Updated: Mar 26, 2020
I had been trying to find Memo for days. When I first saw him, he was in front of the non-descript six-floor co-op in Rego Park where he works. In his baggy pants and hoodie, he was stacking black garbage bags on the corner of the street. He could have been any porter anywhere in the city.
A recent New York Times video showed his old-school training methods that left many in the running community shaking their heads. “Who is this guy – how is that possible - and what the hell is his secret?” He was something of a sensation: a 46-year-old who had just run a 2:28 Boston Marathon and was getting faster with every race.
Runner's World Article: How Mexican Immigrant Memo Morales Keeps Getting Faster
An arctic blast had just come in and wind chills were in the teens."Let’s go,” he said, and we were off. Two miles from the building where we’d started, we ran onto a trail and underneath a sign: “Forest Park Bridal Path.” This was not Central Park; there were no lights and no people. It was dark and dangerous.
“This place is my home,” said Memo. “No problem. We are free, here.”
Memo picked up the pace and soon all I could make out was his back and the five feet or so between us. We turned a corner near a roadway. Car lights moved through the forest as they passed. A dark figure stood off on a side trail. We turned up a hill and back deeper into the woods. It got even darker. I stuck to Memo – or tried to.
Running with memo is not so easy. It’s like holding onto the back of a roller coaster. All I could do was to try to keep from getting derailed. We rolled over hills at breakneck speed. The only sound was our breathing and the slap of my Altra’s hitting the path. I was redlined. My mouth was wide-open like a hungry pufferfish. I needed air – bad.
“Memo, stop a moment. Sorry.” On my knees, I hover my cell over the ground and carefully move leaves to the side. My eyes aren’t working right. My vision jumps around with my racing heartbeat. Memo joins me in the search. The scene looked like something right out of an episode of CSI.
“What happened?” Memo presses his face close to the ground. “What are you looking for?”
I sift through the small black pebbles that cover the dirt. “My tooth.”
I had felt the crown on one of my front teeth slip out, bounce off my bottom lip and hit the leaves. It had been loose, but I was trying to make it past the holidays. The darkness ate both our cellphone flashlights, and after a few minutes, the search was called off.
The brief reprieve had allowed me to catch my wind and finish Memo’s workout. I exited the park behind him, proud of myself for not having given up. My hands were on my knees, but I hadn’t quit.
“Okay. Now we go to my place?” Memo’s voice was calm, unbothered.
“Sure Memo.” I squeaked.
Then, we were running again. “How far, Memo?”
“Oh, not far.”
Three miles later, I was in a death struggle: the state of mind you get in when just want to finish a race and blame yourself for ever starting it – the kind of mindset where you make yourself believe you hate running. It wasn’t the mileage; it was Memo’s blistering pace. It was nothing for him.
“I write about running, Memo,” I yell up ahead. He didn’t seem to hear me. “And I’m fighting a cold. Hello?”
For miles it seems we are surrounded by tombstones: St. John’s Cemetery, All Faith’s Cemetery, Mt. Olivet Cemetery, and finally Linden Hill Cemetery. Memo isn’t spooked. “The dead are never really dead. They are still with us all the time,” he says.
Memo uses each city block to do stride outs. I almost lose sight of him, then find him waiting at the next corner. He does five of these before we get to his home.
“I do these slow runs after a marathon,” Memo says, stretching against a light pole.
I was leaning against a brick building, chest heaving. “I think I just PR’d.”
Memo opens a closet in the kitchen and pulls out several pairs of running shoes. “Each of these is a memory.” He sets down a pair. “I did many miles in these.” Another pair. “I used these for trails in the park.” Another beaten-up pair of shoes. “I won a 10k in these.”
“Memo, have you ever been married?” I ask.
“No. They always think I’m crazy. You get up too early. You got to bed too early.” He smiles as he puts the shoes back. Each one has its own place. Atop a shelf, a horde of trophies stand erect in all sizes. Next to them is a rack of running packs. They look brand new.
“Memo, why don’t you run with these? That thing you got is a fossil.”
“But I love this one.” He picks up the faded and frayed Camelbak and holds it like a child would their favorite toy. “This one really is the best.”
I realize that while I’m soaked through all three layers after eight miles, Memo is bone dry. I decide to cut to the chase and ask him directly. “What’s your secret?”
He laughs. “It’s in my genes.”
“No really,” I say. “You’re running at the pace you ran 20 years ago.”
Memo pours me a shot of homemade Mezcal.
“What’s this for?” I ask.
“For your cold.”
“Is this the secret to your running?” I ask. A stupid question, really.
There is no “silver bullet” to Memo, and he’s the first to say that. What he utilizes has no connection to ability and is available to each of us: effort, determination and heart. They cost no money and aren’t available at your gym. It can’t be taught, can’t be given, and you won’t magically find it at the starting line of your next race. You have to bring it.
After a two-mile walk to Bushwick and some awesome Mexican food, Memo sees me to the L train. “I’ll call you if I find your tooth,” he says, his breath steaming like a dragon. The night has gotten even colder.
As I sat on the train back to Manhattan, watching people get on and off at each stop, faces planted into phones, ears plugged with buds, I couldn’t help but feel that we’d lost something.
Everything to me is a film, and one in particular came to mind: Wolfen. The 1981 flick, where a detective, Albert Finney, hunts down a mysterious wolf creature that is terrorizing the South Bronx.
One scene towards the end of the film streamed in my head over and over. Finney links the animal to a group of Native Americans. He finds their smokey bar, and everyone turns to look as the white man walks in. The old country song, “Sea of a Heartbreak” plays on the jukebox. He sits at the table of elders; the one’s he’s looking for. One says. “For 20,000 years, ten times your @$#&! era… the skins and the wolves lived together – the great hunting nations. Nature in balance. Then, the slaughter came... They went underground into the new wilderness, your cities.” A Native American starts chanting and singing near the bar as the wise man continues. Finney, utterly lost, looks frozen with fear.
“You got your technology, but you lost,” the wise man says as he takes a shot. “You lost your senses.”
The tension is broken by a Native American bringing over a drink with a smile, “Aw shit man, this is all just Indian jive. We’ve been watching too many cowboy movies.”
As the doors open and I head up to Union Square, I can’t shake the feeling that I’d been in the presence of something ancient – a kind of lost wisdom. I see the latest high-tech running shoes and gadgets in the windows of Paragon and marvel at the knowledge we’ve acquired. A quote comes to mind: “Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life,” by Immanuel Kant. But I don’t feel satisfied by it. When I get home, I find what I’m looking for deep in my bookshelf:
“The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” - Emerson