Fifteen winters ago, I had just moved to Asheville, and every runner was talking about the Mount Mitchell Challenge—a 40-mile trail race to the highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Knee-deep snow, ice-covered trails, frigid creek crossings, and 50-mile-per-hour winds at the summit were a few of the highlights. But the race, limited to 300 runners, had already filled.
So I emailed the race director, Jim Curwen (father of uber-athlete Jay Curwen) pleading for a spot on the waiting list. He replied: “You’re in. We could use a gastroenterologist on the course. There are usually splattered signs of GI distress along the trail.”
I was no doctor—just a scrappy writer new to town—but somehow I got in the race, so I didn’t ask too many questions.
After Mitchell, I began training for the Shut-In Trail Race that fall. I had never logged so many miles and never felt more prepared to race. But when I showed up on race morning to pick up my number, it wasn’t there.
I was crushed. Months of training suddenly seemed wasted. Then, out of nowhere, another runner with my race number walked up and introduced himself: “Hi, Will Harlan. I’m the other Will Harlan.”
How did a small mountain town like Asheville have two runners named Will Harlan?
The other Will Harlan, it turned out, was a GI doc who was ten years older than me and far better looking.
Shut In was the first of many races where our race numbers would get mixed up. Over the years, other things have gotten crossed, too: I have received thank you letters from his patients, and he has received my unpaid bills.
The other Will Harlan ended up saving my life. A few years ago, I collapsed on the emergency room floor in severe GI distress. None of the ER docs could figure out what was happening, but Dr. Will and his team spotted the problem in the blurry x-ray: my colon had twisted shut. I was rushed into surgery where a third of my colon was removed. When I came out of surgery, the first face I saw was Dr. Will’s.
Over the next few months, he got me back on my feet and onto the trail. He even joined me on one of my first long training runs post-surgery. Side by side, doctor and patient, mentor and student, the Will Harlans glided through the forest. It was one of the most beautiful and meaningful trail runs of my life.
My name appears in print a lot, but the other Will Harlan deserves more of the ink. Thanks, Dr. Will, for making me seem way smarter and more successful than I actually am—and for paying that overdue Blockbuster bill back in 2008.