Out There: My Mentor

Getting through a grueling race is always easier with a familiar face watching and cheering from the crowd. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Even while going through chemotherapy, one mentor always finds a way to be there when it matters most.

“I don’t know if I can make it. I’ve got a long run scheduled that day.”

“Oh, come on!” I groaned, “Run later! Besides, you’re the one who got me into this sport in the first place. Don’t you think you owe it to me to be at my first triathlon?”

Carlos, who had done several Ironman triathlons, had coached me in preparation for my first sprint distance race in 2010. I was terrified, and had hoped he’d serve as a reassuring presence on race day. But when I tried to confirm he’d be there, he was dismissive.

“I’ll try to make it. No promises, though.”

“You can be a real jerk sometimes, you know that?” I glared. Carlos leaned back in his chair and grinned.

When race day arrived, I scanned the crowd before diving into the water. No Carlos. He wasn’t there when I exited the swim, and I didn’t see him on the bike course, either.

But on the short run, I saw that grin. There was Carlos, doing his own training run on the adjacent sidewalk.

“Oh, hello!” he sang with mock surprise, “Fancy meeting you here!”

I could only laugh. Maybe he wasn’t such a jerk after all.

Since then, Carlos has been at the majority of my races — sometimes, as a fellow competitor offering high-fives when our paths cross; other times, as the loudest man on the sidelines. Every time he leaves me laughing.

In my first marathon, I was dragging myself to the finish when I saw a familiar face on the side of the road, blocking the Mile 25 marker.

“Only seven more miles to go, Susan!” Carlos yelled, smiling mischievously, “You can do it!”

If I had a modicum of zip left in my legs, I would have kicked his ass. Instead, an involuntary smirk crept across my face.

Even when he couldn’t make it to a race, Carlos would still find a way to be there. He took his role as my mentor very seriously. While racing Ironman Wisconsin, I saw my mom standing with my partner, Neil, on the sidelines in the early miles of the run leg. With a concerned look, she waved me over to the curb.

“Carlos says you’re going too fast!”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m on the phone with him right now. Carlos says you’re going out too fast and that you’ll pay for it later. Slow down!”

Like I said, the man found a way to be there.

RELATED: Out There: Life As I Know It

Lately, Carlos has been busy with other things. A cancer diagnosis will do that to a man’s schedule. So while he’s on the chemo pump or recovering from another surgery, I train for the Ironman we were supposed to do together.

When I race these days, I make sure to send him a text message after I finish. Most of the time, though, he’ll beat me to the punch. I usually find a message waiting on my cell phone post-race: What were you DOING on that last mile, Lacke? Skipping? Good finish time, though. You’re getting faster!

I have to admit, though: I still look for him on the sidelines.

Last weekend, I did a half-Ironman triathlon in Tempe, Arizona. When I told Carlos I had signed up, he smiled wistfully. The race was one of his favorites before he was diagnosed with cancer.

“What time do you start?”

“Seven o’clock, I think.”

“Ooh,” he frowned, “I’ll still be on the chemo pump. How long do you think it’ll take you?”

“Six hours?”

Carlos squinted his eyes, performing mental calculations.

“I should be off the pump then. I’ll try to make it. No promises, though.”

When race day arrived, I scanned the crowd before diving into the water. No Carlos. He wasn’t there when I exited the swim, and I didn’t see him on the bike. As the run course looped through packs of spectators, I still didn’t see Carlos. I made my way through the finish chute, lined with dozens of unfamiliar faces.

With a sigh, I crossed the finish line. Though I knew better than to expect someone who had just finished a round of chemotherapy to make it, race day just didn’t feel complete without him around.

Oh, well, I shrugged. I’ll go send him a text message.

And then I saw that grin.

“You look disgusting,” Carlos laughed. I looked down at my race kit and giggled. It was an accurate statement — I was covered in six hours of sweat and a few poorly aimed snot rockets. Still, he extended his arms for a hug. “Get over here. You did good today.”

RELATED: Out There: Chemoed

Ironman Arizona is on Nov. 17. I’m not doing this race with the aim of qualifying for the World Championships, or even to set a PR. I’m doing it to honor my friend, who has shown strength and kindness in the face of a disease that aims to weaken and embitter.

The most important lesson Carlos has taught me about racing is that years from now, splits and PRs won’t matter. I couldn’t tell you the finishing times at any of my races. My brain doesn’t retain that kind of information.

But I can recall with picture-perfect clarity how I laughed through the run leg of my first triathlon, and every race thereafter.

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About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons, and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). In addition to writing for Competitor, she serves as Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website dedicated to vegetarian endurance athletes. Susan lives and trains in Phoenix, Arizona with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke

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