I stood in a sunny park in San Diego, hand in hand with strangers around a circle. We were preparing for a physically and emotionally invigorating and taxing week of running from San Diego to Sonoma to raise awareness of and funds to support young adults battling cancer. There are 2 reasons why I’m surprised I’m here. Firstly, as much as I hate to admit this, I thought very little about cancer until it entered my life and secondly, me… running? Usually, I only run late or at the very most, toward French fries. We all have vices, right? So finding myself in California ready to run was unexpected.
I’ve never been much of a runner. Even back in middle school, we’d do a 12-minute walk/run and I’d do my best to get through the 12 minutes as peacefully as possible. Some kids would race each other to get in as many laps that they could, but the path of least resistance was always more my speed. I was far more interested in noticing the honeysuckle growing along the beaten down dirt path circling the soccer field. In Georgia’s spring and late summer – the very end and very beginning of the school year – the flowers would blossom and fill the air with a sweet, floral aroma, almost begging me to stop, pick off the base of the flower and lick the sweet nectar from the center of the bud. Enjoying a fragrant flower near my nose and the tiniest taste of sweetness was the best part of those days running on that dirt track. Some days I’d spend at least 6 of those 12 minutes all alone in those honeysuckle vines – tasting again and again, hoping the next one would be even sweeter.
That had been my experience as a runner, until this year, at 34 years old, I ran 70 miles across the California coast with some of the kindest, most-loving, unique set of strangers I could have hoped to meet.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t go from honeysuckle breaks to 70 miles magically. It’s been quite the journey to get here.
At 31-years-old, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Based on my symptoms, when they started, and how many years I had complained to doctors’ deaf ears, the cancer started growing when I was 25. I had been severely overweight and so the “cure” that was offered for my ambiguous symptoms by every doctor I saw was to lose weight. I wanted to lose weight, but I knew it wouldn’t solve everything I was experiencing. Finally, a young doctor in his last year of residency really listened to me. He asked questions. He got curious. And he chose to see me as a person worth treating, instead of a fat person who needed to stop being fat before deserving treatment. That young man has no idea that by just listening, he saved my life. He ordered an ultrasound and sure enough on the screen was a large pelvic mass. I had always imagined the first time I would experience an ultrasound of my womb, it’d be to see a bouncing baby inside. So, to instead see a mass the size of a 5-month pregnancy was a disappointment I wasn’t prepared for. To then learn that the best course of action was surgery followed by chemotherapy and potentially a complete hysterectomy was devastating.
Cancer is loneliness. Cancer is confusion. Cancer is desperation. Cancer is the absolute worst thing I’ve faced in my life. I had a strong support system with my family and friends, but there’s nothing that bridges the gap of understanding. People just don’t get it. They feel for you. They care for you, but they often don’t understand the gravity of what you’re facing. That’s where Ulman entered the picture. I attended my first cancer support group through Ulman while in the middle of my chemo treatments. I walked into the Wellness House and was greeted with other bald heads and smiling faces. That was the first time I was surrounded by a group of people who truly knew how I felt. There’s nothing as comforting as that. I could’ve curled up inside that house and spent the next 6 months basking in the coziness of my pain finally understood. But thankfully their support and understanding pushed me back into the world to finish my treatment. A couple months later, my doctor declared me NED (no evidence of disease) and I was given a second shot at life. And boy, was I ready for it this time.
I remember talking with my therapist upon completing treatment and her asking me who I wanted to be now. We all have moments of life where we get an opportunity to reset and redefine. For some it may be after a big move, others it could be after a heartbreak, for me, it was after cancer. I wasn’t going to waste this second chance at life and I was going to do everything that I could to learn to trust my body to help me live happily. So, I lost weight. A lot of weight. Like an entire Jonas brother amount of weight. And I learned to love exercise. I loved watching my body get stronger and healthier. It started with barre fitness and eventually grew into a more cardio focused regime. I found myself in a workout class where we were being asked to run for 12 minutes without stopping. Immediate middle school flashbacks started. A little bit of trauma. A little excitement. A little nostalgia. All wrapped in lycra and spandex, propelling me forward. One foot in front of the other.
Around minute 6, I realized this was probably the longest I’ve ever run in my life without stopping. Tears streamed down my face and in that moment, I realized my body was there for me. She was showing up to carry me. She wasn’t giving up. She wasn’t perfect but she was strong and reliable and a fighter. I finished the full 12-minute run without stopping and suddenly, I was a runner.
I continued running almost daily after that. So, when I heard about the opportunity to run with Ulman, I nervously considered the opportunity with excitement and fear. Sure, I could run a couple miles without stopping, but could I run for a week up the coast? That felt a little scary. But, if my body has taught me anything, it’s that she’s full of surprises and always up for a challenge. So, challenge accepted.
We ran across beaches, cityscapes, open fields, winding vineyards, rocky terrains and even the Golden Gate Bridge. It was stunning and life-giving and so very fulfilling. But it was also grueling and exhausting and quite literally, blisteringly painful. While there were certainly some newbie runners in our group, others on that trip had been running for years – for their whole lives even. I swear one woman came out of her mother’s womb running like a greyhound. So, to be among others who seemed to run with ease while I was pushing myself with every step felt a little frustrating at times.
One afternoon, we stopped along the side of our running path for lunch. I was downing a dry ham and cheese sandwich that after 7 miles down so far that day tasted like a juicy beef wellington. I wandered away from the group for just a moment to myself. I was questioning if I could keep up. If I really fit in with the group. If I was supposed to be there. I walked around a cluster of bushes, took in a deep breath, and noticed a familiar floral scent. I looked up to see honeysuckle growing along the path. I was immediately transported back to my middle school “run days” or more accurately, my honeysuckle time outs. I walked over, picked a bud, indulged in the sweetness, and remembered how far I’ve come. How much I’ve overcome. How hard I’ve fought to heal and use my body for joy. I belonged. I overcame. I continued to run.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that I beat cancer. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I was surrounded by family and friends to keep me going. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I lost over 180 pounds. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I found a way to love and trust my body again. It’s nothing short of a miracle that I ran those 70 miles. It’s nothing short of a miracle that every single one of my teammates were there to push me, love me, support me, and accept me as one of them. And, it’s nothing short of a miracle that honeysuckle grows along my best running paths.
Look for the miracles. They’re all around if you choose to see them. And if there’s no honeysuckle to run to, then run toward the French fries. They’re everywhere.
Be a part of something big. Registration for Key to Keys 2023 is open through February 15.