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This is a story about two sets of chicken tenders. That opening line is how you know this is a serious article with literary aspirations.
December 5, 2021, was one of the scariest days of my life. A couple weeks earlier, my co-coach and wife Megan had a world-class run, setting records on the Walker Ranch loop in Boulder in the context of a 20-miler. It was just another day at the office for Megan. She’s a 5-time national trail running champion, and her weekly Strava files are so titillating that they might qualify as GPS porn. You need to turn SafeSearch off to look at her Ultrasignup page.
We were giddy in the car. Walker Ranch is a testing ground for some of the best trail runners ever, so we understood what those times meant. She was stepping up to the Bandera 100K in 10 weeks to chase a Golden Ticket for the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, and her worst day would still be unstoppable.
Just stay healthy, we both thought. READY.
On the way back to our home in Boulder, she went silent. Anyone who has met Megan while she is high on endorphins knows that this turn of events was abnormal. Getting her to stop singing at the top of her lungs to whatever was on the radio would usually require a taser. So I was concerned.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My chest hurts,” she said. “It’s OK, though.”
Runners are tough – and Megan is tougher than most – but we would soon learn that sometimes you don’t want to be tough.
From Bad To Catastrophe
Over the next couple weeks, she continued training for the upcoming race. She did one particularly memorable session on Mount Sanitas in Boulder, with 3 x (6 x 1 minute fast/1 minute float), all uphill. Within the context of that workout, she set one of the fastest times ever – including rest periods! That legendary session was interspersed with other days when she had to stop and change plans. It just felt like a part of the process of training so damn hard. I was doing every run with her, coaching while trying my best to keep up, and sometimes failing at both.
There was no way she could be running that fast if something was wrong, right? Looking back, I feel like such an idiot.
It all culminated in another run at Walker Ranch, two weeks after the first. We were planning 24 miles, and she suffered through the first 8-mile loop but still moved fast. It was clear she was in the pain cave, but that’s where runners sometimes have to take up residence, right? She had been paying property taxes to the pain cave for her entire adult life, and it seemed that the tax rate had just gone up a bit.
She ran the 3 miles downhill to get to mile 11, when the trail turned uphill again. BOOM! It went from bad to catastrophe. We walked back to the car, with her heart rate at 160, when it would normally be 100 beats lower. Something was deeply wrong.
We went to the emergency room, still oblivious to the implications. It’s wild in retrospect, but there’s context that makes our errors a bit more understandable.
Earlier that year, she had been diagnosed with a hereditary autoimmune condition, so things sometimes just hurt. It started in her lower back, then knees, then achilles. She balanced running with cross-training and anti-inflammatories to manage it, and in the process had become stronger and faster than ever, with a huge course record at the Tiger Claw race a month before. Her pain cave got a bit more cavernous, that’s all.
We thought the visit would be quick, an affirmation of the autoimmune condition and maybe a few days off. Then, the doctor looked at the ECG results and gasped. He knew Megan was a doctor, so he treated her like half-patient, half-colleague.
“See this pattern here?” he said. “That’s a tombstone.” He grabbed a pen and sketched a tombstone with RIP and some daisies growing on the outside. That qualifies as good bedside manner in my book.
A grueling series of exams ensued over the following days. Megan was so strong, but I was crumbling. As they wheeled her off to another 3-hour test, to check for SCAD, a life-threatening ailment, I went on a short run. I spent a few miles crying on the Boulder Creek Path, worried about losing my adventure partner.
It wasn’t SCAD or heart failure, thankfully. It was autoimmune myocarditis with associated pericarditis – essentially a swelling of the heart muscle and the wall of tissue surrounding it. No running for 3-6 months at least. Perhaps no running ever again, depending on the cause and the trajectory ahead.
The Real Story Begins
That all sounds dramatic, and it was, but I need you to know that the hospital trip was also so much fun. We laughed at morbid jokes, watched football, and most of all, counted down the hours until we could order another meal from the hospital cafeteria. You know you found your split-apart life partner when you can spend 90 minutes looking at a hospital menu while making sounds that vaguely approximate orgasms.
Here’s where the story truly begins. Because this is the moment I reintroduce life-altering chicken tenders. Now I’m not saying they were “good” in the traditional sense. They had the texture of a worn-out trampoline and the smell of a McDonalds inside a textile factory. But to us, in that moment, they represented our love coming to life. Who else in the world would foodgasm with soggy tenders in the midst of a health nightmare?
We had fallen in love 11 years before at a meal that lasted 3 hours, and we affirmed our love at a meal of fried food that lasted 3 glorious minutes.
But that’s just half of the story.
The next chapter started around 12 weeks later, just as I was getting back from a run in late February. Two days before, Megan had her follow-up cardiac MRI after months of inactivity. The results were literally heart-wrenching: continued myocarditis, a full shut-down of activity.
Megan’s cardiologist gave her the news, and he included a coda. “Under no circumstances should you get pregnant.”
I ran that day with deep sadness and fear. My best friend! I would have taken out whatever she was dealing with, multiplied it by 100, and put it into my body if I could. I remember spending that run listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History episode titled “Blueprint to Armageddon,” a story of humanity’s possible nuclear annihilation. It felt like appropriate vibes. I jogged down the snowy driveway, and out stepped Megan. She was barefoot on the icy stoop.
“I’m pregnant,” she said, showing me the test.
“There’s no line there,” I said. “Are you sure?” She was still 5 days before her expected period, and that line was so faint that it could have been imaginary.
“I have an M.D. Don’t mansplain pregnancy tests to me.” I didn’t marry her because she was afraid to speak her mind.
Sure enough, that line got darker and darker over the coming days. She was pregnant, a lifelong dream for her, a lifelong fear of mine. But I saw the way her eyes lit up when talking about a family, and I thought about the joy of getting to try a new adventure together.
She convinced me the previous summer to give the family thing a shot one day in the future, and with the heart diagnosis, there seemed like no better time to try. In December and January, we tried but didn’t have success. In February, I started taking Athletic Greens and the test came back positive. (Put that in your marketing materials AG!)
Suddenly it seemed like a firehose of fear aimed directly at our faces. Heart condition. Questionable viability of pregnancy due to health. Risks to the baby. Risks to mom. Midterm elections. We talked to a dozen doctors, specialists from all over the country, and the eventual consensus was that it was OK to keep the pregnancy and see what happened next.
Striding Through the Shit
Megan’s grit was relentless, which makes sense because she’s the most courageous person I have ever met. Around the 20th week of pregnancy, she had a major heart scare that required near-bedrest for 10 weeks, and she worked just as hard at doing nothing as she had worked at becoming a running champion. She was so quick with a laugh, in that warmly infectious way that anyone who has ever met Megan would know instantly. Gallows humor seems much funnier when it feels like there might be a rope tightening in your chest cavity.
Her pregnancy kept hitting mile markers we never expected, and some doctors doubted. 24 weeks? Possible viability. 28 weeks? Much better odds. 32 weeks? Now we’re talking! The fetal survival charts went from something we peeked at with trepidation to something we checked each morning for affirmation. Holy crap, this was happening!
On October 25, 2022, she had the 38-week check-up. Her blood pressure was sky high, and it was officially go-time. We were admitted to a different floor of the same hospital, and the induction process began. She had contractions for the next 2.5 days. In between, we did hallway intervals where we’d walk at normal pace on the straights and walk slowly on the curves, stopping periodically as the next contraction began, dragging a pole of IV fluids the whole time. It felt like an ultramarathon, and we were blessed with an unending supply of Labor And Delivery chicken broth that rivaled the best mile-80 aid station.
Suddenly it seemed like a firehose of fear aimed directly at our faces.
Finally, it was time for pushing. They don’t tell you this, but pushing is an epic athletic moment. It’s basically 3 x 10-15 seconds harder than you’ve ever gone with 5-10 seconds recovery until birth. Megan went through that living hell for 2.5 hours. Or, it would be living hell to someone like me. To gritty, courageous Megan, it was “super fun.” She cracked jokes that could have gotten her a Netflix special, between pushes that could have expelled a watermelon. (Megan asked me to add that “epidurals are wonderful.”)
The baby popped out around 11 months after she first stepped foot into that hospital with chest pain. But this story isn’t about a baby who can’t even read. GET A JOB, BABY!
This story is about dinner that night.
The Real Story Resumes
She had barely eaten anything beyond broth over a few days, a liquid diet required for many inductions. So we opened that hospital menu, and angels sang. “She’ll take the chicken tenders,” I said to the cafeteria. “Extra ketchup.”
We waited for the order to arrive and reflected on the journey to that point. Damn, it objectively sucked at times. We both spent a fair number of midnights crying. But what I’ll never forget is how often those tears were accompanied by deep belly laughs. Megan was dealt a crappy hand of cards, but I saw her come to the realization that it wasn’t about trying to win with that hand, it was about trying to have some fun in that game. She kept showing up. She kept believing. And she achieved her biggest life dream.
It’s reductive and annoying when people say “it’s meant to be” or “it’s going to be alright.” Some things are purely shitty, like finding out that your heart is not functioning properly just as you’re in the best shape of your life. This story is not about toxic positivity, presenting bad situations as good with a heaping helping of naivety. This story is about seeing that so much of life can be shitty, and yet trying to keep showing up with as much love as you can muster on the day, even if it’s the smallest drop you could ever imagine.
When people say things like “it’s meant to be,” I think what they’re really saying is that when shit gets messed up, and you keep moving forward, sometimes the path that started out broken and sad can evolve in ways that might be impossible to foresee in the moment. A broken heart can lead to the ultimate joy. Chicken tenders stained with tears can lead to chicken tenders soaked with joyous ketchup (after seeing labor up-close, I hope that was ketchup).
When Megan was getting her heart examined 11 months earlier, I bawled with fear on a run. The day after the birth, I bawled with gratitude on the same route. There is likely one person who uses the Boulder Creek Path around that hospital who thinks I’m just the guy that runs and cries.
The baby’s name is Leo Roche, 7 pounds, 3 ounces of love brought to life. There’s some wild science that pregnancy may help women with certain autoimmune conditions have fewer issues, though it’s uncertain. Leo the Lionhearted may have helped Megan’s heart heal from her autoimmune myocarditis as he grew his own healthy heart.
I take back what I said earlier, I guess the baby might have had a pretty big job.
What’s next? Who the heck knows. Megan’s heart issue could return. Leo could have his own health issues. An asteroid could hit just as we bite into the metaphorical tenders. We’ll never know until it happens. With that uncertainty, I guess all we can do is show up with whatever love we have, enjoying whatever soggy tenders the cafeteria might deliver.
And if life delivers a shit sandwich? Maybe that too can lead to some unforeseen love in some unpredictable time. Like maybe 11 months.
Or maybe it’s just pure shit all the way down, forever. That happens too.
What Megan showed me with her deep belly laughs when the sandwich smelled like an outhouse is that one guiding goal can go a long way. That goal means so much to us that we wanted a reminder, every day for the rest of our lives.
Love each other.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.