I met Gary Malloy in the lobby of Hotel Le Concorde in the heart of Old Quebec, on the Friday night before my final cross-country race as a St. FX X-Man in 2016.
I really met Gary Malloy at 4 am on Sunday morning, more than 24 hours later and 10k deeper into my running career, following the race that made Runners of the Nish a book of clear tragedy. In the early hours of the cold morning he aimlessly stood outside our hotel, after a night of licking his wounds. Quite like us, the Lancers had sorely missed their team goal, and he was the head coach.
“Alex?” he asks as if not sure (who’s sure of anything at 4 am?), and fair enough, we don’t know each other. “You hungry?”
What else am I to do? It’s morning. I haven’t stomached anything since an arsenal of OUA athletes passed me in the final stretch of the race, almost a full day ago now. So I’m starving. Plus, this old dude is the Windsor coach - that’s where I want to go to school next year. His weird invitation is definitely a sly recruiting ploy – this guy must have been waiting for me in front of the hotel for hours (Gary later told me his cab driver that night was a 2:12 marathoner from Ethiopia – needless to say I was a distant consolation prize).
I followed him up the road and then down a few stairs into a grungy basement cum fast food eatery cum dystopian mosh pit filled with crestfallen runners, running on nothing much. Years later, Gary still called it a “Donair restaurant.”
We ordered some “Donairs” and I got ready for the job-like interview that a prospective coach might deliver to a prospective athlete. I was ready to rhyme off my PBs, what my mileage was like, and whether I thought Salazar was doping his athletes and whether Centro was a douche on Instagram. But we didn’t talk about running. Gary instead amused himself telling silly stories about the night that just passed. I jumped in and told him I had been kicked out of the bar, only to be negotiated back in by Emmanuel Boisvert in a messy Québécois war of words with the bouncer that my Acadian dialect just could not win. Gary laughed.
“Ahhh, alcohol,” he said, “The great equalizer.” By no mistake did the erudite retiree borrow Horace Mann’s assessment of education itself and apply it to what some would call his second passion.
“It brings us all down to the same level.”
As if Gary ever thought he was above anyone.
Two and a half years have passed since our first interaction. I went to Windsor for a Master’s degree and I have been injured for most of that time. To allude to Steve Boyd’s eloquent post from a few weeks ago, my injuries, to me, had been a more crude intimation with death than anything I had encountered. Until death itself, that is. Gary was there for me, helping me through the tough times with words, Wings tickets and the occasional outing with friends. Without his optimism – which I have yet to see paralleled –, and the support of my teammates, amidst the injuries I would have left Windsor.
But I didn’t, and when I got healthy, Gary made my summer of 2018 a special one. He brought us to historic Hayward Field (and begged the meet director to let me race despite my off-standard 1500m PB, and white lied his way into convincing them I’d pace the race - I didn’t). He hosted “Cyr you later” BBQs when I left town and, obviously, he helped me reach my running goals for the year. He was the first one (slightly before Evan Ubene over the Hamilton track microphone) to tell me I had broken 3:50 in the 1500m, a goal I had chased all summer.
“Trois Quarante Sept!” he said in my mother tongue, clenching his stopwatch, giddy at the finish line.
I was so happy with myself – mainly because I thought my race had made Gary smile so hard. But in reality, he wore the same grin he bore when I finished any other race, and when we’d come back from a cool down or show up for a warm-up. It was never about the results. It was about our personal growth – about us learning something new, and coming back tomorrow for more. He was the truest form of teacher – full of wisdom and free of judgment. Maybe because of that, he was someone you toiled to make proud, but never someone you were afraid to disappoint.
Gary was the same every day, with everyone he encountered. He lifted us when we were down, and challenged us to buckle down if we were flying close to the sun. He offered the same time, respect and friendship to everyone, regardless of age, standing in life or mile time. He was a rare peacekeeper in a track world full of egos and quarrels. He was a better equalizer than the drink he praised.
Funerals are also a great equalizer, but they offer no buzz. No matter who dies, the hymns don’t change, people hug when they run out of things to say, and every visitation room smells the God damn same. The strongest – and most haunting – equalizer, however, is the following: everyone is painted in a glowing white light when they die. No matter who they were, what they did, whom they touched and what they left behind, the discourse in church is roughly the same. It inflates some and does justice to others. And I get it, how do you go about using words to accurately credit (or God forbid, discredit) a life?
But what happens when the person in the casket is remarkable beyond measure? How can we, observers brutally intimated with death, tell that someone truly special has left us, when most variables around the funeral are the same? Maybe today it had to do with how the priest was choked up and how the church was packed - how tears flowed despite yesterday’s long preparatory visiting hours and how a whole varsity program transcending generations dropped their chores and came back to honour Gary. Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s about how you feel after you leave the funeral. Today, I feel like I lost a stalwart friend and a role model, and I feel like many others have lost just as much and more.
Gary, thank you for picking me up on the street in Quebec, and many times after that. Thank you for helping me reach new heights on the track and beyond. Thank you for teaching me how to be good for the sake of being good. I can’t imagine what you did for those you had known longer.
Rest in peace, dear friend.
“Read what you believe, teach what you believe, practice what you preach.”