once when i was a pup, i found myself in a stage race from reno to san francisco with a pack of world-class runners. i was decidedly NOT a world-class runner, but a few mortals were allowed to run the race along with these ultragods from around the world.
we ran a trail marathon a day for a week, with stages that included donner pass, part of the western states course, and the dipsea trail. crazy hard.
the funniest part of the race was the golden corral. we only got one meal a day, and that was it. try feeding a pack of guys who are running a marathon a day and eating nothing else but a slice of toast for breakfast. those guys lost so much money on us. food never tasted so good.
i became designated beer fetcher for an old russian guy who apparently knew only one word in english: beer. he would point to me, say BEER and i would bring him one. it was an honor. i think.
the races went by in a blur. the mortals got a one-hour head start each day, but soon the big kids would come roaring past us, a pack of gazelles making their way through the water buffalo. it was a joy to watch them.
one of them was james zarei, an iranian native living in britain. james had won the 164-mile Spartathlon race twice and the Peace run in Japan three times. He was a legendary, super-fast runner. I had no business toting his shoes for him, much less pretending to be in the same race.
i fell in love with james at the end of the donner’s pass stage. it was mostly single track, and a stray dog on the course befriended him. he ran most of the race in terror (he said wild dogs are bad news in iran), but they became best friends by the end of the marathon. he had tags (the dog, not james), so the owner came to pick him up. james looked sad to see him go. i wonder if he has a dog now.
and then a few days into the race, he twisted his ankle, leaving him unable to run for a couple of days. we found ourselves staying that night in somebody’s home, and James and I shared a bedroom. unbelievably awkward. me, a run-of-the-mill 3:30 marathoner. him, someone who could effortlessly cruise through a six-day race at almost 100 miles per day.
but as we surveyed the room, he said to me, “You must take the bed closer to the bathroom. You are racing tomorrow and I’m not, so it will be a shorter walk for you.” I realized then that he thought of me as an equal. i have never felt so honored as a runner.
the next day, since he couldn’t run, he came out to crew. at one of the food stops, he gave me an orange and some advice that became my favorite mantra of all time: “don’t think of it as a slow run. think of it as a fast picnic.”
he’s the fastest runner i’ve ever slept with, and one of the nicest guys i’ve ever met. i have a lot of memories from the Tour of the Golden West, but the one that stays with me over the years is a slight man with a beard and an orange, helping me along the road because, well, that’s just what True Believers do. thanks, james. all these years later, i’m still loving the picnic.