Friday, June 12, 2015

RIP, Trail Runner Ray Morris 1925-2015

It was a strange message, and I did at least one double-take when it popped up on my phone. Then I did another. Is this real? 
[Mom]: ...your great uncle, Ray, whom you haven't seen in 35 years, is dying of pancreatic cancer. He's a runner too, and has been following your running career with great interest. It would be great if you could touch base. He only lives about ten miles from your house.
What? There's a 90-year-old trail runner, a blood relative no less, that lives just a stones throw away?!? How could I have not known this?


But with some reflection, I recalled memories of Ray from my pre-teen years. Walks on a beach north of Mendecino, stories of his retirement, little tidbits my Mom would mention as we caught up over the years.  I did know of Ray and Helen, and now that I thought about it, I was aware they lived nearby. I'm not sure why I had never reached out over the years...convenience, out of sight/out of mind, or perhaps it's just that he and his family were just far enough out on the fringe of the family tree. But I don't recall even knowing he was a trail runner. That feels different. That feels like an opportunity missed.

So this time, I paid Ray a visit. I was so glad I did.

Even in the grasps of cancer, Great Uncle Ray was quite a gentleman. We were able to share stories of family, running, and Silicon Valley. Ray was one of the original engineers of Hewlett-Packard, inventing a light beam diode that is now commonplace in our flat panel TV's.  This was back in the day you had to write the design out by hand and convince people a diode could actually be built. His drafting charts would fill all the walls of his room like cave drawings...such a change from the charts my 9-year-old can crank out on her iPad today.

(Ray on the cover of a 1988 HP newsletter, complete with Dipsea shirt)
Ray's running stories were the best, no surprise. He became a trail runner at the ripe old age of 40 in 1965, after a bad cholesterol test result laid risk to his passion for daily ice cream. He took up "jogging" to get fit, but soon found it was far more fun to run the trails in nearby El Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve. He fell in love with trail running, and quickly had a group of friends he called "Ray's Raunchy El Rancho Runners" that would run and race together all over the USA. A story any of us would take for granted today, but in the early 70's, Ray was a bit of a nut. A pioneer in sport as well as technology.

Ray ran the Bay to Breakers over 10 times, and the Dipsea Race 17 times, including two Black Shirt finishes (#28 and #35). As he recalled the groundbreaking crowd of 2,500 at his first Bay to Breakers he ran in the 70's (a race that now has 30,000+ runners), I began to understand why he loved following our generation of trail runners online. In his day, runners were pioneers, rebels. Now everybody gets it. Perhaps the thousands of trail runners are similar evidence as the TV's that housed his inventions once thought crazy.
(I love how this bio of Ray refers to his as a "determined jogger")
It was a shame we couldn't share the trails together, but in his last few days, it took everything he had just to sit next to me for the occasional visit. Through our stories, however, we did share the trails. We even virtually ran through El Rancho, and he noted the switchbacks that had robbed me of breath on dozens of occasions, and the tree stumps where the wild turkeys still nest to this day. There's no doubt he clocked thousands of miles in those hills. He wanted to hear all about Comrades, and was eager to see the pictures when I returned. He didn't quite make it for that, however, and passed away in his sleep the day before the race. Rest in Peace, impressive 90-year run.

His wife, Helen, and surviving kids Mark and Monica, left me his array of Dipsea finisher medals and a hearty thank you for making his few remaining days more pleasant and full of smiles. With the 17 medals in my grasp, I knew I had to run the Dipsea someday soon. Once wasn't even enough. Even beyond the grave, Ray is getting to me onto the trails!

(17 Dipsea medals, legacy of a bygone era)
I think of Ray often, and make the trek to El Rancho for the occasional tribute run. Would his life be my fate someday? Rehashing stories of races and mountains to long lost relatives? Seeing a lifetime of invention commoditized in the products that fill every home? Clutching my race medals, the last material evidence of an adventurous life, to get a few more smiles out of my family in my final days on earth?

Actually, that doesn't sound like a bad way to go. Not bad at all, in fact.

Thank you, Ray, for showing me a legacy worth striving for.

Dipsea Race, I will see you next year.


  1. Wow - this is an amazing story and post! It's so great you managed to touch base with him finally. I'm occasionally surprised by a loose acquaintance that I find out also runs trail races, and suddenly they're a much closer acquaintance. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. We are everywhere! Ray and I joked there was a fair probability that we had passed each other on the trails at some point, not knowing we were related.

  2. Great post. My dad passed away from pancreatic cancer when I was 12, so this post is very endearing to me. I'm glad you got to share stories with Ray before he passed on. I'm quite certain it made a difference for him.

    1. I am sorry to hear that. Among cancers, pancreatic looks like a tough one for the surviving family and friends. Ray kept saying it didn't hurt that much, but I know not to trust a distance runners self pain analysis. That must have been tough for you.

  3. I lost my mom to pancreatic cancer last year, and I would not wish it on anyone. What a gift you gave each other to connect over something you were both passionate about. Thanks for letting us all share it it too.

    1. Sheri, I'm so sorry to hear that about your mom. That must have been tough. Helen, Mark, and Monica were total troopers in Ray's last days...I can't imagine this disease is an easy thing to witness day to day. Ray really looked forward to the visits, so I'm glad I could just give the family a rest for a few hours a week. I am sure you and I both would encourage anyone to pay a visit if you know someone in this state, even if it's been 35 years.

  4. Thank you Scott for posting this on you blog. It's well said and well written. I, Like you, had lost touch with Uncle Ray, Aunt Helen, and cousins Mark and Monica. It's made me consider who've I've lost touch with over the years.


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