Published: 4/15/15. By Steve Strode, PQ Monthly,
Anyone who knows me knows I’m geeked on running and soggy outdoor life. I joined Portland Frontrunners immediately upon moving to the Pacific Northwest, and it became an integral part of my chosen family. And in my biz as a Realtor, we often have clients who share common interests and passions — many of my clients fit the same scruffy runner/biker/hiker stereotype. How totally cool to have that in one’s profession?
Running also serves as a metaphor for life in general. The day before sitting down to write this article, I was having a horrible trail run — fueled in part by a prior evening filled with tequila. So I paused on the Wild Cherry Trail in Forest Park, and for the first time read a memorial plaque I’ve run past countless times. On it was a quote from Olympic athlete Julie Isphording, “Running has given me the courage to start, the determination to keep trying, and the childlike spirit to have fun along the way. Run often and run long, but never outrun your joy of running.”
Knowing that this month’s edition was the marriage issue, two gentlemen immediately came to mind as emblematic — Bob Olsen and Bruce Swanson. Bob and Bruce relocated here a few years ago from Baltimore; Bob, 75, is a retired architect/urban planner and Bruce, 69, is a retired minister. They’ve been together nearly twenty years, and before that were both married — and now have grandchildren. They met at a Gay Married Men’s group in DC, and were introduced by a mutual friend who knew they were both running junkies. Not to my surprise, their first date was a ½ marathon; and since it was sponsored by the Boy Scouts, they wore t-shirts protesting the BSA’s anti-gay stance.
When you meet Bruce and Bob at their home, you immediately know they have built a loving life together through a shared passion of running and the travel that goes with it. A display of a bazillion finisher medal reads like a timeline. Bob has completed 85 marathons; Bruce has completed 141 marathons and ultras. And their calendar continues to be filled with upcoming races. Both started running in their 30s and 40s in response to adversity. Bruce was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease at the age of 34, has been on medication ever since, and is still considered to have a “terminal” illness. Bob began running for health reasons and recalled memories similar to my own (the first ¼ mile felt like he was going to die, but eventually it became the time and space to make important decisions, the time to meditate and the time to clear one’s mind). “Running saved my life,” he says unequivocally.
Distance running enables athletes to travel the world, and experience it way differently than conventional tourists. The guys reeled off stories of one race after another, in places I never thought organized events. Who knew that Baffin Island held a competition (OK, who even knows where that is precisely, without Googling)? The entire field consisted of 13 marathoners, and 5 ultrarunners — that’s all they had room to host. And there was Tanzania. And Mongolia. And the Great Wall of China. And Brazil. The list goes on. One of my favorite stories was their race in Antarctica. Due to weather issues on their race day, they couldn’t leave the ship and take the zodiac ashore. So the participants did the entire marathon on the ship — in the form of 422 deck laps. They had to run the race in shifts; those who weren’t running checked off each lap on a clipboard, one check box at a time.
Bob and Bruce married last year. I asked if they debated whether or not to get married — or if they just knew they would, as soon as it was legal. Bob’s answer was similar to many: “we weren’t sure, but wanted the choice to be ours.” I was at their wedding last summer in Willamette Park, and it was a really refreshing mix of communities — family from their prior marriages, friends from all over, church community, new friends at Terwilliger Plaza (a continuing care retirement community where they live), and friends from their running group. When I shared that observation, Bob and Bruce said what I saw on wedding day was exactly why they moved to Portland. From a geographic perspective, they feel Portland has the best urban trail running in the country. But more importantly, they could create a blended community. They had some family already in Portland, they felt welcome and loved at Terwilliger Plaza, could be active in the United Church of Christ, and have buddies of all ages at Frontrunners.
As we were wrapping up our chat, Bob said he wanted to get back to something he said earlier, about just wanting the choice to get married — but not initially feeling it was essential. He recalled that when they had wills drawn up back in Maryland, the term that had to be used in defining their relationship was “legal strangers.” Now nearly a year after getting married, he’s continually struck by how good it feels to refer to Bruce as his husband when talking to his friends and family.
If Frontrunners ever chooses patriarchs, it’ll be these gents. Happy trails.
Steve Strode is a broker with Meadows Group Inc., Realtors in Portland. When he is not selling the American dream, he is probably wallowing on a muddy trail run somewhere in the PNW. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.