The Olympics always make me think of Les. I wrote this a few years ago and wanted to share it on the Life Bus.

The fascinating–and frustrating–aspect of inspiration is that you never know when to expect it. Sometimes, when you most need it, when you’re digging the deepest, it completely eludes you. Then one day, when you’re looking the other way, it comes up and smacks you on the back of the head.

This tale is closer to the latter.

I’m a bit hypocritical, as we all are in some way or another. I love the anonymity of a big city, yet want to be greeted by name when walking into a store. I avoid the Targets and spend a little more at the Tony’s Markets.

From the first day, Les greeted me with a smile and some comment on the day or my attire–I work from home, so rarely change from my running or cycling clothes. It wasn’t long before he knew my name and my grocery shopping took longer as we chatted about his life or mine.

He asked me one day about my job. I mentioned the travel it entailed and he somewhat embarrassedly told me about one of his “silly” hobbies: collecting newspapers from different cities, especially the sports section. I was working in Springfield, MA, at the time, and Les revelled in the Boston papers I brought back for him.

But it was the sports section from Houston which gave me the story that stays with me to this day.

The next time I was at Tony’s Market, Les was so excited. An incredible coincidence, a friend of his had been featured in the Houston paper I’d given him. They had run track in high school together, and his friend had gone on to coach high school running. Les called his old friend and they had caught up after too many years apart.

I don’t remember what I asked to prompt him, but Les told me about loving running. How, after high school, he had continued and gotten better. How he had qualified for the Olympic trials in the eighties. I was amazed. An Olympic hopeful. I was talking with someone, was friends with someone, who had done something the rest of us only dream about.

Then he said, simply, he had come in dead last.

I could hear the disappointment in his voice. I could picture the scene and the look on his face as he crossed the finish, behind every other person there. But I couldn’t help but smile proudly and say, You were the worst of the best; that still puts you in a class the rest of us can only respect. I asked, but could get no more details about the experience out of him.

One day, almost a year ago, Les disappeared from Tony’s. I asked another friend there, but she had heard nothing. I knew Les lived nearby and I hoped to run into him, see how he was faring. I was always looking, but never saw him. Last week, I found out why. Les had died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

He told me once after that conversation that I had inspired him to start running again. We met once at Red Rocks for a go at the stairs. And now, every time I finish a race, disappointed at my time or place, I think of Les and how, just by finishing, I might have been the worst of the people who showed up, but I was the best of all who didn’t.

Thank you for the inspiration, Les.