Brenden Bryant hobbled from the Hilton Chicago along South Michigan Avenue to Grant Park on Oct. 11. He had just finished running the annual Bank of America Chicago Marathon, his first time ever going 26.2 miles by foot. He was physically spent, on emotional overload for multiple reasons.
Bryant's partner of almost four years, Justin Natale, also completed the marathon and was just as exhausted, perhaps more. But he had other things on his mind, not just the pain of a five-hour-plus marathon.
Natale wanted a quiet moment together, just the two of them.
"We sat down in the first patch of grass we could find," Bryant said. "I could tell Justin was acting a little different, but figured he was [just] emotional after finishing the race. Then he reached into his bag, pulled out a box and said he had a gift for me. As he opened the box, he explained that this was a little more than just a gift, and that he was asking me to be his forever partner.
"It was the perfect way to cap off the marathon. I was so touched that he chose that moment to propose.
"We both conquered the most difficult physical challenge either of us have ever faced, and now we are setting off to face all future challenges together as husbands."
Bryant said yes.
"I knew Justin wanted to be the one to ask, so I was waiting on him, but to be honest, if it didn't happen soon I was going to ask him," said Bryant, who admitted he was shocked at the timing. "I was just so happy. Justin and I have been through a great deal together, and I think it's important that we commit to each other for the rest of our lives."
Bryant, 32, was born in Florida, moved to Colorado when he was 11, moved to Chicago in 2005 and is an attorney. Natale, 34, grew up in Cambridge, Ohio, and has lived in Chicago for 10 years; he is the manager at Hard Rock Hotel Chicago.
Natale opted for a watch, his version of an engagement ring.
"There were moments in the [marathon], especially [from] miles 19 to 23, that I had to remind myself that I would, probably, be engaged if I could just finish the run," Natale said, laughing. "As much as I wanted the race to be over, I was also getting increasingly nervous about how it would go."
After all, Natale had to "wing it" since he wasn't certain what the post-race setting would be, or how either would feel physically. Plus, Natale had to figure out a way, and a reason, to get Bryant away from the Hilton Chicago, where they were recovering with members of their training teamTeam In Training, which supports the Leukemia & Lymphoma Societybecause, as Natale jokes, he didn't want to get engaged at the Hilton Chicago.
Natale had been planning to pop the question for at least six months.
"The marathon [day engagement question] came to me pretty soon after [a serious health matter for Bryant]," Natale said. "There are few events so monumental and that carry so much meaning, [so] paying homage to what he had been through in the last year … it was a sense of 'there will likely be no better time to ask, ever.'"
Bryant is a cancer survivor.
In July 2014, Bryant thought he had the flu. He had a fever, fatigue and experienced night sweats for the first time in his life. This went away after a couple of days.
Then two weeks later, the symptoms returned, so he went to the doctor, and was told nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
"I got sick a few more times, went to the doctor each time, and was again told that nothing seemed out of the ordinary," Bryant said. "Then at the end of October 2014, I got sick againfever, fatigue, night sweatsexcept this time it didn't go away. Not only that, but the symptoms became unbearable. I had a constant fever of 101 to 104 degrees; I would change my clothes two or three times a night from sweating, and I dropped to 124 pounds.
"I will never forget waking up one morning in November, sitting on the edge of the bed, and realizing that I was too weak to stand. It was terrifying. I have never felt so helpless or scared. I knew then that my health had been completely taken away from me."
He soon had two bone-marrow biopsies and a lymph node biopsy before it was ultimately diagnosed as Stage IV Hodgkin's lymphomanews he learned just weeks after his 32nd birthday.
"It was a huge relief to finally know what was making me so sick, and to have a treatment plan. I started chemotherapy the second week of December, and within two days, I started to feel better. My fever was gone; I didn't experience night sweats, and I slept through the night for the first time in two months. It was incredible how quickly the chemotherapy started working. Chemotherapy presented its own set of challenges, but I knew I was on the path to recovery."
Bryant ran the marathon in just under four hours, a feat he accomplished after a five-month training program run by the Leukemia & Lymphoma Societyits Team In Training.
"There are some defining moments that led me to sign up for the race," Bryant said. "The first one was when I sat on the edge of the bed and couldn't stand on my own. The second was when I broke down in Whole Foods because I was so tired after walking through the produce section and couldn't make it through the rest of the store. The last moment was when I really wanted a cup of coffee, but couldn't walk the three blocks to the coffee shop.
"I decided that when I got better I would never take my health for granted again, and that I would push myself to be as physical as possible.
"The motto of Team In Training is that 'We run for those who can't.' Having not been able to run, or really walk for that matter, I felt a deep personal connection to Team In Training. Not only did I have cancer, but my mother passed away from multiple myeloma, another form of blood cancer, when I was 24 years old. So I was running for her as well. She was very much on my mind during the last mile of the marathon."
When Bryant crossed the finish line, he broke down in tears.
"I was so physically drained and I was overwhelmed with emotion knowing that I had just run 26.2 miles after training for five months. My goal was to break four hours, and I finished in 3:58. That was a great feeling."
Natale admittedly is not one for organized activities, "so committing to training for the marathon was somewhat outside my comfort zone," he said. But, "when I saw Brenden's enthusiasm, and considering all that he had been through in the previous six months, I couldn't imagine not signing up with him."
Ultimately, Natale said it was "humbling" running the same event as his partner.
"Brenden is a really, really good runner and I often had to remind myself to be happy for his achievementsbe it pace or distancerather than be critical of my own performance in comparison," Natale said. "In this way, it was good practice at being a good partner."
Natale said the marathon was "incredibly emotional" on multiple levels. The sheer number of runners with some kind of reference to a loved one or a personal cause was overwhelming, he said. "It makes you realize that running has provided a way for people to process loss, obstacles and things beyond their control more generally, which is incredibly raw and human. I had goosebumps a number of times during the run because of this."
Natale added, "From Brenden's diagnosis, [to] his treatment and eventual healing, to the marathon commitment, to training and race itself, it all feels like some kind of metaphor about where we've been and what lies ahead for us. In the past year, we've been through atypically wide ranges of highs and lows, which have only brought us closer together."
The two have not yet set a date, but the wedding likely will be in Tulum, Mexico.
Last February, Bryant was three-months into chemotherapy and just starting to feel better. "Against the advice of my doctor, we decided to take a vacation, escape the Chicago winter, and forgetat least for a weekthat I had cancer," Bryant said. "We went to Tulum and had the most amazing time. We soaked up the sun, swam in the ocean and ate the most delicious food. Tulum will always be a special place for us, and I want to share that with our friends."
Bryant said the Chicago Marathon "was a life-affirming event."
"Running to the point of complete exhaustion, and then pushing past that pain and fatigue until I crossed the finish line, made me realize that the body is capable of anything that your mind tells it to do," he said. "My favorite part of the race was running from Boystown to Old Town. The energy of the crowd was absolutely amazing, and at that point I felt nearly invinciblethat I could run forever.
"I am so glad that we shared this experience. Justin had never run more than two miles before we started training for the marathon, and I know how difficult every training run was for him. He put himself through physical hell to support me, and that means the world to me."
And soon they will be "forever partners," the term Natale used when he popped the question.