Since the 1930s, when the “Man of Steel” first appeared in comic books, Americans, young and old, have maintained a strong predilection for superheroes – those larger than life superhuman beings who are faster, stronger, and longer on compassion than any of us mere mortals. Perhaps a universal longing for a sense of protection and justice is behind the spawning of the ensuing legion of caped and masked crusaders that continue to thrive in our imaginations. And although we know it all to be fiction, we continuously look to Hollywood and Marvel to keep our hero stories alive, as evidenced by the consistent number of “super” movies released each year. While each possesses a unique power, those box office superheroes definitely have a “type”: they are male, brawny, and white (although sometimes green). They don’t appear as an African American female vegan with dread locks down to her knees. But Essie Garrett, who fit this description, was a superhero – one who lived right in our midst – the first African American ultra-runner who logged over 25,000 miles, making each step count by raising more than $1,000,000 for countless causes along the way. And when she died at the age of 74 on April 1, 2014, she left the most selfless gift of all.
At the time of Essie’s death, she had no living family. She never married and had no children. Although she touched the lives of thousands of individuals, the closest people to her throughout her life were two friends: Gail Porch, who died in 2010, and Marilyn Easter, who resides in California. The three “adopted” each other 35 years ago, according to Marilyn, and they stayed very close over all of those years. Gail was a roommate to Essie, and lived with her in her Park Hill home. She had battled an aggressive form of Multiple Sclerosis for years, a cause for which Essie championed both personally as a caregiver for her friend, and as an ultra-runner and fundraiser. Marilyn and Essie spoke daily after Gail’s passing, often for hours, and were collaborating on a book before Essie’s death last month. It will detail many never-before-shared facts and stories of Essie life, including the tolls of being an ultra-runner. Many of the details shared here are derived from Marilyn’s conversations with her friend, as well as others who knew, loved, and admired Essie.
Essie’s Early Years
Riesel is a small farming town in East Texas. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone. This is where Essie was born and lived along with her parents, younger sister, and grandmother.
“The town was so small that everyone shared one mail box,” states Marilyn Easter sharing Essie’s accounts. “Each day, once Essie heard that the mailman had come by, she would run a half mile so she could be the first to get the mail.” She soon became the messenger running up to 10 miles a day delivering mail and communications throughout the town (this was before everyone had telephones). Essie didn’t mind. She loved to run, and would often fall on the ground afterwards, lie on her back, and look up at the clouds or the stars at night for hours on end. “She was a dreamer,” Marilyn shares. “She wondered what it would be like to have wings and move like the wind.”
Essie’s “dream time” was a means of escape, as was her running. Her mother battled chronic illness and fatigue until she succumbed at a very young age. Essie shared that at the funeral, just after her mother’s casket went into the ground; her father dropped her hand and walked away from the cemetery, never to return. This left 16-year-old Essie with the responsibility of caring for her younger sister, a task she did her best to uphold even with little help from extended family. Many years later, she sought and found her father, who was living in a Texas nursing home, and forgave him before he died, an act that offered her a measure of peace. Her sister died in the early 1990s leaving her with no immediate family.
Developing the Grit
It was at age 16 that Essie joined the Army. Although she was too young for recruitment, there was minimal attentiveness to checking enlists’ ages at that time. The Army proved to be a turning point in Essie’s life; she learned many new skills and got the opportunity to run long and hard.
After serving for three years she moved to Denver, where she studied and obtained degrees from Metro State College, Park School of Business, and Signal School of Broadcasting (she also received several honorary doctorates).
Professionally, Essie helped to run a co-op restaurant for many years. She also taught heating and refrigeration at Emily Griffith Opportunity School, where she worked until taking medical leave in 2012. But Essie’s passions were running and helping those in need, and she found entre’ into networks for each in the 1970s when she joined a track club and began participating in the 5- and 10-K races they organized. She soon found those races to be “depressing.” “I didn’t want to be running for some T-shirt,” she shared. Essie wanted more of the money raised from the runs to go to people. “You need to hire people to organize the race, pay the police to close the street, and buy those T-shirts.” It didn’t add up for her. She came to learn about ultra-running from an African American man in her track club, and something clicked. She decided she would become the first “negro” woman to become one.
Carrying the Banner for Countless Causes Along the Way
Vern Howard, long-time coordinator of Denver’s Martin Luther King Marade says he met Essie while working at Denver City Park. The two fostered a friendship as they worked together on a youth conference and subsequently on a run to support the Black African West Museum.
“Essie was always running in the parks and had all kinds of funding going on,” he recalls affectionately. “‘We’d be talking and she’d say ‘see you later Vern, I gotta run,’ and a few days later I’d hear she was in Wyoming or somewhere running for some cause. She meant it literally.”
In 2005, the MLK Commission started the MLK Unity Torch Run and tapped Essie to lead it. She had received a torch from the US Olympic Committee for her humanitarianism, which spurred the idea. “We told her what we wanted to do and she got a bunch of young people together. They ran with her from community to community to bring unity ─ they ran through each and every county,” Vern says. “Ironically while they would run, some of our commissioners and volunteers would drive to the final location. But Essie was content to take a back seat; she never wanted the limelight or the media attention.”
Vern says that Essie was a true humanitarian. She could also be very asserting. “When she set her mind to something, she was committed. She didn’t want you to think she was asking you something when you had no choice.”
He recalls a time when the two were approached in City Park by a young woman with three children. When the lady shared with Vern that she was homeless, he told her there was nothing the MLK Commission could do at the time. Essie interjected: “Vern, we are going to help this woman and we are going to help her today.” Essie had Vern fill up the woman’s gas tank, and then she put the woman and her three children up in her house for three months. The arrangement would eventually go sour, but Essie shared that her belief was “regardless of how it turns out, you can never go wrong helping another human being.”
Judy Alexander worked with Essie Garrett at Emily Griffith from 2000 to 2012 and also recalls her unwavering willpower. “I remember you never had to guess where you stood with her. She never bit her tongue about what she thought you were doing, whether right or wrong. Whatever she did, she did with commitment.” And Essie was committed to fundraising for Emily Griffith Foundation and found many ways to support the organization. In one instance, Essie planned to run 1,000 miles to Chicago − a feat that was going to take the course of the summer. If that was not a challenge enough, the trail was a historic one through back roads and woods, and Essie would be wearing pioneering type gear – a long dress and boots. Along the route, Essie fell in a ditch and broke her knee, Judy says. Sympathetic to this fact, all who made financial pledges agreed to honor their full commitment, even though she only reached the halfway mark. Essie said no. She wanted to finish the race. She had to go to a small town to get examined, where the doctor’s office didn’t even have an X-ray, but Essie finished the balance of the race – more than half the distance – on crutches. She also raised thousands of dollars for the foundation in the process.
“There was an article in the school paper about her incredible run,” Judy says. “I cut it out and posted it on the wall it in my office to share with the kids. When I went in my office, Essie had taken down. ‘Why did you put that up,’ she asked me; ‘it’s not about me, it was about those kids.’”
Essie was also well known for her Thanksgiving Run. Each year starting in 1991, she would literally run around the State Capitol Building for 48 hours to raise money for the homeless. Others would join her in running, but none went the distance as Essie did.
On Thanksgiving morning she would also hand out sandwiches to the homeless from a soup cart by the school. “They need something for the morning,” she’d share. “Everyone feeds them for dinner.” Essie would give out gloves as well.
Her dedication to homeless individuals led her to run for Sacred Heart Shelter and Denver Rescue Mission among many other providers. Among the dozens, if not hundreds, of other organizations for which she raised funds there was Curtis Park Day Care, Colorado AIDS Project, and Maxfund Animal Adoption Center, from which Essie adopted her beloved dog, Peaches.
Essie amassed a room full of trophies, medals, and awards for her efforts and was named Most Inspirational Athlete by Sports Women of Colorado.
The Last Leg of Essie’s Journey
Essie was diagnosed with kidney failure three years ago. “The years of ultra-running took a toll,” Marilyn learned from Essie. “There was dehydration, the effects of consuming thousands of energy drinks, and harsh wear and tear on her body.” She made the move from her Park Hill home, along with Peaches, into an apartment building for former Denver Public School teachers in 2010. An activist to the end, Marilyn says that Essie shared with her of the efforts to help fellow residents address the concerns about various issues within the apartment complex, many of which were structural.
Essie did not put a lot of stock into Western medicine. She was a devout disciple of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-born spiritual leader who used strenuous exercise and art to spread his philosophy of world harmony and inner peace, and who believed “prayer and meditation are medicines to cure us.” She did, however, consider dialysis, but a visit to the treatment center left her resolved; she decided against it and chose what she felt was quality over duration of life.
Those who knew Essie well say she began spending a lot more time to herself during her final years, perhaps not wanting others to see her in her decline.
“We made a pact to call each other daily,” states Marilyn Easter, who became worried when she didn’t hear from Essie after trying to reach her for three days. She called to have the management check in on Essie, and waited on the phone while the building manager knocked on Essie’s door on two different occasions. Both times Essie responded that she was “alright.” The decision was made to wait 24 hours before entering the apartment. A day later the 74 year old was found unconscious and dehydrated on her apartment floor. An ambulance was called and Essie was taken from her apartment in a wheelchair, wearing only a t-shirt with the bottom half of her body exposed. She was rolled out in front of residents, many of whom shared that they were shocked to see the state Essie was in.
Although she had the paperwork on file proving her to be Essie’s power of attorney, Marilyn found that she was not able to affect Essie’s outcome in the end. After having arrived to Denver, she attempted to share her concerns, and those of Essie, with the building managers and says she was treated as a trespasser. She left and went to the hospital where she spent the last of her friend’s days by her side.
Essie’s friend Bob adopted her beloved canine companion, Peaches, and he, along with his family, are providing a loving new home for her.
Generosity Even in Death
During her life, Essie Garret was a tireless advocate ─ a superhero ─ for the disenfranchised.
In death, Essie’s humanitarianism continues, as she arranged donation of her body to the Anatomical Institute. There she will be studied by doctors and dentists for the next two years aiding in the discovery of causes and cures of disease.
It is in death, also, that Essie’s spirit is undoubtedly now twinkling brightly amongst the stars that she, as a girl, would so often lie in the darkness and gaze upon.
Editor’s Note: Friends of Essie state that she did not want a big production of a funeral. But a walk in the park, or better yet a run, to benefit a good cause would be fitting. Details are in the works.