I’m Just Operation Jack, Not Superman

This is probably the last thing I should write while I’m trying to recruit people to the 6th Annual Operation Jack Marathon, Half Marathon, 5K and Virtual Runs, especially since I haven’t written a blog post in more than a year. But man, I’m cracking. Bad.

First Picture
Me and Jack after I finished the first Operation Jack Marathon.

Operation Jack, since it’s an always-evolving thing, and I never know who’s coming or going or aware of the past, is my way of doing what I can to fight autism. I’m just a guy, a father of three, and Jack, my middle child, is a severely autistic 12-year-old. This morning, he had severe, self-injurious meltdowns. He’s barely verbal. In fact, just two nights ago, 12 years and three months (minus a day) after he was born, he called me “Daddy” for the first time ever. Heck of a milestone, but to say it’s been painfully tough raising him would be an understatement.

Back in the spring of 2009, when I was a seemingly-young 34 and he was a 5 ½-year-old and I was trying to find a purpose for the severe early-childhood difficulties he was going through, I came up with some crazy idea of running 60 full marathons in a year (2010) to raise money for an autism charity. That would be my way of contributing to the cause and doing my part. I felt like it was my obligation to try to do something to try to make the world better. Running was my gift I could use. Hopefully it would raise money and help kids. Jack’s suffering would thereby help other kids and he’d make a difference in this world. Life would get back to normal (whatever that is) in 2011.

That’s not how it worked, though. I did run 60 (actually 61) marathons in 2010. But we ended up creating something called the Operation Jack Marathon out of necessity at the end of the year. With six weeks of planning and recruiting, we registered 151 runners and had about 200 more participate virtually in 46 states across the country. People asked me to put it on again the next year and I figured, why not? I could continue to raise money for charity. That first year brought in about $88,000 total (due primarily to the 61-marathon stunt and the donations that came from people throughout the year). The race brought in maybe $40K the second year and I did a few other things, raising money to fight cancer and putting on a small race to benefit the families of mortally-wounded troops.

Life took over in 2012 and we relocated to Colorado, thanks in no small part to autism. I still worked to do what I could to raise money and put on events, adding a new race in Kansas City to go along with the primary race in Los Angeles. 2012 was the worst year of my life, completely because of autism, but Operation Jack gave me a positive outlet. In 2013 we relocated to Pennsylvania, 100 percent because of autism, and life continues to be a grind. But I keep doing what I can with Operation Jack. I added a race in Las Vegas, somebody in Pennsylvania found me and I help her put on an annual event and build a few teams to raise money for charities out here. I’ve built an annual team at a race in Maine to raise money for charities there.

I guess I need to clarify, just in case, that the Operation Jack Autism Foundation is a 501(c)3 public tax-exempt charity recognized by the IRS and all that kind of stuff, with no staff, no office, and the purpose is to raise money for autism-related charities and to help parents and those affected by autism to find a positive outlet. None of the money raised benefits me or my family directly or indirectly at all. It’s just a sacrifice we make to try to help others.

I’ll be very blunt, though. Despite what looks like a success on paper (I’d estimate more than $200K has been donated to charities over the years), I have no clue what I’m doing and I feel pretty incapable. I try, though. I want this to do well.

Oh, and the reason I mentioned that Operation Jack is a foundation is that I was just thinking about it in this perspective on my way to work this morning, but Operation Jack is also my super hero alter-ego. I’m Sam Felsenfeld by day. I’m Clark Kent, a web developer working for a very large company sitting in a cubicle writing code all day. That’s what puts the food on the table. I eat that food with my other two kids if I get home in time, then maybe play a game or something, and then when the kids go to bed, I become Operation Jack. I want to help. I want to do good. But I am so terrible at this.

My organization skills are terrible. I’m overwhelmed and I dread answering to what seems like a million people I’m letting down. I have some pretty complicated problems of my own I’m desperately trying to deal with. Depression, lack of motivation, fears of everybody being angry with me … you name it, it’s probably bothering me. My wife is worried about me, probably rightly so. I’m working on getting help, but I’m breaking down and falling apart. I don’t like who I am. I haven’t for years. I just want to crawl into a hole and disappear and I don’t really know why. I may be dwelling on it too much and making myself think this way. I don’t know.

Anyways, the reason I’m writing this, and again, I know it’s terrible to do so while I’m trying to reach people to support this event and this cause, but every year around this time, I start thinking, “I have to stop doing this. This has to be the end.” And those thoughts are really, really strong this year. I’m totally falling apart mentally. Although I just can’t imagine giving up my alter-ego, because once I do, it’s gone for good, and it’s become such a huge part of me.

But I just feel like being as real as I can. I like people to know who and what they’re supporting. I feel like it’s wrong to do anything else. No matter what, you absolutely are raising money for small autism-related charities in need by participating. But you’re also backing the efforts of an autism dad who’s trying to help, and I feel like you should know who that dad is.

I’m getting on a plane in Philly with my oldest son Benjamin on Christmas night and we’ll be in Los Angeles for the 6th Annual Operation Jack Marathon the next morning. I have no idea if it’s going to be the last one. I tell myself I don’t want it to be, because I enjoy being able to help, I like the positives that come from it all. But I don’t know if I can pick myself up and continue to do this. I upset myself a lot over this. I let others down with this. I just don’t know if I can go on. And I can’t just stand here with a phony happy face.

I’ve been starting to tell people this might be it, which I guess makes this no different than any other December. Except that inside, I feel a lot worse than I ever have before. So, I guess, just in case I don’t do my annual mind-change the day after the race, I want to sincerely thank everybody who has participated and supported what I’ve tried to do over the years. Words can’t really explain it, so I won’t even begin to try. But thank you.

Can Somebody Say Something Nice, Please?

This weekend, I planned on two long runs, a 28-miler on Saturday and a 20-miler on Sunday, but they were both cut short. The two runs had something else in common — my conversation at the end of both of them made me decide to ask you all to provide positive feedback to two good people. One is my wife. The other is somebody I’ve never met.

My long run was on Saturday, and it didn’t go as planned. I wanted to go 28, but I started feeling sick to my stomach and the sun started getting to me, so I cut it short to 25. I know, 25 isn’t terrible. But they were slow miles, and for me, a long run on the weekend has to be at least 26.2 I’ll call it a fail, but I know I’m beating myself back into shape and I’m going to have to go through a few of these.

The run I was really excited about over the weekend was running with my wife yesterday. After running a half marathon in January, she decided in early February that she wanted to train for a full. She set some lofty goals, hoping to not only run a marathon 16 weeks later, but attempting to qualify for Boston in that race. Tough challenge, although she ran a 1:45 in her 1/2, and needs a 3:40 for the BQ, so I thought it was possible if she could build her endurance.

I told her she’d be redlining, and sure enough, she got injured a little after her first 20-miler in April. She couldn’t run San Diego Rock N Roll on May 31 and was pretty disappointed. She got better, but took some training runs too hard, and got injured again. She’s been battling back and doing well, targeting Long Beach on October 11. Sunday was supposed to be one last crack at a 20-miler, and I thought she had a chance of hitting the run. But five miles in, we did the turnaround.

I felt so terrible for her. She really, really wants this. She’s worked so hard and struggled so much through her training. Part of the problem is that it’s come so easy for me, so she’s not really in touch with reality. I try to remind her that I didn’t qualify for Boston until my eighth marathon. But it doesn’t much matter. She’s really upset about this right now.

She was just about in tears when we got back to our starting point. She feels that if she could have qualified for Boston in her first marathon, she would have felt like she accomplished something. I have a special plaque from my first Boston on the wall in my office at home and she says she dreams of getting one of those, too. She was crying about feeling like a failure with running, and feeling like she hasn’t accomplished anything in life because she doesn’t have a college degree. Running a certain time in a marathon might change that for her in her eyes, and that’s totally ridiculous. Some of you know us personally, and a lot of you don’t. Those of you who do can vouch that she’s an AMAZING mother and that impact she has on our kids is a huge accomplishment.

So, that brings me to my point. I always get ideas in my head when I run, and over the last couple miles of our run yesterday, I came up with this idea. She’s a longshot to get her qualifying time. But she’s worked so hard with her training and I really want her to realize that it’s not all about a finishing time. The bigger thing I want her to realize is that long term, it’s more about the adversity you face, how you react to that and fight through it, and how hard you work to accomplish a goal, even if the journey isn’t what you thought it would be. In a way, it parallels what she goes through with Jack on a daily basis.

I know a fair amount of you read this every day, so I’m hoping I can get one of you to come through on this for Jack’s mama. I want Tiff to finish this off and go complete that marathon, even if she has to walk and crawl and spend 8 hours getting to the finish line. It’s kind of selfish for me to ask this, but I’ll do it anyways. Can I get just one of you to commit to at least a $10 pledge to Operation Jack and to participate in an race next year if she completes her marathon on October 11? You’ll be helping a great cause, and as a result, a good person will see her hard work pay off towards a better purpose than she would have imagined. Anybody? Please? Please?

Thank You, Cassie Walls!
Cassie, I met your dad at the end of my run (and the end of his run) on Saturday and he’s seen me running a lot in the past. We started talking about running and then I told him about Operation Jack and then he told me about you.

For everybody reading this, Cassie works in special education at one of the schools in our local district and works with autistic children. That job is very special and requires a very special person. It takes incredible patience and an incredible touch and I know I’m grateful for all the help Jack has received from everybody over the years. He was in your school at one point, so you might have worked with him. He’s in the first grade now, so he’s at a different school.

Anyways, your dad told me that in the past you’ve talked about maybe not amounting to a whole lot with that job. So, I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you what I told your dad. It’s not about whether or not you can buy that Porsche. It’s about the footprint you leave, the impact you have, the lives you affect. You ARE amounting to something. You’re making a difference and helping sweet little children at an extremely critical point in their development.

I’d like to say thank you for what you do, and I’d also like to beg any parent/relative/friend of a special-needs child reading this to leave a comment here for Cassie to tell her what you think about the job she’s doing.

Video Of The Day
This is for Tiff. She loves this song and it totally applies to her right now.

That’s All For Today, Folks
I’ll be back on Wednesday or Thursday. I have a lot of cool things going on with Operation Jack that I’m totally excited to tell you about! Have a great start to your week!

I'm Human So I'll Take This Opportunity To Be Grumpy!

I just took a three-week break from blogging before resuming last week, and I think I’m going to take a break again after today. I’m at a crossroads right now and this isn’t anything I can devote my time to right now.

I’m struggling across the board, from the start of the day to the end of the day, and I need some “quiet time” to assess everything. As a lot of you know, I’ve been working on a side project that’s been running me into the ground.

I guess it’s my own fault for taking it on last year, but it is what it is. I’ve worked pretty hard on it for close to a year. I really cranked it up over the past few months to try to meet my Sept. 1 deadline. And I just couldn’t do it. I tried, and I neglected my family and let them down by abandoning them for a year, and I let down the company I was doing the project for by failing to get it done.

I also let down myself, because I’ve started to lose some of the fitness I’ve worked so hard to build over the past several years. I’ve been working and working and not exercising enough and definitely not sleeping enough. My weight has gone from 203 at Boston this year to 208 this morning, and it’s not because of the ice cream. I always have a snack in the evening. It’s just been a moderate amount of low-fat/low-calorie ice cream or frozen yogurt for the past 76 days.

Anyways, I finally had my breakdown on Sunday night and made the decision to wave the white flag on the project. I just can’t do it. But it looks like I have to. I wanted to buy my way out of it, but I couldn’t line up the help, so I put the white flag back in my coat closet. It’s not right to the company for this to not get done.

I guess this isn’t the biggest deal in the world, but I have pretty good hindsight and I wouldn’t have taken the job. Just. Not. Worth. It. Heck, I’d had the job twice before and couldn’t do it and quit it twice. I’ve worked for this company on the side for about six years and I really like them. I really wanted to get it done for them and they called me back again and gave me more time.

Yesterday, I started thinking about it as a parallel to Operation Jack. Like Operation Jack, I started the project with high hopes, then spent a year neglecting my family (especially on the weekends) and it was all for nothing. I have my concerns about Operation Jack and I’m wondering if it’s going to be the same way. I’m going to go through with it, but it’s unnerving. I’m concerned that for a second year in a row, I’m going to go through something big, neglect my family for a year, run myself into the ground and have it all be for nothing. It’s not something I’m asking for feedback on. It’s just something I’m thinking about internally and I’m praying for some guidance. I have my ups and downs (I guess this qualifies as the downs) and swings like this prove I’m human.

So, why am I writing this? Well, I’m not sure what the purpose of my blog is. I know that whatever it is that I write, y’all like, because more of you keep coming here. I’m thinking that the best purpose for it is to let you run 60 marathons vicariously through me and to see see things through my eyes (kind of scary!). For now, I guess, I’m somewhat out of breath and I think I’m going to be quiet for a little bit as I figure it all out. Thanks for coming by to read this … see you soon!

Do I Really Want To Do This?

Normally, I try to keep things on the upbeat and positive here. We’re chasing a good cause and I like to have a good time, so typically, I’m going to try to write nice things. But after the weekend I had, that’s not going to happen today. I’m teetering on the edge and on the verge of calling off Operation Jack, and while what I write might turn some people off, I’m not going to sit up here and be dishonest with you guys. I’m a regular human being, which means I’m far from perfect. And here, my friends, is my imperfect side.

Let me start by telling you how much Operation Jack means to me. Simply put, it means EVERYTHING. I spent close to a year brainstorming ideas, talking with people, bouncing ideas off people, restructuring my plans, canceling my plans, resurrecting my plans, finalizing my plans, and then doing a ton of dirty work to get to where we are now. And of course, we’re not very far into it. If I keep driving this bus, it’s going to be 17 more months until I can put it in park.

For the past year or so, I’ve been thinking a lot. I’ve tried to change myself a lot to think about myself a lot less. God has had a huge part to do with that. I had a huge shift in my religious outlook, and my faith has carried me in the direction of Operation Jack. If I had to pick a verse that I would apply to Operation Jack, it would be Galatians 6:9. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. That is the only thing keeping me going right now.

Operation Jack means the world to me. For starters, it brings purpose to why God saved my legs when I broke my neck on November 7, 1991. I was never athletic, never fast and I never ran when I was a kid. There’s a reason I have my legs still, and there’s a reason why they turn pretty well. I don’t think God’s main purpose for them is to run a marathon in less than three hours. I’m hopeful they might bring a little bit of purpose to Jack’s autism.

I don’t think words can sufficiently explain what it feels like to have a child struggle like Jack does. Jack will turn 6 next month. I remember my 6th birthday like it was yesterday. I was in the first grade, I had a party at Shakey’s Pizza, my dad bought me a red Schwinn and I got a booth full of presents from my classmates. I’m pretty strong at math and I was able to do long division. Here’s the extent of Jack’s math skills:

He can actually get up to 30, although about 1/3 of the numbers aren’t pronounced very well, and I’m not so sure he understands the concepts of the numbers. It’s pretty tough to think about it. I try not to, because it’s upsetting. He’s in a fog and realistically, he’s probably never going to mainstream. If he was 19 and chose to do drugs and ruined his future, I’d be upset, but I’d know that he did it to himself. But he didn’t do anything. He didn’t ask for this. It affects his siblings. He was supposed to bridge the gap. Instead, he’s the one who steals attention unknowingly. Ava and Benjamin have fun playing with each other, but it’s not the same and while it’s not what we planned for, it’s what we have and we don’t love any of the three any more or less than any of the others.

But it’s painful as a parent to know that your own kid didn’t get a fair shake. And this Operation Jack is a way to maybe make a purpose for his autism, for there to be a reason for what he’s going through and what he’ll go through for the rest of his life. So I’m all-in emotionally. This is a big deal to me. I can make something out of my son. I can put a purpose to it all.

And let’s be realistic: I’m all-in financially, too. We don’t have a lot of spare change, and we’re risking probably about $25K in expenses to make this happen, although I’m pretty optimistic I’ll be able to nickel-and-dime my way to that. Without Operation Jack, I have a ton going on in my world. I’m totally overloaded, and I would say I don’t know how I get to everything, but I don’t get to everything. I’m behind in every area of my life, and raising money for Operation Jack and Train 4 Autism is one of those areas.

Here comes my imperfect side, not that any of that was perfect.

I put about 8 or 9 months of planning into this. Before it launched, I’d estimate I spent about 125 hours on everything, capped off by an all-nighter of programming (do you know how hard it is to write code at 5 a.m. when you got up at 4 a.m. the previous day?). Since then, it’s been at least 30 hours a week of Operation Jack work. I’m in some money, but I’m not worried about it.

I feel like I’m laying a foundation to make something happen. I’m counting on a team of teams. It took a month of pounding the pavement, spreading the word and trying everything I could think of, and I finally got my first team. I was totally excited. But the team wasn’t what it seemed. It looks like the team got an idea from Operation Jack and then decided it wanted to secede from the Union. Call me Abraham Lincoln, because I wasn’t happy. I guess it’s a free country and I can’t control what anybody does, but it hurt me. I’m working so hard at this, and just when I think somebody cares, I’m wrong. And on top of that, I feel like I was deceived by quite a few of the things I was told, and I think that’s the part that really upsets me.

The way I see it, I’m driving a bus to get a bunch of people to the destination, which is Train 4 Autism. I don’t know how to drive a bus. But I’m trying to learn how on the fly and I’m getting a lot of input from a lot of people. If you want to take a taxi, that’s fine. We’re all going to the same place. But don’t confuse the bus driver with deception. If he loses his focus and crashes, a lot of people won’t get to the destination. The driver needs to keep going.

I can’t stomach this kind of thing. I took it really hard. I don’t know if this is going to be the exception or the rule, but I can’t stomach 17 more months of this. I’ve been thinking really hard about quitting this and just walking away. I put this up six months early to see what kind of support I could get. If I end up thinking it’s a no-go, then at least I figure that out before I start buying airline tickets. I was really upset this weekend. In fact, I pulled the site down twice and for the first time since I’ve had my Facebook account, I don’t have a status right now. I just don’t have anything I want to say.

I need to convince myself that it won’t be this way, that I will get the support I’m searching for. I can’t do this alone. I want to build big teams and make a big change for the better and do it for Jack. But if I wanted to do something for Jack and do it all by myself without anybody else, it would be to take him to the park. It wouldn’t be to leave him and the rest of my family 60 times next year. Anyways, I was supposed to get a lot of work done over the weekend, but I was too worked up to concentrate on my code, so until I complete my project, I won’t have time to write another blog.

I get a bible verse texted to me every morning. Yesterday, it was Proverbs 28:25, Selfishness only causes trouble. I think I need to keep that in mind. It’s not about me. And to a degree, it’s not even about Jack. Operation Jack will not succeed with selfishness. I got the following comments from somebody whose advice I take more seriously than just about anybody:

I have a feeling this whole Operation Jack is going to be a huge test in selflessness. You’re going to face lots of disappointment along the way (whether in marathon performances, support, etc.). But you’ll have to keep on keeping on… more so than ever before.

Be prepared to say, I don’t care if I only have 1 person supporting me (let’s say Tiff), and only $10 in support… I’m still gonna run 60 marathons because I love Jack. That alone would be worth it all.

I think he’s right. I know I have the physical strength to for Operation Jack. I just need to stay strong mentally. I’ll need to keep Galatians 6:9 in mind.

Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.