At 58 I participated in my first 5-K run this past weekend. All proceeds from sponsorship went to a local charity for women in need. What an exhilarating experience!
To train, I frequented the gym three times a week, hitting the treadmill for a 30-min jog or intervals of 3-minute jogs interspersed with walking. Two other days of the week I ran on forest trails near my home. The day before the race I entered the great outdoors again, this time frolicking and stretching with Henry and Samson, our wayward dogs rescued from the local animal shelter. The training reminded me of studying for the bar exam, a marathon of mental intensity culminating in a relaxing bike ride the day before the exam.
The morning of the race I discovered I would be facing some unexpected challenges right from the get-go: a lack of restful sleep the night before and a continuous uphill grade for the first half of the race. The path, once a train track, was converted into a paved bicycle-walking trail that runs up the hill that defines our town. Because of the lack of sleep I drank more coffee than my weak bladder would have preferred. I should have stuck with good old H2O. But on the plus side, the weather was perfect, somewhat cool and overcast yet not raining. My three light layers of clothing suited me perfectly for the venture.
As I mentally prepared for this race, a girl of about 16 asked if she could run with me. I had never met her before, but she latched on to me like a puppy dog. How could I refuse, even though I have always run by myself?
After a short pep talk and a prayer, we all lined up waiting for the shout that would announce the start. Then we took off like a shot–that is, like a shot taken by a camera. Many were sprinting for the benefit of the newspaperman who crouched ahead and to the side, Kodak in hand. Who wouldn’t want this photo op, a chance to be shown to the world as a serious runner on the front page of our local newspaper? That is, unless a more newsworthy event bounced it from its coveted above-the-fold space. As it turned out, the article ran below the fold, with the anticipated photo on page 4. Whatever.
Certain leaders of the pack marked the way for us as we naturally began to spread out according to our abilities and stamina. Believing endurance and perseverance were more important than fast spurts at the start, I stayed mostly behind the horde–yet still running. Soon the inevitable tortoise and hare effect became evident. After the 1-K milepost I noticed teenagers ahead of me starting to slow down…and then walk. My young companion was among them, urging me to go on ahead without her. And I did, certain she would catch up. But she never did.
Foot followed foot in a vault of continuous rhythm as I kept up the steady but slow pace of my jog. I preferred to think of it as a trot rather than a jog, and maybe that’s what kept me on target. My mind urged me–no–pleaded with me, not to walk. As I saw front runners now heading down the slope, I waved encouragement and even high-fived some of them. Every single runner mouthed, “Way to go!” to the others, no matter where they were in the race. I made sure to greet everyone I encountered on the path with a winning smile. It was truly a meeting of friends, as if we were a cancer support group egging on our fellow survivors.
The only time I stopped running, as anyone did, was at the halfway mark where we turned to go back downhill. At this juncture a friend of mine stood at command, grinning, handing us cups of refreshing water. Gulping it down, I threw the paper cup on the ground to join the other emptied cups and embarked on the downhill leg of the course.
Nearing the finish line, I spied a young adult rousing me to sprint. So I picked up my pace, my legs flying, hoping I wouldn’t lose balance and fall. I didn’t, and as soon as I crossed the finish line, cheers reached my ears–and my heart. One of the first runners back handed me a much needed bottle of water and told me my time: 32 minutes. I thought, Not bad for a two-time cancer-surviving baby boomer. Not bad for someone who underwent intensive chemo treatment with Adriamycin and Herceptin, drugs with known side-effects on heart function. Not bad for someone with congenital mitrial valve disorder.
This race represented a special breakthrough for me. Before cancer crept into my life I used to run three miles regularly in our community near the ocean. But after my first diagnosis and treatment I stopped, as I feared falling and hurting my bones, weakened from the chemotherapy. To build up bone mass I resorted to moderate-paced walking and swimming. When the cancer returned in the same breast I believed my running days were behind me.
As the years passed, however, I decided to try out my Nikes again. “Just do it,” they beckoned to me. So I embarked on a new running regimen a few years ago, taking it slowly. For me a good day consisted of a two-minute jog in the midst of a walk or at the end of a hike. Gradually I built up my tolerance for longer runs punctuated by the walking.
When the opportunity for this race arose, I jumped at it. I didn’t want cancer to define me. Voices in my head telling me I could never resume the activities I used to love fought with a single voice: ”I can do anything I want.” I’m living proof that a diagnosis of cancer need not interfere with running, hiking a mountain (as I did last September to 9000 feet) or downhill skiing (as I’ve done two days this year). Just as Lance Armstrong pushed on, I press on…for the sake of all cancer survivors, for my sons, for my health, and for my God. I feel His pleasure even though I can’t run like Eric Liddell, the Scottish missionary and runner whose story inspired the movie Chariots of Fire.
So don’t let cancer drag you down. Hang in there, strive, and train to become the best you can be. And you don’t have to join the army to do it!
What do you do to get regular exercise? Do you find it tiring or exhilarating or a mixture of both? Which athlete inspires you?
I’ll write again in May after I am back from my two-week trip to Ireland. I’ll miss all of you.