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Eagle Crosses the Finish Line: Honoring the one year anniversary of dad’s death

In 1992 dad got the biggest badass brass eagle award they give. It’s called the Grandslam of Ultra Running. Today I have that huge bronze eagle up on a shelf with its little bronze inscriptions that note Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run, Western States 100 mile Endurance Run, Leadville Trail 100, and Wasatch Front 100 mile Endurance Run.

My dad had the solo will of a highflying athlete. He was alternately an eagle and a stubborn donkey married to the trail, hauling things and people around on his back.

In 1992 when he did those four races called the Grand Slam he would have been 60 years old. At five foot 9 inches with balding wrap over hair he had legs and arms that were Roman, solid, cut and scared, speckled and finally immune to poison oak after years of clearing trails on the Angeles Crest. Places on his face were marked by skin cancers he regularly had removed even though he was always slathered with lotion and wore hats with improvised bandana flaps to protect his neck.

Dad was a warrior, a jovial warrior allied to a platoon of runners, or are they a band of turkeys, quail, a wide variety of birds who must be on mountaintops, ridges, and wind swept trails in order to be who they are?

Yes, he was an endurance runner! But, the endurance run that was biggest, hardest, and most humbling of them all was not on any trail. It was his fight to cross the finish line on his last year; the year cancer filled his legs with fluid. Ironically, his final test was not on dry land but win fighting the storm and sea inside his body.

Dad believed in the Holy Spirit. If he connected with a stranger on the trail it was the Holy Spirit. When he found an old book in an abandoned trailer in the desert with a Winton ancestor who wrote about Mexico it was the Holy Spirit.

Dad said it was miracle that Stephen and I showed up right when we did. Normally, we live hundred miles apart. A get together typically required a major holiday and a road trip. Dad normally came to us. We happened to be driving through L.A. and asked if we could have dinner. He didn’t want a hassle about his house where we’d grown up now filled with bags and bags of running equipment, snacks, videos, books, mementos, and trash no one valued except him.

Dad was never one to call out to us or bother us though a month never went by when he didn’t call us to talk about his adventures and to see if we were O.K. No. He didn’t want us there for any of the five oblation surgeries that purposefully scarred the inside of his heart. He didn’t want us there when he had a pacemaker put in. His neighbor Dennis was all he needed, just a friend to give him a ride home.

I knew Dad was ill, that fluid kept filling his lungs and legs. I knew he was having a much harder time moving. I listened when he told me to value my health as a treasure beyond belief. How could I have known he was that close to death?

In early May he drove himself across Los Angeles by hauling his swollen legs one at a time into his van and then up the mountain to meet thetrail workers on the Angeles Crest. It was snowing, snowing in May! “Merry Christmas,” he said to the trail folk, “Now Go Home!” it was the last trail crew he’d see.

It is hard to know how bad off an ultra runner is. For endurance athletes pain is no enemy, it is a companion. That Monday night we were just planning to stop and get dinner with him. I knocked on the door. When he came out the north wind took my breath. My virile dad was gaunt, yellow, and weighted by oceanic fluids.

After dinner my husband and I got a hotel instead of traveling north to Santa Barbara to stay at my sister’s house. Dad accepted our offer to take him to his appointments the following day including a cancer doctor he hadn’t seen yet.

The eagle was down. We walked into the office, but Dad needed to be wheel chaired out.

Is it failure when an endurance athlete dies?

Is it failure when the medical system fails to detect cancer?

Is it failure if you cannot survive a race and you’ve done everything you could?

Dad trained to live. He put everything he had into the race. One of his winton-ims, personal quotes he loved to share, said, “ It is not what you are given in life but how you carry it that counts.”

My siblings and I agree, past all of our own sorrows and distances the Holy Spirit and the power of angels brought all three of us together at his bedside in the ICU the next day. The race was over. Wednesday night May 24th he crossed the finish line. Dad spread his wings.