"Like Son, Like Father"...Like Family! (by Coach Kevin Smith)
As a youngster, I always saw my father as someone who was (i.e. used to be) a great athlete. Don't get me wrong, it's not like by the time I was 5, 10 or even 15, it was time to put him out to pasture... far from it. Even through my adolescence, as my father's lifestyle grew more sedentary (he is an artist by trade ...insert shameless plug here — visit www.monomania.ca to see his work) I was always amazed at the "latent" physical strength and power he seemed to possess, but which was less and less evinced in any athletically demonstrative manner, as time marched on.
My sport consciousness was developed and nurtured through his past athletic exploits and prowess — he was a high school basketball player and sprinter, a near-scratch golfer, an all-star wrestler, a university football player, an avid skier, and a hockey player good enough to be invited to join the Voyageurs, the Montreal Canadiens farm team.
As I grew up, one of my most deep-seated motivations was to emulate my father's athleticism, and to make him proud of me in doing so I toiled for 10 years as a hockey player, and though I was always a great skater, and a strong offensive player, possessed of a true love of the game of hockey and its competitive dynamic, at some point it became clear that I wouldn't be up on the NHL draft auction block any time soon.
However, it was about that same time that I began concentrating on distance running, which I had been dabbling in for a couple of years prior. Though my dad had a wealth of experience and advice on just about every sport, here was one of the few in which he didn't have much background or interest. As he put it "anything more than a hundred meters, and I'm cooked!"
So I forged on, finding my way with the help of a few well-intentioned coaches and my own instincts, and after a tumultuous and stormy "love affair" with running, which stretched over 10 injury-plagued years, found my place and calling as a "running professional" — instead of a "professional runner" — in which capacity I am still gainfully employed to this day.
Another thing that inherited from my father, along with a proclivity for sport and athletics, was a gene for preternaturally high cholesterol production.
Since the mid 80's, my father has been on some form of anti-cholesterol medication, including every statin drug ever developed, at increasingly high dosages every 6-12 months, since no amount of dietary modification (which he did undertake) and/or exercise (which he didn't) could have made much of a dent in the arterial "sediment" that had built up for years before starting medication.
An episode in the early 90's (chest tightness, light-headedness, dizzy, sweating) led my father to the care of a cardiologist, and a series of stress tests revealed minor arterial damage.
Gradual increases in angina over the next ten years resulted in an angiogram in 2004, where arterial blockages serious enough to warrant further immediate attention were found. One week later, a magnetic imaging angiogram was performed — the results of which spurred an emergency "lema-rema" bypass operation (left and right main coronary arteries) the very next day.
Despite the long-term cholesterol issues, and the more recent warning signs of mild angina attacks, the rapid and severe change to my father's health was shocking, frightening, and incomprehensible to every member of our entire family. This man we had always regarded as a pillar of strength and athleticism was all of a sudden teetering on the brink of survival.
The operation was successful, and after a week in the hospital, my father returned home. He weighed 180 lbs (his "fightin' weight" 30-40 years before had been around 155), and had just survived the closest brush with death of his entire life.
As he tells the story now...it was the best thing that could have happened to him.
After 2 months of post-op recovery (restricted walking and movement), my father began his cardio rehab program under the expert supervision of the team at Toronto's Rumsey Centre. After a battery of intake physiological tests, he was prescribed a gentle but progressive aerobic fitness regime (fitness walking, 3 times per week, restricted intensity and time). He responded favourably to this initial exercise routine, and was allowed to up his aerobic workout frequency, duration and intensity, and add resistance and strength training, over the next few months.
In just over 1 year after his operation, in the fall of '05, my dad had lost 26 lbs (to tip the scales at a pound or two lighter than his "supposedly elite" distance runner son!), was up to walking and running about 20km per week, had a resting heart rate of close to 50 bpm, was single arm bicep curling 40lbs, and as he put it (at over 60 years old), had not felt this good in 35 years!
The doctors at the Rumsey Centre were dumbfounded: they normally look for 10% improvement in overall conditioning in retesting every 4 months, for a maximum goal of about 30% improvement within 1 year. My father demonstrated an 80% improvement...the star athlete once again!
And the changes didn't stop there...my father not only felt 35 years younger, but he looked and acted it as well...it was truly a total transformation — physical, mental and emotional (heck, maybe even spiritual).
And one of the best parts for me (other than seeing my father get a "new lease on life") was that for the first time ever, through his foray into aerobic fitness, my dad was now experiencing "my" sport for the first time. Having him relate the feelings he gets during and/or after his workouts, and that he could now really appreciate what it is I do and how I feel as a distance runner, was such a great and unexpected treasure to unearth from the depths of such dire and desperate circumstances just a year earlier.
He and I now conversed in terms of minutes per km, of % of max HR, of recovery workouts — the vernacular of my profession. We now found ourselves buying holiday and birthday gifts for him like heart rate monitors, pedometers, water bottle torso packs, and microfibre workout wear...how joyously absurd it all seems now!
Furthermore, my dad's transformation and dedication to fitness did something that my 25 years of distance running never had — inspired the rest of my family to get involved in aerobic fitness and distance running! My mother began walking with my dad, at first in a "security/safety" role, out of solicitude for my father during his initial steps of recovery and rehab, and later to help with commitment and support to reinforce the positive changes that were happening in my father. Perhaps though, even if only to some small degree, because it kind of felt good to get out there and push herself that way, and feel that "buzz" the rest of the day.
Most surprising was that my siblings also took to distance running in the months after my father's surgery, during his rehab fitness odyssey. Though my sister had shown signs of athletic interest as a child and young adolescent, she'd not been actively involved in any aerobic fitness endeavor for about 20 years. For my younger brother (early twenties at the time of my father's surgery) sports and/or athletic endeavors had never really made it that far up his totem pole of life priorities and interests.
So to have them take up the challenge, and break through perhaps the toughest barrier of all, the inertia of long term inactivity, to where they were each able to run continuously for 4-5km, was so especially gratifying for me.
One of my most special moments in recent memory was last year, in the summer of 2006, where my sister, my brother and I all ran in a race together — the Docks 5K (their first running event ever, for both of them) — with my parents there at the finish to join in the celebration.
Our family, like I suppose so many out there, has had it's share of turmoil and upheaval in the past, and though we've managed quite well to draw everything back together and press on, I can't help but feel that our collectively-shared "fitness" experience following my dad's health crisis, has drawn us closer together and strengthened our relationships.
I'm sure each of their respective recent investments in running and fitness played a part in my mom, Dad and brother's decision to jump in the car and travel all the way to Boston this past spring, to be there to cheer me on up Heartbreak Hill and celebrate with me in my exhausted stupor shortly after finishing my first ever Boston Marathon. Thanks again guys!
And thanks to all my family for having the courage and strength and explore a part of yourselves that you never had before, and for venturing into such an unfamiliar realm as this. Whether you stay or whether it turns out you were "just visiting", I can't tell you how grateful I am, and how happy it made me, that you came!