I’m guessing that I was 11 years old or so, when I was warming up to take part in the Love Run, a race that started by the Troutman’s building in downtown Greensburg. This was going to be my first official road race, and I was able to take part only as long as I dropped out as the course passed our house at roughly the 3 mile mark. I really had no idea what I was doing, but saw other people running around to warm up, so I figured that was what I should be doing.
It was at this point that I first met Kevin Gatons. He approached me, somehow knowing that I was scared to death, and gave me a few helpful hints: don’t go out too fast and have fun. I can tell you that I remember this like it was yesterday, not 31 years ago. This was my introduction to Kevin and it didn’t take long for him to become a living legend in my book.
After I seemingly proved to my dad that I could run distance, I was able to enter more road races. Kevin was at everything in the Greensburg area — and he always won. He was just flat out awesome. And he took me under his wing. Of course, I may have forced him, as I tagged along everywhere he went on race day, trying to do everything exactly as he was. Honestly, I don’t remember him ever losing a race around Greensburg. I was just in awe.
As I got older, and started to run cross country for Greensburg Salem, I also started to do some Saturday and Sunday runs with Kevin during both the summer and the actual season — more so in the summer, but sometimes during the season depending on what was going on that week. I looked forward to him picking me up in his MG and then later in his Jetta and taking me to Hempfield High School to run with a crew of his friends that included Mark Griffin and Tom Panigall and later some other runners from Hempfield’s team. I did everything I possibly could in order to try to impress him, improving as a runner in the process.
I remember doing a ladder workout on the track (400-800-1200-1600-1600-1200-800-400) in which everybody had to take a turn leading until the last 200 meters. Nobody was allowed to pass the pace setter until that last 200. I wasn’t passing too many people, needless to say, but from the beginning I was chosen to lead the 800 on the way down. I was absolutely, completely dead by this point, but seemingly killed myself to lead that first 600. (I’ll come back to this specific workout in a little…)
I also remember a spontaneous 10 miler through the hills around Hempfield High School that almost took me over the edge. It was spontaneous in that the guys decided that they wanted to do some running on the roads instead of intervals on the track — but I was not prepared for this, mainly because I had never run around that area and had no clue where I was going whatsoever. In addition, at this point in my running “career,” I had run 10 miles maybe two or three times. It took everything I had to just keep the group in sight so that I wouldn’t get lost — they absolutely crushed this run. If you happen to know the area, you also know that if there are any level areas, they are few and far between. I got back to the school and it seemed like everyone else was just lollygagging around. I was keeled over, literally losing everything in my stomach — I had completed the run in 59 minutes low and felt it. Kevin just kind of laughed at me. I ached on the ride home.
I hope that I’m not one of the the older I get the better I was kind of guys — I think I’m realistic about how I used to be able to run. I was pretty good in cross country and pretty average in track and field; I was better suited to the longer distances and needed the hills to make up for my lack of speed. If I remember correctly, my PR in the 3200 meters was around 10:13 and I never broke 5 in the 1600 — except on BOTH of those 1600s I listed in that ladder workout. I ran 4:54, 4:52 on those two. In a freaking workout. Not a race, a workout.
People often think that people run because they love it and I’m absolutely certain that some do. I didn’t, really. But I was pretty good at it and loved being a part of our team. I loved running with Kevin and his “guys” even more. There is truly something about enduring a long run at a hard pace with people whom you know are suffering just like you are. You don’t need to say anything, you just know. And I had the chance to run with some great guys. Curry Franklin was a beast — placed second in the state in cross country and was just unbelievably naturally talented. Ron Diehl still holds our school records in the 1600 and 3200 meters and worked harder than anybody I ever saw then or have coached since. Roy Fatur just hung on and hung on and hung on.
We did every run together and had a blast, typically choosing one person to make fun of for each run. And we sang and we hopped bushes and garbage cans and ran over parked cars and sang at the top of our lungs and did head first slides through a flooded Lynch Field. And we pushed ourselves, always trying to beat each other as we completed a run. Or tried to beat the others we trained with during the summer — Ron Moore and Ed Dunn and Greg Colburn and anybody else who came to summer training at Lynch. And there was always that one glorious week during the Aerowest Long Distance Camp that we absolutely, positively crushed ourselves to impress Sam Bair, who seemingly swatted us on the runs like little mosquitoes gnawing at his achilles tendons.
But, as much fun as I had with them, it was just, different when I ran with Kevin. There are three men who have truly influenced me in my life: my dad, my coach, Steve Snider, and Kevin. He was somebody I could always turn to for a brutally honest opinion. And if you knew Kevin, you knew he wasn’t going to bullshit you. And I loved this about him. He spoke his mind and stood by it. He understood ethics and loyalty and the competitive spirit.
His opinion meant the world to me, to say the least. When my high school girlfriend broke up with me the week before WPIAL Finals and I was feeling sorry for myself, he told me to quit moaning and just run. When I (finally) graduated from college he gave me the most incredible note, letting me know that he always knew I could do it, no matter how long it took. He was there when I needed an ear after I found out that my somewhat estranged mother had breast cancer and he was there when she died and I was a mess trying to sort out what that even meant to me. When I got divorced, he was there to listen and there to let me know that he was disappointed in me for not calling it off beforehand (remember, brutally honest). And he was always, just, Kevin.
He was a heck of a runner and if you were going to beat him, you were going to have to work to do so — whether that be in a 5K or a marathon (2:24 PR at the Grandma’s Marathon in 1995 – I’ll do the math for you – that’s a 5:29 per mile pace). He laid it all on the line, every time he stepped on the line. A fierce competitor, he was also a fantastic basketball and baseball player. He became a teacher and was a tremendous role model for the kids in our district — especially those who needed a male voice in their lives. He married Cheryl Collins, who is an incredible runner in her own right (clicking on her name in this sentence will take you to an article by Colin Dunlap that highlights some of her accomplishments). She brought a completely different type of happiness in to his life. They have three children, Sydney, Quentin and Lillian. I’ve always suspected that Quentin was named after a character in John L. Parker’s book entitled Once a Runner, one of the few books Kevin would admit to reading willingly. If you’ve read this book, Kevin was my Bruce Denton — but I was never even breathing the same air that Quenton Cassidy was!!!
Kevin tragically died while previewing the cross country course for the state meet in 2006. He suffered from a condition known as ARVD (Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Dysplasia — and nobody should ever have to know what that combination of letters stands for) which is a very rare heart disease. He left all of us, but especially his family, way too soon. (Colin Dunlap, then of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, wrote an obituary that did a very nice job of capturing much of what Kevin was all about. You can find it here). There have been very few days that I haven’t thought of him since that day.
We created a race in Kevin’s honor and truly had the opportunity to celebrate his life for the five years of its existence. In addition, we were able to raise more than $30,000 for both the Children’s Fund as well as scholarships in Kevin’s name. We also set up some children’s races and I know that Kevin would have been incredibly proud to see his kids take part. For me, this was always bittersweet. I loved watching the kids run — more so than the actual race, but it was so incredibly difficult for me to watch as Kevin’s son Quentin would round the last corner, his blonde hair jumping in the wind he was creating. It was like seeing Kevin all over again. I can only hope that we honored Kevin in an appropriate manner.
And so I get to an even more personal point of this post. I’ve struggled with my running since high school. I could have gone on to run in college but decided that I had had enough — what a joke. I wish I could go back and slap some sense in to the 17 year old me. Instead, I went to Penn State for a year, quit running, drank like there was no tomorrow and gained 65 pounds. Yes, you read that correctly. In fairness, I needed to put a few on — if you look back to that first picture, I’d say I’m around 105 there. I graduated at 115. I always ate like crazy, but the running kept it off. I have struggled to maintain a solid sense of running — and if you run, I think the way I just said that will make sense.
I have allowed my weight to yo-yo and at times it’s gotten way out of hand. I’ve never eaten well. I’ve never taken care of myself in this regard. Never. I eat out entirely too much and too often I refuse to allow the restaurant to get the best of me, if you know what I mean. I have struggled with motivation and have allowed a lack of toughness to lead me down this path. It’s gotten to the point that I have to do something. I have to take this in to my own hands — I have nobody to blame but myself. I have sat by and told my athletes that if they put their mind to something they can achieve it, always feeling as though they are looking at me and laughing as soon as I’m out of earshot. I have felt like an absolute fraud at times. I have allowed myself to make excuse after excuse after excuse and I have let myself down. I have more to offer than this…
So this is what I vow to Kevin — and more importantly, to myself. I will drop 40 pounds in the next year. I will do this in a manageable way, eating out sparingly and eating better at home (this may not seem like a lot to some of you, but it is, trust me, it is). I will maintain this weight from that point forward, making it an absolute priority in my life. I will quit making excuses and I will give more to the athletes I have the opportunity to work with, talking with them as we run together rather than me running behind them. I will become a better person in the process and I will think of you even more, Kevin, as I go through this difficult process.
I owe it to myself — and I owe it to you, Kevin.