Yesterday I was asked, “did your pursuit of sports come after your brush with cancer?” I answered, “nah, I’ve always been an athlete, a true tomboy” and then I proceeded on my usual Saturday run. As I ran I thought about the conversation and was struck with the realization that now, post cancer my athletic endeavours are much more personal. I often cry on my runs, it is a pure mix of adrenaline and gratitude, a fall down on your knees and kiss the earth kinda feeling. I get a similar experience when watching others pursue their athletic dreams.
For the last several years I’ve been a Finish Line Catcher at Ironman Canada in Penticton. A Finish Line Catcher does exactly as the title suggests, catches the sweaty, spent bodies of athletes as they cross the finish line of one of the most gruelling races I’ve ever witnessed. It may not sound like a glamorous job but boy oh boy is it inspiring. I will never forget my first year there… in particular, I watched a woman rounding the corner in the last mile of the race, apparently she’d suffered some form of back injury and/or muscle problem mid race that had her literally doubled in half in agony. She inched along, still running but clearly in a lot of pain. It was obvious from where I stood that at the rate she was going she would not cross the finish line in the time necessary to be declared a “Finisher”. The setting was dramatic, it was pitch black, minutes to midnight and the crowd had thinned somewhat. The last part of the race course includes an out and back that more or less begins where you are headed… the finish line. From where we stood we watched the woman head out into the darkness, finally disappearing from our sight, headed for the turnaround point. It was excruciating to watch, I kept turning to the timing clock willing it to slow down and then eagerly watching for her to appear in the light again, heading towards us. No one in the crowd spoke but as I turned around and looked at the faces all focused toward the turnaround you could just feel the energy concentrated on drawing that woman across the finish line. After some time, someone shouted, “here she comes!”… and she wasn’t alone, as she passed spectators on the stretch they fell in line beside her running her home. From where I stood I yelled every form of encouragement I could. I felt a deep kinship with this woman despite not knowing her, I know what it is like to perservere when the odds are against you. She was several minutes away from the finish line when the timing clock struck midnight but still she ran. She didn’t become an official “finisher” that day but she will always be the very best example of a “finisher” in my mind.
Last Summer after another year of catching I decided it was time for me to take on the Ironman challenge, I’d been tri training for a couple of years so figured I had a good foundation of fitness to build on. I had Tri Teammates doing it, I was up for the challenge. I really, really wanted to race it and finish it for every Thyroid Cancer Survivor out there. And then, in October I ran the San Francisco Marathon and shortly after completing the race was taken to medical for blood pressure issues and a racing heart. After several hours of chicken noodle soup, soda crackers, juice and water I was able to sit up without almost passing out. It was a weird experience for me, I had trained for the marathon and felt awesome all the way. Despite putting on a brave face for my teammates I was concerned, there was something not right about how I felt. Several days later after arriving home in Victoria I was out walking with my partner, we were 10 minutes into our walk when my heart started pounding out of my chest, luckily we were near my doctor, when I walked into the reception area they took one look at me and called 911. I was told that I had Atrial Fibrullation and if you will click on the link I’ve provided, you’ll see that this is not something to mess around with. Many years ago now I was mistakenly diagnosed with the most deadly form of thyroid cancer, told that the tumour I had was so agressive that more than likely the cancer would have spread to my lymph nodes at best I’d have about 3 months and then several weeks later told that the thyroid cancer I really had was completely curable. Of course I was delighted that the doctors’ initial diagnosis was wrong. That time period changed the course of my life forever, I became invincible in my own mind, absolutely unstoppable, but at times “reckless” if you were to ask the opinion of those closest to me. I made choices and decisions that I see now were “reactions” or “after shocks” of living with the notion that you’re about to die. But then, I digress, that’s a story for another day… And so, after several operations, radiation and many years of being “cancer free” my doctors speculated that my AFib was brought on as a result of Thyroid Medication that wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do. So after many satisfactory tests and finally, adjusted medication my heart issues seemed to have dissipated. Ironman Canada here I come right? Nope. Every time I commited in my mind that I was going to begin my training my body gave me another shot of reality. Back in early March I took a dare, (I’ve always been a daredevil) and got up on a very high water slide with a death plunge (well… not really but it sounds good) as I lay on the slide my toes dangling on the edge my heart began to pound (wouldn’t yours?) except when I got off the slide it didn’t stop. It pounded as hard as it did the day they called 911. I was able to relax and bring it down this time but I lost more confidence in my body that day. And again, several weeks ago I was out running, made it to my half way mark feeling strong, I stopped to have a friend join me for the run home and… there’s my heart jumping out of my chest again.
What I know about our bodies is that if we are willing to listen to them, they are miraculous and are to be respected. I wont be a finisher at IMC this year, right now I’m still focused on finishing strong in life. I used to take my life for granted. Now… every day I wake up I am grateful for my otherwise incredible health cause without it… I got nothing.