It was late the night of Christmas Eve, and I sat waiting at my parent’s house in Evergreen. They hadn’t returned from a trip several miles east on the interstate to Golden, where they’d shared dinner with family members closer to Denver. It turned out they had been sitting at a standstill on I-70 westbound for hours, traffic stopped in both directions by a horrific head-on car accident. They sat and watched as a Flight for Life helicopter took off from the freeway, airlifting the loved ones of strangers to the hospital. When they finally came through the front door with this story, I felt a chill up my spine. It wasn’t until the following morning when I woke up to the news – my friend Sancy Shaw had been driving west on I-70 near Genesee with her 6-year old daughter Charlee in the backseat when they were struck by an eastbound vehicle that veered across the median into their lane. Sancy and the other driver both died in the accident, and the helicopter my parents had watched take off that night contained Charlee, who suffered a broken femur and a traumatic brain injury that would take months and multiple rounds of intense surgeries to even begin to heal.
I took this Christmas morning news like a gut punch. Sancy had become a friend in Steamboat over the past several years and was a teammate of mine during a 24-hour Ragnar running relay from Copper Mountain to Snowmass Village in 2015. She was a teacher, a wife, and mother to 4 kids. She had a head of bright blonde hair and a super-watt smile, an unrestrained laugh and an infectious energy. Her light could shine for miles around. The fact that a life force such as this could be so brutally and instantaneously wiped away was beyond my reach of acceptance. The community in Northwest Colorado where we live felt ripples of heartbreak throughout – her light had cast far and wide. The memorial service was held in a huge ballroom at the base of the ski area. It was packed almost beyond capacity, friends standing shoulder to shoulder, holding each other up.
Nearly 9 months since she was killed, and I am running……running…..running. Miles on end of my feet pounding the pavement in repetitive motion. It’s mid-September of 2019 and Sancy’s RagStars are running the Ragnar relay race from Castle Rock to Fort Collins, 200 miles of county roads, bike paths, sidewalks, and the occasional highway shoulder to get there. We are a team of 11 people and we take turns passing the torch over a period of about 36 hours, running varying lengths of 3 to 12 miles in each leg we run. There’s a lot of purple on me – Sancy’s favorite color (convenient, my wardrobe is stocked with it). Two of my runs are close to 8 miles, over an hour of monotonous footfalls. My thoughts have plenty of time to drift. They return to Sancy quite often, especially when I feel that throbbing long-distance runner’s knee pain, which starts somewhere deep underneath the kneecap and radiates outward in a brutal ache. I am in pain, but I am here. I am here on this earth and I am alive and breathing and struggling and hurting and alive alive alive. Sancy would have been here alongside us. I keep pounding the pavement, a few more steps towards the next exchange point. Tears prick my eyes and I struggle to maintain rhythmic breaths coming despite the lump in my throat.
I’m no stranger to a good ugly cry while running. There is certainly catharsis in the repetitive simple motion of it. I remember my college years in Miami, having broken up with a boyfriend and running out on Key Biscayne on the outer edges of a tropical storm, my tears lost underneath a driving rain. Years later, a sunrise jog on the airstrip in South Sudan, just beyond the medical clinic walls. The only place we were allowed to go outside the compound. I carried a large stick on those runs, to swing at the barking packs of wild dogs that would sometimes chase me out of pure confusion rather than much actual malice. Those morning runs were the only thing keeping me sane at the time (though village locals would probably debate the term ‘sane’ as they watched a white woman in short-shorts running around a landing strip sobbing and swinging a stick at dogs – sometimes even making contact). Across the world in the suburbs of Jackson, Mississippi, I took ragged breaths and let tears fall often during the last painful year of my sister-in-law Deanna’s life. Again, running kept me tethered to earth when I wanted to levitate away in pain. Anger. Frustration. Helplessness. Pure, unadulterated sorrow at being let down by life.
Here in Colorado, the relay team pushes on through the night towards Fort Collins. There are moments where I think one or more of us might give up and tap out, but it doesn’t happen. People keep lacing up when it’s their turn again, resigned to carry Sancy’s name to the finish line. The deep-of-night runs are the worst, out alone in the dark with only the white cone-shaped pool of a headlamp’s glow shining in front of you. The team can gather in colorful blinking lights and cheers at each exchange, and it is wonderful to bask in that warmth, but out on course you are forced to reckon with what lies beneath. Fear and self-doubt run alongside you – or, rather, directly at your heels. At one point, between runs, a team member (new to running) asked me when he might feel that mythical “runner’s high”, and I laughed. Maybe it’s what happens whenever the ‘low’ fades away.
We were all more than ready for the finish line in Fort Collins. Half of the team finished their legs on the early side and waited for the rest to complete the last set of miles, basking in the heat of the Front Range at mid-day. Our last runner was accompanied by a teammate, the two of them appearing on the horizon in purple tutus late in the afternoon. We all lined the gauntlet to the finish, banding together to run through as a team. The announcer came on the loudspeaker, talking about Sancy’s RagStars, “running in memory of their friend Sancy Shaw”. There was a group hug at a certain point – tears coursed down my cheeks. Inside that group hug, all the noise of the finish line seemed to fall silent. We all knew and loved Sancy in different ways. Her light has not gone out. We, and all who were lucky enough to know Sancy, are the ones who carry it now. We will shine on with each step forward.