A Tribute To Thomas Rivers Puzey - V.6
Welcome to the sixth installment of The Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the column here.
Thomas Rivers Puzey is the sort of person who exists just a little beyond our ability to fully understand him, which is to say that he’s an enigma.
Quite contrary to the general rule that you’ll understand someone more fully the longer you’ve known them, Tommy’s aura of mystery actually grows with time. The growing list of places he’s been, and the things he’s done, seem too far-fetched for reality. It would seem more likely if his life was the product of Hollywood rather than the actual happenings of a humble boy from Oregon. His stories are often so inexplicable that they sound like the premise of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty come-to-life. But whereas Mitty is merely a daydreamer, Rivs, as he’s called, is a dreamer who dares to do.
With the consistent vibrato of a baritone that’s ideal for a storyteller, his deep, rich voice hums at a low decibel. In the manner of all good storytellers, he uses his voice for effect at important junctions in a story. His words dive to a quiet whisper so that the listener almost has to lean in to hear him, and then his words rise to a pitch at pivotal moments to draw the listener’s attention. He knows when to provide abundant details and when to withhold them. And he knows how to live through an experience so that he can retell it elegantly, his mind capturing and later recounting how a moment feels rather than merely regurgitating the brute facts.
Rivs has a subtle yet commanding presence in any group. He would be an intimidating presence if not for his fervent, knowing eyes and genuine, loving heart. Upon meeting Rivs, you immediately feel connected to him, especially once he starts speaking in his low, dignified tone. His big, burly beard somehow calms and welcomes you, as if you’re talking to an old soul who’s known you for a long time. He has a muscular frame and the sleek build of an athlete with dark, tanned skin that tells you he’s a man of the outdoors.
I have no memory of first meeting Rivs and that inability to pinpoint him to a precise place and time, for me, only adds to his mystique. Yet I have many other memories of Rivs.
In 2015, we competed against each other at the TransRockies Run, a stage race in the mountains of Colorado. We were competing in teams of two in the Team Open Men category. I teamed up with Brian Condon and Rivs partnered with his brother, Jacob Puzey. It was a thrilling week of racing and after four of the six stages, Rivs and Jacob had a 10-minute lead on Condon and me. The fifth stage started in the cool mountain air on a Saturday morning in Red Cliff and ended in Vail, nearly a marathon distance away. The first 10 miles of the day began on a persistent climb up to a precipitous ridgeline. Rivs and Jacob created a gap during this stretch and they were out of sight by the time we took a right turn onto singletrack to finish the climb’s final, steep pitch. Then, once upon the ridgeline, we learned at an aid station that we had arrived as the first men’s team.
We descended into Vail and crossed the finish line exhausted. We waited as the minutes went by: two, then five, and finally more than ten minutes. We had taken the overall lead in our category. But where had Rivs and Jacob gone?
An hour and forty-five minutes later, a bloody Tommy Rivs, accompanied by Jacob, arrived at the finish. When I say that he was bloody, I mean that he had blood everywhere: his nose and mouth and beard and arms and torso and legs. He looked like he had narrowly escaped a bear attack. But in fact, he had missed the right turn before the top of the climb. He tore down the trail as it descended, albeit on the wrong side of the mountain. He fell and got cut up. He also got a bloody nose. He eventually realized that he was off course and turned back around, understandably defeated. Still, he got back on course and finished.
Rivs has all sorts of stories, like his off-course fall and bloody nose at TransRockies, that seem highly improbable, if not unbelievable. He’s told me about his time living in South America, and how he got mixed up with a drug cartel in Brazil. He’s told me about his time living in Central America, and how he started regularly trekking up a mountain near La Paz with the local porters. He’s told me about going to school in Hawaii, and how we met his now wife, Steph, and about the many adventures they took around the island. He’s told me about his work that’s taken him around the globe, to Italy and Japan, Bolivia and Madeira, Spain and Croatia. He’s told me, in discerning detail, about all of these places, and about the food he’s eaten and the people he’s met. He’s told me, and doubtless many other people, all of these things and more with such nuance that it’s difficult to imagine that it’s all true.
When Rivs talks to you about his training, it leaves you especially wide-eyed. He doesn’t post his runs on any public training apps, like Strava, and a lot of the time I’m not even sure that he wears a GPS watch. In early 2017, I remember him telling me that he had been running about 20 miles per day, or about 140 miles per week. And I remember thinking: With three kids and work that takes him all over the world, how does he have time for that kind of training? How does he have the energy for it?
Then he went and finished 16th at the Boston Marathon in a personal best time of 2:18:20. And while I still couldn’t verify that he had been running 20 miles per day, it was sure hard to doubt him.
In 2016, Rivs and I competed at the IAU 50k World Championships in Doha, Qatar as part of the U.S. team. We shared a hotel room together for almost a week. We didn’t have much to do, so we talked a lot. He told me about a short road race--I think it was the Great Aloha Race--that he ran in Hawaii some years ago. Late in the race, he was in a pack at the front and decided he’d make a move and try to win. As I recall his telling of it, he had a line from a song stuck in his head. It was “Let the bodies hit the floor.” This became our mantra that week in Doha.
Despite our motivating sound bite, neither of us raced especially well at those World Championships. I think we were both a bit intimidated by the race and the competition, and to cope with that we developed a sort of language of our own. We started to talk in short, nonsensical sentences. A lot of the time, a conversation would start or end with one of us saying, “You brave.”
Thomas Rivers Puzey is brave, and he needs to use that bravery to its fullest extent right now. Rivs was recently diagnosed with Primary Pulmonary NK T-Cell Lymphoma, an extremely rare and aggressive form of lung cancer. A 2012 article in the European Respiratory Journal cited only two reports of it written in English up to that point in time. It seems like the type of highly improbable disease that would only, and unfortunately, plague an enigma like Rivs.
Rivs has always been very generous with his time, talents and empathy. His selflessness has been best illustrated in the sport that he loves, running. In Flagstaff, where he lives, he’s often joined local professional teams, like NAZ Elite, to help pace athletes in their workouts. He often shows up at community running events. He’s donated his time by traveling out of state to help crew and pace friends of mine in races. He’s shared his running experiences with thousands of his followers over the years. In short, he’s constantly given so much of himself to those around him, in person and virtually.
He could use a dose of his own selflessness now and you can help. From August 1st to 9th, you can join myself and many others around the globe in the #RunwithRivs campaign. I encourage you to follow @runwithrivs on Instagram for details on how to register for the event and fundraiser. If you can help contribute financially toward his medical bills and otherwise, please consider doing so. But more than anything, the goal is to get people outside, putting one foot in front of the other, and sharing, virtually, a run with Rivs. As he undergoes chemotherapy sessions, he could use the strength of every footstep from those that can still engage in an activity he loves.
You brave, Rivs. Rage on.
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