June 12, 2011

The Track won the Battle... but

I won the war.

My sleep patterns are messed up and it isn't surprising that I woke at 3 AM wide eyed. Yesterday I finished the ironman walk for our local Relay for Life fundraiser for the American Cancer Society. The ironman category is for the relay participants who walk the entire 24 hours of the relay, with only a 10 minute break each hour.

I've participated in several Relays in the past, but never with this level of dedication or physical commitment. My reasons are both selfish and altruistic. On the selfish end, I had never previously tested the levels of my physical endurance and stamina. Last year at the Relay, I met two young girls who had committed to walking the entire 24 hours and their dedication inspired and moved me. I thought that sounded like something really cool to do, and figured I wasn't getting younger or thinner, so I better do it now. I asked my daughter if she would commit to walking with me the following year. She also was inspired.

2010 brought some powerful reasons to make 2011 the year we paid tribute. We lost two special people in our lives the last few months of 2010, my father in law and our little "niece" (the child of dear friends). We've also lost many other friends and family members and celebrated some survivals as well. Our walk was dedicated to all of them.

I didn't know how I was going to train, other than get in the best physical condition I could, stay hydrated, and try to rest the day before. Oh and good socks. I spent ridiculous amounts of money on two pairs of high tech athletic socks to rotate throughout my walk. I sound like Lt. Dan's character from Forrest Gump but  Lt. Dan was right.
Lieutenant Daniel Taylor: Look, it's pretty basic here. You stick with me, you learn from the guys who been in country awhile, you'll be right. There is one item of G.I. gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks, cushion, sole, O.D. green. Try and keep your feet dry when we're out humpin'. I want you boys to remember to change your socks wherever we stop. 
This year's Relay was a For Life experience. I don't know if I possibly can capture the magic, the joy, the agony, and the incredible sense of community and love, but I hope my humble words will help. We arrived at the Relay and it turns out the two young girls who were our inspiration were there to walk 24 hours again, and they inspired most of their high school Key Club. There were about 25 of us in all, but my daughter and I are from a different town, and I was about three times as old as most of the iron-(wo)man walkers. There were a few folks close to my age, but they were a little more quiet and subdued in their walk. The kids, oh my goodness. I've never encountered such a level of enthusiasm or energy.

Quickly, the other kids befriended my daughter and they were energetically kibbutzing about all things high school. It was sweet to see kids be kids, and from different walks of life, but the same experiences, come together. I became the self-appointed "ironman mom". I was reminding people to hydrate, eat something, asking them how they were doing. I think I called every kid sweetie or honey at some point of the walk. I am so proud of them.

Austintown Relay for Life
The walk started easily enough, spirits were high, the atmosphere charged with hope. We reverently witnessed the luminary ceremony, where candles were lit in memory or celebration of cancer patients. The visitor stands of the stadium had luminaries spell out, "Every Candle Has A Name", and they read aloud each name. It was movingly eloquent.

About midnight, 6 hours into the relay, the atmosphere also became charged with electricity, in the form of lightning, and we had to move our walk inside the school gymnasium.  Only one-quarter of the walk was done and now we were like sardines, in a sweaty smelly musty gym. The fatigue and hour began to take its toll as we marched in a figure 8 between the old gym and the new gym. We got silly as my daughter and I started doing a Hokey-Pokey relay and other groups were doing the macarena, anything to keep our spirits intact. One of the most entertaining moments of the evening came when a group of boys started doing a leap frog Relay. The laughter helped keep us going the next two hours, when the threat of the storm passed and we were allowed to return outdoors.

The cool misty air was exactly the injection of fresh we needed. Some of us (author included) actually started running a lap or two. Believe it or not, the running was a great idea, not foolish. It moved different muscles and really gave a good stretch from all the walking. We had taken to walking backwards, sideways, skipping, anything to change up the continual movement. At 4 AM we celebrated reaching double digits of walking. I was feeling good and throughout the night was receiving encouraging texts from friends and supporters. After our 5 AM break, we lost my daughter. Turns out she dozed off during her break, I went to find her and she actually committed to skipping two more breaks to make up for the nap. We were closing in on halfway 12 hour mark. One friend's walking partner had to leave and her partner asked me to please keep her friend company the rest of the walk. This was about the time the best line of the Relay was uttered. One of the repeat walkers from last year said, "You know what I need so I can finish?" We said "What"?  "A wheelchair." It gave us a much needed moment of levity, followed by a moment of gratitude that we in fact were able to walk on our own, as we actually had seen quite a few Relay folks in chairs, walkers and motorized scooters.

At the 12 hour mark, I celebrated by getting sick. I should have eaten a bit more over the night, I believe my blood sugar dropped or something, but I've seen endurance athletes get sick during races, so I knew it wasn't really a virus or anything. I got some food and went back to walking. Unfortunately, I had hit the wall. Another two hours passed and at the 8 AM hour, I got sick again. I had to lay down for about 45 minutes. I collapsed back at our tent when my husband and second daughter arrived with breakfast. I woke up, ate and stretched and went back out. By now, I felt more like a "rusty-man" walker, but neither was I going to quit.

The texts were still coming and my spirits were lifted, even if my body was exhausted. We were past halfway, there was no turning back. The sun began to beat down and as the self appointed mom of the relayers, I made sure everyone was hydrated and sunscreen-ed. We hit high noon. The morning had been injected with fresh well rested people and new voices of encouragement. My other daughter alternated between walking with us, making lemon shakes at our tent, and fetching needed supplies. We were a family team. Unfortunately, I still hadn't bounced back from being sick and about 130 PM, I started to get nauseous and collapsed again. My feet were throbbing, my head light, and every muscle in my leg was tight. Again, I think I hadn't eaten enough. This time it was another 45 minute break, then like a phoenix, I rose with a determination to finish. I did send a message to a friend who was going to drive out to photograph the finish to stay home, because as determined as I was mentally, I wasn't certain my body would cooperate.

I got back on track, literally and figuratively. People asked me what hurt most and I had to admit, my ego. I felt more like a tin man at this point. I began to strike up more conversations with all the kids walking. We talked about their sports training, their proms, their futures. The conversations helped the time pass. I was fighting feelings of guilt for not being a "true" ironman, but also determined to finish, and never once did they question that I was "one of them" even with my 2 extended breaks. The afternoon ticked forward, each hour a celebration, but the fatigue was obvious in all the walkers. My daughter and I spent our remaining 10 minute breaks massaging our feet then plunging them in ice water to get the swelling down.

The walking portion of the Relay actually ended at 5:30 when they began the awards ceremony. After the 5 PM break we knew we were in the home stretch and planned our strategy to finish strong. We decided to run the last two minutes. After hours of gimping, limping and struggling, the end was in sight. 5:28 and we began to jog. The tired muscles dissolved, the sore feet felt healed, the track stretched before us and we ran. The last quarter of the track, we actually sprinted to the finish; exhilarated, relieved, and yes, on my end anyway, crying with gratitude. Hugs, high fives, and exuberance was the theme.

One of the groups kept count of laps. They had 180 counted, which is 45 miles. I think I probably did 40 based on the breaks that I had.

So now I'm up in the middle of the night, sleep messed up, but I'm proud. I may not be an ironman, but I am a tinman, and we all know the tinman had a heart. I do not have any blisters, so thank you to the socks. My legs are sore, but not immovable. I actually feel pretty good. To think 24 hours ago, I was still hoping to reach the halfway mark. I think I reached the whole way mark and now I know what my body can do.

I'm so glad I did it. One of the personal reminders I kept making was that when someone is diagnosed with cancer, they simply start fighting the battle. They don't get to train for treatment, they don't get to pick whether or not to do it, they just have to do it. That became a mantra of sorts for me during the walk. Cancer patients have to fight a lot longer than 24 hours and there isn't always an end in sight. We gave one day of our lives to honor them. It was something I'll never regret doing.

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