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Running 20 hard miles with a tough old man makes the author think hard about family ties

A friend, a native Montanan, likes to remind me that my favorite state has snowfall every month …

Photo by Kelly Gorham

A friend, a native Montanan, likes to remind me that my favorite state has had snowfall every month of the year. There are many things I love about Montana; the weather is not always one of them.

When I agreed to run on the sweep crew at the Bridger Ridge Run in the mountains above Bozeman, it sounded like fun. Then I started getting the emails. The first was from Tom Hayes, in charge of sweeping, who explained that there would be two teams of three to four experienced runners who would need to carry “lots of warm clothes.” Sweep members became hypothermic in 2005 and 2006, he warned. “We are there to save lives if necessary.”

It was mid-August. Come on, I thought. And then I got the message with the weather report for race day: at 5000 feet it would be around 50 degrees. However, above 8000 feet, the temperature could be in the low 30s with a possibility of snow. Most of the race is above 8500 feet. The Bridger Ridge Run is a 20-miler where the winning times are far slower than most marathons.

When we gathered the night before the race, Tom gave us sweeps some supplies—a few Band-Aids, a jar of Vaseline and important phone numbers—and quick instructions about what to do in case of emergency. Then he took me aside and confided, “Dad only thinks he’s sweeping.” What, I wanted to know, did that mean? “Well,” Tom said, “I got him a number. He’s registered.”

Race morning Tom was signing in runners. He rounded up me and his dad, Bob, and said, “Dad, why don’t you and Rachel go ahead and check out the trail. You can wait for me at the first aid station.”

We’d met a few weeks before at a 50-mile race. Bob had read my book on running and said nice things about it. Naturally, I liked him.

Bob led the way up a steep incline. I scrambled to keep pace. He was carrying a bulky army-issue canvas pack and wore running tights and a cotton shirt from the Le Griz 50-miler, a race he’d finished 11 times. He was shod in racing flats. I was bundled like the Michelin man, and still shivering.

We reached the first aid station and watched as the lead runners passed. We’d taken off about a half hour before the race’s start . Bob had a smile and an encouraging word for everyone. I watched him eat a gel, and said, “Let’s go.”

He said, “Aren’t we supposed to wait for Tom?” I said, “I don’t like to wait. Let’s go.” He shrugged and said, “OK.”

There are people who are obnoxious in their friendliness. Often it’s a way of compensating for being uncomfortable, of not feeling at home, of not wanting to appear frightened. I’ve been at races with men who reach out like politicians, glad-handing the volunteers and other runners. They crack unfunny jokes, wax too familiar. There’s something weird that happens when men get together to suffer.  I don’t mind a little perkiness. I can deploy it myself at strategic times. But over the course of many miles, it can get wearing.

Bob and I got into an easy rhythm. I would let him lead on the ascents. He was unfailingly upbeat, but never irritating. I made him tell the story of his life, and listened with real interest  as he described his home-coming from the war, his long marriage and the death of his wife and how he had come to take up ultrarunning relatively late in life. The day was clear and chilly; the scenery—classic Montana natural beauty with big sky and diverse trees and meadows and shale-showered ridges and wild flowers—made you want to cry. Runners would come up behind us on the singletrack trail and I’d call out, “Let’s let them by,” and Bob would step off to the side. Many people knew him. He’d sometimes stop to chat. For the race’s early part, I let him do this.

They would ask what we were doing at the front of the pack and not wearing numbers. “We’re sweeping,” Bob would say, laughing. “I don’t know what we’re sweeping, but that’s what we’re doing.” They would be appropriately confused and carry on, telling us, “Good job,” or that we were looking strong. And indeed, we were.

At the next aid station I told Bob not to linger. “Did you have a gel? Did you drink?”

“I have my mother here,” he said to a volunteer and pointed at me.He took off his big pack and told her that he had some sandwiches in there; she was welcome to them.

“Hurry up,” I said, “you’re dawdling.” “Okay,” he said. He left his pack behind and took off at a good clip. I sprinted to catch up.

In his email to me about sweeping, Tom joked about my history of getting lost during long races and said that he would pair me up with Dad (he always refers to Bob as “Dad,” never as “my father,” which puts his listener in the position of wanting also to refer to Bob as Dad) because he knew the trail and could educate me on geographical and botanical features. I sensed his pride in wanting to share his father with me.

Bob had, I learned, been a “timber cruiser.” His job had been to walk through forests and catalogue information, creating an inventory of its variety and quantity of tree species. He would describe their size and density, the crowding, canopy and undergrowth, and note the presence or absence of wildlife.

We talked a bit about the race where we’d met. I had gotten lost three of the four times I’d tried to run it. “So stupid it’s funny,” I said. Bob became stern, for the first and only time, and said, “I don’t want to hear you say that you’re stupid.

“I saw where he was going and headed him off. I have a lot of problems and issues, believe me, but intellectual insecurity is not among them. I explained that I knew I was very good at some things, but that staying on trails is not one of them.”OK,” he said. “So you just don’t have woods savvy.” He thought that I was about to go into a girly self-flagellating mode and wanted to keep me from it. This surprised me. I knew that Bob demanded much of himself and suspected that when other people screwed up he might not be so patient.

As we started to descend, the vegetation changed. “How would you describe this?” I asked. “It’s old-growth high-altitude white-bark pine. And that’s balsamroot,” he said, pointing down. “And that’s bee balm.” He stopped. “That’s prairie smoke,” he said, surveying.”Cool. Keep moving.”He said, “You know, when I run with Tom and Liz they always say things like, `Good job,’ or, `You’re doing great.’ You just crack the whip. That’s a lot better.””Then run faster, old man.

“I once heard soccer coach Anson Dorrance talking about the difference between coaching women’s and men’s soccer teams. He said something to the effect that with the men, if you tell them they suck, they’ll work harder to prove you wrong. With women, one word in a tone too harsh can cause them to walk off the field. Gender is, of course, a spectrum, and these kinds of generalizations often obscure important differences. Some people need to be coaxed and congratulated every step of the way, reminded of their end goal. I suspected a straightforward, almost militaristic approach would do the trick for this able veteran. So I kept cracking the whip.

The end of the Bridger Ridge run is crazy downhill. In the last three miles, you descend about three thousand feet. By the time you get to the “M” (Montana towns tend to put big white letters on their hills), the destination of a popular hiking trail, you have about a mile and a half to the bottom—a thousand feet down, with switchbacks that don’t switch often enough to make the going gentle. We could see the tent at the finish line and hear the cheering of the small, but enthusiastic crowdWith less than a mile to go, Bob was starting to weaken. His knees bent too much with each stride, and I was afraid he was going to collapse. I grabbed him by the arm.He looked at me, shook his head, and issued a quiet, “No.”We waited about four seconds, and he was off again with a whoop. But a few strides later he wobbled and then sat down.I sat next to him. “Just rest a few minutes,” he said.”Yep,” I said.

Less than a few minutes later he stood up, and in military commander voice got going. “I can take more pain than anyone,” he shouted. “I am strong,” he said.  I said, “You are strong.”

“I wondered about someone who could push himself so hard, wondered too, if the obvious closeness that he and Tom shared had always been there, or if it was a result of a mellowing on Bob’s part, an acceptance of his own limits leading to a greater tolerance of weakness in others.

As we worked down the switchbacks, about a quarter mile from the finish, I said, “You’re the only one who doesn’t know this, Bob, but you’re not sweeping.” He stopped and looked at me, head tilted, smiling as always. “Tom registered you. You have a number.”

He let this sink in and said, “I’ve been snookered.” And then he laughed. Hard.He would say this about 18 more times in the next couple of hours, always with a giant grin.

After 10 Bridger Ridge Run finishes, you are guaranteed entry into this quick-filling race. Bob figured he’d had his go, and didn’t want to take a number from someone else. The last time he’d run the race was three years before, in 2006. It took him 7 hours 57 minutes. He was not last.

As we crossed the line I stopped my watch. 7:09. The crowd erupted as Bob’s name was announced. A guy came up to Bob wanting to shake his hand. “I’m the one who said, when I passed you, `I feel like I’m passing Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods.’ You’re a legend.”The race director, Dave Summerfield, finished the race  a bit later (limping, a little bloody, but still looking good for a 61-year-old who’d just run a hard 20 miles), and came up to Bob and said “I have something for you from Tom.” He took a plastic bag out of his fanny pack and unwrapped a race number.  82. Bob’s age.

Bob didn’t linger after the race.  He had to drive three hours home to Missoula, and then, he said, he was going contra dancing that night up in Arlee, on the Flathead Indian Reservation. He’d asked me if I’d ever been contra dancing. He said it was a good workout.

It took the rest of the sweeps a while to come in. When Tom finished, he was concerned. “I kept figuring I’d catch you guys,” he said. “But every time I got to an aid station, the volunteers said you’d been there and gone. I couldn’t catch you. I was worried.” I told him how happy Bob had been, how thrilled to learn that he had been snookered. “I was afraid he might be mad,” Tom said, and I could see that his worry hadn’t been for Bob’s health.

Later, when I asked him about growing up with Bob as a father, Tom demurred. “He was in many ways a different person. He worked too hard both in his profession and then at home so he was often cranky and only occasionally fun. When I retired from the Army and came back and began ultrarunning we started a new relationship — more friends than father-son.” Bob started running at age 60.

“My books are all disfigured by the sullen presence of my child-beating father, Don Conroy, and this one is no exception,” Pat Conroy wrote in My Losing Season, a memoir about playing basketball at the Citadel. It’s really about love among teammates, about leadership, about vile fathers and sadistic coaches, and about the transformative power of sports. It’s a beautiful book.

Conroy tells of the unexpected redemptive consequence of writing The Great Santini. “My father may be the only person in the history of the world who changed himself because he despised a character in literature who struck chords of horror in himself that he could not face. He had the best second act in the history of fatherhood. He was the worst father I have ever heard of, and I will go to my grave believing that. But this most immovable of men found it within himself to change.”

My own books, indeed my most intimate conversations, are notable for the absence of my father. I do not talk about him. He taught me to value higher education, but was unimpressed by my admission to Yale; to love literature, but refused to talk with me about Milton or literary theory; to push myself to overachieving limits, and to hate myself if I didn’t live up to his unreasonable expectations.  When I started running, he would ask, after each race, “Did you win?”

It is a poignant moment when a son is first able to beat his father at something. It’s a hallmark, a transition, a well-rehearsed narrative turn. The contested arena is usually physical, representative of the ways that manhood is often defined by the body. When I run with men who are much older than I, when I am stronger doing something we both value, I wonder: is this rewriting some old script? Is this my second act as a daughter?

Spending 20 miles with Bob Hayes meant something to me that had nothing to do with running. I don’t know what kind of a father Bob was to his three kids. I have hunches, of course, about what it might have been like to be raised by someone who demands so much from himself. I’m pretty sure it was not easy to be his child.

For 20 miles on the ridge line of craggy mountains in my favorite state, Bob Hayes was the best companion I could have hoped for, a single-serving dad. I saw the man he had evolved into and caught glimpses of who he had been. I understood why Tom and his wife, Liz, both excellent runners, kept inviting Bob along with them on gnarly adventures. I understood the good fortune of a son who gets to revise his relationship with his father.

Perhaps, somewhere in the world, my own father is being kind and nurturing—even fun and playful—to someone who is not his daughter; perhaps he, too, has found a way to edit the story of vexed familial relations.

Rachel Toor teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her most recent book is Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running.


“Have you prepared yourself to traverse possibly the most rugged, technical 20 mile trail race in existence?”

—from race website

Where: Bozeman, Montana

When: Mid-August, 2011

Info: www.winddrinkers.org/BRR/BridgerRidge.html

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