It's a typical morning for Essie Garrett, in that she ran the five miles to her job at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School, where she has been in charge of the refrigeration department for fifteen years. As usual, she'll run back home at the end of the day, her backpack slamming against her all the way. What's different today is her outfit: cracked old work boots instead of Nikes, a long dress that a pioneer might have worn, and a faded calico head cloth.
All part of training, she explains.
"I will be running 75 miles on February 27 in honor of Black History Month," she says. "I'll start at Dearfield, which was the original black settlement, and end up at the Smith Renaissance School of the Arts auditorium--and please tell people that if they want to run with me, they can meet me at 6 a.m. at the Pizza Hut on Martin Luther King. Oh," she adds, "I will be dressed authentically. I am thinking very seriously of wearing the bloomers such as they did back then."
In or out of bloomers, most people could not run 75 miles, and when they do, it is generally a matter of ego gratification. But for Essie Garrett, a 51-year-old disciple of eastern guru Sri Chinmoy who lives voluntarily without furniture, romance or meat products, running is a way to raise pledge money for the less fortunate. In her twenty years as a Denver ultra-distance runner, she has logged more than 23,000 miles, as well as endless contributions to her limitless causes. On February 27 she hopes to amass $50,000 for the Smith school's music and theater program. If the past is any indication, she'll succeed.
At the moment, however, she's thinking the Denver Police Department could use a cash infusion.
"People don't like cops and don't give them a break, and all they see is the uniform," she muses from behind a desk that is cluttered not just with classic appliance textbooks (Rollo-Matic Washers #9016), but with How the Irish Saved Civilization and Urine Therapy: It Could Save Your Life. "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."
Others who have benefited from Essie's ultra-runs include the Sacred Heart Shelter, the Curtis Park Day Care Center, the Colorado Aids Project, elementary schools by the hundreds, and just about any homeless cause you might name. But Essie is most widely known for the 48-hour run she undertakes each year at Thanksgiving. Its numbing route goes around--and around and around--the State Capitol, a distance of perhaps a quarter-mile. Local runners sometimes join her in the pre-dawn hours, after they've digested their turkey.
"The middle of the night is my time to be alone with the oneness of the earth," Essie says, "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."
Essie's particular affinity for children dates back to her own childhood, a gothic scene set in rural east Texas. "I was mischievous and always in trouble," she recalls. "I would sit by the creek for half a day just to see if the water would decide to flow up. Before my grandma beat me, she'd always say, 'Essie, there's more.'"
There was, and it mainly consisted of running--a minimum of ten miles each day, if Essie remembers it correctly.
"And that was because we didn't have telephones, and I delivered the family messages--but also because running, I could be an eagle floating in the sky or fall flat down and look straight up and lay out there for thirty minutes and get into terrible trouble."
After leaving Texas at sixteen for a three-year stint in the Army--"It was good for me, and I was sorry to see the draft eliminated," she says--she landed in Denver, where she quickly became recognizable for her shell-encrusted dreadlocks, some of which now hang below her knees. When running boomed in the Seventies, she joined a local track club but found organized 5- and 10K races "depressing," she says. "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? You need to hire people to run the race, pay the police to close the streets, buy those T-shirts."
In search of a more meaningful running experience, Essie decided she wanted to "know who my money was going to." At the same time, one of the men in her track club let it be known that he intended to be the first black to finish a local 50-mile ultra-run.
"So I decided that I would be the first Negro to do it," Essie remembers. "After all, that's what it says on my birth certificate."
She ran the race, collected a $50 prize that she donated to the Friends of Emily Griffith--and discovered her central passion. Ultra-distance races were everything the neighborhood 5K was not, though it was the neighborhood that was first treated to the sight of Essie out on one of her endless training runs.
"Naturally, I didn't know what Gore-Tex was," she recalls, "so I ran all year through Five Points in all these sweats topped with plastic bags. In the spring, when I began to shed layers, an old man stopped me to say, 'Baby, you sure have lost weight.' The old ladies were out on that porch screaming, 'Girl, I read where your uterus will fall out if you keep that up.'"
By the time Essie discovered Gore-Tex and the kind of running shoes that can't be purchased at Target, she was running in events like the Sri Chinmoy 700-mile race in New York City, which took twelve days to run and left her "limping along with ice packed around my shins, oatmeal all over my chest, Desitin running down my leg, in a trance. And people would yell things at me, like looking good! And you know, you are in such a state of insanity at that point, you believe them?"
Essie stops laughing long enough to answer the phone.
"Refrigeration, Essie speaking...In what way doesn't the washing machine work? Mmm-hmm. You see, the pulley is out of line. That's what happens when you change the belt. Mmm-hmm. And you need to search for the truth. Okay. Bye."
The next call, barely a minute later, covers a free dryer for the homeless, ill-fitting false teeth and the meaning of life. Next comes a request that a video crew be allowed to visit Essie at work in connection with yet another award for which she's being considered.
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"But we can't do that," she says mildly. "A lot of our students are hiding from their wives. They don't pay child support or something, you know? I can't do that to them."
And now the daily stream of visitors begins--divided almost equally between those who have arcane appliance concerns and those who come to bat around a little philosophy. These people are doctors and lawyers and unemployed homeless gadabouts and fellow workers and boardmembers and runners and janitors and elected representatives. Today, two of the subjects under discussion are the situation in Northern Ireland and the Holocaust, about which Essie concludes, "I am always interested that people will understand about Adolf Hitler but they don't wanna hear about Idi Amin. Every race has its nasty people, though."
Occasionally, someone will need a phone number or a referral, which Essie usually provides on a scribbled scrap retrieved from the hopeless warren of her desk-drawer filing system. When she is finally left alone, she leans back in her chair, dreaming with her eyes shut.
"How to make it more challenging," she decides. "How to run from here to Wyoming backwards, say. People ask me, 'What if you couldn't run anymore?' I simply say, 'I will get me a wheelchair.' Because there is something about this mind/body in motion that works for me. It is amazing, when you think about it," she says. "It's amazing, if you keep going forward, the journeys you can make.