by Rusty Shelton
Gary Taylor Neel, 1954-2006
In January, 2006, the ultrarunning community lost a devoted member, and I lost an incredible, life-long friend. Many knew Gary from his youth in East Texas, his UT-Austin college days, his early adulthood in Dallas and for the past almost two decades his relocated home of Marin County and his beloved trails there.
Gary’s and my friendship began after his move to Tyler, Texas, in our middle school days of the late 1960’s. Lots of basketball, double-dating to high school dances, a wild graduation trip to the Texas Gulf Coast, part-time summer construction jobs, junior college shenanigans, rooming together at UT-Austin, careers in Dallas, each others’ and many friends’ weddings, high school reunions, and guys trips with Tyler buddies to the Texas Hill Country, New Mexico, Colorado and the Grand Canyon formed the backdrop for a friendship that grew into a very special bond. Over the years, we shared and enjoyed many sporting interests, basketball and running primarily and chronologically, and always made our wives, families, dogs and passions for good food and good wine the topics of conversion and the consumers of our energies.
I owe Gary and my brother Walton (and maybe my type-A need for energy release and competition) for introducing me to running. What began with evening runs in Converse All-Stars and then Nike waffle soles in the late 1970’s grew into a lifetime passion. Watching my running mentors excel at 10K’s then marathons fueled my fires. Gary’s success and joy of competing in several Dallas White Rock Marathons and Pike’s Peak Marathons in the 1980’s gave me new interests and goals as I entered my adult years. A trip to visit Gary and to compete in the Escape-From-Alcatraz Triathlon in 1997 led to a random reading of Ultrarunning while I was trying unsuccessfully to fall asleep the evening before jumping into the 50-something degree waters of San Francisco Bay. Perusing the intriguing race schedule that is part of each issue, I discovered and zeroed in on my first foray into trail distance running later that fall at the Palo Duro Canyon 25 miler. While a far cry from Gary’s much faster paced Western States 100’s and numerous California 50Ks and 50 milers, my jaunt on the trials of Palo Duro Canyon in west Texas hooked me into this wonderful sport.
From Gary, I learned many tips to success and nuances of trail running—carrying a hand bottle, eating on the run, how to stride up and down hills, surviving five-to-ten hour runs. Too bad he couldn’t have shared some of his speed and focus with me. The only trail race we ever did together was in 1999 from Squaw Valley to Donner Pass, an easy little 25K uphill jog for him. He was napping when I finished. Getting to visit the start of his beloved Western States race and to share in many of his memories of that race vicariously were special treats for me. I owe Gary for introducing me to trail and ultrarunning, but I owe him for much, much more.
After losing Gary to an aggressive cancer in mid-January of 2006 (less than five weeks after he became ill and received the diagnosis), Gary’s wonderful wife Dana gathered family and friends on successive Sundays to celebrate his life. The first service was in San Rafael, California, and consisted of many running friends and colleagues from Gary’s work in pharmaceutical sales. Our Texas gathering of family and friends was the following Sunday on a beautiful sunny afternoon at Winfrey Point, overlooking White Rock Lake in Dallas. Well known to local runners as a gathering point and as a packet pick-up and start/finish venue for numerous road races for the past few decades, this was the perfect place to remember Gary. He must have run by Winfrey Point hundreds of times during his Dallas training days. Over the past few years during his visits to Texas, he and I shared many runs by this venue on the east side of the White Rock Lake.
I had the honor of speaking at Gary’s service, an honor for which I am proud but an honor that my choosing would have postponed until several years in the future. I shared a memory of my last weekend with Gary—a fun weekend in 2005 during which we enjoyed the company and companionship of our Tyler group. A very blessed group of about six former Tyler-ites, with Gary always at the center, have formed a bond of lifelong friendships that have endured for, in some cases, five decades. All of us attended, and most of us spoke at Gary’s service.
The other memory of Gary that I shared that day really defines him. On a weekend 22 years ago in Austin, Texas, Gary and I traveled separately to participate in the craziness that is called the Capital of Texas 10K, a special craziness that endures annually today involving thousands of runners enjoying a fun morning in the most fun town in Texas, a town that Gary always loved. In those days of 1984, Gary and I were both living in the Dallas area. He was the single guy in Dallas, and I was the married guy in the northern suburbs, starting a family and coming to terms with mortgages and such. Gary and I led different lives but always maintained contact and saw each other frequently. He was staying with friends in Austin, and we had planned to meet at a certain landmark near the race start. Somehow we missed each other, and I assumed that we had just gotten lost in the crunch of the thousands of runners and spectators. I called him a few days later and asked how his weekend and his race had gone. He said something to me on that call that struck me at the time as either real good advice or, as I’ve come to realize over the years, his credo for living. He said that he decided to skip the race. I’ve always remembered his words—
“At the end of my life, I’m not going to remember the races I ran or how hard I worked. I’m going to remember the times I spent with my friends. That’s the most important thing.”
I believe I speak for many in saying that while I will always remember Gary the runner–his passion for trail running and his successes in ultras simply command respect and attention–I will remember Gary for the way he lived his life and for his friendship that never waned. More than the incredible trail runner that he was, evinced by his high finishes on tough venues–Western States, Quad Dipsea, Pike’s Peak, American River, Miwok, etc.–Gary Neel was an exemplary friend. His words from 1984 still resonate in my mind. I believe I can safely expand Gary’s concept of “friend” to include the other roles that were so important to him and that defined his life—son, brother, uncle and husband. He fulfilled all of them incredibly well as he touched many people and made their lives better.
Remembering Gary’s words to me more than two decades ago, missing him, and honoring a life well lived, many races well run, I can best sum things up this way—
Well done, my friend, well done.