21 March 2013

His Final Mile

My phone rang Tuesday morning with unfathomable news. Rocket John ran his final mile on Sunday. Rocket John is dead.

It’s too harsh to say it so bluntly, but the news was harsh, it hurt too much to hear, and it so defies belief that it’s almost necessary to be blunt to make it comprehendible. John Tanner, the real person behind my blog moniker for him, a man with heart of gold, a runner extraordinaire, and my dear friend, collapsed and died in the New York City Half Marathon on Sunday, somewhere in lower Manhattan. His loving companion, heading to meet him happily at the finish line, instead got the phone call from hell, the hospital calling to report that her man was down. Out of the blue, her life turned to hell. And if living through the worst day of her life wasn’t enough, she had to make the calls like the one I received on Tuesday, reliving the horror each time; calls that passed on the horror, but settled little. Too many unanswered questions remained, too huge of a hole blown in her life, his family’s life, our lives, no warning.

The irony is that had the Winter Without End not delivered yet another big snowstorm on Tuesday, a day before spring, had we been out early as usual, had we read the morning paper, we might have already learned anonymously, harshly, without context, since the early “arrangements incomplete” notice was already in there. But I am thankful that it did snow, school was called off, I worked from my home office, and we didn’t go out, didn’t pick up the paper, and didn’t see it before that phone call. That incomplete story in hard black and white would have been even more impossible to comprehend and left me even more lost for words, emotions, prayers. And I am lost over this. When his companion called, my intuition said that something was wrong, but never could I have conceived of how wrong. As hard as that call was for both of us, I am thankful that she made it, that I had the chance to try to understand on a human level, rather than reading it in the news.

Stuff like this happens to other people, and not just other people, but really “other” other people. People you don’t know, you’ve never met, you only read about. Stuff like this doesn’t happen to your own people. It just can’t, they’re your people. But it did, and it happened to one of the finest.

John wasn’t other people. He was our people, my people. He was a fabulous training partner. But he was much more. He was the kind of friend with a free spirit who would gladly embark on any adventure with you. We teamed up countless times for carefree adventures, flinging off to races far and wide. When I had the crazy idea of getting on a boat to an island in February to run a twenty-miler…on one day’s notice, John was right there. How about a goofy indoor half marathon? Let’s go. And we were hours from departure for the New York Marathon last fall when Sandy finally forced reality on that event. John was to have been my “native guide”, having run New York several times. Now, if I ever do run it, there will be a hole in the experience I’ll never fill.

John dove in with two feet. A week before New York, as Sandy spat her early rain on New England, we hit the roads for a few miles to discuss final logistics for our upcoming trip. I asked him if he’d gotten his last long run in, and he replied matter-of-factly that he had, that it had gone well, and that in fact he’d trained the entire marathon distance. It took a little more prying to eke out from him that he had, in fact, gone to Maine and run the Mount Desert Island Marathon, one of the toughest in the east, as a training run for New York. Besides making me laugh out loud at his athletic chutzpah, he reminded me once again that he wasn’t in the least afraid of working hard, and pushing himself just because that was a great way to live life.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a mere five years this month since I met him, with so many memories stacked up in so little time. The day I met him, he was a blur ahead of me, heading down the same road as I, with speed and power that told me I had to meet this guy. At his pace, catching him took just about all I had, and when I learned he was heading out on a twenty-miler at that clip, I was floored. Yet he was the definition of unassuming, simply out for a run, glad to chat, easy to strike up a friendship. A week later we teamed up for fifteen, and his amazing ability to slip instantly into warp speed earned him the Rocket John title I’d use when I began this blog a few months later.

But it wasn’t just that John was fast and strong, it was that he was contagious. From the start, his assumption was that anyone who ran was capable of so much more. I remember our third run together vividly, another long one at a pace I thought inconceivable. He convinced me it wasn’t at all inconceivable, and a few weeks later the confidence he gave me delivered my first sub-three-hour marathon at Boston. Thank you, John, your spirit lifted mine.

From John I learned tricks of the trade. A trash bag for shelter in the starting corral isn’t unusual, but just as in his work he could fix just about anything, John always found ways to make things work just a little bit better: make it a long contractor bag, and don’t forget the wide-mouthed bottle. Yeah, you get it. But I hadn’t thought of that. And he wore that bag better than anyone I’ve ever known. Now I’ll never don another long trash bag and carry another wide-mouthed bottle to the starting corral of Boston or any other race and not think of John.

In the midst of the long runs, the race excursions, and apr├Ęs-run chit-chat, it was always about his lady, his family, and what he could do for others. He was attached at the hip with his twin brother Jim, a sibling relationship that anyone would wish for and admire. He was passionate about helping a little boy named Nicholas who suffered from a rare disease. And from the start of the time I met him, I heard of the lovely lady who made his life whole, whom he’d bend over backwards to please. I on the other hand couldn’t touch his consistent positivity. He’d listen to my moaning and complaining about all sorts of things, soak it up, empathize, and we’d move on. But him? I can’t recall ever hearing him angry or speaking ill. We could all learn from his view on life.

John was only forty-seven, younger than I. I can’t avoid questioning whether I and my running friends are running into similar danger. I’m almost afraid to relate this tragedy to my non-running friends, knowing I’ll hear their dire predictions of how this happens all the time, how it’s often in the news, how I’m in for doom. But I know the science, and it doesn’t lie. We are indeed at a higher risk of catastrophic incidents during a race, even the healthy and well-trained among us like John. And sadly, incidents do happen. But we are paid back with hugely reduced risks of all sorts of problems during the other hours and days and weeks. And John would be the first to urge us onward, strive to improve ourselves, live our lives, and keep running.

For days we didn’t know what happened to John. Only today’s news confirmed it was his heart, but we’ll never really know why. Nor will we ever know if his running did him in, or in fact saved him; he may have gone down in a race, but for all we know, he could have gone down years before had he not been running and competing in those races. All we do know is that he reached the end of his course doing something he loved.

It’s ironic the term, “DNF”, or “Did Not Finish”. John finished his final mile during that race, and he left us indelible memories of a truly good person. John, we will always remember you, remember the impact you had on our lives, and we will miss you.

Link to New York Times article on John’s Death

Link to John’s obituary

Link to the Nicholas Research Fund web site, the charity John was passionate about

07 March 2013


Context is everything. Ordinary activities put into a different context turn interesting, both to the person doing them, and to people around. Turning things interesting keeps things fresh. And keeping things fresh makes all the difference when life grinds hard and winter refuses to back off. So take a couple of ordinary activities and events like a run in the woods and a couple of lost dogs, and put them in a different context, and with a bit of a stretch, you can conjure a story.

As I write, the storm that won’t leave, which is also the storm that doesn’t seem to want to arrive, continues to blow, and the snow that was promised to start in earnest over twenty-four hours ago is still trying to work up its motivation to accumulate. Now take that ordinary event and put it in the context of surviving a winter full of such storms, barely clothed, barely fed, barely sheltered, two-hundred and thirty-three years ago. You’re in the Continental Army, and for the second time in three years, your leader, General Washington, has elected to ride out the winter, this time the most brutal in memory, in the hills and hollows near Morristown, New Jersey.

Imagine your joy when March finally arrives. I often refer to the Dark Period, that sixty days from January First till March First, as an ordeal. It’s nothing compared to what these men faced. No matter how brutal the weather at Martha’s Vineyard or Hyannis, I’ve got a hot shower. They weren’t so lucky. As the story goes, they endured twenty snowstorms in December 1779 alone.

This occurred to me when I found myself running the trails of Morristown National Historical Park on what happened to be March First, a day that couldn’t decide whether to break with sun or spit with snow, but to me, it was the end of the dark period. Spring was clearly banging at the door, despite tonight’s aforementioned storm (hey, it’ll melt soon, right?). Certainly those men of the American Revolution were still cold, but turning the calendar to March must have lifted their spirits.

Being out on the trails certainly lifted my spirits. On day seventeen of a stretch where I’d spent all of two full days at home, and on wrapping up a week of business in New Jersey, weariness was setting in. Granted, two of those days away were for races already documented here, and other on-the-road runs help maintain sanity, like an icy Maine morning slog and the evening set of mile repeats at the high school near our Jersey headquarters. But by Friday afternoon, burnt was an apt description, so knowing there was nothing but highway to fill the afternoon, there was no logical reason not to delay those miles of pavement in order to soak up some limes of historic ground before heading for home. Keep it fresh.

The park consists of a couple of almost non-contiguous chunks of land surrounded by modern mansions of wealth. What was a secluded series of hidden glens edged with heights ideal for watching for the enemy is now a secluded series of hidden glens edged with the heights of consumption and sumptuous living. It’s not an expansive place, so to get in a satisfying number of miles I set off from the southern part known as the New Jersey Brigade area. The terrain easily lived up to the hills that Google Maps had billed, rising and falling excessively, never allowing for any rhythm establishment. But this wasn’t a place to worry about rhythm, it was a place to kick back, slow down, and soak up the surprisingly open woods, bared by winter of nearly all underbrush, while marveling at the extent of Hurricane Sandy damage so far inland. That unfathomable level of timber destruction was in fact a theme of the entire week in the area.

A small river, more hills, and a road brought me into the main part of the park, known as the Jockey Hollow area, but still trail-bound, away from the attractions of the park. Not that those spots had done any attracting. I may have been thinking spring, but the feeling clearly wasn’t universal. By the time I’d finished my ninety-minute jaunt, I still had fingers left over after counting all the people I encountered, which was why I was surprised to be greeted by two friendly and enthusiastic canines on a deserted stretch of trail. Two canines who decided to become running companions, who fell into my stride like they’d known me forever. I expected to find their people around the next bend, but no people. A half mile, two people, but not their people. A mile or more later, including several tries to send them off to…where? Where could I send them? Mattered not, they stuck like glue, so onward, hoping to find their people, but…nobody.

Lost dogs aren’t rare, nor are dogs running trails. But there’s something ironic finding yourself as the stranger in town, wandering unknown turf in the role of Pied Piper to a couple of obviously well-cared for yet clearly lost pets. You can’t ignore them, especially as they’re following you further from their home. One might say I stepped in it; visiting Bostonian now has local responsibility. A problem? Yes, but at least an enjoyable one, being led by a little white a creature of boundless energy, constantly fifteen feet ahead on the trail, that I’m guessing was a schnoodle, and trailed by a chocolate lab, lively at the start, but who by the end of this odyssey would hit the wall in exhaustion and be put to shame by his small friend.

Knowing that losing them – and not knowing their fate – might be worse than leading them further, I pulled a phone number from their tags and played mental games to commit it to memory so as to at least report when later reunited with a phone. Fortunately, a couple of phone-equipped humans appeared a half mile later, and in no time we’d arranged a rendezvous at the next road crossing where a hugely relieved owner met me to retrieve Sage and Lovey, who were indeed quite lost, someone apparently having left a door open.

Headline: Stranger from afar effects not-terribly-heroic but certainly appreciated dog rescue from the deserted woods of a historic national park. Common event, but the context made it kind of interesting. I’m sure the local news would have made it into a nice human-interest story, but instead I slinked off back into the woods, checked out a bit more of the park, soaked up the history as well as some errant precipitation, and, slightly damp and cold, went home, happy to have had an eventful afternoon to keep it fresh.