Joe, Track, and Community
September 21, 2021
It’s been about a month since my friend, Joe, died.
Two days before it happened, I went to get drinks with him and some friends that call themselves the Kezar Road Runners. As everyone was saying their goodbyes, Joe turned to me to ask if I wanted “one more beer”. I’m embarrassed to say I did a rapid calculation. (A third drink would mean a hangover. (I know.)) But I obliged, and we sat at the bar as last call came and went, talking about basically everything: relationships, our dogs, the nature of work. I even drunkenly brought up the vague concepts of “community” and “ritual” and expressed how valuable the Joe’s commitment to the Road Runners was to me. He smiled and then got up to help the bartender pack up all the tables and chairs as she got ready to close. We lingered outside for a bit, and I wished him well on Hood to Coast, a grueling relay race through Oregon mountains. He left the next morning to fly to Portland where he’d meet some of the other Road Runners, pick up the baton, and collapse from a heart attack midway through the race’s second leg.
Talking about Joe now is the same as talking about the Kezar Road Runners, a group that he cultivated, emboddied, and ran for more than two decades. The premise was simple, we’d meet every Wednesday after work at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park. Joe would plan a workout and stand at the end of the track, giving encouragement and guarding our gym bags. Afterward we’d all amble through the fog to a nearby pub, where we’d indulge in greasy food, beer, and endorphans while talking about future races, horror films, and arcane US tax law.
I’ve been a part of a few groups like this, some similarly focused around exercise. In 2011 I went running on Tuesdays and Thursdays along the Embarcadero with some coworkers before leaving for a different job the next year. In 2013 I had a semi-weekly date with some friends at Sea Bowl in Pacifica, where we’d knock down pins and crack jokes about math. All of these groups eventually fizzled out as people moved to new places, took on new jobs, or simply found new hobbies.
I joined the Kezar Road Runners in 2014, and Joe was immediately attentive, giving pointers, asking questions about my day, and generally including me in the already tight group dynamic that felt otherwise hard to puncture. That Winter the city closed the track for resurfacing, and Joe started holding workouts at the Music Concourse, an ovular set of paths, trees, and fountains tucked between two museums deeper into the park. Each week he’d call the city contractors, asking when we’d be able to come back. The following Spring when high school sports started picking up and the track seemed perpetually reserved for soccer, Joe had us doing hill repeats on a particularly steep block by the nearby hospital.
I didn’t always go to these workouts. Sometimes I’d have a social event or just not feel up to it. Then in 2016 I fell off and stopped going entirely. Occasionally I’d drop in one week and tell Joe, “I think I’m going to start coming again!” before disappearing for another few months.
But even when I found myself going regularly again, I never stopped to think about what Joe was giving us just by being there. every. week. Every one of us, even the ones that went regularly for years, often skipped a workout here and there. Not Joe. It was because of him that we could skip – because we knew he’d be there the next week, passing zero judgement, smiling at the ones that did show up. And as simple as that is, it’s extremely rare.
While reminiscing with one of the Road Runners recently, I brought this up. I mentioned how all the quirky things about Joe (the fact that he didn’t travel, his perpetual bachelorhood) meant he could give us a reliable community. And she said she worried that without him the group wouldn’t survive.
The individualism of modernism is lonely. Things like social media sell us a figment of the gratification we get from a local pub or a church, and most of my friends aren’t religious. We constantly make plans to see one another, but sometimes we forget. Sometimes we forget for years before realizing we’ve lost any social precedent, any reason for hanging out.
I hope Kezar Road Runners can keep going. There will never be another Joe, but maybe the force he left behind will keep exerting itself. Maybe the recognition of the work he was doing will encourage us all to act a little more like him. Maybe someone, just having moved here for a job, will find us one day at the track and ask to join.