The guests mingled. The dinner, toasts, acknowledgments, and speeches had ended. Spirits were high and none more so than George Gilder. This was his night. It was August 24, 2016, and George had wrapped up his Telecosm event at The San Francisco MoneyShow. Guests were enjoying Gilder’s famous hospitality on the mezzanine level of the Marriott Marquis. The dinner participants included conference speakers, event organizers, long-time subscribers to the Gilder Technology Forum, and assorted invited guests. Carver Mead was the eminence grise guest of honor.
I approached George as the evening wound down. I told George I was going on a run tomorrow morning and invited him to join me. A Telecosm conference requires extended effort to organize, promote, and successfully conduct. It’s a stressful affair and wears one down. It was late, and George indicated to me that the week of conference preparation had taken its toll on him. “I don’t know,” he started. “It’s been a long week, and I don’t sleep well in hotels,” he implied in a gracious demur. He left it at that. “Well, I’ll be in the lobby at 7:00 am if you can make it,” I replied.
I arrived in the lobby at 6:50 the next morning fully expecting another lackadaisical run on my own. In my early 50s, after a lifetime of running, I developed arthritis in my SI joint. Every step of a run now comes with some level of pain. The faster I run, the greater the pain. Running is now more an effort to maintain some level of fitness and control pain than to increase endurance.
At exactly 7:00 am, I saw George striding across the lobby toward me. He looked serious. Wearing running shorts and a Thai marathon T-shirt, that he no doubt participated in, George exuded an ominous casualness in his physical fitness. Lean as a whip, my knowledge of George was that he has run his whole life and ran track in his youth. He is a natural runner and rates in his age group as a competitive runner. Despite George being 75, my 18 year age advantage seemed to dissipate with each stride as George approached me in the lobby. I am extremely competitive by nature, and the thought of soon getting my running ass kicked by a septuagenarian was a bit intimidating, if not potentially embarrassing.
I stood up, and we exited the lobby with little talk and started a slow jog to Market Street. We turned right toward the Embarcadero. George said he needed to start slow, which was agreeable with me. Our initial pace was just beyond a fast walk. I noticed he was wearing minimal running shoes without the standard thick padded running soles. It’s a running shoe that requires an excellent form to prevent injury. I was curious about how they affected his support and gait. I asked him if he suffered any running injuries. It seemed inconceivable to me that he could run his whole life into his mid-70s injury-free. It would also give me a reason to mention my injury and pre-excuse my impending whipping. George dismissed my question with a curt, “I had some brief shin splints but nothing serious.” So much for my laying the groundwork for my pain excuse.
I was following George and had no idea where we were headed. Just short of a mile down Market Street, we crossed the street and made a 160-degree turn to head west on California Street. Looking ahead, California Street was a flat stretch followed by a gradual rise. It didn’t look bad. I knew that George would kill me on the hills. He lives in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts and has run his whole life in the mountains. My running consists primarily of flat terrain in the Texas heat. After cresting the first rise on California Street, the hill doubled in steepness. This is more a climb than a run, but George kept running. He breathed in the hills with the ease a progressive breathes in manufactured virtue. My heart rate was maxing out as I attempted to keep up with George. I watched him drift away from me as I was forced to walk up the steep hill. George waited for me at the top of Nob Hill near Hotel Fairmont. (Not knowing where I was but seeing the Hotel Fairmont, brought back memories of a stay there for Van Morrison’s December 1993 concert at the Masonic Auditorium. Van released the performance as a double live album, A Night in San Francisco with John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, and Jimmy Witherspoon.)
We began a series of steep downhills followed by equally steep uphills as we worked our way left and right across the narrow blocks to Russian Hill. Famous for Steve McQueen’s Bullitt car chase scene, the top of Lombard Street in Russian Hill is a stop on the cable car route and a major tourist attraction.
Despite the population density of San Francisco, running through the city streets in the early morning is mostly car-free. The streets are narrow and easy to cross. We seldom had our pace interrupted by traffic.
We worked our way through Russian Hill, up and down, up and down until we reached Vallejo Street. Vallejo Street has a series of steps that steeply descend from Mason Street in Russian Hill into North Beach. I continued to drag behind George on the steep hills, but George had to descend the steps gingerly. He was still recovering from a nasty fall in a mountain race in Massachusetts. He stumbled on a trail, fell and gashed his head open on a rock. Luckily, some medical professionals were running near him and helped stabilized him. He ended up being evacuated by helicopter to the hospital. It was a huge scare for George. The scar was still fresh on his forehead.
It is a long series of steps in the descent to North Beach, and it was little comfort that I could keep ahead of George due to his skittishness from his injury. Navigating the steps downhill, I assumed the hills were behind me until I looked forward across Columbus Avenue and saw another climb as steep as the one up Nob Hill. Once again, I lagged George. Cresting the top of the hill on Vallejo, the Oakland Bay Bridge expanded into view behind the Embarcadero in the peaceful, shimmering morning. It was all downhill and flat from here, and I finally started to feel good.
We crossed the thoroughfare avenue and joined the other morning runners on the Embarcadero next to the bay. Our conversation was sparse during the run. I had the attention of the renown tech guru in my grasp, but there seemed no purpose in forcing conversation. The run was the conversation. Waiting to cross The Embarcadero for the final stretch back to the hotel, we briefly talked about George’s long-time friend Carver Mead and Carver’s newest company Impinj.
On the mile stretch back down Market Street to the hotel, George opened up the pace. It seemed fast to me but was probably George’s normal pace. On a flat stretch, I could keep up with whatever pace George wanted. It felt like we sprinted the final few blocks to the hotel. I looked at my watch as we stopped. We ran for exactly one hour.
George will turn 80 this November and his running remains as dedicated and consistent as ever. No doubt the bump into the next higher age group will catapult George up the ranks as a premier national runner.
The memory of George and this run continues to motivate me to maintain my fitness. I think about George’s dedication to running whenever my natural laziness tends to creep to the forefront. When I lived in Asia, I was introduced to the Hash House Harriers. Started by the Brits in Malaysia, HHH bills itself as a drinking club with a running problem. A group of my AF squadron mates and other friends used to do unofficial hash runs in the mountains of Japan outside Tokyo. A hare is given a head start and sets a hash trail marked with false leads. The hounds follow the trail and try to catch the hare. When the hounds find the correct trail, they alert the other hounds with On, On! A hash run requires hounds to navigate beer stops along with finding the trail. On, On is also the primary drinking toast at the end of the hash run celebrations. The brief clarion call of the HHH perfectly encapsulates George’s indefatigable spirit. On, On George.