I waited 12 years to hear three magic words: “You’re cancer free.” But as my world opened up, the bottom dropped out when my husband added three of his own: “I’m leaving you.” Devastated, I needed to do something to signify my life was moving forward.
For the first half of the San Diego Rock-n-Roll marathon, I took it all in: A rock band every mile, endless squads of high school cheerleaders, 22,000 runners – four thousand of us in purple jerseys, representing the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training.
It was a sea of people from the start, Kenyans in front. Sixteen "corrals" separated them from my start time. They could have run it twice and still beat me. I’d never run more than a 10k. But today I was running in honor of 13 people who’d battled cancer, led by my beloved aunt who died two months earlier.
At mile 13, "Pimp Daddy" cut in front of me — shaved head, black socks, pictures of kids on his back. Most runners print their names on the front; not this guy. He was Hulk Hogan in a tank top. Never met the guy, but it didn’t matter. We were all in this together.
Still, not someone you wanted to be downwind of. I picked up the pace.
By mile 15, a sixth toe had formed on my right foot. Stopping at a medic tent, I wondered how many band-aids it would take to cover the mother-of-all blisters. As I took off my bloody sock, one of the volunteers said, "Keep your foot elevated, you don’t want it to swell." Huh? I’ve got 11 more miles to go.
Rounding the corner at mile 17, a sea of orange peels covered the street. Throughout the race, thousands of spectators waved signs, rung cowbells, called-out our names, shouting words of encouragement. But I wasn’t prepared for this. Two households of people handed-out thousands of quartered orange sections for all 22,000 of us. A little blonde girl stood on the curb, arm stretched-out to hand me an orange wedge. "Thanks, sweetheart," I said. "Go purple lady," she responded. A still small voice in pigtails.
I remembered another voice I’d heard at 3:30 that morning on my cell phone, a message from a friend in Denver. “Visualize yourself crossing the finish line. And when you do, step boldly through the portal of magnificence.”
Where is that portal now? I wasn’t feeling very magnificent. The sun was in full force, I’d run for three hours, my feet were on fire, and I still had nine miles to go. Doubt started rearing its ugly head. Am I nuts? What kind of idiot does this to their body? What on earth was I thinking when I signed up for this thing?
I’d run the first two-thirds of the race focused outside of myself. It was time to shift inside. To find that still voice, and remind myself of the reason I was here: to honor others, reinforce that I was healthy, shake-off the past and expand my belief of what’s possible. And to move forward in my life one step at a time.
Call it what you will — endorphins, the zone, God, an out-of-body experience, the flow — I found it.
I’d sewn 13 ribbons on the back of my jersey, with names of my honorees printed on one tail of the ribbon, and a word representing them on the other. It was their words that carried me — love, courage, faith, inspiration, passion, strength, vitality, dignity, joy, laughter, spontaneity, magnanimous, triumphant. As hot as it got, as hard as the pavement felt, as much as my Achilles, calves and hamstrings were screaming at me, all of that paled compared to what these folks had endured. I couldn’t let them down. Nor could I let down the dozens of others who had supported me through cancer, divorce and now this.
Most of all, I couldn’t let myself down.