Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Something Special

Five years ago, I was a lowly analyst in a going-nowhere job, working for a slightly psychotic boss and going about my day wondering how to turn things around. I had no substantial work experience, I didn't know what I wanted to "do," and I had just moved out of my parents house and in with my fiance.

Every morning, the Chief Development Officer at our company, Al, would walk by my cube with his cup of coffee and say "hello." He had a towering presence and his footsteps could be heard long before he was seen. He was in his late fifties, with grey hair and a stern countenance about him. Frankly, he scared the pants off of me, yet I said hello in return......every morning, for six months.

In my sixth month of misery, my current boss pulled me into his office one day with a strange look on his face. To my surprise, Al had approached him regarding me. He found out I had my MBA, and was wondering if I could do some work for him while his analyst was out on maternity leave and he sent her replacement to another office in Boston. This prospect terrified me, as I didn't know anything outside of Corporate Research. But my boss insisted, saying that working for one of the "Top 5" in our company was going to be good for the both of us!

So I walked into Al's office, his computer and head facing away from me as he summoned me in. My first memories of working for him mainly involve the back of his head. "Find me the basis on the Orange County project!" The basis? What the hell is a basis?

I frantically walked from cube to cube in my office, asking people if they knew what a "basis" was. Come to find out, it's what Accounting has on the Books as the total cost of a project. I was like, "why didn't he just say total cost?" So eventually, I returned to him with the basis on the project. To which he responded with, "did you find out what the GMAX was?"


Well, you get the point. I was thrown into a world of things I didn't know, and I was expected to know them, so I got really good at finding my allies and getting the things I needed in order to keep him satisfied. I did my best to up-manage him, keeping him reminded of important dates on deals, taking good notes so I could have him check up on items with his direct reports across the country.....I even shuttled him around Denver to pick up and hide his Harley. Things were crazy.

At one point, he was given an additional title --"President" -- and was asked to relocate to Washington, DC to rule the roost from the Arlington office. My then-fiance and I were petrified of what this meant. Would he want me to move with him? It was exciting, yet at the same time, we didn't want to leave Colorado!

Sure enough, one morning at the Egg & I, Al put it out on the table. Would I be his analyst and move to Washington with him? He emphasized that I had a steep learning curve and that I wasn't perfect, but that he enjoyed working with me and thought it would be a good experience for me. I was so torn at this point, because DH loved his flight instructor job in Colorado and desperately wanted to stay.

So Al proposed 3 things. The first was a massive pay raise, effective immediately. The second was an all-expense paid trip to DC, staying in Reston, Foggy Bottom, and Pentagon City to decide if we wanted to live there. And the third was dinner at his house with his wife and daughter, so we could all get to know each other better.

The first was hugely tempting. We had student loans, there wasn't much leftover after paying rent, and we didn't have much in savings at all.

The second was a blast --- we stayed in Ritz Carlton's, ate fabulous dinners, and looked at tons of places to live. While we didn't love it, we decided that we could survive.

And the third was the best part. We met his wife and daughter, had a wonderful dinner, and DH decided that Al was the type of person worth changing your life for. He said that he had a "presence" about him. So hard to describe, but he was just a special person who you KNEW was much greater than anybody else. It would be silly to turn him down.

Of course, we didn't. We followed him, I became his analyst, and an insane 2 years followed as I learned more than I ever thought possible. Not only did I learn the technical stuff by digging around and begging from people, but Al taught me how to manage people. He proclaimed himself to be a bad manager, but this could not be farther from the truth. He led by example, and he set the very best. He was dedicated to his work, not because he had to be, but because he loved it. He was passionate about deals and negotiations. We'd get into a conference room, sit around a spider phone, and he would just light up as he expertly guided the conversations. His enthusiasm was contagious.

He kept a sense of humor about everything, shot straight from the hip, tolerated no bullshit, and expected your very best. He valued and trusted your opinion, empowered you to make decisions on his behalf, and genuinely cared about each and every person he worked with. Once you gained his trust, you were "family."

I left Al a little earlier than I should have, but it enabled me to spend time in California, where I met so many amazing people. But Al never left my life......on trips back to DC, I'd do dinner with him and his family. He'd come out for lunch and dinner in California, and sometimes, DH could even come along and enjoy his company. When the economy started to slow, he was my sounding board when I told him I was thinking of transferring back to Denver. And when I was back in Denver, he continued to keep in touch with me and listen to what I had to say.

3 weeks ago, Al came out to Denver and invited me to lunch. We went to his old haunt from the Denver days, J Alexander's, and he told me he wanted to see my hubby and Derek. So DH and the baby showed up at lunchtime and we had an amazing time catching up. He was so happy, and looked great, too. Things were picking up at work, he was coming off a relaxing vacation, and it seemed his wife and daughter were doing really well, too. Al gave me some amazing career advice and really boosted my confidence when he told me I was too bright to be where I am right now; leave it to Al to throw me a bone when I desperately needed it.

I'm just devastated to report that on Friday night, Al passed away suddenly. Several of my coworkers from VA called me on Saturday morning to relay the news, and it really took a while for it to sink in. I'd always imagined him retiring. This was never something I'd considered -- he was invincible! Made of steel! Al was a presence that you always thought was going to be there.

Yet his body decided to leave life the same way Al lived it.....fast and on his own terms. In the mountains of Montana, at sunset, surrounded by friends after a relaxing week of riding his motorcycle. He was laughing, and then he just closed his eyes and was gone.

I never told Al how much he meant to me. I never told him that he saved me from that first job. That he influenced the way I think about our industry. That his leadership style inspires me to this day to treat my direct reports the same way he treated me. That his sharing his family with me in DC while DH was still in CO really helped keep me sane. That the support he continued to give me, emotionally and professionally, after I left him made me feel strong, self assured, and capable. That I loved him like a father. And I'd give anything to be able to give him another bear hug and tell him this to his face. Because he was THAT extraordinary of a person. And he touched me, and my husband....so very much.

Driving home tonight, I still felt in denial that he was gone. And the ache in my heart returned, knowing that I'd never be able to talk to him again, or see that trouble making smirk, or hear his silly "at the usual and customary tone" voicemail message. But I looked at where I was, and realized, "Al developed this entire business park." And he did. So crazy, but back in the 70's, he'd put together the land development plan for the very road and area I was driving through. So in a way, I see him every day, in the work that he did.....and I can just imagine the excitement he felt when he inked that deal, got approval from the City, and watched it grow.

The funny thing about all this? There are dozens of people who could write a similar story about Al. About how he changed their life for the better. I cannot even begin to say what an extraordinary man he was, or what an impact he made. But this girl misses him terribly, and just hopes that if he's up there looking down on her, he knows how special he was.

Al, I love you. Tim loves you. And I hope one day Derek will look back on the photos you took together and know that this was the man who made his parents who they are today.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Back at Iron Girl....feels like home

Iron Girl Boulder Race Report

My, what a long, strange trip it’s been. I don’t think I’ve written a proper race report in years – at least, not since I left my “Tridivas” and started anew in Colorado. Since then, I’m definitely not the same athlete I was when I left. I’ve had a knee surgery that kept me out of commission for a few months, 9 months of pregnancy, and a pretty terrible post-partum recovery.

At four months after the birth of my son, I entered Iron Girl Boulder on the least amount of training I’ve ever had: one mock triathlon 3 weeks prior, one 25-mile bike ride, a few runs on the treadmill and around the neighborhood with the stroller, and 3 days a week of P90X over the lunch hour. Insanity! Yet I still wanted to race, because somehow I needed to prove to myself that I still had it in me.

I got up at 3am, and this time, instead of throwing on my clothes, grabbing a cup of coffee, and running out the door, I had a little more prepwork involved. In order to squeeze the girls into my faithful Fiona, I had to pump for 20 minutes first! Never in a million years did I ever think….. Well, I got out the door around 3:55am, and arrived at Boulder Reservoir at 5am. Parked the car, grabbed my gear, and then checked in at the tent where I got my timing chip and bib. You know you’ve been there and done that when you skip the swag tent!

I set my things up into transition pretty quickly – not a great rack placement at all, but since I didn’t come up the day before, this was what I had to work with. After setting up, hitting the porta potties, and checking out the swim course, I headed back to the car to….you guessed it….pump one more time so that I continued to comfortably fit into Fiona until after the race.

After my pump break, I was back in transition to chat with the coaches from my old team, hang out with my old college pals, and chat up the girls from work who were doing the race. 4 people in total I was going to try to beat. On no training.

At 6:50am, they cleared us out of transition and encouraged us to go down to the swim beach. I sat on the grass and put my wetsuit on, then went into the practice area and swam for a minute….yep, I can still swim. I then lined up with my wave, and before I knew it, I was staring down the first buoy.

The swim was short – under 500 meters, so I knew it was going to be a real gut-buster because everyone would be sprinting the entire way. I lined up in the second row, and when the Aflac duck went off, I just went for it. Stupidly!!! By the first buoy, the people in back were starting to catch up, and they were grabbing, kicking, clutching….you name it. It was the roughest swim I’ve ever hard, aside from almost dying in the ocean at Pendleton. When I rounded the second buoy, I started to have a quasi-panic attack. My lack of swim training (hello, I stopped at 35 weeks pregnant and had one 800 meter swim under my belt from 3 weeks earlier!) really freaked me out when I looked at the shore and realized how far out I was. So I thought of a song – You’re So Gay by Katie Perry – and just sang it in my head….over and over and over. Somehow, I managed to come out of the water in a somewhat decent time. There was at least a 1-1.5 minute run up the beach to the timing mat, so I’d say I swam about a 1:40/100 meters?? Final time was 8:55 and put me just outside of the top 1/6thswim times. Not as good as usual, but we’ll take it!

I ran into transition and had a pretty stellar transition for me. Sunglasses, helmet, shoes, bike….and out we went. I pressed start on my Garmin, crossed the mat, and then promptly ran into a girl who had stopped right outside the mat! I fell into my bike, stepping right in the middle of my tire spokes. Shit! I was stuck. I had to reach in, take my shoe off, then put it back on in order to get out of the tire spoke. I moved my bike to a corner of the road, then proceeded to get on, but when I clipped in, there was no resistance! I looked down, and my chain was hanging off the front gears. Geeze!!! So I tried to back pedal and get it to catch, but my first attempt failed. Fortunately for me, the second attempt was a success, and over 2 minutes after this whole ordeal happened, I was on my merry way.

The course was 17.3 miles….the Boulder Sprint course, if I recall correctly. It’s a slow uphill to Highway 36 and to Neva Rd., but then a blazing fast downhill for the majority of the ride. I did the course 5 weeks after knee surgery last year in 1:01, so I knew I could finish on minimal training. How fast?? Well, that was certainly a good question. I got passed quite a bit heading up to Highway 36 – stuck at 14 mph, and secretly cursing my lack of conditioning. Granted, I did my fair share of passing, but I expected that considering most of the field started before me!

I managed to spot my cousin Kristen and her hubby Greg coming down from their apartment off 36th, so I waved to them and told them this was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done. J Then I motored off and that’s when the downhill started. I was holding 26mph the entire time, and it was a great feeling. Lots of farmland, horses, and shade along the course --- it made me happy that I’d decided to do this race, because I do love the bike. And I had fun changing positions with another racer the entire bike ride. She was a solid climber and downhill rider, but sometimes she’d peter out and I’d pass her, but then she’d pass me right back 5 minutes later. I got her in the end, but she took off on the run and I never saw her again!

Coming back into transition, I was pleased with my time. Sub 56 minutes according to my Garmin. 58 minutes according to the race clock. Damn fall. Hooray for auto pause! My Garmin says my average was 18.3 mph for the course. You know what? I’m going to chalk that one up to “pretty damn good” on no training. I’ll take it!

I had a great transition – dumped my gear, put on socks, sneakers, grabbed my hat and race belt and just boogied out of transition. I felt strangely good at this point, so I ran up the hill and put my hat and belt on. And then I felt it. The shortness of breathe…… Lack of cardiovascular training. And then I had this mantra float into my head, “you are four months postpartum. You have an excuse!” And somehow I allowed that to justify my walking breaks. Yes, I did try to run off and on……but I kept telling myself that just being there was enough of an accomplishment, so that really took the desire to go until I vomited and squashed it. Friend from college #1 passed me right before the turnaround, and at that point, I decided to try to get my act in gear. She was 5 minutes behind me – how in the heck did I give up that much time? Shame on me! So I picked it up, and tried to run…..but it wasn’t pretty.

There’s something about pushing a baby out of you for 3 ½ hours that kind of makes it hard to run for a good long while. Your lower pelvis area feels as though it’s been kicked really hard; you feel as though if you continue, your insides will pour out of your gut! Yes, it’s that weird. So sometimes I get a little “gun shy,” if you will, and back off. So this is what happened in part during the last part of my race. My hips hurt, and I was out of breathe.

Yet I did manage to sprint the last 1/8th of a mile to the finish line, and I still remember the rush of that “kick” I managed to find. The announcer said my name and I was like, “YES! I am BACK!” Of course, the race clock was at 2:06 or something ridiculous….people had finished before I even got to the run……so it wasn’t like a “yes, I am back and I am good” kind of exaltation. More of a “thank goodness I can bear children and still exercise! There is hope!”

No vomit at this finish line….and nobody there cheering me on, either, but I was okay with that. Grabbed my water, my disgusting Gatorade substitute (they had it on course and I barfed it up the whole way), and then headed for a little walk in the shade. Was joined by college friend #2, who I HAD managed to beat, but not by much, and only because she had an upper respiratory infection. We chatted for a while and then talked to her sister, who had beaten us by over 10 minutes….. and then I left them to go force myself to eat something….where I met up with the work girls. One had beaten me by 10 minutes, and I had managed to beat the other.

So, 2 out of 4….could’ve been worse, right? I was something like 50/120 in my age group and 220/660 overall. I was slightly disappointed, but then I thought to myself, that’s not too bad for racing cold turkey when you are 20 lbs above your racing weight and still trying to recover from childbirth.

And with that, I am going to try to be happy with this race. Because it proved to me that with a little grit and determination, you CAN do anything, and even though a baby makes it harder, it’s certainly not impossible. Next year? I’m gonna beat 4/4, so watch out!

Of course, now that I've seen the official race photos, the site of my fat body makes me want to vomit and I am all the more amazed at what I have been through now. Tomorrow: starvation begins, with or without the milk supply.