It all started with bacon and buckwheat pancakes. Two foods we never had around the house unless we’d been packing for a weekend camping trip to Yellowstone National Park. But one Sunday morning I woke to the sticky-sweet smell of sizzling pig fat and wandered downstairs to investigate.
I have a theory that men approaching 50 often turn to ultrarunning as a way of coping with impending midlife crises. The summer I returned home for a few months of table bussing and long, rambling hikes in the Bitterroots of Western Montana was the same summer that my old man started running. Every weekend he’d get up at dawn, lace up a pair of mud-caked Brooks, and head out the back door for a few hours of mountain running with the motley members of Missoula’s nascent trail running community. Having never run a step in my life at that point (save for a very brief experiment with middle-school track which isn’t worth recalling), I was nonetheless intrigued by my father’s weekend adventures and I bombarded him with questions as he whisked eggs and flour into a bubbly batter. Where had he been? What had he seen? Who had he been with? Where was he going next week?
A year later, Pa ran his first 50-miler and I watched the stats roll in from an office in New York City where I’d been living at the time, silently cheering as he crossed the Bighorn 50 finish line in little Dayton, Wyoming. I learned later that he’d puked up a lovely green splatter of Perpetuum and PBR on the way home, but he’d had a blast. Kept going on about the watermelon and salt at the Dry Fork Aid Station, and the beauty of the trails. I’d started running by then, but only short bursts of aggressive pavement pounding in Central Park, and the idea of tackling such a distance seemed inconceivable at the time. But the more stories he returned with, the more I secretly wanted to run trails, too, though it would be another year before I finally worked up the courage to ask him to let me tag along.
“Kevin [Twidwell] and I are going to run a big loop in the Rattlesnake this morning. There’s a nice spot seven miles in where you can turn around for a 14-mile out-and-back. Just see how you feel,” he said, in a tone of amused concern. “Sure, dad.” Oddly enough, at the allotted turn-around point, I felt great. And with the stubborn determination of a neophyte runner, I told him I wanted to keep going. We didn’t run fast, but we saw a bear, flushed some grouse, climbed a peak, bombed a decent, and took photographs from the lookout on top of Blue Point, stumbling back to the car some 30 miles later. By the next day, my quads felt as if they’d been shredded with a cheese grater, but running trails turned out to be everything I imagined it might be. Pa laughed as he recapped the day for the rest of the family over dinner.
I wanted to write this column about my dad, not because he’s my dad, but because Steve Brown is in many ways emblematic of the classic, middle-aged weekend warrior. A Washington (in other words, sea-level) bred, dirt bag turned law school graduate, Pa joined a marathon training group on a whim one winter and, well, it’s a common tale. He liked the evening group runs through downtown Missoula (Yaktrax and hunting vests required), and the solo hill repeats he’d sometimes sneak out of work for, and true to fashion for many who lose patience with pavement or the somewhat platitudinous 26.2-mile marathon distance, he eventually started running trail ultras. He has a wife and two kids and a job and he sometimes finds time to do the dishes when there are no clean ones left in the house. And somehow in the midst of all this, he’s managed to turn himself into a runner. Pa recently knocked out his first 100, Cascade Crest in Washington State, and surprised us all by breaking 24 hours with the casual ease of someone who does that kind of thing every day (and no puking this time). “My favorite part was when the photographer at mile 80 hollered at me to ‘finish strong!’” he called to tell me. “Finish strong? I still had 20 miles to go!”
Now when I go home, Pa and I both get up at dawn. We lace up our matching Brooks and meet the boys at the Rattlesnake trailhead for a Sunday morning run. And, later, we’ll cook buckwheat pancakes and talk about our friends who are fast and races we’d like to run and trails we still want to visit. And after a point, those days together become less about running and more about simply spending a day together. In fact, the more folks I talk to, the more it seems like most of us were inspired to run by taking cues from someone else. Crewing a friend, volunteering at and aid station, pacing a few miles of a 100 by the annular glow of a Black Diamond headlamp, scrolling through pictures on Facebook, and listening to the stories. As far as I can tell, it’s not entirely the competition or the occasional midlife crisis that impels us to run. It’s something more basic. The camaraderie of experience.