If you believe Hallmark and sappy romantic comedies, you may think romance is tied up in soft music, red roses, and romantic candlelight dinners.
I was always a sucker for the Harlequin-style love affairs and walks on the beach with a bright full moon shimmering on the waves and glowing so brightly you could cast a shadow on the midnight sand.
Yep, I thought romance was intoxicatingly sweet perfume and champagne nights until I started volunteering at the Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Race.
Now I am convinced that true romance can be found not at a lovely symphony, but on a steep, rocky hill in the middle of the night, when the lights of a hundred headlamps are barely bright enough to light the way to an aid station.
True love is when your loved one is crying her eyes out because her feet hurt and all she wants to do is quit, and you love her and hate to see her in pain, but you know if you let her quit, she’ll be mad at you for the rest of your life, so as hard as it is to crack the whip and keep her moving, that’s just what you do.
True love is when your loved one finally sits down and takes off his shoes and socks to reveal the gnarliest, grossest blisters you have ever seen on a human foot, and you don’t even flinch; you just lay on the bandages.
True love is when your loved one is vomiting on the ground out in the middle of the woods and all you can do is try to get her to keep eating even though she can’t keep anything down.
True love is when your loved one is filthy and sweaty after running for 25 hours, yet you hug him and kiss him.
This kind of “they-may-be-crazy-to-run-100-miles-but-I-love-them-anyway-kind of romance was on full display last April when 250 ultra-marathon runners took to the pathways and trails of Umstead State Park in Raleigh, N.C. to push their limits, test their fortitude, and in many cases, try their loved ones’ devotion.
There were runners’ spouses who are not runners themselves; those spouses who had barely seen their loved ones on weekends, having handed them over to training partners for six months because of grueling running schedules.
Yet those same spouses, even those who became single parents during training months, who thought their loved ones were crazy for running 100 miles, were there. They camped out alongside the Umstead trails for an entire weekend, cheering on their crazy lovers, nursing their wounds, taking pictures, holding up signs, pacing them, and keeping them going.
If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.
The Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Run last April was a race for the lovers.
It was also a race for parents who rode the finish line all day and night waiting for their children to do the seemingly impossible, and going the extra mile to cheer for all of children of all the other parents who were also there anxiously watching and waiting.
It was a race for little kids whose parents were hoping to set good examples of how grit and determination could carry one through the toughest of tasks. Or perhaps they were simply proving that “crazy” actually does win in the end.
It was a race for best friends who set up their own aid stations and served as a combination of race crew, special needs providers and cheerleading squads.
It was a race for Bill and Sally Squier, a pair of feisty 70-year-old runners, who are beloved at the Umstead Race.
Bill has run the race every year since 1998. Sally has run five Umstead ultra-marathons since 1998, while steadfastly serving as captain of the main aid station, “Sally’s Asylum.”
This year, the pair ran the race as a couple, to celebrate being 70 and fit enough to endure a 100-mile run, and to become the oldest couple to complete a 100-mile ultra marathon in under 30 hours together.
Each ran his and her own race. Most of the time, Bill maintained a slight lead over his bride, but she was able to catch up with him at the aid stations where they managed to spend a few quality moments together along their journey.
Bill finished his 100-miles, alone, in 28 hours and 19 minutes.
So he started waiting.
Someone brought a small, white plastic chair and set it down in front of the finish line, where Bill would have a good view of the chute.
From that vantage point, next to the timing tent, you can see the runners heading in from nearly a quarter mile away.
After running 100 miles, Bill was tired, and trying hard not to fall asleep.
He was hungry, and someone brought him an omelet.
He was shivering, and someone brought him a blanket.
He sat still, refusing to move from that spot, and kept his eyes trained on the trail ahead.
Minutes ticked by. Then an hour.
Bill kept his vigil in the chair, never wavering; watching for Sally.
A crowd was gathered behind the finish line. Some runners, who had wrapped up their races hours ago lingered in chairs and waited. Volunteers and other spectators who had been there for their own loved ones gathered around.
The Squiers’ children and grandchildren were close by.
A couple of photographers hovered.
Suddenly Sally appeared out of the woods and crossed a parking lot. She was just a speck at first, but her image grew larger as she drew closer.
Bill stood up, and I swear the look in his eyes was the same as a groom’s watching his bride walk down the aisle.
Blake Norwood stepped out of the race’s timing tent and took his place by Bill’s side, like a best man.
Sally had an entourage of female pacers – her bridesmaids.
After 29 hours and 52 minutes of running, walking and doing everything in her power to complete her 100-mile journey within the qualifying time of 30 hours, Sally walked across the finish, and straight into the arms of her husband.
I would not have been surprised if a minister had stepped out of the timing tent with Blake to perform a renewal of wedding vows.
There was not a dry eye at the finish line.
I couldn’t help but think about the vows you make when you say “I do,” and how those vows would play out at an ultra-marathon wedding.
You would take your husband or wife “for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘and in ultra marathons’, to love and to cherish until death do you part.”
One of the great mysteries of life is the mystery of love.
At the Umstead Endurance Run on April 6 and 7, a little piece of that mystery was solved.
If you are willing to love someone through a grueling 100-mile run, you can probably love them through anything.
And that’s the truth.
Check out more photos from the 2013 Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Run here:
Teri Saylor lives, runs and writes in Raleigh, N.C. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org