Thursday, May 21, 2009

Hell’s Angel

Jared Mestre shouts over the chatter and laughter of a sportswear-clad crowd, “Group one – time to go!” signaling the fastest runners to line up for the first of twelve 400-meter sprints. He resets his stopwatch and clears his throat. At his cue, the athletes bolt. Mestre’s eyes follow the pack as they round the first bend and gazelle down the strait. He takes everything in - registering individuals’ speed and form, who looks strong, and who looks out-of-sorts. When the leader reaches the midway point, he beckons the second set to the inner lane. He is quietly thrilled at tonight’s sizable turnout, which necessitated splitting the crew into three–divided roughly by ability– rather than the usual two.

Jared is the president and coach of Hellgate Road Runners, an Astoria, Queens-based running club. He is a fixture at every workout and race, watching from sidelines, camera around neck and stopwatch in hand. He is easily recognizable from a distance, walking with a sturdy camel gait and towing a ubiquitous cooler of water bottles. He is built like a tank, thick and broad like the football player he once was. He keeps his gray-streaked, Elvis-styled hair hidden under a signature blue and white Hellgate cap. His wide face and powerful physique belie a teddy bear warmth and approachability.

Jared and his team train in the shadow of what is now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge. Moses’ immense steel structure interrupts an otherwise postcard setting for the club meets. The track is part of North West Queens’ solitary green oasis, Astoria Park, with the dark East River and twinkling lights of Yorkville and East Harlem visible to the west. Hellgate gathers here every Wednesday for speed practice, as well as Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays for hill work, tempo and longer runs.

During winter months, Hellgaters are often alone, but it is an unseasonably mild April evening, and the track and its central grass oval are teeming. A five-aside soccer team play unpredictably, overweight walkers clog the periphery, kamikaze teens career around on bikes and scooters, and toddlers frogger across lanes, oblivious. In warmer months, Hellgate is accustomed to sharing the area, but they commandeer the inner track, slicing like a comet through debris.

Hellgate is one of 189 metropolitan-area running clubs listed in the New York Road Runners directory. Clubs vary widely in structure, philosophy and membership profile. Many of the Manhattan based clubs require a certain competitive standard, such as the Olympian-producing New York Athletic Club or Warren Street. Others are predicated on the commonality of its members, such as Front Runners for the gay and lesbian community, or Los Compadres for Mexican ex-pats.

All clubs are invaluable to the communities they serve - promoting health and fitness, supporting individuals in their athletic goals, raising money for charities, and providing a social meeting place for a diverse group of people.

Jared founded Hellgate Road Runners with his wife Luann (the club vice president) in 1995 for “average runners.” He recalls, “I wanted a club where everyone was welcome, where everyone would be treated the same.” Prior to that, both had been members of Astoria Park Running Club. Jared and some others had become disillusioned with the values of APRC, and wanted out. Its president had decided to limit membership to fast runners, excluding middle and back-of-the-packers. This elitism was enough to persuade Jared to break away. “It got to the point where APRC was heading in a different direction. It had a different philosophy from what many of us wanted. I thought to myself, I don’t want to be part of this, and other people backed me up.”

One of those people was Olga Flores, an early defector to Hellgate, “He is very fair to everybody, whether you are a 5 or a 12 minute-miler. He’ll work with you. He realizes that everybody is different, that everyone’s needs are individual, depending on schedule or goals.”

Although “it took a lot of doing,” Jared spent months building HRR from scratch. With a personal $550 jar of quarters, and $4,000 worth of donations coaxed from two local restaurant owners, the club’s first bank account was opened. Mary Bogle (a long-standing Hellgate member and spokesperson) and her husband Richard helped provide legal support in turning the club into a non-profit, tax exempt organization. Jared was determined to keep the club’s management legitimate and transparent. He describes his keen sense of duty and accountability, “My name is on the club papers, and my social security number is on the bank paperwork. I have to live up to that responsibility. I can’t let people down.”

One of the newly conceived club’s first orders of business was name selection. Initially, Luann and Jared were opposed to “Hellgate” (a corrupted version of the Dutch name Hellegat given to the narrow strait which separates Astoria from Randall’s Island, now spanned by the eponymous Hellgate Bridge). They felt that it had “devilish” connotations, or was too reminiscent of the (then recent) Californian ‘Heaven’s Gate’ suicide cult. But it won the popular vote, and ‘Hellgate’ remains one of the more unusual running club names to this day.

The club started out with just five members: Jared, Luann, Richie LaMothe, and two others who were sufficiently bold to jump ship. Jared recalls, “ln the early years it could be quite depressing. We’d go down to the track on a Wednesday, and nobody would be there. Sometimes it was Luann doing the speed workout alone.”

But word spread slowly, and the organization grew steadily in size to the 160 it is today.

When he talks one-on-one (which is most of the time, since he shies away from public speaking), Jared leans close with a smirk and lowers his voice, as if he’s sharing a funny secret. His stories usually are amusing, and almost always involve him waxing lyrical about one of the hundreds of runners known to him, within Hellgate and beyond.

Mestre is prominent and respected in the broader New York running scene. Leo Nicholas, the president of College Point Track Club in Queens and race director of the Queens Half Marathon for 25 years has known Jared for decades, “He is a wonderful organizer and friend. All you need do is call him and ask for help and he’ll be there…with a P.A. system, as a volunteer – anything. His word is golden. He is one guy I would like to have in a fox hole with me.”

Jared was born into poverty in Puerto Rico in 1953. At the age of three, his mother immigrated to the US where she had secured a factory job, leaving Jared and his siblings with their father. Later, his father joined her, and the children remained in their grandmother’s care. When he turned five, his parents were in a position to reunite with the children, so they all left to start a new life in New York. “I remember it very well, coming through the airport that first time. There were all these fluorescent lights – and I wasn’t even used to electricity. There was only one house in the village I came from that had electricity. It was a different world.”

They settled in the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn which Jared describes as “not the best.” But he loved the diversity, and learned a lot, “I saw everybody…white, black, hispanic, you name it.”

Jared adopted sports as an alternative to the more deleterious neighborhood options. He took up football and handball and played seriously for 11 years. He competed all over Brooklyn, breaking his knee and his ankle in the process.

He started running later in his teens when his brother-in-law registered him without his knowledge, for a race in Central Park. Although Jared “thought he was going to die” during that first event, he was hooked. As he was apt to do when something captured his imagination, Jared researched the sport zealously. Through books and magazines, he taught himself the latest theories, on form, training schedules, gear, hydration, nutrition and racing strategy. He marvels at how so much of the thinking of that day has changed completely now, almost 40 years later.

At his athletic peak, Mestre ran 60 miles a week, and completed four marathons. His best time was 3:17 in Yonkers, NY. Around the time Hellgate formed, catastrophe struck. On a run up Steinway in the snow, he slid across a sheet of ice over a metal plate. His right leg flailed underneath him, and ripped his groin. It took years to heal, forcing him out of the sport.

In the fourteen years since the accident, in addition to his full time job as a distributor at Sony Pictures, Jared has donated thousands of hours to the club, coordinating the four-times-weekly workouts, and acting as administrator, coach, mentor, official photographer, and race director. For years, Jared has organized Hellgate’s trademark 5K race, an annual members’ awards dinner dance, and a post-NYC marathon celebratory party. His only recompense is the friendships made, and the satisfaction gained from watching Hellgaters improve. “I enjoy seeing people get better. I can usually start to see it three or four months after somebody joins and they themselves will comment. I feel really good when I see people progress.” Olga concurs, “He is a people person, and this is rewarding to him. He takes pride in helping people.”

Josh Morphew, HRR’s secretary, has given Jared’s motivation considerable thought, “I don’t know why, but Jared and Luann never had kids. I think this club is their baby. They put all their time and energy into it.” Jared acknowledges that he feeds off the social aspect of the role. “Hellgate feels like part of me – Adrian, Tony, Richie, Martha, Olga…Mary and her kids. I know them all so well.”

Jared’s style of coaching is not for everyone. He prefers to wait until approached rather than give unsolicited advice. Like an attentive grandfather who does not want to appear interfering, he is always there, omniscient and shrewd, but passive. Morphew says, “Jared’s defining characteristic is his humility. You don’t see that in a lot of people. He created a club truly for the runners – it’s not about him.”

There are those who favor the assertive schooling of, for instance, Bob Glover of Greater New York, but for many, Jared’s patient and understated environment is exactly what is needed to thrive.

Phil Sneller, the 2008 Queens Half Marathon champion, and 2012 Olympic trials hopeful resigned recently from Hellgate to join the New York Athletic Club. Less than a month later though, he was back. He found the demands of the elite club too restricting, and their methods too rigid. Jared is clearly moved when talking about it, “He asked if he could come back. I told him the door is always open.”

Hellgate holds annual elections for key positions, but no one else ever runs for President. Jared insists he would happily be ousted from his role. “I could concentrate on helping runners more with their running.”

On Saturday May 16th 2009, 28 Hellgaters are among the 7,623 local and world-class athletes who gather in Central Park for the Healthy Kidney 10K. New York Road Runners hosts over 30 races a year like this, and Jared attends the vast majority of them. Often there is just a handful of Hellgaters participating, sometimes dozens, but Jared is always there to offer encouragement.

At 9am the horn goes off, and the beep of thousands of electronic timer chips crossing the starting mats can be heard for the next 15 minutes. Observant HRR racers flash thumbs up and smiles to Jared who, as ever, is snapping shots as they pass, about a half mile down the course. On longer distances, such as half or full marathons, Jared moves himself to various points, enabling himself to shoot from different vantages, and cheer on his teammates at progressive stages throughout their race.

As the clock ticks on, Hellgaters cross the line, and join Jared near the final bend. They besiege their coach with race reports, solicit congratulations or commiserations, share goals, training schedules, and injury woes. Jared listens closely and offers subtle suggestions, while keeping an eye on the stragglers still jogging towards the finisher chute.

At 10:20, long after the starting horn sounded, and long after the bulk of racers have eaten their trophy bagel, Luann breaks out of the huddle to check with her husband, “is everyone in?” Jared responds quickly, “there’s still Ann to come.”

He leans over the railing, points his camera down the course, and waits.

by Yvonne Damm


Suzanne said...

Great post Yvonne...but how could it not be when it's about our very own Jared Mestre!!

Jessica said...

I'm so proud to be a Hellgater! Jared and the club have a way of getting the best out of people - on or off the race course! Thank you for the article, Yvonne, and thank you to the Mestres for their initiative and strength!

Steven Gnagni said...

Beautiful writing, Yvonne. It was a great read, and fascinating. (Now I know why Jared was so concerned about my groin injury that I suffered on ice this past winter!) I echo Jessica's pride and heartily thank Jared for watching over us.


Josh said...

Go Jared!

Anonymous said...

great post about Jared...

BTW: This has nothing to do with age but I've always referred to Jared and LuAnn as the Mama and Papa of Hellgate. Huge thanks for all the support.
See you all at the Team Champs....

Diana Pittet said...

Great post, Yvonne!

During my time as a Hellgater, I not only became a better runner but I also became part of a community and learned the beauty and benefits of giving of yourself graciously and generously. Thanks so much for that, Jared!

kids scooters said...

Mini kick kid scooter comes in 5 different colors. It is lightweight and easy to carry by any adult or your child. This scooter is not designed for jumps or tricks. This scooter is durable enough for everyday use.