Tom and Sarah Wilson finished the Lander Sprint Triathlon Saturday the same way they survived the last year and a half; holding hands, together.
It didn’t matter that Sarah was the stronger swimmer and Tom the faster runner. It didn’t matter that it took them two hours and seven minutes to finish.
What mattered was a year and a half ago they held their son, born at 22 weeks, long enough to name him David Thomas Wilson, before he died in their arms. What mattered was a few months later Sarah still needed two people to help her out of bed. What mattered was that even six months ago Sarah was still in so much pain there were days she couldn’t get out of bed.
In January 2011 Sarah was about 22 weeks pregnant with the Wilsons’ second child when she started having crippling stomach pains. Her stomach swelled to look like she was full term with triplets, Tom said. But doctors didn’t know what was wrong.
They flew her to Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver where doctors realized her appendix had ruptured days before and toxins were coursing through her body.
There was a good chance they’d lose the baby and a fair chance they’d lose Sarah, doctors told Tom before wheeling his family into surgery.
Mom and baby made it out of the surgery, but Sarah’s body turned septic. Everything began to shut down. And while alone in her room, still in a drug haze, she unknowingly delivered her baby, calling for a nurse knowing only “something changed.”
David survived for about 2.5 hours, long enough for the Wilsons to hold him and capture grainy photos with a cell phone.
Weeks later Sarah still wasn’t better. Doctors went in for exploratory surgery and found scar tissue had glued Sarah’s intestine together. She spent another month in the hospital recovering.
Sarah watched her daughter, Katie, then only a year and a half, grow up during hospital visits and in photographs friends sent. Her hair would be longer. She’d be taller. When Katie first came to the hospital Sarah tried to kneel on the ground beside her daughter. She was too weak to stand back up alone.
Each day she needed a shot of a blood thinner to help prevent clots. Her arms were so bruised she asked what she could do to avoid the twice daily injections. Medical staff told her if she could walk a mile a day, or 16 laps around the hospital, she wouldn’t need the shot. She started with one lap, and then rested. She couldn’t do them all at once, and she often needed help from a walker, or her IV pole, but most days Sarah got in her 16 laps. When Katie was there, she’d tottle alongside and when Sarah got tired Katie would chant, “go, go, go.”
It was the start of Sarah’s fitness routine.
The Wilsons returned to Lander in March after two months in the hospital. The sun hurt Sarah’s eyes the first time she stepped outside.
By August Sarah and Tom made the 3-mile round-trip hike to the Popo Agie Falls. It was a painful hike that took hours.
In mid-August Sarah was running errands in Lander and she happened to drive by the finish of Lander’s first sprint triathlon. Sarah didn’t bike or run, but she came home and told Tom that next year she wanted to do it.
We belong there, she said.
It seemed almost impossible.
“I was in the worst shape of my life,” Sarah said.
There were still days she couldn’t walk, but the goal was set.
Early in their marriage, Tom and Sarah were active people who liked to hike. Sarah skied and Tom ran. They both started master’s degree programs and then had Katie. Regular exercise fell by the wayside.
Sarah vowed to get into shape and contacted a personal trainer. She’d make small strides, but then find herself bed ridden, the pain in her stomach like someone hitting her with a baseball bat.
Scar tissue was again causing adhesions in her abdomen, but more surgery put her at risk for more adhesions. Instead she changed her diet, cutting out meat, a hardship for her “carnivorous family,” but she noticed an immediate change in how she felt. That spring she started regularly running on the treadmill, first just a few minutes and then eventually a mile and finally three.
She took a cycling class and came home the first night crying because she was slower than the others in class. But she went back and stuck with it.
Tom took a swimming class, admitting he still “swims like a cat,” but he worked his way up to the half mile required for the triathlon.
The Wilsons realized they’d have to wait for each other during the race, but it was important they do it together.
“Finishing together is symbolic,” Tom said. “That’s how we’ve gotten through everything, together.”
The day of the race the Wilsons were two of about 25 first time triathlon racers in a field of about 100.
Fitness-wise Sarah said she still wasn’t 100 percent, but she knew they were strong enough to finish and when it got tough they knew they’d only have to look sideways to find support.
“Things like we’ve been through either blow a marriage apart or cement it permanently,” Tom said.
And so they swam 750 meters, or about half a mile, and biked more than 12 miles and ran a 5K and crossed the finish line, fingers intertwined, hands above their heads, together.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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