By Fred Johnson
Attaining a personal record is a cherished event, especially as one advances in years and the opportunities for these experiences dwindle with each passing birthday. I was privileged this year to have recorded two “PRs:” One in the 50K and another at the 50 mile distance. As I reflect on this past year’s achievements, those two accomplishments do not come close to ranking in the top 30, 40 or even 100 of what I prize most.
I am a blessed guy. However, it wasn’t until a couple week’s ago at the 10 Mile Challenge that I truly realized just how blessed I am. During the preceding weeks before the race, it looked as if I would not be able to spend Christmas with my family due to a work commitment in Puerto Rico. I mentioned this to several people in the Gulf Wind’s Track Club during training runs at Forest Meadows. One of those folks I often train with is David Yon. Now, Dave is as famous for his good heart as he is for his fast legs and gutsy running style. However, I never knew just how great a guy Mr..Yon really is.
After the race and when all post-event congratulatory exchanges were concluded, I got in my car to drive home and spend what I thought would be my last couple days with my family before departing for Puerto Rico. As I pulled out, Dave flagged me down and came to the side of my car. I lowered the window and extended my hand to praise his great performance at the race. He took my hand and said, “Fred, I’ve racked up a bunch of ‘Frequent Flyer Miles’ and I’d be more than happy to give them to you so you can fly home over Christmas and be with your family.” You know, I consider myself a pretty tough guy and I did not cry when “Old Yeller” died, but after I thanked him for the offer and continued on my trip home, I bawled like a baby reflecting on how fortunate I am to have such a good friend.
Even though I later found out I did not have to leave over the holidays, Dave’s gesture reminded me of the sacred nature of friendship. However, the creation of friendships is difficult to define. I mean, how do friendships start and then endure overtime? To paraphrase my daughter’s question on the Stork’s relationship to childbirth, “Where do friendships come from?”
Last year, during my first week in Tallahassee after moving from upstate New York, I went to the St. Marks’ Rails-to-Trail for a long run. As I plodded along contemplating where I could find a good dirt trail and some hills, a cyclist slowly peddled beside me and asked, “Hey dude, you doing the whole trail or are you wimp’n out at the church?” Startled, I looked over and saw a man who I was convinced to be the “Unabomber.” I told him that I was running 20 miles and I was looking for a group to run with because I was thinking about doing an ultra-marathon. Bearded and clearly fit, this stranger explained to me, “We have a really bad-ass ultra group in Tallahassee and if you think you can hang then hook up with us at Forest Meadows on Sunday at 5 AM — and don’t be late or we’ll leave you.” This is how I came know Dana Stetson.
I showed up at Forest Meadows that Sunday and met two other guys named Jeff Bryan and Gary Griffin. Later, Gary introduced me to Felton Wright, Jane Johnson, Bill Hillison, and others. Those acquaintances grew into friendships, which spread into more introductions, friendships and so on. And 5400 miles, seven ultras, a couple marathons, and countless other races later, my life is not the same. My existence was more enriched not by the number of miles, races and split times alone. Rather, it has been the people I came to know while running those miles that have been such a blessing. I have no idea how many people are Gulf Wind’s members, but those whom I know and have enjoyed time with represent some of the finest human beings I’ve ever met.
As a career soldier, I’ve spent my adult years on military bases often isolated from citizens who are not in the business of warfighting. It was not until I moved to Tallahassee and joined the Gulf Winds Track Club that I became re-acquainted with the people and culture I’ve dedicated my life to defend. My profession has taken me to the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq and the rural country-side of Bosnia. There were some difficult times but I’d gladly endure them all again knowing the United States consists of Americans like GWTC members.
Ironically, within the last couple months we learned that my wife, rather than myself, might have to go to war and serve in Iraq. Laura had been an active officer, got out seven years ago and was subsequently called up out of the in-active Army Reserve. While prepared to do her duty, this obligation would require our daughter, Madelyn, to be separated from both of us because my current job requires me to leave for extended periods of time. Rather than have our daughter move between grandparents for the next year, we requested that Laura be exempted from duty until I was in a more stable position. Rarely, especially in these trying times, is such a request approved. However, we had a couple things working in our favor — namely, our friend, Gary Griffin.
I told Gary of our dilemma during a run at Forest Meadows. He said he would pray for God’s Will, which we hoped would be Laura’s exoneration from overseas deployment. While we waited to hear the results of the board that would determine Laura’s future, I was personally overwhelmed with the outpouring of concern from Sarah Doctor-Williams, Brian Corbin, Tony Guillen, along with the saintly Margarete and Fred Deckert and others. In the end, Laura did not have to go to Iraq. The governing board decided her doctoral work precluded mobilization … but we knew better. Gary Griffin’s prayers kept Laura at home with Maddie.
The great historian Stephen Ambrose once described an exchange between Dwight D. Eisenhower and then Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. President Eisenhower asked Nixon, the renowned people-hater, “How is it that you can survive without friends?” Richard Nixon essentially said that making and sustaining friendships was a waste of his time. I could not disagree more — friends are what make time worthwhile and they, along with family, are our greatest blessing.