Stories of Frank

Frank didn’t seem to be this wild and crazy guy. Most of the runners we hung with probably only saw his quiet demeanor and easy smile. But I’m here to tell you the guy was wild and crazy–in a quiet way. It’s been too many years, and yet early one morning recently I woke from a dream where I was in a party telling stories of Frank to a woman I barely knew. I was having a time trying to describe why I missed the man. She probably walked off thinking “Crazy!” It was right there when I woke—if I could only put it into words.

First thing you need to know about Frank: in a running club of very competitive folks, he wasn’t a terribly fast runner, and I don’t think he ever competed in a race any longer than a 15 K. No medals for Frank. But he’d just smile. He might roll his eyes at the antics of our louder types, but you got the feeling that whatever DID get to Frank, he didn’t feel the need to go on about it.

Frank wasn’t built like a distance runner; he was wide beamed where the best runners weren’t. The very best are a pair of lungs and a strong heart and the rest goes along for the ride. Frank had a rolling gait, a bit side to side.

Amby Burfoot, a well-known distance runner, has a reputation for barely picking his feet off the pavement. The “Burfoot Shuffle” is a familiar distance runners’ style, particularly among ultramarathoners. In his day, Amby could lay down some hot miles in a marathon–unlike Frank. There’s something to be said for the Burfoot Shuffle–expending less energy not doing a full stride and less pounding on your joints–provided you can keep up a fast enough turnover. Frank wasn’t that fast.

The Nova Running Club (Northern Virginia Running Club) had been around since the start of the running craze. Several of its members were involved in founding the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler, one of the DC area’s premier road races. I joined ca 1980 when the club comprised as few as twelve members. Peter conned me into becoming president, and a year or two after I conned Barbara Frech. Barbara and I were certain that we needed to do track workouts, and we needed a coach. I picked up a coach quite literally when I gave Gordon Oliver a ride to the hospital after a hit-and-run driver had dislocated his shoulder in a road race I was watching. Gordon was leading the race at the time. Tough dude, and a very giving man.

Bluemont 5K You’ll admit, she has a mischievous smile. Nothing to do with this blog, but I like her smile.

We began our interval training Tuesdays on the track at St. Stephens, the private school where Gordon was working, and we later shifted to T C Williams High School [i] which had a brand new track surface, aluminum rail and a grass infield. Nova still holds its track workouts Tuesdays at T C Williams.

Interval training improves oxygen intake and conditions you to recover from oxygen debt on the run. Let’s say you want to hit 5:30 miles for a 10K. A sub-35 minute 10K is nothing to sneer at. A 5:30 minute mile means consistent 82 second quarter miles, so your intervals might be done at 75 seconds, followed by a recovery lap. (fast, slow, fast, slow, repeated for about an hour then followed by a good puke–oh I kid; you only puke after you fall over.) Done properly, the recovery distance is shortened over the length of the training season or the number of intervals is increased. Both build stamina. Running intervals on no oxygen, heart redlining and lungs exploding, it was not my body saying ‘oh, please let’s keep pushing!’ That was Barbara’s job. Particularly in mid-August with bad air quality, she led the pack. But come the racing season in the fall, when the weather cooled down and the humidity was less, the payoff was to cruise at 5:30’s.

Frank’s intervals were a cool down pace for a number in the club.

On the Thursday evening runs out of Bluemont Park, Frank would bring up the rear with the slower runners. The Thursday night runs began when Barbara was club president (mentioned in last week’s Evans' Rag). She lived near Bluemont, and invited other women to join her, however being good looking with a ready smile, she got even more men to join.

We considered the Thursday night runs ‘social’, as in running at race pace for a minute, then recovering for a minute, six to eight miles of these repeats was social. Another version were the hill repeats, but only the diehards went in for those. You could tell who was in shape by how much talking went on during the workout. The beer after, tailgating in the parking lot was the social aspect.

Frank couldn’t have kept up with Win, though few others could either. If she was within a 100 yards of you at the finish you were done for. That’s Doug on the right and Steve on the left. CA 1990.

Frank couldn’t have kept up with Win, though few others could either. If she was within a 100 yards of you at the finish you were done for. That’s Doug on the right and Steve on the left. CA 1990.

Frank never let on the reason he brought up the rear on Thursday runs was he had his eye on several women, so he hung back with them. Plus he had nothing to prove unlike some of the young turks. Frank was smart like that. Though he never tried racing Win at 100 M; I did and she crushed me. He just nodded and smiled.

For the annual 10K charity race through the historic streets of Alexandria, afterwards Frank always searched out the vendor selling chili dogs. Nothing better than a dog piled with chili, onions and Tabasco after a hard run in the summer. Except maybe two of em. Peter and I watched him in amazement.

A few years later I came to discover that Frank was a demon hiker. I’ll admit it surprised me.

One of the club’s best women runners (also a killer triathlete), agreed to join Frank on a weekend hike he was leading in the Shenandoah mountains. Jeanne said he crushed the lot of them. “The man did this shuffle walk-run for hours! Didn’t matter if he was climbing rocks or fording a creek. Nobody could keep up with him!” Not an exact quote but close enough for jazz.

It wouldn’t mean much, except Jeanne was an exceptionally conditioned athlete, so when she told that story, I had a different take on him. My soon brother-in-law told a similar story, so I knew Jeanne wasn’t making it up. When Frank heard what she’d said about the hike, he just laughed. Frank wasn’t into bragging.

Running is a mental game. Distance running is wicked mental, and we were all certifiably so. My ex-wife was convinced. My response was ‘yeah, there are a few of those,’ but I was into the challenge. She once said she thought my next passion would be rock climbing, which speaks more to her skepticism about running than any interest I had in vertical rock slopes. But heading into a zero degree wind, sliding on icy stretches with sled dogs pulling you toward an inevitable fate, so that come spring you’d be able to compete? I was OK with that.

For me it was the challenge of pushing beyond what I’d ever expected to attain. The gift that was running tested my limits and gave me the knowledge of how to exceed in spite of them. Frank understood.

That and being in the company of athletes (men and women) who could legitimately qualify for the Olympics. Matt Centrowitz, before he coached at American U., did a couple seasons coaching the NOVA club. Watching Gordon Oliver lead a pack around the track, Matt was overheard commenting “Hell, in high school, I chased that guy in the 1500!” [ii] Matt had set the American record in the 5000 meter in 1982 with a time of 13:12.91 (averaging 4:15 miles) His son, Matt Jr. won Olympic gold in the 5,000 meter in 2016. I recall Matt Jr. being a happy baby being bounced by his father on Barbara’s back steps.

Being part of that was a kick.

When Frank first joined the club, he came accompanied by a dark-haired woman, quiet spoken, wonderful smile, and I thought I’d like to get to know her. She seemed open to the prospect as well. But Frank had this way of discouraging me, hinting she was seeing someone, or maybe the two of them were even an item; he never said for sure. He could do vague better than a presidential candidate. I liked Frank and figured I wasn’t going to get between them. Later, Frank said she’d moved to North Carolina and I asked him what her story was, and when I mentioned I had a crush on her but held off, he fell about laughing. Turned out she was his sister. Damn! I probably didn’t try hard enough, and it’s possible Frank wasn’t going to let me chase her.

A time after, at a running club party, everybody doing their party best, he and I were standing in the small townhouse kitchen, and I was feeling morose about a woman who broke my heart. Frank leaned in to say quietly, “Real men don’t cry. We don’t have feelings about love or nothing,” with this wicked grin like he knew from experience. Damned if he wasn’t right. I loved the man for showing sympathy when least expected.

Real men don’t cry

Real men don’t cry

It was hard to be down in his company. It wasn’t because he was cheerleading; there was just a side to him that spoke to an appreciation for getting on with life. He’d figured something out, and I wanted to know what it was.

One winter night after a Thursday run, we were standing about, sipping beer in the parking lot at Bluemont Park, Frank, Doug and I the last ones remaining. The two of them were reminiscing about their time in Vietnam, and Doug glanced to see if anyone else was around, and confessed it was one of the best times of his life. Doug had served as a machine gunner on helicopters in Vietnam, flying into clearings so small the rotors trimmed the branches coming and going. “I’m not supposed to say this, but I loved the rush!”

I had read Chickenhawk by Robert Mason of his time flying helicopters in Vietnam. I said nothing (for once) but I knew the life expectancy of the crews wasn’t very high.

While Doug’s eyes got wide with the memory, Frank just smiled and nodded. He never said what he did in Vietnam, but decades later when Desert Storm came along, he tried to reenlist for the fight. With Doug you knew you were dealing with an adrenalin junky. He raced a ten-miler on a fractured foot and complained about his poor time. Frank had his own stories, only he kept them to himself.

Frank was Hispanic. His family came out of the southwest, Texas or New Mexico. He had Indian blood; you could see it in his features, though the real tell was how he approached life. He was taciturn to a fault. And a stoic like the Greeks defined the philosophy, taking life as was handed, best virtue found in living in the present.[iii]

You couldn’t find a better person to be around. He kept you focused on the road ahead.

When D and I were planning our wedding, since the ceremony and dinner were to occur outdoors on the lawn at an eighteenth century plantation, we figured we’d buy the wine ourselves. Mentioning this to Frank, we suggested maybe he’d like to come over one night for dinner, and sample wine. It was a nice dinner at D’s townhouse. From when we first started dating, D and I liked to entertain by dinner parties. This dinner lasted a while, with good conversation as we worked our way through an extended wine tasting.

Frank had good instincts for wine. Seems when he was stationed in Europe in the Air Force, he wrangled cases of wine flown back to the States and had built a nice sized collection. He probably knew more about wine than either of us. For his wedding gift he gave us a small propane camper grille and a bottle of 1978 Dom Pérignon. During that time my condo only had a small front porch and the little grille received heavy use. We’d haul it outside, do some grilling and bring it back in so the homeowners’ association wouldn’t complain.

Frank’s brother came to visit one time. It was Frank’s birthday, along with D’s, her brother’s, and a few others—it’s a bit blurry now—and someone suggested renting a limo to go bar-hopping to celebrate. Frank brought along a bottle of tequila, lime, salt and margarita mix in case we got thirsty. Someone else brought another cooler of beer, all of which was supposed to ‘tide us over’ between bar stops. I knew I needed to avoid the tequila shots if I expected to survive the night; Frank wasn’t that cautious.

We began in Arlington, meandered over the Potomac into Georgetown, then into several Adams Morgan bars, across town in DC to a brew pub, to a second brew pub. Toward the end of the evening, we returned to our side of the Potomac and pulled into Old Town, Alexandria (that place with all the historic townhouses). The limo driver parked at the foot of King Street down by the river, and several of us attempted to walk across the street to a popular bar scene. Getting out, I spotted the idling Alexandria police car. Like a paddy wagon, was what I was thinking. The officers were keeping an eye on what was happening as it was getting on that time of evening. Finding my legs not working so smoothly, I took it as a sign I needed to sit it out in the limo.

When the night was over, we insisted that someone drive Frank home to sleep it off. About that time he mentioned he was getting up at the crack of dawn to drive to New Hampshire for a week of hiking in the White Mountains. We were thinking, “the man’s not that crazy; he’ll pass on the hiking.”

But of course he did get up in the morning, and on a few hours’ sleep and a hangover the size of a mountain, he drove to New Hampshire for a week’s worth of hiking. He admitted later that first day was “kinda painful.” When he returned, he showed some of the pictures he’d taken during the week—these were the print kind before cell phones had cameras–of nice mountains and hiking buddies—and when he tried skipping over several photos of a woman with a wonderful smile huddled in a blanket in a cabin bunk , “hey Frank, who’s that?” Frank’s response was “Oh, she’s someone I got to know hiking. We’re just friends,” and everyone went, “oh yeah, sure,!” A few months later they were engaged. Fran lived in Delaware with her daughter, which became a weekend destination for Frank.

While I don’t endorse getting shitfaced bar-hopping by limo, Frank turned that episode into something better than another drinking story. Fran was a special person, nothing like Frank, but they seemed to fit perfectly, or maybe we just liked them both so much it seemed like that.

My brother-in-law probably spent the most time with Frank during the early days after D and I were married. They became good buds. It was during that time that Frank took him on one of his notoriously hard mountain hikes. My brother-in-law was single at the time, and Frank’s wife was happy to share time with her husband. She just accepted Frank–loved him–as he was.

My brother-in-law heard first from Fran that Frank had died. Keeled over dead from a heart attack while on his workout machine.

I figured Frank was about my age in his forties, but knowing Frank kept things like that to himself; he might have been older. He never mentioned a heart condition, and it was in character for him not to worry too much, but I’d like to think he didn’t know. I feel certain Fran didn’t know, or she’d have persuaded him take care of it. They had too much to live for.

Life shows little mercy. No one gets out alive true enough, but there was no justice in Frank’s fate, no reason he shouldn’t have kept on living. After finally finding the woman he wanted to spend a lifetime with, he goes and checks out like that. Leaving her desolate. I refuse to believe he’d eaten a chili dog before his workout, though if he did, ah, hell!

I’m probably ready at this point to visit Frank’s grave–he’s buried at Arlington Cemetery. For all I know, Frank had been a hero in Vietnam and stayed silent about that too. Years later, when D and I finished the renovation work on our house, we finally opened the Dom Pérignon with good friends and raised our glasses to Frank, a deep soul we’ll always love.

Hell yes, Frank, that was great champaign!

Nike Women’s Race, 1990. Frank approved!

Nike Women’s Race, 1990. Frank approved!

[1] T C Williams HS desegregation struggles is told in “Remember the Titans” starring Denzel Washington

[1] Gordon Oliver’s 1500 M high school time in the 1972 Penn Relays was 4:08.7.  Most anyone can do 400 M; you race once around the track and you’re done.  But the 1500 M is four laps.  By the second lap you’re spent and oh so far from home, speaking from experience. 

[1] “Many Stoics—such as Seneca and Epictetus—emphasized that because ‘virtue is sufficient for happiness’, a sage would be emotionally resilient to misfortune.”