His name was Cliff, and we met by way of the world’s longest introduction. Three years, to be exact. It was like a handshake that started the first time we passed each other on the path in Forest Park and then, before either of us thought to proceed with formalities—I’m Amy! How are you? What are you training for?—was promptly abandoned. Perhaps it was pace. Perhaps it was preoccupation with surviving another long run on a Saturday morning. Either way, Cliff and I remained familiar but anonymous to one another for years.
There are a lot of familiar faces at Forest Park. I love it. If it’s the little things in life that matter, the mutual recognition of runners around town has got to be near the top of the list. You know, the “regulars.” That one really fast guy who wears splits shorts, hipster eyeglasses, and a Fu Manchu. The father and daughter who run a loop of the park early on weekday mornings—she always in a running skirt, he always in a Brooks hat. The superhero mom who pushes a triple-wide stroller—a triple-wide stroller—down Lindell. The cluster of silver-haired gentlemen who call themselves “The 6:20 Group,” after the early-morning start time of their daily social run.
By the way, if you ever happen upon The 6:20 Group, it’s worth your time to run a step or two with them. I’ve shared a few quarter-mile stints with them, and each time the conversation is entertaining, brief though it may be.
“Good morning!” one particular member said to me one morning as we locked stride.
“Oh, boy,” I heard another member mumble. “Here we go…”
“Good morning!” I replied.
“We call ourselves the ‘Angels of Forest Park,’” he continued.
“Oh, yeah? Why is that?”
“Yes. Our job is to keep creepy old guys from talking to attractive young women.”
“Oh, geez…” One of the gentlemen running next to me shook his head.
“I appreciate it,” I laughed.
“And I apologize,” he said.
Running with The 6:20 Group is a bit like running with Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets—en masse.
Cliff was also a fixture at Forest Park. Both of us ran our long runs on Saturday mornings—somehow always in the opposite direction—so we usually passed each other at least twice. Our friendship began with a familiar nod, the kind of nod that says, “I’ve seen you multiple times before, and this is a fact we need to acknowledge otherwise things will get awkward.” That nod soon graduated to a smile-nod combo, which of course is a friendlier version of the original nod. After about a year, we began waving to each other.
I told you it was a slow introduction.
The wave evolved to an encouraging wave-and-yell: “Hey!” “Looking good!” “Great day for a run!” We were at the wave-and-yell stage when Cliff and I happened to bump into each other at the Visitor’s Center.
“Hey! I see you out here all the time,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Cliff.”
“Hi, Cliff! I’m Amy. It’s about time we met."
He was training for the GO! St. Louis Marathon, his first full. We chatted for a minute longer and then continued on our separate ways. But now I had a name for the friendly face I saw on a weekly basis.
“Hey, Cliff!” I’d yell when I’d see him ahead of me on the path. I’d hold out my hand for a high five, and we’d slap palms as we ran by one another. I liked seeing Cliff. It was always a highlight of my long runs.
A few months after I learned Cliff’s name, I ran into him again at the Visitor’s Center. I had hopped in to use the bathroom mid-run; Cliff had just finished a run with his niece.
“Hello, Amy!” he said, giving me a hug. “I want you to meet my niece!”
We shook hands.
“Amy, you owe me an apology,” Cliff said after he made introductions.
“Wait… what did I do?” I was flabbergasted.
“You didn’t say happy birthday to me.”
“Oh, Cliff! I’m sorry! I didn’t know it was your birthday!”
“It’s my birthday eve,” he shook his head, “and you didn’t even say happy birthday.”
“Uncle Cliff!” his niece exclaimed, slapping him on the shoulder. “Your a— ain’t Jesus. You don’t get a ‘birthday eve.’” She turned to me. “Don’t wish him a happy birthday eve.”
I started laughing. Cliff just smiled.
Several months passed. I saw Cliff only a handful of times. A few more months passed. I didn’t see him at all.
I don’t know how long it was before I saw him again. Maybe close to a year. But one Saturday morning, I saw his familiar silhouette on the path along Lindell. I held up my hand and smiled.
“Hey, Cliff!” I yelled.
Instead of holding up his hand and running by, Cliff slowed to a stop. He stepped into the grass and waited for me. Within seconds, I was standing by his side.
“I need you to pray for me,” he said.
“Of course. What happened? Are you okay?” I asked, concerned.
“I have throat cancer,” he said. “I have throat cancer. I need you to pray for me. And pray for my wife. And my kids. They need to focus on school, but they’re worried about me.”
I put my hands on Cliff’s shoulders, and I prayed for him, right there along Lindell. He told me he was starting chemo that week. I told him I would keep praying for him. We hugged. And then we continued on our opposite ways.
I haven’t seen Cliff since then. I miss our high fives in passing. But I heard it through the grapevine that he is back up and running, and every time I’m in Forest Park, I keep my eyes open for him. I have a feeling that the next time I see him, I’ll be the one stepping off the path and onto the grass. Some occasions deserve a hug.
It’s crazy when I stop and think about it—that Cliff asked me to pray for him, without knowing anything about me other than I run Forest Park on a fairly regular basis. But I guess it makes sense. We had been friends for several years.
We just didn’t know each other’s names.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.