“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” —Lao Tzu
By Brittni Hutton
When Brandon Birdsong of Lubbock, Texas, proposed marriage to me, Brittni Hutton, of Milford, Michigan, in Los Angeles, California, on February 13, 2016, at approximately 2:45pm, I cried. Out of happiness? Of course! I would die to marry Brandon Birdsong of Lubbock, Texas. And yet… After he went down on one knee and made his proposal, to which I said, “Hell yeah!,” he couldn’t get back up. He collapsed in my arms, moments later started having seizures, and my fiancé was whisked away by ambulance to the hospital emergency room. Quite the engagement day, huh? Here’s what led up to it:
Brandon’s proposal came at the finish line of the Olympic trials… Wait, let me back up. When I first met Brandon he had this Euro-mullet that… No, I need to go back a little further so I can stick a knife in someone’s side. After college, I moved to Colorado Springs to train. I was alone and did not know a soul. On my second day there my boyfriend of two years (still back home in college) dumped me. By phone. After I’d just sent him a care package signed with my everlasting love. Thanks dude. No really, thanks. Because otherwise I might not have ended up being proposed to by Brandon Birdsong.
Brandon and I trained with the same Olympic Development team, The American Distance Project, headed by Coach Scott Simmons. That’s how we met. When I first saw Brandon training, he was doing crazy-hard workouts, like mile-on sprints, with a mile off in between for 20 miles. I thought holy shit this guy’s fast. And even crazier, I’d never seen anyone push themselves as hard as him – to a galaxy far, far past hurt. I’m drawn toward people with that affliction, probably because I suffer it myself. And of course there was his really bad-ass Euro-mullet.
I made a quick impression on Brandon too, but not on the track, rather at a joint called Devil’s Kitchen where I ate an entire (gluten-free) pizza by myself. He’d never seen a woman do that. He was blown away. I offered him a slice.
Things moved pretty fast after pizza night, on to burgers and beer in Manitou Springs, and after, on a bridge as the snow fell, with Pike’s Peak presiding over us, Brandon asked me to be his girlfriend. I said heck yes. And we’ve been together ever since.
The LA Olympic trials meant a lot to Brandon’s career. He’d already qualified for the Olympic trials by killing it in the Houston half-marathon with a time of 1:04:21. (That’s a hair under a 5-minute mile average for 13.1 miles.) But right after Houston, he got injured and couldn’t run for a year and a half. That’s tough on a runner – or any athlete – to go so long without competing. But leading up to LA, he’d gotten so fit – fitter than I’d ever seen him. He did a series of small races and based on his times he was ready to run a 2:12 or maybe 2:11 marathon. If he hit those times he’d be in the top 10 runners. That would mean more notice, a shoe contract and greater opportunities. He was so, so ready for LA. We were. We’d become a team.
The LA race had a start time of 8am. A perfect hour. Who likes to roll out of bed when it’s still dark? And not too late either. Even in February, LA can get pretty damn hot. And the forecast for race day was heat. Maybe even record heat. And heat is Brandon’s Achilles’s heel. He has a tumor on his hypothalamus/pituitary (which controls heat regulation). It’s not dangerous – under normal circumstances – but that stupid tumor causes him to sweat a ton in hot weather, draining his electrolytes in a finger’s snap. The man needs his electrolytes, so 8am? Down with that.
But a few days before the trials the TV network broadcasting the race requested, and was granted, a new start/broadcast time: noon. Peak heat of the day. Why? In Hollywood speak, ratings. They did it for ratings. And it ended up hurting a lot of people who’d worked so hard and long. People to whom that race meant everything.
At the start line I’m with Brandon, studying him, his face a portrait of him in the zone. Purest expression of it I’d ever seen. Then he comes out of it briefly to tell me, “Be sure you’re at the finish line.” And I’m like, “Where else would I be? Checking out the stars on Hollywood fucking Boulevard, dude?” We kissed, I started crying because the race meant so much to him, to us. The clock struck noon, the gun went off, and his Olympic trials race began.
I hurried back to my car near Staples Center five or so minutes away. I noticed I’d broken a sweat. At 12:05 pm. Shit.
When I caught up to Brandon a few miles into the race, he was hanging with the lead pack – exactly where he belonged. But at mile 10 when I saw him again, he started falling off.
Runners were already dropping out – good runners, top-of-class runners, the heat was so punishing. But Brandon pushed on, sweat (electrolytes) pouring out of him. He drank as much as he could, and used the cold towels handed out to the runners, but it wasn’t enough. I could see the suffering in his face, his stride, his whole being.
But then he overcomes. At mile 13, he surges and moves back up, he’s top 30, he looks good, he looks strong, he looks confident.
More runners drop out. Soon, half the women and a third of the men will have quit the race, mostly because of the overwhelming effects of the heat, which officially peaked that day at 89 degrees, but I can tell you first hand on the asphalt course the real index was easily 100.
Brandon falls back in the pack again. He looks terrible. I feel so bad. I see him again at mile 17. Coaches who know him, friends who love him see his miserable state and yell at him to get off the course. But we make eye contact, he’s telling me I’m finishing this god damn race, so don’t even think about suggesting that I consider contemplate quitting. I cheer him on, I know he won’t give up. He’ll fight through anything. That’s been his entire life, he’s had to fight for everything.
The last time I saw him during the race was at the 21-mile point, and I yelled to him, “You’re going to finish!” And then I hurried to the finish line so I could be there when he crossed.
At the finish line, I watched runners cross, most of them looking like they’d just run through hell. Which they had. I saw top female runners qualify for the Olympics in Rio – Amy Cragg, Desiree Linden (2018 Boston Marathon Champion), and Shalane Flanagan. As inspiring as it was, I couldn’t stop worrying. Where is Brandon?
The next ten minutes were the worst ten minutes ever. I knew how much he was suffering, but I was helpless to do anything about it. Finally, I see him. But he’s not even Brandon, but a spirit willing a near-lifeless body toward the finish.
As he crossed, he fell into my arms and said, “You got me to the finish line.” And I said, “No. no. That was all you.” “No,” he says, and then takes a ring off his pinky – a ring I know for fact he wasn’t wearing before or during the race – and the man went down on his knee and proposed marriage right there and then. On a day that belonged to him, that he suffered so mightily, he did that for me. I cried my eyes out – “Oh,” I said, “Oh, yes, I’ll marry you!” – and then he pretty much collapsed in my arms. Somehow I got him to the athlete’s tent and they quickly plugged him into an IV.
But my new fiancé Brandon Birdsong’s condition worsened. He started having seizures, he couldn’t talk, his hands were stuck corpse-like crossed and clenched over his chest, his toes clamped down tight. He could only communicate with a nod or shake of the head. After the fourth IV didn’t restore him, an ambulance rushed him to the emergency room.
The doctor said his heart rate was way off the charts. They gave him mega doses of potassium, it was so scary. But finally, Brandon’s body began to respond. When he could walk again, and was fully functional, the hospital discharged him.
That night, we went to post-race parties, and after the parties, to bars celebrating our engagement. At one joint, Brandon ate 60 buffalo wings because if you could eat 50 the rest were free. (That competition he placed first.)
I know I should be flattered that he almost killed himself to finish the race so he could propose to me as he had planned, and I am, but most women can look back on their engagement day without being so conflicted – half so happy, half so in awe of Brandon’s true grit, and another half wanting to kill someone for almost killing the god damn love of my life. And never mind that that race mattered so much to Brandon and all the other athletes who’d trained for years, traveled from far and wide to LA, and had to drop out all because a network wanted better ratings. Where’s the character in these people?
Oh, wait. You’re wondering about the ring. He wasn’t wearing it at the beginning of the race or at mile 17 where I last saw him. A girl notices such things. Yet look closely at this photo a friend took of Brandon around mile 25 of the race, right there on his pinky:
So what gives? He had tied the ring to the drawstring of his shorts and at mile 25, despite his suffering, he had the presence of mind, or as he put it, the love for me, to use precious energy to untie the ring – while running – and put it on his finger, so that as he crossed the finish line he could propose to me like he’d planned. That, my network friends, just so you know for next time? That’s fucking character.
I can’t wait to see what happens on our wedding day.