Jul. 31, 2018

The Eppie's Great Race

Saturday, July 21, 2018 marked the end of an era in Sacramento.  The 45th and final running of the Eppie’s Great was held along the American River Parkway.  The oldest triathlon in California, it consisted of a 5.82 mile run, a 12.5 mile bicycle course, and a 6.1 mile paddle.  There were teams of all types and an ironman division.  Proceeds went to benefit therapeutic recreational services.  It was always a great day for everyone involved. Butch participated in the ironman division for over 30 years. 

The first year he heard about the race he was so excited.  Despite having teased my brother about his chamois pants and expensive gadgets when he became a bicycle enthusiast, Butch had, himself, become a true believer and avid rider.  He never enjoyed jogging and often proclaimed that the only time you should subject yourself to that abuse was if you were being chased by a predator.  Nonetheless, he committed to training for the run along with the events he preferred.  He purchased a used kayak that had served as a rental.  His friend had recently opened an auto body shop and volunteered to paint the kayak as advertising.  The kayak was beautiful, painted like the American flag.  It so shiny and smooth that a 2-year-old nearby insisted in laying on top of it, placing his cheek on the cool, smooth surface and stroking the sides like a blankey.  That kayak was eventually replaced by a beautiful hand-make model that he and his best friend built from scratch in their garage.  Butch practiced faithfully, every week for two months before the race.  He planned, strategized, packed, and repacked.  He was up at dawn, staking out the perfect place in the park at the finish for everyone to meet and celebrate.  He placed the kayak on the designated beach.  He then went to the starting line and paced like a caged tiger waiting for the race to begin.  I went to the run/bike transition, placed his bike in the ironman area and waited beside the trail for him to complete the run and ride off into the sunset. At the end of the ride, his best friend waited to pick up the bike while Butch jumped into the kayak.  We all met back at the picnic site.  He was hooked.  He only missed one race over all those years.  He was recuperating from back surgery, having been run over by a car while bicycling to work and was temporarily in a wheel chair.  I’m surprised he didn’t figure out how to compete in the handicapped division and participate anyway.  The last few years, his sisters and a friend participated as a team along with him.  His mom and sisters assisted in transportation for practices when needed. Our sons even did a team one year.  His mom and sisters faithfully posted up on the walking bridge above the finish line each year to watch the finish in the Sacramento heat.  There would be a picnic at grandma’s house afterwards.  I used that picnic to throw him a surprise 60th birthday party when he was 59½. 

For many years, I would spend Saturday mornings doing group counseling at the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center in Sacramento.  He would come by and trade cars with me, leaving the jeep with the bicycle in the back and the kayak on top.  It was a great way to unwind as I drove in the open jeep to the run/bike transition and gave him his bike.  Next, I drove to the bike/kayak transition and traded the bicycle for the kayak.  From there, I drove to the finish and waited in the shady park for him to complete the paddle.  After I went back to school, I would often do homework as I waited for him.  Since he kayaked and bicycled regularly, he had to practice for the run the most.  Sometimes I would ride my bike beside him on the trail as he practiced the run.  I loved being able to support him in doing something he loved so much. 

It seemed only natural that our sons and Butch’s bicycle buddy would participate in this final event in his memory.  My youngest son organized everything.  My family came to root them on.  Butch would have loved having his granddaughters cheering him on like they were that day.  After the race, we all met at a nearby park for one last Eppie’s picnic; on last time together to memorialize Butch. 

Days later, I realized that in the hurry of the race, I hadn’t really had time to say goodbye to that part of our lives.  The following weekend I walked back through it alone.  The jeep and the kayak now live in another city with our son.  With the sun roof open and the windows all down, I replicated the open-air experience in my ATV.  I started at the old house like I would have when he was alive.  I went to every transition point, parked in the same parking spaces, and walked the same trails as if it was a real practice.  I sat at the picnic table at the run/bike transition where I would have waited to see him come dragging himself through that run and given him his bike and the gear for that leg.  I stood on the trail where I would have been during the race, cheering as he jogged by.  I followed the exact route I would have driven to the bike/kayak transition.  I walked down onto the beach where his kayak would have been and where we would have launched our kayaks together on other days.  I stood where I would have waited, having untied the kayak, staged all the gear for the paddle, watching him fly up the hill and hear about his ride as he got ready. I drove to the finish, found the meeting place in the park where we enjoyed friends and family after the race over the years.  I stood at the edge of the river where he would have come out of the kayak, feet numb from the long paddle, and hobbled across the finish line.  I remembered how proud he was each year when he made it across that line.  I went to the place where his mom and sister waited on the bridge to watch the finish and walked across that bridge to where the jeep would have been waiting to take the kayak home.  And once again, in yet another painful way, I said goodbye to my soulmate and our life together.                                                               

Becoming us without them occurs neither all at once, nor in a smooth, linear flow.  It proceeds in jerks and starts.  The life we built with them comes slowly apart.  Each person will have a unique experience.  For some, the initial blow is the worst.  For others, in shock at the beginning, the most painful parts occur later.  It is impossible to anticipate the path through the forest of mourning.  We are as easily sent crashing back into the pain by a small thing as a momentous event.  A trip to the store can cause as much pain as an anniversary.  Our grieving mentors will understand this process when others wonder why we can’t just move on. They will remind us that there is no formula or time limit for our grieving. 

To arrive in the light at the end of the tunnel, we must walk mindfully through the process for as long as it takes, without skipping any steps.  We are assured by those ahead that there is a version of us without them that is worth what it will take to discover.  There is a redemptive process by which the old us, integrating both the pain of the loss and the love that we shared, eventually emerges as an altogether new us.  And that new person, has much to offer a world that is desperately waiting for the gifts we bring.  Our job is to believe in the shiny new creature no matter what is happening right now. 

 For we were not created with a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment.