Running Away from Pain - A View from the Top

Gordon Cherr, April 22, 2021
The gravel on the Greenways Trail crunches underfoot in the dim light of this morning. Usually I don’t mind that. But today the sound is uncomfortable and distressing, not its usual steady reassurance of life and the progression of miles. Miles to where? I don’t know. I don’t care. I feel empty. My heart aches. My friend has died…

Running friendships die hard. That’s simply the plain truth.

I met Ron Gressel on the roads in my neighborhood sometime around 1983. I had been running and racing for nearly 20 years, and it was obvious to me that he was an unschooled beginner. Bad shoes, bad clothes, but yet he had that stride and presence and that slightly built bird like body that told you that he was born to do this, that he was meant to do this. I caught him one morning on a big hill and we simply fell into talking and laughing and he was a neighbor and one of his sons was a real good runner at a nearby high school, and maybe he would try this. And so it went. After a while I called him not Gressel, but Grazelle, because when he ran he simply was a gazelle. It was a thing of beauty.

It grew through many miles and many races, he was about 10 years older than me but he took to it and within a short period of time he could hand me my hat any given day. But he didn’t. He was content to learn and to run at your speed and pace. We ran through seasons and years, we ran the roads and the trails. We went to races and he invariably won his age group or better. It was his salvation as he worked through a divorce, the worry about his sons (he had three), the out of wedlock birth of grandchildren, jobs and all the usual ups and downs that one deals with in life. He loved his sons immensely, he loved the grandchildren even more if that was possible. For him it was. He was a kind soul. Not without warts and pimples, but not very many from my perspective.

I was mostly there to listen and to console. He rarely had a rude word for anyone or anything. He made me laugh often on the run when I could breathe. He annihilated the English language unintentionally. Instead of hot boiled peanuts he always thought that they were hot broiled peanuts, obviously the boy was not from the South. And once after having a health issue he was discharged from the hospital, and in giving me a completely unnecessary detailed description of his hospital treatment and stay, he referred to his problem as his prostrate and not his prostate. And so it went too. And while he didn’t complain often, he always did complain that he had to lose “seven more pounds”. Even years later, any time I saw him. It was predictable like clockwork and always funny. And he truly hated running hills so I tortured him at every opportunity. What are friends for?

We drifted apart after many miles, maybe after 15 years of running together. Before that his youngest son died in a car accident as we both predicted he would, but that still was not easy for him. I never saw him cry, either before or after but on our runs we talked for hours and he cried it out. We both did, but mostly him. That was OK, it’s what you do. He remarried a wonderful woman, Linda. They took on the raising of at least two of the grandchildren well beyond the time people should do that. They did it willingly and with love. No, it was not easy. I know for a fact that today the girls love and cherish them both, and know what they did for them. They will miss him greatly. He will miss them greatly. They are all better for the years together and his unwavering love and loyalty to them, and them to him.

Then I didn’t see him often. The practice of law and an appointment to the bench took me away from most of my friends. I last saw him at another funeral, that of his middle son. Losing your children is so much, too much to bear. He lost two. I saw him after the service, he was not surprised to see me. We left and walked and talked. And cried.

I had not seen him in years but saw the obituary announcement today. I don’t know if he missed running or not, but I do know, and all runners know, that when you share so many miles on the roads and trails for long enough, you become inexorably bound together in a very special sort of way. Don’t make me explain it, it’s just souls cruising the universe in concert from time to time. Even if you don’t see each other for long periods, the connection remains. Maybe that is just me, but I prefer to feel otherwise…

Now I am running down a trail under a huge powerline in the deep shade. It feels unfriendly. The footing is precarious. So damn it, the Grazelle is gone. The tears are so very close.

Then I break out into the bright sunlight of the big field at Thornton and race ever faster, downhill, to the parking lot. The birds are singing, the trees are moving and swaying so gracefully with the morning breezes, and I know that if there truly is a heaven, the Grazelle is there. Still murdering the language. Still trying to lose seven more pounds. But always with grace and a smile on his face, and so much love in his heart.

RIP my friend.