Bay Area runner leaves lasting legacy

Rene Brunet's sudden death at a 50K race near Oakland on June 2 left a running community shaken. Courtesy of Stacia Torborg

He never won the Boston Marathon or an Olympic medal. He never ran in high school or college, never appeared on the cover of a national running magazine or had a documentary made about his contributions to long-distance running.

Outside of the Bay Area's community of marathoners and ultra runners, Rene Brunet was a complete unknown.

Yet inside that tight-knit group, Brunet was a runner's runner -- a man who had discovered running late in life and been totally captivated by it, like so many other millions of men and women across the U.S.

As if trying to make up for all the decades and miles he'd missed, the retired cab driver quickly jumped into marathons and then the ultra-distance races that make 26.2 miles look like a warm-up jog. He found he had a capacity for endurance and an ability to run through pain that were exceptional.

In his marathon debut in 2007, shortly after retiring at age 57, he showed up in jeans and a sweatshirt and ran 3 hours, 34 minutes. Within a couple of years he was posting excellent times in 100-milers.

And he did it all with a smile on his face and an infectious enthusiasm that made other runners smile, too. Diana Yee, a marathoner and running partner of Brunet's since 2009, said, "He just embodied energy and life."

Which is why Brunet's death near the end of a 50-kilometer race June 2 at Mount Diablo State Park (about 25 miles east of Oakland) came as a shock to all who knew him. If anyone seemed invincible to his friends, it was Brunet, an adventurous immigrant from France who'd come to the States in his early 20s after traveling the globe. He may have been 63, but he was a 63-year-old who could sprint up mountains and laugh when he reached the top. When Yee first received an email with the news, she thought it was a hoax.

Jordan Mazur, a member of the San Francisco Road Runners Club with Brunet, ran and talked with him on Saturday, June 1, the day before he died. He says Brunet told him about the Mount Diablo race, one he'd done several times before, and said he "only was going to run 20 today" because of his race the next day.

"He gave me a big smile and said, 'See you next week,' " recalled Mazur, a San Francisco attorney. "That was the last thing he ever said to me."

Mazur had no reason to believe it would be otherwise. Brunet had always conquered the toughest races. Mazur recalls talking with Brunet about the Dipsea, the oldest trail race in America, an arduous 7.4-miler in Marin County that takes runners up and down steep, narrow paths. Several times, Brunet ran the Double Dipsea.

"I've entered that race and I consider myself a pretty serious runner. It's just punishment. There's nothing fun about it," Mazur said, laughing. "It's only to get that sense of accomplishment in your gut and your brain. And for him, I remember him telling me, 'Oh, I'm running Dipsea this weekend.' And I said I didn't think the race was this weekend. And he said, 'Oh, no. I'm just going to go run that course.'"

When Brunet showed up for the Mount Diablo Trail Run 50K that Sunday morning, he was greeted the way bar patrons used to welcome Norm on the sitcom "Cheers."

"When he got out of the car, we were calling out to him, 'Rene!'" said John Brooks, the race director who'd known Brunet for about a year. "[He was] just yelling back, 'Yay!' He was so excited to be there that morning. It was like an entrance he made as he came into our start area."

It was a warm day, by some accounts in the low 90s. Fourteen runners started on a flat, tree-lined course that at one point followed a dry creek. The trail climbed steeply through oak- and brush-covered slopes to the 3,849-foot summit, then back to the start. For the 50K, the runners did the loop twice.

Throughout the run, Brunet was reported in fine shape. When he went through the last checkpoint on the final loop about 5 miles from the finish, aides told Brooks that Brunet looked strong.

"At the last checkpoint he wanted to move quickly," said Brooks. "He kept moving in place. He had water when he arrived and water when he left. He declined efforts to cool him down, if he needed, with spray bottles. He was just intent on moving."

But when two runners who had been behind him at the final checkpoint finished before Brunet, Brooks was immediately concerned. He took off up the course, and a park ranger checked below the checkpoint.

Eventually, Brooks and the ranger found a water bottle that led them to Brunet's body about three miles from the finish. He was off the side of the course, at that point about a 15-foot-wide fire road. They found his footprints leading to the spot, but Brooks says Brunet would not have been visible to the runners who passed him.

To date, no cause of death is known. An autopsy was performed by the Contra Costa County medical examiner's office, but reports have not yet been released.

News of Brunet's death moved quickly through Bay Area running circles. Posts on various Facebook pages and running sites lauded Brunet's spirit and shared stories of his fitness. A long story about him in the San Francisco Chronicle two days after he died attracted more than 50 comments, including one from a runner who said Brunet had given him water and offered words of encouragement on the course that day.

In the week following his death, a two-day viewing was arranged at a San Francisco mortuary that attracted about 300 runners, friends, family and those who knew Brunet when he drove a Yellow Cab in the city for three decades.

In his casket, Brunet was dressed in a jacket from an ultra race that had a race bib number pinned to it. A giant wreath from Yellow Cab was on display. For Mazur, it was like no viewing he'd ever attended.

"It was very much an attitude of gratefulness to have had this person pass through their lives," Mazur said. "Another person I talked to, she said, 'I'm happy to have this opportunity to come and say goodbye to him because it wasn't real until I saw him here in the casket.' He was so full of life. ... I'm used to everyone coming in and being angry, 'Oh gosh look what's happened, and it's so unfair.' And people weren't like that. It was more, 'Gosh, he got to do what he loved.'

"His wife said when they found him, he had a smile on his face. And it didn't surprise anyone that she said that."

The Mount Diablo event was the eighth ultra race Brunet had registered for this year and the 34th ultra or trail race he'd entered since his first in 2009.

Kumiko Brunet says her husband of 22 years decided to take up long-distance running in 2007 after watching the San Francisco Marathon.

"So one random morning, he woke up and ran from our home to the Golden Gate Bridge," she said. "Before he started, he calculated how many laps he'd have to run across the bridge in order to total 26 miles. At one point, toward the end of his run that day, a young boy (about four or five) began to race against him. After the young boy passed Rene, Rene became motivated to exercise more so that he'd develop enough endurance, strength and stamina to participate in a marathon."

Ken Hwang, who'd known Brunet since 2008, called him a "natural" long-distance runner. Though he had no running background and had spent years sitting in a taxi working long shifts, Hwang says Brunet had an incredible ability to recover quickly from long races. Hwang has run a few marathons, but the only utlra-distance races he ran were because Brunet and Kumiko took him. Hwang's first was a 50K with severe elevation gains he calls "brutal for me."

"But for Rene, he was a natural," said Hwang. "It was fairly easy."

Brooks concurs, saying it's plain to see by the races he entered that Brunet liked the toughest.

"The first time I met him, it was at a 100-mile race I was holding in September. Marin Headlands, called the Headlands Hundred," Brooks said. "He completed that race in 29 hours and 56 minutes, which is a great time on a very difficult course."

In a way, Brunet's passion for running was similar to his zeal for other things in life. He didn't do anything with less than full effort.

When he worked, he put in long hours. He was a force in organizing drivers to purchase Yellow Cab in San Francisco and turn it into a cooperative. When he took up motorcycle riding, he went on rides for hundreds of miles. He and Kumiko traveled the world. He loved to cook and eat and had a fondness for pie and cake, which Kumiko says he would have every night. And, he was a voracious reader. Each day he read three newspapers. He subscribed to a dozen or more magazines and checked out several library books each week.

When Brunet retired at 57, he threw himself into becoming fit.

Not only did he run, he spent long hours at two gyms during the week, taking three to five classes a day of spinning, yoga, fitness boot camp, kickboxing and weight lifting. It was a way, too, for Brunet -- whom Yee affectionately called "a chatterbox" -- to reach out to people.

"He mainly went because he enjoyed everyone's company," said Kumiko Brunet. "He loved to hear other people's stories, gently push them to reach their full potentials and also see himself improve over time."

In the end, running and fitness provided a conduit to a better, fuller life. Though he died running, the sport gave him tremendous joy. When his body was cremated, Brunet had on his running bibs and was wearing new running shoes and gym clothes.

"One of the things he mentioned was he felt fortunate at his age that he was healthy enough to do all this," said Yee.

To Mazur, Brunet is an inspiration, a man who set a goal to become a runner and to be fit, and achieved it.

"It's definitely something I admire [about him] because we all in our lives put in our heads, 'Well I'm going to do this someday.' And he did it."