Warning: What you are about to read is extremely long. And may require the use of a Kleenex.
For those of you who are readers and who contributed to the walk, printed copies of this just went in the mail, if you'd like to save your eyes and read it in letter form. It should be there in a day or two.
Everyone else, settle in. Maybe get a beverage first. And make sure all the crops are harvested. And that you've got plenty of firewood chopped and cured to get you through the winter.
Monday, August 13, 2007
Friends and family:
It all started on Thursday.
Anna, my coach, had asked me if I’d like to be part of opening ceremonies. So on Thursday, I headed to the site in Schiller Park for a run-through, like a wedding rehearsal. This year, a group of walkers and crew carried a series of vertical flags through the center of the walkers and up onto the stage, and survivors carried flags to a second stage surrounded by all of us. Each flag displayed a word, words that were part of the opening speech. We were allowed to choose our flags. In honor of my mom, I chose “Joy.”
Helene was the stage manager, calling all the shots, like the producer of a fashion show, directing other staff through their earpieces. René was like a wedding coordinator, standing at the beginning of the aisle, telling us when to walk. We ran through it once on our own, then again while Jenné, our host, rehearsed her speech and we timed the two events together. Each of us was to walk up the stairs to the stage as she spoke our word in the speech and stand on our marks.
As we were running through practice the second time, René passed me in the procession and I said, "I’m crying already."
And up on the stage, as we stood there while Jenné spoke (and her voice was cracking), I had tears streaming down my face.
I had thought about applying for the position Jenné held, being “the voice” of the 3-Day, traveling to all the cities to deliver the opening and closing speeches, and updating the walkers each night in camp, acting as the emcee for all the evening activities. But realistically, I would have had to take too much time off of work, and, even more realistically, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stand on that stage and not sob through half of what I was saying.
Apparently, my stiff upper lip is made of Jell-O.
After rehearsal, after meeting my first round of amazing people, I drove to Doreen’s to spend the night. (Thanks again, Doreen!) I carbed up on spring rolls and Pad Thai and started falling asleep as we were watching TV.
And as soon as the credits rolled on the second show, I was wide awake.
I figure I slept about four hours, on and off, between Thursday night and Friday morning. Four hours of sleep in preparation of walking 23 miles that day? Sure, that seemed about right.
Doreen had set her alarm for me – my 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. She got up, hugged me goodbye, and went back to bed. I got ready, repacked my gear, and headed down to the doorman to wait for a cab.
We got to the park in good time. I signed in and chatted with my fellow flag bearers from the day before and then realized I should try to find my friend Jen and coordinate where we’d meet, as I would be one of the first people onto the route.
Jen and I didn’t know each other two months ago. But Anna asked us if we’d host a walker workshop and we hit it off instantly. When you have the 3-Day in common, you already know a lot about each other.
I walked around to the front of the stage and sure enough, there she was, with her team, South Siders for a Cure. She was the captain of a team of 14, quite large by 3-Day standards. (Their team, as of last night, had raised more than $46,000, which is astonishing.) We made a plan to meet.
Back behind the stage, René got everyone organized and led us around to the entrance to the crowd. We proceeded to the stage. The flags were on PVC poles that had to be 15 feet tall. I held mine with both hands, as straight as possible against the wind, elbows out, arms parallel to the ground.
I had Kleenex peeking out of my waist pack for easy access. In Jenné’s speech, she said that instead of taking a moment of silence for all those we’ve lost, she wanted to give us a chance to mention who we were walking for. Names rang out from the crowd, as well as from the older man standing next to me, a member of the crew. I could hear the need in his voice: I handed him my other Kleenex. I said, simply, “Everyone.”
The survivors descended from their stage to begin the walk and we followed. The gentle music swelled and then, as is always the case on the 3-Day, switched to a rockin’ tune to get us going.
I began the 2007 Chicago 3-Day to the chorus of U2’s “Beautiful Day.”
I met Jen and her team just beyond the chutes on the other side of the forest preserve. There are bar codes on our credentials, and everyone gets scanned out onto the route and scanned back in at the end of each day.
A group of us arrived at the first pit stop together and Kelly, the team photographer, asked if she could take a picture of the laminated list pinned to the back of my shirt. On my 3-Day web page is an Honor Roll, a scroll of the names of people who have contributed as well as, if they choose, the name in whose honor or memory their contribution has been made. I wanted to carry those names with me.
The list on my shirt read:
“I’m walking ...
... in honor of Rita Serritella,
... and in honor of Esther Maravilla,
... and in honor of Aunt Sue, Aunt Bev,
... and in memory of Kathryn Mikolajczak,
... and in memory of Marion Watters,
... and in honor of Meg Guttman,
... and in memory of Stephanie Schultz,
... and in honor of Ester Geyman,
... and in memory of Carol Walano,
... and in honor of Mommie Tessie,
... and in honor of Sandy Johnson,
... and in memory of Mildred Grever.”
I lost the girls in the first pit stop, but that was fine. Everyone walks at their own pace on the 3-Day, and it takes a little while to figure out who’ll end up walking together, based on their respective paces. It’s also hard to find who you’re looking for in a crowd when almost everyone is wearing pink and white.
I met up with them again while we were all stopped at a railroad crossing. We broke into smaller groups, some moving ahead, some falling behind. You fall into a bit of a trance on the 3-Day. Not that you’re not aware of your surroundings or all the people around you (like the amazing guys who helped us cross at major intersections – imagine spending five hours standing in 90-degree August sun and humidity), but when you’re putting on that many miles, something in your body goes on autopilot. I was trekking along with Kelly and Tina at that point (I think; my memory ain’t what it used to be and Friday feels like a month ago already) when I was jolted out of my zone by someone saying, “Hey, bitch!” I turned and took a moment to register who said it, then realized it was Mike from last year’s walk! (He’s the one in the picture with me on my web page and is the one who made the contribution in honor of Aunt Sue, Aunt Bev, and Grams.) On the walk, he was our Pimp Daddy and we were his Bitches, a joke born of there being so many women on the event and very few men.
He had driven the route, looking for me, and saw me, I suppose, so he pulled off the road and stood by the route until I arrived. I was thrilled to see him and hugged him tight. Erin, who I also walked with last year, was on his phone. It meant so much to have him there. On the 3-Day, a little encouragement goes a long way.
I felt bad after lunch, as I did last year, too. I think our bodies get into such a processing rhythm with the steady influx of fluids and snacks that eating a full meal is a bit of a shock to the system. More than once on Friday, I wondered if I’d finish the day. I didn’t have issues with blisters, but I was nauseous and the heat was, well, hot. And annoyingly, I had pain in my neck and right between my shoulder blades. It took a while to figure out that my muscles were likely sore from the way I’d held my flag the day before and that morning. But I walked into camp, a total of 22.7 miles from opening ceremonies.
I did the camp things: set up my tent, ate dinner, waited for the shower, tried to sleep. Sleeping is a challenge on the 3-Day.
On the one hand, all your body wants to do is sleep, on the other hand, it’s hard to really rest lying on an air mat in the middle of a college campus. Near O’Hare airport. And if you’ve been drinking enough all day, you’ll need to go to the bathroom all night. Here’s a handy hint: Lying in your tent and telling yourself that you do not need to schlep over to a Port-A-Potty will not, in fact, help you go back to sleep. Your bladder will win that argument every time.
Saturday dawned early, and we met for breakfast and got on the route, though a little later than most. Camp closes at a certain hour, and if you’re not on the route, you get transported to lunch. We were out of camp in plenty of time to avoid that, but the route closes at a certain hour, too, and you have to allot enough time to complete the day’s miles.
So we walked and came upon a very large South Siders for a Cure sign. Kelly’s parents had come to a cheering station along the route. And, bless them, they brought a cooler full of ice. You become very grateful for little things on the 3-Day, like ice, breezes, and shade.
Cheering stations are one of the best things about the walk. Lots of people who live on the route come out to cheer or set up sprinklers for us, some bring ice or freeze pops, but the concentration of people at a cheering station provides a much-needed substantial dose of encouragement to carry on. One awesome guy was handing out Push-Ups. Do you know how many years it's been since I’ve had a Push-Up? I don’t either. I can’t remember that far back.
On the leg just before lunch, my left ankle started hurting. At that point, we were on our 35th mile of the event. I thought perhaps it was hurting because I’d twisted it a bit the day before the walk. But at lunch, Sheila mentioned the front of her legs hurt. Just like me. We had shin splints. Before we left lunch, I asked one of the medical crew what I could do to treat them, besides slicking on Bio-Freeze and stretching. “Ice,” she said. Right. Ice. That was my plan for the next pit stop.
Sheila and I tried to walk very deliberately, planting our heels and rolling through each stride to extend the muscles as fully as we could. It seemed to help, but by the next pit stop, she had to sweep (3-Day parlance for “grab a ride”) to camp. Day 2 is the biggest day for sweeping, either because people have developed too many blisters on Day 1 or because they want to conserve their energy for Day 3. Tina, Hong, and I, without icing, continued walking. We arrived at an intersection (with a tree, thankfully) and I sat down on the grass. I needed to rub on more Bio-Freeze. I’d walked through the pain of last year’s blisters, but this pain was almost more than I could bear. And I was pissed. I hate having to sweep. Still, when you’re in so much pain that you’re crying, it’s probably time to call it a day. The girls waited for my decision.
“I’m walking,” I said, standing up.
If ever there were any question about my sanity, now we know: I’m nuts.
We walked and came upon a crew member who was filling water bottles on the route. She told us we’d be at the next pit stop in 15 minutes.
It took us 30.
I sat on the grass with a bag of ice on my ankle. A medical crew person asked me what was wrong. Shin splint, I told her. (Not shin splints, mind you. Shin splint. Only my left leg hurt. Well, hurts. Still.) She asked what I was going to do.
“As Kramer on ‘Seinfeld’ would say, ‘I am no longer the master of my domain. I’m out.’ ” She laughed and said that she admired me for knowing when to say when. The captain of the pit stop announced that the pit stop was closing in two minutes and we had to get back on the route or sweep to camp. I stood up to find Tina and Hong. They looked at me. I looked at them.
And I stepped onto the sidewalk, officially back on the route. Like I said to Erin and Shelly last year, “I can’t sweep from a stop. I have to at least be trying.”
As we walked on, Tina had the brilliant idea of sweeping to the next pit stop. At the pace we were walking, we would probably get to the next stop just as it was closing and would once again have no time to ice. But if we swept there, we could ice for at least 15 minutes and then attempt the last leg of the day. We flagged down a sweep van and the crew member told us they’d have to take us back to the previous stop to put us on the bus back to camp. What? That’s not the rule. If you sweep, you always sweep forward. Like, you know, sweeping.
We told them we’d keep walking. We stopped on a lawn to do what we could for our respective pains. When we resumed, we were the last three on the route. A crew member rides on a bike behind the last walker, and she pedaled up behind us, asking if we were OK. We told her Tina’s plan and that the sweep crew wouldn’t take us to the next pit stop. She said, “Well, they shouldn’t have told you that. If you want to go to the next pit stop, you’re going to the next pit stop,” and she got on her radio and called for a sweep van.
All the sweep vans have different themes. The one we boarded was Western with a big stuffed pony strapped to the roof. I think I want to put a horse on my car. It just seems like driving would be more fun that way.
Sweep crews aren’t just drivers, they’re also counselors and cheerleaders, because most people who get in those vans do so after a long internal struggle and most are disappointed in themselves.
So our cowboy and cowgirl dropped us at the last pit stop of the day, we iced, and we got back on the route. We had just under an hour to walk 2.7 miles. A 20-minute mile is entirely reasonable, but when every step hurts, it’s hard to kick it up to that pace. I found myself pulling ahead of Tina and Hong. I wouldn’t have left just one of them behind, but they had each other, so I walked as fast as my ankle would allow. At that point, I was essentially trying to ignore the pain (which had been dulled by the ice). After all I’d gone through on Day 2, there was no way I was going to get swept on the last leg to camp.
Along the last stretch of the route, I saw a couple who’d created a mobile cheering station for the weekend, moving from spot to spot along the route. They had ice and candy for us, and tunes blaring from their Jeep. (I heard a lot of Beatles on this walk.) I shook the guy’s hand and thanked him for everything they were doing. Little things really do mean a lot.
Which is one of the key things you take away from the 3-Day, the realization that it’s so, so simple to affect someone’s life in a profound way.
For the very last stretch of the day, the Des Plaines police had closed off half of the road for us, so we had a wide berth to walk back into camp. The Western sweep van was on the other side, driving toward me. The driver honked and gave me a big thumbs up from his window.
As I approached the campus, the sign said it was 6:55 p.m. The route was scheduled to close at 7.
I turned onto the campus toward the end of the route. Walkers and crew line up to cheer as walkers finish the day. One guy said, “Look at that pace!” I said, “My ankle is killing me!” But I hadn’t thought that there was any way I was going to be able to finish Day 2, and then there I was, scanned back into camp. Minus the distance we swept, I’d put a total of 44 miles behind me. The cowboy from the sweep van appeared next to me, touched my arm, and said, “Good job. I was so glad to see you at the end of the route.”
While we were eating dinner, the last walker arrived. The arrival of the last walker is a very big deal. Everyone got on their feet and cheered, clapping in unison – clap, clap, clap, clap! – as she walked through the tent with the crew, including the same woman who was there for us when we were the last on the route. The last walker of the day raises the camp’s 3-Day flag, signifying that we’re all home.
After dinner, we saw the finals of the 3-Day version of “American Idol.” Singers “auditioned” the night before (I was in the shower at the time) and now the three finalists were performing and a winner would be chosen by applause. A guy (remember, there aren’t many men on the 3-Day) sang “I’m Too Sexy” and did a great job vamping around the stage. The next tune was “I Hope You Dance.” And then one of the crew, an older guy, sang “Unchained Melody” and blew the roof off the place. Almost everyone was on their feet cheering for him as he sang. I’m pretty sure The Everly Brothers [Ed. note: As a commenter pointed out, I mean The Righteous Brothers. D'oh!]
were triplets and this guy was just separated at birth. He was amazing.
Speaking of music, rumor had it that Tricia Yearwood was doing the walk with us, but I never saw her.
Kelly, who had swept from lunch to camp, was feeling the familiar walkers’ guilt and became my gofer that evening, bringing me more Bio-Freeze and filling my water bottle and getting a new pole for my tent. I was grateful for her help, as walking was about the last thing my body was going to tolerate.
I did sleep a bit that night, though. I know this because I remember that I was dreaming when I was awoken by the wind whipping against my tent. And then it started raining. And thundering. And lightning. And then the skies opened up. And in the middle of it all, crew members were walking through camp yelling, “We need you to get out of your tents as soon as possible!”
They’ll let you stay in your tents in the rain, but not in a thunderstorm. So at 3 a.m., 2,000 walkers made their way across camp to one of the buildings on campus. Some of us had grabbed our gear, others had nothing. We were like refugees, sitting in hallways and on stairs and in the gym. My adopted team, not surprisingly, found tables in the lounge. By the vending machines. When life hands you lemons, buy yourself a cup of coffee.
The rain didn’t last long, but they held us to see if the storm was passing. We were cleared to go back to our tents about 4:15. But most tents were wet inside. Some tents had blown into the campus lake. There was nothing to do at that hour but strike our tents, pack our gear, have breakfast, and get on the route.
The route opens at 6:30. Day 3’s mileage is usually around 14 miles. This year’s Day 3 mileage was 18.7 because the route had to be reconfigured earlier in the week due to rain that had flooded some areas. Asking walkers to put in 19 miles in Day 3 is extraordinary, so we were given the option of taking coaches to the first pit stop, to lop three miles off the day’s total.
Most of our team planned to get on the bus. While we were waiting for the next coach, I saw the Western van. I approached the window and said, “I just wanted to say thanks. I couldn’t have finished yesterday without you.”
So we started the day from the first pit stop. After pushing to finish Day 2, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to walk on Day 3. And sure enough, it was hard. It hurt. But I had to do at least part of the day. I made it to the second pit stop and iced. Gayle and Karen, two other adopted members of the team, were with me. I made it to the third pit stop. And I made it to lunch. After lunch, there were 10 miles to the lakefront.
One of the crew came around to let us know that the sweep vans were very busy on the first part of the route, so sweeping from lunch on wasn’t really an option. We could catch a coach from lunch or catch them from pit stops, but we’d be on our own on the route. The next pit stop was 3.3 miles away.
Reluctantly, I got on the coach. I wasn’t sure if I could make it 3.3 miles, let alone 10.
We were dropped off in advance of the end of the route so we were able to walk through and “finish” the walk, but it felt anticlimactic. Getting off a coach and walking a couple hundred yards doesn’t provide the same sense of accomplishment as actually completing the route.
My parents were there. Mom hugged me and started crying.
I guess I know where I get that trait from.
They went on their way and I walked through the holding area, scanning back in, getting more Gatorade (turns out, I can actually stomach the strawberry flavor if it’s really cold), and meeting up with other team members. And then I went back to the route to cheer.
My voice is shot today. (Go ahead, ask me to sing a high note. My voice’ll crack like Peter Brady’s.) But cheering for the others was the perfect antidote to the disappointment I was feeling in not completing the day’s mileage. One woman walked toward us alone, trying hard not to cry. “Do you need a hug?” I asked, and hugged her tight, as did the other girls from the team who were with me. The walk is such an emotional experience. You need to share it with someone.
And when the bulk of our team arrived, we walked the last steps with them. And *then* it felt like we’d finished the event. In the end, I walked just over 50 miles, most of those in the first two days.
In the holding area, I saw René and hugged him. It felt like way more than two days since I’d seen him at opening ceremonies. “In case I don’t see you later,” I said, “I wanted to thank you for everything.” I felt like I’d known him forever.
We lined up for our victory march. The crew lined the route to cheer the walkers. Once the walkers were in place, surrounded by our friends and family, we turned to cheer the crew as they filled the space in front of the walkers. And then the survivors walked into the center, surrounded by all of us.
We look forward to the day when there will be no need to find a cure. We look forward to the day that the cure is found. But until then, we will be there, walking, surrounding each other.
My deepest love and appreciation to all of you for your generous contributions and support. I truly couldn’t have done this without you.