I heard the sad news today that long-time friend Dick Laine passed away yesterday.
Dick was a guy I found inspirational both personally and professionally.
On the personal level, he took up running at the age of 50 when he found he couldn’t fit into his Army Reserve uniform (if my memory is correct he was a Colonel in the Signal Corps), and went on to become a most amazing runner. Even though he was more than 20 years my senior, he was significantly faster than I was. Not only that, he ran crazy distances. Not content with marathons, he ran ultra-marathons, often coming in first in his age group. The ultra-marathons he ran are unreal. The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run – 100 miles of running on the trails around the Sierra Nevada, with 18,000 feet of climbing. Dick ran it several times; in 1991, at the age of 61, he completed it in under 24 hours, winning a coveted silver belt buckle. The Leadville Trail 100, like the Western States, 100 miles of running in mountains, except this time in the Rockies with the lowest elevation 9,200′. The Rim to Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon, 42 miles across the Grand Canyon and back.
And then there’s the run he was running in the above picture from 1999 (he’s the third runner in the picture), the Quad Dipsea. 9,000 feet of vertical in 28 miles. The Dipsea (single Dipsea, 7 miles) is one of my favorite runs in the whole world. Starting in Mill Valley, California, it starts at sea level and gets your heart started by going up 642 steps, climbing to an altitude of 700′ before descending to sea level again in Muir Woods, and then climbing to 1300′ going over the side of Mt Tamalpais before descending to sea level once again at the finish in Stinson Beach. I’ve run the single Dipsea many times; my best time was something like 80 minutes. It’s a continuous hill, you’re either ascending or descending. At the end of one iteration of the hill – even when I was in my 30s or 40s – I was ready to stop and have breakfast. The Quad does the same thing, four times. Just unreal. I’ve now worked my way up to half-marathons, but I have my doubts I’ll ever do a full marathon, let alone those ultras.
On a professional level I learned an interesting lesson from Dick about the value of individual contributors.
Dick was a microwave radio transmission engineer – one of the best in the world. He gave seminars all over the world on how to properly design a microwave radio path. That was where I first got to know him – we were both working for GTE Lenkurt, I met him when I was working as a project planner for microwave radio products starting in 1982. We had the same boss.
As companies usually do, when Lenkurt recognized Dick’s skills they promoted him to be a manager. The only problem was he hated the job. He didn’t like dealing with personnel issues, bureaucracy, etc. He loved engineering. The usual corporate mentality of promoting a talented person like Dick actually hurts the company in two ways – you lose a talented engineer and end up with a mediocre manager. Dick told the company he didn’t want to be a manager, he wanted to go back to being an engineer. But he wanted the same manager salary, and if the company didn’t like it, he’d quit. The company had the wisdom to recognize that his contributions were worth just as much as a manager, and they let him do it – leading him to be the highest paid individual contributor, not just in that company, but in another company he worked at as well. I really learned from hearing that story how one should not confuse the value of an employee with the number of people he or she supervises.
And besides being an inspiration personally and professionally, Dick was just a great guy. He was fun to be around. I’ve recently seen on Facebook people posting a picture saying “Be an encourager, not a critic. We have enough critics.” Dick was an encourager.
Dick died doing what he loved – running. At the age of 83 he was still at it – out on a trail run, when he took a very bad fall and did a “face plant,” suffering severe head injuries. Doctors were trying to relieve pressure on his brain from swelling, but they weren’t able to save him; after a few days in the hospital he passed away.
They said if he had survived, he would have been an invalid and likely would have had cognitive damage as well – both of which Dick would really really have hated, so maybe it was good for his soul that he was able to take his leave of us without having to suffer through the infirmities of old age.
Dick and I would occasionally run together – I’d joke that he was “slumming” running with someone much slower than he was, but he was always gracious about going at my pace.
I’ll miss him. One of the things that really sucks about getting older is the list of friends who have passed on gets longer every year.