The man I knew would have blushed, averted his eyes for a moment and then flashed that shy but brilliant smile.
Derek T. Jensen would not have wanted the attention.
He did not need it. He never sought it.
But as one who loved him, I needed to show, even in a small, silly and seemingly insignificant way, that I remembered him. Our friend and former Deseret News colleague was killed while riding his bicycle to work Thursday morning in Anniston, Ala.
So I offered the only tribute I could as I sat in a rented van in the parking lot of a city park in Hyrum, Utah, just a few miles from where Derek attended college at Utah State. I couldn't see the words clearly as tears and fatigue clouded my vision. I scrawled his name across my bib number for the Wasatch Back Ragnar Relay and whispered to the wind that my 16 miles would be to honor him.
Most of the more than 13,000 runners who navigated the course along the backside of the Wasatch Range from Logan to Park City had their reasons for participating in the ninth annual event. There is something unique to each of the participants.
For some it is a race.
They compete both as individuals and as teams in an endurance competition that tests them in ways a single-day event cannot. There is something magnificent about seeing what a human body can do under stress — something that inspires us to cheer and admire athletes.
For others it is a celebration.
"For us, what this represents is a good opportunity to spend some time with family and improve our physical fitness without spending money on the doctors," said Corey Thompson of the Loafer Mountain Loafers. "At least until after the race."
He shares a laugh with his teammates and then continues.
"This is our first time this year," he said, still sporting the antlers his team wore throughout the race. "I really enjoyed it, other than that I can't feel my legs. Just getting out there and being part of the community (is the best thing about the race)."
The Wasatch Back Ragnar Relay is a lot like life as the experience is punctuated by pain, laughter, loving, suffering, soothing, helping, being saved, accomplishment, failure and, maybe most of all, connecting with other people. During the 24-hour race, you will have moments where you question your sanity, question your affection for those sleeping next to you in that crowded, smelly van and question your ability to run the number of miles you told your team you would.
It is not simply a physical challenge. It is so difficult, so demanding and so rewarding that it changes you, even if you are unaware of it at the time.
So maybe it was fitting that I received an email from another former colleague near the start of Friday's race remembering Derek. I had been extremely busy with work and out-of-town company when I heard about Derek's death Thursday morning; so while I took a moment with friends to reflect on his life and grieve his passing, I hadn't allowed myself to really sink into the sadness.
But when I read Julie Dockstader Heaps' email, I was transported from that parking lot full of goofy, giggling runners to a dimly-lit gymnasium in 2000.
I was so overwhelmed by her words, I wept despite the stares and questioning looks. I listened to people laugh, watched them high-five and hug, and I cried for Derek, for what he'd miss because he died at 37 instead of 97. I let the tears fall for his wife, who lost her best friend after just 13 years of marriage. But most of all, I wept for his three children (1, 7, and 10 years old) because they will have to rely on the stories of others to really understand what an amazing dad they have.
I offered an explanation for my tears only to my 18-year-old daughter, who, along with two of my sisters, was running this race with me. I showed her Julie's email because I couldn't find the words.
As she read, I remembered.
I'd bumped into Julie Heaps during the high school girls basketball playoffs a few months ago. Her niece was playing for Woods Cross, and we spoke briefly when I saw her and her lovely little daughter in the stands. We shared a moment, some affection and then we moved on with our separate lives.
A former writer for the Church News, she asked me in her email if I remembered the time we (the Deseret News) won the silver medal in the 2000 Corporate Games. I'd been a late addition because the basketball team was lacking enough women for the co-ed division — which is the story of my adult athletic career.
Despite my obvious lack of hoop skills, my colleagues, especially Derek and Julie, were encouraging and complimentary.
She recalled the conversations with the eventual winners (South Salt Lake's police department) and the 3-point shots that Derek and former Deseret News photographer Keith Johnson (who now works at the Salt Lake Tribune) hit to put our team in the finals.
She thanked me for our friendship, however neglected it had been since we no longer worked together. And her sentiment highlighted for me all the ways in which we humans touch each other's lives — good and bad, brief and lasting.
Derek was a friend because we shared a profession, but we were lucky enough to work in a place where we did more than try to earn a living together.
"It was really a family," said one of my best friends and another former colleague, Jennifer Dobner. "It was not only super-talented people, super-committed to the work, but they were committed to each other. There was a lot of kindness and you know, 'these are the people who will take care of me when bad things happened.'"
I ran for Derek three times this weekend, and each time I prayed his children would feel his love, would feel the love of those who knew him and would be comforted by our collective affection for him.
I asked Jennifer, who worked with Derek twice — in Idaho Falls, Idaho and at the Deseret News — what she loved about him.
"A lot of things," she said. "He knew who he was. He knew that he wanted to be a husband and a father, a good person, a kind friend. He was really steady. He was the most drama-free person I know."
And then she painted a picture of Derek playing touch football when the two of them worked at a paper in Idaho Falls. He was 22 years old, fresh from an LDS mission in Taiwan, and she thought of him as a younger brother.
"I can see him running down the field in sweats in a Ricks College sweatshirt," she said. "He wasn't one of those people who was asking a lot of questions about who he was or what he wanted to be. He just knew. He was really committed to his faith, to his family."
Both of them ended up at the Deseret News covering crime and Dobner remembered one night when Derek and his wife, Mina, showed up at her house unannounced.
"Another picture I have is of he and Mina just showing up unexpectedly with chocolate chip cookies just to tell me that they loved me and wanted to support me — for me to know someone was thinking about me. … He was just good. That's just the word for him. He was good all the way down to his toes. He had a good heart, a good soul, was a good friend, a good partner, a good dad — and he was humble about all of it."
Life is full of opportunities to make moments like the ones that now sustain those who knew Derek. We will summon them when we miss him, and he will inspire us when we struggle.
We all leave pieces of ourselves as we live. Sometimes the pieces are huge and life-altering for those with whom we share them.
Sometimes they're small and ordinary. We open a door, smile and say hello, offer a ride, help a neighbor move or bake a plate of cookies for a friend who is hurting. The irony is that we don't always know the impact of those pieces, and sometimes we don't know whether we're sharing something significant or small.
No one can carry another's burden any more than they can run another person's race. But for some reason, when humans share, when they connect, they make each other stronger.3 comments on this story
I ran through Heber City for the last of my three legs Saturday, and I thought of the grandfather I never knew. Charles E. Curtis died when my mother was 16 and all I have are stories of him and the man he was. When strangers tell me about my grandfather, I imagine his face and I consider whether or not he'd be proud. When my daughter graduated from high school, I left her picture and an invitation on his headstone and I mourned the fact that he never knew her — or the two grandsons who each have one of his names.
I do feel cheated that these strangers knew and loved him because I didn't get that chance. And I suspect that maybe Derek's children will feel badly that they didn't get more time with the man who impressed so many of us.
But if we have the opportunity, we will share our moments with them. We will tell them stories and we will swim through the sadness with them.
And then, just as we always do, we will continue running our individual races clinging to our collective moments.