Cheryl Collins Gatons buried her husband on the day of her 40th birthday in 2006.
Kevin Gatons, with whom she shared a love of running and family, was only 46 when he died suddenly from arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia (ARVD) while coaching a runner at a state cross-country meet in Hershey. They’d been married eight years and had three children, all ages six and under.
“When somebody dies so young, the grief is so consuming,” says Gatons, the Greensburg-based author of Farther Than 26.2 Miles (Palmetto). “There’s no happiness. Nothing makes you happy.”
Gatons’ memoir recounts Kevin's death and her struggle to take care of her children while dealing with her grief. Though supported by her family and faith (although Gatons admits she was initially “mad at God”), she still struggled, especially when her father died a few months later.
Recovery started when she returned to competitive running.
A nationally ranked marathoner who ran in the 1996 Olympic Trials, Gatons initially had no intention of competing at the sport’s highest level. (She and Kevin actually met at the Columbus Marathon in the mid-'90s.) After her natural talent emerged and she started winning races in the early 1990s, Gatons began to take the sport more seriously, hiring coaches, and traveling across the country and around the world to compete in elite races. She was selected to be a representative for Avon’s running series in 1997, joining Joan Benoit Samuelson, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Lynn Jennings as one of the country’s top female track and field athletes.
After getting married and having children, Gatons had less time to train, and though she’d run with her children in tow, serious training was impossible.
But a short time after her husband’s death, Gatons returned, fueled by her despair, anger, and grief, and eventually, her old rhythms came back.
“I just love how running makes you feel,” she says. “It makes you feel free. I’m happy while running. There’s no pain. I’m not thinking about my life or the sadness or the heartache. I could escape all that.”
But there were still many unanswered questions. Her faith provided some answers, but nothing that gave her true comfort. Therapists helped to some degree, but the dull ache in her heart persisted.
The idea of giving up wasn’t possible because of her children.
“If it was just me, it would have been easier,” she admits. “I had three lives I was responsible for and I wanted to make sure they were okay. I had a greater purpose."
It wasn’t easy. Her children, now 19, 16, and 14, all reacted to the grief of their father's death in different ways. But by sheer force of will, Gatons held her family together.
“It was both a blessing and a curse that they were so young when Kevin died,” she says. “Kevin was a great dad, and my father was a great dad, so I know what they are missing. But they really don’t know life with a dad because they were so young.”
That kind of bittersweet reflection is a theme that runs through Farther Than 26.2 Miles, as in the book's dedication, where Gatons writes, "I remember saying to my mom shortly after Kevin died, 'I wish he never ran.' And my mom replied, 'But you never would have met him.'"