Taking a walk with a friend
Tara Gietema and Chris Berry
Courtesy: GoMocs.com
After years of running together, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga distance runners Chris Berry and Tara Gietema decided to take a walk.

The day before Gietema's graduation last May, the pair celebrated her upcoming birthday with a hike along a trail on Lookout Mountain with their dog and a picnic lunch. They walked a mile down the trail to a waterfall where Berry presented her with a graduation card.

"She didn't want to walk at graduation but I told her she should that it would be something she would always remember," Berry said. "At the end of the card, I said ‘I know you're not that excited about graduation, but maybe this will make it a little bit better.'"

She then put the card down and looked at the man she had been dating for more than three years and saw him down on one knee.

"I was like ‘shut up!'" Gietema said laughing.

"She was in shock," Berry replied. "We had been dating for a while and we knew we were going to get married so I was trying to catch her off guard."

It worked.

"I was not expecting it," Gietema said. "I thought it was coming soon, but I thought it would be later in the summer or even Christmas."

With the help of teammate Emmanuel Kirwa, Berry began looking for a ring. However, since he and Gietema spent so much time together, he had to be deceptive.

"I lied to Tara so many times about where I was," Berry said. "Emmanuel was right there by my side the whole time, though. He would call and say he was broken down. She would believe him and he and I would go to the jewelry store."

The two decided to get married in June after both finished with their MBA studies and the track season would be over. But UTC head coach Bill Gautier, who had been in on the planning of the proposal, had other ideas.

On a trip to a track meet last May at Virginia Tech, Berry, Kirwa and Gautier were discussing the wedding.

"Coach asked me why we were waiting so long now that we were engaged," Berry said. "We were going to wait until June because we thought he would not want us getting married in the middle of the year. He suggested a fall wedding. He said it would be prettier."

Once he arrived in Blacksburg, Va., Berry called his fiancé and asked her what she thought about a fall wedding. Now the rush was on. Instead of one year, they now had just months to plan.

"You're supposed to plan your wedding a year in advance," Gietema said.

While she stressed about things like finding a place in Chattanooga to get married and putting a rush on the wedding dress, Berry couldn't understand her anxiety. After all, they had four months.

"Now I understand," Berry said. "I won't make fun of people anymore when they talk about their wedding and all the things they have to do."

They worked over the summer making plans, but finding the time to plan wasn't easy. Both were working 40 hours a week at their respective internships and training for the upcoming year running 60 to 100 miles a week.

"We had to squeeze the planning in right after work and then go run," Berry said. "Once school started, it was taking care of the little things because we tried to take care of most of it in the summer."

Once school started, however, the two had the cross country season to contend with and on Saturday, they will lead their respective teams on the course at the Southern Conference cross country championships.

"Conference has changed so much since my freshman year," Berry said. "I never thought after finishing fourth as a freshman that I'd ever finish fourth again."

Berry was named the league's Freshman of the Year in cross country in 2007 and the next year placed third for the second of his three all-conference nods.

"While I wanted to be a three-time conference champion, it's not about that," Berry said. "It's to do well as a team and it's a really exciting team to be a part of. We've never had four guys to be at the level that our top four are right now. We haven't had a chance to show it and I think we'll get that chance at conference and regionals."

The women's team is almost the exact opposite. After graduation of several members of the team, Tara, an all-conference performer herself, is the senior-most member of the team and the only one with any collegiate experience to speak of.

"We have a young team this year for sure," Gietema said. "It's stressful, but Coach is trying to take the pressure off me. We have who we have and we can only do what we can do. We're shooting for everyone to PR at conference. It's a special team and everyone works very hard for us to succeed."

While the two share a similar path in college, they started down their tracks in different ways.

Berry played many sports growing up and in the 8th grade switched schools. His new school had a cross country team that his previous school had not. In the midst of football season, his mother suggested that he try out for the cross country team.

"I was getting my butt kicked on the football field because I was so small," Berry said. "I joined the team at my mom's suggestion and in my first race I finished second."

It was like that throughout the season. Without any formal training, Berry placed second in every race he ran that season including the Mid-State Championships to someone that he was told was really good.

"I didn't know any better," Berry said. "I just ran. After doing so well, I was like, OK. I'm all in!"

Gietema, however, was not in any sports at all.

"I wasn't good at volleyball or basketball or anything. I initially ran just to have something to do. Our team was really good and we had great coaches and we were three-time state champs. It was a fun experience and I wanted to continue that through college."

That four months that seemed so far away is now down to the final few weeks. It's almost time to stop running and start that walk.

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