Across the Disappearing Finishing Line

Searching for the keys to endurance, a ski racer pushes his body and heart to the limit—until his father's sudden illness changes all the rules

Nov 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

THE MORE I TRAINED, and especially the more I began to race, the more I understood that my mind needed toughening at least as much as my body—that endurance was about going until it hurt, when the natural impulse was to slow down, and then deciding whether to listen to that impulse or not. Not long after my golf date with Dad, I went off to Australia, which has the planet's best August snow, eager to test out my hepped-up lungs. I'll never forget the morning of the Paddy Pallin Classic, a 25-kilometer race through the twisted snow gums and eucalyptus trees on the shoulder of 7,310-foot Mount Kosciusko, the continent's highest peak. I remember exactly how good it felt when the gun went off, how I bounded up the hills on my new legs, how I fantasized about catching the wave of skiers who had started five minutes before me—and how immediately I lost all that sweet focus at the first real sign of adversity. A racer came blowing by me, my chest tightened, and suddenly I was just plodding along, concentration gone. I still had some work to do.

But there'd been enough glimpses of transformation—races where for a few minutes I'd drop into the inescapable now of competition—to keep me going. When I came back from Australia, I began the longest, hardest month of my training schedule, an endless September that peaked one Saturday morning with a 238-minute run. My parents were visiting our Adirondack home, and they offered to watch my six-year-old daughter, Sophie, while I worked out. I ran and ran and ran some more, finally stumble-charging up the last rise, congratulating myself that from now on the whole year was downhill. I was peeling off my T-shirt and savoring the smug aura of finishing something hard when I noticed Dad. He was about a hundred yards away from Mom, walking back and forth, and he was lurching a bit. "He's testing himself," she said, with a frantic edge in her voice.

Slowly the story started to come out. In August he'd been hiking hard in the Cascades, feeling fine. But when he got home he'd begun stumbling a bit—and once fell right over. Some days, Mom added, he slurred his words. Dad had chalked it up to the late-summer humidity, or perhaps a sinus infection, and had rallied (and reassured) himself by walking faster, working up a sweat. But when I took him aside that afternoon he confessed that his right side felt weak. Could I have had a small stroke? he asked me. As soon as he said it, I felt myself starting to panic—it had never even entered my mind that at 68 he'd start to decline. But I knew it must be true; it would explain the balance, the speech, even a few recent mild displays of uncharacteristic temper.

I bade my parents good-bye with a sour taste in the back of my throat. The next day Dad phoned from home in Boston to say that his doctor was convinced that indeed he'd had a very mild stroke. He'd scheduled an MRI for later in the week just to make sure, but he told Mom and Dad to go ahead planning a trip to Mexico; I could tell from his voice that Dad was immensely relieved.

And I was too. I spent a little time thinking about the Meaning of It All—how your body would eventually betray you no matter how fit you got—and then I went back to work, because racing season was coming into distant view. The weather began to change; a front came through one of those early autumn nights, dropping temperatures down into the low thirties, threatening the tomatoes. The weatherman talked about "the possibility of sleet or snow on the high ridges." The S word hadn't been heard in these parts since early May, and it made me quiver inside.

I started stacking firewood in earnest that week, and while I was working Friday afternoon I looked up to see our dog, Barley, trotting toward me with something in her mouth. At first I thought it was a shoe, but when she dropped it for me I saw it was a hawk—dead, but utterly unmarked, a broad-wing, all strength and sinew. Sophie and I spread its strong, gray feathers, examined its powerful beak and talons, and then wrapped it in plastic and put it in the freezer so that she could take it to school. I went back to the woodpile.

When I looked up a few minutes later, Sue was standing there in the fading light with tears running down her cheeks. My mom had just called. Dad had a brain tumor, "an aggressive nonbenign tumor." They were operating on Tuesday. Just like that.

I hugged her for a long time, and then headed straight out into the woods, cursing and crying and carrying on. Mom said the doctor had told them that even with the operation "the long-term average survival" was 12 months, which put a new spin on the whole idea of long-term. For me, 12 months was a "training cycle." I was still sobbing when Dad came on the phone. "This is ridiculous, isn't it?" he said with a rueful chuckle. He'd been shaving when I called, and for some reason that made me even sadder. How do you manage to look in the mirror when someone has just told you that in a year you won't be there?

A couple of weeks before, I'd visited some actuarial Web site that let you calculate your likely life span. Didn't smoke, long-lived relatives, plenty of exercise, low cholesterol—when I tapped the final button it told me I was going to die at 93. I'm certain that Dad would have gotten the same result. He was strong and active; he'd just written his first book. But there was no little button on the actuarial table for something called glioblastoma, the most virulent form of brain cancer.

When we got to Boston the next day, the change was obvious. Six days earlier his speech had been a little slurred. Three days earlier he'd driven to church and chaired a meeting. Today, Saturday, his triumph had been walking the 20 yards to the Adirondack chairs in the backyard. His world was shrinking with incomprehensible speed. He told us about finding out the bad news: The surgeon had pronounced his death sentence, and then said he should choose. "I could get a big bottle of Scotch and have a wonderful last night before going into a coma, or I could have this surgery and that would keep me going a little longer."

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