Training for the forty mile Avon Walk for Breast Cancer involves an incredible amount of walking—eight, ten, twenty miles at a stretch, all aimed at preparing the body for two days of walking through metropolitan Washington, DC, in an effort to raise funds for and awareness of breast cancer. For months, I had trained with a group of women, walking all over downtown Annapolis with them, from the Naval Academy to West Street, from Church Circle to the Severn River. When we walked, our destination was never important—the journey was what mattered, getting mileage to build up the endurance to trek for forty miles in two days.
One Sunday, I completed a twenty mile training walk, then called my brother to chat with him. I described our long walk and Del seemed to marvel at my accomplishment. Then he said, “Really Jan, what I want to know is what you talk about all that time. What can you talk about for eight hours?”
It occurred to me that we spent most of our time talking about what to carry—and not—and how best to carry it. For our training walks, we each assembled bags of what struck us as truly necessary: bandaids and moleskin and scissors for trimming it; chapstick and sunblock; protein bars and fruit; rain ponchos and cameras. Some of us carried fanny packs, the silly little black pouches that strap around the hips. Mine was specially designed for the Avon Walk and featured a holder for a water bottle and a place for a cellphone. (Cellphone use is actually forbidden during the walk, as walkers are encouraged to focus on safety along the way.) Some women carried backpacks, only to discover that they were inclined to load these up with too much stuff, too much weight for the distance. Some women had found messenger-bag like purses, compact and with large straps that hooked over their chests. The most important thing, we agreed, was water, and some powdery stuff that mixed with it and restored our electrolyte balance.
We compared notes on what to carry and how. Those of us who had walked the previous year knew just how heavy the smallest item can become after lugging them for forty miles. Some of the things that seemed so essential—the extra granola bars, the apple—are unnecessary on the walk, where snacks and meals are provided along the route. Other necessities, like sweaters, seemed less important the farther we trekked. Some things that we forgot to pack we wished we had, like extra socks and more Vaseline for rubbing into our tired feet.
We traded off what to carry. One person would have enough sunblock for the whole crew. Others had plenty of bandaids and foot care items. Still others brought painkillers. One carried extra water. It usually turned out that if you had forgotten to pack something, you figured out how to do without it, or turned to a teammate to supply it. It is amazing how little it takes to get by—and how much it takes to make it.
We also carried our stories: Our memories and experiences, the events and people that had led us to sign up for the walk in the first place. We talked about the previous week and how we’d felt the day after training. We talked about what we’d cooked for dinner and how our children were doing in school or with families of their own. We talked about work and marriages and illness. We talked about friends who were struggling with breast cancer—fighting it and coping with it and living with it and through it. We talked about friends who had not made it. We talked about the women who were with us, the breast cancer survivors whose stories encouraged and inspired us.
My favorite conversation, and the one that got me through the tough points along the actual walk, was one I had with Djuana, a breast cancer survivor of one year, who planned to complete the walk and then have reconstructive surgery. She told me about the shock of being diagnosed, the fear and the uncertainty; she talked about people who had treated her with love and compassion, and others who had treated her as if she were just an object, an affliction, a job.