There are plenty of places to find inspiration these days – from professional athletes to quotes-of-the-day to books about heroic endeavors from the past. But how many of us are lucky enough to know, and call a friend, someone who is every bit as inspiring as those distant and unapproachable figures?
Steve Heithoff is largely behind where I am today. He’s the reason I took up running, after several abortive attempts at starting a program previously. He encouraged me to sign up for my first 10k (Monument Avenue, which I’ll be running for the sixth time in April), and then to attempt a marathon.
Steve, a coworker, ran his first marathon in the fall of 2005 with another coworker, and as a cubicle-mate of Steve I was part of many conversations about distance running. I could hardly avoid the bug, and the next year Steve and I both signed up for the Richmond Marathon training team. We enjoyed the kind of bond that can only be imagined by distance runners who have shared mile after grueling mile of conversation and camaraderie with a fellow athlete.
Steve injured his heel late in the training season and couldn’t run the race. But he still came out to the course on race day to cheer me on, and was with my wife near the finish when she got the call that I had collapsed just past Mile 24. Steve visited me in the hospital afterward, when I was quarantined in the cardiac ICU, and then was eager to come to my house when I was released four days later to take me to lunch.
Steve’s heel didn’t get better, but he wholeheartedly supported and encouraged me as I trained for my second marathon the following year. He was one of the few people to whom I could talk about running, because he had been there and always understood where I was coming from, whether celebrating success or commiserating in defeat. When the 2007 marathon came, he was all over the course to offer my favorite beverages and positive motivation as I slogged through the miles (I finished this time). Shortly afterward he had surgery on his heel with an eye toward fixing the problem for good and returning to his passion.
It was while he was recovering from that surgery that he went in for a colonoscopy, which wasn’t even routine because, at age 46, he was 4 years younger than the age at which most men are recommended to be screened. He was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. I’ll never forget when he told me, because he had the same attitude at that moment that summed up his life to that point and that he would maintain afterward – a steely determination and an unflappable resolve.
Steve was absolutely inspiring because of the way he fought his disease, but to me he was inspiring long before that fateful diagnosis. I admired his athleticism, from running to weight training to swimming – all passions that we shared. As a father, I admired the way he treated and interacted with his two children, and the interest he always showed in mine. As a coworker in a stressful, deadline-oriented job, I looked up to the professional way he handled his work and the people he worked with. Steady Steve, he was sometimes called. He was the guy you wanted in your corner and, as a faithful friend, I always found him there.
Steve lost his battle yesterday afternoon. His decline was steady over the past three years, but precipitous in the last month. The Steve I saw last Thursday, his 50th birthday, was a mere shadow of his former self. He knew what was coming and accepted his fate – and not once in three years did I hear him seek sympathy or express bitterness about his situation. Even through the worst he remained positive and upbeat.
Recently a friend asked him what he would do first once he reached the afterlife. His response: drink a Diet Coke and go for a run. “I miss it so much,” he said. Steve lost his ability to run as his body began to fail him, but I carry his spirit with me every mile.