Our Facebook cover photo for the Ogden Pub Runners typically consists of a big group of us. We stand together with beers in hand. We smile. Sweat leaves white streaks across our foreheads. Arms drape over shoulders.
We’re serious runners (or serious walkers or serious beer drinkers), so in the photo, we have just finished a run, and we are ready to drink a beer and talk about PRs (or PBRs), upcoming races, running gear, chaffing and the necessary discussion of bowel movements—successful or unsuccessful, pre-race or during race, solid or…
But as I write this, the photo has been changed.
Now the photo shows several people’s faces: the one on the left is a strong and notoriously kind Scottish woman, Donna Hernandez, with bright red hair and eyes that say, my voice may be wee, but don’t mess with me. The one on the right is Dan Nelson, who I have admired for his kindness, generosity and skillful mastery of holiday mustard.
Two months ago, Dan thought he had gotten stuck with a flu bug and wasn’t able to get out of bed for a week. His wife, Diane, packed him in the car to go to the doctor after she had had enough and saw his body had, too.
A tumor had decided to grow on his brain and brainstem like a piece of unleavened bread that had been given yeast, stretching out and consuming any extra space his skull would allow.
My wife and I went to visit Dan a day before the neurosurgeon planned to dig into his skull and remove the tumor that had so rudely grown there.
He lay in his hospital bed. His family waited for him outside in the waiting room, and his wife escorted each of us back individually, my wife first and me after she returned.
Dan was Dan that day. He smiled. He laughed.
He asked more questions about how our lives were going instead of talking about where he lie, why he lie there and what the doctors planned to do to make it so he didn’t lie there anymore.
He talked about fulfilling his holiday mustard orders, and all I could think about was when he told me a year earlier, “You know, a lot of people ask for this mustard.”
A year earlier, I sat on his deck and dipped carrots into the homemade spicy stuff. He cooked for 30 people at his annual Jimmy Buffet Party, where he handed out margaritas. A lot of people ask for this mustard. I believe this was his kind way of saying that I may not get any mustard.
But by the time he got to the end of his sentence, I could see what I had always seen in Dan: the innate, deep-down desire to be a giver. His next sentence was, “I’ll make sure and make you a jar and drop it by the house before Christmas. But I’m not giving away the recipe.” He smiled.
One cold day in Utah, later that year, he dropped by two jars.
“I don’t know how much mustard I can make this year,” he said in his hospital bed. He was sick, but he apologized. Then, like always, he asked about my life.
One month before we visited Dan in the hospital, KUTV News interviewed the Ogden Pub Runners at 6 a.m. the day before the Ogden Marathon, one of the premiere marathons in the western United States that boasts one of the most beautiful and fast courses in the Rocky Mountains. It’s true. It’s worth running.
Sierra Nevada was a big sponsor, so they provided the group with a warm 12-pack of beer that we would drink after a quick interview and lap around the expo center.
Dan ran around the room with us. When the television personality drifted with his microphone through the group, he landed next to Dan, a man with a personality so warm the TV guy seemed to just fall to him, like a needle pointing north.
Dan said a few words on TV, made the whole group laugh, and then helped the TV guy sign off with a big smile.
Several months ago, Donna and another man in our group were injured when a young woman’s car slammed into them as they moved across the crosswalk in downtown Ogden, the flashing lights signaling their crossing for cars to see. The man couldn’t be reached for permission to use his name in this story.
In the Facebook photo, Donna sits in a wheelchair. More than 30 people saw her fly through the air, spinning around and around like a rock launched from a slingshot.
I, very gladly, didn’t see it. The flight through the air and the slamming and sliding across the blacktop road shredded her skin from her torso, ripped it off her toes and exposed them in red and ivory, and like a hammer breaking up tiles to remove them from the floor, broke her bones and her knees and her pride.
She lay there in the middle of the street. Her husband knelt down next to her. He held her.
Runners, all of us who knew her and loved her, upon first reaction, ran toward her and leaned down over her before being shooed away. But we all stayed. Tears fled from eyes. Hands covered mouths. We couldn’t do anything for Donna, who had been thrown through the air and ground up by the solid blacktop like a chef running an orange peel over a grater to slough off some zest.
It would be several weeks before we would see Donna and watch her smile, knowing she was only smiling for us and not for how well she felt.
One night, about a month after Donna’s accident, word spread that Dan was feeling good enough to join us at a pub run. His wife brought him to a pub and sat him in the open air of the outdoor patio.
When a group of 45 runners returned from their run, they pounced on him like an 80-year-old woman jumping on a fumbled football, moving in toward him slowly and with patience. Everyone wanted just one moment with him.
And like Dan did with me and my wife, he asked them about their lives, and just like he did when the TV personality talked to him before sending the broadcast back to the studio, he hugged everyone and sent them back to their lives.
In July 2013, my brother and I started the Ogden Pub Runners, to be honest, to give us an excuse to get out of the house once a week with friends, to run a few miles and then drink a couple beers.
It was a two-for-one deal. But as word grew over the next two years about what we were doing, the group grew and grew and grew.
The lines really aren’t dotted, ya know—the lines you sign to make unofficial things official. We became legally more than a running group when we became a non-profit organization in 2015, but you know, that’s not what I think about when I say MORE than a running group.
That night at the pub with Donna and Dan there, we took a photo. This time it felt different. It wasn’t a photo of a running group. It was a photo of MORE than a running group. Love and tragedy and birthdays and childbirth and accidents and races and hangovers and vomiting and PRs and PBRs and friendship and fundraisers and support and life can change the meaning behind a photo pretty quick.
And we’re all looking forward to our Christmas mustard.
Previously published on the Standard Examiner
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Photo credit: Getty Images