Monday, July 25, 2011

The Icing on the Cake

For the last ten years or so, I've watched a good portion of the Tour de France on TV every summer.  In general, biking isn’t on my list of favorite sports to spectate, but I’ve always been impressed by the extreme sportsmanship and the endurance, tenacity, and just downright toughness displayed during this event in which participants cover 2,200 miles of very challenging terrain over three weeks.

But the real reason I’ve watched is for the annual Tour-related camaraderie that I’ve enjoyed with my dad.  Betting and bantering about whether or not Lance would “pull it off again,” as Dad termed it, waiting and watching for the wrecks, and of course discussing and debating about the politics of the race, which mostly boiled down to talking about all the drug-testing drama.

Dad was a big Lance fan.  When Dad talked about the reasons why Lance should be admired, he said, “His Cancer Story was just the icing on the cake."  Dad and I agreed that, whether or not the famous athlete “doped,” he was a Machine, full of toughness and grit, “not to mention,” Dad said, “a marketing master!”
Dad in 2003 with Lance Armstrong's second book, "Every Second Counts"

Dad was always so impressed by the guys in the Tour who wrecked and then got back up and continued riding.  "Now that's Tough!" he would say admiringly when we were watching on TV and saw one of the many spills and recoveries. 

It was funny to me that Dad never saw his own extraordinariness.  For example, once when I was about eight years old, I was playing in the front yard of our house when an unfamiliar vehicle pulled up in our driveway.  Dad got out of the car, thanked the driver, and turned around to face me.  He had blood dripping down the side of his head. 

"What happened?"  I asked.

"I was running across a 2-lane bridge and an RV that didn't have enough room to get over side-swiped me," he said.  I didn't even know what side-swiped meant, but I figured it wasn't anything good based on the blood that kept coming and coming. 

"I was going to keep running, but I knew your mom would be upset if I didn't come straight home to get this cleaned up," he said, as he headed into the house. 

When I was in the seventh grade, my dad was running a marathon and, in third place 18 miles into the race, he was hit by an old lady driving a car who hadn't seen him because the sun was shining in her eyes.  She hit him from behind, and he flew up over her windshield and landed in the road.  She was screaming so much that he, while lying in the street with a broken leg, had to try to calm her down until the police got there a few minutes later.

He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where we met him after the police found us on the course, waiting at the 20-mile mark, where Dad had told us to wait to cheer for him.  When we got to the hospital, he wasn't at all focused on the pain from the bone sticking out of his leg but instead was concerned because the force of being hit by the car had knocked off one of his running shoes, which he wanted back, and because he wouldn't be able to finish the race. 

The orthopedic surgeon told him that he would be in a cast for several months and would not be able to run again for at least six months.  Four weeks later, Dad used a kitchen knife to cut the cast off his leg and was out on the road again, training for his next race.

"Get this thing off me!" - Dad with his cast after being hit by the car in the marathon
In the 1990's, Dad finished several ultra-marathons, including a 48-hour race that he did on an indoor track, and a 24-hour race, after which he jumped into the car, drove several hours to help me load up my stuff to move out of my dorm, and drove three hours home.

Dad with his cheerleader Mom at the 46-hour point of the 48-hour ultra

Dad with one of his Support Crew members (me) putting ice packs on his legs at the halfway point of his first 24-hour ultra
A couple of years ago, Dad entered an off-road triathlon near my house.  He left early in the morning, and when he got back, his elbow and his knee were both bloody.  He said on the mountain biking portion of the race the biker in front of him wrecked, which caused Dad to wreck into him with so much force that it bent the seat of the bike into a 90 degree angle.  Since the bike was then unrideable, Dad picked it up and carried it, running more than a mile to the transition point, where he ditched the bike and took off on the trail run part of the event.  He said, "Don't worry, though, I'll get the bike fixed, and, best of all, I still won my age division."

A few days after that race, he said he was having some trouble breathing and so he went to the doctor, who had a chest x-ray done.  Evidently, in the bike wreck, in addition to breaking the seat of the bike and scraping his elbow and knee, Dad had broken two ribs.

Dad, at the start of the "bike leg" of the triathlon in which he qualified for the National Masters in 2009
Then there was the Big Bike Wreck three years ago.  Dad was on a long training ride, probably 75 miles or more, and was riding by himself on country roads in Missouri.  He usually didn't take his cell phone with him on bike rides, but for some reason he had brought it along on this one, even using it to call Mom right before he left to tell her he would be gone for a few hours.

At some point on the ride, a guy driving a pick-up truck with several children in the truck bed wasn't paying attention and didn't see Dad on his bike in the road in front of him.  The driver hit Dad from behind, and, again, Dad flew over the top of the vehicle and landed in the road, this time with his feet still clipped to the pedals of the bike.  He landed very hard on his back and immediately found that he couldn't move his arms or legs at all.  The driver had stopped but hadn't gotten out of the truck yet, and Dad said he was screaming at the guy to call 9-1-1.

Here's the really crazy part of the story:  apparently, when Dad was thrown to the ground by the impact, his cell phone got bumped and the redial button was hit.  Mom thought it was odd when she saw on her phone's Caller I.D. that Dad was calling back so soon after he'd started his bike ride, and when she answered, all she could hear was Dad screaming for someone to call 9-1-1 and saying that he couldn't move.  She kept him on the line and then used another phone to call 9-1-1.  She made it to the scene of the accident just as Dad was being loaded into the ambulance, and, by the time they made it to the hospital, Dad was moving his extremities again, although he had a major case of Road Rash and was understandably sore.  He didn't even spend the night in the hospital that night, and - you guessed it - he was back out on the road within a couple of weeks.

When Dad found out he had brain cancer, one thing that kept him going was the fact that Lance Armstrong had had cancer in his brain too.  Lance had not only survived the cancer and the treatment, but he had gone on to win the Tour de France a record-setting seven times after that.  We held that up for inspiration and, for awhile, really believed that Dad would beat the odds and get back to biking like Lance had as well as running and swimming, too.  

Not long after Dad was diagnosed, we started talking about how when he was cured we would write a book to tell about what he had been through.  "I'm not famous like Lance," he said, "but maybe if I can beat brain cancer that would be a good story!"

During Dad's illness, I saw him get proverbially knocked off the bike many times, and, each time, just like those guys in the Tour, he got right up and kept on going.  When he was first told he had cancer, he said, "Well, at least I've got good insurance and great family support."  He never complained that virtually overnight he had gone from being in Ironman-triathlete shape to having to use a walker to get around his room in the hospital and then in rehab.  When the therapists at rehab showed him exercises to do during therapy sessions, he gave it his all, often doing extra reps in his room after therapy was over for the day.  When he had to be stuck repeatedly with needles for blood draws and I.V.'s, he told the techs and the nurses, "That's ok; I know you're doing the best you can."  Time and time again, as many times as his body would let him, he got back on the bike.

I value every second of the time I got to spend with Dad during the ten weeks he was sick.  I got to see the depths of his courage, humility, love, and determination.  But actually, though, his Cancer Story was just the Icing on the Cake.

           Lance Armstrong was said to have this song, "My Father's Eyes," on his pre-workout Playlist last summer.

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