In 2013 a drinking fountain was installed on top of Cardiac Hill, one of the infamous climbs on Mt. Tamalpais. It’s dedicated to local runner Sam Hirabayashi. I like to think of it as the Magical Fountain. It seemed to appear out of nowhere one day to provide cooling sips of water after a tough, often hot, climb. I didn’t know the story behind it until recently. I had read a New York Times article written by Sam’s widow Eve Pell about their touching love story then discovered through my trail running friends that the fountain on Cardiac Hill was Sam’s.
I woke up this morning and decided to head out to Mill Valley and do a double Dipsea run. It was a gorgeous day and it was nice to get some climbing into my legs. I was standing at Sam’s Fountain when an older gentleman crested the hill from the Muir Woods side. The approach is steep and heavily rooted in that section and he was breathing hard. I noticed his Dipsea shirt.
We politely acknowledged each other as we took our respective breaks. This normally very busy area was quiet. We were the only ones on the hill. It’s one of the advantages of being able to use this trail mid-week.
“Are you doing the Dipsea?” he asked me. I shook my head.
“No, are you?”
“Yup. I’ve done 30 of ’em.”
That’s a lot of Dipsea races for an event where entry can be a game unto itself. I looked him up and down suspiciously.
“Are you one of those black shirt guys?”
The numbered black Dipsea shirt is a coveted item given to the first 35 finishers. It’s one thing among many that adds to the mystique of this race.
“No,” he laughed.
I ended up talking to him a lot longer that I normally would when I’m in the middle of a run. I was four miles in and had another ten to go for the full round trip. I’d usually become antsy, wave a polite good-bye, and carry on. But he was interesting and so I stayed.
We talked about the Dipsea and the various ways to get in. He mentioned Sam a few times along with other names I recognized from Dipsea lore. He talked about his son doing the race. He said he was a relative newbie (his word, not mine) compared to the other guys in his starting group. They had done many more Dipsea races than he had. He was a recently retired orthopedic surgeon. His usual routine is to go from Mill Valley to Stinson then hitch a ride back.
“I missed it once,” he said as he leaned with both hands on the fountain, “the post office lost my application so I didn’t get in.” He seemed lost in thought. “Then someone told me – that’s how you know it’s important. What was his name? He died last year. Tom! He was a doctor too.”
I thought he was going to continue his story about missing out on that one Dipsea but there was only silence. His shoulders began shaking uncontrollably and tears fell down his face.
“He died of cancer just like Sam.” He could barely get the words out, seemingly standing at the crossroad between mourning a friend and perhaps facing one’s own mortality. He seemed caught in that space where you are trying to control your reaction and discover that you can’t.
I don’t know what strange set of circumstances caused our lives to intersect here at Sam’s Fountain, for me to witness this dignified man’s grief. A friend once told me that when pain brings us to our knees, sometimes all we need is someone to kneel beside us. I walked toward him and stood on the lower step of the fountain so I could be closer to his height and opened my arms.
“I’m so sorry,” I said as I hugged him.
Another couple arrived at the hill and the moment was gone. We returned to the polite conversation between strangers.
“What’s your name?” I asked him as he started to leave.
“Bill,” he said as he gave me his hand. I clasped it between both of mine, the last bit of human touch we’d share, “Laura.”
He ran down Dipsea toward Stinson Beach. I waited until he was out of sight before I followed. He seemed to need to gather himself and I wanted to give him space to do so.
I saw him again when I arrived at Stinson, where Dipsea crosses Panoramic Highway, waiting to find a ride. I hadn’t seen him ahead of me at all on the trail. The guy could move. I thought he’d be long gone by now.
“How long does it take?” I asked.
“Usually shorter than waiting for the bus.” A moment later a car stopped in front of him.
“I guess I’m your good luck charm,” I said as Bill got into the car.
“Yes, I think you are.”