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A Marathon Skiing Battle Against Parkinson’s: Bill Brown #146

Warwick Fairfax

January 10, 2023

It’s quite common for those we interview to tell us their crucibles have improved their lives, made them richer than they would ever have been without the setbacks or failures. This week, Warwick talks with Bill Brown – his Harvard Business School classmate in the ‘80s — who describes how he was approaching the pinnacle of his business career, as a finalist in Toro’s search for a new CEO, when a medical diagnosis derailed his plans: he had Parkinson’s. But he has refused to let Parkinson’s beat him.

Highlights

  • Warwick’s and Bill’s shared history (3;22) 
  • An active only child (4:40)
  • His corporate career takes off after HBS (7:37)
  • In the running to be Toro’s CEO when his tough medical news hit (12:36)
  • Deciding to focus on his health, not his career (16:53)
  • His emotional reaction to his Parkinson’s diagnosis (26:32)
  • Continuing his love of cross-country skiing despite his health struggles (28:55)
  • Competing in ski marathons (30:36)
  • The most memorable marathon race he’s faced (36:58) 
  • How Bill has used his pain for a purpose (39:14)
  • The reality of his thoughts about Parkinson’s (42:47)

Transcript

Gary Schneeberger:

We’ve just turned the calendar to a new year. What better time to turn the page to a more fulfilling life. That’s exactly the journey Beyond the Crucible is charted for you in our e-course, Discover Your Second-Act Significance. The three-module video course will equip you to transform your life from “Is this all there is?” to “This is all I’ve ever wanted.” Each session is led by Beyond the Crucible founder Warwick Fairfax, who shares his own hard-won successes in turning trials into triumphs. And he’s got some high-powered help from USA Today’s Gratitude Guru to a runner-up on TV’s Project Runway. It’s an ensemble of men and women living significant second acts who would command a six-figure price tag if any business wanted to fill an auditorium with them to coach their employees. But we’ve packed their insights and action steps into our course for a sliver of that cost. And if you act before the end of January, you’ll get 23% off your enrollment. Just visit secondactsignificance.com and use the code 23FOR23. So don’t delay, enroll today. And remember, life’s too short to live a life you don’t love. Now, here’s today’s podcast episode.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Welcome to Beyond the Crucible. I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

 

Bill Brown:

There’s no question, I am who I am in part because I have Parkinson’s and that has changed me. While physically it hasn’t changed me for the better, there’s other aspects that I think I’m probably better at. Probably being more empathetic, probably more patient, more caring. As you say, it’s not something you wished or that I wished had happened, but it has and so you figure out, okay, how does that make me better in certain ways? And I think it has.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

That is a profound statement. And it’s not the first time, not by a long shot, we’ve heard that sentiment from a guest. In fact, it’s quite common for those we interview to tell us their crucibles have improved their life, made them richer than they would ever have been without the setbacks or failures. Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger, co-host of the show.

This week, Warwick talks with Bill Brown, his Harvard Business School classmate in the ’80s, who describes how he was approaching the pinnacle of his business career as a finalist in Toro’s search for a new CEO when a medical diagnosis derailed his plans. He had Parkinson’s, but he has refused to let Parkinson’s have him. An avid cross-country skier before his diagnosis, he’s continued to pursue his passion with gusto, completing 20 marathon events across the globe. He’s also dedicated himself to raising money through his skiing for Parkinson’s research and living in a way that offers hope to anyone facing a crucible of any kind that their challenges are far from the end of their story.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Bill, thank you so much for being here. It’s an honor to have you. And just to let listeners know, Bill and I were in the same class at Harvard Business School, the class of 1987. We had our reunion in October. And the guy that headed up the reunion for our year, Dan McCarthy, he came up with this really good idea of a session for our class, there are other reunions going on, but for our class of ’87 called Glimpses. I guess it ended up four of us, I think, maybe giving glimpses of grit and resilience and I was fortunate enough to be one of the four and Bill was one of the four too. And so when I heard Bill’s story, I thought “gosh, he would be a great guest on Beyond the Crucible. He’s got a great story”. So, that’s where the idea came from at least for me. So, Bill, again, thank you for coming on the podcast. As we often ask, what was life like for you growing up in, obviously, Detroit and then suburbs of DC, a little bit about your family and what you love to do, and I have a feeling marathoning was in there somewhere. You’ve always been an athlete. But what was life like for Bill growing up?

 

Bill Brown:

Sure. First of all, just thanks for having me on. It’s an honor to be part of this podcast. I guess I grew up a normal American lifestyle. I was actually an only child. So, spent a lot of time with my parents. We did a lot of outdoor activities, whether it was canoeing or hiking or going to state parks, that sort of thing. I was athletic but not very good. I enjoyed all types of sports. Ended up wrestling in high school, not with a lot of fame, but I was on the team. And it really wasn’t until college that I got more into athletics seriously.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. And so you went to Princeton, which is obviously very impressive, and rowing on the crew team. I don’t know if we talked about this, maybe we did or didn’t, but rowing has always been my favorite sport. I rowed in high school for my private school in Sydney and then rowed for my college at Oxford, which is not quite, if you row for Oxford University, you’re like Olympic level. They’re seriously good. Princeton is seriously good. But I rowed for my college, which is somewhere between intramural and Oxford level. It’s serious stuff, but I wasn’t really that good per se. I rowed on the bow side for those typically bow or seven at least for … I think the terminology is different in America, so forgive me. But for English and Australian listeners who row, they’ll know what I mean. And maybe people who speak more than one crew language in America, maybe they’ll understand. But anyway, I always loved it, but yeah. I think it was a lightweight crew at Princeton. I mean that’s seriously impressive. Did you row it, The Head of the Charles and Henley? Did you do any of those sorts of things?

 

Bill Brown:

Actually, yeah, I was fortunate to do both. We would do The Head of the Charles every year. It wasn’t that far away. And we’d take a number of boats up there. In my senior year, I was fortunate to make one of the two boats that went to Henley and raced in the Henley Royal Regatta over there. That was definitely a highlight.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And just for listeners, Henley is one of the premier crew races of the world in England. So, if Bill was at Henley, that means Bill was seriously good at rowing. Just for listeners to know. A little colleague commentary there. But okay.

 

Bill Brown:

So my last race in college was at Henley, and we were in straightforward, which means we didn’t have a coxswain on, and I was steering the boat. We ended up crashing into the log boom. And we were racing as Jesus College of Cambridge. So at Henley, if you’d lose by a lot, i.e. if you crash, they don’t say how much you lose by, they just say easily. So in the records it says, Jesus College beats Princeton easily. I don’t know if I would’ve wanted to beat Jesus anyhow.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

The headline writes itself, doesn’t it, Gary? Jesus beats Princeton easily. Kind of writes itself.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Yeah, that, in very large type, you bet.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Never bet against Jesus, there you go. That’s too funny. So, you graduated at Princeton and obviously went to Harvard Business School probably soon after, I’m guessing. And obviously, we met there. We had different sections, but we met there. So, talk about your corporate career. It sounds like you worked your way up the ladder in Procter & Gamble, General Mills, Toro, premier brands. So just talk about those years, what you enjoyed, what was your path in the corporate arena?

 

Bill Brown:

Sure. So P&G was before business school. I took an engineering entry level job. P&G is one of the few people that actually put graduating engineers right on the production line. So I was involved in supervising union employees’ packaging Tide and other laundry granules, soaps. And after a couple years, decided that while the factory was an interesting place to work, I didn’t want to spend my whole life there. So that’s why I ended up going back to business school to get a better sense for the entire scope of business. But I liked package goods, so I ended up taking a job with General Mills, which was one of the premier marketing companies, primarily in cereals and cake mixes and those type of products. And I worked there for six years in various roles. Ended up as a marketing manager there. And then one day, I was talking to an executive recruiter and he told me about an opportunity at Toro. And it sounded like a good company. And as an engineer, I get to work with a little bit more mechanical technical products. So that appealed to me. Worked on lawn tractors, garden tractors, and then the new business for its landscape contractors and headed up that and grew that business for seven years, and got into the golf business and back to the residential business. So, it’s a good career, definitely.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That’s awesome. So, did you start off in the brand management marketing, product management side, and then production? Or obviously, eventually, you grew into general management of the divisions and units. What was your-

 

Bill Brown:

Right, yeah. So at General Mills, it was all product marketing and all the basics of marketing. And I took one year out for sales. And then Toro, the same thing, but then broadened my responsibility to be more general management. But marketing was the entry level, yes.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So as you were doing all this, I’m guessing you must love marketing, branding and general management. What is it you really loved about what you did in your career during those days? General Mills, Toro, working up to be a senior manager there. What did you love about the job?

 

Bill Brown:

Well, marketing, you get to spend time with the customers, understanding what they really want. And so, both companies were very focused on new product development and coming up with new-to-the-world products or just improving their products altogether to be the leaders in the marketplace. So as a result, marketing, spent a lot of time, as I say, with customers, understanding their likes, their dislikes. Understanding likes and dislikes is quite different for a food product than it is for a lawnmower. But the same basic ideas. And so at Toro, we would spend a lot of time actually watching the customers use the product and understand what was easy, what was hard about the job they were doing. And as we got into landscape contractor business, I got all our group to spend time on the mowers with contractors actually cutting people’s grass and emptying bags of leaves and doing whatever the contractor had to do so that we were walking in their shoes. And so you really get to understand what they go through.

And then, what was rewarding was some of the products we came up with that we made the jobs easier for our customers. And so they had a real affinity with the product. And it was pretty cool when you go out and see a crew with all of your product on their trailer and they got into the product. And there was something special about the bond between the customer and the product, because these were professionals and that’s how they made their living, using our machines. So it was definitely a good feedback reward mechanism for that.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s probably different than at General Mills where it’s a little harder to talk to a whole bunch of customers since it’s consumer and it’s just what do you do? I guess you can do focus groups and get 50 people in a row.

 

Bill Brown:

A lot of focus groups behind the mirrors, yeah, as people were tasting the product and what they liked and what they didn’t like.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But with contractors, they can tell you this is what works. Maybe it’s a little cumbersome to get the back off to empty the leaves, or maybe the turning radius isn’t what I want, or whatever it is. There’s probably lots of little things that they’d say I love it, but there’s 10% here I’d love you to improve and, gosh, how can we improve that 10%, and all of that stuff. Trying to make something that’s great even greater, which is part of the fun of it.

 

Bill Brown:

Right. And contractors aren’t bashful. They’ll tell you what’s working and what’s not working.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Right. So, it sounds like that was going great. And you came to a point in 2015 where you were one of three finalists, which if you’re in a company that you love, it sure sounds like you loved Toro, it’s like this is sort of the pinnacle of your career when you go to Harvard Business School, you’re thinking I’d love to either own a business or be the CEO of a business. That’s the point of why you go there, right? That’s the objective ultimately. I mean some people stay in consulting and investment banking, but certainly for many, it’s being a CEO or an owner of the business. So, you were one of the three finalists, super exciting, and just to be in the mix, you probably felt honored, the fact that you’re one of three. But yet, it was a bittersweet moment. In one sense, you were honored, but yet, you found out some news that obviously changed your life. So just talk about that moment or those moments in 2015 and that it really has shifted your whole life.

 

Bill Brown:

Sure, sure. Actually, I was cross-country skiing doing the American Birkebeiner in February and I was about at maybe 44 kilometers into the race and I just felt something strange in my leg. And I’d never felt it before and I didn’t have the power that I normally did and it eventually went away. But then it came back a few days later when I was exercising, and it would come and go. And so I ended up going in to get it checked out and saw a neurologist and came back with a diagnosis that I had Parkinson’s disease. So that obviously changed things a bit. My father had had Parkinson’s so I had one example, at least, of what that meant in his situation. He was a good role model in how to live with that. But obviously, that did change things both at work and on the home front.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And one of the things that you said to me when we talked before this interview, Bill, I found fascinating, and I didn’t know what you just said now about you were in a race and you were skiing, your leg felt off and then, you exercised later and it felt off. But you told me when we talked before that as you awaited the diagnosis, you actually feared it was going to be worse. In other words, when you finally were told you had Parkinson’s, it was certainly not happy joyful news necessarily, but it wasn’t as bad as you thought it could be. Was that because you had a perspective of what it meant for your dad and you weren’t blind as to what living with Parkinson’s was? It’s just interesting to me that you were almost relieved that it was “just Parkinson’s”?

 

Bill Brown:

Yeah. My grandmother had passed away from ALS. So I was actually fearful that that’s what it was. And Parkinson’s, while it’s not a great diagnosis, Parkinson’s doesn’t kill you, it affects your quality of life. And everybody has a different trajectory. And it can get pretty ugly. But at the same time, yes, I had seen my dad go through it. While it wasn’t easy, he still lived a rich life for another 15 years after that. So, yeah, that example of how he had lived through that was reassuring to me.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Did they catch yours fairly early or?

 

Bill Brown:

Yeah. Most people who get it tend to be in their 60s, 70s, 80s. The percentage of people who get it as they get older gets higher. And part of that is because what happens is you don’t have as much dopamine in the brain, which allows the neurotransmission between the synapses of the brain. And so we naturally lose dopamine as we get older. I’ve read someplace, if we all live to be 120, almost everybody would get Parkinson’s. I don’t know if that’s correct or not, but it conceptually makes sense. And so, most people don’t get it as young as I did. But some people, like Michael J. Fox, get it much earlier and end up living with it for 30 or 40 years.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. So how old were you when you got it?

 

Bill Brown:

I was 54.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. So talk about that time because right as you got diagnosed, that happened to be at the same time that you were in the running, one of three candidates, for the CEO of Toro. So just talk about that whole moment, because you had to make some decisions, at least I think you felt you had. So just talk about that whole period.

 

Bill Brown:

So Karen, my wife, and I, we had told close family and a few friends but not that many people. And it was time to do the one-on-one interviews with the Board of Directors of the Toro Company, I talked about what my vision would be if I were to become a CEO and what I’d try to accomplish with the company. And I couldn’t with good conscience have those discussions without letting them know that I had Parkinson’s. My neurologist had said if I wanted to go after the CEO job, that would be fine, I could do it. Just to be aware that stress does make the symptoms more severe. It doesn’t make the disease progress any faster, it just makes the symptoms a little bit more stand out-ish, if you will. And so, I ended up talking to the CEO and told him what the diagnosis was, and he was very understanding. We had a long talk and at the end of it, he said if you want to continue to go after the CEO job, I’ll support you for that. If you want to decide that you don’t want to go after it and just continue to work here, that’d be fine too. It’s your decision to make.

And so Karen and I spent a lot of time over the weekend talking about it, praying about it, thinking about it. In the end, we decided that I would take my name out of the running. I’d had a great career, we had a great family, still had a lot of years ahead of us, and it wasn’t affecting me that much at the time. So we figured let’s enjoy our life together and do some other things besides work. And I ended up working for about another three and a half, four years after that point. But looking back on it, it was definitely a good decision not to become the CEO, just seeing how things have progressed.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

I think you’ve talked about it a bit or implied a bit, talk about the thinking behind it, why you made that decision. Because I mean you probably don’t know, do you think you would’ve had a real shot of being the CEO with, let’s say, Parkinson’s didn’t happen? Do you think you would’ve had a pretty good shot?

 

Bill Brown:

That’s a great question. People have asked me that before. At the Business School reunion, that’s what everybody wanted to know. I don’t know. Obviously, I thought I had a good shot at it. The other two candidates were very strong also. And the guy who got it has done a great job and I’ve supported him since day one when he got it. So, that’s one of those great unknowns.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

But yeah, so talk about just your thinking behind it because that had to have been a very tough decision. Obviously, you and Karen prayed about it, but I think you’ve kind of answered it, but just another beat or two on this. What made you decide to drop out would you say?

 

Bill Brown:

Sure. Just knowing that stress impacted the symptoms. I had some symptoms, not that many, but I was getting a little bit of a tremor in one of my hands and I had already noticed that if I had to make a presentation or something and I try to stick my hand in my pocket, it would shake more and those kind of things. I knew that things wouldn’t get better. The goal is to maintain as long as you can, instead of getting worse. And so, I knew having watched the CEO who was there and his predecessor, I just knew how the demands of the job were so great. I think I worked for the then CEO for about 12 straight years so I got a good insight as to what it took. The three of the final candidates, we had been working with some development coaches on thinking through what it meant to be the CEO and what you’d have to do and the message kept coming back, this is a hard job. And you don’t sign up for this job unless you’re 100% in, no questions, ifs, ands, or buts about it.

And I just knew with having to deal with Parkinson’s and having watched what my dad went through, yeah, I could do it but would it be enjoyable with the Parkinson’s with me? Maybe not quite as much so. If you’re going to put that much effort in your job, you’d better enjoy it and not be worrying about oh no. You’re the spokesman for the company. And I envision myself up on stage talking to the top customers and the leader has to be strong. You can still be strong when you have Parkinson’s but you don’t appear to be “normal.” I didn’t want to do that to myself. I didn’t want to do that to the company either.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And you’re probably thinking, can I really be 100% in? It’s going to be hard. Because 100% of who I am but with Parkinson’s … I mean, to be 100% in is going to take a toll. It’s going to take a toll on me and my health and my family. When they said you got to be 100%, it’s like, can I really be that and do I want to be that given the effect it’ll have on me and my family? Cost is going to be high anyway, but the cost is going to be exponentially higher than it would’ve been without this diagnosis, if that makes sense.

 

Bill Brown:

Right, right. Exactly. Yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So, obviously it had to have been Parkinson’s. I don’t know if it was better or not better for you because you had a model of somebody that was, in your dad, relatively functional for quite a lot of years, but it had to have been gut-wrenching. Do you look back on the person who was the CEO and has probably taken them from strength to strength and think, that could have been me, that could’ve been me running Toro, and I would’ve done A, B and C. Maybe not better, maybe different. Do you look back wistfully at times and think that really could have been me, I could have been that guy running Toro?

 

Bill Brown:

Yeah, I mean I’d be lying if I didn’t say I haven’t thought about that over time. But I haven’t thought that I would’ve done things differently. I think, by and large, the current CEO has done a very good job directing the company. I think we would’ve done a lot of similar things. And they haven’t done anything crazy, at least in my eyes. They’ve kept going by focusing on what had made the company successful in the past. When I hear people talking about CEOs, I think oh yeah, that could have been me. But I haven’t spent a lot of time saying, oh, I wish I could have been. It’s just more matter of fact.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

It’s not like, gosh, I missed out on a whole lot of fun and, gosh, that would’ve been cool. It sounds like you don’t over-dwell on it like, gosh, I would’ve liked being the guy in charge.

 

Bill Brown:

No, because I don’t think that -nothing comes from that. And I’m sure we’ll get into it, how do I deal with Parkinson’s. You can’t think that often about what could have been, because this is what it is and you got to move forward every day. So that’s my approach.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So before we talk about how you moved forward, because we always ask this on Beyond the Crucible, when you got the diagnosis, you made that decision to pull out of the running for CEO, in those weeks and months, what were you feeling? I mean, how were you doing? There’s a physical thing which you were aware of. But just emotionally, spiritually, how were you doing in those first weeks and months after the diagnosis and the decision to bow out of the running CEO of Toro?

 

Bill Brown:

That’s a good question. I guess a few thoughts come to mind. I was a little nervous, what would the future bring? I think most of us, when we get some sort of diagnosis like that, we read a lot, we research a lot. You read about all the bad stuff that can happen to you, which isn’t the greatest upper in the world. And one of the craziest things about Parkinson’s is there can be 50, 75 different symptoms and how it affects people. And if you line up 50 people with Parkinson’s, you get 50 different cases. There’s a lot of commonality. I get together with a few friends that have Parkinson’s and we compare notes and there’s a few things that one guy has that nobody else has and you shake your head going, what a weird disease. You end up reading about all the stuff that can go bad. And so, there’s that nervousness about where’s mine going to go, what’s it going to lead to three months into this? Am I going to have it for 40 years? Will I be able to walk, will I be able to talk? What are all those kind of things? And you think about what kind of impact will that have on your spouse, your children, maybe grandchildren someday.

So there’s definitely an uneasiness. At the same time, I’m thinking about, okay, what do I do to minimize the effects of it as much as possible? So, I changed my diet a fair amount, started taking certain supplements that our research came up with. My wife’s very much into vitamins and supplements. Her sister’s an MD. So they were my research team. And so, a fair amount of work there changing that. And then, exercise is probably the most important thing you can do. So, continuing on with that. I didn’t really have to do that much differently, but a few things here and there.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

What’s interesting as you’re talking, Bill, one of the things we talk about at Beyond the Crucible is when you get whether it’s health diagnosis or physical tragedy or get fired, you have a choice. You can hide under the covers and be angry and bitter and saying “This is so not fair” and be angry at God, the universe, friends, family, it depends on the crucible, and just say, you know what, I’m just going to be bitter and angry for the next 30, 40, 50 years and, eventually, life does have an end date for all of us. That’s a choice, that’s an approach. But it sure sounds like you didn’t take that and said, look, I wish this didn’t happen, this is awful. But it didn’t sound like you wallowed in self-pity for months or years. I mean, were you nervous, anxious? Absolutely. But it sounds like you say this sucks, this is not good, but we’ll find a way forward. I’m going to do the best I can. I’m going to eat right, exercise, and find a way to have purpose. It sounds like there wasn’t a lot of anger, wallowing, pounding fists against the wall, yelling, screaming “This is not fair” and I’m going to be angry and bitter for the next 30 years. It sounds like you really didn’t … I’m not saying you were happy but it sounds like you didn’t have years of anger and rage that paralyzed you

 

Bill Brown:

That’s definitely correct. When I got the diagnosis and I came home, my wife Karen said we’ll make it together through this, and that meant a lot. Having my dad as an example definitely helped. I didn’t hear him complaining at all. He’d make fun of things that when he is playing golf and his back swing would go back and everything would shake and then somebody gets the ball and he got a kick out of that. I know a lot of people question God when things happen to them, and I’ve never done that. I guess I’m somewhat blessed that I didn’t have those type of feelings. Like you say, you wish it didn’t happen to you, but I guess the way I’m wired and you talk about authenticity a lot and I think that’s understanding who you are and I’m going to try to figure out how to make the best out of a situation and move forward. Because there’s a lot of exciting things you can do in life and I wasn’t going to hide under the covers.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So let’s pivot a bit to talk about pain for a purpose and this gets back to something we haven’t talked a whole lot about. When you moved to Minnesota, I guess originally with General Mills and, obviously, in Minnesota, probably like Wisconsin, I’m guessing there’s a lot of cross-country skiing. Where I live in Maryland, not so much because there’s not a whole lot of snow. So, you’d be hard pressed to make a career or even a recreational enjoyment of cross-country skiing. But you’ve been doing this for many years. Your boys do it. From what I understand, wasn’t one or two of them in the Olympics in biathlon or something? I mean, that’s-

 

Bill Brown:

Yes, yeah.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

… seriously impressive. That’s not recreational cross-country skiing. That’s like the elite of the elite. So just talk about both how you got into it and then how you used that passion for cross-country skiing to really help make a difference for Parkinson’s. Because that’s, I think, a fascinating story in itself, your whole passion for cross-country skiing.

 

Bill Brown:

Yeah, growing up in Maryland, as you know there’s not too much snow so I never skied growing up. I skied downhill a couple times up in New York with my uncle, but that was it.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

And as you put it, explain to us again what the downhill is called, because you told that at the reunion.

 

Bill Brown:

We call it gravity-assisted skiing.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

That’s the easy stuff. You just point the skis downhill.

 

Bill Brown:

That’s easy stuff. We go up the hills and down the hills.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Okay, so just for listeners, real skiers ski cross-country. The ones that can’t quite make that do the easy stuff and do the gravity-assisted one. Just a little informational moment here from Beyond the Crucible. So there you go. Anyway, but back to cross-country skiing.

 

Bill Brown:

So, when I moved to Minnesota, I was running marathons. I had just run the Twin Cities Marathon in the fall of ’87 and my boss at General Mills said, “What are you going to do in the winter?” And I said, “Well, I’m going to train for marathon.” She goes, “Bill, this is Minnesota, you can’t run in the winter here.” Because everything’s icy and it’s cold and it’s slippery and it’s dark. And she said, “You should take up cross-country skiing.” And she had taken a class through the American Lung Association where they help teach you how to ski and prepare to do a ski marathon. I didn’t even know there were such things like ski marathons. And so I signed up and learned how to ski that year. At the end of the winter, did a full 50-kilometer race up in Bemidji, Minnesota, which is up in the northwest part of the state.

I came in near last in the race, fell about 50 times, got lapped by the winners, and it was truly a humiliating experience, but I was hooked. And I’m like, I’m going to get better at this. Because there were moments that were enjoyable. But the next day, I was so sore because I’d never fallen on so many different parts of my body in one event. But I stuck with it and actually got decent over the years. And as you mentioned, all of our family got into it. Karen skied the Birkebeiner a number of times. All the boys have skied it a bunch of times.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Where in Wisconsin is that? Because Gary is also in Wisconsin. Is it northern Wisconsin or? Where is it?

 

Bill Brown:

It’s northwest Wisconsin, yes. It goes from Cable to Hayward.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

So that’s like kitty-corner from me because I’m southeast.

 

Bill Brown:

Yeah, different part. Wisconsin’s a big state. It’s probably from where he is to where the race is, is about a six, seven-hour drive. It’s way up there. So, when I got into skiing, we went to a camp once put on by a local ski club and the gal gave a presentation on skiing the Vasaloppet in Sweden, which is a 90-kilometer race. And she started in the morning, started in the dark and ended in the dark. And my wife Karen said, why would anybody want to do that? And I secretly wanted to do that because it sounded pretty cool. And so, as the years went on, I did get an opportunity to ski a couple international races. And there’s 20 races in the series called the Worldloppet. Loppet is the Norwegian word for race. So these races are all loppets.

So, 20 countries have a race. They’re the biggest race in each of the country and they come together for marketing purposes. And so, I did a race in Poland. I did the Vasaloppet. And so I had done three of them when I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. And so, I determined that I needed to get my schedule going a little bit faster here if I was going to finish these races, because I had to go and do all 20. I discovered that no American had done all 20 before. So I said that that’s going to be my goal. And at the same time, I was looking around to figure out what I could do for the Parkinson’s community. My father had been involved in some studies, some medical studies. I had done the MS 150 a couple times. There’s a 150-mile bike ride from Duluth to St. Paul raising money for MS. And that’s a big corporate event here in the Twin Cities.

And I looked around to try to find something like that for Parkinson’s. I couldn’t find it. There were a lot of fundraisers and some of them, they’d hike a mountain or they’d make pancakes or stuff like that. All good stuff. But there’s nothing quite combining cross-country skiing and Parkinson’s research fundraising. In looking around, we discovered that the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which is the premier funder of Parkinson’s research, had a backroom engine for fundraising and you could create your own event. So I decided to create what I called Ski for Parkinson’s. And so the idea was much like when people run for a cure or do their March of Dimes walk kind of deal that I do these marathon races and get people to sponsor me.

And so, I did the first one in 2016 and was just humbled by the response by how much people donated on my behalf. And it was truly inspiring. We’ve done it for seven years now. And I’m up to six people are doing it. It’s not a big community. We’re small but we’re powerful. We’ve raised about $575,000 over that period of time, which is pretty good for a small group of skiers. And each year, we pick up one new skier and I’ve got one new person who’s joining me next year or this year coming up.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

On your team, do they all have Parkinson’s?

 

Bill Brown:

No. So, three of us have Parkinson’s. One was actually the boys’ ski coach in high school. One had a sister who had it. And another one had a father who had it. And the guy who’s agreed to sign up for this year, he’s a good friend of mine who’s done a few of the Worldloppet races with me.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. So that’s staggering. And just help us understand. I’d try to look it up, but the Worldloppet courses, they vary, right? What’s the shortest and the longest course of the-

 

Bill Brown:

The shortest is in Australia.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

There you go. We do like to make things easy in Australia, right?

 

Bill Brown:

Right, right. You don’t want to have to spend too much time on the course before you get a beer.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

I was just going to say that, off to get the Foster’s Lager after that.

 

Bill Brown:

Why do we all think of beer when we hear Australia?

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Well, because it’s true. Aussies like drinking beer. So how short is it?

 

Bill Brown:

42 kilometers is the shortest. So that’s 26 miles. That’s a true marathon.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So maybe that’s because they couldn’t find more than 42 kilometers of snow to race on because it’s a pretty hot country. So, what’s the longest one?

 

Bill Brown:

Longest is 90 kilometers in Sweden. That’s the granddaddy of all the Vasaloppet.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah, plenty of snow there. Not a problem.

 

Bill Brown:

Plenty of snow. And the crazy thing about that race is it’s got 17,000 people in it. And everybody starts at exactly the same time.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

No.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Oh wow.

 

Bill Brown:

Now you tell me how you get 17,000 people going down a ski trail at the same time. It’s like the definition of a bottleneck.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So I’m thinking, of the 20 you’ve done, what is the most fun, interesting, challenging? Which would you say is the most memorable of the 20 that you’ve done?

 

Bill Brown:

Oh wow. They’re all memorable in their own way. The one I’ve enjoyed the most was the Marcialonga in Italy. It’s 70 kilometers up in the Dolomites. It’s just absolutely beautiful. And they put snow down the roads and the little towns and people come out and cheer for you. That was fantastic. The New Zealand race is spectacular just in its topography. It’s almost like this another world scenery. Iceland’s pretty cool too because it’s way up in the middle of nowhere and just spectacular. You almost feel like you’re on the lunar surface there too.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Wow. So this is amazing. I mean, to ski 42 plus miles, as you said, 42 plus kilometers, 26 plus miles, I mean, for people that don’t have Parkinson’s would be tough, but somebody with Parkinson’s where it saps your energy. I remember one of the things you wrote somewhere is you had to deal with the fact that … I believe there were some who you could lap easily or at least they’d never catch you and yet they would catch you. So you had to deal with the fact that I can’t do this as well as I used to, right? That’s one of the things you had to come to terms with.

 

Bill Brown:

Yeah, yeah. I was never winning the races, but I was one of the faster people. Like you say, we all think we’re faster than we are as we get older. And that’s even without Parkinson’s. And you look at somebody next to you on the course and you go, I should be able to beat that person, and you can’t anymore. And so it’s humbling yourself a little bit, but also the perspective changes as to why you’re out there. And it’s not just trying to beat people, it’s enjoying the whole experience a lot more.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

So talk about what you do now with raising money for Parkinson’s and just cross-country skiing. And we often talk about pain for a purpose. Nobody wants Parkinson’s or any disease or any crucible, but talk about the purpose that’s come from that and how do you view what you’ve been through now and the purpose that’s come out of it? We’ve even had some guests, I’m not saying you should say this, that have found some blessing, some hope, even some gain out of loss. In fact, we had a recent series that we’ve done. So, yeah, talk about any of that, just the purpose that came out of what you’ve been through and what you do now.

 

Bill Brown:

Yeah. It’s a great question. Because there’s no question, I am who I am in part because I have Parkinson’s and that has changed me. While physically it hasn’t changed me for the better, there’s other aspects that I think I’m probably better at. Probably being more empathetic, probably more patient, more caring. As you say, it’s not something you wished or that I wished it happened, but it has and so you figure out, okay, how does that make me better in certain ways? And I think it has. With that said, I still wish it didn’t happen. The purpose as I cross-country ski and I train for it and I think about it and I race is it’s not just me that I’m skiing for now, it’s everybody who has Parkinson’s because we’re raising money. I’ve been surprised by the number of people who either have Parkinson’s or even who don’t have Parkinson’s, who say that hearing about me ski or watching is an inspiration.

I get it. I find it a little hard to believe at the same time. I don’t want it to go to my head. But I think there are people who honestly do get inspired when they hear somebody who’s got Parkinson’s goes and does 17 Worldloppet races around the globe. So, if I can be that example of some hope or inspiration for some people, then that’s definitely a positive, and I’ve benefited from that. I do think about that a lot when I’m out there on skis. It used to be just thinking about how do I get faster, probably more on the selfish side of things about me. And now it’s more about thinking about people who are supporting me, people who have Parkinson’s and hopefully that we can work towards getting a cure.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

I’m glad you brought up what you think about when you ski because you said something else about your thoughts when we talked earlier. You said that you don’t go two minutes in your life day to day without thinking about Parkinson’s. And I’m betting those aren’t even predominantly, let alone, all “negative” thoughts. In other words, what you just talked about being seen as an inspiration for people, about I may be a little slower but I could still do this, about not giving up, about not lying in bed with the covers over your head. When you think about Parkinson’s in those every two minutes, because it does affect every kind of movement you do, it affects you in a lot of ways. But I hazard a very strong guess that these aren’t negative thoughts. You’re not “Oh, woe is me” when you think about that the majority of the time, right?

 

Bill Brown:

Yeah. It’s not woe is me. They’re not always positive thoughts. I’d say it’s more matter of fact. Sometimes I’m like, I yell at my muscles like don’t do that. But I’m not thinking like, oh man, why am I the one who’s got a leg that does that? But I yell at body parts to do certain things from time to time. Other times, it is, okay, how can I, with this, get this done and still be successful in what I’m trying to accomplish? It’s different for different situations. When I’m doing something that I enjoy, I’m probably more positive about it. So when I’m out skiing, I take it more as a challenge. When it’s something like tying my shoes, it’s not quite as fun and maybe I get a little bit more upset at my fingers for not working right.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah, I hear that. It obviously got to be incredibly frustrating to do the things that were so simple now seems so hard at times. But yeah, what you said about other people finding you an inspiration, that might be a weird thing to digest because you’re a humble person of faith, you don’t necessarily like to think of yourself as a hero or a role model or an inspiration. It’s like almost biblically apostle who would just tear their robes and no, don’t worship me and all that kind of thing. So I get that. But still, you do so much. Just raising $575,000 over a number of years is unbelievably impressive. But I’d say just as impressive is the role model you give people with Parkinson’s, people with disabilities, people with challenges in that Parkinson’s doesn’t have to be a death sentence, it doesn’t have to be the end of your life. You can still do productive things.

I mean, what you’re doing is offering people hope. So maybe there’s somebody that’s just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s or ALS or whatever it is. And I realize, ALS, it’s very different and I don’t know if it’s worse or better, very different. But it’s like hope is often huge. So somebody might say, why bother eating right? Why bother exercising? I’m done. There might be some people who’ve newly diagnosed with Parkinson’s might have that attitude. And it’s like, you know what, if Bill can do this, maybe I do need to eat right. Maybe I do need to exercise. Giving people that motivation can make a massive difference, much better than I do in a quality of life. So hope can have massive ramifications. So, I wouldn’t say it’s much more, but in one sense, it’s definitely more than just raising money, you’re providing hope that has tangible benefits to other people with Parkinson’s and other people in general. And you are just being you but you being you has a massive positive effect on people. Does that make sense?

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Let me just jump in as the advocate for the listener here. It’s not just about people who have had a “disease.” The way you’re describing how you’re walking through life with Parkinson’s is the way that we all can orient ourselves to walk through life with whatever, fill in the blank, for what your crucible is. This idea that it’s not the end of your story. We say it all the time, it’s not the end of your story. If you learn the lessons from it and you apply it moving forward, that’s the key part, moving forward, it can be the best story of your life and you can do some great things. We would not have this podcast, Beyond the Crucible wouldn’t exist if Warwick didn’t go through his crucible. Your work to benefit Parkinson’s research, that wouldn’t have happened without your diagnosis. So some gain can indeed come from loss. And your story, what you’ve just described is not just for people who have physical limitations or who have physical crucibles, it’s for anybody who’s gone through a difficult time, lost a job, tough family situation, you are an inspiration. Not to make you blush, because you said earlier that you don’t like that necessarily, but you’re an inspiration for anybody who’s gone through a crucible for the way that you’ve continued to not march forward but ski forward, if you will.

 

Bill Brown:

Well, thank you for the kind words. I appreciate that. One of the things that Michael J. Fox talks about a lot is focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do. And I’m sure there’s a lot of people who think that way. But with he being who he is and what he’s done for Parkinson’s research, he’s an important person in my life and I think about that a lot. And I think that gets at what both of you are talking about is that in any situation, no matter what challenge you have, whether it be a loss or a disease or whatever the challenge is, there’s always something we can do. And how do we harness the energy to take those steps to move forward? And Warwick, you talked about not staying under the covers. How do you get out of bed and say, okay, what can I do? What am I going to accomplish and how do I make the world a better place or make my life better or what can I do? And so much of it is up to us. If we focus on what we can do, I think it’s a lot better life going forward.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

That sound you just heard, listener, is the captain turning on the fasten seatbelt sign indicating that we’re beginning our descent to land the plane of the show. I was going to use some cute cross-country skiing metaphor, but frankly, I don’t know any because I’ve never been cross-country skiing, so I didn’t want to embarrass myself and try to do that. I’ve been on planes, I know what happens. Captain turns on the fasten seatbelt sign, says it’s about time to land. We’re not going to land yet though. Warwick’s going to have another question or two. But Bill, I would be remiss if I did not give you the chance to let listeners know how they can find out more about what you do to raise money for Parkinson’s. How can they find out more? Is there a website someplace they can go to find out more?

 

Bill Brown:

Sure. Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. If you go to their website and go to Team Fox and then search on my name, you should be able to find what we’re doing.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Great. Warwick, take us home.

 

Warwick Fairfax:

Yeah. Well, thank you, Bill, for being here. I was just so inspired by your talk at Harvard Business School and how you’ve just really used your pain for a purpose. You haven’t given up on life. You’ve still cross-country skied raising money for Parkinson’s. And just your attitude to life is an inspiration for so many. I love what you say, focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. It’s easy to look back and for me, I don’t know, 150-old family media business, what could have happened? And, gee, all of the stupid mistakes I made. It’s not the same, but you can’t look back, you can’t change what happened. But yeah, even for me, I think crucibles can give you a degree of empathy and compassion, which I think it has for me. I am less judgmental of people because, look, we all make big mistakes, bad things happen.

And so, your attitude to life is such an inspiration, so many lessons. Having a supportive family, having values and beliefs can be a huge foundation. Having a supportive family, unconditional love is massive. So just thank you for what you’re doing beyond just raising money for Parkinson’s, which is huge, but continue to cross-country ski and living life, showing that Parkinson’s is not a death sentence. That when you go through a tragedy, it doesn’t have to be the end of your story. You can use it for a purpose, you can continue to live and be optimistic. And just by being you, you’re an inspiration. You don’t have to do anything other than be Bill Brown, and that’s an inspiration to so many.

So I guess, maybe not so much a question than a commendation. There’s a lot that we all can learn from you and how you live your life and your attitude to life. You may not think it’s remarkable, but I think most of the rest of us think it’s pretty remarkable. You probably heard that before, but it is remarkable. There’s a lot all of us can learn, as Gary rightly says. Beyond just people that have Parkinson’s, anybody that deals with tragedy, which is most of us, and have had challenges in life, there’s a lot we can learn from your attitude to life. It’s truly inspiring.

 

Bill Brown:

Well, thank you very much. I appreciate it and thanks for the opportunity to be on this podcast.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Okay, I can do this. The plane’s on the ground, but I also could say we crossed the finish line, because I think there’s probably-

 

Bill Brown:

That’s where I thought you were going to go.

 

Gary Schneeberger:

Yeah. Oh, there you go. Thank you for reinforcing my decision to say we’ve crossed the finish line. And listeners, what that means is that we have wrapped another episode of Beyond the Crucible. And until we meet next time, please remember this truth that we’ve unpacked here in our conversation with Bill Brown and that is this: Crucibles are difficult. They’re tough, they’re hard. They can be things that you think about a lot. Bill says he doesn’t go two minutes without thinking about his Parkinson’s. Sometimes they can be good thoughts, sometimes they can be not so good thoughts. So we know it’s difficult, we know it’s hard, but we also know through the experience that we’ve had, through the experience Bill has had, and through the experience all the guests that we’ve talked to on the show, now in its 140 something episode, we know that those bad experiences, those traumas, tragedies, setbacks, failures do not have to be the end of your story. They can in fact be the beginning of a new story.

If you learn the lessons of your crucible, you apply those lessons and you keep doing exactly what Bill has done, keep moving forward. Maybe you’re not going to ski forward, maybe you’re not a skier, but keep moving forward. If you do that and you dedicate yourself to a life of significance, the next act, the next story that you live out will be the most rewarding one yet. Because where it ends is at that life of significance.