Flame on!

It has been six weeks since my father died. A lot of life has happened since his death. Every time I’ve tried to write my way through it I get overwhelmed by how much has happened since then. We spent a week in Washington after his death and upon our return home we were taken care of by friends and family. I did not work, I mourned my father, and went running almost every day. I grew a 30 day grief beard as an external reminder to myself and others than I was in mourning. Though I returned to work after that first week the beard reminded me that I was not operating at my best and to take care not to overload my schedule or emotions. Two weeks after his death I was in Arizona for my USAT level 1 coaching certification class, staying with family friends and running at night in the Tucson desert. Another death in the family would come shortly after, as well as more time in hospitals because life just keeps happening.

USAT is the national governing body for triathlon. It provides the structural pipeline for the junior through Olympic level promotion of athletic competition as well as recreational sport guidelines. One doesn’t need certification from the national governing body to coach, and some coaches malign the organization for their own personal reasons, but I felt it was critical to my own development as a coach and triathlete. There are 1700 level 1 USAT coaches in the country, about 200 level 2, and just 19 level 3’s to serve more than 170,000 registered USAT athletes and considerably more unregistered ones who participate in the sport. All that is to say that triathlon is still small but growing quickly and there is a shortage of certified coaches to serve the population.

The lecture based classes focused on risk management, form and standards across all three disciplines, nutrition, ethics and responsibility, and proper deployment of a periodized plan for athletic progress. For all of the emphasis of how critical this last piece is, it was held for the last hours of the last day and only given a brief overview before we were sorted into small groups and were asked to create schedules. It also weighs heavily on our final exam and the information provided was scant. The more I read and study about periodization the more it appears that it is as much art and style as it is structure which means it is up to each coach to design a chart that meets the formal criteria.

I had the pleasure of staying with friends of my family, a couple my parents met on a cruise more than a dozen years ago. I’m friends with their oldest son and growing closer to their younger son after he started doing triathlons and came to support me at my Ironman. It was good to see them again and at the same time I could tell that their grief was on hold waiting for the second memorial service planned for my dad in mid-April. It wouldn’t be real for them, they said, until they saw my mother without my father. We found ourselves talking about my dad quite a bit and they gave me some photos I did not have along with a video from a trip they had taken with my parents years ago. I ran as much as I could while in the desert, in the evenings after the classes and before dinner. I cried a lot as well, allowing the sensation of loss to take over and guide my body.

Bob Seebohar is a level 3 USAT coach who lives in Boulder and works at the Olympic training center. One of his sessions was an in-depth examination of nutrition and his own theory of periodized nutrition for endurance athletes. During anaerobic activity the body primarily burns carbohydrates. They burn fast and hot and provide a rapid energy source. For endurance work, long aerobic activity, the body should burn fat as its energy source. Your body contains about 1400 calories of stored carbohydrates but even the leanest athlete has 20,000-80,000 calories stored in fat. All of us should work to train our bodies to burn fat. In sports nutrition there is a point called the “crossover concept” where the body is utilizing minimal carbohydrates to trigger fat oxidation – the sweet spot of what Bob Seebohar calls “metabolic efficiency”. This has also been expressed in the phrase: fat burns in a carbohydrate flame. Endurance athletes work to push that metabolic efficiency point as far down the workout timeline as possible so as to swim, bike, or run for many hours with minimal input of additional fuel. Why? Because putting food into your stomach shunts blood away from the muscles and towards the GI tract, but under physical duress the muscles win that war and the stomach goes into distress. Nausea, cramping, and vomiting are usually the result.

I rid myself of the anger I held about my father’s lifestyle choice in the months before he died. We had a blowup over my writing about my Ironman race where I wrote I felt he was sad, I didn’t see him on the course, and my feelings of being disconnected from him. Lastly, he had also felt like I was raking him over the coals one more time for his role in my lack of a college degree. As we were going to see each other two weeks after my race for my grandmother’s 90th birthday we confronted our issues head on and came to a tough but clear understanding. When we saw each other at her party we had a good time together and had put our issues to bed. He understood that in a 13 hour race I had six opportunities to see people and unless they inserted myself into my field of vision or ran alongside me I would not see them. My mother is easy to see with her color choice and high platinum hair. My friends and in-laws thrust their hands in front of me for high-fives. My triathlon friends ran alongside me and shouted encouragement. My dad, the photographer, lurked behind a lens trying to capture the moment and was invisible. As a family of photographers we are frequently missing from events because we are taking pictures. Many times I have forced the camera into my wife’s hands just to ensure there is proof I exist.

The college degree has always been our most controversial disagreement. The facts of the case are straightforward. My father married my stepmother in my senior year of college. Because she was a successful businesswoman our household income changed and I lost my financial aid. The bills were not being paid in time and I was asked not to return to college until they were current. I could have transferred my credits to a state school and finished my degree. I could have emancipated myself, as my sister did, and qualified for assistance. Instead I chose to get an early start on my screenwriting career and move to Los Angeles. Had I been a successful screenwriter all of this would be moot. But I’m not. I left high school after 10th grade for college so I have no high school diploma. I have over 3 years of college credits and no degrees. Many of my career options will require going back to school for 2-5 years.

I write all of that without anger or rejection of my own responsibilities.  It is what it is. I brought it up in my Ironman experience because finishing that event underscored the other things in my life I have or haven’t completed. But because my father felt some responsibility over that particular event he felt attacked over my discussing it in public.

But this also was my father. He would make himself feel badly about something, become angry and defensive about it, but not work towards resolution. He would stew in his guilt and be trapped by it. Years ago on the night of the first explosion over my college degree we were at a nice restaurant and we kept individually leaving the table to go rage or cry in the bathroom. The wait staff thought we were sick from the fish. We got home from the dinner angry, emotional, and we had friends from out of town staying with us. Upon hearing what the blowup was about our friend said, “what’s the problem? If you want to go back to school to finish your degree I’ll pay for it.” In one sentence he showed the difference between stewing in emotional guilt and finding a solution.

In the analysis of my dad’s life and trying to understand him as a person I have looked at these different events to see things from his point of view. In the days after his death my mother and I exchanged stories and information, pieces each of us were missing about him. I think we came to a deeper understanding of the man. I truly love and miss my father, even the parts I disagreed with. Seeing him as a human being helps me to honor who he really was and the lessons of his life as they relate to my present.

In my grief after his death I realized that I was angry. Not at him but at the loss. Moreover, a lot has happened since his death and I am reminded that when I am emotionally spent I am quick to anger and judgment. I have turned to my training to burn off this anger and in so doing I have discovered something remarkable: anger is a carbohydrate and fat is love.

If I go for a run out of anger I run faster but it does not last. It burns off quickly and then I am spent, my workout is done. If I am in a race and I am passed or aggravated by an external influence I have an instant anger response and I use it to get revenge by trying to pass the person or worse, fume at the circumstance. It’s not productive because if I can’t pass the person I’m burning up energy and sabotaging my race. If I can pass the person, I’m still using up one of my limited number of matches in my matchbook. For what? For something petty, external, and ultimately useless.

When I race out of love, be it for a charity, or a beautiful day, or being with friends, I race better and longer. It’s possible to have playful antagonism without making it angry.

Anger does not serve me well. Often it’s a response to unexpected external forces. Worse, it’s negative self-talk that sabotages my overall performance. What starts as “damn this hill” quickly becomes “I suck at climbing”. That directly affects my wattage output and before long I will believe that self-talk. In short time (hill after hill) I will key into that negativity before I even start climbing, and then I eventually come to define myself as a bad climber. I will cut back on routes that have hills and I will fix my own self-image as someone who is bad at something with no hope of change.

I don’t think the answer is lying to myself, either. I can’t invert the thought because “I’m a great climber” just reinforces its obverse. Instead, “I love hills because they make me a better athlete” is a totally different attitude towards the challenge. It can even create happy anticipation. “Every challenge is an opportunity for growth” is a legitimate loving embrace of difficulty.

This is not to say that angry athletes should or can purge themselves of anger; that may be unrealistic as a short-term plan. Rather, perhaps it can be relegated to a small part of the mental toolbox. The initial anger response is the spark to ignite the fire. “I’m angry!” is the trigger. Why am I angry? Is it because I was just passed? Is it the wind? Is it the concrete? The anger starts the emotional metabolic process. Just like taking a shot of carbohydrates in a race it’s a way to access a better energy source.

Almost a month after I lost my dad my cousin was about to lose his father to esophageal cancer after a six-month illness. He had been training to run his first marathon but in the last months leading up to the race his dad’s illness stopped his training and he hadn’t run more than 15 miles. Still, he wanted to run the L.A. marathon. I was dropped off early just past mile 12 at Crescent Heights and Sunset Blvd. After some time waiting the wheelchair division came through; followed by the elite women and men. This was my first time seeing a pack of runners exhibit perfect form, perfect cadence all in unison. They were beautiful. After the pro field the very fast main pack began to trickle in. I was able to connect with Brian who was having a very hard race. I handed him nutrition and barked some supportive words, coaching my coach. He would go on to win a slot for the Boston marathon with his time of 3:14. I began getting text messages from my cousin giving me an idea where he was. The marathon started late, the friend he was running with had cramped early and he had pushed ahead on a faster pace. After about two hours of hanging around that intersection he came by and we linked up.

Maybe I talked a bit too much during his race but I wanted to keep him mentally engaged and not dwelling on the pain in his legs. I knew that even as fit as he was, having never run more than 15 miles was going to hurt him in the upper miles of the marathon. If he was going to finish he was going to need to modulate his pace, focus on maintaining perfect form as long as possible, and not look at other runners. If I could get him to mile 25 he was golden, as the final mile is a cakewalk if you enjoy passing people the way he and I have in the past. Last year I PR’d a half marathon with him and he flew the final mile from the glee of picking off fading runners.

As we made the turn onto Ocean Blvd and passed the mile 25 marker I said a few final words of encouragement and peeled off the course. My cousin took off and flew into the home stretch while I moved to the side and worked my way through the crowd. Following Bob Seebohar’s nutrition plan I am treating 2010 as one long base period in my periodized schedule, staying aerobic as often as possible as I lead group rides and runs and get my coaching skills in order. I have one race this season on the books: the Olympic distance Malibu triathlon. I’m doing a relay for the CHLA team in Sunday’s sprint, but that’s primarily to be in the corral for the race with my teammates. I’m assistant coach for the team this year and I’m putting my own racing on hold while I develop these skills. In base period nutrition I’m not eating any sports nutrition products in workouts lasting 2.5 hours or less as long as I stay aerobic and don’t burn up too many matches in my matchbook. For the L.A. marathon I ran half of it in about 2.5 hours and standing on the other side of the crowd gates watching my cousin finish I realized I had no food.

When you finish a race you hopefully cross the finish line happy and spent. A volunteer puts a medal around your neck and another kneels to remove the timing chip from your leg. Someone else will wrap a silver sheet around you to keep you warm and medical personnel watch you in case you’re about to pass out. As you shuffle through the chute you pass through a series of tables with water, bagels, orange slices, and possibly food from the sponsors of the race. Sometimes there’s cookies. Sometimes there’s pizza. It’s never, never what you really need after an endurance event which is a balanced mix of lean protein and easy carbohydrates. A glass of lowfat chocolate milk is actually the perfect recovery food (assuming you don’t have an allergy to chocolate or are lactose intolerant). A piece of pizza is possibly the most disgusting thing I’ve ever smelled or tasted post-race. I do not understand how people can eat something so greasy, slimy, doughy, and chunky after hours of working out. And it’s not even good pizza. It’s bulk pizza baked hours ago and sitting out in the sun.

Still, it would have been nice to eat something.

Almost a half hour after he finished his race I found my cousin under the Santa Monica pier lying on his back barely able to move. I had to be an asshole and forced him to his feet to keep him walking. He hadn’t eaten anything and was nauseated. I shepherded him to the expo, made him eat something, and I managed to snag a sample of some Greek yogurt and honey.

We talked a bit about our fathers. His dad was about to die, mine had just gone. My dad was one of the reasons I started dieting and running in the first place, and his dad had been a runner but had never run a marathon. In fact, he had trained for one but dropped out before the race. The day after the race my cousin went back to his dad’s house and got a few moments where he was able to talk about the race when his dad was lucid. His dad asked what his finishing time was and smiled when he was told it was under five hours – a damn good time for a first marathon.

He died a few days later.

I have been very lucky in a most disturbing way. I have many friends who have lost their parents too soon. While I recognize that 65 is the low end of death, it’s still not a total anomaly. I have friends whose parents died of cancer, were murdered, or who just simply died. I find myself in their company now, telling the recently bereaved “it just fucking blows” and not the useless “I’m so sorry”. Worse is the dodge, “let me know what I can do”. It’s a dodge because the grieving person doesn’t know what they need. They’re barely able to get dressed so intense is the grief. Words cannot heal the loss. Not even time heals the loss. Loss is loss and it never goes away. We learn to live with it, accepting that it is a part of who we are. We could be angry at the loss but how does that serve us? I’ll take my anger as a starting point that I must be angry because the person meant something to me. It means that I loved them and selfishly wanted them in my life. From there I can catalog the reasons I miss them and how I loved them.

The flame of anger disappears, consumed by love.

At the memorial service for my cousin’s father just as he stood to thank everyone for coming and to say a few words about his dad, the 7.2 earthquake hit Mexico and rippled its way underneath us. The pool sloshed back and forth and we all did the California dance while stating the obvious, “hey, we’re having an earthquake”. Most of us at the service don’t believe in an afterlife, but that was pretty weird. Driving home we stopped off to visit our friends who are new daddies to a lovely set of twins. On the way we received a call that a friend was hit by a truck while on her bike riding on Pacific Coast Highway. We went home, took care of the dogs, and went to to the brain trauma ICU at UCLA.

I felt like I was doing better, just exhausted. I hadn’t realized that I was still behaving as someone in trauma until the nurse came in to check our friend’s status and I was waiting for the RT technician to clear my dad’s ventilator.

Emotional trauma is weird that way.

The other indicators were more subtle. I started picking fights on some of my email groups, I was much more black and white in my declarations to clients. When I get angry I get strict and binary. Quick to anger and judgment, my way or the highway. I believe that our internet personas are caricatures of who we really are. When I have no energy, no filters, nothing left, I become that caricature in real life.

Our friend is doing better, her helmet saved her life, and she went home to heal after three days of observation. We are very grateful that it was not worse.

After all that we get to fly back to Washington to do another memorial service for my dad for all the out of towners who couldn’t come to the service we had immediately after his death. It’s only as I fly east that I realize how much wisdom there is in burying the dead quickly. As much as my mother wants this to be a “celebration of his life”, how can it be anything other than a ripping open of the wound so that others may express their loss? Afterwards we are going to go through my dad’s personal items and divvy them up, weighing our emotional attachment to things.

Strangely, I take a biblical view on this. I’ll never let it get to the point where I want to split the baby like King Solomon. If my sister or my uncle wants something they can have it because I plan on knowing them the rest of our lives. If I ever need to see something I can go and visit them.

You never know what is going to be a talisman. Objects do have emotional weight for whatever their reason. That weight can become a burden, preventing us from moving on and healing. I can see the impulse to get rid of everything and move on, along with hoarding everything and being enveloped by it.

When I think of losing Sofia I imagine that I will collect her clothing in a pile on the bed and smell her. As time goes on it will lose its smell, fading away until they are just clothes. That is the natural way of things, of time effecting things.

My sense of loss is like that. The immediacy of the loss will eventually fade and I will stop being in trauma. Soon enough it will just be a pile of clothes, something I can take out and look at, examine for its memory, but the smell will be gone.

Life, after all, is for the living.


One response to “Flame on!

  1. Max, I love you so, so much. Thank you for putting your grief and your process of dealing with it into such a clear, honest voice. If nothing else, I now know what phrases to avoid when speaking to the grieving.

    I am about pull an asshole move, so bear with me. As a father myself (see, I hate it when people do that), I can assure you that the best way you can honour your father is by being the best human being you can. You are doing just fine on that score. And it is an honour and a privilege to call you my very good friend.

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