Monday, April 18, 2016

How Does Jake McCluskey Do It?

Jake McCluskey, in the  middle in the green shirt,
about to start his 100 mile run.
(picture from Jake McCluskey's Facebook page)
I've always wanted to write about Jake McCluskey, just never could figure out how. Both of us like to drink beer and we both run a lot. There, the similarities end.

Jake McCluskey, an assistant brewer at Santa Clara Valley Brewing, has become something of a local folk-hero. Not too long ago, he was seriously overweight, depressed at how life was going as he approached middle age. Then one day, he started running. Not very far at first, a block or two down the street was all he could muster. Jake found inspiration from, of all things, a tape of enigmatic football player Marshawn Lynch declaring "I'm just about that action, boss" which Jake played over and over before heading out the door.

McCluskey kept running and lost 180 pounds. Last year on his 42nd birthday, he completed a 50 mile run from San Francisco to San Jose. raising nearly $20,000 for the Silicon Valley Children's Fund,  a non-profit that supports foster children. If that wasn't audacious enough, he doubled that distance the next year, covering 100 miles from Petaluma's Lagunitas Brewery to Original Gravity in Downtown San Jose last April 9th, earning over $20,000 for the Silicon Valley Children's Fund. During this time, his story made  Runner's World and the cover of the San Jose Mercury News. Marshawn Lynch who rarely comments on anything, simply declared "That's gangsta" upon learning of Jake's story from a sports writer.

As someone who's been running for 36 years, toiling away in anonymity, I find myself surprisingly struggling to relate to Jake's story. Maybe it's because my running story is so typical. I started running at twelve, enjoyed it, had success at it, and basically never stopped doing it.  Oh, I'd make the school newspaper when I ran in high school and college, but that was about it. No one ever found my story particularly inspirational for a very good reason. It's pretty boring.

Along those 36 years, I've read countless stories from the pages of magazines about someone turning their life around through running. Running has helped a lot of people overcome things like drugs, alcohol, or obesity. While McCluskey's story and others like it are indeed inspiring, they have also become almost a running cliche'. As for running 50 or 100 miles, it's undeniably a great accomplishment, but people do it all the time in various ultra-marathons held all over the United States. From my jaded running view, the big question isn't "how" someone can run 50 or 100 miles, but "why?".  For most runners running a few miles is a joy, running 20 miles or longer is self-imposed torture. A lot of people don't "get" runners. Well, a lot of runners don't "get" ultra-marathoners. I have no idea why anyone would run 50 miles, even if they could.

Jake running, with friends
(Gilbert Romayor photo)
So what I find most extraordinary about Jake is not his couch potato to runner transition or the tremendous distances he covers. It's the way his story resonates far stronger than it seemingly should. Maybe it's due to Jake's genuine "Aw shucks" attitude in response to all the accolades heaped upon him. Don't forget, Jake started running for reasons as basic as fitting into an airplane seat or getting a woman to say "yes" if he asked her out on a date. At some point in that effort, people started dumping praise a bunch of praise on him, which often unintentionally creates high expectations. It isn't what Jake signed up for when he started this, but he's handled it better than a lot of other people do.

There are those who lose a lot of weight with such contempt for their prior selves they end up coming off more than a little irritating. Their "you can do it" attitude is really thinly disguised "Look what I did!" boasting. There is little empathy to their message. Not Jake. There's no apparent hatred of his former self, just a realization he needed to take things in a different direction. He hasn't forgotten where he once was, and almost seems to embrace his past as he takes a new path.

Just take a look at what he posted on Facebook shortly after the San Jose Mercury News article ran:

"So it's been a couple of days since the Merc article ran. I'm not trying to sound like a dbag but one thing has become apparent to me. This run has become way bigger than just me. That is something im not taking lightly at all. The messages I have received from friends,family and total strangers are humbling to say the least. I still see my story way more as a cautionary tale than as an inspirational one. Just as most people do I struggle with my insecurities everyday. I'm just slowly learning to not let them paralyze me like I used to allow them to do. Some days it's easier to do this than others. To the people that are rooting for me on this run I'm not going to let you or myself down...."

The other thing about Jake, he does Superman things, but he's a very mortal Superman. His supplies get stolen. He gets lost. Yet, he continues to chug along in workman-like fashion, often apologetic to his Facebook faithful. During his recent 100 mile trek after missing a turn in his route, he posted to Facebook:

 "Just a quick update. I'm way behind.....I ended up getting lost in the mountains last night and ended up tacking an extra 9 hard miles and they are taking their toll. ...I'm guessing I won't make it to OG until around 830. I'm really sorry to anybody that made special arrangements to be there earlier. ....Again I apologize."  

We think we need super heroes to inspire us, but we're wrong.  We need super heroes that are human. Jake's a regular guy, trying to do amazing things, and struggling mightily to do them like we all would if we tried to do them too. I don't know how Jake does it, but he does it. And in Jake's unique, unassuming way, he shows us we all can do great things, too.

Jake, cooling his heels at Original Gravity
after his 100+ mile run
(photo from Jake's Facebook page)

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