Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 21 Jun 2012 05:26:58 -0400

Seeing Ghosts

RUNNING COMMENTARY 942

(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s comes from January 2010. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

SUNNYVALE, CALIFORNIA. “Ghost” is another word for “memory.” The better our memories, the greater our population of ghosts. I don’t just believe in them but visit them often. They’re visible only to me but are clearly there, everywhere I’ve ever gone and remembered.

Many of mine live in the Bay Area of northern California, in what came to be known as Silicon Valley. It sits near the bottom of a thumb-like peninsula that points northward, with San Francisco as its thumbnail. Silicon chips hadn’t yet ignited an information revolution when I first arrived here in the 1960s. This area still went by its old name, the Santa Clara Valley. More of the valley’s land still supported vegetable farms and fruit orchards than housing tracts, strip malls and high-tech research parks.

After a two-day Greyhound ride from Iowa I landed midway between San Jose and San Francisco, first in ethnically mixed Mountain View. The setting here was spectacular, especially to the landlocked flatlander I’d been before. To the east, the San Francisco Bay and the East Bay hills beyond. To the west, the low but steep Santa Cruz Mountains, and beyond, the Pacific.

The climate here was kind, especially in the dry summer season when I first breathed this air. No rain for a third of the year, no snow that stuck to the valley floor, no extreme cold or heat, no high humidity, no smog (yet) and little of the summer fog that often hung over San Francisco. What drew me here – the look and feel of the place, plus the job prospects – would draw millions more immigrants. The Santa Clara Valley would explode in population, bringing all the attendant growing pains. I would leave without noticing that I’d been a small part of the problems that drove me away.

I would also carry from here a lifetime of memories from my two stays – first during a summer on vacation from college, then for another 11 years after graduation. My first job in running and first road race came here, as would my first marriage, first child, first book (which is another type of child), first home purchase.

I suspected none of the above while stepping sleep-deprived off a bus in mid-1963. I’d made my first trip west only to bum around the Bay Area’s running circuit, never thinking I might start a career or stake out a home base here. That first summer, home was a cheap sleeping space in a garage and shared kitchen-bathroom space indoors. The developer here had a sense of humor, placing this house at the corner of Fay Way and Jane Lane in Mountain View.

Early in this stay I walked through the door of a storefront on First Street in Los Altos only for a track-tourist visit. This office, hidden behind curtains and bearing the smallest of signs, housed my future employer Track & Field News. Here would begin my career path. That midsummer, on a whim and without proper training, I entered my first long race. Here, in Sunnyvale, began my path toward the marathon – a destination that would take me another four years to reach. When travels lead me back to this area now, I search out the ghosts where I’d lived, worked and run in the 1960s and 1970s.

The first visit of this trip is to a condo development in Sunnyvale. It was new when we moved in with our first child, Sarah, then less than a year old. The place has been well cared for ever since. Trees that were twigs then have grown tall and shade-giving. If anyone sees me loitering about, trying to peek into our old unit, they see only an unthreatening old guy. They can’t know that I’m visiting my decades-younger self here... or that Sarah took her first walking steps on these floors... or that an early book of mine went onto paper in these rooms.

Next stop is Fremont High School. I pull into the parking lot at the track, and it’s July 1963 again… the national championship 30K that started and finished here ... triple the distance of my longest previous race… equally far beyond my longest training run that summer. The kids now training on this track weren’t yet born in 1963, of course. Many of their parents weren’t either. But my ghost remains alive and well here, forever young.

I drive north, along the old 30K route that could never be run in today’s traffic. It leads to Los Altos and some of the priciest real estate in the country. Track & Field News is long gone from First Street, now residing in a Mountain View high-rise. An upstart publication freshly renamed Runner’s World, which lured me away from T&FN, made Mountain View its first California home and later moved to Pennsylvania.

Those old offices now house new tenants. None of them would know or care that magazines, and careers, once took shape here – just as old homes with new residents are unaware of the lives once lived here. I don’t linger long at any of these old haunts. Don’t need to. My ghosts are always here, to visit in memory no matter how far I stray or how seldom I visit them in person.


UPDATE: This piece now introduces the second book of my three-part memoir series, titled Going Far. It covers my years in California, when as the subtitle reads, “running grew up, and a writing career took off.” Marathon & Beyond will serialize this book, starting in its September 2012 issue.


[Many of my books, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. The titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only).]

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