Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Friendships Forged on the Trail

I have often wondered what it is about our sport that nurtures such incredible friendships. I can honestly say that some of my best friends in the world are ultrarunners. In fact, they are actually some of my only friends. As much as it’s hard for me admit, even though I spend my days among literally hundreds of people, I would not consider many of them friends. It’s odd, really, but true nonetheless.

The extraordinary thing is that the friends I’ve made through this sport are not people I spend a whole lot of time with. Some of them I see once or twice a year and yet, when we are together, it is like we see each other all the time. Perhaps it is because we are united in this unusual endeavor or that we seek the same answers to life’s perplexing questions. However, whatever it is, I know that my best friends run, they run long, and they love to share the joy of running long with me. In most cases, that’s all I need in a friend. Strange, I know, but true.

First, there’s Tom. He basically taught me how to run. Spending countless hours together on the Angeles Crest course in the late ‘90’s cemented our friendship and taught me most of what I know about running ultras. Tom taught me how to eat, pace, talk, act, and, most of all, run downhill. Tom shared with me secrets of strategy in the late stages of a 100 miler as well as how not to get too caught up in the moment. In the 2006 Western States Tom and I shared the trail through the canyons and survived the heat together. It was a moment of solidarity that I do not think I could replicate in any other part of my life. Tom, my friend, here’s to you; mentor, friend, role model. In an age when we have fewer and fewer people to truly look up to I hope you know that you will always be the Gold Standard for me.

Second, there’s Craig. This guy is a true Pied Piper and a pure connector. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his bestselling book, “The Tipping Point”, the success or failure of most of life’s ventures rest in the hands of the “connectors.” These are the people who bring people together and keep them together. They unite people around a common cause and celebrate others’ accomplishments more than their own. My friend Craig does this in spades! Seeing him cheer his good friend Ed on to a 24-hour finish at Western States or watching in awe as he supported and cajoled countless runners to the finish line at Western States over the years assured his status to me as the consummate connector. Add to that the annual post-Way Too Cool Karaoke party at the Georgetown Hotel and the “Blichigan Muff” training camp every spring and you have a guy who knows how to bring people together in meaningful ways. Just being around Craig makes me feel better and I will never forget his comment upon finishing Western States this year, “I kept waiting for the carnage until I realized the carnage was me.” Craig, here’s to you, our connections, and the brotherhood of the trail.

Third, there’s Graham; family man, professional guy, nutcase! Honestly, I thought he was toast at Western States this year after he told me he had traveled to nine countries in seven days to take his company public in mid-April. I should have known better. After a burst of training and his usual preparation which includes running long distances in intense heat wearing his “bank robber costume” and spending way too much time in ice baths he pulled off a third place finish and sent me away with my tail between my legs. Of course, after pulling my tail out we spent a wonderful day on the track in Auburn, cheering in the runners and reveling in our families. Not only do Graham and I understand each other, but even worse, our wives accept and even embrace the insanity of this sport. It’s certainly a bit odd but we are actually united in the silliness of it all. At the end of the day, that brings us closer together in ways that I can’t quite explain but can’t ignore either. Graham, here’s to you, your family, and the battle that awaits next year!

Finally, there’s Joe. I first met Joe at the Vermont 100 in 2002 and couldn’t believe he was passing me at Mile 32. Of course, a year later this same guy was breaking the Grand Slam record and doing so in style. What the heck? Here was this Philly boy, moved to Colorado, taking the sport by storm. What could be better? Damn! Then, of course, he starts talking smack about 30 mile weeks, long junkets on the tab of the insurance industry, and the inevitable decline of Western Civilization. Of course, in the midst of all this, I realized I was making a friend, a good one. This was confirmed at Western States 2005 when I managed to finish 8 minutes and 59 seconds ahead of Joe (but who’s counting?). It was the pinnacle of my athletic career and when Joe finished he ran to me with congratulations. Joe, here’s to you, our smack talk, your sandbagging, and the glory of what once was and what will always be.

I, of course, could go on for days with this list but I hope my theme is clear. This sport has given me friendships to last a lifetime. Friendships forged through hard work, competition, and shared pain. I hope that you can all feel the same thing. We runners are a strange lot and sometimes we find comfort in strange places. For me, the four friends above and countless others have shown me the power of friendship. It is a power I would not know were it not for our sport. For that, I am truly thankful.

(Writer’s Note: The last names of the four men described above have been intentionally omitted to protect the innocent)

8 comments:

Trail Goat said...

Yeah, definitely no idea who Tom, Craig, Graham, and Joe are. ;-) The two that I know personally are certainly great people. From what I know of the other two, they are both class acts. You are truly fortunate to call them friends... and vice versa.

Gretchen said...

If the accounts of others can be trusted, you too are a "connector" Andy, in addition to your personal accomplishments. Perhaps that's why you have such appreciation for those relationships. Here's to YOU.

Bob Gentile said...

Great post Andy... I am new to this sport but learned pretty quickly the overall character of this ultra community was something I wanted to be part of and for many years to come.

I am mental-lol umm I mean I like to explore my mental side, I like to hang with those that like to push themselves beyond their limits and have a good spirit...and I don't like crowds... hence hello Ultra land :-)

See ya on the trails AJW!

Scott Dunlap said...

Great post, Andy. I bet you will find the blogging world to be an interesting contributor to this. I find myself giving hugs to strangers at the starting line because I have gotten to know them so well online, and know that we share the same passion for ultrarunning.

I know some of the guys you speak of, and they wouldn't call you a friend unless you were a class act yourself. Cheers to you, and hope you are well.

SD

olga said...

Like yes, we don't know either one of them...or don't consider them and you to be best friends ever:) I so can write about this topic endlessly, I am afarid the readers from my blog are already tired. BTW, Craig keeps the tape from one of those karaoke party where you sang...after a beer or few...I wonder what it'll take for him to release it:)

Mark Tanaka (Ultrailnakaman) said...

Nice post, Andy. Your *mystery* friends are top-class. Maybe I can show it to my wife to demonstrate that all this all this running actually makes me more communicative and empathic and fun to shop with... Definitely why I prefer ultra trail running to those impersonal marathons I used to run.

I am still waiting for the bear hug from Scott, though.

davidultra49 said...

Olga told me about your post and said I had to read it. Great read. I feel like you really connected with everyone in this post. As we have all had similar expieriences.

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