On a mild December day in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I find myself seated next to a trim man who appears somewhat older than me. He sports a luxurious goatee, olive cargo pants that match his winter hat, a tired red North Face parka, and the unmistakable odor of vodka. Beside him is the bicycle from which he has recently disembarked, a cobalt specimen that is — at least at the moment — in far better condition than its owner. None of this is noteworthy; this is Boulder, Colorado, after all, where even many of the transients get around efficiently on bicycles and are far more physically fit than the typical American.
The man casts a glance at my feet, nods. “You’re a runner?” he asks. I’m wearing a new and obnoxiously overbright pair of trainers that have relegated everything below my ankles to Papa Smurf territory. I smile, almost apologetically. “Guess the shoes are a giveway, eh? Yeah. I used to race marathons. I more or less jog now.”
The man shoots his arms out in front of him and uses an index finger to tick the digits of his other hand as he rattles off numbers: “1:47. 3:38. 3:55. 13:45. 29:11.” Another curt nod, this time coupled to a faraway look.
I am startled, almost agog. As with the famous Fabonacci sequence, no one recites such a coherent data sample unless he knows something. Yes, Boulder is filthy with former elite runners. But this guy? Really? He’s outside whatever constitutes a standard mold.
“You ran a sub-four mile.” It’s not a question. The dude is for real.
“No,” he admits with a grin. “But I’m taking the 17-second conversion.” He pauses, again staring into space with eyes which, while watery and a tad red, have become incrementally more focused throughout our exchange. “Fifth in the 1988 Olympic Trials, mmm-hmm,” he says. “I was in it with 100 to go…and I beat those guys. Atkinson, Spivey, Dailey.” Though he doesn’t appear to be wracked with regret, he is plainly wistful at a memory he appears to have not considered for a stretch. Later I would confirm that he had missed a spot on the U.S. Olympic team by thirty-six hundredths of a second, and that in fact, he thinks about this all the time.
I ask the obvious question. “What’s your name?”
I had heard of him. In 1988 I wound up a high-school track and cross-country career that saw me named to several all-state teams in tiny New Hampshire. As I rose through the ranks in the pre-Internet era, I gobbled up every available running rag; my favorites were Boston Running News (now New England Runner) and Track & Field News. I knew who the top Americans were. I had heard of Rich Martinez. He may not have had the eclat of, say, Steve Scott, but I was a track geek and knew more names than just those of the very best of the best. And I had watched almost all of those 1988 Olympics, in Seoul, not knowing, obviously, that I had narrowly missed seeing a guy I would encounter over two decades later drunk in a city two thousand miles from my hometown.
I extend my hand. “Kevin Beck.” He shakes it. An odd transaction has just taken place. I’m already thinking magazine article with one part of my brain, while the remainder simply wants to know Rich Martinez’s story, how he reached his current station. I already know we have a lot in common. And so I started talking, and spent the next several hours in the same spot.