60. Saints at the Races

60. Saints at the Races

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Saints at the Races

Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.
~William Barclay

I want to draw attention to a group of endurance individuals who serve without honors, thanks or awards, and yet are highly deserving of canonization. These individuals are the family and crew of ultrarunners.

My husband Bob began his ultrarunning life in 1979 at a 50-mile race in Illinois. The following year he ran in a 100-mile race in California, and each year after that my three children and I have driven him around the United States from one ultrarun to the next. We are part of an elite group called the runners’ “crew.”

Crewing might seem like an easy job — drive around the race course meeting your runner at predetermined places, so that you can feed and encourage him and give him a change of clothes if needed. Piece of cake, right?

Let me give you a composite day in the life of my husband’s crew.

The morning of the race starts very early, like at 3:00 AM. The 4:00 AM race start leaves no room for lagging children. At the start line I am encouraging my husband and listening to the moans of three tired, hungry, unhappy children. Who can blame them?

At the start line the gun goes off and the runners head off into the dark for 100 miles of grueling mountain terrain. Now my ultra begins. Get the children loaded into the van, and find a place open this early so that they can have a hot meal, the last one for the next thirty hours.

I check the map, given to me at the pre-race meeting, for the location of the first checkpoint. The sun has not yet risen above the horizon so seeing the turn-off roads is difficult. I try to keep my frustration level down as I turn around our full size van, which is not easy, and head back to the road I missed.

I park four blocks from the first checkpoint because of all the cars from crews that are already there. I strap my youngest child into his stroller and hand my daughter the folding chair and two of several gym bags that we will take. I attach the other gym bag to the stroller. My older son holds one handle of the cooler and I the other handle. One last check of the van to be sure we have not forgotten anything. We look like a caravan minus the camel.

The kids help me set up our mini-aid station. Now it is time to relax and wait. Okay, I entertain three children while we wait.

The kids spot their dad. The rhythm of the dance begins. Food is given, drinks are prepared, is it diluted Coke or Gatorade this time? Refill the water bottles. Take the cold weather gear that he wore early this morning; he won’t need this again until evening. Fill his pack with a variety of snacks to fuel him until the next checkpoint. We kiss him goodbye.

I sigh. One down, many more to go. Repack the bags, put my youngest in the stroller, hand the chair to my daughter, distribute packs and share the carrying of the cooler with my son. This is repeated over and over.

I feed Bob information about his time at each aid station. He has to make cutoff times or he will be pulled from the race. This information is as important to him as the food I provide.

As the day wears on, my children and I are wearing down. Entertainment is hard to come by for young children in the middle of nowhere.

Darkness will be upon us in two hours. I need to think ahead. Bob will need warm clothing, a headlamp, and a flashlight, and I will need a flashlight too. “Don’t forget anything,” I chant to myself.

Bob arrives with wet shoes. He sits in the chair. I remove his shoes and roll the wet socks off. I dry his blistered, swollen feet. He will be heading into darkness and cold so I insist that he put his tights on. He will carry the long sleeve shirt, jacket, hat and gloves that I tie around him. It seems silly to take these things now but the cold of night will be on him before I see him again. Hypothermia is a real danger in these races. The kids have been handing their dad bananas, yogurt, raisins, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and anything else that is in the cooler. He takes what he needs. Water bottles are refilled, his pack is resupplied with snacks. His headlamp is put in his pack and a flashlight is in his hand.

Each time I see my husband I am analyzing him. The medical checkpoints in the race evaluate the runners but there are things I watch for too. Is his gait different? His back might be hurting. I hand him Advil. Is he limping? A different pair of shoes may help.

At 75 miles my husband is in a stupor. I must do his thinking for him. He doesn’t know what he needs or even what direction to go out of the aid station.

When he wants to quit I push him to his feet and tell him to go, I know he can do this. We live in Colorado but Bob suffers from altitude sickness, so if it hits him I have to stand with him and let him know it is okay to quit. I don’t want him airlifted out because we overrode wisdom.

It is dark and my children are asleep in the van, I recline my seat and cover myself with a blanket. I don’t sleep well. I am parked at the place that Bob will be passing; I don’t have to wake my children.

Bob has been running and walking for more than twenty-six hours and the light of dawn is making its glorious appearance in the sky. I have had two very short naps.

We see Bob one last time before the finish line. The cut off time is thirty hours. He’s going to make it. We give him a hug and kiss and tell him we’ll see him at the finish.

At the finish area I take only my camera from the van.

In the distance I recognize Bob and a smile of relief spreads over my face. We are at the finish line cheering him across.

When Bob crosses that line my children and I are a part of his victory, but no one will give us a finisher medal, belt buckle, or certificate.

If a crew does its job well, all the runner has to think about is putting one foot in front of the other, over and over. We have done our job well.

In 2009, our thirty-five-year-old daughter, the one who had carried the chair for her father years before, followed in his steps and completed the Leadville 100-miler. Her dad, husband, friends and I were her crew. Coleen is 4’11” and less than one hundred pounds of grit.

The legacy continues.

~Diane Shaw

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