Like Father, Like Son

Words by Imogen Lees and Bob Becker
Photography by Alexis Berg

“The experience was so emotional. I tend to be emotional anyway but this was way beyond that.”

Most runners feel heightened emotions during a race, especially when we’re physically trying so hard to achieve our best. But when that physical and mental connection is intensified by family history, the power of emotion can add new layers of meaning to a running event.

US ultra-running legend Bob Becker was invited to race the inaugural Mt Gaoligong Ultra by its co-director, Badwater showrunner Chris Kostman, when he announced the event in July 2016. Becker was of course attracted by the idea of a new race, but for the ultra veteran, there was a more personal draw to that corner of China: his father, Mickey, had been part of the Flying Tigers aerial squad whose missions to disrupt Japanese supply lines played a key part in liberating Yunnan Province and changing the course of the Second World War in that region.

“[Kostman] had someone from China come over and show a video overview and he talked about it and I had no expectation,” Becker recalls. “But when I realised where it was – that southwest quadrant – I knew that was where he flew and I got pretty excited.”

Like the Wind caught up with the 72-year-old on a video call from his Florida home for a chat about his unique Mt Gaoligong experience, a visit in which he felt such a profound connection to the people and the surroundings that, as he writes on his blog, “Bob Runs Ultras”: “It was as if I had been there before.”

“The reception I got was in some respects not like the other Americans,” he told us. “There was still reverence for us as the liberators of the province. I felt a connection with my father for sure.” Becker felt admiration from the locals, partly because culturally the Chinese appear to respect their elders more than people in the West but also because stories of the Flying Tigers’ bombing raids had been passed down through generations. Bob’s wife also accompanied him, which gave him a further boost.

Mount Gaoligong is a nature reserve, and one of the goals of the first Mt Gaoligong Ultra was to draw attention to the area, relatively undeveloped and a potential tourist attraction. The support of the community and the local Communist party meant that 500-600 volunteers manned the route, curious to see runners (and non-Chinese) out on the course.

Across tough terrain through the remote, semi-tropical landscape – “beautiful, but a tremendous challenge” – Becker met families from the small farms and villages, some staying up all night just to see and touch the runners. Each of the 14 checkpoints was packed with spectators and helpers, eager to be part of the event. “They wouldn’t even let you fill your own water bottle,” remembers Becker. “They made you sit down and it was all very warm and wonderful, supportive. Although spending 15-20 minutes in an aid station is not typical for a race,” he laughs. Becker decided to run the “shorter” 124km route so that he could join the community and soak up the atmosphere at each checkpoint, rather than rush through.

At checkpoint 14, Becker met “a kid. I never saw him before. He was one of hundreds volunteering. He was in his early twenties and spoke English, which was unusual. He said: ‘Can I run with you?’ I said: ‘Let’s go – let’s get out of here,’ because we were thronged by people.”

The young man had something to say to Becker. The pair ran across a road, up a steep hill and into a grove of trees. The Chinese man told Becker that Becker’s father had fought to help to liberate the area, and now Becker’s efforts in the ultra would help to save the mountain from development. As Becker writes in his blog: “He stood very straight and said: ‘I salute you.’ With those words and that salute, the tears just flowed.”

“It blew me away,” Becker tells us, with a tear in his eye. “I started up this long hill and it was really hard to regain my composure.”

Further emotion was to come at the finish, where each runner’s name was called by a “larger than life” announcer, they were given a flag of their nation and a “beautiful medal, with a bell like a goat bell”. “It was amazing,” Becker recalls. “It played into the emotion of the finish line.”

All runners were interviewed for a professional video, premiered at an awards ceremony the day after the race. Becker found that his paternal connection to the area meant that his comments featured prominently. “It was another element of the emotional extremes of the whole experience… the emotional icing on the cake,” he says.

Bob’s father Mickey Becker and his crew flew 38 missions, bombing railway lines, supply yards and bridges, in their Mitchell B-25 Bomber – “a tin can”, as Becker calls it. “How any of those guys came back alive is beyond me.” Although he considers it disingenuous to draw a parallel between his physical efforts in running an ultra and his father’s aerial crusades, he definitely felt a link to his father through the terrain, the connection of earth and sky.

He feels his father’s endeavours were part of the “hidden” story of the Second World War – “nothing dramatic enough to capture in a Steven Spielberg flick” yet vital to the success of the Allied operation. While his father was recognised in local US newspaper clippings, he recalls that the fighters of his dad’s generation “just didn’t talk about it”. Becker admits he “never really had the curiosity to push him and ask him about it… but maybe I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it.”

Becker says he’s told many people that running the Mount Gaoligong Ultra was “such a phenomenal experience” and has encouraged ultra-runners to sign up for the second edition in March 2018. But even though the amazing welcome of the locals will undoubtedly ensure a memorable race for future runners, perhaps none will have the same experience as Bob Becker.

“Before the race, all I could imagine was looking in the sky and envisioning my father’s plane up there,” he says. “I did a lot of imagining when I got there. ‘Hey, dad! Look down and check me out!’”

Bob Becker is a full-time ultra-marathon race director and runner, still competing in races of 100 miles or more at age 72.

Imogen Lees is co-editor of Like the Wind

Alexis Berg is a photographer and director

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