For Better, For Worse, In 5K, In Ultra

Originally published June 2020, K’In Literary Magazine 

Friday, July 19 

9am: “I’m nervous,” I text Tara and Gary. “It’s gonna be 100 degrees in Vermont.” 

“He’s prepared,” Tara responds. “He’ll be OK.” 

“Really?” I itch to text. “Do you promise? Are ya sure? What if he dies?” 

Instead, I select a “feeling worried” emoji, press send. 

11am: I watch nervously as Don checks and rechecks his gear. He’s got a bin of supplies — extra sneakers, socks, shirts, a headlamp for after the sun sets, bags of raisins (for cramps), a few towels advertised to stay cool and wet forever. 

My husband, teetering on the threshold of 61 years, is registered to run a 62 mile race on Saturday. He’s run half that distance before, trained for this particular race since spring. He has experienced runners supporting him, and he’s got me, his just-shy-of sane, worst-case-scenario wife. If there is a way for any situation to run afoul, in my mind, it will. I always think someone is going to die. I self-diagnose brain tumors and lung cancer. I’m a worrier. I don’t like to say hypochondriac, but, sure, OK. Also, Saturday is projected to be the hottest day in Vermont history, a factor Don had not considered. 

1pm: Don and I arrive at the house we’ve rented in Windsor, Vermont. It’s at the end of a dirt road, on a shuttered ski resort. Tara, Don’s unofficial leader in ultrarunning, is waiting for us, her husband having dropped her several hours earlier. Fifteen years Don’s junior, Tara is powerfully built, unlike the stereotypical wiry physique of a runner. She is a seasoned ultramarathoner, confident in her coaching, and unique in her commitment to reapply lipstick over the course of any race.

2pm: Tara and Don discuss race logistics. I scan through the participant packet. The Vermont 100 started in the 1960s as a horse endurance trail ride, with equestrians competing on one hundred miles of trails. In the late 1980s, ultrarunners joined, making the Vermont 100 the only ultra of the mixed-species variety. In 2008, a 62 mile option was added so “shorter-distance” runners, like Don, could participate. In 2019, along with the 75 62-mile runners, 350 runners registered to run 100 miles and 50 riders, atop their 50 steed, will saddle up. 

2:01pm: “There are horses running on these trails with you?” I ask. “What if one accidentally lands on you?” 

Tara smiles a calm sort of smile, while I focus on deep breathing. “He’ll be fine,” she says. 

3pm: Cell connection magically appears, having been inaccessible for hours. I get texts in bulk, from Don’s family, my family, many friends. I roll my eyes as they parrot the local weather report: “Gonna be a hot one.” 

4:15pm: We head to pre-race check-in. I inspect the other runners. They are all skinny. Most of the men are bearded. The women, other than Tara, are lipstick-less. Don is as thin as he’s ever been, and he’s never been heavy. He’s clean shaven, a middle-age kind of boyish. He works his way around the registration tent, greeting runners he knows, introducing me to a fellow ultrarunner here with his dad, another who heads up a running group in our area. I try to be cool, carefree, but mostly I am sweaty, nervous. 

7pm: Gary meets us at a local Italian place for dinner. Gary is one of Don’s closest running friends. He’s quiet and reserved, lean and sinewy, a traditional runner’s build. Neither Gary nor Tara will run tomorrow’s entire race; instead each will “pace,” running alongside Don as support, for some of the distance. I have learned that ultrarunners tend to do this for each other. One runs, the others help out. The favor is of assistance is returned at another event. 

8:30pm: Don gives me a beautiful card thanking me for my support during his training. I feel  pretty crappy because I’ve  mostly ignored his preparation, convincing myself if I don’t think about it, perhaps it won’t happen. After a couple of those long training runs, I mean like 30 miles before breakfast, as he’s entered the house, I’ve said, “Can you mow the lawn today?” which loosely translates to “Will you please stop this insanity and be a normal person and run a 5K?” 

So when he gives me that card, I think, oh my God I am the worst spouse ever and please God do not let him die. 

9pm: On the drive back to our rental, I begin to doubt my role in this big event in my husband’s life. I’m just here. Maybe I’ll provide a bit of moral support, but that’s it. I haven’t experienced what he is about to; I have little knowledge of how he’ll feel throughout the day. I can’t help him to the finish line. I am unnecessary, similar to Don’s role when I gave birth to our boys. He was there, of course, but other than holding my hand and encouraging pushes, he wasn’t really integral to success. If needed, I would have shoved him aside to get to the people with medical degrees. As I anticipate the run, I feel like my husband must have, barely more than a bystander. Tara and Gary are the physicians who are gonna birth this thing. I hope. 

10pm: I suspect our teenage sons, scheduled to arrive at the run’s mid-point tomorrow,  are having a party in our house. I mention this to Don and he says, “I cannot think about that right now.” I brush my teeth. 

All night long: I think Don sleeps fairly well but I don’t really know. A couple of times I wake up and check his pulse because what if he has a heart attack just dreaming about the race? I wonder how I’d survive without him. Who would care about me and those party-hosting kids, who would laugh at my jokes, listen to my hopes, my insecurities? I tearfully recall the time I attempted to win my age group in a local fun run. Don ran alongside me pushing me to move faster and faster. When I didn’t win, he told me how my form was much better than the winner’s form and that’s the most important thing. My mind races through a few cataclysmic ultra-outcomes. Then I doze off. 

Saturday, July 20

8:30am: We arrive at the check-in tent and although I believe the intent is to shade the sun, instead the canvas holds in the humidity and it is roasting. Don sprays himself with sunscreen and looks sweaty before he even begins. It is so hot and I feel like taking another shower and all I am doing is standing. I am super sweet and “Honey is there anything that you need?” and he gives me a funny look because I only talk that way to the kids. I try to rub off the sunscreen that he has just applied because I feel like his skin will not be able to breathe. “I’m fine,” he says. 

9am, Mile 0: The runners take off. Tara, Gary, and I wave and say “Go get ‘em.” Then I start to cry because it is so hot and he is 60 years old and what the actual heck? I think of our plan to someday hike the Pacific Coast Trail and maybe snorkle in Fiji and I wonder if these fantasies will never be realized because my husband will not survive this stupid and super hot day on the trails. Tara tells me he is going to be OK, but really, is he? What are the chances that he runs headlong into a tree or trips and falls and starts a brain bleed? Or maybe the horses? Oh God, the horses! What if one falls on him and collapses his lungs? Will I be a widow? Are those boys cleaning up from the party I know they had in our house when we were here preparing for the run that will probably kill their father? 

11:06am, Mile 10.7: Gary, Tara, and I drive to the Camp 10 Bear aid station, where Don will arrive after running almost 11 miles. Despite the name, there is no camp and there are no bears, just a field with an old guy directing us to park. The aid station is full of high calorie snacks, sugary drinks, and latrines. We lug over a jug of water,  Don’s bin of devotionals, pineapple, raisins, and a whole bunch of other weird looking snacks. 

We wait and wait for him to arrive and it feels like hours and days and then, after two actual hours, he is there and so sweaty and Tara says, “How are you doing?” and I hold up a pair of socks and say, “How ‘bout a fresh pair of socks?” and he says, “Damn, it’s hot.” 

Gary gives him pineapple and Tara says, “Keep hydrating.” When Don leaves, Tara says to me, “I don’t think he’s hydrating,” and I think to myself: why can’t you just say “he needs to drink water”? But I don’t because Tara and Gary are his crew. I am the irrelevant wife with the partying sons in our unchaperoned house. 

2:14pm, Mile 21.9: Cell service disappears, so we follow the map to the next aid station. Since it’s called Margaritaville, I am hoping for margaritas or a quick pop of tequila to keep me from stressing about my future life as a widow. 

It turns out Margaritaville is a big open field of burned-out grass with cars parked haphazardly and crews scattered around. If Jimmy Buffet knew he’d be outraged. 

I rethink my wardrobe choice as my gray shirt darkens from sweat. I wish for an ocean breeze and Don and me bike riding together instead of him running in the hills of Vermont alone. 

I pick up the race packet, read “the course features 9,000 feet of ascent over 41 miles of dirt roads, 20 miles of horse trails, and 1 mile of pavement. There are no major climbs, but there are plenty of little ones!” I hate that exclamation point. 

The map shows the climb to Margaritaville is one of the steepest so I am super worried and starting to wallow in concern. One time when we were skiing in Colorado, I took a double black diamond trail just to impress him. It took me hours to get down and he stood at the bottom of the trail in the dusk waiting for me and I felt so relieved to see civilization but also terrible that I scared him. Now he is scaring me that same way. 

Cell service appears and I get texts from Don’s brother, his sisters, his mother, my siblings, two groups of friends, and a bunch of numbers I don’t know but assume they are his co-workers. Each asks the same thing: “How’s he doing?” I want to reply that I feel inadequate, he’s a good husband, I don’t want to be a widow. Can someone check on my house to be sure the kids are alive? Instead I type: “Damn, it’s hot.” 

We wait and wait and Tara says maybe 30 minutes and then after 45, Gary says maybe soon. Then we wait an hour and I text some more and Don’s mother calls because she doesn’t like texts. I tell her he will be OK and I know he’s crazy, yes, he’s crazy, but let’s support him. I cry a bit; I don’t think she knows, but she might, because she’s a good mother-in-law and wouldn’t call me out for tears. 

After 30 more minutes, I ask Tara if they can get an ambulance into the woods and she isn’t sure. 

Finally three hours past 10 Bear, I see Don and run to him with a bit of difficulty because I am wearing flip flops. I want to hug him and tell him I’m sorry I can’t help him through this ordeal but instead, I just say, “How are you?” He grimaces and snorts, “I quit.” 

I look up at Tara, shake my head at Gary. Don lies down on the burned-out Margaritaville grass as other runners walk over him and around him and I want to scream, “Get away from him, he is trying to rest!” but I don’t because they are probably miserable and it would be a bad idea to get into a fight. I wonder briefly: How are the horses? Where are the horses? Then I remember they are with the 100 milers on a different part of the trail and I hope they are not cramping like this man who I love. 

Tara and Gary crouch down and talk to Don and offer him pickle juice for cramping (pickle juice, who knew?) and pineapple and a concoction of powdery substance mixed in with water. I whisper to Gary, “Is it over?” and Gary whispers, “Yep, he’s done.” Then Tara looks at Don’s bottle and says in the sweetest of voices, “You’re not hydrating.” 

I am surprised to feel heartbroken rather than relieved; he’s worked so hard and will not achieve his goal. 

If my husband were pregnant, I would stroke his sweet arm and scream, “Push!” But this race is his baby, and he’s got to decide on the delivery plan and I’ve got to simply support. 

I get back to texting and to each separate string of brothers, sisters, mothers, and subgroups of friends and miscellaneous numbers, I type: “He did a great 22 miles and he’s done.” 

Everyone responds with thumbs up emojis and one unknown number texts, “I can’t even run a mile,” and I want to meet that person and hug him or her for this. 

Then the partying sons finally check in and the youngest has poison ivy — God knows how that happened —  and stayed at home. I tell the other two boys that Dad can only make 22 miles. “Should we turn around?” they ask, and I say no. “Come support him. He is your Dad and worked so hard for this goal and wants us to be here.” 

I cry some more and am thankful my husband held my hand as I birthed each of those babies who better have cleaned up the house before driving up here.  

While sentimentalizing, I had not noticed the resurrection occuring. Don is walking around, sweat dripping from every inch but he seems unready to quit. “I’m going to run with him,” Tara says, “We’ll get to 32 miles, the next aid station.” 

Don is ready to go and I am overwhelmed with pride, so I touch his arm and whisper so gently, “Do you want clean socks?” 

He says no. 

The race travels back to Camp 10 Bear, where the runners will be halfway, but for us the race will end with a celebration of 32 miles. Tara takes off running with Don. Gary and I go to meet the boys at the house. The boys are lying around, watching golf on the giant TV because they are tired, although why they cannot tell me. 

I ask Gary how long until Don gets to 10 Bear and Gary says maybe two hours more but we should get going. I think of the celebration we’ll offer and although he’ll be sad for not having finished, I promise to tell him he’s the toughest 60 year old I know and that’s something at least. 

5:41pm, Mile 32.8: We park at Camp 10 Bear, in the grassy pseudo-parking lot, and watch the hill where Gary says Don will emerge from the woods. All of a sudden, Gary panics and says, “I think he’s coming in the other way!” and runs a distance down the dirt road to the aid tables. Don’s already there and looking less desperate, miserable, and angry than he did in the wretched place known as Margaritaville. 

“He wants to keep going!” Gary yells as the boys and I play Bop It, which I brought along to distract from the stress.  

Gary prepares to pace Don for this leg of the race as the boys run to greet Dad and I lag behind, regretting the decision to wear flip flops. 

He doesn’t want pineapple but drinks juice. He says Tara got him to hydrate; he’ll see us at 40 miles. Now I love Tara  and her lipsticked sweet voice, her strength in body and force of character, like a mother loves a doctor when the baby is born, cleaned up, with a little blue hat. 

We head to the car, I give Tara her sandwich, which is soggy because someone dropped it in the cooler and she’s just run ten miles which to her is nothing. Still she says, “I don’t think I’ll eat.” 

I text all the groups, “He’s still going! He’s still going!” and imagine the excitement as I get back messages of amazement and although they’re not directed at me, still I cry. “Go, Donny, go!” they say and “Run Forrest Gump!” and “You got this!” 

7:52pm, Mile 39.6: Although my greatest exertion is tapping in texts, I long for a nap and maybe a deep foot massage. Don shows up weary and sweaty, dusk settling in. After barely hello, he grabs his headlamp because it’s getting dark. He and Gary carry on, with 22.4 miles to go.

11:03pm, Mile 50.9: There is a little hot breeze to break the sweltering heat, still hovering higher than 85 degrees. When Don and Gary arrive, Tara ties her sneakers for the last nine miles of pacing. 

At the aid station, I spot two people dressed in Power Ranger outfits and I think it has been a long day, but I cannot be hallucinating. I say to Tara, “Do you see those Power Rangers?” She responds, “Yes, yes I do.” 

I smile at Tara, knowing these superheroes must be here for moral support or maybe losers of a bet. Costumed runners stick to 5Ks and this is an ultra and we are the crew. 

Don leaves with Tara. Gary, the boys, and I hop in the car to head to the last aid station. With no city lights, Gary reads the map using his headlamp. I navigate around glow sticks hanging from trees and zombie-like runners ambling in front of us. As I negotiate the car down unmarked back roads, I swerve to miss a horse. I do not ask Gary if he sees what I see because after the Power Rangers, I don’t need confirmation. 

Sunday, July 21  

1:26am, Mile 58.8: We arrive at the last aid station, but at this point “aid” is probably a stretch. There’s a blaring light over a table of unappealing snacks and nowhere to park so I drive down the road for a mile and the boys and I hoof it back up. I want to protest about the walk of a mile, but no one would listen.

Don stumbles in, moving on auto-pilot; I touch his arm gently and whisper, “Clean socks?” 

“No,” he said. “I’m good.” and leaves to finish the last two miles alone. 

I watch him vanish into the trees as I marvel at Tara and Gary and think: you are doctors of ultras, and if somehow I was ever pregnant again,  I might just trust you to see me through. 

2:45am, Mile 62.1: More than seventeen hours after we called out “Go get ‘em,” we eagerly anticipate Don’s race completion. Although I am fully aware the risks are still great in these last two miles, and he could be impaled by a tree branch or trampled by an anxious equestrian, my fears are not realized as he crosses the line. 

More than 50% of the runners did not finish. It was about the same for the horses. 

I hug him, cry just a little, relieved that it’s over and I’m not a widow and have been given another chance to support my husband in good and in bad, in sickness, in health, and also, I promise, in 5Ks and ultras.  

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