Nine Mile Mill at Percy Warner Park killed a friend of mine. One October morning, two years ago, Joe Barton found himself struggling to keep up with a group of fellow runners, which was unusual for Joe. Then, while running up the steep, meandering incline of Nine Mile Hill, he staggered for a few steps and then collapsed. Paramedics said he died before he even hit the ground. As it turned out, Joe had a heart condition that he probably inherited.
Joe was part of a group of us who met on Sundays to run anywhere from 12 to 20 miles. For a lot of us, the time spent was a lot like church. We never missed it, and, if we did, we felt guilty about it. Competitive runners typically pick one day out of the week when they run long distances, which trains your body to burn fuel, transport oxygen to your muscles and stave off fatigue. It’s the one staple of distance training that everyone practices. In fact, if you do your long runs, you can eat poorly, drink too much, sleep too little and still win races. So it is that runners view their long weekly runs with an almost spiritual reverence.
Running long distances is often fun, but occasionally it’s an incredible drag. If you have people to run with, even for a short while, the time moves a little faster.
But there’s more to the socialization that develops with fellow runners. Runners get attached. They bond. They stick. Part of it has to do with the shared sense of pain along long runs, the joy of tackling something difficult together, and the long conservations that ensue while on the road. Truth be told, I never did much with Joe other than take these long runs. That said, I was closer to him than half of my friends.
Joe died on one of those Sunday group runs. I was not there. That particular weekend, as it turned out, I had taken my long run the day before. In retrospect, I don’t know if I wish I would have been there with Joe or not. I don’t think I could have done anything, but a part of me just wants to have seen him one more time.
Joe was a great guyaffable, passionate, colorful, just flat-out fun to be around. Though in his 50s, he often kept up with guys half his age and twice his ability, cruising through the park at a six- or seven-minute-per-mile pace and gabbing more than any of us. He was a dedicated musicianand an even more dedicated conservativewhich was an unusual coupling of identities that he blended with ease. He cared about everybody in the grouptheir road races, their jobs, their love lives. And while he was older than all of us, he did not try to act like a father-figure. He was just one of the guys.
Joe pulled it off. He liked me too, although he often accused me of being too liberal, something that only he would say. (I have voted for Republicans, as a point of reference.) Of course, Joe’s politics lurched toward the way, way right. He thought it was unpatriotic for me to drive a Honda. Meanwhile, he drove an old, domestic carI think it was a Chevy Corsicaand often wore red, white and blue running shorts. I’m not sure he ever washed them.
While running up and down Percy’s steep hills, dodging loose stones and the tangled roots that crisscross the trails, we’d argue about presidential and local politics, whether the Scene veered too far to the left, or how he could like really bad movies like Pearl Harbor. (It probably had something to do with how the Japanese got it at the end of the film.)
Like most of this city’s runners, Joe had a love affair with Percy Warner Park. I don’t think I ever ran with him anywhere else. After his death, my friend Eric and I ran a local road race and made sure we both crossed the finish line first. The next day, on another one of those Sunday group runs, a few of us ran up to Nine Mile Hill and stopped for a while. It was the first morning that really felt like fall. A crisp breeze swept out the summer’s lingering humidity. It was about 50 degrees. Eric and I placed our trophies on the side of the road and someone else tossed a wreath. We said some nice things about our friend. Then there was a moment of silence.
And then another moment. Nobody wanted to be the first to break the silence. We started feeling a bit awkward. Finally, Eric spoke. “OK, time to go.” And like that, we did. Joe would have been pleased with such a no-nonsense declaration. You don’t need to make a fuss over people, he might have said.
We ran the hills and trails of the park that day, winding through steep trails and eating up the park’s never-ending waves of inclines. Joe was great and we all missed him. But he would have been first to say the run goes on.
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