Weeks ago I was convulsing with laughter inside a tent in Vail, Colo. It was the night before the final Gore-Tex Transrockies Run stage and Michael Smith was instigating shenanigans. In the morning, he and teammate Rob Krar would win the grueling 120-mile competition through the Rocky Mountains -- the next closest team an hour and 32 minutes behind. But that evening? Less serious business was at hand.
Throughout the week, Smith may have discovered he forgot something important, like enough socks or toothpaste. But the man remembered to pack his remote-controlled fart machine, which he stealthily hid in Krar's tent. Later as we were supposed to be drifting off to sleep, all-too-realistic sounds of severe flatulence echoed across the campground, followed by a chorus of giggles reverberating from anybody in earshot.
Lesson one: It doesn't matter how old you are or how serious the competition, fart machines are always funny.
Laughter is one of hundreds of gifts Smith, founder and director of Team Run Flagstaff, has given us over the past six years as a coach talented beyond his years, a phenomenal runner, a thoughtful neighbor and a best friend. And it is one of hundreds of reasons our community will miss him mightily as his career now takes him to Washington, D.C., to become the head women's cross country coach and assistant women's track and field coach at Georgetown University.
To say Flagstaff owes Smith a debt of gratitude doesn't do justice. It is a struggle to find appropriate ways to reflect on how he's voluntarily created so much for so many. His spirit and genuine kindness have inspired all ages and abilities to run, which itself is a feat. But the magnitude for the broader community, when nearly 400 people participate in the simple pastime of putting one foot in front of the other, under his guidance and encouragement. Suddenly, Flagstaff improves its physical and mental health, boasts a close-knit support network and produces a population motivated to achieve goals of all kinds.
The mark of a great educator and successful coach is what happens when he's no longer around to give us the answers. Smith's departure leaves so many with deep sadness and bewilderment about how we will survive without him. After all, with an irrepressible zeal for all-things Flagstaff, he's been touted for years as this town's unofficial mayor.
But Smith's commitment is contagious. Without him we wouldn't be where we are, but because of him, we've all assumed a responsibility to sustain a thriving running community simply through our continued dedication and participation.
As Mr. Smith goes to Washington, we are sending a Flagstaff treasure, someone who has already proven he can touch a life, change a city and watch it ripple. A great coach? Yes. Unquestionably the best there is. But also an extraordinary person. In sending a child to college, you couldn't wish for anybody better to guide her success on or off the track.
We say farewell with sincere appreciation and a promise to keep showing up, moving forward, and remembering that in Flagstaff, running is not an individual sport. It took one person with conviction, patience and tremendous devotion to start a movement, and to teach us that lacing up our trainers in the morning should be about something greater than ourselves.
And that, perhaps, when the pressure's on, a little practical joke with a fart machine is just what we need.
Erin Strout is a senior editor at Running Times magazine who wants to wish her dear friend and coach, Mike Smith, great happiness and success at Georgetown. You inspire me every single day.