A longtime family friend wanted to know why I’d suddenly become so motivated to raise funds for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, since none of my family members have been affected by the disease. This is my second season with Team In Training and I’ve been putting the word out that I’m raising money for the cause–again. It probably does cause my friends and family to think: what gives?
I’ll confess something. When I began last season, training for my first half marathon, I had absolutely no connection to the cause. My immediate family is pretty healthy stock, thankfully. My grandmother on my father’s side is 101 years old and can still remember what kind of soup she and my grandfather were having the night he got so angry about something he threw the tablecloth (and all of its contents) against a wall, and all of the words to the songs they used to sing in their youth.
Healthy as ever and beginning my training for my first half marathon distance, I received a flier in the mail from The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. Hmm, I thought. Get coached for a race AND raise money for a good cause? It was worth looking into. I’d been looking for a way to give back to the community, plus I really could have used some help with my training. I signed up.
Starting out asking for money for the cause and having no connection to it felt in some ways fraudulent. Of the causes that I’d backed over the years, none of them involved fighting cancer, and, never EVER, had I asked friends or family for a cent. I never even tried to sell them Girl Scout cookies way back when (which is why I sold the least out of my troop that year). I couldn’t blame them if it seemed odd that suddenly I was so passionately driving home the importance their contribution would make to help save lives stricken by blood cancer.
Something changed, though, between then and now. I got to know my teammates, many of them people whose lives were drastically affected by blood cancer. I met people who’d lost their best friend, a parent or a beloved mentor to diseases that affected young and old. I met people who, themselves, struggled through the hard reality of diagnoses, the harshness of chemotherapy, and who went on to run marathons, get married, inspire others and, most of all, to continue to raise awareness and money for the cause.
But the person who inspired me the most was a woman whose name I still don’t know.
It was a sunny morning, late July, in Long Beach, CA, when I was slated to run my first 10K. My senses were tingling with anticipation as I approached the TNT tent our team had set up. It was an “all team event”–meaning that all chapters of our L.A marathon teams would be attending. I met up with some of my West Side teammates, met some new folks, and chatted happily about what was to be our longest distance race yet.
The beach sun broiled from above as a big group of us set out on a 10-minute, pre-race warm-up jog. As they circled around the pier, my jogging teammates resembled a bunch of purple and white LLS birthday candles, heads set aflame by the blazing sunlight. Even though I was warmed up, I had no real race strategy, other than the coaches’ words, “Don’t start out too fast.” I quickly drafted a makeshift strategy in my head while waiting for the gun to go off: Start slow for the first two miles, go faster for the next two, and then pick up the pace for the last two (and walk when you need to walk, but not more than 30 seconds).
Soon the gun was off and so was I, telling myself to slow down repeatedly during the first mile. It wasn’t until Mile Two, when we had gotten to the end of the pier and looped back toward the finish, that I first saw her: Statuesque and Amazon-like, her walk gait slow and faltering. I recognized the logo on her shirt, beamed and called out, “Go Team! You can do it!” Only her eyes flashed in acknowledgment, her face pained and concentrated on every wincing step.
I took my first walk break at about two and a half miles. The sun was not forgiving. The beach path seemed to stretch on forever, an endless flat road with a bright, burning torture device overhead, leaching energy and hydration with a vengeance. Perky “real” runners trotted by going the other direction, chirping, “You’re almost at the turnaround!” Of course, their concept of “almost” wasn’t quite on par with my idea of it, but, eventually, I got there, ran around the cone, grabbed a cup of water, spilled half of it, choked on the other half,and threw the cup into the bin.
Apparently the race organizers decided to give us a pointless challenge near the end of the race by placing a steep hill with a turnaround at the top at Mile 5. I walked up the hill and ran down quickly, hoping that little burst of speed would cancel the walk time. It wasn’t until after the hill that I saw her again, still stoic-ly marching, her face twisted in determination. Again, I smiled and waved, and called out, “Go Team!” This time, she silently mouthed a, “Go Team” back, barely shifting her gaze from the long stretch of path ahead, and continued her forward battle.
Soon I could see tents in the distance and I picked up the pace. I crossed the finish line at just over one hour, averaging a 9:45 minute/mile pace and achieving 5th place in my age group. Granted, it wasn’t a big race, but accolades are motivating. I went over to one of my coaches and told him the good news. He congratulated me. I asked him where our other coach was so that I could tell him the good news.
“He’s out on the course with one of our participants. She’s going through chemo and having a tough time out there,” he told me. I knew exactly which participant he was referring to.
A group of us stayed and cheered like mad until she finished, exhausted, slow, pained, but triumphant. I had never seen real courage up close until I’d looked into her face that day.
Lots of people ask me why in the heck I would run a marathon, or train for an Ironman, and I just shrug and say, “I’m crazy, I guess.” It’s my default answer, but it’s not the whole truth. The body is just a vehicle, the mind and will are the drivers. We are, all of us, capable of much more than we think is possible, both physically and mentally. I will never forget the look of sheer will on that woman’s face. It drives me on in my efforts, and I know that, with every step, stroke and pedal forward I take, I’m helping her too. I promise to her and to myself that I won’t give up. We can all be “Ironmen” and “Ironwomen.” We can all become heroes in some small way.
Note: If you’d like to learn more about Team in Training or to help support me in my fundraising efforts, please visit my fundraising page: http://pages.teamintraining.org/los/VineFIrn13/SDIronWoman.
Here are some cool stats about where your donations are going:
• $1000 supports one week’s salary for a medical researcher at UCSF, Stanford, or Berkeley who may discover key information to developing curative treatments for blood cancers.
• $500 allows 10 patients to log on to a webcast and hear the latest information in treatment for their disease.
• $150 allows five patients to make a First Connection with a trained peer volunteer.
• $100 provides three patients access to an information teleconference.
• $75 is the average cost of tissue typing to become a bone marrow donor.
• $50 is the cost of a CT scan.
• $40 is the cost of sending a comprehensive packet of information for children with cancer.
• $35 pays for transportation expenses for a patient living in Northern California’s most rural areas to treatment at a comprehensive cancer center.
• $25 covers a single prescription co-payment.
• $5 is the cost of sending a newly diagnosed patient information about their disease and how to get support.