Running to Give Thanks

The Rockland 5-Mile Turkey Trot Course

I read a terrific article that our friend Roman Mica wrote on his blog Everyman Triathlon, “The Everyman Triathlete Gives Thanks“, which was also published on Active.com. In this article, Roman details everything that he is thankful for around the sport that we know and love. I encourage you to check it out.

This morning on a few brief minutes of sleep, more like a few moments of passing out, I went to the Rockland Road Runners Turkey Trot simply because I needed to just get outside. I’m in that strange fog described by those that have recently lost a limb. Over the past 24 hours I have heard Wally coughing, the cracking of his joints when he walks, his crying for food and have even jumped up from bed because I was certain I heard the steady stream of Wally peeing somewhere that he shouldn’t have been.

Cindy and I got up this morning around 3am. She began cooking for our friends that are coming over, a welcome task to focus her mind onto something other than the obvious. I also needed a diversion, something to quiet my mind. So even though I was under-nourished and sleep-deprived I drove up to Rockland Lake to meet up with Avi to run. On the way to quiet my mind, I put my headphones on and listened to a podcast from my friend Stacey Joannes, better known as Simply Stu as he recapped his triathlon year. He along with a number of other podcasters and triathletes including Roman trained for and successfully raced Ironman Wisconsin last September – a goal for me in 2008. This reminds me that I never posted my final race report from that race. The weather here is unseasonably warm with our race beginning in a 50 degree cloak of fog, with Avi commenting that following our orange Race with Purpose singlets will be the only way other racers will find their way along the course.

Truth be told, I just wanted to feel something beyond the emptiness that I have been feeling. I knew that after last weekend’s 60K race I was not going to run my best race but I also knew that any excuses would not be tolerated, not after what Wally went through, not after how we saw him fight to the end. When Wally was first placed in ICU a month ago, I participated in the Cadence Kona Challenge. During that time, seeing Wally struggling for each breath, I knew that whatever I thought endurance was, I had no true idea. I placed a picture of Wally up while I competed in the event to remind me that no matter what my mind was telling me, my body would still have so much more to give.

It was with this attitude that I began to run, right up in front with Avi, who I knew was going to torch me but I was hoping that my ability to suffer would give me an opportunity to stay close. I did not pace this race; I started out at a 5K pace and simply held on. I ran a 6:30 min/mile pace up the hills and faster on the descents. When I passed the point that I would normally be finished and still had two miles to go, I began to hurt and I welcomed it. My breathing was labored, with air coming in gasps, and I held on. In fact when two cross country team members passed me, I sped up to stay with them stride for stride. My brain was disconnected from my body by this point, with only a single phrase and picture in my head, “Wally wouldn’t quit!” All I was doing was trying to survive, and then with a final mile to go, I sped up again. I never looked at my watch, as that would have required thought, I just ran and when I felt that I had nothing left to give, I made my legs turn over even faster. Making the final two right turns toward the finish, I ran side by side with the cross country runners who somehow I had caught again and then I went numb. My measured maximum heart rate is 193 beats per minute and I knew I was pinned in the red for the final quarter mile. I didn’t care. I thought of Wally gasping under sedation for his final breaths and all I wanted was for my heart to explode out of my chest. I just wanted to do something to stop the pain I was feeling that had nothing to do with the race I was running. And so I ran past the athlete in front of me and sprinted under the American flag and across the timing mats, gasping for oxygen and almost falling down in my extended hypoxic state.

I don’t know what I expected as I stumbled to bend over a folding chair to have my chip removed. As my heart rate began to come back down, I realized that nothing had changed. That nothing I did could approximate the experience that Wally went through and that he was still dead and we were still without our family member. Uncontrollably, I began to gasp again, but this time it had nothing to do with the race. I simply couldn’t breathe. And then I began to cry. I have no idea what the people around me must have thought and I couldn’t have stopped if I had wanted to. I was gasping and gagging and crying all at the same time, holding myself steady using the folding chair in front of me as best I could.

And then as quickly as it started, it stopped. Without thinking, I did the only thing that I could; I began to run. I went back out onto the course and ran the final mile with those that were still out there. They were at that stage where they were giving it everything they could and I was simply putting one foot in front of another. Not knowing I had already finished, runners gasping for their own PR’s grunted to me encouraging remarks, like “Come on, you’re almost there.” Or “You can do this.” That’s the thing about this community of endurance athletes. We support each other sometimes without even knowing why. To them their comments meant one thing, to me they were interpreted completely differently and they were no less valuable.

I said goodbye to Avi, who ran another awesome race and the tears begin to swell up in me again, having nothing to do with the fact that he kicked my ass. As I drove back home to Cindy and the rest of our family, Henry and Ellie, I finally looked at my watch. My time wasn’t a PR but it was the fourth fastest 5-miler I’ve ever run and the second best time on this particular course. My heart rate during the last mile was 197 beats per minute and my pace was still 6:30. On this day that was all my body had to give, just as it was yesterday for my very good friend.

Good night mean kitty – a plea for help!

November 21st: They cut off his head and refuse to give it back! Today was perhaps the most devastating day of my life. It wasn’t just that Wally died, it’s how he died, the process that took place and the sadistic NY health policies that stole the last bit of Wally’s dignity from him, even in death. Tonight as I write this I am but a shell, much like the lifeless remains of my dear friend. I am trying to find reason and positives in this experience but all I am left with is the loss of breath, the weak legs and the devastating feeling of sheer emptiness that follows.

Tuesday night we took Wally in for one of his regular tapping. We were in and out in under an hour. We told the attending to please be careful because Wally hated the procedure and had bitten and scratched technicians in the past in an effort to protect himself from the large needles. We had just passed the 10-day period that the NYS had put in place to ensure an animal or the bitten person did not have rabies, which of course he didn’t, being an old house cat that had spent the last 30 days in ICU or on our bed and nowhere in between. With a collective exhalation, we had just submitted the completed form to the Westchester County Department of Health, giving Wally a fresh start. as we entered the AMC that night, we put on Wally a clear cone, an Elizabethan collar so that Wally couldn’t bite anyone that night.

This morning as we were going through the already horrible process of trying to figure out how to let Wally go, we received a call saying that the AMC had reported another incident from the night before and now we had started the process all over again with the ten days, except that today was Wally’s last day alive. We were told that if we euthanized Wally, they would cut off his head to do a rabies test and then to make matters unbelievably worse, we were not allowed to retrieve the head even after the reports came back negative, which of course they would.

Wally’s case # is 882383, the bite # is 965 and the person he scratched, (not even bit) is Genevieve Arroyo. This occurred on 11/20/2007.

At the bottom of the form, it was written that if you wanted to retrieve the head after the test, please call Ed Boyce at 212-676-2116. I called the number in advance only to find that Ed had passed away almost a year ago and now they were not returning the animal heads. There is no reason for not doing this, only a policy to make their lives easier with no thought to our beliefs or the dignity of keeping the animal together in death as he was in life. So it is just after 3am in the morning on Thanksgiving and beyond mourning for our cat, I am sending e-mails to every NYC politician that I can find to plea for their help in retrieving Wally’s head after the tests are complete.

It is also with this in mind that I plea for your help, anyone that knows anyone in NYC government that might be able to intervene.

Please help Cindy and I know that Wally will be able to go into his next existence in peace, please help us to retrieve the head so we can have his remains cremated together. Knowing we have ashes of only half of his body is unfathomable to us. His face was everything about him. His crossed eyes, his velvet ears, his big teeth and warm purring mouth all defined Wally for the past 16 years.

Before I go on, I realize that this blog was meant to be a reference for those interested in performance and personal improvement. It was never contemplated to be a place to record the final days of a family member, feline or otherwise. I think I’ve taken to typing because I don’t know any other way to deal with the sheer helplessness that I feel minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. It’s 3:53am on November 22nd, Thanksgiving but neither Cindy nor I can sleep or close our eyes without the horrible images returning. I keep hoping that writing all of this will be cathartic for me and quite frankly I could just have easily bought a journal and written in it. For the last 30-plus days, stripping myself bare, I kept hoping that by writing of Wally’s condition publicly, there might be someone out there who has seen his condition before and might respond with an 11th hour treatment that would save Wally’s life along with Cindy’s and mine. Now I’m continuing to write to let people know of a terrible and unfair health policy that other pet owners may face in the hope of bringing this to light. I’m sure some of you must be reading this, thinking to yourselves, “it’s a cat, get over it.” To those people, all I can say is that the abyss that I live in today is scarcely different than what I have felt when others in my family have passed and the process that we have lived through is much worse. Wally was my friend, my companion and my confidant. He never asked for anything more than a few pieces of turkey and the ability to nuzzle up against my face and purr.

Animals are like running, pure. Perhaps that’s why I relate to both. They are uncomplicated, uncompromising, and give back without exception. Pets feel no pity for themselves and show sensitivity for others. At times it takes years to earn their trust but once you do, they are faithful for life. They understand that we are imperfect, and that sometimes we have accidents, and they think nothing less of us for doing so. I don’t expect that my missive will be of interest to anyone else except for a few spammers that insistently troll the internet looking for key words so they can try and peddle their products and attach links to semi-popular blogs. But maybe, just maybe someone will read this and help Wally have his dignity back and allow us to finally fall asleep.

Looking through life's finish line

Wally as the lord of his household

If life really is a marathon, then it has a start line and a finish line, and unfortunately this finish line is not traditionally associated with celebration, cheers, acknowledgments of accomplishments or the embracing arms of loved ones satisfied in a challenge met or boundaries overcome. Life’s finish line doesn’t include photo opportunities, spectator seating, or the reclaiming of personal baggage left somewhere at the start.


Perhaps upon reflection and as the grieving process begins, those of us who are left behind are automatically guided toward the memories and the amazing moments of a single life that has improved the quality of so many others. Like a blind person struggling to navigate her way through a new room, we reach out tentatively, hesitantly and with hope that the next step taken will lead us in the right direction, a direction forward in our own lives with a heightened sensitivity in the knowledge that we too shall have our moment of crossing that finish line and understanding that its importance is truly based on the memories that are created along each mile. It’s the journey in total that comprises our lives, defines our impact and creates a few instances that our friends and family will look back on as irreplaceable gems upon our passing or in the best of situations, while we’re still alive to share and recount them. It’s these leave behinds that affect the way they have lived their lives in the past, and how they will live their lives in the present and in the years to follow.

And so it continues. As a coach, writing about life and death is perhaps the most useless exercise one can undertake, as there is no new course of action, no modifications that can be taken, no prescriptions that can be changed and no behavioral adaptations that can change the unyielding inevitability of the end result. In short, there’s simply no room for performance improvement. What happens when we all cross that finish line and what lies beyond is anyone’s guess. I’ve never believed in a hereafter, and I’m not sure why. I consider myself to be a fairly spiritual person but to me, focusing on a life beyond the one I am in, seems an invitation to waste the precious moments that we are given in this life. I have witnessed the passing of both my parents and a handful of friends, and perhaps the hope that their life will somehow continue is what should lead me to believe that there must be something beyond the present, a continuation of that energy if for no other reason but the sheer disbelief that anything so amazing can not simply be extinguished. As I sit here today, typing this while waiting to hear whether Wally has crossed his own finish line, I am being led toward a realization that the afterlife is not in some alternate universe or spiritual plane, but the hereafter is defined through the impact that our lives have on others while we are actually living. It is the culmination of our actions which leaves behind a crumb of our existence, of our values and of our beliefs.

So many religions focus on remembering the person that has passed in the days following their death. I’ve always thought that this was primarily a cathartic experience for the survivors, an exercise to help the berieved to get on with their own lives. Upon reflection, however, perhaps the more pronounced benefit is that it gives the survivors an opportunity not to shy away from an experience that is without explanation, and provides an opportunity to open themselves up to remembering and identifying those experiences that have been shared while alive. Perhaps in this state of extreme unconsciousness where we are less focused on the routine tasks of everyday life, we can make those valuable connections or view the world just a little bit differently by absorbing it through a slightly different lens. In a sense, the hereafter lies in our ability to carry on the values and beliefs of those who we have grown to respect and admire during the remainder of our own lives and hopefully do the same for those that follow us. This is how life continues and how living improves.

As Dr. Fox came out to speak with us, his mannerisms speak louder than his words; he’s run through his course of magic, medicine and experience and his enthusiasm for a recovery seems bleak. Wally is unresponsive to the medications and he is losing weight rapidly, irregardless of how much food he is consuming. Unfortunately, science is not always a science and in this case, Wally should be responding to the medications but he’s not, and increasing the medications earlier on would only have forced him into kidney failure which means that he wouldn’t have lasted as long as he has. He might have a cancer that isn’t showing up on the blood work or some other cardiac malady that can only be uncovered through invasive diagnostic surgery, which is out of the question given his catabolic and weakened state. His body is consuming protein faster than he can ingest it. He’s dropped another pound and even for a professional marathon runner, he would be considered ridiculously skinny. I lived through this with my mother and understand that when the body begins to shut down, it is exceedingly hard to reverse the process. In short, we have shifted from a course of care in the hopes of recovery to a hospice situation of doing what is necessary to keep him comfortable for as long as possible. Cindy and I have talked about this and the sense of inevitability is weighing as heavily on us as the fluid on Wally’s lungs. We are all now having trouble breathing.

The Wally Watch (Part 4) – Back in Manhattan

Wally back in Intensive Care

Wally hates the hospital. This will be a quick update and only because so many people have asked how he has been doing. For this, Cindy and I deeply appreciate your concern and your kind words. The short version is that for the last full week Wally was at home and had a terrific and wonderful week. He had no labored breathing, no coughing, no issues at all. He was back to the family member that contributes in so many ways. Then came Sunday night. After coming home from the marathon, we noticed he was starting to breathe a little bit harder but even then he looked nowhere near as challenged as he has in the past weeks.

I was pretty knocked out from the marathon and I fell asleep – more like passed out – only to be woken up by Cindy rushing out of the house around 11:00pm with Wally in his carrier. I wasn’t even awake enough to fully realize what was going on. I stayed awake until Cindy came back around 3:30am. Wally was back in ICU. Cindy said that he attacked everyone there, including her. He clearly hates being there and just wants to be home. I thought the fact that he was fighting was a good sign.
Yesterday Cindy and I went in to see him and Dr. Fox told us that he was still eating but really ornery and they had to sedate him because he wanted to attack anyone that came near to him. Being the cat whisperer (Cindy’s name for me, not mine), I went into ICU to see him and spent about 30 minutes just letting him rest on me. He’s so drugged out, even if he wanted to get snarky he couldn’t have. You can see from the picture above, he couldn’t even raise his head to grab some of the food out of his dish. I spent the afternoon working and taking my calls from the waiting room in the hope that I could spend more time with him throughout the afternoon and evening. We went back again late last night without much else to report.

We go back today and I have to tell you that it is so incredibly frustrating because he seemed to be doing so well. The longest he had gone before needing to be tapped was three days and this time he went seven. He is still fighting and when he isn’t having his episodes, he’s walking around the house, wandering around outside, eating as much as he normally would. This is not an animal that is downed or can’t move or simply is hanging on. That’s what makes this so unbelievably frustrating. He purrs and snuggles and genuinely is enjoying every minute he is here, well except when he’s at the hospital. Cindy and I keep having to tell ourselves that we need to do what’s in his best interest, not in our’s. Neither one of us is prepared to play God. In short, I’m just pissed and in some masochistic way, I’d like to be able to be experiencing what he is going through so I can fully appreciate his condition.

I ran on Sunday thinking about him and thinking about CJ, Dave Edwards dog that has cancer and is in a similar situation. Dave and I ran together and I know when Dave was having his trouble on 1st Avenue, he and I were both thinking the same thing. No matter how badly his legs had legs seized up, he found a way to stumble, then walk, then shuffle and then run the final 8 miles of that marathon. That’s what we’re hoping Wally will do as well. So, for now we wait, we support, and we hope that the meds will kick in, that his lobe in the left lung will re-inflate again and that there isn’t so much damage done to the heart and lungs that they can no longer repair and that the inflammation will stop. We wait and we talk to ourselves and we hope that we can all soon breathe easier.