Almost twenty years ago, two random events set me on the path to running marathons.
The first was my son, then about four, patting me on the stomach and asking: “Daddy, are you going to have a baby?” The second was a suggestion from my office-mate, Richard Saunders that I take up running as a “fun, healthy activity.”
“Running?” I said, “FUN? You’ve got to be kidding.” The only running I’d done was in high-school PE, and much of that was as a punishment for acting up. I shot him a skeptical frown.
He laughed. “Get your butt out there, Lightfoot” he said, “and you’ll see.”
I was reluctant, but he persisted, pestering me with me books with titles the like the “Joy of Jogging,” “Running for Dummies,” and “Finding the Shoe that is You.” To me, these looked suspiciously like masochism manuals and a reason to buy overpriced Keds.
“Tell me,” I once asked him. “Do you get a commission from Nike?” He shook his head and handed me another book, something like “The Zen of Stretching .”
I finally succumbed to his salesmanship and said I’d give running a try. He smiled.
He was a tireless enthusiast of an active lifestyle and a man who sought adventure. It was his religion, his passion, and he wanted to share the gospel of salvation-through-sweat with me.
Richard Saunders died this week. His passing was unexpected, and left his many friends stunned and saddened. But this isn’t a piece about his death. It’s a celebration of how he lived, which was quite fully, and how he changed me.
I’m in Shasta County because of Richard. He was on the hiring committee that offered me my job, and in the intervening years he was my mentor. He was a committed professional, always exploring new methods and tools. He helped me become a better teacher. But equally important, he showed me that no matter what your age, you can get out there and pound the pavement.
Much to my surprise I found that I liked running—I’m one of those people who gets an adrenaline rush. I I embraced running. It trimmed my waistline, and it gave me a way to enjoy the solitude of Shasta’s trails. Running became my meditation-in-motion.
Thanks to Richard’s encouragement I was a changed man. I felt full of energy on even the longest day. So through my late 30’s and into my 40’s I awoke in the wee-dark hours, pulled on my waffle-souled shoes, and jogged for an hour or more. On weekends I’d stay out three, four or more hours.
As I grew to love the sport Richard would invite me to run with him, and I did. But even though he was many years my senior, he’d leave me in the dust with his speed. Then he’d double-back to jog with me, sometimes running backwards to encourage me.
The show off.
We also did some water-sports together. This was at a time I was in peak physical form.
Or so I thought.
Richard loaned me a kayak, brought me to a mountain stream, and we took off. It was everything I could do to keep up with him. Even though we were paddling downstream, by the halfway mark, I was spent. But I didn’t want to admit it to him, so I hung in there, my tail dragging.
I lost sight of him. I caught up only because he’d pulled over and waited for me.
“Get your butt up here, Lightfoot,” he said. And by-and-by, I did.
The next week my arms ached so much I thought they were going to fall off.
Hanging in there… Richard knew a lot about this, too. He made physical activity look easy, but worked hard to achieve his prowess. He once told me that his determination came from his dicey genetic heritage—many of the men in his family died in their early 50s—and he was determined to last longer than that. He became a fitness fanatic and lived on a regimented diet to control his cholesterol. Even so, he had to endure the pain of bypass surgery because his body fought him at every turn. But despite all this, he always sported a smile.
Richard was one of the happiest, most “alive” people I’ve ever met.
He cheered me on as I got more and more serious about running. Instead of loaning me his books he gave me my own copies, bearing inscriptions that saluted my efforts and encouraged me to even more ambitious levels.
So it was Richard who set me on the path to running marathons. I did this because I wanted to do something that would push me to my limits, and I did it because I wanted to impress my friend.
I entered the San Francisco marathon, finished almost dead last, and found myself in physical therapy with a torn muscle. I learned that part of running is recovering from injuries, something that Richard could relate to. He told me to stay with it, and he knew what he was talking about. Over the years he took his share of tumbles, but recovered and was back out there on the trails, streams and mountaintops. He was inspiring.
Richard’s love of the outdoors led him to move to Mount Shasta. For the last few years of his teaching career, he and his wife Judy commuted out of the hills to work at Shasta College. He urged his friends to visit him, and so occasionally I did. I found him a contented man, living in the mountains he loved. He skied, hiked, ran, biked, fished and generally ate up all that the area had to offer. Just last month he called me up and invited me to come up and enjoy some mountain activities. I took a rain check on his generous offer, planning to visit in the summer when I wasn’t so busy.
The Yiddish proverb says that man plans and the gods laugh.
Several years ago, I developed trouble with my knees. A decade of daily running—and thousands of miles without cross-training—caused an injury that forced me to abandon plans to run my 10th marathon. I went it for a checkup. The orthopedist examined me, shook his head, and told me to give up “impact activities.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
My doctor took a sudden interest in his clipboard, avoiding my gaze. “You’ve got to stop running,” he said.
I was stunned. Something I’d come to love was suddenly taken away. I wasn’t buying it.
“Can’t I just cut back?”
My doctor shrugged. “Depends on whether you want to walk in your old age.” He stood to leave. “You’ve got very little cartilage left.”
For a month, I took his unwelcome advice and I kept my Nike’s in the closet. Then I tried a brief-and-easy short run.
I could hardly walk the next day.
Reluctantly, I stopped. Then I experienced the oh-so-typical ex-runner’s withdrawal symptoms. Most noticeable was a general, industrial-strength irritability. I griped and moaned until my family got sick of hearing it.
That’s when I called Richard to complain. He was the one person I knew would understand.
He told me that he, too, had to scale back his running. Mr. Always-Adaptable had taken up cycling. And like everything he did, Richard threw himself into all-out.
I tried taking his advice but couldn’t this time. In the months and years that followed I fell off my workout schedule, and back-slid away from fitness. My wardrobe migrated from mediums to large, and headed into the dreaded Land-of-X—the extra-large.
I was at a loss of what to do.
Embarrassed, I avoided my fitness-friends in general and Richard in particular. I dropped off the radar and quit calling him.
Until the day he called me check in.
I fessed up, and Richard was non-judgmental and entirely understanding. But he did urge me to find another way back into the great outdoors. On his advice, I began reading about “running for seniors.”
It’s not easy to age gracefully, but part of the challenge is an honest assessment of what you can and can’t do. Richard had that all figured out. With his encouragement, I found a way of running that didn’t bother my knees. Yes, I’m going against the advice of my orthopedic surgeon. But since August, I’ve been out there about an hour a day and twice that on weekends. And I can still walk the next day.
Thanks again, Richard. The Pose Method really works.
I’m slower by far than I once was, but I’ve been training up, hoping to get up to speed to get on the trails again with my friends. I was hoping to surprise Richard with an invitation to a “fun run.”
But now that’s not going to happen.
The news of his death took the wind out of me this morning, and I almost skipped my training. I was feeling morose and angry—he was only 69 and deserved so much more. I occupied myself by digging up pictures of him, and letting our mutual acquaintances know of his passing.
I thought I could take a day off from running. I figured I had a pretty good reason to just stay home. Who needs to be out there on that ice-covered road anyway, I thought.
But then I heard a small voice, sounding a lot like my old friend. And it told me to “get your butt out there, Lightfoot.” So I did.
And it made me feel better.
Thanks for everything Richard, and I’m sorry we didn’t get out there for our long-delayed run.
I’ll do an extra lap for you.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe – “Or So it Seems™” – Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County.