We were running late, and the parking lot was full. I pulled up beside where the Front Runners were chatting and jogging in place and folding their arms tightly against the February Seattle chill. Chad rolled down the window to announce that we would quickly find parking elsewhere and be over in a few minutes.
A few minutes later, as promised, we were jogging over to the cluster of blue, purple, and electric orange zip-ups and running jackets flapping like flags in the bright morning. As we approached them and slowed to a trot, I was struck by how grateful I was for these people, for “running w/ the guys” as I write it on every square Sunday in my planner. When I moved to Seattle a year ago, I was thankful to have friends already here, but I was hoping also to forge a fresh community of my own. As I listened to Ari cajole Ruben about the advancing rain and strategized with Linus about this summer’s Ragnar Relay and as we slowly began our weekly revolution around Lake Union and past picturesque house boats and over lofted bridges and across salty locks, I thought to myself that this was it.
The first time I ever encountered the Front Runners was after my maiden race at the Cleveland & Akron Gay Games—a 10k carved through the Cuyahoga Valley. As I was preparing for my cooldown after the awards ceremony, I was pulled into a mass of saturated jerseys coalescing into loose rows before a camera. It wasn’t until after the picture was snapped that I was told it was for the Front Runners—members of LGBTQ running and walking groups that stretched around the globe. I was gripped by a sudden guilt. I was not a Front Runner! My new friend smiled. “You’re an honorary Front Runner.” It was an honor I did not take lightly.
It was not until the following spring that I first held The Front Runner in my hands. I was visiting my Gay Games friends Guillermo and Sully in Atlanta. Guillermo had a haircut scheduled, so Sully grabbed a few books off his bookshelf—an anthology of works by celebrated gay author Paul Monette, a volume of tasteful gay erotica, and The Front Runner—and announced that we would accompany him. And so it was that Sully and I sat reading gay erotica in an Atlanta barbershop while tufts of Guillermo’s velvety hair floated to the ground. And so it was that amongst the excited buzz of an electric clippers and fresh scent of conditioner, I first felt Harlan put his sturdy hands on Billy’s delicate legs and pull him close against his thundering chest. And so it was that some knot inside me loosened.
It took another year for me to properly inspect the cover of the book: The Front Runner by Patricia Nell Warren. Patricia?! This foundational gay classic, this shuddering portrait of gay male intimacy, the first contemporary gay novel to notch a spot on the New York Times bestseller list was written by a woman?!
This required research.
In my ensuing investigations, I quickly discovered that Patricia was a total badass. Growing up in a time when women were barred from long-distance running events for fear that it would render them infertile, Patricia would secretly hop into marathons shortly after the start and complete them alongside the men. Eventually, she became one of the first women to compete in the Boston Marathon.
As if this wasn’t enough, Patricia also taught herself and began composing poetry in Ukrainian. When writing The Front Runner, Patricia would frequent seedy gay cinemas for research. Later, Patricia started her own publishing company. In her Facebook profile picture, Patricia peers confidently over the lenses of a pair of aviator sunglasses like a Hollywood hunk of yesteryear. And, finally, Patricia may be the only human I know of who can accurately be described as “the famous Montana-born lesbian.”
When I finally resolved to read The Front Runner cover to cover, though, I realized that the story was bigger than gay or lesbian, man or woman and that the intimacy described transcended category. Her writing was an act of taking a love that for centuries had been pushed to the margins and defiantly sticking it on the center of the page.
The Front Runner tells the story of Harlan Brown, a stern former Marine turned small college track coach who conceals his sexuality to New York City’s secret gay underbelly and valiantly bucks every gay stereotype an unassuming reader in the 70s would cling to. The conflict arrives when Harlan is gifted three lavishly talented runners who come to him for coaching after being ousted from the University of Oregon’s track program for coming out as gay. Page by page, Harlan must navigate his relationship with one of the young men, Billy, while also negotiating a hostile society to secure Billy his rightful place in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games.
My copy of The Front Runner is still bookmarked with an American Airlines ticket from Washington, D.C. to Detroit for June 27, 2016—the summer I spent traveling the country. I still recall perching on my Osprey backpack on a cavernous Washington, D.C. subway platform, pulled so far forward into the story that I would have missed my train if the rushing metallic cars hadn’t stirred up the air and made the pages between my fingers quiver.
Finally, I remember sitting on the couch in my sister and brother-in-law’s Memphis apartment while they were away at work. So few pages separated my right thumb and forefinger as the story surged to its climax, thrusting itself at the finish line. Every fiber of my being was stitched to the page so that my happiness felt bound to Harlan’s and Patricia controlled my emotions like a marionette. And as I finished the book amidst the struggling air conditioning on that thick, hot Memphis afternoon, I wept.
That summer alone, I ran with seven different Front Runners groups around the country. I finished a race holding hands with a chain of New York Front Runners, and I sat on a curb to bite into a post-run dinner with the DC Front Runners. I played trivia at a gay bar with the San Francisco Front Runners, and I was invited to join an LA Front Runner, Carl, at his friend’s swanky pool party. I weathered a 106-degree jog through Phoenix in July alongside a seventy-year-old Front Runner, and after brunch with the Portland Front Runners, a kind German man showed me the best view of Mount Hood.
And finally, at the end of a long summer of journeying, I joined the Seattle Front Runners for another trot around Green Lake and another coffee at Zoka’s. The Seattle Front Runners—those radiant people I represented in a highlighter green jersey at the Paris Gay Games this past summer and run and eat Thai food alongside every Wednesday night and create great piles of shoes with in someone’s entryway at a rollicking potluck each month and meet on bright Sunday mornings in blue zip-ups and electric orange jackets.
Patricia Nell Warren passed away this month on Saturday, February 9. The last time I was in Los Angeles, I had considered reaching out to her. We have a couple mutual friends. I thought I could interest her with my tales of the Gay Games. I was working on a story at the time set in Montana, her birthplace. There was plenty to fill a half-hour of tea and conversation.
I do not know if she was the type of person to agree to spontaneous coffee dates, though, because I never asked and, thus, never knew her. Now I’m left wondering: how do you thank someone you have lost the opportunity to know?
I think we thank her when we follow her lead. When we meet with our friends on Sunday mornings and sneak our way into races we’re told not to run and move things from the margins to the center of the page.
Our Front Runner has fallen, and I think we thank her now by taking up the lead.
Gabe Gunnink (’14) lives in Seattle, where he works for a European travel company and gawks at the landscapes and skylines surrounding him. In his free time, he enjoys practicing Portuguese under his breath on city buses, running far enough to justify eating an entire pan of cinnamon rolls, and faithfully implementing Oxford commas.