willie was my training partner a million years ago. i hadn’t thought about him in a long, long time. until today.
i’ve just noticed he’s setting 4 feet away from me at my picnic table.
willie and i ran a lot together during my best two years of marathon training back in 1985 and ’86. we were living in georgetown, a little mayberry north of austin. he was older than me, but a strong runner. we would meet on saturdays for those 20-mile grinds, starting at san gabriel park and heading out the roller coaster of farm roads into the texas wilderness. he was a big part of the reason i got faster during that period. no excuses, no shortcuts. miles in the bank every week. just a truly nice guy to hang out with at 7 mph on a saturday morning.
then we would meet again on sundays for fun run day. shaking out the cobwebs with 4 or 5 miles with a couple of other guys before heading to mcdonald’s for breakfast. health nuts. it was a back-to-back weekend you could build a solid program around. and make a friend for life in the process. that was us. and then.
i moved to phoenix.
a one-year detour lasted a quarter-century. i’m not a people person, so i never kept up with him. he became one of those memories that you tuck away in a safe place to pull out on a special occasion.
which was today. here. at this picnic table.
mo and i are basking in the aftermath of the navidad valley cattlewomen’s 5k ranch run in schulenburg, texas. it’s a tiny town holding one of those celebrations that features a parade, carnival, rodeo, cow-chip tossing, and of course a 5k.
it’s an old, old school race. no chip timing (other than the cow chips). director says go, you run 3.1 miles, and as you come across the finish, they call out your time. you remember it, write it on a piece of paper along with your name, and drop it in the appropriate age-group tupperware container. it’s a joy.
as we’re waiting for the awards ceremony, i see him sitting two people down. it’s startling; a ghost from a different life. i whisper to mo, “i know that guy. he’s my old running partner.” mo wants me to talk to him. yeah, right.
longtime readers will recall that i’m a bit of a recluse. i avoid chatting with people at all costs. strike up a conversation with someone i haven’t talked to in 30 years? this will not be happening.
mo is insistent; i give her the death stare. i win. we wait for the awards. and then i realize. they’re going to call my name. he’ll be on to me. but it occurs to me that i’ve entered the race under the benjie katz alias. i have it made.
age groups pass ever so slowly. mo, who insisted we run the race together until about 200 yards after the start when she dropped me like a rock and never looked back, misses placing by a minute. and then the old guy category. i take third in 60-69 by virtue of still being alive.
and then they call up willie. he has won the over 70 category. i watch him get his award and motion to mo that i’m ready to leave. my getaway is secure.
and then i find myself walking over to him and shaking his hand.
“hey, willie. do you remember me? gary. we ran a million miles together in georgetown.”
he’s suddenly the kid under the christmas tree who has found his parents didn’t get him (ugh) books for christmas. huge smile. eyes light up. and there we are, right back in 1986.
we spend a few minutes doing the “wow i can’t believe it’s you” thing. we introduce our wives and talk about the old days. the sun run. the time i was picking up cans during our long run and putting them in my pack without realizing they were full of ants. the other guys we ran with. (what WAS his name? i’m getting old.) that easy feeling of looking someone in the eye who has the same love as you. the same memories.
willie’s 82 now and still going strong. he’s on a quest to run a race in every county in texas. there are 254; he’s notched 150 already. i wouldn’t bet against him. which is how he ended up in this little town on a crazy-hot august day. i’m still not sure what led US to be here. i’m chalking it up to the running gods.
we talk for a while and then say goodbye. did i ever mention i’m not much at socializing? but it was a godsend. it’s been sort of a hard stretch lately. mo dragged me out of bed at 3 a.m. against my will to make it to the race. “you need this run,” she said. mo is wise. i left town the happiest i’ve been in a long time.
you never know where you’ll find a miracle. sometimes it’s sitting next to you at a picnic table in schulenburg. thanks, willie. see you next time. and, yes, i’ll say hello …
p.s. never, ever challenge mo to a kolache-eating contest. you will lose.