Every once in a while, somebody will ask me what made me get into triathlons. Sometimes it seems quite clear, other times it’s not so clear. The short answer: I fear the numbers 45 and 49.
So what’s in a number?
The number is the age my father was when he had a heart attack. I was fifteen years old and had the unfortunate experience to witness every physical struggle my father went through during his heart attack.
It was a summer day and we were at my grandmother’s summer house at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland. It was warm and the sun was still out but he and I went down to cover up our speed boat on the dock. As he and I worked to get the boat covered, he backed off and said that he thought I could handle the rest on my own.
As we walked the dock to get back to shore, he began to wring his arm and massage it. He began complaining about it hurting more and more. Then he softly and quite modestly told me to get help, sat down on the massive rock sitting on the shoreline, and began to weep. In the 15 years prior, I only saw my father cry once. That was when my grandfather, my mom’s dad, passed away. Seeing the man who you idolize weep like a small child is heartbreaking and devastating. Being a child and not having a clue how to make it better is even tougher.
(And as a type this, it breaks my heart to realize that I’ve cried in front of my children and made them feel the exact same way. I won’t go into the “why” details but I am sentimental sap. God bless, my oldest daughter. When I have done it in front her, she has simply walked up to me, rubbed my back with her head on my arm, and has a silent tear of her own rolling down her cheek.)
After getting my mother and grandmother to help, we all jumped in the car and went to the hospital. I remember sitting in the back seat with him and watching him cry. I always thought, knowing how he is, he was crying in shame. Since I now have kids, I know that was not at the case. His crying was simply to live. It’s not the selfish kind of wanting to live. He didn’t want to live because of himself. He wanted to live for his family. He wanted to live for his wife and kids. He wanted to live… for me.
The stay at the hospital in Maryland is very blurry now. However, I do remember riding in the ambulance with him going around 90 mph with the lights and sirens blazing. I got to ride in the ambulance, not because of support of my father, not for fun, but I was actually responsible for giving the directions to the ambulance driver. Keep in mind, in 1990 there weren’t GPS like there is now. Looking back, I’m sure they could have used a map but for whatever reason, they didn’t have one. Yep, at 15, I was responsible for giving directions to the ambulance driver to get my father who was in Intensive Care to a hospital as quickly as possible.
The stay in Johnstown, PA is even more of a blur. Those few days, I spent living with a friend. I do remember, the whole reason I had to stay with his family was because we had soccer practices starting up for school. After a stress test, they decided my father needed to have bypass surgery. They gave him the option of having it done in Johnstown but he decided he preferred to be operated on by the world renowned McGovern team. So they transferred him there.
After he transferred to Pittsburgh, they began tests on him again. They had to do a heart cath on him. I vividly remember the surgeon explaining all the details of the operation and saying there was a one in 7,000 chance of something going wrong and he’s never had anything happen before. Well, lucky for everyone else, my dad set the odds for 6,999 other people. He ended up having a mini stroke. Once again, I got to witness the man I admire more than anyone in the world weep due to his embarrassment of not being able to speak properly and drooling on himself. Thankfully, it was very mild and temporary but a moment I will never forget.
My dad ended up having the bypass completed and recovered fully.
I always joked and said that my dad would die before he quit teaching. Well, he almost did just that. In 2005, my father was three days away from retiring from 32 years of teaching. He began suffering the shortness of breath, tiredness, and other symptoms that come with a heart attack but recognize them before it occurred. Once again, he went to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and had stints put in.
When I got the news that he was admitted, I jumped on a plane and flew from Orlando to Pittsburgh. I essentially took over the “manly” duties of the house and drove my mom to and from the hospital.
Coincidentally, I had just quit smoking that week. I had just started taking Wellbutrin to assist in the smoking cessation. You see, when my daughter was born, the doctor would never scold me about it, but it would just give me interesting facts about babies exposures to smoke. In amazing moment of will power, I was able to not smoke the entire week that my father was in the hospital. It was a sign to me that if I was able to not smoke with all that stress, I could stop smoking for good. May 5th, 2014 will be nine years since I quit smoking. Not once have I have picked one up…
The other number, 49, is the age that my mom’s dad had a heart attack that destroyed the majority of his heart. Sadly, my grandfather passed away on a cold January night the same year of my father’s heart attack. Looking back it must have been horrible for my mother. I was blessed to even have met him since it did so much damage.
So… Why do I swim, bike, and run crazy amounts every day of the year? Because I want to live. I want to live for my three kids. If they never have to go through what I did as a child, I have done well. When I run, I don’t say I’m running for health. I tell people I’m running for life…
What got me into doing triathlons? Trying to save my life…