Story by Lorenzo Gaertner
Original drawing by Thomas Bickle
One Summer, as I was backpacking through Spain, I sat eating dinner in the dining area of a youth hostel in Madrid, alone but content. A much older man sitting by himself at a table nearby was doing the same thing; he, too, seemed content. Glancing over, I couldn’t help but notice that he was eating only a watermelon for dinner. “Is that all you’re having?” I asked, attempting a bit of light banter. “Hey, it’s all I need,” he replied. I smiled at him and turned back to my food.
You know those people you get in hostels who are by themselves and yet seem to be at the centre of everything? This guy seemed like that, firing off jokes to people who walked by or other people sitting around us, chatting amicably to the staff. Despite his age, he seemed to be in his element. He turned back to me and said, “well, are you gonna come and tell me about yourself or what?”
I went over and began to tell him about myself. He listened, nodding every now and then. In his weathered features I could not mistake a look of interest, of eagerness and wonder, a youthful vitality and soul which had survived the passage of time and kept his eyes, and his cheeks, and his world, colourful. And just like that my story felt unimportant. I wanted to know his.
The man’s name was Ray. He was American, average height with a healthy build, thinning grey hair swept aside with no particular purpose. Time had carved lines in his face but his eyes burned like torches. He looked like he’d seen a thing or two.
Ray was a retired history teacher and was addicted to running, so he told me. He had a wife back home in the States, but she didn’t care for travelling around the world and bunking in cheap hostels, which happened to be exactly what he loved. Ray always brought his running shoes on his travels so that he could keep up his habit wherever he went. Still sweating from his evening run through the streets of Madrid, he told me that he couldn’t go a day without running. He had been doing it for so long that it was no mere hobby. “If I don’t run,” he said, “I’ll probably die.”
Ray told me stories of his life, and I realised quickly that I liked the man very much. He was sincere but cheerful, introspective but never self-indulgent – a man as refreshing and uncomplicated as the watermelon he was eating. He had no end of interesting things to tell me, but we could not avoid the topic of running. Ray had competed in the Boston Marathon many years ago. He had been right up at the front of the pack for most of the race. Though he did not win the race he finished it, collapsing from exhaustion at the finish line. As he told me this, I thought I saw his eyes flicker a little. The memory of his true passion almost killing him seemed to haunt him still. He left the Boston Marathon in a wheelchair, but, in my eyes at least, he left a champion. Even if I were to run with him now, he’d probably leave me in the dust.
Aside from running, he spoke fondly of his time as a teacher. If one thing has stuck with me from what he said about teaching, it is that he would insist – demand, even – that his students not take notes while he was talking. “If the story is interesting enough, you won’t need to take notes. You’ll remember it,” he told me. This article is a case in point: I sure as hell didn’t take notes while talking to him that evening.
I ran into Ray the following morning in the same hostel dining area. I had my bag packed and was eating breakfast before heading to Seville; Ray was wearing the same jogging gear as the night before and was drenched with sweat. I didn’t need to ask where he’d been. We exchanged a warm handshake and well wishes, and off I went, saying adios to Madrid and the man who couldn’t stop running.
Ray and I did not keep in contact after that. There was no particular reason why, though I suspect that the appeal of social media is lost on a rugged old adventurer like him. But I am ever grateful that I got the chance to speak with him, even if I doubt that I’ll ever see him again. Ray was by far the oldest of all the people in the youth hostel that evening, yet he was as youthful as anyone I’ve ever met. Looking back on it, I learned something special from talking to him. You may only be young once, but youth stays with you as long as you want it. He told me, “when I look back on my life, I can say that I really lived. I climbed the mountains, I swam the seas, I smelt the fragrances and tasted the flavours!” And he had kept running. Either Ray had forgotten to grow old, or he had considered growing old and decided that it wasn’t for him. If our paths should ever cross again, it would be a pleasure to pick up where we left off. I expect I’ll have to catch him first.
Cover Image: Molly Champion (from Pexels.com)