Seeing an Old Friend on Race Day

The Across the Bay 12k was rebooted Sunday under a canopy of cloudless sky and above the uncharacteristically still waters of the San Francisco Bay. The meat of the race, which starts on the shores of Marin County at Fort Baker and finishes where the neoprene-skinned swimmers chase one another in Aquatic Park, happens over the best current example of why man exists: the 2.5-mile Art Deco span of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Whether you’re a runner, the opportunity to traverse such a landmark—the horizon’s violin bow bend of the Pacific to your right and the approachable San Francisco skyline on your left—is everything. The run reminds me there is no other metro that offers the apparent accessibility of San Francisco. LA is for careerists and Uber drivers and New York is an abundant but sneaky gray monster. San Francisco still shimmers with possibility.

I started running this race 18 years ago. Back then, it was me and my high school buddy Paul. We’d just graduated from college and he was hell-bent on dropping some pounds from his recent days playing offensive lineman. He traded in his knee and wrist wraps for running flats. He shed his old workout clothes like a snake as the pounds dripped away one bead of sweat at a time.

The race was called Houlihan’s to Houlihan’s then, named for the twin casual dining restaurants, one on Sausalito’s T-shirt-and-caramel-shop-centric waterfront and the other near Ghirardelli Square. Back then, running in North America was in a bit of a transition moment. The jogging movement had subsided and the spandex-and-fuel-belt-charity-run craze had at least another decade to fill out. Many of the runners my first across the bay were clad in sweats with the inexplicable short shorts as outer layer and more than one of the older gents stamped out a cigarette as the gun sounded.

Paul leapt from the start like he was late for a job interview. I paced him through mile one but started to lose ground as he bounded up the switchbacks toward the first orange tower. I recall marveling at his kick, heels clicking his backside, his stride elongating as he vanished over the heaving landmark’s hump. By the time I was a third of the way over the bridge, he was a mirage disappearing into the horizon.

We ran the race three more times together, each with similar results. Though my new running life was starting to take shape thanks to Paul, his legs got springier and more sure with each passing year. In 2000, he posted a personal best sub-45-minute time, good enough to win his age and weight divisions.

We didn’t take a post-race pic together before parting ways that day. On Sundays, he usually went to his folks’ place to do little laundry and wash his car. I don’t know what I did after, but likely it involved walking around my Berkeley neighborhood till I ended up in the record stacks of Amoeba, finishing off my afternoon with a slice at Blondie’s.

Paul relocated to New York that fall and less than a year after that, a plane crashed into his office building. He was gone. The world watched him disappear.

After his death, Paul’s family, friends and acquaintances ran the race in his honor, every year. And for years I said I was running it for him. But people change and circumstances change and reasons change. I think by the 10th running in Paul’s honor I’d forgotten what the race was about. To me, it was an attempt to post a personal best then drink as many beers as I could after to forget about who I was really out there for.

So last year, I took the race off. Robin was almost due and we weren’t in any shape or mood to travel, much less run. At least, that was the excuse I gave. The reality is, I still couldn’t remember why I ran in the first place. But I wasn’t the only one who’d lost focus. The race was cancelled three months later. The organizers of what had evolved into the Emerald Nuts Across the Bay 12k similarly ran out of steam. Attendance was off and local interest had started to wane.

While I was publicly sad on Facebook when the announcement came down, I was secretly relieved. I don’t think I was the only one. Many I spoke to said it had been a long time since they’d felt a purpose when running the race, and perhaps even longer since our group had channeled Paul or his bounding, screaming, happy gait.

For so many of us, life had shrunk to include only immediate families, jobs, house payments and about 2.5 minutes a day of solitude. The prospect of training for a proper race seemed as distant as those memories of Sundays with nothing to do but wander around, do laundry, wash cars and grab a slice.

Along with having a child, my father passed away last year. Fortunately, I had company in the transition moment. My sister and her husband, with a pair of teenagers, suddenly found themselves mid-epiphany: 1) They weren’t getting any younger 2) They’d soon be empty nesters and 3) Why not start running again?

They did. Boy did they.

Both have experienced the kind of physical transformation you expect to see only in diet pill ads on TV. They’re healthier, happier and, quite frankly, less stressed than I remember them at any point in their 22 years of marriage. It’s been a defining year as well as a year of renewal for them—and all it took was a few steps right outside the door.

Watching their progress as Robin and I started to emerge from those very real yet very strange sleepless nights of the first few months of parenthood reminded me of something else too: Why I started running was just as simple. I wanted to be outside with my friend.

No longer chasing the ghost of Paul nor running from past transgressions, I was taking a cue from my sister and trying to fill my lungs with air and my heart with blood and spitting and scratching and screaming over the pavement and trail…because it’s not going to last forever.

It was around that time an unfamiliar address popped up in my inbox. A new race company was starting up the across the bay 12k again and would we like to participate on Paul’s behalf?

And so, I found myself at the starting line once more yesterday, a microphone jammed in my hand. The race director asked me to say something about Paul. I froze. The countdown clock to the start was 28 seconds…27…26…25.

Where do I begin? How do I start to explain a friendship that’s been defined as much by the time he’s been gone as his moment here? What do I say to pay tribute without sounding selfish or self-important? How can I express the mix of trepidation to be running the race again with the boundless joy of seeing Robin and my sister and brother-in-law and (for his first time) my nephew at the starting line. How do I hold back tears when I look at Chris—the man who introduced me to Paul when we were 13 and had grown into the embodiment of strength and consistency in our adult lives—who stands at the start, every year, without question or reservation, ready to run.

I couldn’t do any of it justice. So instead, I said Paul ran the race every year, at first to lose weight and get into shape and then to simply see how hard he could push and how fast he could go. And we’re all here today. We’re alive and we’re running.

So let’s do this.

And they cheered.

They cheered and I rejoined my group in the starting corral. The gun went off. We raced. I raced. I raced and I cried a little because for the first time in a long, long time I saw the mirage of my friend running ahead of me on the bridge, just for a second, before he disappeared into the horizon.