Runner with Parkinson’s helped me redefine failure and success in 3 brutal miles
As I entered the aid station at mile 30, I told the volunteers I was dropping out of the Squaw Peak 50-miler.
The words did not provide the relief I’d convinced myself they would as I grappled with whether I could make the 2:30 p.m. cutoff at mile 33.
By the time they spilled out of my mouth, I had convinced myself I couldn’t make the cutoff. I based this decision on the fact that it had taken me over an hour to run the last three miles.
The brutality of those three miles leading to the aid station where I made my declaration wasn’t the terrain. It was in my mind. So I kept telling myself that if I could just get to the aid station and make the decision official, I’d feel relieved.
I did not.
In fact, when the aid station volunteer heard me she told me I had 50 minutes to get to the cutoff. She said it twice. I vacillated, trying to hide my humiliation and disappointment while desperate for the comfort of a conclusion.
That’s when I saw Celeste Collman.
She was scooping beans into her mouth from a can using a chip as a spoon. Then she poured cold water on her neck and got up to continue the race.
As soon as I recognized her, I told the volunteers I was continuing on to try to make the cutoff. And then I hurried to Celeste’s side and asked if I could run with her.
She welcomed me, and we set out into the unforgiving heat and an unrelenting climb. “You probably don’t remember me, but we’ve met,” I said. And then I told her how we’d met two years earlier when my friends and I were training for our first 50-mile race on Antelope Island.
“You gave us some great advice,” I said, as I tried to keep up with her. “Really helpful.”
Almost immediately, I felt overheated.
I had begun to experience symptoms of heat exhaustion during the three miles before I joined Celeste. Recently, I’d been struggling with hydration and electrolytes when running anything over 10 miles. I was frustrated that I couldn’t seem to solve the puzzle my body had decided to throw at me the past few months.
I drank generously and distracted myself by engaging in a conversation with my new friend.
Celeste was all business. And she was all in.
When I said “if we make the cutoff,” she quickly corrected me.
“When,” she said. “Don’t talk like that.”
And then she laid out the plan. We’d run 50 steps and then walk and then run 50 more. We did this for more than a mile. We talked when we could. We ran in silence when we couldn’t.
She told me that in the year between when I met her and our chance reunion, she’d lost her mom and had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This was a woman who took up running after beating thyroid cancer in 1995.
“They gave me less than a year to live,” she said. “I was one of those, and this is no kidding. They said it was medullary, the worst kind.” She lived in Florida at the time, and her brother convinced her she’d get better treatment in Utah so she came home.
“I always say when I came from Florida to Utah, God changed the slides in my suitcase,” she said smiling. “Because when I got here they said it was papillary. …Three pathologists made a mistake? I don’t know how they did it. That’s why I say, maybe someone up there changed things.”
She took up running after that — partly to regain her health and partly because her youngest brother ran ultras.
“If my brother could do it, I could do it,” she said laughing.
The 62-year-old Ogden woman, recognizable because she dresses head-to-toe in pink, has run so many ultras, she’s lost count. She has two 100-mile finishes (The Bear 100) and dozens of others, including more than 10 Squaw Peak 50 finishes. So there was no way Celeste was quitting today. And if I could hang onto her, I thought, I can borrow her determination until I recover my own.
I thought the monotony of counting would drive me crazy, but it calmed me. It helped to have a focus and a reward, and it didn’t matter that it was small.
At one point, I was about a quarter mile ahead of her. Then she caught me on a steep incline. As she passed me, we exchanged more chatter. In any other setting it would have been meaningless. On this day, it felt like shelter in a relentless storm.
As the gap between us grew, I looked at my watch. We wouldn’t make it. It wasn’t humanly possible. I was overcome with disappointment. I thought meeting her had been an omen of good fortune. I really thought that if I could stay with her, I’d make it.
She faded from view, continuing her plan, while I abandoned it for self pity. Then I heard her yell back to me, “Don’t you quit, girl!”
And I couldn’t contain a giggle.
How did she know I was contemplating sitting in the shade for just a few minutes? So I sped up. I pushed as hard as I could to catch her. I wanted to at least arrive at the aid station with her.
She politely asked if they’d make an exception, as we were just 12 minutes past the cutoff time. They declined, and she accepted offers of cold drinks and salty foods as she sank into a chair next to me.
She said she was taking care of her terminally ill mother when she began experiencing symptoms of Parkinson’s.
“I couldn’t put my hair in a ponytail,” she said, stuttering, another symptom of Parkinson’s. “I couldn’t tie my shoes, couldn’t zip up my clothes. I didn’t know. My mom died, and I wasn’t paying attention to myself.”
She admitted it was devastating to hear a doctor tell her she had Parkinson’s. But then, she’s been dealt disappointment before.
“I figure, everybody’s got something,” she said with a shrug. “I did pretty good after they gave me dopamine. But it’s getting tougher. Sometimes you have to change the medication.”
The medicine can cause fatigue and other side effects. But she said she’s had some great races in the wake of that diagnosis. When I asked her if signing up for ultras is an act of defiance, she doesn’t hesitate.
“Yeah it is,” she said. “It’s just fun.”
Her disappointment mitigated my own. She’d never failed to finish Squaw Peak. I’d never failed to finish any race I’d started. But I was new to ultra running, and more than once I’d been warned that failure was a necessary part of the growth process.
I’d also let the fact that I’d never failed to finish become a sort of pen. The truth is that I’d stayed safely inside my comfort zone, only attempting races I knew I could finish. So what had I really achieved?
And as I sat with Celeste, sipping cold sodas in someone else’s lawn chairs, I realized how lucky I was that I ran into her that day. I wish we’d made the cutoff, but not because I wanted a medal or the easy confidence that comes with finishing something so challenging.
I wish I’d had the benefit of 17 more miles of wisdom from a woman whose fearlessness and determination make even her failures enviable. She isn’t philosophical about it — at all. As we rode to the finish line, she started talking about the ultra she was running in two weeks.
“It’s cheaper than Prozac,” she said with a shrug. “And I’ve got a lot of nice friends from it”
Written by Amy Donaldson y Amy Donaldson, Deseret News