NOTE: Megan Buerger, of The Post’s Local Living section, uncovered this heart-wrenching tale of a young Northern Virginia woman’s struggle to overcome the sudden loss of her husband during a popular relay race.
Holly Mitchell was never a runner. Though young, healthy and fit, endurance was not her strong suit. Neither was distance. Runner’s high? Dream on.
All that changed in early 2010 when Holly, then 25, and her husband, Shane, 28, decided to train for a Ragnar Relay, an increasingly popular overnight group run. Together, they ran laps around their neighborhood in Fairfax, pushing their baby son, Preston, around the streets in a stroller.
“We felt ourselves mutually improving, gently pushing each other,” she said. “It’s hard to explain. It wasn’t fun, but it felt good.”
By last September, the two were at their fittest. They met their friends at the starting line near Cumberland, Md., and chatted about what they would do first when they reached the finish line at National Harbor the next day.
They never made it there. In a tragedy that remains both shocking and illogical, Shane died two miles into his run.
Holly was staggered by Shane’s sudden death, and moved back to her native Utah with her toddler. Now she’s back, and on Friday, she plans to run this year’s Ragnar in Shane’s honor.
Christy Archuleta, Shane and Holly’s friend and teammate who has run several Ragnar Relays before, said the race day started according to plan. Holly, the first runner, ran five miles and passed the race bracelet to Shane. Following typical Ragnar procedure, the van carrying Shane’s teammates sped ahead two miles and waited to give him water and support. Shane came around the corner and was met with cheers. The van sped ahead again, 1 1/2 m iles this time, and waited.
After about 30 minutes, there was still no sign of Shane. Archuleta, 27, enlisted the help of several Ragnar Relay directors and volunteers who helped search for him. Finally, after nearly three hours, Archuleta spotted Shane’s body in the brush. He had suffered a heart attack.
“It didn’t make sense and it still doesn’t,” she said. “He was 28, healthy and had rigorously trained for this race.”
Unlike traditional marathons or races, Ragnar Relays are group treks that take place over 24 to 36 hours and cover hundreds of miles of back-road terrain. Teams typically consist of about 12 runners who take on 3- to 8-mile legs at a time before passing the baton to the next runner. While one runner toils — often bedecked in wild costumes and wigs — screaming teammates trail them in decorated vans filled with water and food.
The relays, if unconventional, have become wildly popular. Last year alone, Ragnar Relays drew more than 40,000 runners across the country. This year, the overnight runs are being held in 15 U.S. cities, up from 11 in 2010, with a predicted total participation of about 70,000 people.
The first Ragnar Relay was held in 2004 in Logan, Utah, not far from where Holly and Shane met at Utah State University in January 2006. Shane, who was from Idaho, had just returned to finish school after serving a year with the Army in Iraq. Holly, then Holly Adams, is from Parowan, Utah, about 300 miles away, and was his neighbor on campus. Holly’s brother Curtis, a lifelong runner, had participated in the relays before.
The couple married in May 2006, while both were still in school. Shane graduated in December 2008, and the next summer, they moved to Fairfax so he could attend law school at George Mason University.
“The second you marry someone, all of your plans change,” Holly said. “I never would have been in Fairfax if I hadn’t married Shane: He was my life at that point.”
Holly made Fairfax her home. She started a graphic design business and made friends in the area, some of whom joined their team for last year’s relay. All of them, she said, became like family after Shane’s death.
For Holly, the days immediately following the race were a fog of disbelief and painful chaos.
“Shane died on a Friday, and by Wednesday, Preston and I were back in Parowan,” she recalled. “I can’t quite put into words how insane that was. I went from the wife of a law student to a funeral. And then, boom, I’m living in my parents’ basement. It was unbelievable. I don’t know many women who are widowed at 25.”
Try as she might to rebuild, Holly felt handicapped by heartbreak. She attempted to run once again that autumn, but couldn’t.
“I was literally mad at running,” she said. “I felt like it stole something from me. At one point, I just decided I was never going to run again.”
Six months passed before Holly braved the open road again. She talked herself into attempting a one-mile jog. Again, she almost couldn’t finish.
But then, she did. And the next day, she did it again. Now, Holly runs five miles a day.
“I think about Shane when I run,” she said, fighting tears. “Especially when I’m training, I feel like I’m doing it for him — or even with him, like we used to. It pushes me to run harder, to finish stronger. Last year, a mile was so hard for me. But this year, I’m doing five miles a day, easy. And I keep saying to myself, ‘Are you serious? Look at me now, Shane.’ He would be so proud of me.”
This spring, members of the Ragnar Relay board reached out to Holly and her teammates, offering support and flexibility should they elect to participate again. Holly felt nauseous at the thought.
“I was grateful for the thought, but I wasn’t ready,” she said.
Gradually, though, a few of Holly’s former teammates stepped forward. They said they’d run again, if she would.
“It turned into this … this kind of a tribute run, like we’re finishing it for Shane,” she said. “We have unfinished business with this race, and personally, it’s just something I have to do. People think I’m nuts and say, ‘How can you go back there?’ But i just feel like, how can I not?”
Holly moved back to Fairfax from Utah late last month. She and Shane had fallen in love with the area and planned to spend the rest of their lives there.
“It’s hard to give up everything,” she said. “Those decisions were mine, too.”
In this year’s Ragnar Relay, which begins Friday at 9 a.m., Holly will run a total of 13 miles. Archuleta, who now works in Alaska, has grown close with Holly over the past year and is flying to the District to run the race again. Preston, now 2, will meet Holly and the team at the finish line Saturday.
Just like last year, Holly will begin the relay as the team’s first runner. Instead of filling Shane’s spot, the group will take his average running pace and time how long it would have taken him to complete his leg. During that time, they will remember Shane.
“I should tell you, we’re also going to be eating donuts then,” Holly said, laughing through tears. “They were his favorite food.”