Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bouncing Back (and other stupid notions)


It’s amazing to me how my brain is able compartmentalize the events of the last few years. As the “cancer” phase seems to be getting more distant and my body heals, I find myself going through major swings of emotion. It’s almost as though it all happened so quickly that I didn’t get a chance to really process it… so as life settles down, I take turns diving into the different “pools” of events… cancer, New Zealand, Dan, Africa, Thailand and the many moves, road trips, and relationships built in the time and space between. I’m not exceptional… but it’s a lot for this little brain of mine to process. Every once in a while I’ll be sitting in my cushy chair at my cushy desk in this ivory tower and a memory will flood my mind and stops me cold.

When I was in New Zealand we were lucky enough to visit Stewart Island – a little speck of land just below the South Island. It’s a gorgeous place magnified by the fact that 400 of the best people on the planet have gravitated to Half-Moon Bay and have made it graciously, instantly comfortable.

Many of the people in Stewart Island knew who we were before we arrived because we’d been on TV a few days before. So when we walked down the street people would say, “Oh, you’re the Great Walkers!” I’m not gonna lie, it was fun… So one night when the team was getting ready for dinner, catastrophe struck when we realized we were out of wine. It was 4:50 pm and I had ten minutes to get to the only market in town – 1 km away - before it closed. So I ran, in flip flops to the store to find the doors already locked. Bummed, and out of breath, I rested my forehead to the glass door. I looked up to find the woman inside watching my moment of defeat. She opened the door… “You are a great walker!” Yep! I explained that the team was in need of wine… she let me in. I bought two bottles of wine and some ice cream. As I was checking out, the woman said, “You’re a survivor.” Yes… I am. “My niece had breast cancer as well.” I’m always afraid when people say this… Obviously the next question is, “How is she now?” But before I got a chance to ask the question the woman explained that her niece was young when she was diagnosed, like me… 34 years old. She had chemo and mastectomies and radiation… like me. And was declared “cancer free” - like me. And then (which is where it gets scary) her cancer came back. And then it killed her.

I was the only person in the store with this woman who had lost her niece to the disease that tried to kill me. I started crying. I don’t even know why I started crying, but I had tears and snot and all the bumbling works. The woman apologized for making me cry and gave me a hug. I felt worse for crying, I’m sure. What an idiot.

So I meandered back to the house– stopping at the community center where Karl (our videographer/photographer) had been working on the only wifi on the Island (trying to get Air New Zealand the video they needed for publicity). Somewhere between the store and the community center the bag carrying all my groceries split and my wine fell onto the sidewalk and broke. I had a total meltdown. Sobbing on the street about my wine. And cancer. And death. And life. And loss. And happiness. All of it hitting me there, on the sidewalk in Stewart Island. I found Karl outside the community center and cried on his shoulder for an hour or so before he walked me back to the house.   
And there you have the memory that came flooding back to me today…

A couple of days ago I was tooling around on facebook and saw Angelo Merendino’s stunning photo-documentary of his wife’s battle with cancer. I cried when I saw the pictures, but I cried more when I read her story. She, vibrant and beautiful and healthy – diagnosed originally in 2008, had chemo, mastectomies, and radiation and was given the “all clear” by doctors only to be diagnosed with metastasized, terminal cancer a year and a half later. I have spent the last couple days combing through her blog, crying.

It’s one of the pools I find myself diving into more often recently… the breast cancer pool. A deeper, darker pool than the version I swam in. When you get diagnosed with cancer you are forced to deal with the day to day activities of fighting the disease. You don’t (or at least, I didn’t) get a chance to really think about the big fat picture of how it affects the rest of life… you’re so concerned with having a rest of your life. And maybe it’s obvious to most that this experience would alter everything going forward… But to me, it was always about returning to normalcy. I’m finding as I jump from one pool of memories to the next that “normalcy” is a stupid idea… Also, being a quality I never really acquired, probably not something I’m capable of returning to.

So Angelo Merendino’s work is breaking my heart. And his wife’s blog breaks my heart because I read it and re-read it and I know the big words and the medicines and I can relate to the feelings that she and her husband describe. I have a hard time with the fact that what grew inside her breast also grew inside of mine. I have a harder time understanding why I get to sit in this ivory tower and her doting husband has to navigate this life without her. I am shattered when I get to the part in her blog when she is told that she has cancer in her bones and her liver. I break because I think back to the day that I got my good news – the day I was told I was pathologically clean – and I imagine what it would have felt like and meant for me if I had gotten different news. I feel a little schizophrenic when I think about it because I feel so lucky to be alive, and so confused about why I’m alive at the same time. And then, before I even realize I’m confused, I feel like I’m not doing enough with this life.

More, more, more… I need to be more. And I want to do more and I want to feel more. But then I’m tired and I remember what my friend Gianna (who also was diagnosed, treated, cleared, and is now battling her second round - this time the metastasized version of the beast) told me: Don’t over-train. Don’t drink too much wine. Don’t eat crap. She is genuinely trying to tell me how to prevent recurrence. She wants to save my life.

I want to make sure I’m living enough, but I don’t want to live too much.

All of this happens in my head in a split second and then I want to cry. But I’m not capable of crying much these days, unless I’m reading Angelo or Jennifer Merendino’s blogs. Which I guess might be why I keep reading them even though everyone keeps telling me to knock it off. Maybe I need to cry and process the idea of a new, metastasized, deadly cancer to be able to move forward with a healthy body? I get the impression that people want me to get over it. The cancer’s gone, right? And I have hair now and I can run and I ride my bike everywhere I go… so I should feel good! Right!?!? Easier said than done, peeps. There is nothing, no matter what, that will ever give me the sense of invincibility I once had (or nipples, for that matter).

The fact is, there is no bouncing back. I hate that stupid term. There was no bouncing in the first place… all good, difficult things (like completing an Ironman, or traveling Africa - solo) come from hard work. Recovery is hard work. The swirling emotions that surround being poisoned, facing death, and the reclamation of a body that has been through war are exhausting and confusing and really, really shouldn’t be tossed aside as something I (or anyone else) should be able to bounce back from, or “get over.”

Do I sound bitter? Maybe. But trust me when I say that the gratitude that comes with having life doesn’t come with some moments of confusion. I keep hearing the term “survivor’s guilt,” but I think it’s more a combination of “survivor’s fear” and “survivor’s guilt” for me. Friends and family get upset when I talk about the reality of recurrence, so I’m not supposed to talk about it. They say “stay positive” – but that’s crap. I’m pretty sure Jennifer Merendio didn’t bring her cancer back by thinking it was going to come back. Same is true for my dear friend Gianna. Reality is, my friends and family are probably as scared of coming back as I am – they’d rather not hear about my concerns of swimming in that dark pool. It doesn’t exist if we don’t talk about it… right?


My point…

Wait… did I have a point?

I read through Jennifer’s blog and I’m so disappointed that I didn’t keep a better record of my time going through treatment. I tried, but was everything was so hazy and I was so frustrated with the fact that my brain wouldn’t work that I usually gave up. I’m realizing now that maybe it’s not important to have a point. I just need to get stuff out.

That being said, cancer, survival, and the ideas of “bouncing back” or normalcy have forced me contemplate a couple of really important things. 1) Why do I feel like my value is directly related to how fit I appear? I am strong, but my appearance doesn’t say so and for some reason I feel like this says something about who I am. 2) Does the fact that I survived cancer mean that I should be happy with a body that doesn’t function/perform like it once did? Did I unknowingly trade my fit, muscular body for life? Knowing that there are people like Angelo out there who will mourn the loss of their partners, mothers, daughters, sons and fathers to this awful disease makes me feel like a jerk for even asking the question. And while the alternative to survival doesn’t make survival an easy task, I know that the answer could very well be, “yes” – and then I feel thankful again. (Hello again, schizo… )

Once again, the aftermath of the past year has me struggling to find a balance of gratitude for life and the ability to do what I can do and the drive for more fitness, more knowledge, deeper relationships, and more life in general. Grateful for the struggle and for life – onward, I go. 

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Monday, September 9, 2013



***Fair warning, this blog post comes with some French.***

I have (over)contemplated exactly how to explain myself on this blog; gone over and over the events that need to be detailed and the resulting emotions that ultimately formed some new realities for me. I've come to the conclusion that over-thinking things doesn't necessarily help, that I just need to spit it out... So here goes:

I am fat.* I gained 35-40 pounds during chemotherapy and have been holding onto 15 pounds (give or take a few here and there) since then.

So I joined a weight loss competition.  I can't exactly remember what the winner would receive because I spent the entire summer worrying about the consequences of losing. What's that, you ask? The losers would have to pose for a photo shoot in their BIKINIS. In Laguna Beach. On labor day weekend. 

Basically, as a loser I would be shamed into standing half naked on the one of the busiest beaches in Southern California on the second busiest beach day of the year, uncomfortable in my skin and insecure about my hair - which seems to be growing slower than molasses on a cold winter's day in Nebraska, and is uuuuuber thin (the only thing on my body that's thin). 


Fast forward a few months...  

I stood in the fitting room two days before the shoot. Looking at the bloated, scarred version of the vessel I used to inhabit and actually uttered the words, "I hate myself." And then I hated myself more for saying those words, and thinking those words. But the worst part was the anxiety that simmered inside of me. 

I spent most of the summer hungry. Tracking every stupid calorie I consumed and every stupid calorie I expended. I wasn't perfect. Shit, people who know me well enough will tell you that a big part of the reason I'm so active is so that I can eat more. (Or, um... drink more.)

It's been a decade since I looked at myself and had the kind of anxiety that comes along with hating myself. That feeling, to me... it's worse than cancer.

I'm not an excuses girl. I hate hearing them, so I try not to rely on them. Thus, I'm pretty hard on myself. But if I'm being totally honest, I'll tell you that there was a little voice that managed to be heard through the despair of the day - a slight whisper that said quite eloquently: This is bullshit. (The little voice speaks french - apparently.)

Wait, what??? Bullshit?

"Yes. Bullshit." - The little voice, now screaming.


Within a year of the start of this little competition I had six rounds of "heavy" chemotherapy. I had mastectomies. I had 18 rounds of "light" chemo that ended in June... Yes, June. JUNE! Two months after I returned home from walking 350 miles over nine weeks... with a 40 pound BACKPACK on my BACK, with tissue expanders! Not to mention the six weeks of radiation that completed two weeks before I set off for Australia, and then on to New Zealand to walk the 350 miles... Which by the way, coincided with a half marathon. Right, I finished radiation and did a half-marathon two weeks later, and set of for Australia a few hours after that. A week later I was doing a triathlon in Brisbane. When I came home, I had two surgeries while I finished up "light" chemo, the second of which I brought on myself after causing internal bleeding by riding my bike too far, too soon.

More perspective:

This body has been running since it was ten years old. It has run trails, outrun locals in African villages, combed some of the dirtiest streets of Asia, and climbed mountains on five different continents. This body climbed 19,500 feet while cancer was growing inside of it. This body has done countless half-marathons, marathons, triathlons and cycling races and whacky (off)trail races. This body has had its ass kicked on the mountain bike and cycled by road bike 30 miles to radiation, regularly. This body did an Ironman!


Excuses? Maybe... but then I remember... 

In the past five weeks I've ridden at least 500 miles and run more than 70. I've also been swimming, working out with a trainer and running the stairs during work. I've climbed my mountain, twice. 

Ohhh man. The perspective makes my heart sink and I start to see myself as though I'm standing outside myself looking at the girl standing in the fitting room - sobbing, hating her body. I want to shake her free of the conflict boiling inside of her. I want to scream at her about how her body deserves a fucking parade.

I lost zero weight.

I went against every fiber of my being and did it. The whole shit and shaboodle... Four hours of hair and make-up and a photographer and sand and bikinis and people staring at me while I try to make my body look natural in the world's most awkward poses. I was determined to have a good attitude about the whole thing. After all, it is an experience. And I didn't hate it. And more importantly, I didn't hate myself.

Me, trying really hard to embrace the awkward pose and the new version of the vessel I inhabit. 
I have to say - I came home from an entire day of "photo shooting" completely exhausted, deflated, confused and torn about the whole thing.

My catalyst to feeling exhausted, deflated, confused and torn?

The mountain.

I barreled up my mountain the next day in complete bliss. Dirty and disgusting - dust for make-up and my favorite visor as a headpiece. I was strong. Really strong.

And, exactly as it should be - I summited my mountain to find Pavel - my mountain-man friend/yeti (an over-sized Baldy resident who I swear, knows every nook and cranny of that mountain - and because of such, is a soul mate of mine...) passing out beers at 10,000 ft (another reason he is a soul mate of mine). Yes, the man carried 80lbs of ice and 180 beers up the mountain. Serendipitous? Uhhhhh hu! Shockingly, it was the first beer I've ever had at 10k feet.

It went straight to my head, and because it went straight to my head Pavel was able to convince me that I needed to go down the mountain a new way... his way. (He scares me.) So down I went - straight down. I literally slid down the side of the mountain in shale so deep I couldn't see my legs from the shins down.


I laughed the entire way down. Was it scary? No.

Empowering? YES.

I'm not sure I came off the mountain with certain clarity about the way I view and treat my body - or how exactly to feel about the weight loss competition and the bikini photo shoot... It is nice to get dolled up and look pretty and have someone take pictures of you. Nicer yet, when you feel good about yourself. But is it empowering? Meh. I'm going to take a "to each his own" stance on this one, because I've learned that for me, I feel empowered when I feel strong. The act of putting make up on and having my hair done and standing in front of a camera does not make me feel strong... But I'm willing to accept that for some, it might.

It has made me wonder how many women would feel more empowered  knowing that they could scale a mountain... Or run a trail... Or run a mile, for that matter. And then I have to question how much of our strength or beauty is based on some societal norm rather than what really makes us feel empowered.

This much I know is true - for sure. I am too hard on my body. I am not exceptional. Most people are too hard on their bodies. I love food - all food. And alcohol, almost all alcohol... It's not my body's fault that I can't figure out why I want to keep eating when it's clearly telling me that it is stuffed. It's also not my body's fault that I tell it to keep going, even after the 9th, 10th, or even 15th hour of exercise. Not is it my body's fault that the cancer grew inside it, or that poison, a sharp knife, and invisible burning rays would be the only way to save it.

Gratitude abounds, again. Not just for the fact that I am so lucky to have a body that will let me torture it (myself), but for the ability to know what I know and to try to make some sense of it and put it into practice. And really, really super grateful for the understanding of what makes me feel empowered, and for the physical ability to make that happen.

*I realize that "fat" is a feeling, not a fact, but this is my blog and I get to pretend that feelings are facts here (when I want).

PS - For the record, the photographer for the photo shoot was amazing, as were the other girls doing the shoot. Someday I'm sure I'll look back on the photos with fondness. 

Friday, May 31, 2013



Is anyone reading this???

I can't believe I've been home for six weeks... Clearly, I've felt pretty uninspired to write. I am basking in the comfort of being home, near my people, my family, my puppy, my mountain, my trails and my ocean. I've been busy with treatments and surgeries. And of course, I've missed New Zealand. I still haven't really processed everything that it was, and to be honest - that part is confusing to me.

I flew home on a Sunday. By Tuesday morning I was back in the oncologists office. A harsh reminder that reality was upon me. I am so grateful for an oncologist who believes in a cancer/life balance and was 100% supportive of me being a "Great Walker." He checked me out, gave me the "all clear" and sent me on to the treatment center for a two hour infusion of "light" chemo. This is a treatment I'd been receiving every three weeks from May 1, 2012 until the Tuesday before I left for New Zealand. Dr Vandermolen (my oncologist) tried to figure our how I could receive treatments in New Zealand, but wasn't able to work it out with the insurance/Dr situation and our crazy schedule.

I knew I would walk back into a treatment center within 48 hours of returning home from my mecca. I didn't realize the impact it would have...

I LOVE my chemo nurse. I don't have negative residual feelings about the treatment center or even my time receiving chemotherapy, I was so well cared for. So I was surprised when I walked into the treatment center that Tuesday morning and found myself being drained of life. It was palpable given the contrast to what life had granted me for the nine weeks prior.

The room is large and contains rows of reclining chairs, each chair has its own infusion pump and bags of poison dangle from them like ornaments on a christmas tree. Every person in a chair is receiving chemotherapy. Every person in a chair is fighting for life. I realized when I walked into the treatment center after a 10 week break that it seemed like every person in that room was dying. I felt like I mocked them with my vitality and life and then I felt guilty and tried to contain my energy and then I felt sad. Not all of them will die. But as I watched them, their veins being fed the medicine that is hopeful to kill the weed that grows inside them, I realized that I used to be them. I was puffy and green and drooling in those chairs just a few months ago. Then I felt weird. Really weird, like I didn't understand reality anymore...

Treatments don't bother me, they have very little affect on the way I feel and I really do love spending time with my chemo nurse (Carrie) and my "peeps" - the friends I've made who are also going through the treatment process.

The next day, Wednesday, I was scheduled to visit my plastic surgeon. Since end of September when I had my mastectomies, I have had tissue expanders acting as breasts. While they serve a great purpose, they're crazy hard and ultimately very uncomfortable. I had to wait for four to six months after receiving radiation (for my skin to heal) before I could have tissue expanders switched out for implants.

To say that I love my plastic surgeon is the understatement of the year. Respect is probably a better word, but even then - not strong enough. She is wonderful... such a light in all of this cancer madness. She looked at my skin, gave me the "all clear" and we set a surgery day for May 14th.

Fast forward a few weeks... I never had an ounce of nervousness about the surgery, and I didn't need to. It was very easy. Too easy. I had zero nausea and zero pain. I came home a couple hours after the procedure totally happy with my new, soft, squishy breasts.

Ok so I might have come out of the surgery chute too quickly. Apparently, this "Great Walker" walked too much, too soon, and 10 days after my procedure, I started bleeding internally. Within a couple of hours, my right breast puffed up to three times the size of the implant (puffed up with blood). I was sent to the ER via text from my plastic surgeon. She met me at the hospital and performed emergency surgery to stop the bleeding and clean up my mess. I came home that night and continue to feel great (too great). I want to run and ride and swim and climb. I can't. I've learned, I can't. The whole thing scared me enough to get me to sit down for a while... And now, I am (mostly) patiently waiting for the day that I can go for a run.

Somehow, I managed to land a contract position as a Compensation Analyst with a great company here in Orange County. So, after a year and a half of being "off," I am returning to the workforce on June 10th. I'm excited. And nervous.

So, in the last six weeks I've had three chemo treatments, two surgeries, and managed to find a job. Not bad!

Ashley (my amazing friend who has let me live on her couch for the last six months) and I are looking for places to live together (where I will actually have a room, and a bed!)... and so it seems, I life is slowly but surely returning to "normal."

The last few years of my life have been so unpredictable, sometimes volatile, and sometimes amazing. I remember saying several times that all I wanted was some stability, some structure... normalcy. Now, as things seem to be falling into place, I find myself surprisingly uncomfortable. I've become used to being a nomad, to being in unfamiliar places, to not having a bed, to having my belongings scattered all over the place... I'm actually a little afraid of all this normalcy. But of course, life moves on. Chin up, eyes forward to the next chapter...

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Old News...


But I need to put it here for posterity...

I was on live, national (in NZ) tv on my birthday. Pretty rad!

Click the here to see the video. :)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Peace, now.


Journal Entry: Whakapapa, New Zealand while sitting in the Chateau, the day after we finished our final climb. (A perfect reflection of how I feel about my time in New Zealand, and life in general following the experience...) 

April 8, 2013 -

Don’t close your eyes.

Not for an instant.

If you do, Dayna won’t be to your right. Karl won’t be to your left. Catie Pai, Phred, Chris, Aneika, Karen, Eddie, Dan, Jane, and George will all be distant, fond memories.

The fire that burns in front of you will die.

The music he plays – unknowingly inspiring – will fade…

Stay here. Right here.

Be here.

Listen. Look. Feel.

The volcanoes behind you; the earth that simmers below, the steam that rises from the ground in proof…

This is life.

Eight weeks with five strangers who would be your greatest friends. New Advocates. Family.

They know more about you than anyone else, and they know nothing about you.

I have answers.

I realize now what has happened. Within it all, the cancer, the love lost, the mountains climbed, the trails behind me and the trails before me… a million things flying through my head and around me – amongst it all – and with it all – I feel peace.

Hallelujah… Peace.

Of course, so many things need to change. I need to lose weight. I need a job. I need a home. I need to spend more time with my family. I need to be a better friend. I need to run more. I need to visit my mountain…


Thank you – New Zealand.

The gift of your grace and the lessons learned are immeasurable. So much more than you would have been, and so much more than I could have expected without the past to prepare me and the future to anticipate - you would have been merely another stop on a world tour.

It wouldn’t be. It’s couldn’t be.

Thank you, Dayna for teaching me what it means to be silly and fun and confident and professional at the same time.

Thank you, Karl for being an instant little brother. Thank you for chasing us up and down mountains with your camera; for your patience, ease, and humor. Thank you for loving this journey as much as we did, even though we know it was work for you.

Thank you, Toshi for teaching me what it means to really love people, nature and most importantly – life.

Thank you, Rich for making me think; for challenging me. For running with me and singing with me and making me laugh on the trails. Thank you for being my partner on the most memorable day of this journey.

Thank you Joel for not knowing when to stop. Thank you for talking our ears off and thank you for being unaware of how much you affect us all with your innocence and your light. Thank you most of all for inspiring me with your music, for bringing me to tears each time you play. Thank you for loving me despite my cynicism.

Thank you all for making me laugh till I cried. Thank you for laughing at me, and for making me laugh at myself. Thank you for showing me the beauty of this place through your eyes. Thank you for seeing the beauty of this place through my eyes.

I laugh now when I say the words, “my cup runneth over,” cause it’s literal, and so true. It feels like too much love, too much beauty, laughter, and life… I worry constantly that a full cup equates to death. As though feeling so happy and so full and so peaceful means that I’ve fulfilled my purpose here and that the cancer will return and take me at last. Part of the journey, I guess.

It scares me and gives me more peace at the same time. I know that the feeling in my core – the peaceful fire that burns – is what people strive for. If it kills me, fine. But it won’t. If it goes away, fine. I’ll search again, I’m just so happy to know what I’m searching for.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Up Next...


I'll be speaking/emceeing at the Women's Adventure and Leadership Conference in Denver this summer - showcasing my findings from project "Operation: Inspiration" (I sure do hope I come up with some results!) So excited about this!!! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013



Last week was huge for me... We finished our 9th walk, I had my one year Cancerversary, and celebrated my 35th birthday. To commemorate all of this goodness, I made myself a "year in review" video... It's narcissistic, but was also really cathartic to make.

So, if you've got ten minutes and you're really bored, or if you're having trouble sleeping, check it out!

More to come on Tongariro, finishing the walks, and what it feels like to be home...

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tongariro Bound!



We did Lake Waikaremoana last week, drove (in the worlds windiest, ickiest drive EVER – I didn’t barf, but it was sooooo close!) to Rotorua, spent a couple of days in Rotorua, and then drove from Rotorua (stopping in Taupo for lunch) to Whakapapa Village – in the Tongariro National Park. Every time I’m introduced to a new DOC guide or media person they ask me, “How are you holding up? You look tired!” – which isn’t a compliment, but I don’t have a ton of pride left as far as looks go. And the reality is, I am tired!  

I left home two months ago today. I think the fact that I’m just now longing to be alone, or with my friends and family at home (not that I haven’t missed you guys!!!) says a lot about the great dynamics of our group. I love them so much, but none of us have spent this much time with anyone – let alone perfect strangers. Of course, now they’ll be dear friends for life… (No, there haven't been any blow-ups or arguments - nada.) 

I don't really have an excuse for not writing a proper post about Waikaremoana. I loved her! I've spent the last four days letting myself just be with myself. Feels good, actually! And then I realize I'm kinda proud of myself for wanting to be with myself and going with the flow and decide I don't need an excuse for not writing a proper blog post on Waikaremoana. (Welcome to the Ferris Wheel inside my head...) 

We start Tongariro in a few hours - our last track. I've started to recognize that the little habits I've gotten into as we've prepared for the next track will be missed. This is the last time I'll pack my pack, worry about whether I have enough, or too much, or wonder how my legs will hold up. I went for a trail run on the Northern Circuit trail yesterday - just to check out the scenery and burn off some energy. I ran with music and sang and danced and cried because I felt so alive. 

Of course, gratitude abounds. Happiness prevails. 

Surely, in the next few days I'll have some kind of comprehensive list of things I've learned and things I've loved from this 9 week journey. For now, I'm off to climb my first active volcano!!! 

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Monday, April 1, 2013

Monday, March 25, 2013



It was so, so different than anything I've ever done before. 3 days and 95km of paddling down a river in a Canadian Canoe. I learned a lot about myself last week. Namely, that spending time on the water gives me similar satisfaction to spending time on a trail; that I'm not super talented when it comes to staying upright in a Canadian Canoe; that I have a special affection for the Maori culture; and that I must come back to visit this part of the world again. Magic, I tell ya.

We’re currently on our 8th flight – headed from the city of Whanganui to Auckland. From there we’ll hop on our 9th flight to head to Gisborne. I can officially say that I love to fly. Little planes, big planes, helicopters… Doesn’t matter.

The Whanganui River Journey conjured a completely different reaction than I anticipated. I mean, I knew it would be different and I knew it would be beautiful, but I didn’t expect it to change me. I guess I thought that since my legs are my “thing,” paddling would just be a means to an end of the river.

I was wrong.

I know that the next question is, “what changed?” I have no idea. I just know I felt different on the water and I felt even more different when we finished final day of paddling.

The river: She’s mostly calm, but does like to enchant (read: scare the shit out of me) with the occasional rapid along the way. Her banks vary from something I can recognize - sloped beaches with sand and rocks - to something I could never have imagined - sheer cliffs straight to the sky. Kind of like Milford, but nothing like Milford because they were covered in 300 shades of green mosses and ferns and palms that didn’t appear to have any business growing on the side of a cliff. Surely gravity would have pulled those palms to the river bottom? So strange, and so, so, so beautiful.

The mood of the river is set by the weather. We were so lucky to have three days of rain right before our journey, almost as to fill the river up just enough to provide us a smooth passage. Each morning greeted us with dense mist coming off of the water, magnifying the stillness of the water and the green of the trees – forcing us to recognize our small place in this place, granting us the gift of perspective. With her stillness and comfort, I was forced to contemplate the things I’ve done my best to keep behind the well constructed wall. In the end, she became like a dear old friend, lovely and warm – but not afraid to toss me around a bit.
Beautiful calmness - morning of day 2
Eddie and Dan, our guides, set a light mood to the adventure early on. A hilarious duo that seemed more like a comedy team than guides, almost fell out of their canoe in prerequisite test to be able to set off on our journey. The fact that they didn’t realize they were a comedy team was what made them so funny. They provided a great release where we all would have been way too tense about staying upright and safe... 

I paddled with Rich for the entire 95km journey, me in the back with steering responsibilities, him in the front as our “motor.” The combination of not being very strong or able to give him a lot of help in the power department along with my inability to keep concentrated on the obstacles ahead – and more importantly staying away from the obstacles ahead – could have made for the perfect storm of frustration in our little Canadian canoe. Rich was awesome. With the exception of one time when I almost paddled us square into a giant rock wall, he never once got frustrated with me (outwardly, anyway…) And to be fair, even when I did try to paddle us right into said giant rock wall, he just gave me a quick glance to the back of the boat and yelled, “Steph??? Are you with me???” Occasionally I would hear him shout, “RIGHT!” or, “LEFT!” from the front of the boat, or glance back to make sure I was watching where I was steering us – but for the most part – we laughed our way down the 95 kilometer expedition.
My view in our little canoe.
Day 3 is notoriously the most difficult in terms of rapids (and, as we found out – staying upright). In between Rich and I were five barrels filled with all of our gear, which I had tied down to the canoe with two straps. The guides explained going into day 1 that anything that wasn’t tied to the boat had high potential of getting lost. We found out in the first rapid of day 3 exactly what wasn’t tied down (Rich's flip flops). I have to say, for all the fear I carried about not wanting to fall into the river, once we actually did go in - it was awesome! We bobbed our way down the rapid to the still water, cracking up, kicking, spitting water, and squealing. It might be my favorite memory of the trip. We fell in twice that day, the second time just as entertaining as the first. So. Much. Fun.

Standing outside the Marae on the morning of day 3. When we fell in the first time I was dressed head to toe.  Hilarious! 
The second night on the Whanganui is on a Marae (a sacred, communal place for the Maori). We were welcomed onto the Marae by a special ceremony called a Powhiri -the same ceremony that welcomed us onto the Marae in Motueka. The ceremony begins with the Karanga, a call – always done between two women – one representing the Maori and one representing the visitors coming to the Marae. If you’ve ever seen The Whale Rider, you’ve seen the karanga. I’ve been obsessed with The Whale Rider since I saw it five or six years ago. I knew when I went on my first Marae and followed Aneika as she did the Karanga, that I have a special love for the Maori and their culture and traditions. I couldn’t hold myself together as a spectator that day… So to be asked to share (with Dayna) the responsibility of representing the visitors in the Karanga was overwhelming to me. Eddie is Maori and taught us the words and pronunciation. We practiced for about six hours as we paddled along the Whanganui River where so much of the Maori history seems to feel alive. Upon arrival we were led to the top of a hill where Dayna and I led the visitors onto the Marae and represented our group as the kiakaranga. Saying that the experience was a “highlight” for me doesn’t do it justice, so I’ll just say that it’s something I will never forget. The entire day was so special for me. (I really, really hope I got all the terms and the concepts of the Powhiri correct - please feel free to correct me if I've got any of it wrong!) 
Tieke Kainga Marae
We met a husband/wife team canoeing down the river that took to our team and ended up paddling most of the last two days with us. The wife, Catherine, is a nurse. On our last day of paddling she asked me what I was going home to… I told her my story and explained that the anxiety is creeping up on me as the time comes closer and I keep ending up with more questions out of this journey than answers. I love her response, “Maybe it’s best to go home and do what’s familiar and let the dust settle.” Duh. It sounds so simple – but jeez, I needed to hear it out of someone else’s mouth. It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Karl while walking the last day of Routeburn and contemplating the colors that appear in nature (I happened to be specifically blown away by the turquoise color of the water). Karl, in his artsy wisdom explained that every color we see is just a representation of how that object reflects the sunlight. Without sunlight, we see no color. So really – it’s all just reflection. 

It’s helped me to take that concept and apply it to this trip. Without reflection, I can’t really see any of it for what it is, or what it will be. I need time and space and miles on my trails to really know what all of this means for me. So there you have it. No big decisions will be made anytime soon. For now, I’m really looking forward to the next three weeks – to soaking in as much of this country as I can, and to the journey home – to seeing my family and friends and Tate, to running my trails, to climbing my mountain, to reclaiming my fitness on my terms, to completing treatment, to hugging the doctors who saved my life, and then to make sure I do the best job possible at living it
Feeling the exhaustion that 95 km of paddling will bring...
He's not the fluffiest pillow, but he'll do.