Running with Henry

Last month I came home from a morning run to the shocking news that Henry, the 18-year-old son of my college friend Nathan and his wife, Sarah, had died the morning before in a car accident. Henry was a freshman at Bowdoin College—where his dad and I had met decades ago—and he passed away just a few days before he was to fly back to Maine for his second semester.

Nathan and Sarah are both second cousins in the sprawling family that is my running club. CrossFit-loving Nathan wrote a post for our newsletter last spring on the proper way to do a burpee, and Sarah—a collegiate rower at Wesleyan who found her way back to the sport as a grownup–wrote for us last summer about the joys and pains of ERGing.

His mom’s lifelong passion for rowing was an inspiration to Henry, and in high school rowing became his sport, too. He threw himself into it and excelled—energized in part by his trademark headbands that he bestowed on all his college rowing teammates as a gift of “free speed,” but also powered by simple guts and daily dedication. He was a rowing champion in many ways—including an amazing effort in December, where he chose to row an entire marathon by himself in three hours during a competition where everyone else was rowing it as a relay (as captured in this video tribute).

I went for a bitter-cold run early on the morning of the memorial service for Henry at the college three weekends ago. I was in Boston and my impromptu route took me over the river where Henry had rowed in the famed Head of the Charles regatta months earlier. A friend and I then drove two hours north to Bowdoin for the service later that morning.

Listening in the audience you might say that it was the tear-filled speeches by the three young people with whom Henry shared a four-person boat last season that were somehow the most wrenching—except that every single person who spoke about him, from his biology professor, his rowing coach, numerous rowing club members, his girlfriend, his father, the college president, had such moving things to say about this incredible kid.

I’d met Henry a few times when he was younger, but have only gotten to know him by reading, watching, and hearing everything that has been shared about him in the last month. Everyone has kind of expressed variations on the same thing:

His achievements and sprawling passions were matched only by his humility and kindness. His rowing mates had no idea he was a standout classical violinist; his music friends had no idea he was such a jock. His girlfriend knew he was falling in love with art history but had no idea his biology professor was praying he could recruit Henry to assist in the lab this spring. A friend whom Henry was helping arrange a surprise eighteenth birthday party for two other friends had no idea it was Henry’s own eighteenth birthday that same day. Everyone mentions his beaming, ear-to-ear smile and unbreakable spirit that lifted up everyone around him. And then they mention his smile some more.

I never had a chance to run with Henry before, but I have a little bit of him alongside me now. His no-nonsense work ethic has gotten me out the door on days I’d rather have stayed in bed. Nathan told me Henry would eat eight eggs for breakfast after a workout, and I’ve been going through cartons of eggs myself.

But mainly as I chug away from the sometimes-overwhelming craziness of my household and work and chores and worries for a half-hour to an hour most mornings, Henry reminds me of the importance of mindfully embracing “just being outside on the water,” as he liked to say when asked about what he loved most about rowing.

And as we turn around and head back home, he also inspires me to remember the reward of leaning into the balancing act that is life and of trying to find ways to do big things while not making a big deal about it.

Free speed, indeed.

Photo @bowdoinrowing