Monday, September 11, 2006

Breast Cancer 3-Day 2006, The Long Version ...

Every year, I write a letter to send to my contributors about my 3-Day experience. I actually print it out on paper and address envelopes and put stamps on those envelopes and mail them. Remember mail?

But I also post the account here. So, without further ado:

September 11, 2006

Family and friends:

September always seems so far away. March has become my month to sign up for the 3-Day. Maybe it’s the winter doldrums and my desire to get outside. Maybe it’s the long-faded memory of any 3-Day-related pain. In March, I make the commitment, but September always seems so far away.

Then time passes, as time does, and the next thing I know, the 3-Day arrives. Thanks go out to my brother Brian and my friend Jay for helping me get to the Marriott in Lincolnshire, where I got my requested early check-in and took a nap. Taking a nap on a Thursday morning is a lovely thing.

Friday morning came quickly. My shuttle to opening ceremonies left at 5:30 a.m. In the darkness, we arrived, hauled our gear to the gear trucks, and made our way to the stage. For Composer Dave’s benefit, I’ll mention that the 3-Day uses outstanding P.A. equipment and that that morning, they were playing U2, KT Tunstall, and Coldplay. A good omen. Three of my favorite artists.

Opening ceremonies were typically moving. It was mere moments before I was crying. The 3-Day is just so overwhelming. It’s a microcosm of the way life should be. Kindness everywhere.

On my first 3-Day, in Atlanta, my dear friend Adam, who was working crew, gave me a care package. He used the back of an event flyer to write a note to me. I carry it with me on every 3-Day and read it before each event. An invocation.

I chatted with a couple women who happened to live not far from me. Kassy and I ended up walking together. It was her first 3-Day and she said she had a migraine two days before. She was really nervous about the event, about not knowing anyone, about all the unknowns.

Early on the route, I saw one of the guys who last year I dubbed The Men Who Clap. I told Kassy about them. His fellow clapper was older. I hoped he was OK. Frankly, I hoped he was still with us. As we neared The Man Who Clapped, I asked, “Where’s your partner?”

“My dad,” he said. “He couldn’t make it to this one.” Phew.

Kassy and I kept a good pace on Friday. We had lots to chat about and the day was going along fine. Until just after lunch.

As we walked down a residential street, I asked her if she was feeling OK. She said she was. Well, I wasn’t. I was feeling decidedly nauseous. Maybe I ate something that didn’t agree with me. Maybe I wasn’t drinking enough. Maybe I wasn’t getting enough salt. We stepped off the route for a moment and, feeling a little lightheaded, I decided that I should sweep to camp. Kassy was going to stay on the route. I popped a few peppermint tic tacs into my mouth and sat down on the grass to wait for the sweep van. Sweeping at any point during the 3-Day is a huge personal disappointment for me. When I take the first step onto the route, I fully intend to take the last step on the route and every step in between.

People walked by and asked if I was OK. “Just resting for a minute,” I told them. Because I had decided that I’d wait for the nausea to pass, get back on the route, and see how far I could get.

I walked into camp a couple hours, and 23 total miles, later.

This year, unlike in years past, the camp didn’t move. Which meant that on Day 2, we effectively walked in a circle. On the one hand, this is a good thing: It’s a huge logistical challenge to move the camp and it costs a lot of money. By setting up camp once, more money can be given to the research effort. On the other hand, though, it’s not such a good thing: As a walker, one of the thing that drives you is the knowledge that you’re gaining ground. At the end of the day, knowing that you’ve walked from Point A to Point B is a reward. You can literally plot your success on a map. So it’s harder to be motivated, knowing that you’re just walking for the sake of racking up mileage.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. In camp Friday night, I got my gear from the truck, and headed to my tent location where my tent sat in its little tent tote bag. Sigh. After you’ve walked all day, all you really want to do is collapse for a few minutes in your tent. Sometimes, crew members have time to set some up. Sometimes, local Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts are on hand to do the set up. I started unrolling my tent components and a couple of crew guys walked up and offered to set it up for me. Hooray for the crew guys! I blew up my self-inflating air mattress. (I was impatient.) When the tent was up, I started covering it in plastic sheeting. The weather forecast for the weekend was for rain, starting Friday night. Swell.

After resting for a bit, I got dinner. As always, the food was surprisingly edible. In line, the woman in charge of dessert asked if I’d like an eclair. “I hear they’re to die for,” she said.

“Oh, no thanks,” I said.

“Oh, come on!” she said. And she was right. When is my metabolism ever so stoked? I’d just walked 23 miles. I took an eclair.

It was pretty fabulous.

On the way back to my tent, I stopped to help a couple people set up theirs. One woman commented on it being a nice thing to do. I said that the crew guys set up mine for me, and I was just paying it forward. She hugged me. Ah, the 3-Day. Hugs from total strangers are perfectly normal.

I arrived back at my tent to find my tentmate inside. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Beth. I’ll be sleeping two feet from you tonight.” The tents are six feet square. I am 6’3”. Erin is 5’10”. And we had luggage. Cozy.

When Erin was only 7, her mom died of breast cancer. As it was for me, this was her third 3-Day. She was a team captain. Some of her cousins were joining her, as well as some fellow training partners. But not everyone on her team made it to the event, so there was an extra reserved tent that was going to go unused. In the end, Erin and her cousin Michele (who goes by Shelly, if that’s the spelling she uses) shared a tent, and her cousin Mike and I each got our own. Heaven.

I headed off for a much-needed shower. Friday was hot and sunny, in the mid-80s. Tentmate or no, I couldn’t remain so offensive. This year, I waited for the individual showers. The large shower trucks have individual stalls, but there’s a common area that’s a bit too, uh, revealing. But this truck had tiny shower suites, if you will. An actual door for each shower stall. A place to hang up your clothes and a tiny shower area.

Tiny. Shower. Area. I felt like Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation” crouching under the shower head or Will Ferrell in “Elf,” flipping water toward himself. Actually, it wasn’t quite that bad. And it felt so fantastic. So with a quick brush of my teeth at the sinks outside and dressed in clean, comfy clothes, I headed back to my tent to sleep.

Sleep is a challenge on the 3-Day, but this year, with my nifty air mattress and ear plugs, I was actually able to sleep for a couple hours at a stretch. I dreamt that I was hanging out with Bill Kurtis and Jack Nicholson. Put that on your couch and analyze it.

Given that you drink like a fish on the 3-Day, you invariably have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. At 2 a.m., you feel like you’re the only one awake. Until you emerge from your tent and see the camp teeming with other like-bladdered campers.

On Day 2, my almost-tentmate Erin and her cousins invited me to walk with them. I had looked for Kassy when I got to camp on Friday and again Saturday morning, but once you lose someone on the 3-Day, it’s hard to find them again. There are just too many people. So I happily became an adopted member of Erin’s family.

They’re all amazing people. On the back of Erin’s shirt was pinned a picture of her and her mom, as well as a picture of Erin’s aunt and her grandmother, who are survivors. Genetically, Erin is at great risk for breast cancer. Her participation in the walk does indeed raise money for research that may one day be very necessary for her own health, but she walks to honor the women in her life. She and her cousins are all very funny. Remember in “Monsters, Inc.” when Sulley and Mike discover that a child’s laughter holds much more power than its screams? Laughter on the 3-Day is fuel. We laughed a lot.

We encountered the half of The Men Who Clap on the path just before lunch. He was sporting bunny ears now. As we neared him, I asked, “What’s your name?”


“Hi, Dan. I’m Beth.” We were on a first-name basis from then on.

More of Erin’s family, including her husband, Steve, met us at lunch. I was touched to be further embraced by all of them. I offered to take pictures. Everyone hauled out a camera and set it in front of me on the ground. I laughed. “What am I, the press corp?”

“Well,” one of them said, “we all live in different states,” as if to explain why they each needed their own shots.

“Uh, they’re digital pictures,” I said in a mock-conspiratorial tone. “You can e-mail them to each other.”

We got back on the route and the family went ahead to a cheering station. The day’s weather was overcast and cool. Perfect walking weather. The rain held off. But our resolve waned. Erin was on the brink of tears but hell bent on finishing the day. Shelly and Erin fell back. Mike walked ahead. I approached camp on my own. I crossed my last intersection. One of the crew, a woman who made it safe for us to cross streets all weekend, said, “We’re proud of you.” I smiled at her. A few steps later, I tried hard not to break down. My emotions run close to the surface every day, but on the walk, the smallest gesture or kind word threatens to upset the delicate balance I maintain between proper comportment and puddle.

People – some walkers, some civilians – cheered the walkers on their way into camp. I made a flourishy, dramatic bow to thank them. After 22.5 miles – 45.5 cumulative – a little flair seemed in order.

We had dinner, our little family of four. As on every 3-Day, walkers and other speakers share their stories. As on every 3-Day, we cry and cheer with them. The night before, Alan Manifold, the top fundraiser for the event, told the story of his wife who had died 8 months earlier, to the day. She was 47. His goal was to raise $47,000. To date, he’s raised $38,315.00. He was a bit of a celebrity on the walk. He’s tall and handsome. As he’d walk, people would point and whisper to their walkmates. We’d smile at each other whenever we’d pass each other on the route or see each other in camp. On his contribution web site, he wrote, in part, “We don't want to lose any more people to this disease, so please give sacrificially on her behalf.” I love the word “sacrificially.”

Very early Sunday morning, the rain came. It stayed with us for the entire day. There were a few puddles in my tent, but most of my stuff was dry. Except for, sadly, the notebook I’d been jotting notes in all weekend. (It’s here now, on my desk, soggy but readable.) I packed up my gear, donned my fetching red disposable rain poncho, and hauled myself out of my tent. I schlepped my gear to the gear truck first, so it wouldn’t sit in the rain while I struck my tent. As I walked back to begin dismantling it, I heard a woman ask her tentmate, “Do they call it off if it’s raining?” I couldn’t help answering: “No, we walk in the rain.”

Well, personally, “walk” may have been overstating it a bit. Last year, I had one small blister late on Day 3. This year, I wasn’t nearly so lucky. But I couldn’t sweep right to lunch. Partly because I had to at least try to walk. And partly because it was 7:20 a.m. and I’d just finished breakfast and what would I do for several hours until my fellow walkers arrived at the lunch stop?

So we all got on the route and my feet behaved well enough. But where did the pain at the back of my right knee come from? At the first pit stop, I sat on a curb and stretched while Erin waited in line for the bathroom. She looked at me and gave me a thumbs up and a thumbs down, to see how I was doing. I held my thumb horizontally. We kept walking.

By the halfway-point pit stop, I was nearly in tears. It was full-out raining, it was cold, it was windy. My knee, thanks to Aleve, had stopped aching, but my feet were a nightmare. Logically, I should have ducked into the medical tent to see what was going on, but my shoes were wet, and my socks were wet, and I didn’t think I could get them off, let alone back on (even with the dry socks I had with me). A motor coach was waiting to take walkers to lunch. I looked at it, then at Erin. “Don’t be a hero,” she said. “Sweep if you need to.”

“No,” I said. I’m stubborn. “I’m going to keep going.” As we got back on the route, I said, “You know what it is? I can’t just sweep from a stop. If I’m going to sweep, it has to be on the route. I have to at least be trying.”

We walked on. At that point, we had about 7 miles left. Shelly and I slowed considerably. We were in no hurry to get to the holding area, but we vowed to finish. Once we left lunch, there was no turning back. There was no way, after everything I’d gone through, that I was going to sweep to closing ceremonies. A walker passed me. “How you doing?” she asked. “I’m OK,” I said. “I might start walking on my hands. They don’t hurt.” A walker behind me laughed and said she’d hold my ankles for me for balance.

Throughout the days, I checked my phone. I kept it off most of the time to conserve the battery, but Pat, a new person in my life, called regularly to leave encouraging messages. I came to rely on them. As I’d sit on the grass and stretch and choke down some Gatorade, his messages made me smile. They were especially important on Sunday. Pat competes in Ironman triathlons. (That’s a 2.5-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon. In one day.) On this walk, I decided that I am more of an Aluminumwoman. For the way I felt, a frat boy could’ve crushed me against his forehead.

Erin and Mike ducked into a corner bar for a shot of tequila. Shelly and I kept walking, figuring we were moving slow enough that they could catch up with us. We made it to the lakeshore path. The wind was whipping. The waves crashed hard against the breakwall. It was really beautiful. It would have been more beautiful if I was wearing more than a long-sleeve T-shirt and yoga pants and a rain poncho effectively made out of Saran Wrap. It was September 10, but it felt like November. We turned back often, looking for Erin and Mike. We eventually saw them, booking toward us. We laughed, wondering how much they’d had to drink. Pain was clearly no longer an issue.

Dan the Clapping Man was there toward the end. We stopped for pictures with him. Lots of walkers stopped for pictures with him. Dan, turns out, is from California. He and his dad (when he’s able) travel to 3-Day events all over the country to clap. Amazing.

The four of us approached the end of the route together, so many people cheering along the way. Erin’s family was waiting for us, a larger group than from lunch the day before. They were my surrogate family once again. Everyone hugged me. I didn’t even try to keep it together.

We walked to the “finish line,” as it were, and entered the holding area where we waited until closing ceremonies began. My mom and dad found me. Dad was holding three pink roses, one pale, two vibrant. I introduced them to my walkmates and the rest of the family. “Do you mind?” I asked mom. “No, I don’t mind,” she said, and I handed one vibrant pink rose to Shelly and one to Erin. I smiled at Mike and said, “You’re a guy. You don’t get a flower.” They’d kept me going that day. There was no way I would have made it without them. And the color of the roses matched their spirits.

The four of us, arms linked, walked into closing ceremonies together. As in years past, we cheered wildly when the crew made their entrance, and, as in years past, we each held one shoe aloft in salute as the survivors filled the center of our enormous circle of friends and family and walkers and crew. On Friday, at opening ceremonies, five women made their way to the stage, holding hands to form a circle that held the memories of all those who have been lost. On Sunday, they made their way to the center of the circle holding hope. And they raised a flag of gossamer aqua, blank, on which for us to write the future.

A day when we will no longer need to walk.

My most heartfelt love and thanks to you all,



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. I am Mike. I am a 3-Day walker.
You are awesome! Your spirit and determination kept us going! Thank you for letting us share a little bit of ourselves and our family with you. Your conversations and laughter made the miles fly by until we read another incorrect sign! Don't be a stranger! Peace out, Bitches!

1:55 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings of this inspiring experience with us!

10:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have my lips quivering, eyes full while I sit at my desk here at work. Thank you for sharing (and walking!) Beth. xo Gretchen

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You rock

1:58 PM  

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