Today as I read the Denver Post, I learned that Essie Garrett, an ultrarunning activist who raised more than $1 million for charities over the course of her running career, has passed away at age 74. Essie wasn't a speedster; she didn't run to win races. Rather, she used running to draw attention to the causes nearest her heart, and as a way to find inner peace.
When she moved to Denver in the 1970s, Garrett joined a running group, but found organized 5- and 10K races "depressing."
In a 1998 interview with Robin Chotzinoff of the Denver Westword, Garrett explained, "I didn't want to be running for some T-shirt. I thought it was about raising money for someone in need--but mathematically, how could it add up to anything? You need to hire people to run the race, pay the police to close the streets, buy those T-shirts." Garrett did her share of races in her time, but in order to make a real difference in people's lives, she became much better known for staging her own running adventures.
In 1998, for example, she ran 75 miles in honor of Black History Month, starting from Dearfield, Colorado (an eastern-Colorado African American farming settlement) to the campus of Emily Griffith Opportunity School, where she taught for more than 20 years. She also completed an endurance challenge to support the Denver Police Department, saying, "People don't like cops and don't give them a break, and all they see is the uniform. But let me tell you something. If someone is trying to break into my house, I'm not gonna call no religious person or no doctor. I'm gonna call 911 and wait for that police officer. They do put their lives on the line."
Garrett also ran to raise funds for Denver's Sacred Heart Shelter, the Curtis Park Day Care Center, the Colorado AIDS Project, and many elementary schools. The main focus of her philanthropic efforts, though, were organizations that helped the homeless. Every year at Thanksgiving, Garrett undertook a 48-hour run around the State Capitol: a short, quarter-mile loop that most runners would find so mind-numbing that they'd have trouble doing it for one hour, let alone 48. But other runners often came out to join Garrett for a few loops, and children in the neighborhood would sometimes jog a lap with her.
"The middle of the night is my time to be alone with the oneness of the earth," Garrett said, "so when they come out all fresh and clean to run with me and try to push the pace a little, I tell them, don't let me hold you back. On the other hand, if little kids come by, I will do whatever they want. I will push a baby buggy, walk, stop and visit, sprint."
Summing up her running life, Garrett once said, "There is something about this mind/body in motion that works for me. It is amazing, when you think about it. It's amazing, if you keep going forward, the journeys you can make."
I could not agree more. As we remember Essie Garrett, we should strive to make our running mean something, and make a difference in the world.
I've reprinted the Denver Post tribute to Ms. Garrett below. May she rest in peace. See you on the trail!
By Claire Martin
Essie Garrett, whose knee-length dreadlocks and sunny perseverance made her one of Colorado's most recognizable ultradistance runners and extraordinary fundraisers, died Tuesday. She was 74.
Garrett grew up in Riesel, Texas, joined the Army when she was 16, and served for three years before moving to Denver. About that time, she became a follower of Sri Chinmoy, the Indian spiritual master who believed enlightenment could be achieved through disciplined athletics, including long-distance running and swimming.
A solidly built woman with an inquisitive gaze and a deliberate way of speaking, Garrett taught refrigeration mechanics at Emily Griffith Opportunity School for more than two decades.
Most of her students were male. They were initially surprised to find that their instructor was a female, and even more surprised at her self-assured competence with electronics.
She often ran from her longtime home in north Park Hill to the school's downtown campus, her dreads bound in a ponytail that bounced heavily on her back.
"She was always coming up with different ideas for fundraising," said Chris Millius, who worked with Garrett at the school. "She led a walking group at lunchtime. What I remember most about her was that I'd be driving to work, and I'd see Essie running through Five Points or City Park."
Nearly always, she was in training for a goal. First, it was the Leadville Trail 100, the punishing 100-mile race that initially defeated her when she was caught in a thunderstorm on one of the passes.
As Garrett grew stronger, she began running for causes, including multiple-sclerosis research that she hoped would help Gail Porch, a close friend diagnosed with the disease, the Denver Rescue Mission, Cops & Kids, Emily Griffith Foundation, Children's Hospital Colorado, the Colorado Aids Project and others.
In 1991, she began a Thanksgiving tradition of raising money for the homeless by running laps around the Colorado Capitol building for 48 hours, pausing occasionally to refuel at the temporary soup kitchen she set up for her supporters. Garrett knew about true hunger.
"Don't you ever say you're starving," she admonished friends who casually used that phrase as they were sitting down to eat. "An appetite is not the same thing as starving."
From 1981 to 2012, she ran more than 25,000 miles, raising more than $1 million for charity. In 1993, she was inducted into the Sportswomen of Colorado's Hall of Fame.
After retiring in 2010, she moved into an apartment building designed for aging Denver Public Schools employees and retirees. She soon joined residents in campaigning to improve conditions in the antiquated building.
Garrett was discovered in her apartment March 26 after a friend, concerned when Garrett failed to return her calls, contacted her building's management. Friends said she was emaciated and unconscious, wearing only a T-shirt, when emergency medical technicians wheeled her from the building.
News of her death shocked people in the nonprofit and distance-running communities. Garrett never married and has no known survivors. Memorial services are pending.