Running is a individual action, one foot placed in front of the other, over and over again. Simple, repetitive, solitary. But running, this most basic lonely action, draws people together through competition,common goals, compassion, commiseration. The suffering intrinsic to the pursuit of growth forges bonds between runners.
Ultra running is just running. Just running over extremely long distances and more often then not extremely difficult terrain. Perhaps it is under these conditions that the best of friends can be made. It is under these conditions that a person is stripped down to their essence. Souls are bared, fears are faced, surreal joy is obtained. We become who we ARE out in the mountains, trekking and trudging over peaks and through valleys for hours on end the trappings of daily life fall away like burdensome baggage left on the trail side.
I have often wondered why it is that I like Ultra-Runners as much as I do. I have always been somewhat misanthropic, I have lived the majority of my life apprehensive of social groups and gatherings. But a few years ago I stumbled upon a group of overly-friendly moderately-dirty trail runners who were so nice and inviting that I thought surely something was amiss. Perhaps it was a cult, or a group of serial cannibals befriending unsuspecting newbies and leading them to some brutal demise in the mountains (cue banjo music). Fortunately my suspicions were overpowered by my reckless love of running through the woods and my desire to run farther and faster. I didn't know it at the time but I was a trail runner.
The community of trail runners seemed as unreal to me as the idea of running, without stopping, for 100 miles. I was initially, and continue to be amazed and inspired by the welcoming attitude of this mismatched group of muddy shoe wearing misfits. Perhaps it is the fact that we are all a little odd that brings us together. We always say that you have to be at least a little crazy to want to run for 50 or more miles. But I think that there is more to it. Perhaps we have found in ourselves, out there in the mountains and the suffering, that we are all, at our very core, very much the same. That the things that separate people in the real world, are unimportant. That those things are like the clothes that people choose to wear. That we are not crazy or weird at all, that we have embraced the primal urge to push ourselves to our limits because that is where we learn who we are. We have been to the place where only the most real parts of a person are left standing. That we have been there, and back again.
A dear friend of mine, who I met on the trail and shared many miles with, was lost this week. Mike Donahue exemplified everything good and pure and strong. Mike knew what was important, and embraced everyone as a friend. I remember when I first met Mike, and several particular runs and races with him stand out sharply in my memory. The One that stands out the most (other than the time we were struck by lightening together) is Holiday Lake 50K a couple of years ago when Mike had just had surgery for cancer and probably shouldn't have been out there at all. But there he was. He was clearly suffering that day, but trying not to show it, instead encouraging everyone around him to do their best. When I met him in the woods he admitted that he was suffering but that he would be fine. He told me to run on without him and have a good day. That is how I remember him. He always said "everyday is a good day," an attitude that I assumed came from his time in combat, where the preciousness and fragility of life must stand out much more clearly than most of us ever experience in our soft protected lives. Lives that men like Mike and his brothers make possible.
His family lost a pillar of strength. His friends lost a contagious smile and a strong handshake, and an encouraging word. His Country lost a strong selfless leader who did everything with confidence and unshakable dedication. I lost a friend who I respected like a father and loved like a brother. His fellow soldiers lost a brother who would, and did, lay down his life for them without hesitation. A man who did what he believed in. A man who lived his life the best way he could. An example to all of us to get real, and to find our purpose. Mike lived with purpose, and I am sad beyond words to have lost him.
In my desperation to hold on to Mike this week, I have been reflecting on what Mike has left us, and it is substantial. I think the best way to honor Mike is to try to be more like the people that Mike believed us to be. I think that he could see down to our core and he knew that each of us had greatness within us. I want to live more like Mike lived, but more importantly, like the man he believed that I am, or that I could be. Mike believed in the inherent goodness in each of us, and he would want us to be better. More accepting. More giving. More encouraging. Stronger. Fearless.
I have been given the great honor of running with the color guard in an upcoming race The Virginia 10 Miler to honor Mike, and although this means a great deal to me, to be chosen out of all the many friends that Mike had in this town, I intend to live the rest of my life honoring Mike Donahue. To run the rest of my miles with him. In two weeks I will run the Grindstone 100 miler for Mike. This is the only race I know of that Mike had attempted and failed to finish and I know that he had planned to go back next year for redemption. I will carry you with me brother.
I know that everyone that knew Mike will carry him with them. Forever. And in that way Mike will live on, and though it may be diluted, his joy of life will still spread through the world. We should all hope to live a life with such an impact on so many people.
The world is sad to have lost Major Mike Donahue. But the world is better to have had him for the short time he was here.