Tuesdays With The Rocket: A Special Start to 2017

Until I left California a few weeks ago and transitioned to Colorado for the summer, nearly every Tuesday of 2017 went like this:

I run 2.5 miles from my house to the edge of Oakland’s Lake Merritt to get there at 8:52 a.m., because The Rocket always arrives early to our 9 a.m. date.

While I stand and stretch near the tall columned structure called The Colonnade, Errol “The Rocket” Jones, 67 years young, runs up sporting a trim-fitting shirt neatly tucked into shorts, looking dapper even in running clothes. His skin is smooth and shiny, except for some wrinkles around the eyes, and his thin, sculpted legs look like those of a champion East African runner.

“Rocket, I’m tired today,” I admit as soon as I see him.

“Honey, I am so glad to hear that! You and me both.” He throws his arms around me in a sweaty hug, his laughter loud enough to turn heads. Passers-by see our contrast in age, gender and race, and a few must wonder, what gives? But most probably don’t think twice, because this is Oakland, and the lakeside pedestrians look as representative as the UN.

A typical Tuesday morning run with The Rocket.

I tell him, “I feel like your ’79 Cadillac, you know? I’ve got the potential to look good and run well, but I’m old and rusty.”

“Well, I had the worst run you can imagine yesterday,” he tells me (because we have fallen into the habit of one-upping each other with worst-ever stories like this). As we begin stiffly running clockwise around the lake, dodging geese and walkers, our talk takes on a confessional tone. He relates how he drove to Skyline Gate in Redwood Regional Park to run 7.5 miles out and back to Pinehurst Gate, but he felt so lousy, and the trail was so storm damaged, that he cut the run short. “It didn’t even end up being 5; it was 4.8, but it was still above my prescribed daily 3.”

Rocket’s “prescribed daily 3” is his minimum requirement to maintain a streak—that is, running every single day of 2017, in preparation for redemption at the 100-mile distance. He’s committed to finishing the Heartland 100 in Kansas in early October.

Today, a Tuesday in late June in Colorado, I’m not missing too much about California, except The Rocket and “the big dance” happening this weekend. I keep dwelling on the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run, which takes place Saturday, and flashing back to my experience one year ago—those 24 hours that lived up to the hype and turned out to be everything I hoped it would be. Errol, helping as my crew and mentor, was a big part of that day. I wish I could be part of this year’s excitement around States and hang out with The Rocket again.

Heading out from the Michigan Bluff aid station in the late-afternoon heat with Errol “The Rocket” Jones during the 2016 Western States Endurance Run.

Savoring and rehashing the 2016 Western States 100 experience at the finish.

I can’t recall exactly how or why we started the new year with the “see ya Tuesday at 9 at the lake”—two ultra-distance trail runners meeting midweek for a paved, flat, easy loop. I only recall the feelings of vulnerability and anxiety that settled in my stomach toward the end of 2016.

Nervous about the imminent publication of my book, worried about my kids’ personal struggles, daunted by a crazy weeklong race I committed to train for, doubtful I could prove to myself that I could take the entire month of January off from drinking alcohol (when a single night of abstinence, pre-race, felt like a struggle)—the combination of these and other stressors, including the specter of Donald Trump, made me feel close to hopeless and powerless.

It’s fair to stay The Rocket started the year a little stressed, too, haunted by DNFs at a couple of 100s and determined to fulfill a running streak. He transitioned from semi-retirement to return to work as a carpenter, taking on a tough remodeling job. He felt fatigued from race-directing and volunteering. He kept shaking his head in disbelief and dismay about current events, the clock turning back on civil rights.

I needed a friend, a counselor, a reminder of the best, most humorous and resilient sides of the human spirit. We both needed a conversational-pace easy run with no expectations of distance or speed, a chance to rejuvenate a few days after a depleting weekend long run.

Each Tuesday, we learned a little more about each other. For example, one time, he told me about running trails solo in Mexico in January (where he, along with his close friends Tropical John Medinger and Lisa Henson, traveled during the inauguration week to get away from it all), and I asked, don’t you ever worry about your safety while running unknown trails solo in a foreign country?

He gives me a look, like, don’t I know anything? “Honey, I was a point man in Vietnam!” He launches into a story that transports me from Lake Merritt to a jungle where I visualize him dressed in camo holding a rifle, forging solo into the unknown to flush out enemies and other threats, making it safer for troops to follow.

Another time, I tell him about how my weekend long run got all screwed up by a mid-run phone call with my mother and her caregiver. I had stopped running and caught a chill while trying to get through to my confused mother, who no longer possesses the cognitive ability to remember the four-year anniversary of my dad’s death. Errol listens sympathetically and describes his mom as a saint, his dad a philanderer. We get to talking about siblings—the good and the bad—since I’m the youngest of five and he’s the oldest of seven.  “It’s life. You can’t choose who you’re related to,” he reminds me.

I don’t need a psychologist to recognize that in this midlife phase, lacking parents who are healthy, strong role models, I seek out older mentors who on some level fulfill paternal or maternal roles and who cheer me on, inspiring me to be better and stronger while at the same time accepting my aging, imperfect self.

But mostly, Rocket and I talk about running, because there’s always running.

When he tells me his plans for the Ohlone 50K in May, I ask if he ever considers doing the Silver State 50 near Reno on that same weekend, as an alternative. Again, he looks at me like, don’t I know anything?

“Back in the day, some of us would do Silver State and Ohlone,” he says, because one event is Saturday and the other is Sunday, making a back-to-back race possible. “We were warriors! Today, you’re all creampuffs!” We laugh so hard, more heads turn.

Then The Rocket grows subdued and recalls when he used to run the Ohlone 50K in the early 1990s in close to 5 hours, placing near the front, not in the 6 to 7 hours it takes now. (On May 21, a brutally hot day, he finished the Ohlone 50K in 8:05.)  “I had something then, I wasn’t just a has-been,” he says more to himself than to me. I remind him that he has a daily streak and a 100-miler on the calendar, and that’s not a has-been.

“That’s right, and after three months, I’m really feeling the payoff” of this year’s training, he says with more characteristic cheerfulness.

It’s been 35 years since Errol “The Rocket” Jones ran his first ultra, the American River 50—and since some other trail runner in the Oakland hills gave him the nickname that stuck by referring to him as “the black guy rocketing around” (a story recounted in this UltraRunnerPodcast episode)—and he’s run more than 200 ultras since. His 100-mile time dipped below 20 hours in his prime. Now, he anchors his goals on getting out and finishing, pure and simple.

He writes a column called “Rocket Rants” for UltraRunning magazine, and in last month’s issue, he described friendships nurtured through ultrarunning. “Sometimes life happens, and we need a go-to person or persons, those you can always count on to be there in your time of need,” he wrote. “If you’re lucky you’ve developed a similar relationship with a someone, or a group, in the sport, who can share your pain over 40 to 60 miles of rugged trail and drag your wretched behind to the finish line. Or get you over whatever hump is blocking your way in life.”

I agree completely, but it’s funny how I also found that to be true on a gentle three-mile loop around Lake Merritt.

Taking a break outside the Lake Merritt boathouse.

If you haven’t seen it, check out this short video about Errol “The Rocket” Jones, which I helped the filmmaker develop in late 2015 (and I’m seen running briefly with him in it).

Good luck to everyone chasing their dreams this weekend at the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run! Here’s the lowdown & links from iRunFar on how to follow it.

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3 Responses to Tuesdays With The Rocket: A Special Start to 2017

  1. Erica Lindeman June 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm #

    A runner buddy is the best! I am the type of person that I prefer to running with someone, or with a group.
    It’s true that we really can’t choose who we’re related with. We deal with life’s challenges. Hope your mom is alright!

  2. Kirk Apt June 20, 2017 at 8:47 pm #

    Beautiful post Sarah! Takes me back to Jan. ’16, my first visit to the Bay Area. It had been quite some time since I had seen The Rocket, but he graciously came out to the Headlands where I was staying and guided me on a spectacular run on those trails. Trail time with The Rocket is such a gift!

    See you at Hardrock!

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