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I shouldn’t run today, three days after a 100-mile mountain ultra left me clutching a handrail to go down stairs.
But I have a run date with someone who lifts my spirit, so I arrive as planned at the edge of Lake Merritt, wondering if I can run any portion of the 3.2-mile flat, paved path that circles the heart-shaped lake in downtown Oakland, California.
My shins feel tender to the touch, while my quads and hamstrings are as herky-jerky as stuck gears. Bruises and blisters discolor my feet.
Ironically, finishing an extra-long, extra-challenging trail race takes away—temporarily, at least—your ability and desire to run at all. You traverse 100 miles and then, a day later, identify solely with a couch-to-5K newbie.
Leaning against the pillars of the lake’s colonnade to loosen up with dynamic stretches, I spot Errol Jones. Fit-looking at 67, he wears a shirt from an ultramarathon neatly tucked into shorts that reveal legs like Meb Keflezighi’s.
He hollers, “Cocoa Butter!”
The nickname stuck after I confided to Errol that my first coach—a mutual friend—told me back in the late 1990s that I ran track “as smooth as cocoa butter,” and from then on, I inwardly repeated the phrase when I wanted to run better. Like today.
He reaches me with arms open as I exclaim, “Rocket!” Errol got his nickname some 35 years ago as he commenced a career in which he would rack up finishes in some 200 ultras, including the Grand Slam of 100-milers. Someone on the trails referred to him as “that black guy rocketing around,” so his ultrarunning buddies took to calling him the Rocket.
Our meetup at the lake became a habit early in the year, a chance to run an easy pace on a gentle path, on legs fatigued from long weekend trail runs. We met on the trails seven or so years ago, and he crewed me to a finish at the Western States 100.
Midway through States, he had escorted me out of an aid station while saying, “Believe me, you got this, you got time,” calming my nerves about lagging behind sub-24 pace. I believed him, and he was right.
Our lakeside banter sometimes circles back to my efforts to make peace with this slower, almost-50, empty-nester version of myself. Or we revisit his struggles to keep running 100-milers following DNFs.
“I don’t want to do just 50Ks,” Rocket says. “Running through the night—and suffering—is what it’s all about, what I love.”
Today I tell him I need to start the loop with walking. He obliges and listens as I pour out a litany of woes from the Run Rabbit Run 100.
“Listen,” he says, “you got it done. It’s what we do—it’s part of the process! Your training wasn’t what you wanted it to be, but at the end of the day you had a finish. What more do you want?”
Talk turns to news headlines, and I express anxiety and depression about current events. Errol gets it—once he told me, “Do you think there’s been a single year that I haven’t experienced discrimination or deep despair?”—but says, “Rejoice that you share space with those who are more compassionate and accepting. Eventually, right will win out.”
Do what you can to make things better, he adds, but enjoy life, “because it’s short.”
I look at the crazy quilt of people exercising around this urban oasis, and as I smile, they smile back. I’m slowly running again and feeling better all over.
Listening to a mentor who personifies the longevity and resiliency I seek, I go in 30 minutes from feeling I can’t muster a 5K to wanting to train for another ultra. But Errol orders me to take it easy for a while.
We finish the loop, and I watch his gliding stride as he heads home. I commit to following his advice, because as the years pass I want to be like the Rocket, which means suffering through disappointments and slowly starting over again.