The other day I found myself in a discussion about racing for a cause and it’s certainly a good question because “a cause” can definitely motivate us.  It’s something I ponder all the time.

Why do I race?

I think the short answer is; I train and race with the ultimate intention of being true to myself and the best, most consistent person I can be. One of my favorite authors, Charles Bukowski probably said it best, “You begin saving the world by saving one person at a time; all else is grandiose romanticism or politics.”

I also race because I can.

Too many people leave this earth before they take real steps toward their dreams.  Time either sneaks up on us, or we sit by and let it run out.

I’m typically most motivated by fear of regret.  Life is here for the taking but it takes a lot of guts to go after what we want.

Last year at Ironman Louisville I wrote the names of four friends on my arm in marker.  Each (at certain stages of my life) could have been considered my closest friend and they all died with far too much potential on the table.  None ever got to see me tackle an Ironman but I think about them often and use their memories to keep pushing forward.

This post is not meant to be morose, it is simply a reminder that life is short and typically the best time to do something . . . is now.

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Gil

Gil’s real name was Mike and we began our relationship as competitors in Rockford, IL. I opened a screen printing shop one block from his and, while early on fought each other for business, our destiny was to become close friends.  He was a musician, a writer, photographer, and an athlete.  He was me, but 10 years older.  He’d been through a lot in life and had a beautiful way of looking at the world.

He was serious, but never took anything too seriously.  We could talk about music, sports or war and wind up rolling on the ground laughing at the folly of life.

Years after we met (and both sold our businesses) he moved to Nashville to take a crack at songwriting in, what he liked to call, “the City of Broken Dreams.”  But Gil was a throwback.  The modern country-music-machine wasn’t for him and he struggled with forcing his creative formulate into a box.

The Nashville songwriter dream lasted about a year before he moved back to Rockford to be closer to his son.  Not long after that he told me he had prostate cancer.  He stayed upbeat and, after a year or so of periodic treatments, he pulled up his stakes to go perform songs with his friend at the beach in South Carolina.

I lost track of him but saw a lot of pictures on Facebook and he seemed really happy.  A few months later a mutual friend sent a concerned message asking if I knew anything about Mike. She’d heard things weren’t well.

I called Gil immediately but couldn’t get through.  I messaged his friend at the beach and he told me things were pretty bad.  Mike had moved back to Rockford and he was in hospice care. I called and emailed several times to no avail.  Mike died within a week and we never spoke.  I did write a letter, but wasn’t sure if he saw it.  At the funeral his son told me Mike did read it and it meant a lot.

Gil was an artist first, but he loved to run.  At the time, I always made fun of him for jogging.  I never understood it, but now realize it’s probably where he found the most peace.

Snide

“Snide” was short for Schneider.  Mike and I became friends, baseball teammates, and eventually roommates in LaCrosse, WI where we went to college.

It was the week before school one Fall semester and my housemates threw parties 6 nights in a row. After the fifth night I was outside cleaning the yard and saw Snide sleeping in a car.  As usual he’d been the life of the party the night before and had everyone cracking up with his matter of fact statements like, “You fucked up, you trusted me.”  But here he was crammed into the backseat surrounded by clothes, towels, and a home stereo.  I knocked on the window and asked, “What the fuck are you doing?”  He said he hadn’t found a place yet. He slept on our couch for a while and eventually moved in when another friend left school.

Snide was a rare athlete, one of those 3 sport guys in high school that played the most important positions.  Quarterback, point guard, shortstop.  He was a great hitter, but somewhere along the line he lost all capability of fielding, so he was the team’s designated hitter.

His personality was so magnetic that during his senior year the coach let him start every game, even though his job never allowed him to practice.  It was hilarious because Snide would stop by practice in his work clothes and watch us slave away through running drills while laughing it up with our coach.  Then, on game day, sure enough, coach would read the line up and Snide was batting 4th as DH.

The guys called him “skillet” because his fielding got so bad it seemed like he was using a frying pan.  As the team boarded the bus for our spring trip to Florida one year, coach stood by the door taking count.  When Snide walked up carrying his glove, coach looked at him, pointed to the glove, and said, “What the fuck are you bringing that for?”

After he graduated Snide went to work for my dad in minor league baseball, then with the Indianapolis Indians as Ticket Manager.  When I left school he got me a job with them and we were roommates in Indy for two years.  I was there the night he met his future wife; they later had two kids.  I left Indy and we fell out of touch.  A couple years later I got a call from a former co-worker who told me Mike had an aneurism and died in his sleep.

You just can’t describe how it feels to catch up with old friends after news like this.  A bitter-sweetness pours into your soul and you promise never to forget the good stuff.  His laugh, his wit, and his tenacious competitive streak.  Snide’s approach to life taught me nearly all I needed to know about the absurd demands of Ironman.

Danny 

Danny was one of my first grade school friends.  He was a neighborhood kid who had long hair, rode mini-bikes, and had a natural tendency for innocent rebellion.

His immediate neighbors were hard-core bikers and, even as a young kid, Danny spent a lot of time mingling in their mischief.  He was wise for his age, street smart, and I always looked up to him.  He was also the fastest guy in our elementary school.

His running form was that of a cyclone.  Long hair bounced back and forth, arms pumped wildly, and feet moved in a tight blur.  We didn’t see each other as much in high school because Danny ran with an older crowd, but I was happy to see he was still spending time on the track team.  Our high school was usually in the top 10 at State and specifically excelled in sprints.  Danny ran the 400 and crushed the school record his senior year.  A few months later I went off to college and Danny stayed at home.

About four weeks after I started school, my mom called and told me Danny was in a coma.  I guess he had been out drinking, came home to his parents and fell down the stairs.  He hit his head on the corner of a bed frame and never woke up.  He died at 18.  I still have a tough time with this and think of him often, and always when I hear Elton John’s, “Daniel.”

In many ways he set the tone for the type of person I have always inspired to be.  He was a Renaissance Man before I ever knew of the term.  A well-rounded athlete that was far more than his physical abilities.  He had a natural talent for anything he tried and is the perfect example of a guy that would have settled in to crush an Ironman later in life.  Sadly, we’ll never know, but he always runs with me.

Tim

I’ve written about Tim many times and losing him still impacts my life on nearly a daily basis.  He lived in Savannah for the last years of his life and we rarely saw each other, but talked almost daily.

These phone calls ranged from long rants about dreams and passion to sincere searches for ways to overcome the pain and struggle of life.  We were each other’s therapist and while his passing was a major influence on me deciding to do an Ironman, it pains me that we never got to share it.

Tim was also a great athlete.  He was only 5’6”, so that worked against him, but he was lightening quick and possibly the toughest guy I’ve known for his size.  His junior year he moved to Los Angeles and was an all-conference shortstop at a local high school.  He came back to Wisconsin as a senior and added all-conference wide receiver to his list.

He was fearless in sports and life.  For a short stint he worked at a convenience store and a guy tried to rob him with a knife.  Tim calmly hit the alert button, distracted the robber, then leaped over the counter.  By the time the cops came, Tim had the crook in a headlock and calmly handed him over to the police.  His escapades are endless, and include a sales job for a 25-year-old company that never had a Fortune 500 client.  Tim gave them 3 in his first year.

But Tim struggled mightily with addiction.  He went through rehab and cleaned up for a long time, but eventually his view of the world clashed too hard with how things were.  He had a natural gift for being 3 steps ahead in any situation.  It was almost a game for him and when he couldn’t find anyone to play, he went into isolation.

In the last Autumn of his life, we spent hours on the phone talking during Wisconsin Badger football games and much of the time he complained about his back.  Finally he had it checked and they spotted cancer.  He took it in stride and we had many discussions about changing his lifestyle and beating the odds.  For a while he ate better, started juicing, exercising . . . He decided he would move back to Wisconsin and be around his family, catch Badger, Brewers and Packer games.

The plan was for him to stop in Nashville on his way and we were both very excited to catch up the following weekend.  We talked on the Friday before, then late the next night it dawned on me that we didn’t talk during the Badger game.  This was very rare.

On Sunday morning I was out running errands.  It was a beautiful Fall day and I remember being in a solemn mood.  I picked up grass seed, dog food, and made printer copies at Kinkos.  As I drove home, I crested a hill and looked to my right to see the Veteran’s Cemetery that I’d passed dozens of times.  Near the bottom of the hill, I instinctively slammed on the breaks and drove in.  I spent about an hour driving slowly, reading the headstones.  It was a surreal event that seemingly had no explanation.

I was back home unloading the car when our friend Marty called.  The first words were, “Are you sitting down?”  Tim died at some point between the Badger game and my trip through the cemetery.  He was an Army veteran and suddenly that abrupt right turn made sense.  We don’t talk anymore, but I always hear his voice when I run.  Especially when it’s tough.  His inspiration was always simple, honest, and to the point.  “You got this, Fucker.”

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Racing For A Cause

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