Forty-two miles into the legendary Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, Jeffery Hart curled up in a whimpery heap, exhausted.
Hart, an experienced ultramarathoner, had already run to the top of 14,048-foot Handies Peak, the highest point in the grueling 100-mile race that totals 66,000 feet of elevation— 33,000 up and 33,000 down. The stress on his body was causing fluid to build up behind his corneas; he could barely see and he still had 60 miles to go.
After an hour’s rest, Hart’s vision cleared, and he headed back up the next mountain. He had a delivery to make and a promise to keep.
Hart, an assistant professor of special education at Western, was carrying a three-diamond ring he had picked out with his son Xander. Assistant Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders Jen Thistle was going to meet him at Mile 88 and run the last 12 miles with him to the finish line.
Hart and Thistle met about eight years ago when both were working in public schools in New England, he as a special education teacher and she as a speech-language pathologist.
Thistle went off to graduate school at Pennsylvania State University and Hart joined her a year later. After they completed their doctoral degrees, they went to work in separate states. Landing faculty jobs together at Western in January was a dream come true.
Even with Thistle on the trail at his side, Hart was hallucinating, hearing voices and country music. They were climbing a series of false summits, with a new climb beginning every time they thought they had reached the peak.
At the top of the last peak, 12,400-foot Putnam-Lime Creek Saddle, Hart asked Thistle to stop and look at the alpine view. In the fading light, they could see 50 miles in every direction, including the mountain passes they had just crossed together.
Hart got on his hands and knees to get his phone and take a selfie. He asked Thistle to take his hand to help him to his feet, only he got on one knee instead and wouldn’t let go of her hand. He asked her to be a part of his life just like she had been such an important part of the race. “To not make you a part of all this would be a crime,” he told her.
Thistle said yes. Then she helped him up so they could run the last few miles together.
Photos courtesy of Jeffery Hart