“You’re like a dad to me,” I told Gary as we ran side by side in the middle of a lightning storm. “If this is it, at least we’re here together.”
Gary scowled and said: “Shut up and keep moving. Don’t talk to me till we’re in the van at the top.”
I met Gary, a 65-year-old ultra-runner, when I was 38 and new to the running community in Boulder, Colo., where he had been running since the 1970s.
He became my friend and unofficial coach. He believed I could complete my first Pikes Peak Ascent, a 13.3-mile race with a nearly 8,000-foot increase in elevation. He also believed I could bounce back from a job loss and a bad breakup. No matter the challenge, his mantra was the same: “You can do it, kid. I have faith in you.”
I’ve always craved that kind of encouragement. Growing up, I saw my parents fight viciously. My mother would retreat to her room, her friends, shopping trips. My father was usually at the hospital working or punching a hole in a wall at home. I was scared of my father, yet craved his approval. I hung on to the every word of friends’ dads who told them they did a great job on the soccer field or after acing a test.
Weddings have always made me sad, because I know that if I were ever to tie the knot, I would not have a father who would walk me down the aisle. When my father got remarried, he and his wife cut off contact with me and my brother. We were no longer relevant.
But in my adult life, I’ve had Gary and other father figures who would accompany me down the running trails of life, single as I was. They had my back. These men have treated me like a daughter, doling out wisdom, guidance and support that I lacked.
It was Gary who encouraged me to make a big move to California, where I soon met Mike, another ultra-runner in his 50s. His belief in me helped me persevere even when I bit off more than I could chew: long races, challenging work projects, breaking up with the wrong men.
“I’ll be right behind you,” he said one night in the Oakland Hills as we put on our headlamps and ran through the dark fog and light rain. The trail was muddy and steep. I was scared of falling into the ravines at both sides. “See, not so bad, right? he said, once we made it to flatter ground. “I think you earned that vanilla latte.”
Ten years later, I’m back in Colorado, running without Gary. He has Parkinson’s disease now and can’t run. But I think of him every time I train for my yearly race up Pikes Peak.
On a warm July morning, I run into Jay, who at a wiry and super-fit 70, is hard to keep up with. Like Gary and Mike, he offers both comforting silence as well as good advice as we head out on the trail.
But I’m exhausted from the hot flashes that have come out of nowhere to invade my days and nights. So much for thinking I could somehow escape aging and the menopause that has finally hit me at 50!
“I’m just tired,” I say, as we take a quick break. “I don’t want to complain, and I know you can handle it, but … I think I’m in menopause and it just sucks.”
He looks at me and smiles. “I know it’s rough,” he says. “My wife still struggles with that.”
I try to hold back tears and fail.
“Hey, it’s going to be okay,” he says. “Look, it’s a beautiful day, you’re going to have a great run. You’ll get through this. You can do Pikes Peak, you can do anything. I have faith in you.”
It sounds corny, but it’s what I needed to hear. Wiping the tears with my hat, I adjusted my CamelBak and headed up the trail.