As I was looping through the Garden of the Gods this morning on one of my last pre-race runs, I found myself remembering a group I trained with there 18 years ago, and a runner who taught me the meaning of camaraderie.
I am by nature a solitary runner, but the group that met twice a week at 6 a.m. that spring to traverse the hilly roads and trails of the Garden offered valuable, structured training for the grueling Garden of the Gods 10-mile race in June. It was good to sometimes have company, to be with kindred spirits who meant to push their bodies as I did. So I went.
It was there I met Ron, a small, fit middle-aged runner with a winning smile, a gentle manner and a slightly bow-legged gait that was surprisingly graceful. Ron was the lead volunteer who shoe-horned himself out of bed in the predawn dark to arrive before us, distribute leftover race swag for faithful attendance and organize pace groups.
The speed demons tore out of the parking lot and headed uphill at a 6-minute-mile pace while the rest of us were still stretching in the moonlight beneath the Garden’s towering, other-worldly sandstone. The back-of-the-packers eventually jogged off in the other direction — downhill — to begin their hour-long run.
I ran with the middle group, and on my best days kept pace with Randy, another 50-something group leader who, like Ron, had a gift for encouragement. “Be first a good animal!” he exhorted us, paraphrasing Emerson as we steeled ourselves for another hill. Ron, meanwhile, kept an eye on the undulating group from tip to tail, running slower than he could have but as fast as he needed to shepherd us along.
Pace varied within the group, with 7-minute milers near the front and slower runners bringing up the rear. But we stayed together, because Ron and Randy had a rule: No one gets left behind. So whenever we faster runners crested a hill, we would jog slowly back down and pick up the stragglers, looping behind them like a net. Sweeping them up, encouraging them. Running the hill again, this time with them.
“Attack the hill!” we would say. “The hill has no power!” And then we would laugh a little on the outside, and reach down deep on the inside, because it felt like those hills had plenty of power. But in this way we kept going, and kept those behind us going, the faster runners always encouraging the slower, from Ron and Randy back through the end of the line: “You can do it!” we would say. “Good job!”
And we did do it: the slower runners according to their abilities, the faster runners with hill repeats and a little extra mileage. And then we finished as we started, heading for home together, the sunrise now burnishing the red rocks.
I loved those runs; I loved feeling myself a link in that chain of encouragement. It felt holy.
I ran with that training group for several years, and during that time, I came to know Ron Wisner better. I learned that this unassuming man was a Fulbright scholar who served as Dean of Students at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, that he had previously been in the Peace Corps, that he embodied what his family later described as a “serial volunteer,” supporting others in a range of venues.
He was well-known and much-loved. And so it was, on May 25, 2010, that Ron’s obituary was prominently featured in the local newspaper.
When I saw Ron’s photo, my heart — my good runner’s heart — caught for a second in my chest. Faltered. He had been mountain biking with his wife on a trail north of town and took a freak fall. It broke his neck. He was 67.
“Adored husband, father, grandfather, brother, and uncle,” the obit began. Runner, I thought. Mentor. Friend.
His outdoor funeral at a hillside nursery with a panoramic view of the mountains he loved was standing-room only, packed with colleagues and students, friends and family, cyclists, runners and more — hundreds of people, who, like me, had benefited from his encouragement. No one left behind.
It has been five years. Yet I thought of Ron this morning, as I often do when I traverse the familiar ground where we ran so many times with all the others he looked after and lifted up. I remembered his easy, bow-legged gait, his gentle manner, that familiar smile.
And then something more than memory, as I willed my tired legs up that last hill — the longest, hardest one — near the end of my hour-long run. A ghost of a sensation: Ron, looping back. Picking me up.
You can do it, he said. Good job.
And then, cresting the hill together, still together. Heading for home.