Saturday, May 05, 2001

She'll run in memory of her love

Race provides chance to ease griever's pain

By Paul Daugherty
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FRANKFORT, Ky. — She will be there Sunday morning among the milling, anxious thousands, 6:30 sharp, Runner No. 5516 in the Flying Pig Marathon, stretching, twitching and high-stepping in place, lugging her resolve, her sadness and the freight of all her memories, heavy and light.

Vanessa Armstrong holds the T-shirt - bearing a photo of Mark and her - that she'll wear in Sunday's Flying Pig Marathon.
(Breck Smither photo)
| ZOOM |
        You think running with a blister or a cramp is tough? Try running with a broken heart.

        She was 34 when he died and the world was as close to perfect as she ever knew. Vanessa Armstrong met Mark Wheeler on a blind date in September 1999. By December, they wanted to get married. Vanessa knew love could be complex, messy, thrilling and pained. She never knew it could be lonely, too. She wasn't ready for that.

        He died just after midnight last July 31. The plane he was flying from Illinois to North Carolina crashed in heavy fog in the woods less than two miles from the Raleigh-Durham Airport.

        She'd worried about him the night before. He'd been flying skydivers all weekend. He was tired. Now, he'd be flying again Sunday night, late, to the hangar near Raleigh where the plane would be serviced.

        “I'll try to call you in the morning,” he'd said.

        “I love you,” was her answer. “Fly safe.”

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        Nine months later, she still doesn't wear makeup. What if I cry?

        She sleeps fitfully: “My bed is a war zone.”

        She goes to grief counseling, partly to make those close to her feel better: “We talk about what our attraction was to each other.”

        In the hour it takes her to drive to and from work, she avoids commercial radio. The love songs bother her. She listens to National Public Radio.

        Vanessa sleeps in Mark's shirts, she uses his razor. For the race Sunday, she will wear his watch and a pair of his socks. He was a marathoner, too. When they met, each was in training.

        “I fell in love with him immediately. It wasn't rational. I loved him like I never loved anybody. When I saw him,” she says, “I just knew.” Sometimes, it works that way.

        She was afraid of heights and terrified to fly. He owned a skydiving company. The day after their first date, he took her for a jump, Vanessa tethered to him, jumping with the same chute, trusting him completely.

        She has a picture. She brings it to lunch. It's a snapshot, her and him, taken two months after they met. The background is dark, their sweatshirts are Navy blue. The only light in the photo — what draws your eye completely — is her smiling face, as if the sun were hitting it exactly right. It is the face of someone who can see happiness, pure and clean, after 34 years of looking. She knew then. Right away.

        She didn't date in college at Berea, or in law school at Columbia, because she didn't have time. She'd had dates before Mark, but never relationships. He'd been married once. Now, at age 44, he devoted himself to his work. His closest friend was his dog, a corgi named Woody.

        But Mark shared Vanessa's feelings. In May 2000, eight months after their first date, he left Florida to take a job flying skydivers outside Chicago. It was temporary work, until they could find some land in Jefferson County near Louisville.

        They made do by calling once a day, sometimes twice. Mark came to Louisville on weekends; Vanessa kept his dog. She trained last year for the Flying Pig, only to drop out with less than a week to go, to spend the weekend with Mark in Chicago.

        The morning he died, she was at her desk at the Kentucky state Capital building. Vanessa is legal counselor for the governor, in the office of child abuse and domestic violence.

        “Bad news,” her boss said.

        “My immediate thought was that another woman had died at the hands of an (abusive) partner,” Vanessa says.

        After talking with Mark's boss, Vanessa stared at her phone. “I kept thinking someone would call back and tell me it wasn't true.”

        Before dawn, five or six days a week, she slides into her size-11 Brooks running shoes and talks to God.

        “It's not that I don't believe in you,” is what she says. “I just don't want to get into it with you.” There is too much anger still, too deep a resentment. “God doesn't give you things you can't handle,” she hears from people trying to help. Great. Thanks.

        She'll glide down Eastern Parkway in suburban Louisville where she lives, running on the balls of her feet, feeling good, stable, permanent, just as the first light gathers. “I feel best when I run,” Vanessa says. “It gives my life some order.”

        Often, she talks to Mark. On Wednesday, she said, “I know you didn't want to die. But you left me in this horrible place. What am I supposed to do?”

        Sometimes, the best thing to do is put one foot in front of the other and go. Sometimes, it's the only thing.

        In the nine months since Mark died, Vanessa has run 1,500 miles and gone through three pairs of shoes. She's had a hundred sleepless nights, when she can feel her life leaking all over again. She still hurts from the inside out.

        “You wake up in the middle of the night, and it grabs you and takes your breath away,” she explains it.

        Sunday morning, each runner will come to the starting line toting a different motivation. A finish, a start, a march away from something and toward something else. No one runs 26 miles for the hell of it.

        Vanessa will run to keep alive a memory. “I guess my goal is to share him with people. And to show you can get through something like this.”

        Running is not a replacement for the might-have-beens. Neither is skydiving, though the potential up there for angels floats her spirit. “I meet Mark in the sky,” Vanessa says.

        Running is something to dull the pain of a random, senseless death. Vanessa will put one foot in front of the other and go. The memory of Mark will be there. For 26 miles, it will be light.


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