Ride of Silence



#19 Crooked Tan Lines: Made it! Aug 11, 2013

On an Atlantic beach in Virginia.
Happy faces everywhere!
OK. Let’s cut to the chase, the money shot.
I’m done. Yes, I did it. I finished four days ago on Aug 7, 2013. I rode my bicycle for 3578 miles (officially; unofficially the distance was over 3600 miles) across the U.S.

Please accept my apologies for not writing as much as I wanted. It was my goal to keep up this blog daily, knowing it would be difficult. Instead, it became impossible due to the finite hours in a day and the necessary things that needed to be done post-ride every day. If someone could have prepped my bike for the next day, showered, laundered my clothes, pulled out the clothes for the next day, gotten prepped on the next day’s ride, walked to go get food, and do my night routine before bed for me, I would have had a better chance of writing every day. This didn’t include emails, phone calls, or solving issues such as been sick, or when I crashed. (More on that later.) Trust me when I say my mind was writing even though my fingers didn’t have access to a keyboard.
Note bleeding left elbow. Can't tell any one.
I have struggled with how to answer people when they ask about the trip. They are sincere in my welfare and want to know. But, they appear to want a one-word description answer such as, “It was nice,” and then they are allowed to walk away with a smile on to the next thing.

But, even if I give them only one word per day (32) and per state (12), we’re still talking about a 44-word answer. Janalou has wanted to be present each time I’ve been asked because each time is a different answer and she’s learned more about the trip, details that have become blurred, and moments that are quickly melting away or into other moments during the ride.

Now sitting back home in the comfortable confines of a chair without ointments on my butt and in a controlled air temperature without wind, within close proximity of a bathroom and food, I want to be very clear on a point about this ride:

I didn’t hate it.

This came out of a discussion last night and I felt simultaneously embarrassed, maligned, and misunderstood. It was an incorrect assessment of the crossing. This wasn’t true. I didn’t “hate” the event. How could someone hate something and continue on with it for so long, something that at times was grueling and painful? No, I didn’t hate my bike ride across the country.

Ask most people who cross the finish line of a marathon or Ironman and what they won’t say is, “It was fun!” as they’re bent over in cramps and throwing up. And yet, within minutes, these same people are thinking about their next event.

However, the ride was hard and not for the faint hearted. Sometimes it was grueling, and usually lonely. It was peaceful at times, and dangerous at others when I was traveling over 60 MPH down a mountain pass. It was overwhelming to point of long empty stretches of road threatening to swallow me up or sitting on a bench shivering after 6 hours in the rain knowing I had another 4 hours to go. It was majestic when riding through snow-capped craggy peaks and looking over miles and miles of open fields without a single tree. It was scary waking up on the road after a crash at Mile 85 with another bike, and having to ride another 60 miles. It was all these things and more.

This was the accumulation of every run and every bike ride I’ve ever been on. It combined every surface, environment, pain, and joy I’ve experienced over the past 43 years, at least, with a great sense of accomplishment. In my post-ride  hangover (people warn of depression after such multi-day events), I do sense a different perspective of my home and my life in it. It might border on existentialism how even though we are all different and separated by great swaths of geography, we are all connected and united under the belief that all men and women are created equal, with certain undeniable rights, as our Constitution says.

I want to fill you in some of the characters we rode with.

I wrote an article some time ago for The Phast Times News that got a lot mileage called, “The Flaw.” It suggested that the more athletic a person was or the longer the event was, the bigger “hole” or “flaw” the athlete were trying to cover, hide, or fill in. In other words, there is a deficiency the athlete is trying to make up for. In the same way an artist suffers for his art, an athlete puts all his pain into his performance. Greg Floyd sent me an email during the ride articulating the same thing, that man is in a constant search for a higher power (God).

One thing was clear. Endurance cycling and accompanying cyclists are a culture unto themselves, just as endurance running is, with the athletes being socially awkward (one endurance rider said, “socially inept”). That was true for some of the cyclists on this ride, but not all.

There were about 30 of us. Four tandems (three husband & wife teams, and one father & son team), several lawyers, an inventor/chemist, college professor, a vet and professor, a father and son on individual bikes (the son turned 16 on the first day of the ride), high school teacher/coach, and several that were retired. There were riders from several U.S. states (California, Washington, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Vermont, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Nebraska, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Connecticut), but also Puerto Rico, Australia, Italy, and Canada.

The tandem father and son is a chiropractor while his son, Zak, has Down’s Syndrome. Zak was very popular, high fiving everyone. He was so happy. If didn’t matter if he was cycling for 10 miles or 150 miles. He was known to stand up on the bike and pump for three miles. That’s an amazing feat. But, during the ride we saw him stand up for six (6!) miles and pump. Though we were all very proud and supportive of him, his dad, Greg, was also proud of him. At the end, Zak received a well-deserved standing ovation from all the riders and crew. It was a very touching moment.
Neil and Marci. Long sleeves.

The two organizers, husband and wife, Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo are super stars in ultra-cycling world. I knew Lon threw my college roommate, Bob Rubey, who came and rode with us one day. Bob told me stories about Lon in 1982, and had a poster of Lon holding his bike after setting the cross continental record. ABC Wide World of Sports did a special program on him. ESPN was doing a story on him during our ride that will come out later this year. Look for it.

Susan also owns records for cycling across the country, one on a tandem with her husband, Lon. These are people that have the knowledge, experience, and passion for being facilitators for other people’s dreams of cycling across the country.

I wore two pairs of bike shorts since Montana. It seems to be what saved me. Or rather, saved my butt. I used a LOT of the chamois crème products “Butt Butter” and another called, “As Master.” Actually, gobs of it. Yup, nothing like several guys standing around with their hand down their shorts lubing up! Male bonding!

Richardson Bike Mart and Gator Skins. 3600 miles on the
same tires and no flats!
For those who pay attention to such matters, Continental “Gator Skins” tires were by far the best tire. No one with those tires flatted. I, and several others, made it all the way across with a single flat tire. I think everyone who didn’t ride with Gator Skins flatted. These were not very expensive, either. But, they took a beating! (Thank you South Dakota and Minnesota department of transportations!)

Some of the roads have been pretty good. Most have been terrible! I see this as proof that traffic engineers are not taking into account other road users, or those that legally have a right to use the roads. Another example of how our society is blind to those not on four wheels with an engine. This is just not right, even though the law says differently.

The biggest difference in my comfortable level, I believe, is my bike. It’s a Specialized Robeaux with “Zerts” in the front forks, rear forks, and under the seat to absorb rough road surfaces. I tested this extensively in Texas on chip seal roads (tar mixed with stone.)  It is similar to riding over a cheese grater or maybe the rumble strip on highways, for miles and miles. The shaking not only wears out the rider, but wears out the components of the bike, too, including the tires.

Every day I wear sunscreen over my face, and sunglasses! Let me tell you about the virtues of prescription sunglasses. WOW! To be able to see now when I’m running or cycling is huge! Previously coming to Texas, I never owned a pair of sunglasses. But with so many sun days, it became a necessary purchase.

My watch died about half way. L It became necessary to buy another one immediate because of the tan line from where I wore it. Pearly white exposed skin under the sun for 10 hours at a time would have created another problem.

I think it was Friday, July 26, riding 123 miles from Albert Lea, MN, to LaCrosse, WI. It was a beautiful day. Oh! Beautiful day! After 19 days of head wind (a very unusual weather pattern), we got a tail wind. YES!

Though it rained and stormed later in the day, this was our best day yet, averaging 22.2 MPH. It was our first day in 19 with a tail wind. Oh, hallelujah! Geez,…how sweet it is. Everyone was enjoying the break in the weather, which has been downright freaky.

A high pressure dome that normally sits over Dallas, and gives Texas its endless 100 degree days, was located between Chicago, New York, and DC, baking those people. A low pressure system went backwards from New England to Dallas. How weird was that?
All this made unusually weather for us as we travel east.
Last day heading to the beach. Ready to be done.
Usually, normally, the weather patterns are from west to east. Everyone knows this. Including the weather! However, in an unusual turn of events, we’ve had headwinds, almost entirely, for 18 days. “Geez buddy, give me a break.” Thankfully, it came. And not a day too soon. (Oops! I’m whining. J )

It was a great day. Man, we averaged over 25 MPH between miles 82 and 102. “SWEEET!”

There were a few minor…problems. One guy of our leading foursome would sprint up the hills during his pull, then go to the side to let the next person through. Problem was that next person was worn out, and unable to pull through. This happened over and over again. No one wanted to say anything for fear of coming off as impolite or rude. But after one incident, we’ve let our feelings be known, explaining a better way to break the wind for the group.

We’re not the only group that’s had…issues. Members of one group said there was a rider who “gave more instruction than a nuclear submarine captain.”

Wrapping up against injuries and the cold.
No breakfast this morning. UGH!
The Crash:
It was July 23. In the lead group I had been riding with for a few days, some wheels got tangled about Mile 85 one day when we were scheduled for 145. I was third person back in the echelon and got caught up in it, slamming the left side of my head to the pavement, with my sunglasses cutting the bridge of my nose on the inside toward the eye. Somehow my left hip, shoulder blade, and elbow sustained contact with road, too. The point of impact was above the left ear. The helmet did its job, but is cratered on that side. I have some road rash on the left shoulder blade (was worried I damaged the surgery from the last wreck), left elbow (matches the scares from the Peach Pedal wreck last July), and left hip. Ouch! I remember the impact with a white light going off. But, don’t know how I came to be lying in the road on my back hearing the voice of one of the other cyclists bringing me to. I remember thinking, “I got to get up before one of the organizers drives by, spots me, and pulls me out.” So, back on the bike I went, and rode the remaining 60 miles looking a little dazed, bloodied, and damaged.

Organizer Lon saw me and asked if I went down, I looked away, and gave a casual, “Yeaaah,” and nothing more. I wanted to make sure I rode every inch from coast to coast.

This is the first time I’m mentioning the incident. Many on the ride never knew. And no one back home knew, either. …I didn’t want to worry them. I kept a stiff upper lip and pedaled on.

Monty, Bob Rubey, Lance Shelton.
Dressed for the cold.
The morning of July 30, as I went to get my bike (usually we slept with them leaning against our beds as there was so little room) in a downstairs room off the hotel lobby, Michael Montgomery (Monty) surprised me. “Hey, Slap Happy,” he casually said coming from behind a large post dressed to bike. My eyes welled up because it was so nice to see someone that knew me and had spent many, many miles with on the bike.

Monty I have spent the most miles together of anyone I’ve ever biked with. His thick quadriceps and strong build give him the talents of sprinting and hitting incredible fast speed bursts. We biked
through Costa Rica together in 2007, climbing the famed San Isidro and Lantana mountains while carrying panniers filled with clothes and supplies, and a pineapple.

I was over joyed to see him and told him so repeatedly. Monty knew Lance, too, since they were the same kind of cyclists. Monty would bike with us for only four days before heading back to Dallas for work. But, his birthday was Aug 4, so we could celebrate it together.

I was glad Monty came up because now he fully understood and appreciated what I was doing. He had a sore butt, too. And his hands were sore. He told me how hard the 375 miles he had done with us had been hard on him. He said he couldn’t believe how we’re handling 2600 miles. …It gave me a sense of self-respect and achievement.

Darci West, Lance Shelton, Monty dressing in long sleeves.
With him, came the masseuse I use in Dallas, Darci West. She was another welcomed smile. She scored getting a job on PAC Tour for the remainder of our journey. Her birthday was Aug 7, the day we finished. It was wonderful to have to good friends.

Also on July 30 (going to Grand Rapids, MI, I believe), another event happened for the first and only time. Lance and I over slept, mistakenly setting the wrong time on our respective alarms. We woke up 15 minutes before we were scheduled to leave. You know you’re in trouble when the first thing you hear is your roommate yelling, “OH, CRAP!”

As you might imagine, we threw our stuff together, got dressed, got our bag and bike downstairs, and left, still trying to wake up. It was 50 degrees! (BRRRR!) I missed breakfast and I was hungry. My butt was VERY sore. I was having a rough time pedaling 15 MPH. …I was having a rough go.

Thankfully, everyone else seemed to be having a rough morning, too. The first stop wasn’t for 30 miles. I rode on one half of my saddle, and ate an energy bar.

At 30, I wolf downed some almonds, a banana, Fig Newton’s, and some Gatorade. By Mile 60, our second rest stop, I was doing better and got some more food. By lunch at Mile 98, I finally felt back to normal. I knew I didn’t want to repeat THAT again.

One of my college roommates, Bob Rubey, also joined me came. He drove up from Rockford, IL where he lives and rode along as part of our coalition. Ride Of Silence organizer Gary Gilbert and his friend Lisa met me and Bob for dinner in Portage, WI after riding on the worst roads of the 12-state trip in Minnesota (20’ concrete slaps separated by large expansion gaps that jolted the rider for 30 miles! Horrible!)

Lisa Stokdyke who came up from Southlake, TX, and showed me around Manitowoc and Sheboygan, WI. It was a wonderful break as we ate in an old time ice cream shop (Beerntsen’s). We’ve been friends since our days at American Airlines together in 1988.
Dan, Geiselle, Tom making our way through the wind
and down the road. Long sleeves again.

A visitor I had on July 30, while we made our way through Michigan was Carl Woodard, who, along with Bob Rubey, was one of my Best Men. I met Carl in 1976 while we served on the ship in the U.S. Navy. Great guy. This time I was honored to meet his twin brother, Eric, too.

On July 31, Grand Rapids to Coldwater, MI, we had wind and a constant soaking rain, that left everyone chilled. I spent 10 hours in the saddle that day, mostly alone, and not really happy. I couldn’t wait to get to the hotel. I was cold, wet, and tired. I just wanted to go to sleep. I was so happy to hold a cup of hot chocolate at the 6 hour point. It was miserable.

Ride Of Silence web master Tim Potter met and rode with me the next day. We had some great pork chops south of Coldwater. Again, always nice to see friends. We stayed at a very nice place that belonged to friends of his, Bob and Helen in the middle of an apple orchid on the edge of a lake. Any other time and I would gone running in the orchid and swimming in the lake.

Friends from across the street from where I live, Barry & Amy Milliron, met up on Aug 1 when we arrived in Lima, OH. They brought brownies and cupcakes for the riders, while we went to Olive Garden and I enjoyed salad.

Mike Stieglitz, another Best Men at my wedding, as well as a my coach/mentor/and friend, biked the last half of our ride from London to Circleville, OH Aug 2. Along with his wife Kathy and children Brian and Ann Marie, we met up with a cool guy from Young Life – North Carolina, Mike Pacula, and had an italian dinner.

During the ride, things run out. It’s hard to pack for 30 days and know every condition one is going to come upon. My watch broke, I had worn out my cycling shorts, and my energy powder at run out. Janalou had to ship me some to a hotel down the road from where we were.

Music helped me tremendously during those long stretches of nothingness. But, my earphones also went on the blink and had to get some more. As for the music I listened to:

Barton Hollow, 21, Quadrophenia, Never Mind The Bullocks, Elephant, Look At Yourself, Ænima, If You Want Blood You’ve Got It, Sticky Fingers, 2112, Get Your Wings, Ziggy Stardust, Paranoid, Revolver, Thick As A Brick, LA Woman, Wish You Were Here, Making Movies, Dookie, Billion Dollar Babies, etc.
No disposable music here. No “bounce” “taylor slow” or “celine be gone.”

On Aug 3 from Circleville OH to Parkersville, WV, we had torrential rain at the start and for most of the morning. The afternoon cleared and we all seemed to hold an easy pace over the easy rollers and (relatively) short distance of 100 miles. We all knew what was coming the following day two days, Sunday and Monday, August 4 and 5. It would be our two hardest days of ride, and they would be back-to-back.

Peaking! Making to the top of yet another mountain pass.

Aug 4, Parkersville to Elkins, WV, we stabbed the thick morning fog and headed to our appointment with the first day in the West Virginia mountains. The ride took longer (7 am to 4:30 pm) because of the climbs. But, this first day was the easier of the two.

The following day we had to gather all of our strength, persistence, knowledge, and experience to make over the 7 mountain passes spread over the 106 miles into Virginia. No one along our route cheered us on as they didn’t know what we were doing, as the drivers and pedestrians hadn’t in the rest of the country.

I was happy reaching the hotel thinking, “I’ve made it past the hardest part. There is nothing they can throw at me that I’m not ready for.”

Learned so far
I learned The Ride Of Silence has a long way to go.

I can ride 100 miles when I’m sick, or injured, or both.

I don’t tan.

Once my body is at a level of activity, it almost doesn’t matter what I eat or when I eat it. But this is not the norm for 97% of the American population.

A good foundation is underrated. Know where you’re sitting, what you’re sitting on, and who you are sitting with.

Prescription sun glasses are underrated.

I learned the American driver needs to learn to share the road with other users, as stated by law. He also needs to learn he has a brake, and that there is not a Bill Right that says he must do at least the speed limit. Last, drivers must realize it is not a federal law to pass. But to pass only when it is safe to do so, as they learned in driver’s ed.

I learned we are all different, yet all the same. We are united under one flag and belief of freedom against persecution for our religion, race, gender, and political beliefs. Yet, are all separated by geography, upbringing, interests, and goals. And none of is wrong in this country.

I learned we all have a story, from the most influential, richest, accomplished, and educated, to the least of these. As I entered the scattered cities and towns along the 12 states we crossed on our path from the Pacific to the Atlantic oceans, no one beyond PAC Tour knew what we were doing, least of which the motorists. We all have a story to tell, one that maybe even our closest loved ones don’t know about. Hidden secrets deep in our soul, we are all seen as one dimensional shadows moving along the sidewalk without a past or a future. In contrast, we all have both. This truth makes me sad because many people are not able to tell their stories because few appear to care in a country where the individual is so highly elevated and separated from the fabric of the rest of ones’ community, let alone country. Yet we had a story to tell. People would do well to hear other people’s story. They will be surprised and might learn something.

There is the vastness of this country that is hard for anyone to comprehend; that we live in such an expansive and rich land there is the appearance there is enough room and food for all of its people. Maybe there isn’t. But if there is, it will be because we share and aren’t wasteful with our resources.

The great majority of American’s are obese. It’s a sad fact easily seen, everywhere. Fact: Bicycles can help, along with air quality and congestion.

Best Restaurant: Sandpoint, ID, Arlo’s (they take American Express!)
Funniest: crossing the Bad Lands, I put a fizz electrolyte tablet into my mouth thinking it was a protein tablet. The one I took normally goes into a large water bottle and fizzes like Alka-Selter. Instead of fizzing in the bottom of water, it was in my mouth by mistake. I had to keep drinking water to dissolve it.
Worst insects: grasshoppers that fly higher than a cyclist’s helmet and swarm flies more than any horse barn. Both were in South Dakota.
Coolest moment: Riding the last 25 miles of a 150 day (July 22) into Murdo with the legend himself, Lon Haldeman.
Oddest moment: when I frighten two birds with my bike, in the road fighting over an insect, one flew into my front spokes. I didn’t look.

Though I’ve now completed this ride and five other multi-day rides, I don’t see myself as a cyclist. In the same way that I’ve done three swim crossings of Dallas’ five mile Lake Ray Hubbard, I don’t see myself as a swimmer, either. Weird. I always see myself as a runner. Running is my home sport and was the pathway to cycling and swimming.

But this illustrates that maybe we don’t always see ourselves correctly. Maybe we are blinded by what we think are our talents are, or were told what we are good at by a parent, sibling, or teach, who didn’t really know. As a result, we don’t really know until our real talent comes out. In the meantime, we flounder trying to find our spot and place in the world. That came be too late in life for some people who could have contributed to their sport or art and moved it (and themselves) forward. Such a shame.

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, he who is not busy living, is busy dying.

So, I want to finish this ride and thread, Crooked Tan Lines, the same way I started it, with thank you’s, because after all, everything finished well.

I want to recognize and thank:

Janalou: wife, friend, life partner; particular and peculiar
My mom and dad, as mom slips away
Lance Shelton: as he said on the last day, “We spent enough time together to be legally married. We almost got a divorce, but we’re not married.”
Dave Morgan, Darren Durrett, and Team Young Life: great people for a great cause!
Bob Rubey: officially introduced me to serious cycling and Lon Haldeman while rooming together at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale. Bob met me in LaCrosse and road a day with us. It was a great to have him along, and a surprise when he said he didn’t want to do such a crossing.
Mike Stieglitz & family: always my coach, mentor, and friend. They met me in Ohio and Mike rode the last 40 miles with me. Very nice to have him as part of this since he’s been present for each one of my athletic achievements.
Dr. Charles Ryrie
Jim Cormier: one of my Best Men, a friend since high school, we used to play hockey together.
Larry Pao: one cool dude. An intelligent runner at White Rock Lake.
Michael Gorton: Mike was one of the inspirations for this ride when he told me his story of riding from Texas to Connecticut. We summited Mount Kilimanjaro together.
Duct Tape People (Dr. Randy, Dr. Dr. Himmelsehr, Dr. Palacios, Dr. Sherman, Logan Sherman, John Sutherland, Darci West): these are the people who were (in some cases, desperately), trying to keep me from falling apart (physically and psychologically) before I left to start this ride. Darci West drove up with Michael Montgomery to be part of the team. NICE!
RBM: Jim Hoyt, Woody Smith, Jack G, Joe Howard, etc, etc.
Mike Keel: a voice of reason in the car-crazy wilderness of Dallas
The Core: Michael Montgomery (He rode with us for four days! On the fourth day, admitted this was hard on the body and that he probably wouldn’t do it.), Tracy Cleveland, Michael Smith, Mike Gibson, Khai Harbut, Jamie Shaw, Joseph Murphy, Art Fairchild
Team Z: Terry Zielger, Victoria Piper, Chris Hughes, Jane Zeigler, and company

TNT-Tuesday Night Track: runners all, triathletes some, but all of open hearts
The support of those who believed and stuck by me.
Those who came out to meet me and offer encouragement: Roger Schramm from Spokane, WA; Lisa Stokdyke from Southlake, TX; Barry & Amy Milliron and family from Garland, TX; Mike Pacula from southern Ohio; Carl & Eric Woodard from Dansville, MI; Jim Doudna from Sandpoint, ID; and Gary & Lisa Gilbert from Arlington, IL.
AND OF COURSE…The Ride Of Silence, those who keep it together (Tim Potter, Elizabeth Adamcyzk, Benoit Valin, J. Steve, Mark Hagar, and every local director around the planet!) and the thousands who have lost their lives legally sharing the road with a motorist.

May the train whistle never be found.

Aug 7, 2013: 3600 miles. The end.



#18, Crooked Tan Lines, Aug 7, 2013: Chris made it to the Atlantic!

(A quick report via Tim Potter)

I spoke with Chris this evening; he was having a well-deserved pizza party with his fellow PAC Tourists, celebrating their incredible achievement of making it over 3500 mi. in 32 days from coast to coast at an average speed of over 16 mph for the entire distance! He's obviously very relieved but already been busy packing up the bike and stuff for the return to Dallas tomorrow. He'll be posting some pics  (and, I'm quite sure, lots of his memoirs from the trip) soon; stay tuned.



#17, Crooked Tan Lines, Aug 3, 2013: MOM. SAYING GOOD BYE

Today’s my mom’s birthday. She turns 80. Only she doesn’t know it. She is severely hampered by Alzheimer’s. While I was pedaling from Powell to Sheridan, WY, she had a seizure.
I’ve written about my mom before in The Phast Times News. As Patricia Phelan, she’s the one who, while serving up spaghetti for a carbo load dinner the night before The Boston Marathon, famously asked, “Why are you running? You know you can’t win.”
It was a laughable memory that became a teaching moment, and later, family lore. After that, I referenced her again a couple of months later in a column entitled, “THE LOOK.” Below is an excerpt.


The look on my mom’s face when she first heard Jimi Hendrix’ live version of the “Star Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock concert, set the template for years to come during my athletic career. I just didn’t know it at the time.

This was the pinnacle of the late 60’s; music and culture, with a political statement. The sounds, style, and guitar playing of Hendrix was never seen before. (Though left handed, Hendrix played a right handed guitar upside down, and restrung backwards. Imagine driving your car from the backseat, facing out the back window, during rush hour.)

It was during the second listen that I called my mom to join my dad and me. Once in the living room, there she stood as a statue with her hands on her hips, staring.

No doubt she was hoping for Glen Miller or Patsy Cline when the first obscene and stabbing notes of Hendrix’s high pitched squeal and feedback pierced the speakers.

No doubt she was insulted and thought there should be a constitutional amendment against such music.

With her son leading the charge, no doubt my mom envisioned the end of western civilization, when Hendrix intoned jets dive bombing and strafing the jungles of Vietnam with napalm, during an otherwise patriotic instrumental solo tribute.

At the end of the three minute and 46 second recording, before Hendrix launched into the first distinctive drug drenched chords of “Purple Haze,” I couldn’t wait to ask my mom what she thought, what was her opinion? I was thrilled, and couldn’t imagine how anyone else couldn’t be, too. I expected words of affirmation of what I heard and felt, of a fresh sound full of possibility and giving new perspective.

That didn’t happen. Instead, I got, “The Look.”

My parents only saw me compete in running twice while I was growing up. They attended two of my high school meets. Mom had the same look on her face, then.

I ran in the mile and two mile. In her defense, it was boring. The mile was 23 and ¾ laps of a gym.

The next time she saw me run was 15 years later doing my second marathon, running 2:35 at Boston, and barely missing the Top 100. She met me at the finish line. She didn’t have a clue why anyone would run 26.2 miles. While mom cast “The Look” again, secretly I think she hoped I was done with this silly sport. “What was the point?” she seemed to silently ask.

A few years later, my folks stood at the line of my first Ironman triathlon. If they thought running 26.2 miles was crazy, this really blew them away. Again, what was the point? Slow suicide? And again, there was “The Look,” even though I finished 21st overall with a 10:00:52. Maybe it was of concern. “Why, son, are you beating the tar out of yourself? Why don’t you just stop?”


That was “The Look” from my mom. This is the lady who grew up Patricia Coleman in abject poverty during the depression on the poor side of a poor factory town in 1930’s, where there was no food at times or Christmas presents. Where one was happy to get a pair of hand-me-down shoes. It doesn’t get too much bleaker.
She, whose parents couldn’t afford to have two children but had 10, was always picked first for neighborhood pick-up games for her athleticism. But they didn’t call it athleticism back then, and they didn’t have “leagues,” especially for women. Everyone just knew she could run, throw, and catch a ball better than most of the guys. Stories are told she could also be just as physical at inflicting pain, and absorbing it, too.
As athletic as she was, she never ever worked on it. Training didn’t really exist then. People had to work, and worked hard to earn what little they had. Since there weren’t child labor laws (Thank you, unions!), she went to work at an early age to add to the household income.
As she aged, my mom got married and had three kids, as most women of her generation. But, she continued to walk. I mean…WALK! She could hoof it, and for long unheard of distances, too. The next day, she was back at the factory standing at her post making keys and locks for 8-hr shifts, not including overtime.
The other parents were skeptical of her when she would mount a bike and tool around Fitchburg. No other parent did that. But as kids, we all loved it, and fought to ride with her. If we didn’t have a bike, we’d run for as long as possible just to share in the excitement of mom being a kid.
She was also very good at roller skating, continuing that skill well into adulthood. And there is the time she tried her hand at snowmobiling, doing well until she ran the machine off a wall and into a tree. She hiked for many years over the New England countryside as a scout leader, a position she enjoyed.
Yup, mom was one active person. That’s what makes watching her body grow weak so hard. Those close to her knew and experienced what she was capable of with a healthy body. Unfortunately, Alzheimer's has ravaged her brain, and thereby greatly affected her quality of life (something most of us not only enjoy, but relish freely).
This past Christmas, it was quiet in the car as my dad, my wife Janalou, and I drove under gloomy skies to what was once my parent’s house. The drive was over lonely country roads where rain continued to fall, and the windshield wipers became the metronome to our thoughts.
We moved mom, that vivacious and spunky spirit of laughter and passion, to what will probably be her final resting place: Mountain Home Rest Home.
Mom had been slipping mentally due to the devastation of Alzheimer’s, otherwise known under the larger term of “Dementia.” But this past year, and especially in the past month, she slipped further than any of us could have predicted. Her eyes were vacant, and her soul appeared gone. All that was left of a full life that included 57 years of marriage, three children, four grandchildren, and two great grandchildren, horseback riding, and 5K’s, were the strands of past conversations and people long since gone.
She couldn’t tell what day, month, or year it was. She no longer recognized her children or her husband.
Admittedly, looking back on it all now, it was, and continues to be, a losing battle. As if her brain is on ice, she slides away, and no one can help her. The drugs helped temporarily and only a little, delaying the onset of what was eventually to be, much like watching a train pull away from the station. But more times than not, it appeared to be over-medication that sent her down a mental hallway to a stupor, a warm fuzzy place for her brain to reside for a while, and maybe even doze off right in the middle of a conversation that was too much work to follow and concentrate on. Yes, it was easier to drift off…off…off into the blue skies.
And we were left standing there, holding on to the strands of her conversations that became increasingly more and more important, as if she was going to yield the secret of life from a dimension beyond our own. But, alas, that never happened. She slid further away. The pull was too powerful for her. The drugs made it too comfortable, too easy for her to step through a door in her brain where she can’t be overwhelmed by the daily patterns most of us take for granted. She was, in fact, giving in. This was not mom’s personality.
If ever there was a fighter, it was her. She liked to say her Irish would get the best of her. Not that she sought out an argument or even liked to argue. She was not one to argue at the drop of a hat. That wasn’t her, either.
But those things she felt passionate about, usually centering around human rights and indignities, David and Goliath fights involving the city, government, or corporations, she would fly into the fray with no thought of herself being hurt or embarrassed. Though she might not speak with the education of a lawyer or doctor, she would let them know they had a tangle on their hands and that they were on the wrong side of right and wrong.
At its zenith, her zeal and passion were unmatched. The woman would cut her nose off to spite her face, starve herself if it meant getting justice, go sleepless for days writing letters, or picketing to draw attention to a cause. She exemplified the phrase, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.” In a fight, debate, or argument, you definitely wanted her on your side.
But that passion also transferred to happiness. Her laugh was loud and full. Her face would turn red while laughing to the point her sides ached and she couldn’t breathe. She laughed heartily. Her smile, broad and toothy, was indicative of her joy le vie.
She loved being active with people. That meant physically doing a sport, art project, or mentally, in a discussion. If there was a gathering of folks, she wanted to be part of it, and support what the group was doing, as long as it was ethical.
Yes, she liked a good party, but she wasn’t going to purposely break the law…unless the law had gotten turned around. More than once she had to be held back from confronting officers of the law after an overzealous policeman wanted to prove a point or make her an example. That didn’t always go well for mom. But for showing courage and a willingness to stand up, she always earned even more pride from those around her.
Her stubbornness paid off as she was the first to graduate high school in her family and set a standard for the rest of her nine siblings. Staying true to her character, she then made a move that was thought of controversial at the time. She joined the Navy. ...After her parents tried to stop her by not signing the release papers.
“You’ll sign them now,” she commanded, “or the day I turn 19 [legal age for a woman to enlist at the time], or I’ll leave on my own and never come back.” They signed the papers.
She was far from arrogant given her surroundings growing up. The standard of poverty she lived in was beyond comprehension by today’s standards. Her parents had many kids beyond what their income could afford. This was outside of Boston. Everyone did that back then.
There were three girls, and seven boys. Correspondingly, there were three bed rooms: one for the girls with one bed, one for all the boys with one bed, and one bedroom for the parents. Oh, and only one bathroom for all, even after they got indoor plumbing. (Ever use an outhouse in the middle of a January night in Massachusetts? BRRR!)
Her parents were second generation Irish immigrants who lived in shanties. My mom and her family lived among the Italians. It was here my mom learned to make an authentic Italian tomato sauce that rivaled others at neighborhood get-togethers. It was a shame in later years she never wrote down the recipe because, among many other things, it became so lost to the hallways and rooms of her mind, that she was unable to remember any of it.
Over time, her body began to atrophy, along with her mind. The athletic young girl, who was once picked first for events, could no longer pick up a lamp to help my dad move things around a room. She kept up her walking, going in excess of four miles per day. She no longer entered 5Ks, though she still got the correct shoes, or rode her bike around (it was always accessible). In later years, her bike became very rusty, a sign of time passing.
I was feeling claustrophobic in our car being passed on the highway home. I couldn’t breathe. I needed patience and space to process all that was going on. I was overwhelmed with both the information dealing with her new life away from us at Mountain Home Rest Home, and about who she is now, the person she’s become.
Mom is not the same person she was. She’s more closed off and isolated in her mind, probably wondering just who are these people who keep coming by to visit? Gone is the girl in the woman’s body who had spunk, or as the Fitchburg locals would say, “Moxie” after the regional bitter soft drink. “She’s got Moxie,” I’d hear people say of her.
Of all the people I’ve coached or given talks to, my mom is the only person I ever told, trying to calm fears of finishing last at her first 5K, “Don’t worry. There’s always someone behind you.  You won’t be last.” Lo, and behold, she finished her first race directly in front of the police car escorting the last runners. Yup, that’s my mom.
Dementia is the umbrella term under which Alzheimer’s falls. It ranks sixth on the all-time leading causes of death, right behind heart disease, cancer, respiratory diseases, stroke, and accidents. Completing the Top 10 behind Alzheimer’s is diabetes (which Alzheimer’s recently passed), the flu/pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide.
Think you’ll out run the Grim Reaper and the possibility you’ll not end up the same way? Think you’re different? Let me know how this works out for you.
Over 5.2 million Americans (including one in eight people over the age of 64) have the degenerative brain disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, with 16 million expected by the year 2050 (costing $1.1 trillion.). It’s been called “The Silver Tsunami.” There is no cure or coming back to any degree normalcy from Alzheimer’s, unlike the other Top 10 leading causes of death. Medications only alleviate some symptoms temporarily, similar to taking Advil for a brain tumor.
Alzheimer’s starts off with mild forgetfulness that becomes much worse. When one used to only forget his wallet or purse, he soon forgets conversations, and then where he lives. It’s like watching someone descend a staircase as his mind falls apart right before everyone’s eyes. Except for the person involved, who usually sees no problems at all. Everyone else cowers at the toll the disease takes, without apology or reason.
During the stair steps down, there are periods where the person levels off, and his loved ones breathe a sigh of relief to catch up and adjust to the new norm. But that, too, is only temporary, as the person’s reasoning abilities and even small tasks become monumental. Soon, they can’t dress or feed themselves. By this point, the person is forgetting who loved one’s are.
The last step is when the brain falls into such a ravaged mess it can no longer keep up body functions. Digestion stops, and appetite wanes. It’s only a matter of time before death, as the body can no longer keep itself alive without sustenance. Loved ones watch in dismay as they see the person they used to know change personality, watching a brain crumble before them without any chance of a cure or of slowing the process. It’s like watching a person die while they’re still alive.
This whole process has taken about two years for my mom, which is normal.
Alzheimer’s disease and other related dementias are becoming important public health problems. Jarett Berry, MD, of UT Southwestern Medical Center, and a co-author on a study of the disease, says, “The fear of dementia in later life is real, and the possibility that exercise earlier in life can lower that risk is an important public health message.”
Dr. Kenneth Cooper of The Cooper Institute says Berry’s study, “shows that the most cost-effective ways to prevent dementia are through lifestyle changes that require minimal medical intervention.”
My dad re-lived the little personality differences that had occurred over the past couple of years as the disease set in. He recalled minor things, but significant in the face of breaking what were 79 year old patterns for her life.
For example, she had always worn her hair long her entire life. Suddenly he said, she had it cut short, for no reason. Secondly, she never ate breakfast, always opting for a cup of coffee in the morning instead. This changed not too long ago. She began eating an entire breakfast every morning. The third quirky thing was she began wearing a hat every day, everywhere, usually a Boston Red Sox hat, indoors and out. The odd thing is she never wore a hat before. In fact, she disliked them. It was as if she had metamorphosed into another person who was forgetful, unable to finish a sentence, and had unusual behavior.
There are things that you think are forever, will be forever, or will always be. Things that you think will never change. That the person you’ve known for a lifetime will always be that person. But, as we all eventually learn, everything changes as one changes. The mature soul learns that, as the days pass, very few things are, in fact, forever. People change.
As simple as this sounds, it is astounding in its truth and subsequent ramifications. Decisions once set in stone, and stances or ways of thinking that might have been made of immature pride, take on a shade of grey, far away from the high contrast of a simple black and white world. Nothing is all right or all wrong any longer.
Very few things, that is, except love. And love must be worked at every single day if it is to endure that change all around it. Just about everything else known to man can change, but love, if it has been cultivated, can not only rescue those things that change, but also find the true meaning of grace and mercy, to understanding another person, and the changes they have gone through.
Over the years, I have fallen in to the same stories that I’ve heard for years from older runners, about their aches and pains, and of yester-year. “Ah,” I’d think to myself while they babbled on, “that will never happen to me. I’ll keep active and always be a runner.”
Yeah, right! I’ve watched my running times fall like the stock market in a free fall plunge, unable to give any sort of explanation other than just shrug my shoulders, and wonder, “What just happened? I’ve run training runs faster than that race.”
Now, I lean in closer and listen with much more interest to the older runners. I have a whole new appreciation for JAN RICHARDS, DEWEY FAMBRY, BETTY and MURRY FORSVAL, JAMES THURSTON, DAN GREY, NANCY LOWDEN, NANCY COLE and RICHARD CUNNINGHAM, who recently passed away (see page 5), and others.
My mom was one of them, in another state, far away. She trudged and fought against her body’s screams to give in. But she wouldn’t have any of it. Yes, she slowed, eventually not able to run at all after both knees were operated on. But she maintained her walking, as much as she could withstand, sometimes collapsing.
Here’s an open letter to anyone reading this that if you’re still around if I come under the same spell as my mom, please keep writing material accessible, allow me to listen to my music collection, and allow me to be as active as possible. This will allow me to hold to my memories and dreams, and maybe make new ones. These will allow me to keep a portion of my sanity intact.
As we drove to my parent’s home to celebrate our own Christmas without mom, the roads rocked the car gently, allowing our thoughts to surface in the quiet. The rain had eased up.
If I knew what future laid ahead for my mom, what fate belied her, I wondered what I’d do differently. Spend more time doing... what? Talking, probably. Talking with her with a tape recorder to get her voice, her laugh, her thoughts.
Oh, what I wouldn’t give to walk around inside her brain right now, to have a look around, from the simple to the complex, the mundane to the elaborate. Can she taste the difference between a banana and an apple? In her faraway look, does she talk with God and see the universe? Does she know the difference from the imaginary string she constantly plays with between her fingers and the mismatched clothes she’s wearing?
Her athleticism is gone because of her brain. This once lively, feisty, and coordinated body is now almost entirely confined to a wheelchair. Her left hand has a tremor. Her body is still able and willing, but her brain is rapidly deteriorating. She can barely handle a spoon to feed herself.
“Mom, where are you today? Who are you talking to and what do you see? Can you sit and talk with me anymore?” Probably not. …Probably not.
Is this what’s going to happen to even us who exercise several hours a day, who swim, bike, run, do weights, and eat kale? What has age in store for me? The ugly ravages and debris of a brain and body that has no function, left behind by this unremorseful and undiscriminating disease, when I have finally gained the pinnacle of experience to live a full life?
What do you do when the road hits you with a curve? When life gives you more than you can run with? Knowing we are all different, it is never easy to determine what the right answer to every question should be.  Mom has the time to ponder the secrets of the sea, and even the answers, but has no way to communicate what she finds.


Blue, blue skies, staring into space

A missing soul on an empty face.

Where are you today? Where did you go?

What have you got to say? Tell us what you know.


Blue, blue skies, rolling down the road

Listening to the sighs, another slice a la mode

I feel I can’t breathe, but the window’s down

I feel I can’t leave, though I can move around


Blue, blue skies, she flies away

Without goodbyes; visit another day

I’d like her to know me, but she’s, oh, so gone

In her world without me she’s moving on


Blue, blue skies, I was thinking too much

A hollow voice cries I wanted her touch

Promised never to leave me.

But you’ve got to go anyway

There is no way of stopping you.

But I hope to see you again, someday,…someway.


Blue, blue skies, floating on the breeze

January in her eyes and a handful of leaves

Everyone’s got to go, what’s it all mean?

This I know, it’s the time in between.

Heading home, such a long, long way

Heading  home, such a long, long time


Blue, blue eyes, looking into nothing

Listening to our sighs, is there something…we can do or sing?

Blue, blue skies, blue, blue eyes
Blue, blue skies…someday.