The squeak of a seatpost and the soft crunch of 29" tires were a welcome distraction from the scorching, dusty silence. I was on a long backcountry run earlier this summer, on a sweltering afternoon, and hadn’t seen a soul since I left the trailhead near Fairfax in Marin County, California.
The mountain biker passed slowly on the rock-studded jeep trail, grunting a hello as he powered past. He was enormous, with Promethean thighs and calves the size of muskmelons. Even huger was his pack, a full 70-liter monster, loaded up expedition-style, with a pair of La Sportiva trail running shoes strapped tightly to the lid.
No one carries a pack that big, I thought. No one heads out this far in this heat, without being an adventure racer. And there is only one adventure racer in Northern California the size of an NFL linebacker.
“Michael,” I shouted, and just one month before he would die, cooked in his own skin on a 123-degree day in Death Valley, Michael Popov stopped his bike, turned around and said, “Gordon! I thought that was you! What are you doing out here?”
Michael Popov was as physically imposing as his endurance exploits. Standing well over six feet and slabbed with muscle, he looked—and sounded—like Ivan Drago, the stony Russian boxer played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. But like many big men, Popov’s intimidating frame hid a friendliness and gentle nature that endeared the Walnut Creek resident to the adventure and endurance communities of Northern California.
We caught up on gossip and compared each other’s routes for a while before he set off up a long slope. I would catch up with him later, and we leap-frogged through much of the next hour on the ridgelines perched above West Marin. When I saw him last, shortly before I closed my run loop to head home, he was resting in the shade of a dwarf cypress, sweating heavily.
“Great to see you, Michael. You all set for water?” I asked the Russian native, who grinned back.
“I have some, thanks, and I may filter some later,” Michael replied, and we committed an awkward fistbump-handshake-hug before I trotted off, not knowing that this man, the strongest athlete I knew, the holder of some of the most brutal endurance running records in the West, would be dead before summer’s end.