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Home from Vacation: Paying Witness to a Most Inspiring Achievement

When a man dressed in tux and tails rolls his baby grand piano into a meadow, and plays classical music for passing runners while the sun rises to herald a 55-degree morning in Southwestern Montana, you know it’s going to be a good day for a half marathon.

Loading onto the buses at 5 a.m.

Loading onto the buses at 5 a.m.

Somehow, this very unusual sight made perfect sense for a day that could have been a real bummer, but turned out to be one of the more memorable feel-good experiences I can recall.

This past weekend, we were in Missoula, home of the University of Montana, to celebrate my return to the Boston Marathon. So I thought. Missoula was my qualifying race, and as of a month ago, I was primed to run around 3 hours, 20 minutes, easily below the 3:30 standard for 26.2 miles that I needed to get into my fourth Boston. All I had to do was stick to the workouts, rest and recover, taper down, avoid injury …

Avoid injury. Like a runner in Missoula told me Saturday, “that’s half the battle to get to the starting line, isn’t it?” Well, I didn’t avoid injury. I developed a sore heel, Achilles tendinitis, and a strained calf muscle. That erased my final five weeks of training, so I had to watch fellow competitors cross the line to the cheers of thousands. What a major, demoralizing disappointment …

Only, it wasn’t.

I switched focus to the positive, and was it ever positive. I watched my sweetheart, Martha Halda, add another notch to her ongoing legacy of life, which she is chronicling in her memoir, A Taste of Eternity, now being reviewed for publication. Martha entered the Missoula Half-Marathon, a miracle in itself when you consider that in a 1999 car accident, the impetus of A Taste of Eternity, she broke her pelvis and hips in many places (among many grievous injuries) after her Ford Expedition landed on top of her. She’d overcome a “you won’t walk again” diagnosis to walk the Dublin Marathon in 2003. Now, ten years later, she was trying the long stuff again … only this time, she would walk much faster, and do more than walk.

While Martha made her way around the picturesque 13.1-mile course that wound into the Norman Rockwell-like neighborhoods

Half marathon race leaders at 7-mile mark

Half marathon race leaders at 7-mile mark

of South Missoula, my job was to cheer her on and shoot photos. I’ve ‘caddied’ for others before, joining Martha in a 5K last Thanksgiving Day, course-hopping like a jacked-up rabbit to urge on the Union County High cross-country teams I coached, and helping my friend and former UCHS cross-country coach Jeff Brosman complete the Evansville Half Marathon in 2008.

This was different. First of all, I’m not 100% healed yet, so just getting onto the course played into the day. Four days before, while hiking in stunning Glacier National Park, I’d felt my calf twinge during a steady uphill climb, which forced our party of four (my high school running coach Brad Roy, his wife Susan, Martha and me) to take an easier, flatter route. It was by no means a safe bet that I would do anything but sit at the finish for three hours and wait.

I mapped out a shortcut from the finish to the halfway point, and ran five easy miles to get there. All good: no pain in the ankle or calf.  A police officer saw me heading west with my Missoula Marathon shirt on (they gave full and half runners different colored shirts), and she cracked, “You’re going the wrong way!” I heard that more than once …

After arriving, I shot photos for awhile, cheered on passing runners, and waited for Martha.

Martha pushes ahead of the pack at the halfway point

Martha pushes ahead of the pack at the halfway point

She wanted to power walk at 14-minute mile pace, which is a little more than 4 mph – a very fast walk. Since I was sitting at the 6.5-mile mark, I expected to see her 85 to 90 minutes into the race. I talked with spectators, fumbled around with my iPhone camera, stretched my legs, soaked in the tall field grasses, oaks, cottonwoods and blue spruce …

She charged around the corner. Running, not walking. I looked at my watch: 78 minutes. Already well ahead of goal pace! I scrambled to get ahead of her and shoot photos as she ran past. The glow on her face was sublime; happiness and joy never wore a more beautiful expression.

For the next four miles, we ran-walked the course together (the wonderful Missoula staff and volunteers were incredibly nice about letting ‘caddies’ amble alongside their racers for short periods of time). Martha kept pushing and throwing short running intervals between her walk segments. I was surprised, because a week before, we’d nearly argued while on a long walk together, due to my analytical breakdown of paces and finishing times. Or, as Martha would say (and did), “ANAL-ytical”. You know, “If you average 14 minutes per mile, you’ll finish in 3 hours, 4 minutes.” When you’re walking the backside of Oceanside Harbor on a sweet summer morning, seagulls and boats bobbing in the still, warm water to your right, it’s best not to go scientific on your loved one!

Kids cheering on runners with their signs

Kids cheering on runners with their signs

One of the many Victorians on the course route

One of the many Victorians on the course route

As we ticked off miles, I watched her stride, body alignment, and the looks on her face. The coach in me. She talked with others as they passed or she passed them, kept her eyes focused straight ahead, smiled and enjoyed the amazing old Victorian homes, and kids offering gummi bears, lemonade, smiles, and cute signs. I marveled at the turnout. In all my years of racing, I’ve never seen a bigger on-course crowd for a race in a small city. It exceeded many big-city races as well. Nor have I seen greater enthusiasm, with the possible exception of Boston. It was obvious why Runner’s World magazine anointed Missoula the nation’s top marathon (in 2009).

Martha looked strong. Very strong, in spite of the fact her hips were hurting, and she grimaced every time she slowed from a running interval.

Refueling on gummi bears at mile 10

Refueling on gummi bears at mile 10

Still, she wouldn’t change her strategy. She smiled, lengthened her long stride to compensate for a slight slowing down of pace, and moved forward. One thing I know about this girl: She will finish what she sets her mind to do. Whenever possible, she’ll do so with the same ‘I love life’ smile on her face as she wore on the Missoula streets.

As we passed 10 miles, it was almost time for me to leave the course for my next task: Shortcutting to the finish line, across the bridge from Clark River (named for William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame), to shoot photos of her finish. Her pace had slowed, but she’d gained more than enough time earlier “to do something very special,” I told her. “Just hold this pace for three more miles, stay out of the aid station traffic jams, and even if you don’t run anymore, you’ve got it.”

We kissed and I headed off, but not before texting Brad and Susan Roy, who were following Martha’s progress through my text messages. “She’s on 2:55-56 pace. Looking strong. She’s got it,” I texted.

“WOW! Fantastic!” Brad texted back. That’s where I learned my supportive, ever-positive coaching philosophy from … the Master.

The ambiance of Missoula, including throwback ice cream walk-ups

The ambiance of Missoula, including throwback ice cream walk-ups

A few minutes later, I immersed into the pandemonium of the finish line. Crowds were lined four deep from the tape to the start of the bridge, a good 200 meters away. Every time a runner charged across the bridge, the PA announcer called the name and the fans cheered. Every time.

Soon enough, Martha reached the bridge and broke into a finishing kick. As a former collegiate 800-meter runner, she knew how to kick. She was between two packs of runners, each 20 meters away. She ran alone, which lit up the PA announcers – and the fans. As they cheered her across, I felt shivers in my spine. If only they knew her story, I thought. But they will, when her book comes out.

Martha pushes for home in front of large crowds on the Clark River Bridge

Martha kicks for home in front of large crowds on the Clark Fork River Bridge

I shot photos as pride and joy surged through my heart. As she hit the tape, I looked at the clock time: 2:58. Her actual chip time would probably be a couple of minutes faster, since it takes two or three minutes to get to the starting line when you’re amongst a field of 3,500. “I think you ran 2:56,” I told her. An achievement-filled, adrenalin-aided smile broke across her face.

Martha’s goal was to finish the half marathon in 14-minute pace, or 3:04. Her official time was 2:56:00.7. By anyone’s measure, that’s busting the doors down.

Since I run for time and place in these races, and usually finish in the top 5 of

Finished!

Finished!

my age division, I never see what happens in the middle of the pack. This entire experience took place in the middle, and opened my eyes to the whole point of tackling a challenge, or a goal: to see if you can do it, and then to push yourself to exceed expectations. I’ve always recommended that serious racers jump into the pack to support someone who’s out there because they want to cross the finish line of a half marathon. For me, it’s a reminder of the joy of running.

In this case, it turned what otherwise would have been a disappointing morning into one of the greatest days of my running life. The best part? I get to experience the afterglow of accomplishment as it shines from Martha’s face every day – even though she winces every time she has to walk downstairs or downhill. Ah, the exquisite agony of sore muscles after a long race well-run …

How sweet it is!

How sweet it is!

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CELEBRATING A JOURNEY OF WRITING AND LIFE (so far)

This week, my life partner and sweetheart, Martha Halda, and I will be returning to my alma mater, Carlsbad (Calif.) High School, where I will be inducted into the CHS Hall of Fame. The news of my nomination and induction came as a big surprise, but in receiving this award — along with five other CHS grads, two of whom I attended high school with — I’ve thought deeply about what this honor means.

First of all, the honor isn’t given lightly. With our induction group, CHS will have 25 members in its Hall of Fame (out of approximately 50,000 different students who have attended since CHS opened its doors in 1957). These include highly successful and influential people like Robert Stromberg, who won the Academy Award for production design on Avatar and is directing the upcoming adventure movie, Safari; Greg Nelson, my old Boys Club coach and inventor of the Don-Joy knee brace; Dr. Sally Melgren, one of the top ophthalmologists in the country; and Sal Masekela, a familiar face for more than a decade to millions of action sports fans who have tuned into the Winter and Summer X Games on ESPN.

Among those being inducted along with me is Patti Regan, who recently was featured as one of L.A.’s top 50 businesswomen. Our families grew up together on Basswood Ave. in Carlsbad, so that makes the day a little more special. Meanwhile, Martha and I went through all 12 years of grade and high school together, so having her there completes what will be a very sweet day.

High school is a where we’re supposed to study intently and zero in on our career aspirations. What I realized while thinking about the Hall of Fame is that I’m still doing the same things I was doing in high school — writing, distance running, listening to music, and mentoring. I began my professional journalism career while a junior at CHS in 1976, ran on highly successful cross-country and track teams, and tutored other students in Latin, writing and social studies. In a day and age when so many high school students feel aimless and are not necessarily getting good life/career direction from their overwhelmed teachers, this above all else feels very gratifying.

I was one of the lucky ones. The early and mid-70s were watershed years for diverse education and teachers who tried anything to get through to their students. Testing was a once-a-year inconvenience. The man who will introduce and induct us, Tom Robertson (known to countless thousands of thankful students as TR), was one such teacher. In 1973, while futilely trying to teach our freshman English class the romantic poets (Wordsworth, Longfellow, Keats, Shelley, Byron, etc.), he realized we were, well, clueless freshmen. He switched gears, and brought in a stack of records along with printed lyrics. These weren’t just any records or lyrics; they contained the music of Cream, David Bowie, The Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, Fleetwood Mac (pre-Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham), Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan and others.

For the next six weeks, we listened to music and studied the relationship between the lyrics, their meanings, and the feelings and thoughts evoked by the musicians as they sang them. When we returned to the romantic poets, we suddenly understood what they were conveying.

Almost 40 years have passed, but on the few occasions I’ve seen TR since high school, I remind him of this brilliant move and thank him for it. During those six weeks, my love of poetry, writing, music and innovative teaching crystallized. I knew I wanted to write publicly like these musicians, I loved the beauty of language and imagery conveyed by poetry, and I knew music would always be central to my life. By the age of 17, I was writing poetry, writing professionally, and writing regular concert reviews for The Blade Tribune (now North County Times), where I worked as a sportswriter. I was also the sports editor for Excalibur, the high school paper, and won the San Diego Union staffer of the year award for high school students in San Diego County. The paper’s advisor? TR.

Talk about the impact one teacher can make! Talk about the value of a single teacher in unlocking the doors of one’s potential!

I never forgot this. Many years later, my teaching opportunities came, first through writers conferences and workshops, later as a high school track and cross-country coach, and more recently, as a writing professor at Ananda College. I always looked for the opportunity to bring out the very best in my audiences, athletes and students — even if they could not yet see their higher potential. I also employed this approach with many of the more than 100 authors whose books I have edited or ghostwritten. The experiences with my professional writing and college students, along with the authors with whom I have worked, have built the measure of much of my life to date. When I think of my Ananda College students, for instance, I am filled with love for them as people, and admiration for their wonderful writing talents. Our class sessions resonated with mutual love, respect, and a deep desire to become the best writers, editors and people we could be. They pushed me as hard as I pushed them.

Meantime, my career has been quite an adventure aboard my pen, whether through newspaper writing, magazine writing and editing, book writing, scripting videos, or website writing and blogging. I have worked with the Apollo astronauts, great sports champions, Olympic gold medalists, iconic filmmakers like George Lucas, top business leaders, the men who planted the flag on Iwo Jima, surfing’s ASP World Tour during its formative years, great artists and artisans, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame musicians like Jefferson Airplane’s/Jefferson Starship’s Marty Balin (he wrote the mid-1970s megahit Miracles, among many other great songs), American Idol-launched stars like Carrie Underwood and Chris Daughtry, marathon superstars like Bill Rodgers (four time Boston Marathon champion), innovative healers and spiritual leaders of many different faiths, and medicine men in both South America and Native American traditions. I’ve also run three Boston Marathons after renewing my love of running at age 40. This included a number of training runs with Bill Rodgers, with whom I formed a friendship about five years ago.

The book I just co-wrote with Dr. Steve Victorson, The Champion’s Way, sums up what my drive has always been: to take the measure of someone’s greatness, find out how they got there, and tell the world about it. And, hopefully, integrate a trait or two within myself along the way.

Now, 36 years and quite a few books into my writing career, here is what I have learned: Nothing is more gratifying than knowing you made a difference in someone’s life through giving of yourself without consideration of reward. The happiest people are those who give selflessly to others. This has been my goal with every client, author, student or fellow runner with whom I have worked. When you ask me how many books I’ve worked on, I’m just as likely to say, “I’ve edited more than 130 books” as to give you my own book count. Giving to others is what makes us great human beings.

So on Friday, when I walk onto the stage at a packed assembly at Carlsbad High School, I will do something long overdue: I will give TR a handshake and a hug, and thank him for unleashing the writer within me. While I have had other great teacher/friends over the years (Steve Scholfield, Dr. Bev Bosak, Dr. Don Eulert, Dr. Madeleine Randall and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder top the list), TR started a ball rolling that has defined my life.

When it comes to greatness, what can top that?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Champion’s Way As Coaches, Educators, and Role Models

On Friday, opening day of the London Summer Olympics, I began what I hope will be a long run of speaking engagements for The Champion’s Way, the book that I co-wrote with swim fitness expert and former U.S. Ski Team conditioning coach Dr. Steve Victorson.  I spoke at a Lion’s Club luncheon in Union County, where I coached cross-country for three seasons with success athletically and academically, as our boys and girls honors students regularly qualified for individual and team bids to the state championships.

I began by reviewing the central tenets of The Champion’s Way – the 11 distinctive characteristics common to all great champions, and how they apply to any and every endeavor in life once we recognize our inherent potential. However, given recent events at Penn State, and the complete perversion of an influential adult’s role in a young person’s life that occurred under the long shadow of the football program for many years, my talk turned to a simple question: what more can we do, as educators, coaches, community and business leaders, parents and caring adults, to bring out the best in young people and also to bolster their self-esteem and focus on excellence?

The answer to this question begins by understanding the relationship between athletics, academics, the community and the student-athlete – and the responsibility coaches, educators and adult citizens have to students, both in shepherding them toward adulthood and in helping them identify their potential greatness. In my opinion, our responsibility begins with two questions: What can I do to bring out the best in this young man or woman – whatever that latent talent might be? And how can I integrate my life experience, victories achieved and lessons learned with the sport or curriculum at hand in a way that impassions and motivates one to strive for excellence, whether at sports, music, art, mathematics or small engine repair?

Everyone is potentially great at something. What is it? That’s the 64-million dollar question. It wracks many of us throughout our adult lives as we seek greater meaning and purpose. What is that special niche, whether God-given or self-developed, where we can make a unique imprint on the world and benefit others the most? Here’s a follow-up: who showed you how to identify latent potential in yourself, and develop it with a focused eye on excellence? Chances are, the face of an old teacher, coach, pastor, parent or other concerned adult will pop up in your mind. It’s a question that smart parents, educators, counselors and coaches help their children, students and athletes ask and answer.

It’s one thing to ask a young person what inspires and motivates them. It’s another to help them develop that latent skill, talent or passion. That’s where our other responsibility comes in: commitment to drawing out that ability. And showing young people how to translate that focus, drive, perseverance, skill and effort to every activity in their lives.

For my part, I always try to recognize the first flash of potential. It might come as an accident; it might only last 30 seconds. However, if I’m doing my job, if I’m truly committed to helping a boy or girl identify, understand and commit themselves to excellence, then it is my duty to recognize the first signs. I’ve seen some wonderfully revelatory moments on the sports field and in the classroom. As the young people involved know, off we went to the races from that moment forward, whether it was running intervals to increase speed or learning to write strong personal narrative.

Want to make a difference in a young person’s life in an unforgettable way? Be the one who recognizes the inherent greatness and potential within them, and shows them ways to develop it. Be the one whose mantra for all young people is, “To facilitate a lifelong love of learning,” or “To facilitate a drive to be the best, to put 110% effort and purpose into every activity.”

This is the sweet spot of coaching or educating. It is also what we are supposed to do as guides to help our young people prepare for purpose-filled adulthood. When we can approach students or athletes like this, committing ourselves solely to helping them develop their fullest talent and skills, then we, too, are bringing excellence to our jobs.

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Latest Adventures in the Writing (and Editing & Consulting) Life

I am finishing up another of those two-week periods where I feel very privileged, and downright lucky, to be a writer and editor. The stream of people, readings, plans, contacts, opportunities and creativity that move through my professional and personal life remind me not only of how wonderful my writing life is, but also how much hard work and responsibility go into it.

The past two weeks alone have included:

• The Meet the Authors event at Crittenden County Library in Kentucky. Nine authors came together and engaged in one of the best panel discussions in which I’ve ever participated, two hours of conversation with each other and a highly attentive audience about writing, editing, digital publishing, promotion, the future of print books, and much more. My best takeaway, literally, was the book Blood River to Berlin, by Michael Freeland, who was a medic for the 182nd Airborne during the grueling march from Normandy to Berlin that ended World War II in the European theater. While war books are usually the last works you’ll catch me reading, I couldn’t put this one down. What a joy to meet Michael, now 85, and hear his comments about writing, rooted in his rock-deep integrity and character. I felt doubly honored to be there because of the man sitting next to Michael, Marine Lt. Col (ret.) Tom McKenney, a prolific author whose comments were just as insightful and impressive.

• Working with clients. My day job has to be one of the better ones out there – helping authors shape their stories and ideas into fine books, and developing or assisting their strategies on marketing and promotion. In the past two weeks, I’ve been vicariously: learning the complex inner world of former fugitive Eric Rudolph in attorney Richard Jaffe’s forthcoming memoir, Divine Injustice; hearing the story of an ancient Persian girl; sitting next to dedicated charter school students with Hall of Dreams author Marsha Aizumi; joining the adventures of a comatose woman who re-created a fabulous world for her 17-year-old self in Colleen Jiron’s Possibilities; roaming in Africa through Gail Bornfield’s sweet children’s story, Tampei; sharing the triumphs of Al Gilbert, one of the United States’ greatest (and most unsung) track and cross-country coaches ever in Centering Up!; romping through Mexico with a wandering hippie; standing in the kitchen as Chef Renee Kelly whips up dishes full of vitality and taste in her recipe book/memoir; and laughing at the farcical antics of a group of people lodged in a two-story building in Steve Jam’s forthcoming novel, The Seventh Sense.

• Guest Blogging. Thanks to my publisher for The Write Time, Paul Burt of Pen & Publish, I was asked to be interviewed by Deb Eckerling of Write On! Online, a fine writing organization and website. A day later, I wrote a guest column for Write On!, “Why Writing Exercises Work” – not a bad promotional dovetail for , The Write Time. The key point, which relates to this blog as well: By using writing exercises to practice, you can eventually develop a command of language and a versatility that makes it possible to write about anything, at any time, in any genre. Oh yeah, by the way, isn’t Write On! one of the better names for a writing organization that you’ve heard recently (along with Word Journeys — of course)? Facebook them or visit them online — they have some great activities.

• A Book After My Own Heart. This weekend, my client and author of The Champion’s Way, Dr. Steve Victorson, is in Orange County to discuss with me the next book we’re writing together. Let’s just say that a bunch of runners in two Kentucky high schools will be most familiar with the subject matter – and the voice of the crazy coach on the sidelines.

• The Hummingbird Review. Publisher Charles Redner and I are well into production on the Spring/Summer issue of The Hummingbird Review, which is the creative brainchild of bestselling author Luis Alberto Urrea. Charlie and I have been marveling over the quality of the work for the second issue from outside contributors and the fine writers of the Cabin 20 literary blogging group, as well as wonderful contributions from younger poets (the youngest is 18, but you’ll never know it from the wisdom of his words). One thing already giving this literary anthology voice and presence: its multi-cultural presentation. The stories, essays and poems for Issue 2 are riveting. Stay tuned for more – and check out the premier issue while you’re waiting.

• The Word Journeys Show. I’ve wanted to do this for two years. Now, Tucson-based Internet radio producer Jennifer Hillman and I are creating The Word Journeys Show, an hour-long radio program that will debut in mid-June. Get ready for a first-class show with some very special guests, great readings — and call-ins! It will serve as a flagship for all things audio connected to Word Journeys, our clients and my current and future books, which leads to yet another exciting development in these past two weeks …

• Mapping out the Future. Word Journeys is adding an entire new wing to our operation (name to be revealed after we make it official), to handle all platforming, digital publishing and distribution needs for our private and corporate clients. We can now literally produce written material in print, digital, web, audio and video form – and use those same forms to promote the authors and their messages. While a few other companies are doing similar things, here is what sets us apart: the capability and proven track record to zero in on specific programs in specific markets for specific clients who have specific stories to tell. I’m excited about this, because it pulls together everything I’ve ever been in this 34-year journey since a frightened high school kid saddled up for day one of work at The Breeze in Carlsbad and, six months later, The Blade-Tribune in Oceanside: print journalist, book author, editor, public relations executive, event, retreat and conference coordinator, ghostwriter, workshop instructor, teacher, consultant, coach, scriptwriter, show host …

…and most of all, someone who so deeply cares about the written word that it has been my life since 1976.
Now to get into the journal and write the moment. Have a great weekend — and be sure to write something new during the next three days.

To order The Write Time: 366 Exercises to Fulfill Your Writing Life

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