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1st English book review. Summer Reads, Carlsbad Style

WOW, am I ecstatic! My first literary review in English, of The Fragrance of Angels, came out in my hometown mag, Carlsbad Magazine. What a wonderful feeling.           &nb…

Source: 1st English book review. Summer Reads, Carlsbad Style

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Looking Back on 10 Years of Boston Marathons

(This is the first of two stories on the Boston Marathon, which takes place Monday, April 20.)

For the past ten years of my life, the third week of April has featured one event: the Boston Marathon — or, as they say in New England, “The Marathon,” as if everything else is secondary. While I won’t be toeing the starting line in Hopkinton, MA on Patriot’s Day this Monday, the memories of my four Bostons will flood in as 25,000 runners take to the narrow New England streets for the 26.2-mile journey to downtown Boston. To be more specific, my love affair with this race will carry on.

Near the finish line of the 2005 Boston Marathon

Near the finish line of the 2005 Boston Marathon

Most of all, the course came to life. I’d read about it, watched several Bostons (including a scouting mission in 2003), and heard the stories. I’d even run part of it in 1975, while staying with my grandparents in nearby Arlington. Now, I wore the telltale blue and yellow unicorn medal around my neck. I also found out the difference between identifying as a marathoner and a Boston marathoner. I rarely made the distinction, but when I did, others turned to me with a different expression on their faces. Why? Because Boston is one of only two marathons that require you hit qualifying time standards (unless you’re raising funds for charity). The other? The U.S. Olympic Trials.

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With my mother at the halfway point, 2007. Yes, it was that cold.

My second Boston was 2007, when a cold Nor’easter storm ripped through Massachusetts on race day and turned the course into a rainy wind tunnel. We ran into head winds sometimes topping 35 mph. As if 26.2 miles under perfect conditions wasn’t enough! It remains the only race in my life I ran entirely in a jacket (and I’ve run races at temperatures as cold as 15 degrees). However, I now knew something about pacing on this course, and re-qualified with a 3:27. The 2007 Boston had added significance, in that it was my mother’s second and final time watching the race. She and my aunts, Janet and Judy, and my cousin, Sister Louise, met me at the halfway point, where I quickly changed shoes, grabbed my special drink concoction, and shot photos before I resumed.

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Boston Strong — the theme for all 35,000 of us runners in 2014.

In 2009, I came back for more — and set a lifetime best of 3:09.33 at age 50. The first realization was almost surreal, running so much faster despite my age. I wore my “Team Heidi” shirt, in honor of my mother, who died in 2008. So did the fifteen or so family members stretched along the course. It was my one perfect marathon, with half-marathon splits of 1:36 and 1:33. I still had enough left to charge the final 600 meters down Boylston Street to the finish line, in front of a massive gauntlet of fans that screamed and cheered. For any recreational marathoner, chugging down Boylston is the ultimate finish — especially when it ends with a lifetime best. Four years later, Boston took on a much deeper meaning when the bombs went off — including one in front of Marathon Sports, where my brother and sister-in-law were standing when I finished in 2005. What a sad, tragic day.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

The King and I: With Bill Rodgers at 2014 Boston Marathon, after he gave me his invitational entry so I could run the most important Boston ever.

Which is why, to me, nothing compares to last year, 2014. Four-time Boston champion and distance running legend Bill Rodgers emailed me out of the blue two weeks before the race and offered me his invitational entry. Billy and I had met in 2008, shared some good times and excellent runs, and become friends. He made the ultimate friendship gesture, handing me the keys to racing heaven for the most important Boston in its nearly 120-year history. I wanted to run so badly, but due to an ankle injury the previous summer, had been unable to qualify despite being in my best shape since 2009. My prime condition was helped greatly by Brad Roy, my high school track and cross-country coach, who gave me the workouts and tutelage that led me to a 1:33 half-marathon at age 54. Then I hurt my ankle. Oh well… Bill took care of that problem. I showed up not quite in marathon race shape, as I was aiming for the Rock and Roll Marathon in San Diego six weeks later (in which I qualified for Boston for the sixth time, including 2015, though I won’t be making the trip this time). It didn’t matter. For the 35,000 of us runners, this race carried far more meaning than posting a good time. (Next: A closer look at the 2014 Boston Marathon, when a city could cheer and smile again [and did they ever!]) 4 Boston Medals

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Kevin Hines: How a Suicide Attempt Led to Global Speaking & A Compelling Memoir

Most of us experience transformational moments when everything changes, we find and pursue another direction, and our old ways feel like an existence someone else led.IMG_9597

Few, if any, of these transformations can match the one that brought Kevin Hines to his current station in life. Hines, author of the fabulous memoir Cracked, Not Broken, never intended to live “two lives”, but because he has, the world is benefitting from this dynamic self-help speaker and author. His book, published by Rowman-Littlefield’s Taylor Trade imprint, is now in its 20th printing, less than two years after its July 2013 release.

Hines can summarize the book’s narrative premise in one sentence: “I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge — and survived.” When Hines was 19, the darker side of his bi-polar mind “told me that the only way the pain would go away was if I jumped,” Hines recalled in 2013, “so I did. Then, halfway down, I suddenly felt I had a greater purpose in my life, and I needed to survive.”Unknown

It takes four seconds to fall into San Francisco Bay’s hard, chilly waters at a speed reaching 80 mph on impact. During his final two or three seconds, Hines twisted his body to minimize impact. Still, he was seriously injured, and had trouble staying afloat.

Enter a sea lion. Really. The animal sensed Hines’ distress, swam under him, and lifted him above the surface until a Coast Guard cutter arrived. If you’re counting, that’s three miracles in roughly a minute.

Almost fifteen years after his jump, Hines has turned his experience into a highly successful suicide prevention and self-esteem message, which he delivers with presentations, talks, and signings around the world (watch this video). How many authors can say they’ve been on the road with their book for two solid years, in more than twenty different countries?Unknown-1

“It’s been a great response,” Hines said. “I’m selling 85 to 90 percent of the books I bring to major events where I speak. And the book has only a 2 percent return rate from bookstores.”

If you’ve had books on store shelves, or have spoken with books to sell in the back, you know these are phenomenal numbers. Cracked,  Not Broken is also reaching far beyond bookstores. A psychiatric unit on the East Coast provides books to all inpatients, who use them daily to understand and work with their mental afflictions. Most recently, he spent two weeks in Australia, speaking to groups ranging from high schoolers, young miners, and crisis intervention teams, to hostage negotiators at the International Police Officers Conference. That’s variety, as well as a lesson in author-driven book marketing.

“The input I’ve gotten from people who come to my events has been great, and it’s had a lot of variety,” Hines said. “A man from Ft. Hood came up to me at a signing and said, ‘I gave this book to my military group, 30 young men and women, and they credited it with saving lives.”

But that’s not the best story. That belongs to initiative his wife, Margaret, took. “I walked into a bookstore in Dublin, Ireland, and my wife said, ‘See if they’ll carry your book.’ I got the assistant manager, who asked if it had an ISBN number. I said ‘yes’, although at the time, I had no idea. She called it up and ordered 50 copies,” Hines said.IMG_9602

Cracked, Not Broken is remarkable for Hines’ honesty and insight into his transformation. He continues to live with his illness while funneling his energy into a most noble, challenging cause — showing people their lives have a purpose. This, to me, makes the book. Too many transformational memoirs are black-and-white: someone has major trouble, then a crisis or an epiphany; afterwards, everything is perfect. Hines takes us deep inside the real inner world of recovery and transformation. It is a constant struggle to hold up one’s head sometimes, but by staying strong and finding a sense of purpose, living one day at a time (or one minute, sometimes), and helping others, that struggle can transform into a great work — and a happiness and fulfillment not known before.

“What people like is that Cracked, Not Broken is very specific, and it helped me bring up things that happened in my past,” Hines said. “It’s my perspective. As I wrote it, it helped me grow and become a better person.

“I had a lot of people who came forward and helped me. They were always pushing me to dig deeper and bring it out. I did three rewrites, and then when it came out, readers picked it up and couldn’t put it down. This book also seems to be passed along from one person to another, a lot.”

Hines provided three key tips for people with suicidal ideation, attempters, and their families, friends and colleagues:

Today is not tomorrow. “Because you feel suicidal today doesn’t mean you will when you’re 30, 40, or 50,” he said. “Get past the feeling you’re all alone and no one understands you. Don’t do what I did — ask for help.”

Self-Awareness

Ask yourself, “Am I having thoughts about ending my life?”

I’ve worked with and have known several thousand authors, and without question, this man has presented one of the most incredible stories. I also had the pleasure of working with Hines on his earlier drafts. He and I have a publisher in common, Taylor Trade (Rowman-Littlefield), which also published When We Were The Boys, which I co-authored with Stevie Salas. We also have the same literary agent, Dana Newman.

Hines plans to write several more books, all of which he’s roughly outlined. He’s now coming out of the blocks with his next book, which he hopes will be published in 2016.IMG_9600

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Peak Experience in the Sierras: Getting Our 100-Mile Runner Home

(This is the second of a two-part blog on pacing my friend, David Nichols, in the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, one of the toughest running tests in the world and the most storied and prestigious ultramarathon.)

Read Part One

Pacing an ultramarathoner reminds me a lot of ghostwriting or co-writing books. As my friend, veteran ultra pacer and 50/50 marathoner (as in, 50 completed marathons spanning all 50 states) Kenny McCleary, advised me on Facebook before Western States:2014-06-28 06.13.17

Enjoy the day. A pacer has to be part navigator, part psychiatrist, part nurse, part minister, part drill sergeant. But most of all, just be a Barnabas today – an encourager. Only a few souls on this planet have the opportunity or the courage to experience what David gets to live out today. I hope you find the job of pacer/crewmate to be as fulfilling as I have.

With pacing, as with ghost- and co-writing, you check your ego at the door. The only run that matters is his. You do whatever it takes to bring out his best, and take care of him on the trail. No matter how many miles you run alongside, the only accomplishment that matters is your runner crossing the finish line and grabbing that belt buckle.

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

Pacers just starting off with competitors at Foresthill earlier in the day

When we arrived in Foresthill, Dave was 15 minutes ahead of the clock. He’d been almost 10 minutes behind in Michigan Bluff, so he made up 25 minutes in seven miles. Substantial. After weighing in (he’d gained back two pounds) and eating from the quasi-buffet line of hot and cold foods (grilled cheese, soups, quesadillas, cookies, rice balls, etc.) that typifies a Western States aid station, we jogged cross-town and met Don and Craig. They noticed that Dave was a different person than the one they’d seen 90 minutes before. He sat down in the chair, and we went through our crewing ritual … while the clock ticked … and ticked …

Once we left Foresthill, it was pushing 11 p.m. A full night of trail running awaited. Dave and I got into a conversation about the last crew stop. “Do you think we needed to be there that long?” I asked.

“No,” Dave said as we jogged toward the woods.

“I don’t, either. That was too long, especially with the aid station right before it. Maybe we can go faster next time.”

After a moment of silence, Dave said, “I won’t be sitting anymore the rest of the race. I’ll towel off, grab what I need to grab, and go.” Nice sentiment, Dave, but there’s 38 miles left to go … about 11 hours at this pace … and you’ve already gone 62…

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

Mountain running, anyone? For 100 miles? This is the course profile of Western States. It hurts to just look at it.

He didn’t sit down again.

At that time, we encountered a runner from Tennessee who couldn’t keep down food or water. She was heaving as we passed she and her pacer to begin another lengthy descent in yet another canyon toward Dardanelles. “You OK?” Dave asked. “Anything we can do?” He and I were thinking the same thing: Stop and help if she needs it. That’s the rule of the road, especially in ultra running.

“I’m OK, I’m OK,” she gasped.

Within minutes, she and her pacer were right behind us, and her spirits were lifting. “You know,” I said, “when I coached high school cross-country, we used to have mid-summer practices. When my kids got sick on the course, I told them they were now officially cross-country runners.”

She thought about it for a second. “So this makes me an official ultra runner, right?”

“You were that a long time ago, but yeah … right.”

She smiled. “Thanks for saying that.” She and her pacer promptly bolted ahead of us. We passed back and forth several times during the next ten miles, creating a nice camaraderie on the course.

Meantime, Dave’s legs had loosened up again, so we ran. And ran. This span between Foresthill and Dardanelles, and extending further out, was dreamlike. We talked, laughed, ran silently and marked each other’s pace while I beamed my headlamp on the trail ahead, and stuck my arm behind me to give Dave coverage with my flashlight. Every time we picked it up the pace, it felt like two guys pursuing something, tracking something … which we were. We were pursuing a belt buckle. I also called out trail obstacles. We marveled at the simple magnificence of running Sierra trails in the middle of the night, no noise other than our footprints and the occasional raccoon, fox, lizard, rabbit or skunk scrambling in the brush, no light other than our headlamps and the bobbing points of light we saw on the trails ahead of us. They looked like little stars dancing on earth. What could possibly be better than running with a friend in such peaceful, desolate surroundings?

I’m sure Dave had an answer: Being done.

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The Ford’s Bar aid station, lit up in the wee hours of the morning. It was a welcome sight after the two miles that preceded it.

The approach to the Dardanelles aid station was marked with Halloweenish signs and a couple of cut-out ghosts (nice). The scene reminded me in a certain way of the R.I.P. tombstone sign we planted at the two-mile mark of our Carlsbad High School cross-country course in 1976. We put it on the middle of a steep, steep incline, nicknamed Riggy HIll (as in, Rigamortis Hill; I returned in June to run it again a few times to prepare for Western States). We averted our eyes; opponents stared at it and let the thought sink in as their legs wobbled. Game, set, match. “You guys were great hill runners,” my coach then and now, Brad Roy, recalled. We were also good psych-out artists, Brad. A funny memory, conjured up at 1 a.m. 600 miles and four decades away…

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

A Western States competitor, all lit up. Headlamps and flashlights got us through the night.

At Dardanelles, a volunteer, a veteran of a couple dozen Western States runs, pulled me aside as he watched Dave hover over the food table like a famished refugee. “Keep your aid stops to a minute,” he said. “That’s all he needs. Get in, get your food, get your water bottles filled, ask us about the next section of trail if you want, then get on with your run. You don’t have time for anything else.”

Great advice. We heeded it on every subsequent aid stop.

The next section was brutal, in every possible way: switchbacks, rocks and roots, tremendous drop-offs from canyon walls to the American River, steep inclines and descents, runoff grooves in the middle of uneven trails, sand, creek crossings … in other words, difficult to ride on horseback, let alone cover by foot. Especially at night. The frustrating part was that Dave had his second wind (or maybe his third or fourth; you gain several “second winds” during ultras), so we wanted to run … but couldn’t do so steadily. Every time we found a rhythm on the trails, clicking off a half-mile or so, the course threw something else at us.

The Rucky Chucky crossing -- a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

The Rucky Chucky crossing — a cooling, refreshing walk through the American River always helps before tackling the final 20 miles.

During one stretch, we opened up the pace on a pencil-thin stretch of trail, me leading the way. I looked to the right; a nice Manzanita thicket. I looked left; sheer blackness, nothingness. “Bob, is this one of those thousand-foot drop-offs we’re running next to?” Dave asked, his voice tinged with concern.

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Peering into the future: the scene awaiting us in Auburn — large crowds packing Placer High School stadium and the finish line.

Gulp. “You know what one of the great things is about running at night?” I didn’t turn around; I didn’t want to face him. “You can’t see anything but what’s in front of you.”

We ran directly into my headlamp beam, taking advantage of the night. The advantage? Were it daytime, we never would’ve run on thin single-track with such a precipitous drop-off. In fact, for the past two months, I’d broken into a few wee-hour sweats thinking about how I would pace Dave in these sections, and keep us both from sliding off the hill. Scrambling down a cliffside to retrieve a fallen ultra runner wasn’t on my agenda, though it was certainly on my mind. We kept running.

At miles 72 and 73, we didn’t run much at all. Survive is more like it. We heard Led Zeppelin’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” (appropriate) blaring from the nearby Ford’s Bar aid station. As we ran along the top of the hill, the music – and aid station – sounded a few hundred yards away. Double the acoustics in a canyon, so say six hundred yards. No more. We were pumped, now a good half-hour up on the clock, making it happen…

Yeah, it happened. The course happened. One of the nastiest curve balls of the entire 100 miles snapped at our legs and almost took Dave’s spirit with it. When did Clayton Kershaw show up? We found ourselves descending through a Manzanita grove, on slippery, chalky white hardpack trail with a runoff groove down the middle. The descent kept going… and going… and going… My quads hated the punishment, and I’d only gone 20 miles. Dave’s legs were practically on fire. We adjusted our foot strike posture and leaned back on our haunches, almost like skateboarding, so our butts could absorb much of the stress.

In the next three-fifths of a mile, we descended 1,200 vertical feet. Insane. It would all but fry a mountain goat. We heard the music again, and gave each other a smile and an “attaboy, we deserve this aid station” glance.

The course belly-laughed at us. After running out our soreness on a quarter mile of beautiful, slightly sandy trail, we faced the second half of this crucible: a fire road climbing into the sky, twisting and bending, its banks as steep as some racetrack turns. We grunted and groaned up 400 vertical feet in the next quarter-mile – then hit a short, steep downhill that dumped us into the Ford’s Bar aid station.

Remember all that time we’d gained? Well, nothing like a one-two punch to send us back into scurry mode. We loaded up at Ford’s Bar, and a gracious volunteer ran our refilled water bottles to us so we could keep moving. Unfortunately, the hills sapped Dave’s legs again, and he found it very difficult to run. We jogged a few times in the next couple of hours, but he couldn’t get it going, even during our final two miles before the Rucky Chucky crossing, when sandy bottom trail and mostly flat fire roads offered an opportunity to pick up time. I wanted to push him, as I had in previous stretches, but common sense kept telling me, “He needs to save it for the final 20 miles.” So, we power walked or did the marathon shuffle (the stride of a three-year-old, familiar on marathon courses the last few miles after people ‘hit the wall’).

 

Finally, we passed the Rucky Chucky metal gate, ascended a small hill, and dropped into a raucous river-crossing scene, at which runners and pacers cross the American River by holding onto a cable. We ran to our crew, now just 10 to 12 minutes ahead of schedule but far better than his status at dusk. As Dave walked through the aid station, I told Don, “He’s decided not to sit again until he’s done. His legs tighten up too much and he won’t be able to loosen them up.” Then I discussed Dave’s condition and mental acuity with Craig; his focus was still very strong, much stronger than some other runners I saw out there.

“I’m gonna have to push him hard the last few miles,” Craig said as we finished.

“He responded every time I pushed him hard,” I said. “We conserved energy the last five miles after these God awful hills … I’ll tell you later. He knows what needs to happen. You’re the man. Bring him home.”

My pacing was done. I wobbled around, spent after more than seven hours of trail running, wondering how in the world these people do it for 18, 24, 30 hours in a row. I always admired Dave, but now, my admiration went through the roof.

 

Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Dave prepares to enter the stadium, with brother Don running alongside. Our ace pacer on the last leg, Craig Luebke, is cheering at the gate.

Six hours after Craig set out with Dave, and 90 minutes after seeing our glassy-eyed, exhausted runner at the 93-mile crew stop, Don and I arrived at the Placer High School Stadium in Auburn. What a scene: a thousand people on hand, the announcer calling out finishers, families and crew running into the stadium and around the track with their warriors, the monumental test complete. It had been a night and most of a morning since the overall champions, Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe, crossed the line. Krar became the second runner to ever break 15 hours in the event’s 40-year history, running 14:53:22, while Howe won the women’s division in 18:01:42, the fourth-best women’s mark all-time. They were magnificent, as were Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, whose performances enabled them to claim the series titles in the 2014 Montrail Ultra Cup, a mini-tour of six ultramarathons culminating in Western States.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Western States champions Rob Krar and Stephanie Howe talk trail story after their near record-breaking performances.

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka "Pixie Ninja"

Montrail Ultra Cup series winners Ian Sharman and Kaci Lickteig, aka “Pixie Ninja”

Lickteig is known in the ultra community by her nickname, “Pixie Ninja,” perhaps the best athlete nickname I’ve heard in nearly 40 years as a journalist. I asked Stephanie Howe about it. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Kaci is an assassin out there.” Case in point: she won all eight ultras she entered in 2013, came to Western States despite basically no recovery from her previous ultra (a win) – and placed sixth.

Dave's victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Dave’s victory lap, flanked by Don and Craig.

Our runner was magnificent as well. Dave took his victory lap at 10:45 a.m., flanked by Don and Craig, with me shooting photos from behind. Tears had been in Don’s eyes for twenty minutes; now, they also came to mine.

As we moved around the track, I thought of all the hopes, doubts, aches, pains, discomfort, dehydration, sunburn, scratches, bites, blisters, mental self-arguments and talks with Jesus Dave had in the past 29 hours, alone or with one other person on a trail that gave no quarter. I thought of Dave and Don, running the final 600 meters side-by-side, brothers in life and in this pursuit. For them, six months of planning and training culminated with the final piece of the 100th mile. It was an incredibly moving moment.

What it's all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

What it’s all about – the Nichols brothers, moments after Dave crossed the finish line. A very touching moment.

After Dave crossed the line in 29:49 and received his medal, we waited 90 minutes for the presentation of the coveted belt buckles. Dave stretched out on a brick retaining wall, dead to the world. Don and I had some fun, taking a couple photos of our runner laid out on the rack, then Craig and I walked to the refreshment stand and grabbed breakfast. Craig hadn’t eaten meaningfully in a day, either, having somehow marshaled Dave’s energy enough to get him home in plenty of time. I still don’t know how Craig pulled off his pacing feat. I would imagine a few whipcracks accompanied the encouragement as they passed through Brown’s Bar, the Auburn Lakes meadows, up a final nasty hill at the 99-mile mark (that hurts just writing it) and into town.

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Finally, it was time for Dave’s crowning moment. We helped him to his feet and took a slow 200-yard walk to the awards tent. A few steps after reaching the grass, Dave winced. “Oh man, a hill.” I looked down. There was the tiniest bump on the football field, maybe six inches top to bottom. For a man who just completed something only a sliver of humanity would even attempt, and whose legs were barely functioning, a six-inch bump is a hill.

After watching the elites grab their prizes, for averaging 8:30 to 9:00 per mile for the whole 100 miles, we cheered madly as Dave received his belt buckle. It was his turn to plant the flag on the summit.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Dave collecting his belt buckle and accepting congratulations from Tim Twietmeyer, who won Western States five times among his 25 sub-24 hour finishes in the race.

Then I remembered something: Dave is also a two-time Boston Marathoner. How many people have run both Boston and Western States, the most prestigious annual events in marathon and ultramarathon? In 40 years, only 7,500 runners have finished Western States – many of them repeat or multiple finishers. So let’s say, liberally, 6,000 different souls. Of those, how many own Boston unicorn medals? A thousand? Two thousand? Certainly not more. He joined an exclusive club.

Dave repeatedly credited all of us as a team, a nod to his humility. We appreciated his words, but sloughed them off. This is your barbecue, big guy. While Don, Craig and I became brothers-in-arms through our seamless support operation, that’s the extent of what we were on this weekend: support for the man with the belt buckle.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.

And with that, your hosts for this 100-mile Western States odyssey sign off, with our lead warrior, Dave Nichols, second from the left.

 

 

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A Champion’s Journey: Payne Stewart Reflects on His 1999 U.S. Open Title  

(NOTE: This is part 2 of a 3-part tribute to 1999 U.S. Open golf champion Payne Stewart, my friend and the man for whom I edited and ghostwrote Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf. Below is the story I wrote on his epic triumph at Pinehurst No. 2 – which Sports Illustrated has called the greatest U.S. Open in history. This story ran in August 1999 – two months after winning the Open, and two months before his tragic death in a plane crash. It was also referenced at his funeral. With the golf world honoring Payne at Pinehurst this week, it felt like a great time to hear about his great victory once again – from him.)

See part one

 A CHAMPION’S JOURNEY

By Robert Yehling

Originally Published in 1999 by Faircount International, LLC

In Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf

HOW DO PEOPLE LIKE PAYNE STEWART GROW INTO GENUINE CHAMPIONS and heroes to our youth? First of all, by not buying into the myth of today’s sports “hero,” all too often a person who basks in the spotlight, drips with money, gets chauffeured in stretch limos, charges for autographs, blows off his fans and yet finds red carpets wherever he goes. Our sports-addicted society has made it easy for talented but emotionally green young men to vault directly from adolescence to Mt. Olympus. Need a reference point? Try the NBA.2014-06-08 09.03.24

Then we turn to the classic hero’s journey, which is entirely different. It is a long, challenging walk, during which one releases old tendencies and endures plenty of doubt before emerging with a new perspective, strengthened character and rearranged priorities. Any trauma in life can launch this quest, but the person doesn’t know it ever started until the midway point. If regular daily life is a walk through hills and valleys, then the hero’s journey is a trek in the Himalayas. It’s rough. Joseph Campbell, the 20th century’s foremost author and lecturer on world mythology, wrote in his classic The Hero with a Thousand Faces, “The perilous journey was a labor not of attainment but of reattainment, not discovery but rediscovery.”

Once finished, the individual savors life. Friends, family and the public notice the composure, class, inner peace and magnetism. The lessons learned are never forgotten. They’re too painful and clarifying to forget.

In 1999, sports fans have been blessed with the happy outcome of one such journey. That belongs to newly crowned U.S. Open Champion Payne Stewart, who for eight years faced an inner battle of confidence, priorities, desire and attitude that complicated his outer struggle with his skills and lower back. Then he summited this past Father’s Day as a refined, mature, spiritual and peaceful man with a mean knockout punch for a putter. That he did so at age 42, when many PGA Tour veterans are beginning to locate broadcasting deals, schools of fish and the Senior Tour on their range-finders, makes his accomplishment more remarkable.

“Yeah, I had a pretty good weekend at Pinehurst – it was worth going out of town for a couple of days,” Stewart deadpanned a few days after sinking the 18-foot putt that launched him into a memorable celebration and cemented his name among the 30 or so greatest players in history. He chuckled and added, “Was that entertaining enough? Did you enjoy that?”

When told that his celebration made for thrilling Sunday evening TV, he noted, “You know what my son said to me when I got home? Not ‘way to go, Dad’ or ‘nice putt’ or anything like that. He said, ‘The celebration was cool, but you and Mike (Hicks, his caddie) missed the high-five.’”

2014-06-13 07.22.59That’s about all Stewart missed on Father’s Day. That and his kids, who didn’t make the trip to Pinehurst (daughter Chelsea, 12, was at a girls basketball camp; sports runs in the family blood). He sure didn’t miss many putts on one of the U.S. Open’s greatest final-day greens operations ever – 18 holes, 24 putts, and three total putts on the final three holes with the pressure of, oh, a career legacy riding on his shoulders. “Seldom does an athlete’s entire career come down to one crisis he knows in his heart will define the way he is remembered in sport forever,” famed Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell wrote. “It’s even rarer for that athlete to rise to the occasion spectacularly, doing things the sport has never seen, and especially erase all the doubts and digs that have dogged him.”

A couple of weeks later, after he and his wife, Tracey, basked in the Bahamas and the pure, sweet feeling of his achievement, Stewart was more reflective. “I’ve looked back on it and realized that what I did was pretty special,” he said. “People are telling me it was the best Open finish of the century, one of the greatest Opens, those kinds of things, but I never thought about how this would go down – especially during the Open itself.”

Just five years before, in 1994, Stewart was ready to quit the game. Now, he’s having a career year and riding high. His view is one a lot of his contemporaries would like: wins in three majors (only Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and Nick Price can match that among active players), 11 PGA Tour victories, two U.S. Open titles in the ‘90s, five berths on Ryder Cup teams, and Top-3 positions on both the season and all-time money lists. He’s led more rounds of the U.S. Open than anyone in history, threatens to double his previous high-water mark for season earnings, and has turned his putter into a laser beam that rarely misfires; he ranks second on the PGA Tour in 199 with 1.7 putts per hole.

Most of all, the proud family man from Orlando with the sweet swing, firecracker sense of humor (right down to the fake teeth he breaks out at choice moments), ready opinions and plus-fours has silenced the legion of fans and media who said he couldn’t finish golf tournaments. He shut up those voices, along with Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh, with an epic closing effort at Pinehurst No. 2’s 16th, 17th and 18th. Course designer Donald Ross could only join Payne’s late father, Bill, in the heavens and nod his head.

Here is how Stewart transcended the baggage of near misses: First, he sank a 25-foot par-saving putt on 16 to tie Mickelson. Stewart later admitted, “I really couldn’t figure out how that putt worked when I was watching it on video afterward. It was like driving up a hill, back down the hill, then leveling out.” He waved to the crowd as casually as if he’d canned a 4-footer in a pro-am. He strode up to 17, with a few thousand butterflies and pieces of iron clanking in his stomach, and nearly aced the hole – whereby Mickelson realized he was no longer in control of the tournament. Stewart sank his short birdie putt for the lead, went to 18… and drove it into the deep rough. Mickelson split the fairway. What was next? Go for the glory, like Jean Van de Velde did, only to lose the British Open a month later? Nope. Stewart laid up, hit a wedge to the center of the green, calmly lined up his 18-foot putt, and stroked it into the ages. Van de Velde should’ve watched. His British Open result might have been different.

“The U.S. Open champion Sunday was Stewart. Then it was Mickelson. Then Stewart. Then Mickelson,” wrote Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times. “Then, finally, on a glorious putt that weaved through the raindrops and over the demons and into the 18th hole with a roar as big as all of North Carolina, the winner was Stewart. And it was golf.”

This is where Stewart’s performance becomes heroic, and lays the spotlight on a transformed man and his transformed life. Just one year ago, on a Father’s Day that should have provided a storybook ending (winning on the same course on which his Dad qualified for the 1955 U.S. Open), he coughed up a four-stroke lead on Olympic Golf Club’s sidewinding hills and fell to Lee Janzen by missing a 25-foot putt on 18. Though crushed, Stewart gave one of the more gracious press conferences any journalist could remember from a runner-up at a major. He was deeply hurt. Yet determined. He wanted another Open trophy this decade. “For Payne to battle back from the adversity last year, that proves his character. His willingness to fight through all that is a tribute,” Tiger Woods said.

“I understand how mental golf is,” Stewart says. “If I allowed last year’s U.S. Open to affect me, then it could’ve been career-ending, my ‘we’ll never hear from him again’ tournament. But, I’ve never felt I was like that. I tried to take the positives from the (1998) Open, and there were positives – I nearly won. So this year, when I headed out to the West Coast (for the PGA Tour’s season-opening leg), I had all the equipment in my bag. I had my golf ball, it was a new year, it was bright and exciting, and I was hitting good golf shots, so I started focusing on winning a golf tournament, because I knew I was hitting good enough shots to win again.”

(The second half of this article will appear on The Word Journeys Blog Sunday, Father’s Day – 15 years to the day after Payne Stewart won the classic 1999 U.S. Open).

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Remembering Payne Stewart, our friendship, and our magazine

(Part One of a special three-part series)

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It takes quite a story to bring me to tears – especially a sports story. Yet, I sat on my couch the other day, eyes wet as I read the anchor piece in Sports Illustrated: a reminiscence of the 1999 U.S. Open, one of the greatest golf competitions ever. It also recalled one of the greatest writing experiences of my career, as the editor-ghostwriter of Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf.

The Open had every twist and turn of high drama on center stage: old vs. young. Comeback after comeback. Riveting clutch shots. Agonizing misses. A man honoring his father on Father’s Day. Another about to become one — and prepared to fly cross-country when his wife went into labor, even if he was winning.2014-06-08 09.03.24

Most of all, it had my friend and client, Payne Stewart. With a tough par putt on 16, a birdie on 17, and an 18-foot putt on the final hole on the notorious Pinehurst No. 2 course, Payne exorcised naysayers who said he would never win another major, lifted his eyes to the heavens, and gave his late father, Bill, quite the Father’s Day present. “People are telling me it was the best Open finish of the century, one of the greatest Opens, those kinds of things, but I never thought about how this would go down,” he told me later. “I thought about getting the job done. Once the job’s done, then you reflect on it and think, ‘Wow, those last three holes were pretty special.’”

It became even moreso. In an act of greatest sportsmanship, Payne interrupted his celebration on the 18th green to cup the face of runner-up Phil Mickelson, and say, “There’s nothing like being a father.”

The next night, Mickelson and his wife, Amy, gave birth to their daughter, Amanda.

Those who follow sports (and many who don’t) know what happened next. At the height of his life – with family, friends, golf, priorities, and happiness perfectly aligned, a great place to be at age 42 – Payne was killed in an October 1999 plane crash when the cabin depressurized.

The next day, I was a call-in guest on The Jim Rome Show. Other media called for comments. It was hard to fathom. Watching your friend lose his life in slo-mo on CNN live, with F-16 fighter jets flanking the doomed plane on its ghost flight into a South Dakota field, was surreal enough.

A few days later, 4,000 people turned out for his funeral. More than 125 members of the PGA Tour flew from the TOUR Championship to Orlando and entered the church in single file, led by Tiger Woods. That reminded me of something Payne told me after the U.S. Open, which was reprised in the Sports Illustrated article:

“I’m on the putting green with Tiger, and he says, ‘You know, when I start designing courses, I’m going to make them 9,000 yards so you old guys can’t reach the greens.’”

Payne drew out a long pause, the Southern storyteller lining up his salvo. “I said, ‘Yeah, Tiger, but if it’s the U.S. Open, you still have to hit it in the fairway.”

At the funeral, Payne’s best friend, Paul Azinger, turned tears to cheers when he donned a derby cap, rolled up his slacks, and delivered the eulogy just as Payne would have played it – in plus-fours.

To say Payne died atop the world is not a cheap sentiment, nor a churlish reference to mid-air depressurization. He was riding high, with more to come; a week later, he would have been named U.S. Ryder Cup captain, the ultimate peer-to-peer honor.

 

I spent the last four years of Payne’s life working with him, playing golf with him, falling prey to his wicked southern-fried pranks, and watching him rise from the ash heap of “what might have beens” to again become a champion.

We became good friends through Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf. He took me to Florida’s finest golf courses, where I hacked along while he, Ernie Els, Justin Rose, Azinger and others fired irons and woods like snipers. He hosted me in his palatial Villa Serena home, gave me great putting and chipping tips, and talked story. Most of all, he shared a personality bubbling with a champion’s intensity, quick wit, occasional fiery temper, and penchant for finding fun. His devotion to his wife, Tracey, and children, Aaron and Chelsea, was absolute: Payne almost missed the tragic flight because he made Chelsea her coveted pancakes before leaving for The TOUR Championship.

Some moments that will remain with me forever:

• One day in 1997,  8-year-old Aaron came into the house with a busted lip from skateboarding. “Why can’t you like something normal, like soccer or baseball?” Payne asked him.

“Because skateboarding and surfing are fun. Plus, the top surfer, (world champion) Kelly Slater, makes more than you.”

Payne turned to me, laughing. “The things kids say. No way a surfer makes more than me.”

“Hate to tell you this, Payne, but based on 1996 winnings, Aaron’s right,” I said.

The beauty of this story: After Payne died, my friend Mitch Varnes and I sprung a surprise for Aaron – a fishing and surfing trip with his idol, Kelly Slater.

• Payne took more friendly fire when the family sat to discuss his 1997 playing schedule. They compared vacation plans, school sports schedules and the events Payne wanted, or needed, to play. “I think I’m going to bump it up this year,” he told the family, “maybe play 26 or 27 events.”

“Well, Dad, if you’d win, you wouldn’t have to play so much,” his son chimed in.

Interestingly, Payne began winning again in 1997 – a trajectory that only a plane crash could halt.

• We were playing Bay Hill, Arnold Palmer’s course, during a break in Payne’s 1999 schedule. I was in a group with Payne, teenaged 1998 British Open runner-up Justin Rose, head pro Dave Rose, and John Lodge, bass player for the Moody Blues. I split the fairway off the first tee, and opened birdie-par to lead after two holes.

Payne turned to the others. “I’ll be damned, boys,” he drawled, his voice dripping with his native Ozark accent. “I brought along a ringer. My apologies.”

Thanks, Payne. Needless to say, the wheels fell off and it became a long, painful visit to alligator swamps and cypress woods for me.

•  About two months before Payne died, I found him in a quiet, reflective mood as I walked into his house. “What’s going on?”

“I’m blown away right now.”

He and Tracey were selling Villa Serena to move to nearby Isleworth, a golf-oriented community. They’d received a call to view the house; the party was eminently qualified to handle its steep price tag. “I kept asking them to tell me who the person was, but they wouldn’t.” Payne’s wry smile was gone. “I wasn’t about to let anyone in my house unless I knew who they were, but they told me, ‘Don’t worry; he’s qualified.’”

The next day, the prospective buyer arrived. It was Michael Jackson. Oh boy … the Poster Child of Bizarre meets the Red, White & Blue Father of the Year. “Now that would be the last person I’d let into my house,” Payne said, “but after he walked around for a minute, he asked me to sit down with him.”

Cue up the magic: for the next hour, Jackson asked Payne about parenting. He’d heard that Payne was a wonderful father, and wanted his advice on raising kids. “That’s the only reason why he came to view the house,” Payne said. “Just to sit and talk. It sure changed my tune about him.”

 

I could go on and on. The wonderful Sports Illustrated article triggered so many memories, but more importantly, recalled one of sports’ greatest personalities and events. The PGA Tour will gather this week at Pinehurst No. 2 for the first U.S. Open held there since Payne’s victory, and NBC will certainly trot out a tribute piece.

I’m going to remember my friend as well. The next two Word Journeys blogs will re-run “A Champion’s Journey,” the last piece I wrote on Payne. It was my best. It first published in Payne Stewart’s Guide to Golf in September 1999, a month before I lost a friend and the sports world lost one of its finest people.

(Part One of “A Champion’s Journey” will run on Wednesday. June 11. Part two will run on Friday, June 13.)

 

 

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Why Boston Rules The World: Musing on My Run in the Marathon

(This blog also posted today on the Innovation & Tech Today magazine website; I serve as the editor of the magazine.)

UnknownSome quick thoughts on the convergence of running, technology, and one of the greatest and most inspiring sports events to ever take place …

I just returned to San Diego from Boston, where I ran in my fourth Boston Marathon. This year, the 26.2-mile journey from Hopkinton to Boston’s Back Bay took on far more meaning, gravitas and stature than any previous marathon, here or anywhere else in the world.

When April began, I was planning to run Boston – in 2015. I was eight weeks into a 16-week training plan that would culminate in re-qualifying at the Rock & Roll Marathon on June 1. So, my intention was to be race-ready and to peak on June 1. Not that I had time to do it any other way. I’ve spent this month finishing the rewrite of one book (Just Add Water, the biography of Clay Marzo to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Spring 2015); proofing the galleys of another (When We Were The Boys, Stevie Salas’ memoir [which I co-authored] of his days as Rod Stewart’s lead guitarist on the 1988 Out of Order Tour, to be published by Rowman Littlefield in September); and lining up the Summer issue of Innovation & Tech Today.

However, an amazing email came my way that proves, again, the absolute power of networking in business and in life: four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers, who is a friend, offered me his invitational entry. So, with 12 days’ notice, I switched gears and flew back east, taking my not-quite-ready-for-prime-time legs with me.2014-04-21 09.17.35

Thanks to last year’s tragic bombings, the entire world watched to see what would happen in Boston. More than 1,000 media outlets were on hand, along with 36,000 registered runners and a crowd exceeding 1 million. They came to honor the survivors who were running or walking, to take that glorious run to the finish line down Boylston Street themselves, and/or to celebrate determination and resilience – and to stare down those cowards who would try to disrupt our way of life. In this case, a massive celebration of fitness at the world’s oldest footrace, one that poured an estimated $200 million into Boston. Not bad for a three-day Patriot’s Day weekend.

I ran Boston before large crowds in 2005, 2007 and 2009. Never has the crowd approached the fever pitch we experienced in 2014. “For a few hours, we got to feel like rock stars,” I told my friend, Stevie Salas, who is a rock star. We were treated like rock stars, too, from police who high-fived and thanked us for coming, to strangers in cafes and restaurants who saw the distinctive medals around our tired necks and bought us meals or drinks.

images-1Along with runners, media and spectators came one of the largest rollouts of law enforcement and surveillance technology ever presented at a public event. More than 3,500 uniformed and undercover officers from a dozen agencies (including the FBI, DEA, ATF and Homeland Security) were on hand. They were vigilant, their eyes always scanning the streets; they reminded me of Secret Service agents. A few locals even questioned the massive police presence (really?). However, the police were not only very friendly, but also openly thanked us for coming to Boston to run, then started asking individual questions about our race. In their eyes, we were all in this together.

The cops’ sincerity and welcoming attitude amidst incredible security goes on from there. As we pushed toward the finish line, many high-fived us and cheered as loudly as the spectators. A Brookline cop leaned toward me at mile 24, when I was visibly struggling, and yelled, “You’re f****** awesome! Keep pushing! Own the finish line!” Talk about being caught up in the moment. (BTW, thanks to that officer for getting me going again…)

I’ve been to a lot of sports events. I’ve never seen anything like it. They were over-the-top accommodating. My spine is tingling just writing this — one of many times it’s tingled as the enormity of the journey into Boston starts to open up each and every little experience as the days pass.

Early in the race, I ran next to two of about fifteen NYPD officers in the field. Before passing them (one of the things you can do on a race course, if not on the road!), I mentioned how cool it was that they were running. “We’re also on duty,” one told me. How smart is that, to have fifteen on-duty officers in the middle of the pack?

The technology was impressive. Drones, streetlight-mounted cameras, scanners, robots and the latest in law enforcement equipment covered every bit of the course. Before we boarded shuttle busses to the start, we runners were scanned, too. So sensitive was the scanning that I was questioned about a tube of chapstick and two packs of energy gels. Normally, one might think, “over reach”. Not in Boston. Not this time.

Consequently, out of one million people who poured into the Boston area and along the course, one person was arrested. For public drunkenness. And only two unattended bags were picked up (neither harmful). That is a mind-boggling statistic.images

The other bit of eye-catching technology came from the running shoes themselves. If you ever want to see the very latest in shoe technology, go to the staging area or starting line of a marathon. Especially a prestigious race like Boston.  Every new shoe from every major manufacturer was on the line. You would think marathon shoes would carry some weight, since you need cushion, heel and arch support, side stabilizers and aeration to cover 26 miles, right? Not five years ago, the lightest halfway decent marathon racing flat was about eight ounces. Well, I showed up with 5-ounce Mizuno Wave Sayonaras… and didn’t suffer so much as a blister on the hot, dry day.

However, the shoe story of the day came from a company not normally considered a player among running shoes. It was Skechers, more popular for their Joe Montana-endorsed (and very good) walking shoes. A few years ago, Skechers made an interesting move when they signed then 35-year-old Olympic medalist and New York Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi to an endorsement deal. Meb, a San Diego resident, was a household name to millions of runners but seemingly past his prime, a good way for Skechers to make an imprint in a very lucrative market with plenty of turnover. Let’s face it: runners go through shoes almost as fast as Lady Gaga switches hairstyles and outfits.

Unknown-1 A funny thing happened in Boston: Meb made the largest imprint U.S. marathoning has experienced since Alberto Salazar broke the world record in 1982 and Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon in LA in 1984. Now 38, Meb became the first American in 31 years to win Boston, a victory magnified by the significance of this year’s race. Now everyone in the sports world is asking themselves, “What technology did Skechers build into those shoes to make someone as esteemed as Meb feel comfortable enough to race in them?” (And no, it wasn’t just about the money side of his endorsement deal; ask golfer Rory McIlroy what happens when the new equipment doesn’t work right.)

That’s the beauty of running shoe technology: just when you think it’s tapped out, something new happens. Just three years ago, Newton was known as a town on the Boston course, the place where a fig bar was invented, and the last name of a mathematician who was clunked on the head with an apple. Now, it’s one of the three top-selling brands.

It’s going to take awhile to recollect every moment of the six days I spent in Boston, and the events surrounding the Marathon itself. Thank God I’m a writer: I can write down the moments and then unfurl the scenes as they happened, and how I felt.  I can recollect all the conversations with runners, officials, fans, media and cops, and turn on my memoir writing afterburners to make some sense and order of them. On second thought, maybe I don’t want to, at least not yet. It’s like picking stars out of the universe. Right now, best to immerse in that universe where, for one day, everyone came together and joy and positivity ruled.

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