I hope you have at least one dear friend you can count on for anything. I am blessed with many.
One such friend to me is Gus Floodquist. You may know him as one of the smiling faces at SmartBank. I know him as Gustaaaaahv, the high school buddy that I roomed with briefly in college. Gus was in the Army ROTC at UT, and many a day I along with other roommates would tear into his MRE’s when he wasn’t looking, purely out of a Desire for self-preservation.
We were the poorest of the poor college kids and when the cabinets were bare, an army Meal-Ready-to-Eat was better than ramen noodles. Sorry, Gus.
Years later, I had my second child, Jacob, and, at the age of two, he was diagnosed with autism. Bombarded with experts parading in and out of our home, we filled a filing a cabinet with assigned reading materials to help us “learn to be the parents that Jacob needed us to be.” Forget that we had a four-year old whom we had done a pretty good job with up to that point. An autism diagnosis is a game changer.
Overwhelmed and afraid of all the expectations pushed upon us, I withdrew into my own shell and struggled to find an outlet for my frustrations. Eventually I found an organization that funded autism research by having volunteers run marathons and solicit donations from sponsors.
Now I had never run a single mile in my life. I was no small guy then and I remain no small guy now. My doctor recently suggested that I write a column about the joys of being, “just a couple pounds away from being categorized as ‘morbidly obese,’ as opposed to just ‘obese.’” It might serve as encouragement to diet and exercise.
Well, doc, it has. I dusted off the Dr. Atkins books and the bicycle even before I began this column. Dusting, shew! That’s enough exercise for today. Tomorrow, I plan to lower the bike from its rack. I’ll be sure to drink plenty of fluids before that workout. I hope that by the time I visit you again, the word “morbid” will be far from my reach and something only used in conversation between us if we are discussing the latest Stephen King novel.
But I digress. As I said, I had never run a mile in my life so I promised myself that if I could work my way up to running one mile straight, I would call Gus, whom I had not seen in years, and ask for help.
In a few weeks, I reached a mile, jumped off the treadmill and picked up the phone, “Gus, I need your help.” As I explained that I was serious about running a half marathon, his excitement grew. Gus was an avid runner in high school, college, and after. He had already qualified for the Boston marathon a couple of times and his dear wife had a scrapbook of his accomplishments as thick as the autism documentation in my filing cabinet.
Without a second thought, Gus devoted every Sunday morning to me. We would meet at his home before sunrise and take off toward Highway 66. I would trudge along like an African bull elephant crammed into a pair of Nike’s, and Gus, with his inhuman level of enthusiasm and athleticism, would trot along in front. He often ran backwards faster than I could go forwards while encouraging me with motivational statements: “You can do this, Mike! You’ve got this! 13.1 miles is nothing! This is for Jacob!”
If you were driving along Highway 66 any early Sunday morning in the fall of 2004, chances are you might have seen me and Gus. A big guy, shoulders heaving sucking in massive amounts of oxygen – your car may have swerved from the vortex if you got too close – his shirt stained with sweat and slobber because he didn’t have the energy to wipe it away and still continue moving forward, while a nimble, athletic guy ran circles around him shouting encouragements between even, relaxed breaths. For a moment, you might have thought it was Patrick Swayze and Chris Farley in training for an upcoming Saturday Night Live Chippendale’s skit. I assure you, it was not. Gus doesn’t look like Patrick Swayze and I don’t look like…. Well, Gus doesn’t look like Patrick Swayze.
After months of training, Gus was unable to join me in my first, official half marathon so we agreed to keep training and run in the inaugural Knoxville marathon together the following Spring. I would do the half course of 13.1 and he the full, 26.2 miles.
One of my favorite life experiences will be finishing on the 50 yard line in Neyland Stadium in 2 hours, 43 minutes and 27 seconds. I managed to limp into the stands just in time to watch Gus complete his full marathon only a few minutes behind me. It was actually one of his worst times ever. It seems a true marathoner does not get properly prepared by running at slower paces, not to mention backwards, but Gus never complained one time and essentially devoted a year of his marathon career to my efforts.
No matter how infrequently we may see each other, I will always cherish Gus as one of my dearest friends. If you don’t have a Gus of your own, I’ll loan you mine for a while.
I sure won’t be needing him for marathon training in the next decade or two.
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© Michael L. Collins
*Published in the April 14, 2014 edition of The Mountain Press