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

Thu, 14 Mar 2013 05:08:59 -0400

Pacesetter Paul

RUNNING COMMENTARY 980

(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the January 2007 issue.)

Many of my best friends in this sport are older than I am. Hal Higdon was the first of these, George Sheehan was the closest, and Paul Reese was the longest-lasting. I look up to them as pacesetters through life, in running and other arenas. None of us can grow younger, but we all can find leaders who show us how to age actively and slow gracefully.

No one I’ve known has packed more activity into his upper years than Paul Reese. He ran across the United States at age 73, finished crossing the remaining states at 80 and published three books about these experiences.

No one I know has approached his own finish line with more grace than Paul. Evidence of that will come later in this piece, but first I need to tell how he lived and how I joined his ever-widening circle of “best friends.”

Paul was a Marine by choice, a schoolteacher in his second profession and a communicator by nature. He phoned often and wrote long and well – in books, articles, journals, and especially in letters and e-mails. I’m not overstating to say that Paul became my second second father. He took over that role in 1993 from George Sheehan, who’d first played that role after my own dad’s too-early passing.

Paul and I met at the 1967 Santa Barbara Marathon. On our first day of racing together I finished a little ways ahead of Paul. This began years of good-hearted competition between us.

He would beat me at marathons and beyond (especially beyond, where he shone and I stunk). I’d usually outrun him at shorter distances, where my background in speed trumped his endurance. He would start every race fast. I would begin timidly, often catching and passing him near the finish. He took to accusing me of “stalking.”

The last time we ran a race together was the 1992 Avenue of the Giants Marathon. Paul was 75 years old by then. I was, in his term, “a marathon of years younger” – his junior by 26, that is.

As usual I started slower. He gauged his lead each time we met on the double-out-and-back course. As usual I passed Paul near the end. His reaction, muttered with grimness on his face but goodness in his heart: “Damn you, you sneaky runt!”

We finished about a minute apart in our final race together. This symbolized the closeness we felt from the first day we met through the final days of his life.

My first column in Marathon & Beyond spoke of Paul Reese. “The grandest old man of the roads,” I called him. He was 87 then.

Paul responded to the column as I would have expected: “Cutest old man, most handsome old man, most dashing old man – all these, while appropriate and applicable, are quite a few notches below ‘grandest’.”

This would be my last personal note from Paul. I’m glad he saw that tribute, because he was grand and because he wouldn’t see another column in M&B. He told in that same letter about facing surgery for a defective heart valve.

“I’m attempting to hold out until January [2005],” he said of that operation. “I want to emerge from the surgery and recovery, and to get back to healthy living – Krispy Kreme donuts, In/Out hamburgers, pizza and all such!“

Paul’s condition couldn’t wait until the new year. His surgery was moved to October 2004.

“The good news is that I’m still here to tell about it,” he wrote the next week in a group letter to friends. Complications followed. He wrote again to us friends in late October, with a good-bye of sorts.

“One thing you learn as you sift through life is that the most precious gift of all is love, and I’m blessed to have a generous share of that. Of course, it could be argued that I am such a splendid person, what other choice is there but to love me!”

Paul died soon afterward. He was the third older running hero I lost that year, after Jack Foster and Johnny Kelley. This is the chance you take, and one well worth taking, when you look up to your elders.

Paul had ended his first book, Ten Million Steps, with this line: “One of the secrets of aging gracefully is always to have something to look forward to.” His runs across the remaining states followed, then two more books – Go East, Old Man, and The Old Man and the Road. He left behind a fourth, the unpublished America on Foot.

Paul also left another long trip unfinished. In 2003 he’d crossed Montana (with wife Elaine, as always, driving their motor home) on what was intended to be a multi-stage passage from the Canadian to the Mexican border. This wasn’t a bad way to go – still looking toward doing more.

This career Marine would scoff at me describing him with lines from a protest singer. But these words by Bob Dylan say who Paul was:

“May your hands always be busy,
may your feet always be swift.
May you have a firm foundation,
when the winds of changes shift.
May your heart always be joyful,
may your song always be sung.
May you stay forever young.”

Stay busy, keep moving, stand firm, stay positive, die young as late as possible. That’s how Paul Reese lived, and why he became a pacesetter of mine.

UPDATE: Paul’s three published books remain available from various online sources. Google them by his name or their titles. They’re well worth searching out.


[Many books of mine, 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. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other 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). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]
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