One of the best things about this London suburb is the 5 kilometer race that happens every Saturday morning in Bushy Park.
First of all, it’s free of charge. I gave up on Central Park races when they started charging twenty-five bucks to enter a five miler. (Hell, that’s more than a cab would cost for that distance!)
Second, it’s the most polite crowd of runners you’ll ever know. I got bumped by accident during one race and instead of grunting “sorry,” the runner actually said “I beg your pardon,” which uses up a lot more energy.
And third? The one and only Robin Dickson, a gray-haired running guru in tinted eyeglasses that everybody seemed to know.
I first saw him about seven years ago. He was trotting through the park with half a dozen beautiful young women, a crooked grin on his face as he led the way.
“Come on, girls, let’s keep moving!” he said in his high-pitched voice as the giggly gaggle breezed past.
And I said to myself: I have got to meet this man!
Turns out Robin was retired from whatever job he’d had and spent his days in the park, coaching young runners. Mostly attractive female runners, it seemed to me.
“I train them gratis!” he told me. “Free of charge! That way, I don’t have to listen to their parents. Can’t stand the parents! They think they know all about running, and they don’t!”
He didn’t suffer complainers, either.
“Aches and pains are part of it!” he’d tell runners who bellyached. “Wait ‘til you’re my age, you’ll see!”
Sometimes months would pass between my visits to London, and I figured Robin might have forgotten me.
Wrong. He’d spot me and come trotting over to shake my hand before the start of the race.
“How you doin,’ Charlie?”
I’d grab my flabby midsection. “Trying to get rid of this New York City pizza, Robin.”
“Yes, yes, you don’t want that...”
I couldn’t beat him. He had about fifteen years on me, but he was as light as a coyote and had logged enough miles to circle the equator. Invariably, he’d pass me around the halfway mark.
“Well done, Charlie!” he’d puff as he went by, and I’d think: Some day, I’ll outrun that guy....
So I make the move to London and one of the first things on my checklist is the Bushy Park race.
I look for Robin at the starting line, where more than a thousand Brits stand ready to run. No sign of him. Then the bearded guy in charge of the race lifts his bullhorn.
I’m expecting the usual entertaining warning about herds of deer grazing near the two kilometer mark, but not this time.
“We are deeply saddened,” he says, “by the loss of our good friend, Robin Dickson, who passed away last Saturday...”
What the hell???
He goes on to say that Robin was 73, then speaks of his innumerable accomplishments as a runner and a coach, but I’m too numb to really listen.
I would have expected Robin to outlive us all. I also would have expected a little time to grieve, but that British “stiff upper lip” deal is not a myth.
You simply get on with it, as the English say. It’s either run or get trampled.
So the race starts on time as always and I run, thinking about Robin with every stride. We weren’t close friends, and I’d never so much as gone out for coffee with him, so why does this hit me so hard?
Because he was always delightful, and the list of people who are always delightful is mighty short , and now it's even shorter.
When I cross the finish line Kim is waiting for me with Bailey.
“Well done!” Kim says. “Did you find Robin?”
I shake my head. “Robin’s dead.”
I realize I sound like a character from a Quentin Tarantino movie. I should have broken the news more gently, but I’m still stunned, not to mention out of breath.
“Robin died last Saturday,” I explain. “They made an announcement at the starting line.”
“Oh, my God....”
Robin, you truly were born to run. Saturday mornings will never be the same without you.
That I can tell you gratis - free of charge.
(Next time: LOOKING FOR A PIZZA THE ACTION)