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The City Journals

Sandy woman cheers on stranger who completes Utah marathon with canes

Dec 16, 2021 10:45AM ● By Heather Lawrence

Looking more like old friends than perfect strangers, Nicolé Hillary of Sandy and Dr. Bryon Soelberg of San Diego have their picture taken at the finish line of the Big Cottonwood Canyon Marathon on Sept. 10. (Courtesy Nicolé Hillary)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Like a marathon course, life is full of ups and downs and winding roads. It can also present surprising and breathtaking views and experiences that never would have happened—or been as sweet—without the hard work and challenges that it took to get there. 

This was the experience for two strangers, Nicolé Hillary of Sandy and Dr. Bryon Soelberg of San Diego, who met on Sept. 10 at the Big Cottonwood Canyon Marathon. They both signed up for the marathon hoping it would give them an outlet for their challenges. 

“I’ve worked the med team at the marathon for years. I’m a ‘catcher’—I stand at the finish line and watch for signs of dehydration. And if people fall across the finish line, I catch them,” said Hillary, who works as an OB scrub tech at Alta View Hospital. 

In addition to being a hospital worker during the pandemic, Hillary was dealing with the loss of her husband of 37 years, Del. Del died in July 2020 after a motorcycle accident, and Hillary, who describes herself as usually “up” had been feeling low for over a year. 

“I had been in a really dark place. We donated his organs, which was an amazing experience. We have four kids and 10 grandkids, but they’re all on their own. I just had to go back to work and I’d come home and there was the loneliness. It changed me,” Hillary said. 

Soelberg was dealing with challenges of his own. 

In 2000 he was diagnosed with a congenital spinal disorder. He was born without an odontoid, a bone that provides pivoting motion for the skull and the C1 neck vertebra. An injury to the area can be fatal. Nearing 60, he is thought to be the oldest living person with the disease. 

Hillary signed up to work the marathon as she had for so many years, thinking that it might do her spirit some good. About four hours in she saw Soelberg nearing the finish line.   

“I saw this guy coming towards the finish line with a cane in each hand, and he’s basically being held up by braces. I didn’t see anyone waiting or cheering for this guy,” Hillary said. So she went onto the course to walk the final steps with him.  

“I started walking with him and he smiled. Soon we were talking and laughing,” Hillary said. Then Hillary asked who was here with him. 

“Absolutely no one,” he said.  

Soelberg is well-known in California and has finished marathons all over the world. He’d completed 219 at the time of this writing. He has a great support system, but it didn’t work out for any of them to come to Utah this time. 

Hillary crossed the finish line with him and congratulated his achievement. “I told him Utah is a special place, and there are people here who love to help, even if we’re strangers.  

“Then I had other people to attend to at the finish line, so I made sure he was OK and yelled out, ‘Thanks for coming to Utah!’ and left,” Hillary said.  

Soelberg stayed on Hillary’s mind. “I had been in this dark place. But Bryon came along and said, this is how it’s done. When you’re faced with a challenge that should have killed you, this is how you make it positive. I thought, ‘Look at what he’s doing. What am I whining about?’ 

“It was just a little moment, but it lifted me, and I stayed lifted. It pulled my heart out a little further, and I’ll always be grateful for it,” Hillary said. 

Soelberg was touched, too. He stayed back at the finish line, watching how the “not shy or quiet” Hillary cared for other athletes.  

“He came over to me and had someone take our picture. There was snow that day and I was soaking wet, but it was a great moment. He said that no one had ever done that before; no stranger had ever treated him with that much kindness,” Hillary said. 

And then it was over. Soelberg was on to his next marathon and Hillary was back at work. 

Then one day Hillary got a call from administration at Alta View Hospital. They told her someone was trying to track her down, someone from the marathon, and he had a picture for her. It was Soelberg. 

“We were able to exchange contact information and he sent me the picture of the two of us at the finish line. He called me his Utah Angel, and it’s the greatest picture!” Hillary said. 

Hillary said meeting Soelberg is a moment that she’ll always remember, not because of what she did for him, but because of what he did for her. 

“We forget that when we’re serving people, we’re doing something for ourselves, too,” Hillary said. 

The experience made her think of her husband. She wished he had been at home that night and she could have told him all about it. Since his loss, this is the kind of moment she appreciates more deeply.  

“I would have told Del about meeting Bryon, and Del would have said, ‘Nicolé, it doesn’t surprise me at all that you did that. It doesn’t surprise me at all,’” Hillary said.