I’m getting Boulder: Day 2–Bobby McGee

Humbled.

That’s been the theme today, and there’s not a damned thing wrong with it. Notice I didn’t say “humiliated”–people tend to use these words interchangeably, if only in their heads. The past 24 hours have introduced a two-pronged eye-opener that already has me far more immersed in this book, this town, and the history of this sport than I ever expected.

This morning I met with Bobby McGee, a longtime coach of triathletes and runners. Actually, that description doesn’t really begin to touch the breadth of Bobby’s endeavors. He’s written books, he trains other triathlon coaches for USAT, and he functions in essence as a sports psychologist (and after meeting him I can see why).

But before I get to Bobby, a few words about Boulder after my first full day here. I’m staying with a guy I’ve “known” online for 10 years. He lives in the south-central part of Boulder (near the Foothills Parkway/Table Mesa junction, for those familiar with the area). Everything in his cupboards and refrigerator is organic. He came in last night after hitting a popular runner’s pub and was sporting a strong organic buzz. Anyway, this morning I elected to walk the 2.5 miles to Bobby’s rather than take a bus, just to better appreciate the local flavor.

First, the predominant physical feature, and one Boulder hangs it hat on (think New Hampshire before the Old Man of the Mountain came crashing down) is the Flatirons, which present as a series of sheer peaks and saddles lying just west of town. Anyone who cannot use terrain features to get around town, or at least determine what direction he is facing, should probably consult a neurologist. For someone whose experience with mountains is largely constrained to the green and sedate Appalachians, the Flatirons are a breathtaking sight.

Second, anyone carrying around a lot of extra weight and planning a move here might want to reconsider. This is the least fat U.S. city you’ll ever see. Not only is it home to plenty of world-class endurance athletes, but the general citizenry values fitness to a degree I’ve never experienced. People cycle to get around where most would drive (naturally, Boulder has a great network of multi-use paths) and even those who don’t formally exercise are inclined to do plenty of walking.

Once I got to Bobby’s place near Arapahoe Avenue, I was greeted by his assistant, and then the genial man himself appeared. When setting this interview up through a mutual friend the other day, I submitted a list of questions I wanted to address by e-mail, and Bobby had already answered them in exquisite detail and printed them out. As a result, the interview was more of a gab session, and in terms of general running banter was perhaps the most illuminating 90 minutes of my life. The South-African-born Bobby–whose background is in middle-distance running–has forgotten more about motivating and coaching endurance athletes than I will ever know. Within moments of listening to him recount his experiences–and he has coached people from citizen triathletes to 1996 Olympic Marathon gold medalist Josia Thugwane–I could see, with sobering clarity, just where I has screwed up myself in my much more limited niche of coaching marathoners over the Internet. This wasn’t distressing so much as it was a revelation. I won’t detail exactly what he said to open my eyes, but suffice it to say it was potent stuff. I don’t know squat.

Bobby, who once saved the life of a very drunk major-marathon champion by pulling him out of the path of a speeding car, was the 1992 South African Olympic Marathon coach. Before that–and this is where things became really powerful–he was a white coach in apartheid South Africa who was forced to hide his face under a hood and his body behind trees as he watched the dirt-poor black kids he had taken under his wing work out on a “blacks-only” track patrolled by security guards. The guards wouldn’t have done anything but kick him out had they seen him, Bobby says, but had groups of citizens found out, he could have been lynched, or in a best case the flood of negative publicity would have ended his career.

I could say a lot more but I’m still processing, and I need to figure out how much of this is fit for the book and how much is just material I’m grateful to have collided with.

When I got back to Andrew’s I did a run of my own–about 40 minutes to the west of Foothills Highway, an out-and-back jaunt that took me near but not onto the CU campus. Tomorrow I’m going to check out Buff Ranch, CU’s cross-country course, as it’s very close to where I am staying. Tomorrow afternoon I’m picking up a car and from there will go to Circuit City to procure the necessary accessories for my camera.

The other thing that’s raided my mind, in a good way, over the past day has been immersing myself in Lorriane Moller’s recently released book, On The Wings Of Mercury. Although it is gratifying to one more book authored by a former female elite–the world is starved of them–understand up front that this is not a running book. Instead, it is the undiluted memoir of a human being who happened to be a world-class distance runner and has dealt with some truly horrific and unusual challenges. Lorraine, one of many marathoners I learned to worship as a whelp, won the 1984 Boston Marathon and, in an improbable feat of determination, won bronze in Barcelona in 1992. She returned to the Olympics for a fourth graceful time in 1996 at age 41 to close out a 20-year-long career at the top level of athletics. But these details are swallowed in the greater picture of this true tear-jerker of a book–and I’m only 60 pages in (about one-sixth). I can’t wait to meet her at a downtown coffee shop on Thursday morning, but I admit to being intimidated by a runner for probably the first time in my life.

I’m filing this one early, as I’ll be spending the rest of my evening reading and trying to keep up with the responsibilities of my bill-paying job. But this trip just keeps getting more and more interesting and fun. I feel like someone who’s been missing for years from a place he’s never been to, if that makes a shred of sense..

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  1. #1 by Grambo on June 18, 2009 - 5:51 am

    Awesome, fer sure! Really glad I followed the link here, Kevin.
    I’ve been to Boulder twice, and you nail the vibe. I was just a tourist, and went on a run from town around the reservoir — turning my head so much and thinking, “Hey, that’s (fill in the name of just about any world class runner)…” I ran off-trail a few times.
    Rode my bike up some god-aweful steep road up the side of the Flat Irons and the same thing.
    Sounds like you’re having a great trip! Keep posting.

  2. #2 by Roger on June 20, 2009 - 11:36 am

    Nice Kevin. Hope you enjoy the rest of your trip and that you continue getting good material for your writing.

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