I was 5 years old, but remember his encouragement as if it were yesterday.
I also remember him at Little League games. He’d lean over the fence by the dugout and all I wanted to do was make him proud. I can still hear his voice ringing through the air as I rounded first base on my way to second for a double, “That a baby!!”
I’d slide into second, then look back at him with a big thumbs up. The smile on his face warmed my entire body. Sports has always been our purest connection.
This continued through high school and college. He came to most of my games and it’s amazing how something so innocent can fuel a kid. It didn’t matter if there were ten, or a thousand, fans at the park, if he was there, the stadium was full.
Eventually I got “too old” for competitive sports and our athletic-union was relegated to discussing the Brewers or Wisconsin Badgers basketball. That was something, but the genuine father/son sporting connection took a little hit.
After many years of inactivity, I decided to change my lifestyle and landed in Ironman training. I hadn’t felt that athletic rush in 20 years and was excited to share it with dad.
I called him with the news that I’d just signed up for Ironman, and the best part was, the race is just up the road in Madison! I’ll never forget his response, “Oh yeah?”
It was a little disheartening.
I tried to explain it, but what I didn’t realize was . . . he understood baseball, football, and basketball, not triathlon. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I remembered conversations we used to have about endurance sports. We both thought marathons and the like were nuts. And not in a good way.
Running, by itself, was never really considered a sport in our home. Sure, the 100 meter dash was a big deal, the 400, but these skinny guys in the marathons were a little weird. It always seemed like the sport for people who couldn’t play sports.
So, I understood dad’s confusion, but was so pumped about my new endeavor, that I pressed on in hopes of rekindling the father/son athletic spark. Eventually he promised to be there on race day, but it felt like more of an inconvenience than a desire.
He started reading Crushing Iron occasionally and I think it began to sink in (though he still thought I was crazy). I not sure he really wanted to (or could) process the enormity of what I was doing.
I’m guessing he told a few people about his son’s latest quest and most thought it was idiotic. He was torn, but I think a few key people reacted positively and said Ironman was an amazing challenge.
It started sinking in.
A couple months before the race he started asking questions. “How far are the runs again?” Well, there’s one run and it’s a marathon at the end. “What?!?”
I also believe that he didn’t think I was serious for a while, but as September approached, he was cautiously intrigued.
My mom started in the same way, but she came on board much earlier. She was absolutely miffed by how I could attempt such a thing, yet started planning the weekend in a big way. She even went to Madison and plotted viewing points, rest areas, and anything else she could pre-produce.
I think her Ironman Fever got inside dad a bit and when we arrived in my hometown 4 days prior to the race, Dad was engaged. He asked a lot more questions and I detected a fatherly concern about the enormity of the undertaking, especially from a son that he knew as one that would sleep in and genuinely be lazy.
There are four things I remember most about Ironman weekend as they relate to my dad.
1. The day before the race, it was 90 degrees and I walked him over to the shore of Lake Monona. We stood there with my brother and I took the opportunity to have a little fun.
I said, “This is where we swim, dad.”
He said, “Oh yeah?”
Then, after a long pause he said, “How do you know where to go.”
We were standing about 1500 yards from the first turn buoy and I said, “You see that little bridge down there at the end of the lake?”
He said, “Not really.”
“Well, we start right over there, swim down to that bridge, turn left for a couple hundred yards, swim back down 17oo yards to that red buoy out in front of us, then curl back 500 yards back to where we started.”
I’d been in his shoes before I started training for Ironman. For a non-swimmer, physically looking at a 2.4 mile swim course is unthinkable.
I sensed the look of an uneasy father in his demeanor as he simply responded, “That’s a long ways, baby.”
2. The morning of the race, I got my transition stuff ready and came down to meet everyone around 6:30. The family was in place. Mom, dad, my brother, and sister (who’d flown in from Dallas) all stood on the rope as we waited to enter the water. I kept an eye on dad who seemed to be more than a little nervous. The energy is off the charts at 6:30 am with music pumping everyone up and 2,700 racers bouncing around in wetsuits. Dad smoked non-stop and barely uttered a word. He was more subdued than pumped, but I assured him it would be fine. He said, “Be careful, buddy,” and I gave him a hug before filing into the water.
I didn’t know it that day, but later when I was watching video my brother shot of me coming out of the water, I heard a new level of excitement/relief from behind the camera in my dad’s voice. As I ran by on video cowbells rang, music blared, and over the top of it all I heard my dad’s voice screaming, “There he is!! There he is!! That a baby!”
3. This is another thing I didn’t realize until later, but as we all know, Ironman spectating is a long, long day. About the time of the run, my dad hit his wall and decided to park a lawn chair near the State Capitol building while others chased me on the course. At the Wisconsin run, you come up State Street, run around the Capitol, down into the shoot, then back out around the same way for lap two. Dad waited patiently in his lawn chair and later told me he was absolutely moved and enthralled by the day’s events. He sat there patiently waiting for my turn-around-lap, but never saw me. Two chances to connect and we missed. We marveled at how it could have happened because he was sitting right there next to the course. A few days later, he walked into the kitchen and said, “Damn it, I bet you ran by when I went to the bathroom.”
4. Despite missing dad on the run course, he was right on time for my finish. I came down the finisher’s chute and saw my family on the left, veering off to hug and high-five. They were all pumped, including dad, and I’ll never forget the genuine pride and joy I felt hugging them all over the fence at the end.
Dad has always been a big golfer and for my race (despite triathlon etiquette) I wore a Titleist visor in his honor. As coincidence would have it, he also wore a Titleist hat that day . . . and proudly sported a Crushing Iron shirt to boot.
It was a connection I hadn’t felt in years. For that one day, all the distractions and missed opportunities of life didn’t matter, I was an athlete again, and dad was leaning over the fence just like he’d always done.
Happy Father’s Day, buddy!
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