It takes some strength, but more so a lot of stupidity, to run ultramarathons. Though I qualify as an ultrarunner, I am learning what real strength looks like — not on the trails, but through the life of my best friend, Sandy.
This past summer, my fiancé at the time, Patrick, and I competed in a 50-mile trail race in Colorado. 37 miles into the race, Patrick began to falter, struggling to cope with the altitude at 11,000 feet.
He had become hypoxic — his brain was not receiving the oxygen it needed as his limbs worked overtime to propel him up another mountain. By the time he hit mile 38, he was sitting down and foaming at the mouth; his extremities had mutated into black appendages due to the debilitating oxygen deficit. Adding insult to injury, it was partly my fault.
The evidence doesn’t lie: I was the one who had gotten him into ultrarunning; I was the one who had paced us all morning, just a little bit faster than Pat wanted; and I was the one who had left him behind at mile 30 when he began to slow.
Clearly, I had a lot of growing to do as we neared our wedding day.
Here is where my best friend, Sandy, comes in. Sandy was “crewing” our efforts and cheering for us that day, and she found Pat in the medical tent, hunched over and barely breathing. Her nursing background came in handy as she barked orders to the race EMTs, who were treating Pat’s symptoms somewhat lackadaisically. “He needs oxygen and an IV!” Sandy demanded, recognizing the severity of his condition.
Several hours and a trip to the hospital later, Pat stabilized. When I crossed the finish line, I was surprised to see him standing under a tent with Sandy by his side.
Pat forgave me after the ultra-race (phew) and two months later we were married. Sandy was present, of course. As I looked out at the pews during the wedding Mass, my eyes connected with hers and our faces filled with unabashed tears. I knew that for Sandy, they were tears of joy and heartbreak — overwhelming joy for me and Pat, and terrible heartbreak for herself.
I had met Sandy after Mass only one year earlier. Clearly a newcomer to our parish, she was there with her two college-aged sons. I extended my hand in welcome that day and told her about my work in campus ministry. She, in turn, extended a piece of paper with her name and number, offering to help.
It took several months for me to discover that Sandy was at Mass that day to pray for her husband, who’d very recently died in a mountaineering accident. I knew nothing of her story at that time, only that she looked like a newcomer. She knew nothing of me, only that helping bake and cook for college students might provide some reprieve — albeit temporary — from her grief.
There are few people I’ve met who give of themselves as generously and freely as Sandy. Upon seeing someone in need on the side of the road — anyone at all — she stops to offer a conversation and a warm cup of coffee. Upon hearing that someone needs a place to stay — for a day or a year — she opens her door.
For me, Sandy never fails to drop everything to be the friend I need, listening and helping me in my marriage and even at work. She currently coordinates a Sunday dinner for 125 of my hungry college students every week: shopping for food, organizing volunteers, cooking, and cleaning up. She is consistently searching for ways to give and serve — no questions asked, no judgments made, no holding back.
This generous self-gift defines Sandy — her love takes shape in tangible and practical ways. The things she gives cost her real time and energy and resources, and thus they touch and feed and bring comfort to others. Her love is modeled after Christ’s, and she reveals Him to me.
As I strive to grow as a wife to Pat, I need look no further for an example than to Sandy. Her life exudes the selflessness and generosity of spirit that makes marriages thrive. But the hidden key to Sandy’s life — the thing I admire most about her and try to emulate — is the way she offers herself to others. She doesn’t give out of strength, but out of her weakness.
Sandy didn’t reach out to help when she had her life figured out — she is figuring out her life by reaching out to help. She didn’t wait to have it all put together before finding ways to love and serve others — serving others is helping put her life together.
This is a paradox that we learn from Jesus, Himself. On the cross, he perfected weakness, turning it into strength through love and faithfulness. Sandy still grieves her husband, and always will. Nevertheless, she chooses each day to turn her longing and love outward, and in doing so her vulnerability and weakness have become her source of beauty and strength.
The second reading at our wedding proclaimed: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). This kind of strength tops any ultra-running strength, no matter how big the mountains may be. I have a long way to go — as a runner, a wife, and a friend — but with Pat and Sandy by my side, I’m confident we will get to the finish line, together.