He runs with a cellphone pressed tightly against his hip, but she never calls, so for 26.2 miles he runs with his memories.
In the first hour, she is walking again through the German countryside. By the middle of the race, she is dancing again to their classical favorites. At the finish line, she is strolling with their two children into the best years of her life.
Then John Creel, 77, towels off, catches his breath, and returns to the marathon that is his life as a full-time caregiver for wife Ingrid, whose body has been rendered helpless by the evils of multiple sclerosis.
“My life is pretty simple,” Creel said. “It’s all about taking the next step … just take the next step.”
The Brea man’s next official step will be taken in the Dodger Stadium parking lot Sunday as one of 24,000 runners in the 28th L.A. Marathon. In what is annually trumpeted as the human race, Creel will be one of the most human of runners.
When his wife’s degenerative illness confined her to a wheelchair in 1995, Creel made the decision that he would be her primary caretaker. When the stress from that decision became overwhelming, he began running for relief.
That was 59 marathons ago. He has run at least one marathon in each state. He transports her in her wheelchair to most of his races, twice even making sure somebody pushed her to the finish line. She doesn’t understand running, but she likes the company. He sometimes weeps over her losses, but he still loves her smile.
He feeds, bathes and clothes her. Yet after 53 years of marriage, he says she is his strength.
“Honestly, I don’t know what I would do without her,” he said.
And he doesn’t know what she would do without him. If he dies first, she probably will have to go into an assisted-living facility, and he can barely tolerate even the thought, so he keeps running, for her, for him, for them.
Said Ingrid with a grin: “Sometimes I don’t understand why he has to run so much, but it makes him happy, so let him run, let him run.”
Said John with tears: “She’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
You can glimpse strands of their enduring affection in a back room of their Brea home, the place where Ingrid spends her days watching television, the channel tuned to episodes of “Little House on the Prairie” and “Bonanza.”
All around the room there are vases with purple orchids, some blooming, some decaying, gifts from weekly visits to Trader Joe’s.
“I love orchids,” said Ingrid. “He still brings me orchids.”
She still calls him “Johnny.” He sometimes calls her “Mom.” During a recent weeknight interview they giggled at each other from across the modest living room, he in his shiny running shoes, she in her black wheelchair, their lives having taken them to different worlds, their spirit forever connected
“When you get older in a marriage, things change, but the caring just gets deeper,” John said.
They still laugh about how they met in 1958 on a snowy night in a small town in Germany. She didn’t speak English, he barely spoke German, yet a year later they were married. At the time he was a member of the U.S. Army’s Green Berets. Today he runs his marathons with the actual green beret atop his balding head. It reeks of sweat and has been tattered by moths, but, like his devotion, it is unmoving.
“He is an amazing man, so determined, so faithful,” said former longtime running partner Denis Paez. “On a daily basis, it’s hard to imagine doing the things he does.”
The former systems engineer for Kaiser Permanente awakens with Ingrid every day at 4:30 a.m.. He spends the next 90 minutes dressing and feeding her. He then puts a cellphone near the left hand that she can still use for dialing and leaves the house for his morning workout. Except for a brief return home to check on her, he is running or lifting weights or simply exercising for the next couple of hours.
“Running is the only time he’s completely relaxed,” said daughter Karola. “He goes to another place.”
Sometimes that place is filled with anger, the slap of steps along the pavement punctuated by screams to the sky.
“I get mad at God a lot; I yell and scream,” Creel said. “What has Ingrid ever done to anybody? It doesn’t seem right that she has to suffer.”
But mostly that place is filled with calm, and by the time he returns home for good, his mind is clear and his body is amazingly untaxed. He will spend the rest of the day pulling his wife’s wheelchair up and down the several steps in the house — a 150-pound task — yet he says he never feels it.
“You know that ‘He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother’ thing?’” he said. “It might be a little bit of that.”
When they attend an out-of-town race, he will arrange for a caregiver to watch her in the hotel room during the race. Then there were those four glorious moments when they actually raced together. Yes, for four 5K races in the area, Creel pushed her through the course. She said it felt as if she were flying. He said he was most happy about the ending.
“She always finished ahead of me,” he said with a grin.
On Sunday Ingrid will not attend the marathon, remaining at home with her son Greg and his family. But after her husband finishes his 5 1/2-hour run, sits in a cold bath, and rejoins her late Sunday night, she will again feel like a winner.
Before they fall asleep, John will lean over and hold her hand. Ingrid will stare at the ceiling and, in a voice softened by age and slowed by disease, give thanks that she married a man who will finish the race.
“God, you know what you are doing,” she will say. “I don’t know why I am sick, but you know what you are doing.”