By Tabitha Hanson
I am a swimmer. I am NOT a runner. Yet, regardless of my snail’s speed, I run regularly out of desperation for exercise and time with dear friends early in the morning before our children rise and our days pick up to their frenetic pace. Combine my “running” with a lifelong habit of taking on tasks that I’m not technically qualified for, and you have the insane scenario that I found myself in last fall – organizing a team to run in a 2 day (and through the night), 200 mile relay race called a Ragnar. Each person on a Ragnar team runs a total of 3 legs during those two days, distances ranging from 3-9 miles, at all hours of the day and night until the 200 miles are traversed. It was an amazing, exhausting, and inspiring experience that culminated in the BEST worst run of my life.
Due to how the race legs were broken up, and despite the fact that I was one of the weaker runners, I was assigned to be the final runner for my team – a team made up of a circle of almost all Mormon women friends from my northern California town. This meant that after two grueling days and one night, traveling in two vans, eating and sleeping where and when we could (yes, also in our vans), all eleven of my teammates would be there…waiting for slow me at the finish line.
Throughout the race, our team seemed to be keeping pace with one particularly exuberant team who had chosen to dress up (and RUN!) in a variety of super hero costumes. We saw this team at several race hand offs, and at some point on the last day, we dubbed these competitors “The Capes” and decided to use this team to motivate us toward the finish. It was all in fun, but come hell or high water, us middle-aged, diet Coke-loving moms were going to at least beat The Capes. By the time my last leg came, I knew one of our strong runners had over taken The Capes on a hot, hilly, 8 mile run, and it was up to me to bring it home.
I received the last handoff with a sweaty hug and a “good luck” at around 3 in the afternoon. At that point I was running on a sum total of 4 hours of catnaps over the past two days, and the heat index on the asphalt was about 100 degrees. I normally run before the sun comes up in 40-55 degree weather. I DO NOT RUN IN HEAT! I wilt, I die. Yet, here I was and all I could do was try. As I ran through the beautiful countryside of Napa, California, I decided to take out my headphones and to absorb it all – the golden landscape and rolling hills, the sun, the fact that I had healthy legs that could pound that scalding pavement, the exhaustion, the heat, the pain. I wanted to be present with it all. At about two and a half miles in to the 5.5 mile run, it became increasingly apparent to me that heat stroke was a real possibility, especially given that I had not brought water along (never needed it on my cool morning runs). I slowed to a walk as I struggled up a long, gradual hill. I walked, just until I didn’t feel like passing out again, and began a slow run as soon as I could. Surprise and disappointment were mine as a fellow runner saddled up from behind me and greeted me with a friendly hello. It was the team captain of The Capes and I had lost my teammate’s lead.
Disappointment quickly gave way to relief as this joyful man gifted me with the power of distraction. John introduced himself and began telling me about his life, his inspiring weight loss fueled by the encouragement of old friends from the Marine Corp, and his love for the running community. The Marine Corp comment threw me just a bit because he had definitely impressed me as gay from my earlier observations on the racecourse. It didn’t matter to me earlier and it certainly didn’t matter to me now as he chatted on. I guessed that our time together would be short because I could tell that his pace was faster than mine, and at another hill, I had to stop again. I figured that at this point, John would go on his way, surely eager to meet up with his enthusiastic, costumed teammates anxiously waiting to celebrate with him at the finish line. Yet, when I slowed to a walk, noticing my lack of water, John offered me water from his own camelback. The germaphobe in me was over-ruled by my screaming thirst and overheated body and I drank gratefully! At some point, John must have determined that he was not going to leave me because he told me then that we would finish together. As we continued on, I told him of the irony of our situation – how I had actually pegged his team as the one team we needed to beat, yet here he was with me, literally refusing to leave me alone on this difficult road, buoying me with his positive attitude, sharing his strength. John was visibly moved by this and choked up. I still reflect frequently that had the situation been reversed, I would have happily passed John by with pride and excitement. Yet, he saw fit to run with me and to both physically, and later spiritually, lighten my burden on the road that we shared that day.
We continued to talk and our conversation ran deep. At one point, John mentioned his husband, which, despite the Marine curve ball, confirmed my initial impression. I was hit suddenly by an overwhelming desire to apologize for the LDS church’s role in Prop 8, and to tell this running savior of mine that I was sorry for the pain it may have caused him. Though I didn’t ever personally support Prop 8, in that moment, running through the Napa heat, I felt like the friend of the playground bully that stands by and watches the injustice from the sidelines. About a mile and a half from the finish line, I got up the nerve to ask John if he was gay. His affirmative answer was met by possibly the lamest response of my life, “Well, so…I’m Mormon.” This was in turn answered by an awkward pause and John’s hesitant “Ok…,” perhaps waiting for some judgmental, preachy blow from me. However, I quickly launched into what I really wanted to tell him, which was that I support him and his husband and that not all Mormons supported Prop 8. At this revelation, we reached out to each other briefly and both began to cry. John told me how his 16-year marriage to his husband meant the world to him, completed his life and brought him joy. He told me that my voice and my efforts make a difference because there are only so many times that a person can hear that they are an “abomination” before they start to believe it. All I could tell him was that I was sorry and that I was trying to speak up thoughtfully and in ways that make a lasting difference. There we were – strangers, crying and running, connected through compassion and pain, both physical and spiritual.
Soon, we began to see the crowds that indicated that the finish line and our waiting teams were close. Despite the overwhelming physical breakdown I was experiencing as my weary body ran on, I was sad that our conversation was going to end. John told me that he didn’t think it was a coincidence that we ran together that day, and we said quick good-byes as we joined our excited teams. I knew that something meaningful had happened for both of us in that span of time, something that would be part of a broader experience and conversation that, unlike the race that day, would not end for me. My ecstatic teammates met me with cheers and confusion, wondering how it came to be that I finished the race side by side with The Cape’s team captain. All I could say to them in that moment while catching my breath and holding back tears was, “That was the most amazing run of my life.”
About Tabitha: My full time job is as a busy mother of 4 kids, ages 4-15, and I consider myself to be a straight ally within the church. In studying and pondering LDS LGBT issues over the last 1.5 years, I have learned a tremendous amount about myself, spirituality, and discipleship.