Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

Pilgrimage

December 31, 2006

Today, I went to see my Shoe Guy. His real name is Shawn, and his life’s calling—seller of running shoes—is one which many folks wouldn’t understand.

But not me. No dedicated runner would ever scoff at a true Shoe Guy— potent combination of coach, doctor, biomechanical expert, motivational speaker, and friend. I met mine six years ago, when I was so hobbled that walking into the store was painful. A week later, I was back to my full training regime and singing his praises. And I’ve been going back religiously, every 300 miles, ever since. Sure, I pay more than I would on the web, but I get a lot more than shoes.

A good Shoe Guy (they can be women, too) won’t snicker when you come in looking for ‘racing shoes’, even if you’re only looking to sneak below 40 minutes for the 10K. If your feet and legs qualify, he’ll conspiratorially confess just how amazing it feels to wear something lighter, lower, faster. And the next time you come in, he’ll smile and ask about the race. He’ll never roll his eyes when you’ve obviously over-trained and gotten a well-deserved injury, or chuckle when you haven’t come in for a long time. He won’t think it strange when you’re in a full panic because of a tiny twinge in your hip three weeks before the marathon. He’ll listen with polite interest when you tell the story of the run through Rock Creek Park that was so cold it necessitated regular pee stops, just to keep your plumbing from freezing solid. At the same time, he won’t hesitate—when asked, of course– to point out that your recent lack of speed might just have something to do with your advancing age, rather than your shoes.

My fitting today was actually performed by a couple of up-and-coming Shoe Guys (one of whom was female), both under the watchful eye of the Master. He had said ‘hello’, and commented kindly on the Girl, and we shared some friendly banter, but that was the extent of our interaction. I got my shoes and a new pair of socks, and stood up to leave. Just then, serendipity prevailed and the store cleared out for a minute to allow me to amend our small talk.

A kind of holy hush fell over the store, and the other Shoe Folks seemed to listen for a minute. “Actually, this is my second child,” I said, breathing deeply. “She is a twin, and her brother was born with a serious cardiac condition. He was up at Children’s for two months…”

“Is he okay?” he interrupted.

“He died a couple of months ago,” I said, now trying to get to the end of my speech before I collapsed. “I wanted to come and thank you and pay my respects, because all of your help with running and training gave me a language—a metaphor, I guess—to understand his struggles. His heart rates and breathing rates were almost exactly the same as mine during a lactate workout on Hains Point, except they were like that all of the time.” We stopped and shook our heads, both of us well-acquainted with that kind of intensity, and discomfort. “I just wanted to thank you for giving me some small way to understand what his life was like.”

“Of course,” he said, tears welling up. “I’m so sorry.”

It was quiet for a second, and I suddenly came to myself and realized that, really, we hardly know each other. Yet here I was, crossing all kinds of social boundaries in the middle of a public market. I apologized for laying such a heavy trip on him, right out of the blue.

Typically gracious, he just said, “It’s nice to know that what you do matters.”

Well, it does, Shawn. Thanks.

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3 Responses to “Pilgrimage”

  1. Heather says:

    Having spent more than my share of income at Fleet Feet over the years, your story made me cry. You made an important pilgrimage to one of our modern “priests”– the Shoe Guy. I’m proud of you for sharing with him your story. What he does DOES matter. What you shared with him DOES matter. Blessings.

  2. kate says:

    having seen the two of you together once — you and Shoe Guy — I suspect he really enjoys and gets something out of those encounters, too. But that’s your special gift, Mike. Well, one of your many special gifts. But the one I find the most unique about you is the way you have of making EVERYONE you talk to, and talk about, seem like your best friend. The most special person you know. And you make those who are reading or hearing about them — or even them themselves — believe it.
    It’s a pretty amazing thing.

  3. Anonymous says:

    One of my very favorite young adult books (Rules of the Road), is about a girl named Jenna who is a Shoe Guy in training…it’s all about finding a passion for what you do. One person like that for me is Azi, the owner of the eponymous Azi’s Cafe, where I go to eat the best ham paninis I’ve ever tasted. She has an inner light that shines through her smile when she stands in front of the register. I’m sure Shawn was honored to have given you a small something that contributed to your life with Will.

    Erin B.

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