“At the crest of the last hill, the lights of cars on the highway tell me another night run is over. The sounds of my last few steps are drowned by the hiss and whine of tires on wet asphalt. I pause at the last turn to look back—some nights I feel like I have left something out there, never quite feeling what it is or if leaving it was intentional. Tomorrow is another day, and I will go back to make sure it is still there.”
—John Morelock, Run Gently Out There
On February 5, 2017, the trail- and ultrarunning community lost one of its beloved elders. John Morelock, 74, author and passionate trail runner for more than three decades, passed away from a rare form of abdominal cancer at his home on Washington State’s Whidbey Island.
A self-described “almost retired whale spotter, mirage analyst, baker, wool gatherer, maintainer of trails and nature lecturer,” Morelock discovered long-distance running in his forties. He took readily to it and all its gifts, lessons and metaphors. His first ultra was Montana’s Le Grizz 50-Miler, in 1986, followed by finishes at storied trail races like American River 50 and the Leadville Trail 100.
Over the years, he wrote prolifically about his time on the trails. After penning a column in UltraRunning magazine called “Run Gently Out There” for more than six years, Morelock published a book in 2013 by the same title. It bears the subtitle, Trials, Trails, and Tribulations of Running Ultramarathons.
The book muses and meanders in the same manner that so many good, long runs do—gently picking its way through the forests and mountains, favoring an appreciation for the journey over the destination. Morelock luxuriated in writing of the snowy shoulders of Washington’s volcanoes, of hooting owls, of gossamer spider webs laced over prairie grasses, of chance encounters and conversations with strangers on the trails.
“[His writing] reminded us all to savor our time on the trails, to not be in too much of a hurry, to appreciate the many fine details found in nature,” wrote John Medinger, the former publisher of UltraRunning, in an online remembrance published last week.
Though the book is primarily a meditation on trail and ultrarunning, it is many other things, too— a midpacker’s manifesto, a tribute to the majestic nature of his beloved Pacific Northwest and a window into the “old-school” ultrarunning scene when Morelock first stumbled upon it in the 1980s. He wrote of how, in the days before energy gels and hydration packs, he ran with a cloth bag full of boiled potatoes attached to his belt.
Last November, Morelock revealed his cancer diagnosis and bleak prognosis in a Facebook post equal parts somber and, as was forever his style, wryly humorous: “I think the running is over. Ratz. Pragmatism sets in as I think of a mountain of medical bills (unexpected) soon to start trickling in. Hmmmmm, what to do? I am not really employable; slow learner, set in my ways, no marketable skills, and I am ill … hmmm. Aha! I’ll prey on people’s sympathies to sell my book.”
In many ways, his book is also a love letter to his wife, Kathy Morelock, with whom he shared so many miles and adventures over the 31 years they spent together. He described her as a source of inspiration to him and “an absolute bedrock of faith and quiet strength.”
In the book’s final chapter, he wrote of their relationship: “We went to the trails. It was being out there that mattered.”
In the week following news of Morelock’s passing, tributes to him proliferated online. Many came from those who’d never met him in person, or only once or twice in passing, but who nevertheless felt close to him because they’d met him through his words—whether in his book, his magazine columns, on social media or online forums or through the original ULTRA listserv, an email-based ultrarunning discussion group that got its start back in 1993.
On forums, “he stood out as a man of fine discernment when it came to the taking down of puffed-up trolls but encouragement and defense of those who were new to the sport,” says Matt Hagen, a Seattle-based photographer and avid trail runner.
In the ULTRA listserv group, Morelock “was always a wealth of knowledge and a ‘mellowing agent’ when threads became heated,” says Ben Holmes, a longtime trail runner, race director and founder of the Kansas City-based Trail Nerds group. “Later, we corresponded by email and Facebook message, and three years ago he hit me up for a black Trail Nerds hat. He would send me photos of that hat resting on various picturesque trails or trail signage.”
Indeed, Morelock was very active on Facebook, connecting with trail runners all over the world and frequently sharing photos and bits of philosophical contemplation from his daily trail runs. In his book, he reflected, “The world of the Internet has given us runs that start with strangers and end with friends.”
As Seattle-based trail runner and running coach Laura Houston recalls: “A couple of years ago, I was teaching in Port Townsend, and thought how fun it’d be to go run around Fort Ebey State Park with John. He was an unofficial park ranger there (they made him official, though, I think). So I messaged him on Facebook to see if he was interested and he was. I hopped the ferry, picked him up in Coupeville and off we went. He provided a great narrative and we had a blast. He was very modest and self-effacing, quiet and humble.”
“The kindest thing he ever did to me was to comfort my lovely wife when she had to drop at mile 95 at the Rocky Raccoon 100-mile race,” remembers Hagen. “She wept with disappointment, and he just held her hand in comfort for a far longer time than would be expected from a fatigued volunteer who had spent all night ministering to the needs of runners.”
The day after Morelock died, Kathy—who’s since taken up the reins of her husband’s blog—took to his Facebook page to let his many friends and fans know what had happened. In her post, she wrote, “Of course, I am sad, but feel blessed to have spent so many years with my best friend. Go out and run today. I can think of no better tribute.”