It’s done. I finished.
I’m using every last brain cell right now to try and get this all down before I go to bed, fall asleep, and wake up thinking this was all a dream — only to be reminded when I attempt to get out of bed and my body aches!
Throughout last night and into the morning, I felt like I was reliving my wedding day — all that planning, all those arrangements, all the relationships that come out of working so closely together. Then, the big day arrives, and there is nothing more to do that just go with it. All morning, I was nervous. I remember the feeling of my hands tingling with electricity, as if I could feel each muscle twitch when I carefully tied the laces of my shoes. I was running a few minutes late (shocking, I know…), so by the time I came downstairs to the lobby, there was a room full of Team Mb4M and family members. It felt like the church doors had opened, and I was seeing the huge group of people for the first time. That was the first (of many) times I began to well up with tears.
The “lobby” peeps were Heather Cantwell-Miller, Matt Miller, Jim Hermelbrecht, Liz Dixon Neilson, Christina Burney, Heath Burney, Ligaya Hannaford + kids, Sandy Hannaford, Chuck Hannaford, Cathy Langan, Donna Vivar, Tina Fazio Hurlburt, Jorge Vega + kids, Jon Talusan, and Jenny Talusan + kids.
Aside from peeing every few minutes out of sheer nervousness, we all finally made it over to the starting line. We caught up with Jim and Aleta Plouffe who had just drove in. In a crowd of almost 2000 people, it was pretty amazing that we found each other!
As we made our way to the starting line, I kissed the family and walked off with the group. We happened to see other Team Mb4M people, and it was at that point I realized how many people, exactly, were there. Once at the starting line, we added Julie Burke, Mark Blanchard, Beth Burke, Tamara Raimundi Menghi, and Vilma Rodriguez + her crew.
As I moved into the group of runners, I became completely overwhelmed — I was surrounded by people who didn’t really know one another (on Team Mb4M) but who were joining me in this journey, on this run, and in this race. We began to all get our iPods going, and it was at that point when Tina Fazio Hurlburt decided to tell me, “Hey! In my Mb4M mix that I’m listening to, it just started off with the very first song I ever heard you sing.” Tina put the headphones ear bud into my ear, I heard those first few familiar notes, and I began to cry. I was reminded of a more carefree time — a time before cancer, before BRCA.
I looked to my left and saw my family — Joli was sitting on the sidewalk. Jorge was videotaping and wearing his “World’s Greatest Dad” sweatshirt that he bought for 25 cents at a used clothing swamp in 2003. Evan was sitting in his stroller. I saw my sister in law, my niece and my nephew. And, I knew that this race was for them, too.
Miles 1-3 were pretty good. But, once we hit somewhere around Mile 3, it was all uphill from there. Now, when I write “uphill”, I actually mean “It was so uphill that the upper part of my body was nearly parallel to the road!” And, there was hill — after hill — after hill — after hill. It just never stopped… until, it did stop. And, then it became downhill, and I felt much better. But, those early hills wiped me out much sooner than I thought!
For much of the early 1/2 of the run, I stayed close with Aleta, Tamara, Christina and Tina. Then, they took off! It was awesome! I knew, around Mile 10, that I was last. I was the last of the Mb4M team; and, I was pretty confident that I was getting close to last in the entire 1/2 marathon. I had been listening to an amazing mix of Hip Hop, and decided to switch it to the book on tape I had been listening to during these past 6 months. It was just at that time — when I was feeling so discouraged about being so far behind everyone — that I heard in my headphones, “…. it was no longer about wanting to beat the other runners; it was all about just beating the course.”
I smiled. Picked up my head. Gave a big “woo hooo!” yell. And kept going.
Coming up on Mile 11, I thought that was it. I was done. I then thought about a couple I had seen while on the run. Mr. and Mrs. Burke – the parents of Julie and Beth, had stayed at a particular spot in the race where we would pass them twice. Now, I’m no fool – I know they were there to support their two beautiful daughters. So, when I saw them still standing there — at least 30 minutes after Julie and Beth and passed them — I began to cry. I squeezed Mrs. Burke’s arm, breathlessly muttered out a “thank you so much for staying” and kept going. I thought about what it meant that they were there; that, despite the misty rain, there they stood. I needed that just at that moment.
At Mile 11, I got another amazing surprise. Lisa O’Donnell and her son caught me, again, as I was about to give up. Lisa had just given birth to her baby girl TWO weeks ago, and here she was, with her toddler son, having driven over an hour, and came ready with “Go, Liza!” signs on florescent orange paper. I didn’t just cry at this point, I was hyperventilating. I was physically overwhelmed, and emotionally overjoyed. I knew what it meant for her to come all the way out there (and she caught up again at the Finish Line!).
At Mile 12, I saw Jim Hermelbrecht by the side of the road waiting for me. Jim, and our co-worker Heather, were the first to sign up for this 1/2 marathon. I think within a day of me even talking about it. Jim was in it to run, from the beginning. And, I knew he had to finish strong in order to get ready for some things back at work! So, seeing him waiting there brought me to tears. I was also physically exhausted and Jim offered to run a little bit with me. I began to cry. Here was Jim, finished l-o-n-g ago, had to rush back to work, and he was waiting. I absolutely couldn’t believe it, and the only way my mind would let me process it was to cry.
At Mile 12.5, something really awful happened. I GOT LOST. Yes, I got lost. The tragedy of being one of the last to cross the finish line is that there is no one to follow. I came upon a point where the street split into 3 — to the left was a road; down the middle was a street that went under a tunnel (God knows where that one ended up!!); and to the right was a stadium. Already a mental basket case, I went towards the stadium. I saw a woman with a 1/2 Marathon medal and asked, “Can you tell me where to go for the 1/2 Marathon??” “Excuse me?” she replied. “The 1/2 Marathon. I’m still running…” I said, knowing that, for sure, she was thinking, “Honey, that race started at 8am.”
“Oh, gosh! You went the wrong way! You have to go back that way, go around the other street, and then head left,” she said somewhat panicked.
As I turned around, I saw my hotel. What I wouldn’t give to just ditch it — at mile 12.5 — and go into the hot tub! Damn, I don’t have the key. Guess I’ve gotta finish.
I knew I was getting close, but my body just wouldn’t move. As I neared the Mile 13 marker, I saw Donna standing by herself on the sidewalk. “You got this,” she kept saying. “You got this.”
Donna ran a few feet with me. “I’ll run just to the corner with you, and then I’m stopping. You’ve got to do it yourself now.”
I can’t. I can’t do this anymore.
As I shuffled with all of my might around the final bend, I looked up and saw my daughter. Joli. There she was in her purple rain coat, her curly hair pulled tight into a ponytail at the top of her head. Thinking about her journey, her chemo, her enucleation, and the condition she never asked for kept me going at times during my solo run. I couldn’t speak. Joli ran to me, grabbed my hand and said, “C’mon, Mommy. C’mon.”
Together, we ran past my sister, Grace. And, I knew when I crossed that finish line — the line that I could now see ahead of me — I would be one step closer to Grace. One step closer to the mastectomy. Grace and I share the same genes, and, so, too, would we soon share the same scars.
I was too close to quit, now.
“Jo. I need to let go of your hand. I need to run. I need to go for it,” I said fighting my brain’s urge and my old habits to quit. To stop. To give in to the years of falling just short of pushing myself.
I slowly let go of her tiny fingers that were nestled so snug in my palm.
“No, Mommy! Wait! Wait for me!”
But, I couldn’t. I had to run for me. I had to run ahead of her, to get ahead of her, to pave the way and let my journey come before her. In many ways, I didn’t want her to cross that finish line with me. I don’t want her to go through this journey. A marathon. A mastectomy. I want different for her, and yet I know that the blueprint — be it BRCA+ or not — has already been designed.
And so, I ran. I ran as hard as I could. I ran with all of my might, yelling, screaming, cheering across the finish line.
As I got closer to the line, I heard myself yell, “LET’S DO THIS!! C’MON! Let’s DO THIS!!”
Let’s do this? It’s already been done. The race is over.
Yet, I know that it’s just the beginning. That the pain and ache of the 3 hour run will feel much like the pain and ache of the 6 hour surgery, the 8 week recovery, and the lifetime of scars. And, just like the finish line and the final moments of the race, it will also feel good. I’ll feel relieved. I’ll feel different, better. I’ll breathe easier, knowing that breast cancer will not get me, will not stop me, will not kill me.
And, I know that the mastectomy itself is just the beginning. In order to truly be aggressive about BRCA, I will need to have my ovaries removed, too. I have a 60% chance of developing ovarian cancer — a cancer which is notorious for being fatal.
Just 11 hours after the race, with ice packs on my legs, I’m planning the next 1/2 marathon. Since I have no desire to run a full marathon, I figure TWO 13.1-mile marathons would be close, right.
Peace, love, and it’s only just begun,