Note: I wrote this post before the tragic helicopter crash in Calabasas near one of my old running trails, but the message still somehow applies. RIP to Kobe, his daughter, and all who died in such a terrible accident.
When I was fourteen, Shawn invited me to run a 15k in Memphis at Oktoberfest, and since there was little adventure in our small-town Arkansas life I quickly agreed. I was bright enough to know that fifteen kilometers equaled 9.3 miles but not yet bright enough to prepare by running more than three miles in advance. Coach Watson warned us, but we were invincible junior high schoolers, so we weren’t worried.
We rose in the early morning darkness and rode the hour and a half to Memphis in a custom van with Ethan and Everett. We thought both men were ancient, although I realize now that Ethan was only fifty-three (and Everett sixty-seven). Ethan was a legend in our hometown, completing over forty marathons, including three Bostons, and Everett was a legend in several ways—college football at LSU, one-time world record holder for sit-ups, pole vaulter in the Senior Olympics. We were unable to comprehend our great privilege.
The race was something else. I had only run a couple of local 5ks, so this was the first time I had experienced the exhilaration of a major race with a thousand runners—much less the distance. Filled with adrenaline we started way too fast, and at the second mile marker I could not breathe, where it occurred to me that I still had over seven miles to go. So I let Shawn, the far better runner, go on while I slowed the pace to focus on survival. I never stopped, in spite of the monster incline up Riverside Drive near the end. I may not be a natural runner, but I am naturally stubborn.
Last weekend, thirty-five years later, I remembered that race on a seven-mile run at Percy Warner Park, alone in nature with my memories. The trail is hilly, and the temperature was frigid, and as my aging body huffed and puffed up a small mountain I remembered Shawn’s impression of the whistling sound Ethan made as he inevitably caught and passed us at each race. I had to laugh. At an overlook at the top of a major hill I stopped to gaze at the Tennessee winter forest and realized that I love Ethan and Everett now more than ever. I was in California when each passed and could not pay respects in person, but they helped shape my life. And then I thought of Shawn, killed in that tragic automobile accident so long ago. My very first running buddy.
The cold and the hills and the memories combined to bring tears to my eyes. I realized that I am the only one left from that 1984 Oktoberfest quartet, the only one left even to remember.
I decided to dedicate the run to my old friends (may they be somewhere running in peace), so I turned from the overlook and hit the trail again—alone. Not sure why I am the only one still on the course, but as long as I can I’ll keep running.