Warren Hellman is one of San Francisco's most successful people. Chairman of the private equity investment firm Hellman & Friedman LLC, Hellman is also a generous philanthropist; he puts on the Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park each October, bringing top acts like Willie Nelson to the public for free. A two-time finisher of the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run, he runs every morning and competes in long-distance horseback-riding races. And to top it all off, he's one hell of a funny guy. We sat down with him to find out how he keeps so active, and what advice he might give to help us stick to our New Year's resolutions.
SF Weekly: When did you first get into running?
Warren Hellman: I wrecked my knee in about the middle 1970s. When I got out of the cast, I wondered if I could run to the end of the driveway and back. Since I could, I thought, "Well maybe I could run a marathon." [laughs] So I worked and worked, and ran the Foxborough (Massachusetts) marathon six months later.
SFW: How were you able to go from not running at all to, in six months, running a marathon?
WH: I worked very hard when I was in the cast. You can go on a stationary bike with one leg, so I'd have this cast leg on a chair, then pump with the other leg.
SFW: You train at 3:30 a.m., I understand. Are there any times when you don't want to get out of bed and go running?
WH: Every day. I keep wondering if there was a pill you could take, like an hour before you have to get up, so that you'll be lying in bed saying, "God, I'm really uncomfortable. This bed's hot."
SFW: Where do you go running?
WH: Presidio, Golden Gate Park.
SFW: Have you ever been scared by raccoons that hissed at you?
WH: Dogs. How about dogs? It's the only time in my life I feel really violent, and I have this uncontrollable urge to kill -- the owner. It just pisses me off. After the dog snarls at you, the person always says, "Oh, don't worry about him," and I'm scared to death.
SFW: Did you make a resolution this year?
WH: Run less. I run seven days a week, and that's really bad. I never take a day off, so I'm always tired. The other resolution is: Don't schedule yourself until you're absolutely insane, and you're not even reading your mail, and stuff like that. And my third resolution is to learn how to play the five-string banjo. I used to play really poorly, and then I stopped. I want to get back to where I can play really poorly, and then get a teacher.
SFW: What would be your advice for someone who made a resolution to learn to play an instrument, but it's terribly hard, because they're so bad?
WH: My resolution, which I will fail at, is just allocate yourself half an hour a day. Instead of going upstairs and watching TV after dinner, go up and play banjo. You're not trying to be Earl Scruggs or somebody. And in only two days, I've learned back the three chords I started with, and got a blister on the end of one of my fingers!
SFW: What if you're feeling really tired? How do you bust through that and go practice?
WH: If you're really full, you've had a huge dinner -- how can you eat dessert?
SFW: I crave it.
SFW: So you crave playing the banjo? You can't crave it yet -- you don't even know how to play!
WH: No, but I hope I can get to where I'm craving it.
SFW: What about your diet -- do you have a special diet?
WH: No -- I'm a runner! There has to be some advantage to doing this. If I could get into Human Growth Hormone or something they could give to old guys to make them young again, that might be different.
SFW: Now, what about spending time with family? Is there any particular person you've vowed to spend more time with, but you don't want to because they bore you?
WH: That's a great question, a real zinger. Okay, honestly, I have 12 grandchildren. My wife is perfect. She loves each one equally. Some, I feel a sort of burst of emotion when I'm going to see them. And others, they're kinda there, and they're nice, and I'm nice to 'em. Most of the time. But one of them recently said, "Are you going to scream at me again?" [laughs]
SFW: Why did you scream at him or her?
WH: I guess because I want them to be intense. When they say, "Gee, it's really cold, I don't feel like skiing ...."
SFW: Is there a part of you that likes to be too busy?
WH: Yes. I hate reading stuff in preparation for meetings, but I love to -- sort of -- collect people. To me, the fun of spending time with Emmylou Harris, or Tom Johnson [who's won Western States a bunch of times], to be friends with the head of the labor council -- that sort of stuff really does turn me on.
SFW: If you collect people, invariably you have to discard older, less interesting friends, from your collection.
WH: Yeah, you get e-mail from them saying, "Are you mad at me? We haven't talked in three months." I just don't feel like dealing with their need. It's easier if the person's really sick or something to say, "Okay, now I'm going to change my priorities." But if they're just their ordinary boring selves ... [laughs].
SFW: Do you ever have friends who say, "Oh, I hate country music!" knowing you're a fan of bluegrass, and does that bother you at all?
WH: If they're going to hate bluegrass music, they're just stupid shitheads. I mean, that's their business. It's offensive in the sense that it's a little like if you were Catholic, and someone said, "Well, I hate Catholics." What's the point? They know it's going to offend you.
SFW: When this interview hits the newsstands, most of our readers will have already broken their New Year's resolutions. Any words of advice to help them get back on track?
WH: It depends what it is. If their resolution is to run 40 miles a week, just put your head down, do one week of it, then do a second week of it, and by that time, you'll be buried in it. If it's unimportant stuff like, "I'll work harder," or "I'll be more friendly," you know, to hell with it. Those were probably bad resolutions anyway.