My day spent running with Gary Allen — even my knuckles hurt
"I wondered why somebody didn't do something. Then I realized, I am somebody." — Unknown author
Spending a day running with Gary Allen was like stepping into the ring with Ali; after a little sparring, he welcomed me into his world.
Gary is taking on a challenge of running an average of 50 miles a day, and my decision to try and “hang with him” for a day would be painful. By the end of my day with him, my body was talking to me — screaming at me in fact — and even my knuckles hurt.
When I joined Gary this particular morning, he was right in the middle of an epic journey. Beginning on Jan. 7, starting at the summit of Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island near Bar Harbor, Gary began a trek that will take him more than 700 miles to Washington D.C.
His goal is to attend the presidential inauguration on Monday, Jan. 21, but his mission is to raise awareness for the Wounded Warriors. In addition to awareness, he would also like to raise money for them, the American Cancer Society and, when he realized his route took him through Newtown, Conn., he added the Sandy Hook Elementary School to his list of charities that he wants this run to support.
Gary and I are about the same age, I turned 56 in November and Gary will turn 56 years later this month. Gary and I both like to run, we have both run multiple marathons. As runners go, that is where the comparison ends; we are not in the same league. My job was to join Gary’s world for one day to see if I could experience through my “average runner’s” novice eye, and share with others, what it is like to run 700 miles, knocking off 50 a day for 14 straight days.
My run on Monday, Jan. 14 confirmed that we also had another similarity; we share a love of the sport because we understand that running has an inclusiveness about it that encourages others to be part of the game. Runners all have their own goals, their own personal records, and their own motivations for running but it is a sport that encourages a comradeship like no other I’ve seen.
If running is life, then Gary has a full plate. Gary is going to Washington and “running with a purpose and for a purpose,” a concept that makes this run bigger than life.
On the run with Gary Allen
I wanted to ask Gary some of the “whys and the how comes” but this particular morning it was evident that I could best serve him by being quiet while he gained his momentum for the day. The previous day, Sunday, Jan. 13 he had run 52 miles; his longest day up to that point. I would join him at about mile-330 of his trip and would get him close to his halfway point.
The previous week four Midcoast runners ran with Gary from Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro to Damariscotta. It was the beginning of the third day of his journey. We had taken him past the 100-mile mark and his mood was lighthearted, perhaps even giddy, as we posed for pictures at this first “marker” so that we could share it on Facebook with his friends and fans. That run was about 8 1/2 miles and was easy to coordinate; we did the “canoe” thing leaving one car at the end and driving back in another so that we could do a point-to-point run with Gary. While running that Wednesday morning, Gary chatted us up, stayed connected with his electronics; making and receiving several short phone calls. He was in the moment but was clearly enjoying the start of his run.
Averaging 45 miles a day for the first two days was new territory for Gary; he is a long-distance guy but this was his first “journey run” and never had he logged 45 miles in back-to-back days. Now he was two days in and preparing for his third in row when we handed him over to his new support guy, Bob, who would take him to Brunswick where he would rest for day number four.
Gary has the credentials to take this on; he’s run several 50-mile races and, in 2012, he ran the Bangor Labor Day 5-miler five times (out and back), the last being the actual race. He completed the 50 miles to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the race and perhaps, just because he could.
After running that Wednesday with Gary, I was hooked. My donation check to Wounded Warriors was my little way of saying thanks to Gary and his mission and I began to follow Gary’s Facebook and found myself tracking him on an almost hourly basis; I was a stalker, but in a good way.
When I saw that Gary was looking for a New England Patriot’s hat for Sunday, and saw that he would be running only a few miles away from my hometown during New England's playoff game with the Houston Texans, I got a crazy idea that I would find Gary along the road and drop off the hat on Sunday afternoon as he ran through Route 9 and Route 20 in Shrewsbury, Mass. Then I could head over for some beer and snacks and watch the Patriot’s game with my friend, Rita, and her family in my hometown of Westborough; perhaps I would then run a bit with Gary on Monday.
Like most of my plans, things didn’t go according to schedule.
As I prepared to leave my home in Camden, Maine, I surveyed my stuff and prepared for all contingencies. I then looked at the “Gary Allen” tracker to discover he had already run by Westborough and I was still four hours away by car. I got in the car anyway and figured I would “adapt” my plan.
Getting to Westborough and watching the Pats in the nice cozy confines of my friends’ house it was sobering — as I sipped my wine and ate my pasta — to track Gary through central Massachusetts to his resting point for the night of Woodstock, Conn. I looked at the map and decided he must have slugged out over 50 miles on this Sunday. Meanwhile, I made a plan to find him in the morning to turn over my Patriots' hat and run until it hurt.
I got up just after 5 a.m. to prepare for my day with Gary Allen. I was in my car around 6:10 a.m. to begin my search and I would arrive around 7 a.m. in Woodstock, which I estimated would be his start time. My hunt for Gary would begin.
Let the running begin
It took a solid hour for me to find him; Rita’s husband Bob was tracking him on the “live” tracker while I was on the phone with Bob and looking at my map. Once I got my bearings, I looked up to find a bus looking to pull into the turnoff where I was parked. I pulled forward and the bus driver pulled along side of me and opened the door and asked, “Are you looking for the runner?”
“Yes,” I said.
“About a mile down the road you’ll find him.”
I headed in the direction she pointed and sure enough, I passed him going the other way. I did a U-turn to pass him again and began to look for a place to park. As I pulled into a small general store, I saw what I knew must be his support vehicle, hatchback open, waiting for Gary to come up the hill.
I introduced myself to his support team driver, Doug Welch, a longtime friend of Gary’s and a fellow member of a world-wide team of runners known as “Crow Athletics." “Crows” take care of each and it is a fellowship. When a “Crow” sees that familiar singlet you might hear an affectionate “CAW CAW” from one to the other. I immediately sensed from Doug, an ultra marathoner himself, an uneasy vibe. It was clear that Gary needed a little space today; the kind of space, as a runner, I understood.
As Gary approached us, I promised Doug that I would be cognitive of his needs by backing off if that was what was best. With Gary’s arrival I could see tension in his face, and, as we started our day together, I asked him, “Do you need to be alone now?”
Gary told me he didn’t need to be alone but said that he needed some quiet as he began his day. It was a lovely stretch of road up ahead of us and we began slugging out the miles step by step, quietly easing into the first miles of my day. By mile three Gary began to loosen up; perhaps his muscles were loosening, his mind was letting go of yesterday, and his lactic acid was beginning to release. Perhaps it was just the waking up to a new day and the beauty and nature that surrounded us as we trudged up the road.
By the end of the next food break, Gary was singing “another one bites the dust” as mile four of the day for Gary faded away. Gary talked about his need to be in the moment: "You can’t think about where you’re going or where you’ve been when you are on a journey like this" he shared with me. Rather, he needed to “be here now,” running alongside this brook, chatting with me, thinking only about this step and trusting that the universe will get you to the next one.
Doug was good to counsel me that to be of help to Gary, I needed to let Gary lead the way. If he was chatty, chat. If he was quiet, be quiet. I tried to heed this and dropped all ideas of asking him “reporter-type” questions. Instead, I would just observe and try to go outside my own limits so that maybe, just maybe, I could understand, first-hand, how deep Gary needed to dig to make this run a reality.
At a rest stop I learned from Doug that Gary was coming off a 52-mile day, his longest of the trip at that point. He had had a battle with dehydration and the shakes coming off of Sunday’s run. Doug knew that he needed to be very careful today to get more food and liquid energy into Gary from the start. The previous day, Gary had very little time to himself as his wingman Doug ran much of the day with him while trading off on crew duties with friend and fellow “Crow” teammate Elizabeth Trask. During that Sunday several others joined in along the way and Gary did not have much time to contemplate and the day got a little away from him.
While Gary likes the company along the route of the running community, he finds it difficult when people want to small talk or push him to run faster. It’s a balance between the comradeship he enjoys and his need to find his inner peace and center.
What I was learning from Gary is the amount of energy and preparation it takes to make this all happen and how easily it can be sabotaged if you have to use your energy in any peripheral manner. Keeping him centered seemed equally important as keeping him hydrated and his calorie intake above his calorie outtake.
About an hour into our time together, Gary stepped off the road to attend to nature and I used the opportunity to go on ahead; I thought he could use some time alone to gather his thoughts and continue his mental preparation for day number eight. I met with his wingman and let him know that I would give Gary space and that I would run ahead and meet with them down the road at the next rest stop.
The fog was lifting and the sun began to squint through the clouds turning a nice running day into an excellent one. The roads continued to wind through country land and Gary began to smile and get into a more talkative mood after we joined up again.
As we ran, he got a call from a Portland, Maine-based radio station and gave a live interview as we continued pounding out the miles. As Gary answered questions, the woman interviewer continued to be “wowed” as she followed Gary on the tracker. He appeared as a “Gary Allen Arrow” on a highlighted route and she could follow him going down the road as he was speaking to her. They had some laughs and Gary got to put in some useful plugs for the charities he’s running for and to let people know that it is important for people to get out and be movers. After the interview ended we were alone in silence again. The change of pace was good for Gary; I remarked later to him that our pace had picked up over a minute a mile from the energy he got while doing the interview.
The legs were loosening, the sun was shining and everything seemed to be getting easier – at least for Gary.
Be careful what your wish for
While Gary’s parts seemed to be limbering up during the mid-morning, my parts were beginning to break down. I had wanted to feel some of what Gary was feeling and it was beginning to happen. Having run no more than two hours in any day for many months, and practically taking off December after an injury, the wheels were about to fall off for me as we entered hour three and mile 13.
Not only was I beginning to feel some of Gary’s pain but I was beginning to feel a part of the team. As we stopped every couple of miles for refueling, Doug seemed to sense that I wasn’t getting in the way or causing too much disruption in Gary’s need for routine. Gary assured me that staying on his left side and pacing slightly behind him was working and that he appreciated that, as a fellow runner, he was confident I understood that he didn’t want to be pushed into somebody else’s pace or somebody else’s run, especially not on this run where the slightest misstep or miscalculation can cause mayhem.
I noticed how Gary was always learning; yesterday’s fatigue and dehydration could not be repeated and he ate at every stop: peanut butter sandwiches, cookies, peanut butter cups and doughnuts to go along with his chia seeds and liquid. The doughnuts were honey glazed and a bad idea. They did not sit well and Gary surmised that doughnuts are probably best left for after a run rather during a run. The chia seeds helped absorb some of the liquid and are known for cleansing and detoxifying the body and giving you long-lasting energy. They’ve been used for centuries and made famous in the book about barefoot running: “Born to Run.”
Hitting the wall
My next dilemma was to figure out where and when my “wall” would come. I needed to predict the fine line between overdoing it to the point where I could channel some of the “Gary” in me and not fall apart where I needed outside assistance. I did not want to take anything away from Gary’s focus and I understood that Doug needed to continue to do his job, which was to concentrate solely on Gary. With mile 15 approaching, I was near that point as we began to prepare for a trail that would take us into the woods, away from the roads, for about three miles.
At the rest area outside the trail head we all talked about it and I made the decision to go ahead as Gary encouraged me and Doug reminded me what I already knew, namely that my contingency plan for him to leave my back pack at the end of the trail and I would walk to it, was a ticket to failure.
Running provides lessons and mirrors life; Doug was right, the road to success is not having a contingency, because success knows only one way — forward. So off I went, trying to stay up with Gary and be cognizant that my limit was nearing.
I was relieved to see the road as my GPS watch showed me entering my 17th mile. With the road came a time to recuperate and it was also time for Doug to head back home to his life and his job. He would transfer the supplies to Gary’s cousin, Seth Reece, who was to take Gary along the next leg of the journey. Knowing my own ride was about 20 minutes away, I decided to continue with Gary for another three-quarters of a mile along the trail and then walked back to cool down. That would give me exactly marathon distance with Gary over my two runs with him: a cool 26.2 miles.
What is amazing is that Gary is doing about two marathons every day! Sometimes the only way to survive is to look to your animal self; earlier that morning Gary had seen a coyote on the side of the road. As I pondered what kind of animal Gary was, my ride showed up and I was now free to continue my life while Gary continued to pound out more miles in solace. I would learn later from his tracker that he had ended his 12-hour running day with an even 50 miles on day number eight.
I did leave behind my Patriots' hat so Gary could tip it to Eli Manning and his friends as he ran by Giants' stadium later that week. I also left with a greater respect for Gary and what he is accomplishing on the physical side. While I did get a taste of the pain of the chase, I also had the luxury of not getting up the next morning to repeat. As my left calf locked up, and I screamed like a baby, I got into Rita’s car knowing with all my heart that I could not have run another mile nor could I contemplate getting up and doing it again tomorrow.
All this, as Gary will attest to, is nothing compared to what our wounded warriors go through serving our country and giving us the freedom to run these roads of Connecticut. I wanted to ask Gary the “whys” and the “what’s,” but this could not be a straight interview. Not only done on-the-run, this also turned out to be a story that was better told by observing rather than asking questions.
4 hours, 12 minutes, 7 seconds equals 17.7 miles
In the end I had plenty of “takeaways” from my day with Gary.
From a physical level, it is an extraordinary feat to run 50 miles a day for two weeks. After four hours, 12 minutes and seven seconds, covering nearly 18 miles in Gary’s world, I was reduced and humbled. An hour later, while walking cowboy-style into the restaurant, I could finally understand the enormousness of a “journey run.” I was so broken just touching the edges; I was chafed up and I couldn’t even put on my shoes so I walked in my socks into the restaurant instead of struggling with my sneakers. Even as I typed this story the following day, my legs were still stiff, my hips were whacked, and, as I said earlier, even my knuckles hurt.
But the most impressive part is the mental toughness it takes to complete something like this. I have done 100 miles on the Appalachian Trail in less than a week and a 500-mile walk across Spain that took about a month and I can tell you that a day — remember my “day” was only four hours, 12 minutes and seven seconds and shy of 18 miles while Gary would run 12 hours and 50 total miles, knowing he would get up and repeat that the next day and the next day and so forth — with Gary confirms that these adventures were a walk-in-the-park comparatively.
The thought of doing two marathons in a day, only to wake up the next day to run two more, is jaw dropping. There are no “turning off the alarm clock” and rolling over for Gary Allen during his quest. He is onward bound, and, one step at a time, he is making his way to Washington while encouraging others that we can all do something that will make a difference. The wounded warriors sacrificed for us, cancer patients fight and struggle daily and cancer has touched us all in some way or another while the tragedy that is “Sandy Hook” needs our continued support and awareness to make sure that it doesn’t happen again at a school near you.
With a purpose, for a purpose - it's the journey not the destination
Gary has worked a lifetime for this moment; his training began when he fell in love with the sport of running as a boy and today he sits in a select club that includes about 25 people in the world who have run sub three-hour marathons in five different decades. That club includes one woman, Joan Benoit-Samuelson, who joined Gary for a few miles as he passed through her hometown of Freeport on the fourth day coming down the Maine coast. Joan has the gold medal from her Los Angeles triumph in the inaugural women’s 1984 Olympic marathon, while Gary is on his way to the gold heart as he “runs with a purpose and for a purpose.”
The idea for this run came to Gary on his way back from New York after this year’s marathon was canceled as he wondered to himself whether he was capable of running from that city back to Maine.
He will run through inclement weather and through the night if that’s what it takes to get to D.C. and he said whatever he’s doing is nothing compared to what the veterans and servicemen do to give us the freedom to run every day, wherever we want. Cancer touched Gary with the death of his mother several years ago and he knows that it affects most of us in some way or another. Sandy Hook touched us all.
Gary has stated that getting to Washington by inauguration day is the goal but not the mission. He is not hung up on the Jan. 21 date and understands that he might not make it by the inauguration; having a goal is just part of his make up. This journey continues to teach him that, although the destination is important, the journey takes precedence.
To date, Gary has raised nearly $5,000 for his three charities and has a corporate sponsor, Finish Lynx, a timing company that times events that include the Olympics, that will match all contributions. To support Gary, and one or more of his causes, go to: http://www.maine2dcrun.com/ or follow him on twitter at @GaryAllen262.
To learn more about Gary, visit the website: http://www.garyallen.crowathletics.com/bio/
“I have run most of my life on a small offshore Maine island where the main road is only two miles long. I estimate I have covered around 75,000 miles on that single piece of broken road. When you have absolutely no option of running a different or varied loop the only decision is whether you will run or not, and how far you will go. Running out on Great Cranberry Island made me at times feel like a caged lion and when I got out into the world to run a race it felt easy simply because I felt free.” — Gary Allen
Reade Brower can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.