Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Race

In spite of everything—the Hodgkin’s diagnosis, the interrupted training because of my surgical biopsy and bone marrow biopsy, the crazy travel back and forth from DC to NC during the last month before the race, the move to NC five days before the race, the cold I caught four days before the race, the last-minute threat that I might not be able to race because of the stupid hormone injections—in spite of it all, I raced in the St. Anthony’s Triathlon on Sunday. And I finished. And not only did I finish, I met my one goal for the race: I didn’t walk during the run. I ran the whole way—a very slow run, indeed, but I did run. Altogether, my time was only a minute off of my time in my only other Olympic distance triathlon, the one I did with Team in Training in 2005. Seven years, two pregnancies, and one cancer diagnosis later, I’m only a minute off? I’m pretty happy with that (even though my swim time in the 2005 race was long because of a very long run to transition, so when you shave that off, I’m probably more like a five minutes off of the 2005 time. But still.). When I saw Ed as I came out of transition onto the run course, I ran up to him and said, “Guess what? I have cancer!” I could barely believe it.

It was such a fantastic weekend—I really could almost forget that I have cancer. “The race” had been out there in the distance for so long, and after the diagnosis, it was like I became manically obsessed with completing it no matter what. When the IVF nurse emailed me four days beforehand and said the doctors were concerned about me racing with the drugs I am taking (they make my ovaries swell, which in turn puts me at risk for ovarian torsion, where the ovaries twist on themselves and cut off their own blood supply—the risk is increased with strenuous activity, but no one mentioned this to me at the beginning of the cycle), I completely lost it. It somehow felt even worse than when I was first diagnosed. For the first time, I felt really beaten down and unsure of how much more I could take. It seemed like every time I got past one hurdle, another one popped up in front of me. I was feeling really done. What was the point in trying to stay so positive if it wasn’t making any difference?

But a long conversation with the reproductive endocrinologist the next morning convinced me that the risks were very low, and I knew that I would regret forever not doing the race, so off to Florida we went. The best part of the weekend (other than finishing the race without walking) was finally having a chance to spend some time with my teammates. It was so difficult to do during the season—with a nursing baby, I was always trying to get back home to nurse or pump after every group practice, and I could never get away to join the team for evening happy hours and fundraisers. So it was awesome to finally get a chance to see them in regular clothes, eat a few meals together, and share some nervous energy as Sunday morning approached. It made me sad that I hadn’t been able to spend more time with them during our long months of training. Saturday night’s “Inspiration Dinner” was special—all the Team in Training participants and their families from all over the country met and ate together in one of the hotel ballrooms, where we listened to a young Hodgkin’s survivor (who is now a TNT triathlon alum many times over) tell us about why what we were doing was so important. Of course, I already had rare perspective about this very thing. At one point, the event director asked everyone who was a survivor of a blood cancer or currently in treatment to stand up and be recognized as honored heroes—as awful as it is to be diagnosed with cancer, I truly did feel honored to be in that group. Afterwards, at a team meeting for our chapter, I finally got to thank my teammates in person for everything they were doing to fight blood cancers, for everything that they’d done and continued to do for me and people like me all over the country. I felt so grateful for them and privileged to be racing with them.

Our Sunday morning team meeting came early (4:30AM!), but thanks to my incredible swim coach, Caroline, who gave up her room so that I could sleep in a bed by myself the night before the race (instead of risking being up half the night if Jackson decided to wake up), I had gotten close to six hours of sleep. Those next two and a half hours practically flew by as we walked the long walk to the race area, got body-marked, and set up our transition areas. By the time all of this was done, the sun still hadn’t risen. The water temperature was 76-something, so the race was wetsuit-legal, but after my open water swim in my wetsuit with the team on Friday afternoon, I had decided I wasn’t going to wear mine—it felt too tight around the neck and made it harder for me to breathe. We made our way over to the swim start, where I found Ed, Jackson, and Ed’s folks, who had flown down to cheer me on and visit some family in the area. I was feeling incredibly nervous, if not downright scared, about the swim. I don’t know why—I knew I’d feel better once I was out of the water and on the bike, but 1500 meters just seemed so much longer when it was strung out from buoy to buoy across open water than it ever did just swimming laps in the pool, when you know you have a wall to touch every 25 yards. Before I knew it, it was time for my wave to start at 7:05. This was a very early start time. My wave started just after the pros and elites—in most triathlons, the fastest groups usually go first so that those people don’t have to pass so many slower folks on the course, but for some reason, this race was organized differently. Originally, our whole team registered in age groups, which would have meant that I would not start until 8:20, with the women 35-39. But when I found out that three of my friends on the team had switched to the Athena category (for women 150+ pounds) just to get the early start time at 7:05, I wanted to switch, too. At the time, I was underweight—the training and the stress of the last several months had me at my lightest weight since Hudson died—but I just crossed my fingers that I’d be able to “make weight” at check-in. To be on the safe side, I drank two quarts of water before the weigh-in, and between that and wearing my clothes and shoes, I had no problem. This was a very good thing, because I knew that the heat would likely be one of my biggest obstacles in finishing the run without walking, so the earlier I could get off the course, the better off I’d be. Plus, I really wanted to start with my friends and have some chance of seeing them out on the course.

In any event, after the pros and elites had shot off through the swim course, and one other wave for people raising money for certain charities, it was our turn. Athenas and women 60+ (I’m telling you, the organization of this race was crazy) gathered in our hot pink caps in the staging area for the swim start. I was with my teammates and friends Laura, Kim, and Ali, all of whom had been so good to me in so many ways during the season and particularly since the diagnosis. We hugged and wished each other good luck and waded out into the water to wait for the horn. By the time I got out to the starting buoys, I didn’t feel nervous anymore. The water was cold but not too cold—I’d made the right decision on the wetsuit. The course seemed long, but now I could see every buoy and I knew that I would just take it one buoy at a time like my coaches had reminded us the night before. The horn sounded and we were off—I started at my regular slow and steady pace, sighting on one orange buoy after another, always surprised when I reached the next one faster than I’d expected. It was a bit frenzied at the beginning, with bodies swimming all over each other—I got thwacked in the head multiple times—but eventually, I had some water to myself. We swam parallel to the shore for a while and then turned away from the shore. At this point, not only did it start to get choppy, but I was also starting to get passed by the age group that started behind us (this is why you should send the fastest groups out first, but that ship had already sailed). I was fighting the waves sloshing over my head and trying not to get submerged by all the swimmers coming from behind. I had only one tiny moment where I started to feel a little overwhelmed, so I just rolled onto my back and looked at the sky for about three seconds, took a deep breath, relaxed, turned back over, and started swimming again. Unfortunately, the waves stayed with us for the rest of the swim course, so I just had to keep plowing ahead and trying not to feel panicky. Finally, the last buoy and the exit stairs were in front of me. I was happy to get out of the water, but I felt good about the swim— even though I hadn’t swum particularly fast, I had stayed relaxed and in control (most of the time, at least). I climbed the stairs out of the water with the hordes of other people and started running back to the transition area. I heard Ed call my name from somewhere behind me and turned around just in time to see him waving at me. I also caught a glimpse of my swim coach screaming my name and waving. I waved at both of them enthusiastically—I was feeling great.

I trotted back into the transition area, where I probably could have been a little faster. I was especially concerned with making sure I had sprayed enough sunscreen back on to replace what I washed off in the water. (Who knows? Maybe I could have beaten my Chicago time if I hadn’t been so worried about the sunscreen!) I ran my bike out of transition where I saw Ed again—he must have sprinted from the swim finish over to the bike out to catch me as I headed out. The bike was long but mostly flat with a few very slight grades (the kind that you think are flat and so you’re wondering why you are having to pedal harder to go the same speed). It also took us through some beautiful spots, including past a gorgeous lake full of sea birds of all kinds. My legs were tired, and I was definitely feeling the several long bikes I missed during April. I decided not to push myself too hard because I really wanted to save something for the run (not for speed, of course, but just to be able to finish without walking)—as a result, my bike was my worst leg of the race (whereas last time, in 2005, it was my best). My plan for fuel also got thrown off a little, because we’d never practiced a long swim before the bike, so I hadn’t been anticipating needing some fuel at the beginning of the bike. I’d practiced taking a gel at the 8- and 16-mile points, which had worked well during practices, but when I felt myself needing some food towards the beginning of the bike, I worried about taking too much in and then stitching up on the run. So everything was just a little bit off, and I just had to go with it. The bike course is where you really notice how silly it is to let slower groups start in front of faster groups. Guys on $5000 and $10,000 bikes and wearing aerodynamic helmets, really serious triathletes who compete in the age group categories, were whizzing by me constantly. I don’t mind getting passed (definitely used to that!), but I felt bad that they had to pass me at all.

My legs were definitely feeling all the missed training when I got off the bike. Whereas during lots of our March bricks (bike-to-run practices), my legs felt fresh and fairly fast off the bike, they felt heavy and tight during the race. I practically shuffled out of the transition area and prepared myself for a rough run. I was hoping that at some point, I’d be able to loosen up and relax into a longer, faster stride, but I just never got there. It was also starting to warm up considerably by this point (about 10AM). My dear Ed was waiting for me as I came out of the transition area, and I went over and gave him a high five, and then as I rounded the first turn towards our agreed-upon cheering spot, he had sprinted over there and was waiting with Jackson, and his folks—they were all holding big signs that said, “Go Mandy!” on which Ed had drawn pictures of turtles, penguins, and Tar Heels. It was awesome. And a little farther out on the run course, I saw another sign he had planted in the grass that said, “Go Mommy!” with a sweet turtle drawn on it. The run was long and very, very hard. I had told Ed that morning that if I made it through without walking, it would be by sheer force of my will, and I was right. At each water station (around every mile marker or so), I grabbed two cups of water, inhaling some water from one and dumping the other over my head, groaning as I contemplated how many more miles I had to go. I tried to keep my head up, though, and still cheered whenever I passed or got passed by someone in purple (one of 225 fellow TNT participants in the race). There were so many moments when I wanted to stop, but I just kept saying to myself, “I did not come this far, I did not get over all these obstacles in order to race here today, just to quit running because it hurts.” I said it over and over and forced my legs to keep moving. The irony, of course, is that had I let myself walk a little bit, I might have been able to run a little faster in between, and it’s possible that my overall time would have been faster. As it was, I ran the whole way and still only beat my Chicago run time (where I walked quite a bit) by three minutes. But by that point, it wasn’t about speed for me. It was about not letting myself quit, about not giving up on my only goal for the race. It was about trying to prove something to myself, testing my own mettle as I prepared for cancer treatment. Somehow, I made it to the halfway point, and then to four miles, and then five (Ed had placed another sign somewhere near mile 5, but I missed it, likely because of my absolute concentration on not letting my legs come to a stop), and soon, the end was in sight. I just had to get there.

The last straightaway seemed to go on forever, and I couldn’t really see where the turn was to the finish. But at last, I reached it, and as I turned left to enter the lane into the finish, I saw my little Jackson sitting in his stroller holding up a sign in front of his face that said, “Go Mandy!” I could see him gnawing on the corner. It was too adorable. I was still a few hundred yards from the finish line and just kept making my legs go, although I didn’t have much left to make them go faster for a nice sprint to the finish. Ed ran most of the way with me, for which I will love him forever (well, I was already going to love him forever, but this was yet another mark in his favor). I crossed the finish line and stumbled to a walk, so grateful to be done. A race volunteer threw an ice-cold towel over my shoulders, and it felt amazing. Another person put some Gatorade in my hand, and yet another stopped me to put my finisher’s medal over my head. I remember giddily saying “Pin me!” to her. I was a little delirious. Ed met me on the other side of the finish and hugged me and then went to get his folks and Jackson. I wandered out of the finisher’s chute and started to head back over to the TNT tent to check in.

And then I was stopped in my tracks. There, a few feet away from me, was a chubby little girl, a toddler, wearing a green collared dress with tiny white polka dots, embroidered with little flowers and bumblebees. I recognized it instantly as one of many little two-piece Carter’s outfits I’d bought for Hudson at Costco her first summer, when she was between 6 and 9 months old. I couldn’t see if the little girl was wearing the matching bloomers, but I immediately saw them in my mind’s eye—they were the ones with the big yellow and pink bumblebee appliquéd across the bottom.

This wasn’t the only time I’d felt Hudson with me on the course. There were several points on both the bike and the run where I was feeling tired and low and discouraged, and all of a sudden a sea bird or several sea birds would fly by me or alight just in front of me—there were pelicans, gulls, egrets, and cormorants. At a few points, I almost had to laugh in disbelief at how pointed a message they seemed to be giving me to just keep going. I was so grateful each and every time to feel her presence in a tough moment, thinking back to our visit to the beach with her at the age of nine months, when she cooed a delighted “Ooooh! Ooooooh!” every time she saw birds fly by.

But it wasn’t until I saw this little girl wearing Hudson’s dress that all the emotion, the stress, the anticipation, the dread, and most importantly, the yearning for Hudson that I’d felt over the last few months came to a head. I burst into tears—I couldn’t help myself. I cried my way over to the TNT tent, got myself together enough to check in, and then sat down and cried some more. I wished Ed was there right at that moment, and I was so grateful when I saw him walking up with the rest of the family. He came over and put his arms around my shoulders where I was sitting and I just buried my head into his stomach and sobbed. I hadn’t realized how much I’d needed to do that until that moment.

I spent the next few hours waiting for teammates (who had started in later waves than I had) to arrive at the finish line and had so much fun cheering them in, along with everyone else wearing purple. Being a part of Team in Training is kind of like being a Tar Heel. It doesn’t matter where you are or whether you know each other or not—when you see a teammate, you cheer. You can’t help but get caught up in the camaraderie that you share just by virtue of the commitment you each made to fighting blood cancers and completing a really difficult endurance event. It’s just a great community to be part of.

Once it was all over, the reality of what comes next for me started to settle in, but that’s for another post.

As always, I am at a loss for words to thank everyone who supported me financially, emotionally, physically, and spiritually throughout this long training season and especially since my cancer diagnosis. On top of every other amazing aspect of having completed this race, I also raised $11,140 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, putting me in the top ten fundraisers nationwide for the St. Anthony’s Triathlon. I remain ever in awe of the incredible capacity for human kindness and generosity that continues to reveal itself to me over and over in the acts, large and small, of people everywhere, both known and unknown to me. The triathlon may be over, but my real race has just begun, and I am so grateful to know that the same love and support will be there to carry me through my battle with cancer, too. Thank you all.

The National Capital Area Team!

Inspiration Dinner-Jackson was inspired by the video!



Pre-race breakfast

Heading over on race morning

Getting body-marked

Heading to the swim start


My boys in their turtle shirts

For Hudson

My TNT girls

The swim course

Athenas in hot pink!

Hitting the water


Coming out of the swim

Heading out on the bike (trying to hit my lap button)


At the beginning of the run


Between miles 5-6: I look way happier than I felt here

Cutest cheerleader ever


Final turn into the finish

Into the chute

Finisher!

With my biopsy scar.  SCREW CANCER!

Greatest cheer team on earth

My inspiration

 

24 comments:

  1. I'm moved by your dedication and wonder at it all. Like Katie and Maggie, all of it is awesome and a tremendous accomplishment. I love most that you made it happen.

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  2. So proud of your determination and spirit, and I feel so blessed to have had you on the Team this season. I will certainly be keeping up with the rest of your journey, and my next TNT event will be in your honor! You are such an incredible person!
    Love,
    Niki

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  3. Mandy, you go girl! Every day you continue to inspire us all!

    Love,
    Nicole

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  4. Ditto, KTShea. Mandy, you are a freakin' rock star!

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  5. So awesome Mandy! Congratulations! This is inspiring.

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  6. Mandy, you are so amazing. I am so glad I got to be your teammate for St A's You inspire me.

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  7. Mandy - your strength continues to amaze me! Thank you for sharing your journey!!

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  8. It sounds so trite, but you are simply amazing.

    And the part about seeing the little girl in the same dress as Hudson had worn brought me to tears.

    Kris

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  9. Congratulations!!

    You are an incredible inspiration. I have been interested in joining Team in Training to train for a triathlon for awhile now, and you have inspired me to complete that goal.

    Simply amazing.

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  10. Wow...just WOW! And of couse there's love...Renee P.

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  11. Well I started off reading and thinking that your writing is so great that I feel I'm totally in that race with you, and have finished it a sobbing mess! Oh Mandy, a huge congratulations to you for this amazing achievement, have so much faith in you that your "real race" just beginning will be so successful too. Great job to your team of supporters also! Well done all of you xx

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  12. Someone posted a link to your blog, and I am so glad I clicked on it. As the person above me said, you are f***ing amazing!"

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  13. Someone posted a link to your blog, and I am so glad I clicked on it. As the person above me said, you are f***ing amazing!"

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  14. Someone posted a link to your blog, and I am so glad I clicked on it. As the person above me said, you are f***ing amazing!"

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  15. How fantastic and inspirational. Thanks for sharing.The pictures are great. -LW

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  16. Wow, Mandy.
    Weeping here, and as always, in awe of your grit.

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  17. Another stranger who is behind you Mandy! You're an inspiration!

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  18. Congratulations! You are an inspiration! SCREW CANCER is right!!
    Jamie

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  19. This brought me to tears, Mandy. I love your strength and determination and love you!! You are just absolutely amazing. :-)

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