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Choosing to suffer: Patrick Gallagher builds ultramarathon community in Gainesville

Patrick Gallagher smiles after racing. (Alexis Ashby/WUFT News)
Patrick Gallagher smiles after racing. (Alexis Ashby/WUFT News)

Halfway through a 100-kilometer race, his left arm went limp. Then, his left leg. The nearest aid station was 3 miles away.

When Patrick Gallagher looked around, there was no one in sight. He didn’t know what was happening, so he spoke aloud to rule out a stroke. Then, he realized that stroke victims always think they sound normal.

So, he carried on. The right half of his body dragged a numb, lifeless left half in search of help.

When Gallagher’s body protests against the strain of ultramarathon races, he talks to his body parts like a “1970s parent on a long road trip.”

“Don’t you dare make me pull over,” he said to his body. “You can cry as much as you want after were done, but until then, you’re going to be quiet.”

By the time the aid station came into sight, his body was fully functioning again. He continued on and placed first to set the course record for The Swamp Trail Race in Palm Coast, Florida.

Ultramarathons were born as counterculture to the traditional 26.2-mile races during the marathon craze of the ‘70s. Fringe guys traded in the big-city, comfort-driven races to just “see how far they could go,” said Gallagher. The history of the sport hooked him. His fascination led him to test his limits through extreme, long-distance races.

But his long-standing love story with intentional suffering started almost by accident.

A few years before he unconsciously became one of those “wild fringe guys” he so often read about, he was just a 24-year-old in search of adventure. When he learned that his then wife had never heard of Paraguay, he knew that’s where they needed to go.

He got a job in Paraguay at The American School of Asuncion where he met Rich Dierkes, his colleague.

Dierkes informed Gallagher that he had moved into the house of his old running partner, making Gallagher the de facto guy to accompany him on old stretches of Paraguayan roads.

“Rich was like the after-school drug dealer,” Gallagher said. “He was like, ‘the first run is only 3 miles. But after this, we’re gonna do 5. Oh, you like 5? Let’s try 16.’”

Before he knew it, Gallagher was spending his Saturdays running 40 miles through small towns in Paraguay. He and Dierkes would cover the distances while talking about work, their marriages and anything life threw their way.

Gallagher learned about the country by running it. As a kid, he was fascinated by motorcycles because they strip away barriers to the outside world and allow one to truly feel their environment. Running was just like that.

He and Dierkes would often get lost on Paraguayan backroads. Dierkes spoke fluent Spanish, and Gallagher would have to rely on him to communicate with locals to find their way back home. Running was an adventure, and he loved it.

Three years later, Dierkes left Paraguay. Gallagher was now a father of two with a crumbling marriage and no running partner. After complications with both of his children’s births, running took on a different meaning for him.

He felt as though he was losing control of many aspects of his life, but the one thing he could always control was running.

“It’s a privilege to be able to choose your suffering,” Gallagher said.

Running strengthened his resilience. If he could run 50 or 100 miles, he knew he could deal with anything in life.

Gallagher talks of the comfort-driven culture in America with a distaste. People search for a quick fix, a pill or a guru to find their way out of life’s tribulations, but the only way to do that is to embrace the struggle, Gallagher said.

In ultramarathons, the externalities are stripped away. It doesn’t matter how nice your gear is or what car you drive. Each race tears people up exactly the same.

“It becomes about who can suffer better,” Gallagher added.

Gallagher refers to himself as an “armchair philosopher.” His sentences are often filled with quotes from classic books and movies, metaphors and allusions to philosophical teachings. Although he acknowledges that many have been disproved, he still likes to use Freudian terms to describe aspects of himself during a race.

Some race days, he feels great. His feet are light, his head clear and he has no other thoughts than “I am going to run that guy down.”

But in one race, he was feeling terrible. He ran around a bend to see a green, almost glowing patch of grass. As he grew closer, he was tempted to sit down. He knew that if he stopped, no one would care. No one would be angry at him for not being able to finish. In that moment, he realized that if he had the choice to stop, he also had the choice to keep going. His ego was at war, but he continued.

Other times, the superego kicks in. This, he said, is where the beauty of ultramarathons lies. While ultras have a competitive nature, most are more about camaraderie than anything else.

Running extreme distances has been a deflation of ego for Gallagher for this exact reason. The community aspect allowed him to see the beauty of selflessness.

While marathons are designed to be as comfortable as possible for the participants, ultras are not. Aid stations are scarce, and runners often have to rely on each other when in trouble. He and others have sacrificed their own time to help struggling runners make it through. In these moments, their superegos prevail.

A few years ago, he founded the San Felasco Fiasco, a 50-mile ultramarathon in Gainesville. He has hugged every finisher since because he is a firm believer that running is about community.

At 47, Gallagher is now an advanced placement English teacher at Buchholz High School. He often thinks of his own life like the stories of those he reads in class. However, his narrative is never about an ending. It’s about the process.

In true “armchair philosopher” style, r quoted “The Great Gatsby” when asked what message he wanted to share with the world.

“Much like when Gatsby finally has Daisy in his house and his count of enchanted objects decreases by one, what do you do once you reach that goal? We get so wrapped up in results and goals that we lose sight of the real meaning: the process,” Gallagher said.

The writing and running process parallel one another in that success in both is subjective. A good essay can look completely different for one person than for another, just like a good race. He has learned to release attachment to external success and instead focus on putting forth his best efforts. When he fails to finish a race, he talks to himself like he would to a student or friend. Sometimes, it’s just not his day. That doesn’t stop him from trying again.

Just like he teaches his students, the importance lies in loving the process – of improving, of learning and of seeing what you can accomplish.

To Gallagher, life is an experiment. One during which he tests the question: “What makes for the best story?” Not according to external ideals, but to himself.

Alexis is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.