The interminable intervals of green trees and worn farmhouses below heavyset clouds along Interstate 91 in Vermont tugged at the tears buried in my eyes. Behind them sit visions of long runs beneath 12,000 foot peaks on dry dusty eastern sierra roads when Gabe would paint pictures of his home state and mountains, “It’s so green. You’d love it Mo.” And it was, even greener than he ever made me imagine it to be. When I finally made it, I felt two weeks too late.
Exactly one year ago both Gabe and I walked off the track in Portland likely for the last time as competitive track racers. I came back from months of injury and to PR by 1/10th of a second in the 5000 meters. Gabe struggled through a 10K after weeks of lackluster training. It can always go either way. I’m not sure either of us knew we were “done done” that day, but as we walked slower than I’ve ever walked before towards the car I felt painfully aware that the stoke of chasing numbers on the clock did not mean as much to either of us as it once did. I tried my best to cheer him up, to plant seeds of summer fun, of future racing and that there is so much more in life than racing or even just running. I didn’t want to drop him off and leave him alone in his hotel room that night but he insisted and so I did. When Gabe made up his mind there was no arguing, which is why we so often fought like brother and sister in between repeats in Round Valley or before getting on the bus. No mind though, Gabe was always first to incite an apology when it felt right on his watch, the same way no run was done until he decided it was done. Which is how many of his 20 milers became 23 milers.
Gabe and I bonded over our love for the mountains and for running. Simple. Getting either of us to leave our 8,000 foot sierra sanctuary literally took an important race to push us out. Otherwise 12 months of the year we were holed up and logging miles beneath our beloved granite peaks. A distaste for leaving town left us to spend holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas together every year with anyone else that stayed back in town. Gabe came to Mammoth not knowing how to cook a damn thing and by the first Thanksgiving could cook a whole turkey with all the fixings—and nearly eat in one setting. Stuffed to the gills we’d sit around with our teammates and write haikus. I’ll never forget the one he wrote. It wasn’t a haiku at all, but instead the genuine sentiment made me realize that our band of misfit runners and local dirtbags was truly a family. “This was the best Thanksgiving ever. I am so full. I’m so grateful for my family here in Mammoth.” I kick myself for not keeping the poems we all wrote and shared around the table as the snow fell down outside in the night sky.
Today the memories are still so real that they bombard me in real time. I can hear his voice and see his beautiful seamless stride flying around the track and down the mountain roads he loved. In between I can hardly focus on reality. I go between feeling numb and feeling everything at once. Our lives experienced upheaval from that day on the Portland track forward, just in vastly different directions. We both left Mammoth without much notice, with a feeling of needing something much different and far away from our mountains no matter how much we loved them. When Gabe and I ran together it was a safe place. Our conversations often went silly, wild, weird, deep, supportive, sad and silent. On one of our last runs together we ran past the Mammoth/Yosemite airport and piece by piece designed the ultimate new airplane that could drop each passenger off at their individual destinations. We’d have the ability to band together for a time and when we each needed to go our own way we could simply press a button, eject and take off on our own flight, our own desired course. I think this memory haunts me most because that is exactly what we did. From the original crew of runners that arrived in Mammoth in 2013 everyone has now gone their separate ways. Moves to new states. Starting new careers. Recharging running careers. Being crowned Kings of Cannabis. Getting divorced. Having babies. Gabe often expressed how hard it was to watch our family disbanding. With so much upheavel in his young life that began far far away in Ethiopia, he once told me that he wished we could all be one fucked up family together forever. When he left I could not blame him for getting out. Soon I left Mammoth too.
Gabe’s final destination, back home in Vermont with his family, would be just one of the many places I passed through in the month on June. We all have our own ways of dealing with the chaos of life, especially when it hits us in tidal waves. For me, the response seems to be to keep moving and experience as much as I possibly can, resisting the urge to get hung up on any one moment. I stared out the window letting the green flash by in a moment that would thankfully last longer than most on my two-day drive from the east coast to Colorado. Alice In Chains interjecting my thoughts, “Am I wrong? Have I run too far to get home?” In my own quest to find a space to call home, living a nomadic life on the road and constantly having to move on from places and people that I love, I contemplated the strain that type of existence likely played in Gabe’s young life. No point in analyzing now. I’ll never understand the intricacies of what Gabe was dealing with, the past that haunted him, nor the pain that he lived with.
What I will always remember are the many laughs that we shared. That he started each day in the back of the Mammoth Track Club van studying Amahric, Arabic and Spanish. The way he’d quote rap songs in between intervals to pump us up, “Nothing can stop us, we’re all the way up!” When he learned to cook with salt for the first time. Sporadic pep talks when he’d pull me aside and tell me how much potential we both had in running—that we couldn’t give up, the best was ahead. Watching him run with his powerful and graceful stride down the dirt roads of long valley or crushing an uphill tempo at 9,000 feet. His c-walking dance moves that always surprised everyone in the room. Double days taking ice baths in the creek to ensure that we were completely recovered for workouts. Listening to his stories about the other mountain areas he lived in–Vermont, Gunnison and Ethiopia.
In July I made it a point to pass through Gunnison where he went to college and earned two NCAA Titles in the 5K and 10K. Almost a month after I heard the news of his passing in Bears Ears and collapsed to the ground and yelled out into the canyons, the wounds were still raw. And along the way I had the beautiful privilege of seeing the journey that Gabe took with his running across the country to some of the most beautiful spaces imaginable. A journey that would eventually lead him to Mammoth where he would run a 2:12 marathon and 1:01 half marathon—solidifying him as one of America’s best distance runners and an Olympic hopeful.
It’s been months since I’ve been able to open up this draft. It’s Thanksgiving today, the first in my recent memory without him, and his two heaping plates of food, and away from home in our mountains. I flash back to one of the last runs we had together at Laurel Pond across from the Mammoth airport. Over the course of a brisk paced 8 miler in even brisker temperatures we hatched a vision for a “self-ejecting” plane that allowed individuals to press a button and launch themselves in flight, apart from the rest of the crew and go their own way. The way they needed. I didn’t realize fully then, and perhaps he didn’t either, that we were both about to press the button on a flight far away from the Sierras that would completely alter the course of our lives. It’s only when we are forced to let go and move on from everything we’ve ever known that we can finally blaze a path all our own.
It’s difficult for me to understand Gabe’s choice except that I never doubted him. He expressed a similar sentiment to me. Gabe ran his life on his own terms until his tank was empty. His smile and stride flash by in fleeting memories to remind me that everything can be gone in an instant, but the memories will always remain embedded on our soul. The pain of losing a dear friend still feels like Epsom salt in a blister after a long run, but with time my gratitude grows, it reminds me of what it is to live a life beyond the edges of comfort and safety. That it is better to run towards your passion until there is nothing left than to give up, or worse, never try at all. What a gift to have run this earth alongside such an incredible burst of a human. Thank you Gabe.
Afterward: It seems beyond fitting to me that Adrianna and Jeremy Nelson gave birth to their first child, Alexandra, on Thanksgiving. What a gift to bring a new spark into the universe and help give her the wings to chart her own course.