Friday, August 17, 2012

Connecting the dots...

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I went to Utah the day after my first chemo treatment to cheer on some friends, get out of town, keep some perspective, watch and reconnect with the race I'd done the year before, and most importantly - to find my angel in the blue shirt. The random dude who so graciously poured into me the inspiration and energy I needed to get through the race of my life a year before.

I love the race atmosphere. I was just as happy cheering people on as I would have been racing. My main goal on race day was to find Phil, although I didn't know his name at the time. I only knew that he was at aid station 4 during the St George Ironman in 2011, that he does ultra-marathons, and that he saved that race for me. I could write a dissertation on what it means to me to have finished the race that day, but I'll spare the details. I guess what's important to know is that as I go through the ups and downs that come naturally with cancer, chemotherapy, and eventually surgery - I often compare it all to the world's longest endurance race. I wonder how I'd feel about entering and completing my current challenge if I had given up on myself on that long day in May, 2011. To me, silly as it may be, the knowledge that I could bounce back and thrive on that day gives me hope and encouragement for what I'm able to do today... and every other day of this battle. I needed to thank my angel in the blue shirt. As I found out, his name is Phil.

When it was time to head to the run course and find my man, I parked as close, and central as I could (I was feeling REALLY rough by this point in the day...) I walked up to the first aid station I saw and said, "I'm looking for a dude who was working an aid station on the run last year. He was wearing a blue shirt and he does ultra-marathons." No joke, the girl I was talking to said "Oh, you're looking for Phil!" She then proceeded to throw me in a golf cart and drive me to Phil. I'm not exaggerating, it was that easy. When I saw him I started crying. I explained what he had done for me, how his encouragement got me through the race. I told him about my current endurance challenge - I cried when I explained how much it meant to me to have finished the Ironman that day. He welled up as he told his story about his own mother's fight with breast cancer. "She won the battle," he explained. "You will, too." He understands my current challenge, but I'm not sure he will ever know the difference he made, not just in my dat at  Ironman St. George, 2011 - but in my life. Someday I'll make sure Phil understands what he did for me.

A side note - I watched Phil on my return to IM St George as a spectator... he continued to do for hundreds of other athletes exactly what he did for me in the race a year ago. His pure energy, love of sport, and encouragement are magic.

Four rounds of chemo later, I took advantage of feeling great - the third week (before my next- and final round), and the fact that several friends happened to be doing the Leadville 100 MTB race that weekend. I jumped in a car with a dear friend AND my boy Tate and we made our way to  Leadville, Colorado... channeling my angel, Phil - hoping to provide some encouragement to some seriously stellar racers.
We saw SO MANY RAINBOWS on our way through Utah. Amazing. 
Again, the race atmosphere is AWESOME. It's mostly men. Incredibly fit men. (Yum.) I walked around the quaint old mining town on our first morning there while all the racers were registering and made some friends. While Virginia picked out a new kit to take home, I talked to Gary, a slightly above middle-aged dude. We talked bikes, then races, then he eventually asked what was going on with me. I explained the cancer thing and told him that there was a time when I was FIT. I pointed to my ankles - indicating my poor display of fitness.  When he looked down, he gasped (I don't have ankles anymore, they're more like the old version of my knees, which are more like puffed up bags of potato chips now). I asked him if he knew where I could get compression socks in town. Before I knew it, Gary had run to his car to get the pair he had. As he handed them to me, I started crying. (I am pretty sure no one understands my emotional battle with the puffiness.) He told me simply that he had crashed and almost died on Powerline two years ago. That fifteen racers had given up all of their hard training and their race to help save his life, and that this was a very small way for him to pay it forward. Whatever his reason, I could not believe his generosity, and honestly - was overwhelmed by his help. I wore the compression socks for three days. They helped A LOT.

I later googled my new friend, Gary. Here is what I found... Gary is yet another angel in this journey.

http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/2011/03/10/minn-cyclist-survives-freak-accident-inspires-others/

Gianna plopped herself down into my life less than two hours later. The beautiful woman with short, brown hair and an incredible body that clearly didn't suffer from shyness sat down on my bench and was asking me what kind of cancer I had before I was able to realize that she'd taken my spot and that my dog was sitting on her lap. "Breast cancer." I told her. She told me what I was already able to figure out by her hair and her demeanor - she had breast cancer, too. We compared stories. Her's was a small tumor, she was triple negative, she had chemo, but something different than my chemo. She had surgery first, then chemo. She finished her treatment a year ago. She had bilateral mastectomies, she showed them to me right there on the street. Something about seeing this gorgeous woman with such amazing spirit and strength fully recovered from the same disease took the 400 lb weight that I didn't even realize was on my shoulder and blew it away into four million pieces and then scattered it across the Rockies so that I would never be able to find them again. I felt so much relief that I cried.
Gianna and me at the coffee shop where she plopped herself down into my life. 
I asked the question I was almost afraid to ask... "So are you racing this weekend?" Her response, "Hell yeah, girl!" says a lot about her personality. Living loud, out there... a bit like me. I explained to her that I would really love to do the race next year, but that I worry that my body might not keep up with my mind. She looked at me and said these exact words, "If I can do it, YOU can do it! No excuses, girl!" Ok. Done. I am doing the Leadville 100 MTB race next year. (Let this be considered fair warning for my friends and family - I WANT YOU THERE!!!!) Gianna and I talked for several minutes about surgery, chemo, cancer, recovery - and cycling. She IS my inspiration - another woman who'd gone through chemo, lost her breasts, and does really, really stupid shit. We agreed to race together next year. (However, I caught up with her after the race and she told me that the race was harder than chemo and that she'd never do it again. I haven't given up hope - I think these things are like childbirth: you forget the pain after a couple days and want the experience again.)

On raceday, we'd planned on going to the start to catch up quickly with our racers (we knew three people racing, plus five or six new friends that we'd met that week), then to quickly head out to an infamous part of the course, "Powerline," where Gary almost died. It's a very steep, rutted, gnarly hill that the racers would venture down on the first pass (about mile 20 for them) and then go up at the end of the race (80 miles in). 98% of the cyclists would be pushing their bikes up this hill the second time around because of the terrain, the steepness, the altitude, and the sheer fatigue from having been on the bike for so long. It is a perfect place to cheer people on.
John - all suited up for race-day and sporting his support for the cure!!! He's done more for me in this journey than I could ever begin to thank him for. 
Weird, what happened. It became more of a "mutual cheering..."

Remembering so clearly what it felt like to be on mile 4 of marathon in the Ironman, finding Phil, and then at mile 20 when I realized I was going to make it - I cheered like a maniac for these racers at mile 80 of their 100 (actually, 104) mile race. I said something to every single rider. They were amazing, my inspiration, so fit, so trained, in so much pain - and carrying on. Naturally, I wore my head bald and sported my "Bikes for Boobs" t-shirt. What happened on the trail that afternoon was more than a gift in energy to me, it was light, it was pure, it was clean, it was love, it was universal humanity - it cleansed me in a way I've never felt before.

As I cheered and cheered I became lighter. I expected to be exhausted, but I just felt so free. It seemed as though the more I cheered for the cyclists, the more they cheered for me. Every three or four minutes someone would say something encouraging to me... "You're the hero!" or "You're AMAZING!" Many told me that they were survivors. When they asked me if I was a survivor, I said "Not YET! but I will be!" They confirmed and we agreed to meet at the race next year. High fives, yelling, hugs, words of encouragement... It felt like it was my race and they were cheering me on. But it wasn't! It was a gift - energy out, energy in. It was pure love of sport and value for life blending perfectly on the mountain - my church.
Powerline! It is way gnarlier than it appears here!
When Ricky - a legend in the Leadville 100, having completed the race every single year they've held it, still riding the same bike he started on (18 years old?) with the same FRONT TIRE, road towards me on Powerline I yelled at him "HEEEEY!!!! I know you, but YOU don't know ME!!!" He rode straight to me and got off his bike. I thought he was going to give me a high five but he threw his arms around me and held me tight. I held him back and could feel his body shaking as he cried. He whispered into my ear, "I have cancer, too." I told him he was my hero. I told him to get back on his bike and find the finish line. He rode off, crying. I stood there in shock. Another angel in the journey.

I don't know anything about Ricky, his battle, or whether he will be back next year. I tried to catch him after the race, but couldn't. I want to hug him again.

We proceeded to cheer on the racers until we'd seen all of the people we committed to cheering for. It was magic. As we made our way down the steep trail beside all the racers making the dirge up people kept saying to me "Are YOU STILL HERE? You've been out here all day!" and "Thank you so much for being our here! You're a trooper!!!" No, no... all my thanks to THEM for being out there. For the gifts upon gifts upon gifts they'd granted me. For the new life I felt. Magic, again.

It continued as we cheered racers through the finish line. Light... magic... life. My friends laughed as racer after racer came to me to thank me for being out there, for cheering them on. Many of them telling their own stories in regards to cancer, who they were riding for, how it had affected them ... and on an on. Amazing to me to know how many people are touched by this stuff, how many of them fight for someone else, and how many of them have survived themselves and are crazy (BRILLIANT!) enough to attempt a race like this. Mostly, I'm so thankful for them for giving me what they did that day.

So, connecting the dots...

I just finished my sixth, and final round of chemo.

So if I hadn't have had cancer, how could I have ever known these gifts? Yes, they would have been there, but I could never have understood Phil's impact or this amount of support on a race course (that I had no business being on) without having experienced the battle of the last five months. I have been doing a lot of sitting, reconciling, resting, and thinking about the time since I've been home from my adventures in Africa and Thailand. Essentially, forced to abandon my big adventure because of a disease I'd never have chosen - experiences like these are glimmers of light in my attempt to reconcile it. Knowing that I will survive this, knowing that I will race again, knowing what I've already learned from this... I start to see it as a gift. I've started a comprehensive list of all of the things I am thankful for in this journey, and all of the little and big things people have done to get me through this part of the process. It is overwhelming. One day, when I'm absolutely sure that I have a complete list of "thanks" written down, I will post it. It may take several years. In the meantime - I settle peacefully with this part of my story.
Me and Tate enjoying the clean, thin air at the top of the Rockies.



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