Alum Fred

Credit: Michael Thomas

Catch him if you can

A writer races alongside an adventure-loving, whole foods–eating, bee-keeping School of Medicine alum who, now in his seventh decade, shows no signs of slowing down. Welcome to the holistic world of Honey Pot Williams.

Fred "Honey Pot" Williams, Med '86 (MD), '88 (PGF), '88 (HS), is a 60-year-old gastroenterologist who loves organic gardens and herbal remedies, follows a plant-based diet with food grown in his backyard, and can do pushups until you get bored of counting them. A veteran of beekeeping (hence the nickname), marathons, and any other activity that requires being outside and sweating, he is the philosopher king of my workout group and the kindest, gentlest beast I've ever met.

At 48, I consider myself relatively active. At least I did until I met Honey Pot. He has become my "push yourself" mentor, setting a standard of fitness, wellness, and accomplishment I reach for but only occasionally grasp. I say all of this to make clear our friendship, to establish how much I like and admire him ... and also so you'll forgive me when I confess that I half-wanted to smack him upside his bald head when we were about 17 miles into a 30-mile outdoor adventure race last fall.

Our four-man team had already canoed 7 miles, biked 6, and hiked/run for 4 in the Castlewood 8-hour Adventure Race, held annually outside St. Louis, where we both live. We had just bushwhacked up a particularly nasty hill deep in a thick forest. I couldn't catch my breath as we walked north on a smooth trail. I was about to say, "Can we break for a minute?" but before those words came out of my mouth these came out of Williams': "Do you guys want to jog for a while?"

Jog?!? No! I thought, but did not say.

My hips hurt, my back barked, and I needed a 10-count or two, or three. The last thing I wanted to do was run. But as Williams started to jog, so did I, tracing my friend's steps through the soft dirt, continuing my fruitless quest to keep up with him.

Williams is that guy. The one you'd be jealous of if you didn't like him so much. He's a Renaissance man and a grinder, curious and friendly, a guy who asks questions and listens to the answers. His friends marvel at his ability to talk intelligently on everything from medicine to religion to the secret life of bees. I know from watching him that he's a great athlete, his prowess based not on preternatural gifts but on hard work. The reason he can do pushups until I get bored of counting them is because he has done a zillion in his life.

Williams was born in Massachusetts and spent his high school years in Kansas City, Missouri. He played "normal" sports back then. He gave up baseball when he discovered he couldn't hit a curve ball and joined the cross-country team, a decision that changed the course of his life.

He continued to run through undergraduate school at the University of Rochester, medical school at Johns Hopkins, and a four-year stint in the Air Force. Over a 25-year stretch, he entered roughly 50 marathons.

I met Williams while reporting a story about a free nationwide men's outdoor workout group called F3, of which Williams is a member (and I am now, too). During my second workout, in which we did seemingly endless burpees, pushups, squats, and dips, I saw a pool of sweat underneath him, marveled at the joy and pain marbled on his face, and thought, "He's crushing it." I tried to match his pace as he led a later workout, paid for it for a week, and thought, "I want what he's got."

The more I've gotten to know him, the more amazed I've been at what he's got. He keeps pace with fit men more than three decades younger than he is. He does it by marrying his two passions: exercise and healthy eating. I got an inside look at both of them one January morning.

At 5:40 a.m. on a Thursday in January, Williams, a dozen other men, and I jogged through a business district in Clayton, Missouri, just outside St. Louis. Each of us carried a 30-pound cinderblock, which we spent the next 30 minutes lifting when we weren't running up and down stairs. That might be a strange way to spend a morning, but workouts like that make his adventure racing possible.

After the workout, I followed Williams in his blue pickup to his home, where he showed me his backyard garden—an urban farm, really. The garden grew out of lessons he learned as a gastroenterologist, as he saw in his patients the consequences of poor eating habits. Now he spends much of his time counseling them on nutrition, and he practices what he preaches. He eats a whole foods, plant-based diet. The 13 raised garden beds in his backyard yield as much as half the food he and Tina, his wife of 30 years, eat. (They have two adult daughters.)

"This is my sanctuary," he says. His upper lip often quivers and his eyes flicker right before he smiles—as they did now—when he told me he spends six to eight hours a week on his hands and knees tending to the garden. If he gets hungry while working on it, he plucks himself something to eat. There's no need to wash it because there's nothing to wash off. He never uses pesticides and waters the garden largely with rain collected in barrels, both reflective of his desire to eat as purely as possible. He daydreams about living a hundred percent off the land.

Adjacent to the garden are his beehives, from which he harvests as much as 80 pounds of honey a year. He eats some and gives away the rest. He loves to sit and watch the bees come and go, and sees in their lives a parallel to his own. They work hard to create something natural to eat. "In the summer you can smell the honey wafting from the hives," he says. "It's just a beautiful thing."

He warned me not to touch the wire fence—it's "hot," electrically charged, to keep out coyotes, hawks, and vermin that live in woods adjacent to his backyard. We walked a lap around the enclosed area, and he pointed out where he grows figs, radishes, carrots, turnips, parsnips, beans, tomatoes, peppers, squashes, zucchini, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and numerous berries.

Just as his morning workouts make his adventure racing possible, the garden fuels both. He is convinced that eating well makes it possible for him to carry cinder blocks during rigorous 5:40 a.m. workouts at the dawn of his seventh decade.

His medical career has undergone a similar metamorphosis toward holism. After he graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1986, he followed a "pill for every ill" philosophy—whatever problem someone showed up with, he prescribed medication for it. He now sees that as shortsighted. He hasn't abandoned prescribing medicine, but he encourages his patients to adopt a holistic approach, too.

His outdoor adventure racing hobby started after he and his best friend, Scott Hardeman, began participating in the most arduous races they could find as birthday "gifts" to each other. The adventure races typically include canoeing, mountain biking, and trail running, with orienteering thrown in. Participants are given map coordinates to get from point A to point B. The races last anywhere from three and a half hours to 12 or 14 or more.

Our team name was Booger Butts. As a gastroenterologist, Williams supplied the Butts. The Booger came from Hardeman, a 49-year-old ear, nose, and throat specialist. Hardeman's 16-year-old son, Henry, an accomplished cross-country athlete and fearless mountain biker, rounded out our team.

Williams and Hardeman have competed together as teammates and as single athletes in the same races dozens of times. Each tells me, separately and unprompted, that no matter how poorly they've done in a race, they've never said a cross word to each other. Then each tells me, separately and unprompted, the same story about encountering a two-man team lost in the woods, one screaming at the other. The one being screamed at said to the screamer, "use your big boy words," as if parenting him.

Alum Fred

Image caption: Alum Fred "Honey Pot" Williams and writer Matt Crossman canoe during an adventure race

Image credit: Michael Thomas

That's become their inside joke when they get lost. As teammates, they have finished everywhere from second to dead last.

When we arrived for the race on a chilly Saturday in December, our hopes fell closer to second. Scanning the participants, that seemed doable. We would surely lose to the teams with matching uniforms, sponsored gear, and stern faces. But we could probably beat the man with a hat shaped like a jellyfish, the team dressed like Spartan warriors, and the guys wearing children's inflatable floaties around their waists.

The event started with a half mile run down a hill, where we picked up our paddles and life jackets, then ran back up the hill and put our two-person canoes in the Meramec River.

Williams and I were canoe-mates, and the Hardemans were in a separate canoe. A woman ahead of us fell into the water up to her neck, her day apparently over before it even began because the temperature was in the 20s, and surely she'd be hypothermic if she didn't retreat somewhere warm to dry off.

We kept our balance and paddled away from shore. Water that splashed off our paddles popped like electric ice on what little skin we had exposed. The river curled before us like a slow-moving snake.

On the right—the east—a yellow cliff remained cold and dark, as the rising sun behind it had not yet blessed it with its warmth. Atop that cliff stood craggy trees, leafless and backlit, depressing but for the brilliant white-yellow light filtering through them and warming our faces.

The beauty of that river scene stood in stark contrast to our performance on it. There's no way to sugarcoat this: Williams and I were terrible in the canoe, embarrassingly so, comically so, "use your big boy words" so. I hadn't been in a canoe in years, and while Williams is an experienced canoeist, he's always been in the front, never in the back, which is where he was that morning. It was just the two of us in the boat, and our guess was that it made more sense for him to be back there steering than it would have for me.

For much of the 7-mile journey, we worked at cross purposes. When I overpaddled he understeered, and when he oversteered I underpaddled.

Dead last, here we come!

We spun completely around twice, beached ourselves twice, and got passed by everybody and their brother. Three or four times it seemed like we'd figured it out ... and then we drifted sideways again. Finally, by the last half hour, we really did figure it out. "I was mad that we were crashing into people," Williams said over breakfast a few weeks later, his upper lip and eyes forecasting his coming smile. "That was an adventure in and of itself."

As bad as we were at canoeing, our struggles showed why he loves adventure racing, marathons, mountain biking, and the like: He loves to do hard things because he learns about life along the way. "If everything's easy, what's the point of it? Failure is such an important thing," he says. "Without failing, you don't find out what you need to get better at."

The workouts we attend together are boot-camp style. Participants preach that every workout is you against you, and we believe that comparing ourselves to each other is foolish. Still, we watch Williams and marvel.

Each guy in the workout group has experienced holy cow moments from Williams, whether he's dominating burpees or ripping through pushups or showing dexterity on a mountain bike. Those displays inspire us, but they are not what make him popular. He is beloved because of his "quiet demeanor and humility, which is so much a part of who he is that he might not even realize it," says Andrew Mitchell, an attorney and friend.

Humble is the first word Hardeman uses to describe him. Indeed, I can barely get him to admit he's good at anything. With a laugh, Williams tells me about a meeting with Henry Seidel, then Johns Hopkins School of Medicine dean, who told him each class typically had 10 or 15 members who were destined to become heads of departments and to be known around the world. "He looked at me and goes, 'You're not one of them.'" Seidel also said there are 10 or 15 people who shouldn't be there and told him, "You're not one of them either."

I asked Williams whether he enjoys kicking the butts of all the younger guys in the workout group—a loaded question on purpose. He waved off the premise that he kicks anyone's butt. Still, he said, he took pride in being able to keep up with guys decades younger than him.

In my notebook from the adventure race, the entry after "Do you guys want to jog a while?" is an equally telling quote from Williams: "Today has vomit potential."

He and the Hardemans laughed when I stopped running to write that down. Williams has thrown up during and after so many races that when Hardeman gets home after a race, his kids ask whether "Dr. Fred" barfed. It's never been anything serious, and it usually happens long after races are over. He'll be drinking a beer, rehashing the race, when suddenly he leans over and empties his stomach.

After Williams projectile-vomited red liquid into the river years ago, Hardeman thought their race was over. But Williams simply said, "I'm fine now" and kept paddling.

He doesn't know, nor does he seem to want to find, a cause. This explanation, which he offered as we ran, works better anyway: "It's just your body telling you you're a moron."

As we dodged roots, we joked about Johns Hopkins grads reading about Williams barfing and wondering why he does this. It's a question he often asks himself, usually at mile 20 of a marathon or as he's wiping vomit off his shoes. The incongruous answer is that he gets "intense gratification," not from barfing, exactly, but from pushing himself to the point of barfing.

"I remember listening to Lance Armstrong saying, 'I just like to suffer.' There's something to that. When you start out on these long runs or rides, you ask yourself, can I do this?"
Fred 'Honey Pot' Williams

To get to his limit, and then keep going, exhilarates him. "I remember listening to Lance Armstrong saying, 'I just like to suffer.' There's something to that. When you start out on these long runs or rides, you ask yourself, can I do this?" he says. "I've had marathons where I walk the last 5 miles. You're kind of mad, thinking, I didn't train right. But when you cross that finish line it's all forgotten: I finished."

Speaking of finishing: Booger Butts rallied after the poor start in the canoe. We tromped through the woods, hiking and running almost right to every point, no matter how hidden the signs marking our destinations were.

Twice in a few minutes, Williams spotted obscured markers before the rest of us. Even as he pointed, I strained to see them. "My eyes are getting better as I get older," he said, pausing before the punchline, "hopefully my hair will grow back, too."

We climbed on our mountain bikes for the final 6 miles of the race. Officials at the bike pickup advised us not to try to hit every remaining marker because we would run out of time before we finished. We set out intent on ignoring that advice.

Williams' legs pumped smoothly, rhythmically, precisely. He calmly maneuvered along the trail, rarely veering off it, never losing his balance. At a break after a steep climb, I sucked great heaps of air, and he didn't even seem strained. I asked him to ride behind me because if I lined up behind him, I'd lose him. The canoe debacle was a distant memory as we sliced along narrow trails, passing gassed teams. We reached a point of no return on the ill-advised points and pursued them without debate.

We finished the race with 35 minutes to spare, and yes, closer to second than dead last (47th out of 101 total). We crossed the finish line four abreast then went inside the ski lodge that served as headquarters. We found cold drinks and friends on other teams and lamented what could have been if not for our inept canoeing.

Six hours later, Honey Pot—I mean, Williams—texted the team: "No regurgitation. Kinda disappointed."

Matt Crossman is a magazine writer in St. Louis.