Before my dad’s decline, I was planning to run my tenth Keys 100 and train for my sixth go at Badwater 135. Excitement, optimism and commitment fueled my runs. Then, after a fall, my dad was taken away in an ambulance. I rushed from the Keys 100 pre-race gathering and drove 4 hours to be with him in the hospital. While my optimism and commitment were still intact, this time they were focused on my dad and his wellbeing.
But the story doesn’t start there. It starts with my mom passing away of cancer, back in 2011, and my entrance into the world of ultramarathons. I had run a handful of ultras—50-milers, 100ks, 24-hour races—the last year of my mom’s life, and after she passed away in May 2011, a few days after I completed the Keys 50-miler, running elicited fear. After decades of daily running, I couldn’t bear the thought of heading out and being alone with my thoughts amid the pain of her loss.
My coach at the time encouraged me to walk 10 miles a day. The goal was to keep moving. He intuited that movement would help me. Within a few weeks, I was running again. While my runs unleashed waves of emotion which nearly always resulted in tears, over time, running helped me to process my new reality and arrive in my next chapter.
I had signed up to run Vermont 100, my first 100-miler, shortly after my mom’s passing. My dad, who was 80 years old at the time, 10 years my mom’s senior, always liked adventure and travel and was up for joining me.
I was petrified to run my first 100-miler. I had no idea what I was in for. My dad also had no idea what to expect, but if I was determined to give it a try, he was committed to supporting me. The race was on July 16, 2011, the day after my mom’s birthday, and ultimately, my trepidation coupled with grief, led me to back out hours before the start.
The race director, Julia Hutchinson, who had had lost her dad years prior, understood, and asked if instead of running, I was up for volunteering at the finish line to greet runners. So, after 12 a.m., we set out for the finish line where we cheered on every finisher and recorded their times. It didn’t dispel my grief, but it was an uplifting entry into 100-milers. (In 2013 my dad and I returned, and I completed the Vermont 100.)
The next time my dad and I were at a finish line together was three months later, in October 2011, when I finished my first 100-miler at Javelina Jundred in Arizona. There was a monsoon during the night, and many runners dropped out. I was determined to keep going, and my dad was unwavering in supporting me. He stayed out all day in the blazing sun and then into the night, through the hours of torrential rain, and was there for me when I crossed the finish line 29 hours later.
As I was initiated into the world of ultrarunning, my dad found a home in the sport, too, and I could always spot him as I came into an aid station sitting around a campfire, hanging out with other runners’ families and crews or volunteering and helping runners along their journeys. He had a way of getting to know everyone at a race so that people would come up to me and tell me what a great guy he was. When I got into Badwater 135 in 2015, one of my long-time goals, he came along. He loved Death Valley and being out on the western front of Lone Pine’s Alabama Hills, which he recognized from classic Western movies.
Up until the pandemic, my dad traveled with me to over 80 races—Long Haul 100, Wild Sebastian 100, Ancient Oaks 100, Fort Clinch 100, Peanut Island 24-Hour, Beast of Burden 100, Badwater Cape Fear and Keys 100, where he worked at the 50-mile aid station for years. Regardless of my always pleading with him to go back to the hotel in the middle of the night to sleep, if I was out on a course, he wouldn’t leave. At first, ultramarathons were an outlet for us to cope with losing my mom. Over time, they enriched our friendship and fostered our shared love for adventure and the outdoors.
In retrospect, my dad was a true endurance athlete. He persevered throughout his life, and in his last month, his determination to live was fierce. He was courageous in a way that was foreign to me. When he had to succumb to medical staff with me taking care of his daily needs, he let go and accepted the situation. Independent as he was, he adapted to having “a crew” and he smiled despite the pain, the changes and ongoing challenges. He let us all anticipate his wants and needs, troubleshoot for him, and relay messages to the doctors. For him, this type of reliance was difficult.
We tend to see giving up as failure, but witnessing my dad’s demise, I felt differently. The weeks preceding his passing, I believed he would turn around. I saw a different ending. When it comes to stories, though, like ultras, we must follow them through their twists and turns until they reach their inevitable conclusions. My dad was insistent on living because he wanted to be here, in life, where he could see and touch and hear the people he loved. “I’m trying so hard,” he told me daily. I kept reminding him that maybe it was time for him to let go. Towards the end, he shifted from telling me how hard he was trying to live to, “I don’t know what I want,” as if someone was asking him to decide. My reply was consistent, “I don’t always know what I want either.”
In life, there are no curtains that rise and fall with each new chapter. Often, we live through change by keeping going. We put on our running shoes and head out the door day after day. We say yes to the next adventure even though we don’t know where it will take us. If we are lucky, we get to keep moving. What I have learned along the route of loss is that for the living, routines may save our lives. Running, yoga, writing, working—whatever drives you forward helps you to arrive in the next chapter. While we are never the same, in the spirit of metamorphosis, our old selves propel us into who we are becoming.
The last few months of his life, my dad had problems fitting his feet into shoes. He had developed edema in his legs and the only shoes that fit were a pair of old HOKAs which he ended up wearing daily. He was most comfortable at home, where he could take off his shoes. On the drives to the hospital each morning, I listened to lectures from my favorite spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, who had devoted chapters of his life to working with patients as they approached death. During a lecture, when he said, “Death is like taking off a tight shoe,” I exhaled deeply. I thought of my swollen feet after long, hard runs. I thought of my dad, being free of his tight shoes forever. The image grounded me; it was something I could grasp and find relief in.
A few days into his in-hospital hospice journey, between his barely eating—“Food is for comfort now,” one of the doctors told me; “It’s not enough to sustain him”—and his breathing becoming trickier, it hit me that my dad was not going to get out bed again. Before he entered hospice, physical therapists had come to his room daily to teach him to use a walker, and I got to cheer him on as he made his way around the hallway. Then, there was stillness. I don’t know if he had realized he would no longer be getting out of bed, but each time I thought of it, I ached for him. At almost 92 years old, he had fought so hard for his independence, to live alone, to shop and brunch with his friends daily, to meet me out for dinners. My dad was in motion throughout his 91+ years, and then he was not.
So that I wouldn’t encounter the same fear of running I experienced when my mom passed, I made him promise me that his spirit would be with me for every run and race. As the days went on, without my prompting, he reassured me he would be with me on my runs. Seeing him so still, I was never so grateful for movement, and I often felt guilty that while his life was ending, I got to keep going.
Here’s the thing about grief: after the funeral and the sympathy calls, everyone expects you to be normal. I want to be normal. My job moves me 100 mph daily, as do the estate attorneys with their lists: do this, now do that. People process and understand loss through their own perspectives, so I know when they ask how I am doing, they’re reflecting on their own experiences. The truth is that I’m dying inside, but I’m also okay. Like in an ultra marathon when at any given moment, you are terrible and fine and disillusioned and grateful and miserable until a glimmer of optimism rises in you, and then you’re laughing and moving forward. Grief is all these things.The Final Stretch
The doctors and nurses in hospice prepared me for my dad’s departure. They did not sugarcoat anything. They were clear that death was coming. They assured me he would decide if he wanted me to be there when he died, or if he would die when I was absent, which helped me not to overthink my comings and goings. I wasn’t in control. My dad was. Sitting with him each day in the hospital was like being at mile 89 or 124 of an ultra—somewhere in-between. I knew we were close to the end, but I alternated between feeling sure we wouldn’t arrive, and positive that we would.
I had 12 more years with my dad than I had with my mom. I’m grateful he saw me cross finish lines at races, persevere through life issues, accomplish professional and personal milestones, and that he got to experience me in the context of my friends. In a world where we so often hide our true selves, I felt honored that he knew me.
In his last few days, his “Carlism’s” as my friends and I came to call them, abounded: “I have gratitude for everyone.” “You take every day as it comes.” “Every day is a good day.” My dad was simple, sincere and yet he had so much depth and grace. He was the least complicated complex person I knew. His platitudes resonated because as unassuming as they were, they were accurate and carried weight. He was aware and peaceful, and lived each minute as it arrived.
32 days into his ultra, I sat beside my dad when he transitioned into his next chapter. Before grief set in, before it hit me that I would never be with him again in this physical form, my thoughts were clear: I was so deeply happy for him and proud of him for letting go and taking the leap. My hand on his heart, I wished him an amazing journey. The mystery that death is filled the room, and it was peaceful.
The next morning, before the endless calls and planning began, as the sun began to rise over the Atlantic, I laced up my running shoes to head down to the ocean. I knew running would bring up so many unsettled emotions and that my unraveling was lurking. I also knew that the way to keep going was to put one foot in front of the other, and let the motion propel me forward.