by Kellen Short
Only two took those vows literally.
Eva Gonzales and Chris Neaville were married early Saturday beneath the lights of Kidd Brewer Stadium before lining up to run the 26.2-mile race in wedded bliss.
Clad in North Face running gear and sneakers, the duo exchanged rings on the turf in a brief ceremony that was anything but traditional. Their "dearly beloved" included about 30 friends and family members, many of whom joined them in the race.
The Rev. Julie Thompson of Athens, Ga., officiated the ceremony dressed in a traditional black robe, a blue tartan stole and running shoes. She reminded the couple that marriage is not so different from a marathon.
"In both marriage and in marathons, there might be moments when you say, 'Why am I doing this?'" Thompson said.
She encouraged them to "be the water station for each other" through euphoric moments and tough times.
The couple was thrust into both almost immediately in their marriage, running the challenging 26.2-mile course side by side. They got extra cheers from spectators who noticed the "Just" and "Married" signs pinned on their backs.
Like most out-of-the-box ideas, Gonzales and Neaville can't remember exactly how the "marriage-thon" plan was hatched. But running was a passion that always had united them.
"It's important to do something that we both enjoy and represents us," Gonzales said. " ... "I think everybody loved it, except for my dad, who's very traditional."
The two met at a professional conference on environmental issues two years ago in St. Louis, Mo., where Neaville was among the speakers. They connected instantly as they discussed their shared interests.
"She was very professional and very charming, and we hit it off right at the beginning over things that we enjoyed in science together," Neaville said. "Then that led to a friendship and later a romance."
Gonzales, a former Appalachian State University biology professor, and Neaville, an environmental engineer for a mining company, bonded over their shared love of running and the natural world.
"When we go running, I stop to smell flowers and point out the flowers. He stops for rocks," Gonzales said.
In middle school, Gonzales' dad called her "his little Emil Ztopek," a famous Czech runner who earned three gold medals at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, she recalled. She competed in track and field in high school and kept up the sport as she grew older.
Neaville also participated in cross-country and track during high school and college, returning to running again in his 40s.
When Neaville visited Gonzales at her mountain home, their first date included hiking on Grandfather Mountain.
From then on, many of their hikes, runs and marathons they did together.
Neaville later accepted a position in St. Louis, and Gonzales recently joined him there after finding a teaching job with St. Louis University.
She reunited with old friends from the High Country on Saturday at the start line, sharing hugs and laughter before the marriage rites. Sofia Wells, 5, the daughter of Gonzales' former colleague, served as flower girl.
The couple planned to continue the celebration later Saturday with a party and bonfire near her home, complete with a Stick Boy Bread Co. cake featuring images of Grandfather Mountain with running stick figures.
Gonzales said Friday before the marathon that her only goal was to finish the race, injury-free. Time was no concern Saturday to the newlyweds. After all, how could this marathon not be their personal best?
"I think it will be something that we always remember as a lot of fun," Neaville said.