LOSS Program Office
721 N. LaSalle Street
Chicago, IL 60654
Main Line: (312) 655-7283
Fax Line: (312) 948-3340
Early in NBC’s broadcast of the 2008 Ironman Hawaii, the narrator says that there is a time cutoff for the swim and failing to make it will result in a competitor being removed from the race. As he is speaking, a man hurries out of the water and up some steps, stumbles a few feet and collapses. Most viewers probably thought: “That was a bad, unprepared swimmer.” They are right. I am a bad swimmer and I wasn’t as prepared as I should have been. But there is more to the story than can be shown in ten seconds of television.
Two years earlier, in September 2006, with no history of suicide attempts or outward signs of mental illness, my 19 year old son Paul wrote a suicide note and walked to a country club near his college dorm in Grinnell, Iowa. He then slipped beneath the cover of an outdoor swimming pool that had been closed for the winter and drowned himself. Although there was an extensive search of the area, his body was not discovered until the pool was uncovered in April, 2007. During the seven months Paul was missing, my wife and I conducted a nationwide search, hoping that he had changed his mind and run away or had written the note as part of a scheme to drop out of society. Although running away or dropping out did not make sense, neither did suicide. In retrospect, actions that we attributed to teenage moodiness were more likely signs of depression, but at the time, we were in shock.
After Paul’s body was found, we were transformed from the parents of a missing child living on hope, into the parents of a suicide victim trying to understand what happened. One step we took was to attend suicide LOSS support groups, where we were able to share our experience with others who had lost a loved one. Although those sessions were invaluable, I found an additional way to cope with our loss. One of my hobbies is triathlon, which is a race requiring one to swim, ride a bicycle and then run. Training for triathlon requires long hours of exercise and during the summer of 2007 a line from the Eagles “Hotel California” described my attitude toward running, biking and swimming: “Some dance to remember, some dance to forget.” Paul ran track when he was in high school and had developed a love of bike riding while in college, so I often thought about him when I was out on the road. Because I was doing things he enjoyed, I always found myself smiling. Sometimes, however, it was a relief to reach the stage of exercise when my mind went completely blank. Forgetting for a few moments also had therapeutic value.
Swimming was another matter. When we went to Grinnell to retrieve Paul’s body, we visited the swimming pool where he died. After that visit, two images often came into my mind: Paul struggling in the water the last few seconds of his life, and Paul floating face down in that pool for seven months. I had been going to a masters swimming group in order to improve my poor swimming, but could not go again after we returned to Chicago. I was afraid that having to look at the floor of a pool would be too much to take.
We live near Lake Michigan and when summer came I started swimming again. A few months had passed and I knew that swimming in a lake would not be as powerful a trigger as swimming in a pool. Although I sometimes saw those two images, this involuntary picking at an emotional scab became my challenge. I wanted to remember not only the son I had watched develop into a wonderful young man, but also the son who inexplicably ended his life. So I spent that year swimming, biking, running and remembering both sides of Paul.
That winter I decided to treat myself to something I always wanted to do: I threw my name into the lottery for the 2008 Ironman World Championship, held in Kailua-Kona on the island of Hawaii each October. This race, known to triathletes as “Kona,” requires competitors to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and then run a full 26.2 marathon – twice as long as any triathlon I had ever done. Participants include more than 1,500 professional triathletes and top amateur ironmen in their age group plus 200 lottery winners. It is as if the Masters used a lottery to choose a few weekend golfers to play in the tournament alongside the pros. In April 2008, I found out that I won the lottery and would be racing with these extraordinary endurance athletes in Kona.
I immediately began six months of intensive swimming, biking and running. By the end of the summer, I had completed hundreds of hours of my Hotel California therapy. I tried to swim the distances necessary to prepare for Kona, but I knew that I was shortchanging that aspect of my training. Swimming has never been as enjoyable to me as biking and running and the thoughts it sometimes triggered were still painful. Nevertheless, I felt ready for the race.
Training for an Ironman is an inherently selfish activity. We spend too many hours away from home, generate too many sweaty clothes and spend too much money on specialized food and equipment. I tried to ease my conscience in two ways. First, working through the Ironman charity program, I ran a fundraiser for LOSS. Second, I started volunteering with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. My volunteer work that summer was minimal, but it was enough to interest me in this organization and eventually join the Board of Directors of the Illinois chapter.
In October, I travelled to Hawaii with my wife, daughter and two siblings. The days leading up to the race I posted messages on my triathlon club’s message board about my impressions of Kona during race week. The following message sent the night before the race shows what I was thinking that evening:
Date: 10/10/2008 8:52 PM
Subject: Aloha from Kona #5 – race day eve
I’ve been writing these reports when I wake up each morning before my family is moving. I won’t have time tomorrow morning to write, so I’m doing this before I go to sleep.
I’ve been lighthearted in my prior reports. Today I have to be serious – sort of like the soldier writing to his family the night before the big battle. This has been a wonderful experience and, if I finish tomorrow, it will be the cap to a great week. But those of you who have followed my life the last two years know that this will be a bittersweet day for me. Most things are since my son took his own life. Parents will understand that as we raise our children, we hope that they will let us share some of their lives and we hope that they will want to share some of ours. Somehow, that was taken away from my family. Tomorrow, Paul should be with my wife and daughter cheering on his father. The fact that he won’t be here takes away more of the experience than I’ve cared to admit. But like everything else I now do, life goes on without him. Different, but it goes on. We suicide survivors are taught that you never get over it. You just learn to live with it. But in the end, tomorrow will be about racing in Kona alongside the world’s best triathletes in the greatest race location on the planet. It will be a long, hot and rewarding day. I recognize the gift I have been given and plan to focus on experiencing the race of my lifetime.
The next morning I knew that before I got to the long, hot and rewarding part of my day, I had to finish the swim in the allotted time – 2 hours and 20 minutes. The pros started first, followed by the amateur triathletes in a mass, chaotic start. After a few minutes, I found some space and was enjoying swimming in the warm, clear waters of the Pacific Ocean. At the halfway point I was on a pace that would beat the cutoff. I didn’t realize, however, that I had been swimming with a current and was now swimming against it. At some point a lifeguard on a surfboard, (called a “paddler”) pulled alongside to offer me encouragement. After a few minutes, he said “You’ve got ten minutes, work harder.” He started giving me updates every minute, each more urgent than the last, ending with: “Kick! Kick! Kick!” I tried to pick up my pace. Almost all the other swimmers were already in, so a group of paddlers pulled in behind us to follow me to the finish.
They apply the cutoffs mercilessly in Kona and will pull a competitor from the race for missing one of the cutoffs by a single second – and the broadcast usually shows that person being given the news. I realized that I may be that disappointed athlete in this year’s broadcast and got angry at myself for not swimming enough during the summer. I started swimming as hard as I could, but by then, I was too tired and out of breath to maintain any semblance of proper form.
Back on the shore, with a little more than one minute to go, the announcer welcomed what he told the crowd was the last swimmer who could make the cutoff. My family was despondent that it wasn’t me and that I would be kicked out of the race when I finished my swim. A few seconds later the announcer screamed that there was one more swimmer who might make it. He urged the crowd to cheer this swimmer in, but they didn’t need much encouragement because when they looked out in the ocean, they saw me flailing away at the water, followed by a flotilla of paddlers.
At one minute, my paddler yelled “Sprint! Sprint! Sprint!” and started counting down the seconds. At 20 seconds I still had to swim a few dozen feet and run to the stairs leading up to a pier where there was a timing mat that would be triggered by a chip strapped to one of my ankles. When I got out of the water I could hear the crowd screaming and saw volunteers waving for me to hurry. I scrambled up the stairs, stumbled over the timing mat, took a few steps, and then collapsed to the ground completely exhausted.
I sat there too tired to move, listening to a continuous roar. I didn’t know if I was being applauded for beating the clock or for giving my best in a losing effort. Finally, I asked the volunteer standing closest to me if I made the cutoff. That is when I got the news:
“Yes you did!”
I looked around and saw dozens of smiling faces, a few in tears, furiously clapping. The paddlers who had been escorting me were leaning over their surf boards giving each other high fives. My family, who had been trying to figure out how to console me - until they recognized me running out of the water - was ecstatic.
I crossed that timing mat 2 hours, 19 minutes and 55 seconds into the race. It turns out that I had provided the most entertaining swim finish ever seen in Kona. Although there are often a few swimmers who miss the cutoff, rarely has someone finished with less than a minute to spare and never as franticly.
I’m probably the only Kona competitor who ever found biking 112 miles through gusting winds alongside black lava fields scorched by the sun and running 26.2 miles in hot, humid weather, to be anti-climatic. But I was out of the water and having fun, sometimes thinking about Paul the bicyclist and Paul the runner and sometimes lost in the stark beauty of the western side of the island of Hawaii. While some dance to remember and some dance to forget, I was having the time of my life doing both. My running and biking that summer paid off, as I easily finished the bike and run within their respective time cutoffs, passing numerous triathletes along the way. Late in the evening, after high fiving the fans lining Ali’i Drive the last few hundred yards of the course, I crossed the finish line with a smile.
After we returned home I posted a report of my race on my triathlon club’s message board. It ended with an epilogue that still reflects my thoughts on this experience and is the best way to finish this survivor story.
Date: 10/17/2008 11:44:53 AM
Subject: Aloha from Kona #6 – Five seconds
You are the full moon,
burning bright over the pond garden,
and we know where to look for you in the sky.
We stayed on Hawaii a couple more days, and the day before we left, my wife and I visited the Pu’u Loa Petroglyph area on the east coast of the island. Ancient islanders had carved symbols into the lava field here. Most of the 23,000 petroglyphs were simply small holes drilled into the ground. Parents would place the umbilical cord of their newborn infants into these holes and cover them with a rock. The purpose was to ask Pele the volcano god to protect them throughout their lives. If only it were that simple. Thousands of those parents were disappointed when the brutal conditions of life on the island resulted in the loss of those children before they became adults. As I stared at those holes and thought about what we had done to protect our son Paul, only to lose him two years ago to suicide, I felt a kinship with those parents.
We then drove to the area near Hilo where lava is flowing down a mountain into the sea. We went at night when you can see the glow from hot lava coming down the mountain and the sparks as it enters the ocean. We had known it would be a full moon that night and were pleased to see that, although there were some clouds, the moon was popping in and out. The words above were the lyrics to a choral piece one of Paul’s friends wrote for the memorial service at his college held a week after his body had been found. Since then, we’ve always made a point of looking at a full moon and thinking of him.
Shortly after a brief shower passed us, someone said, “Look, a rainbow.” I didn’t even know a moon-lit rainbow was possible, but there it was, directly over the lava flowing down the mountain. I’m not the kind that thinks it was a message from Paul, but you can believe whatever you want. That rainbow, however, helped put everything into perspective for me. Facing the awesome power and beauty of geological and astronomical forces in action, and remembering the petroglyphs I saw a few hours ago, it seemed pretty insignificant that I had just completed an Ironman. Yet, for a few moments during that swim, I put out every ounce of energy I had, just so I could make the cutoff. Those five seconds mean nothing to the universe and in the big picture, not that much in my own life. I guess that’s how we all live our lives. We regularly focus all of our energy on our daily activities and only in our quite contemplative moments, do we recognize that the universe goes on regardless of what happened to us today. And then we go out and do it again.
I’m leaving this island getting exactly what I hoped to get – a great experience. It wasn’t life changing. It wasn’t a final healing. It was just a memorably wonderful side trip on my own life journey.