Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What Are We Training For?

This afternoon, I walked with a friend who doesn’t walk as often as I do. As we walked, she commented on how much faster my pace was than hers and encouraged me to walk ahead of her. She suggested that I wasn’t “getting anything out of my walk,” and therefore shouldn’t be held back at her pace. I explained to her that I don’t need to walk fast or hard, I simply need to walk. In my thinking, any walk is a good walk, and any walk is training.

I walk all the time. And every time I walk, I think of it as a training walk. If it is just a mile or two, and the event is 10 months away, it is a training walk. If it is 15 miles, and the event is 3 weeks away, it’s a training walk. If I am wearing jeans and sneakers, it’s a training walk. If I am wearing all my walk gear, including a water bottle and a fanny pack, it is a training walk. You get the point, right? Every time I get my sneakers on and hit the pavement, I am training. Right now, I am training for my 12th walk (my 17th event, but crewing takes a different sort of training!). “My” 3Day is still almost 7 months away. And yet, I am training. Matt and I started training for the 2010 3Day as soon as we got home from the 2009 3Day.

Preparing for a 3Day walk takes lots and lots and lots of training. It’s not just about getting into good physical shape; it’s so much more. I think of it this way: to be ready for the 3Day, I must train my body, my head and my heart.

Train my body.
My feet and legs are going to do a lot of work in those three days. They deserve to build up to it. I have learned that my body really needs to be trained fresh year after year. Training gives my feet a chance to develop new calluses, and my leg muscles the time they need to gain the strength and endurance to go the distance. Training to walk also prepares parts of my body that can’t be trained any way other than with lots and lots of walking. For example, joints need lots of training. Given an average stride, my hip and knee joints will bend about 200,000 times each in those three days. Training for miles and miles beforehand gives them a chance to make all those bends without giving in or giving up.

Train my head.
The 3Day walk is a brainy event. I am thinking all the time out there. I’m meeting new people, hearing stories, seeing new places, and trying to focus on all of it. During my training walks, I am training my head at balancing all the opportunities that will come my way during the 3Day. When I am out on a training walk, I love to talk about past 3Day events or spend miles planning our current fundraising projects. We also try to watch the scenery around us, drawing one another’s attention to a bird or critter, or to try and find a bird based on its birdsong. Hours into a walk, my head can get tired and distracted, so I need to train myself to be focused and keep me, and those around me, safer on the actual event. Training walks prepare me for the many ways that my head will be engaged during the 3Day walk.

Train my heart.
This is probably the most important training for me, and possibly the hardest. My training walks are a chance to reflect on walks of the past, think about my reasons for walking, and prepare my heart for the work it will face during the 3Day.
I’m not talking about cardio-training, but rather about training my heart to handle the pressure that will grow inside my chest as I move through those three days. My emotions will ebb and flow from joy and elation to fear and sadness in an unpredictable unending circle. Each training walk is an opportunity to think about all the reasons I have for being a part of the 3Day, and to train my heart for the emotions of the event.

Here’s what I am training my heart to be ready for:

First thing in the morning, my heart will work hard as I see the smiling faces of total strangers waiting at the starting gate to cheer for the walkers. They’ll be yelling and handing out high-fives. All I’ll be doing is walking, and yet these people will make me feel like I am a true hero.

The day will move forward and before I know it, the young woman walking alongside me will call my heart into action. She’ll be telling me her story. She’s 20 years my junior and yet she has already lost her sister, her mom, and last spring, her breasts. And here she is walking in this event. My heart will be in full swing as she will stop, take my hand, and thank me (who she has just met) for my commitment. She will be thanking me?! Okay, heart – keep me moving.

After lunch, my heart will be taking a rest as I walk alone for a few miles. I’ll be dog-tired, my dogs will be barking and I’ll be looking dog-eared. The heat and exhaustion will be sinking through me, threatening to drag me to a stop. I’ll turn the corner and see a fire truck ahead. It’ll be a big, red hook and ladder, the kind that causes young kids to dream of being firefighters. This truck’s ladder will be fully extended and I’ll see a swarm of firefighters, spending their day off dressed in pink. They’ll have made a bursting fountain of cold water to soothe the tired walkers. As groups of icy walkers laugh and dance our way through this torrent of man-made rain, I’ll hear the firefighters chanting, “3Day Walkers save lives!” Totally refreshed, my heart will gladly carry me through the next several miles. Thank you, heart – keep me going.

At the end of a long day, my body and my head will have carried me about 20 miles, but it’s my heart that will soar as I see those pink gates welcoming me into the most beautiful city I have ever seen. It looks like miles of pink tents when you see camp at the end of the day, and that sight stirs my heart with far more emotion than one expects from tents. As I approach camp, I’ll feel aware of, and connected to, every story of every walker and every crew member waiting to be a part of my community for the night. Everyone I walk past has his or her own reason for being there. Maybe they’ve lost someone or maybe they’re celebrating that nobody close to them has been struck by this disease. Maybe they’re on this journey to test their fortitude, or maybe to rejoice that they have finished chemo. I wish I had time to hear every story. But at night, as I rest my tired body in the cocoon of my pink tent, I hear the murmurs of all the walkers around me, and my heart knows that their stories have become a part of who I am. My heart rests with this knowledge and sends me off to sleep to walk again another day. This is what I have trained for.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What's In a Tattoo?

Last Thursday, I went with my 20-year old son, Zak, and a friend of ours and we all got tattoos. This was my third ink, and they have each been special, but this is the first time that I have branded myself with a declaration of commitment and personal passion. This tattoo is not a declaration of just one person; it is a declaration of my passion for thousands of people, and thousands of miles. My new tattoo declares forever my passion for The3Day walks. Adorning my leg is a blue 3 entwined with a pink ribbon. It feels great to have it there, like it has been waiting to be born.

The decision to get my tattoo at the same time that Zak was getting his first started out just as a mom being there for and with her son. I’d been thinking for a few years of getting this design in ink and when he started talking about getting a tattoo, it seemed like good timing. Funny thing is, I didn’t realize until we were there how perfect it was to have him along for this particular declaration. As we shared the tattoo party, I reflected on my son’s connection to my 3Day experiences.

Zak was part of my journey to The3Day from the very start. My first walk was dedicated to my friend Mary Kaye, who was battling breast cancer in the wake of having lost her husband to pancreatic cancer just a year before her own diagnosis. My friendship with Mary Kaye was really borne of our boys’ friendship with one another. If not for the persistence of my son and hers in their need to stay connected it’s possible that Mary Kaye and I might have missed the chance to be in one another’s lives in a deep and meaningful way. If not for Zak and R’s friendship, it’s probable that Mar and I would have only been once-in-awhile friends. So because of his role in the start of that friendship, Zak was a part of my 3Day journey from before it even began.

When I started training for my first walk, I was unprepared for the amount of hours that one must dedicate to walking. My son quickly turned the training from a chore into a pleasure by joining me on our local bike path. He’d ride his bike for miles up and down the path cycling past me, then riding alongside me then falling behind me. And then he would start all over again. He could have been out with his friends; he could have been home playing games. But instead, my 11-year old boy was keeping me company and cheering me on so I could train. When I hit the streets on my first 3Day event and saw the bike safety crew patrolling our route in the same looping manner, I would smile each time thinking of my own safety crew back home.

Above all, Zak holds a vital role in my 3Day memories. He made it possible for me to complete all 60 miles of the most physically demanding 3Day I have walked yet. Each event has had it’s own challenges and demands; but the most intense for me was the Boston 3Day of 2002. As any New Englander will tell you about our spring weather: anything goes – and that weekend it sure did.

Day One was a perfect, sunny, clear day around 70 degrees with a slight breeze. I walked most of that day with Matt, celebrating our “walkaversary”. It had been one year since we had met on the 3Day. A lot had happened in that year and I was so grateful to have him along as my walking partner, and rapidly moving towards being the life partner that he is today.

We had a perfect day for walking, and at the end of our day relaxed on the lawn outside the dinner tent playing cards with some other walkers. At dinner that night the announcements included a weather forecast that sounded a bit threatening. Rain was coming in and was expected for all of Saturday. They advised covering our tents with extra layers of plastic and to be prepared for a wet walk.

I made a phone call to my ex-husband, Mike. Our hometown is about 2 hours west of the route planned for Day Two and he had offered to bring our kids eastward to cheer along the walk route. I was really looking forward to seeing them among the cheerleaders. I called to see if the forecast might be impacting his/their plans. He laughed and told me that since they could sit in a dry car and we’d be the ones walking in the rain all day, he didn’t see any reason for their plans to change. I was happy to hear it and reflected on how fortunate our kids are that we have been able to be friends in the wake of the end of our marriage.

The rains whipped in during the night and by morning, it was pouring in earnest. Back in those days, walkers packed every thing up each day to have our tents and personal belongings moved to the next ‘tent city’ site. We dressed in everything we could, packed up our stuff and our tent and headed out for the day. Less than an hour into the walk, Matt’s wimpy windbreaker was failing and the temperatures were dropping. I called Mike again to check in about his plans with the kids. He confirmed that their plans were the same and that they were on the way. I asked him to bring a raincoat for Matt to borrow and he agreed. We kept on walking. It continued to rain and the temperature continued to drop.

It was getting cold for May, but as long as we were moving, it seemed okay. There were a lot of walkers dropping out from the cold. I called Mike again. He said, “You’re still walking? It’s snowing here on our drive!” I was shocked at the thought of snow in May, glad that it was just cold rain for us. And then just minutes later the sleet started. I could continue to share all the details of that morning’s walk, but you get the point. My brand new gore-tex raincoat was soaked through, stuck to my icy skin. When we stopped for a lunch break, I changed from old wet socks to fresh wet socks, huddled in the shelter of a high school’s doorway overhang. The 3Day offered warm buses and options to get dry and head back to camp. But we were stubborn and determined to keep walking. Looking back, Matt and I have reflected that it was unwise for us to keep walking. We were cold and wet and not making the clearest decisions. But we also determined to finish what we had come to start. At the most difficult points in that day, I couldn’t help but think of Mary Kaye, and think of all the times that she didn’t have a choice about when to give up. If she could keep fighting to survive, surely I could walk through one cold wet day.

Just at the point when I was so cold each step hurt, Mike called to say that he thought they were close. I could hear my son exclaim, “Look at all those porta-potties!” We conferred on directions and they were pulling up alongside us minutes later. I don’t usually use my cell phone on the route, but that one time I was certainly grateful to have it along. We ran up to the car and opened the door to greet them, and to get the raincoat that I’d asked Mike to bring for Matt. What a surprise we had! Mike is an outdoorsman, and had brought piles of gear for us to change. We jumped into the back of his small wagon into what looked like most of the inventory from a closeout sale at Outdoor Adventureland. There were dry sweatpants for Matt and big yellow, fisherman style pants and jackets for each of us. The kids cheered us on as we struggled to change in the back of the car. I had to stay in the wet pants I’d been walking in, but everything else for both of us was changed into dry stuff. Hugs were exchanged all around and we asked Mike to drive onto the next rest stop to check in on us before he and the kids turned back towards home.

So on we walked. It felt better, but I was still shivering. The pants I was wearing were drenched to my skin under the yellow rain pants. I was icy cold. I was disheartened that we had made it this far and that we might still have to give in to the elements. Mary Kaye wouldn’t give up, I thought. We approached the rest stop, and I ran over to the car. I looked at my son, the only person close to my size…”Please?” I asked him, “Please can I have your pants?”

I’d love to tell you that it was a Lifetime Movie Special Moment. I’d love to say that his eyes lit up and he rejoiced in his chance to help me. More like, he reluctantly relented. But he handed over the prize of his dry pants and I was able to change out of that icy layer. Dry and warmer now, I hugged my boy and thanked him. I told him that he had given me the one thing I needed most to be able to complete my day. Embarrassed by his pantlessness, he smiled with a new understanding. “You’re welcome Mom. I’m glad to do what I can.”

Warm and dry, we continued to walk. The whole mood of the day changed for us from that moment. We were strong again, and could laugh and share our story with the other walkers who had survived into this second half of a very long day. The sun even came out in the afternoon and we walked into camp (indoors that night) feeling victorious. We talk about that day often over the years. If not for the support of my family, I never would have finished walking that day. I might even have succumbed to the hypothermia that threatened me at lunchtime. If not for my son’s supportive gesture, I would have a different story to tell about my own survivor-day.

There was a moment of connection for my son and I that day. It might not seem like a big deal, but for a 12-year old about to sit pants-less for two hours in a car with his dad and his little sister, loaning me his pants was a very big deal. Zak gave up something he really didn’t want to because he knew I needed it more than he did. And in the years between then and now, I have known that I can count on him for that level of support. I can ask him for anything and he will give me what I need. He is just that kind of person. He gives of himself freely and often no questions asked. People can count on him. I don’t think he’s ever had to hand anyone his pants since then, but I know he would if he needed to.

I trust that every time I look at my beautiful new tattoo that years of 3Day memories will scroll through my thoughts. At the top of that scroll will be the look in my son’s eyes when I thanked him for helping me survive my walk. May we all have that kind of opportunity to recognize it when we have helped another person.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Humankind. Be both.

Recently a co-worker approached me because she has been thinking about doing her first 3Day this summer. She'd heard from another co-worker that I had “been involved in a few events” and she hoped that I would tell her more about it. I warned her that once I start talking about the 3Day, it might be hard to get me to stop. There are so many stories to tell and so much to say about what the event has meant to me.

She started in, as so many people do, asking about technical details:
- Do you set up your own tent?
- How do you raise all that money?
- Where does your stuff go while you walk?
- How many pairs of sneakers will I need?

I stopped her after just a few questions to explain that she can get all those answers and many more from the very detailed and very well thought-out 3Day website. I assured her that she would have more support than she could imagine from the 3Day itself as well as from other walkers, and on event from the Crew. I didn’t mind answering those questions, but I really felt that I had something more that I could give her.
I proceeded to tell her about my first walk. I wanted her to hear about that walk because it changed my life. In reality, each of the fourteen 3Day walks that I have done has affected me. They have shaped me and helped me to grow in a myriad of ways. But my first walk, in Boston in 2001, changed my vision of the world and my own role in it.

I decided to take that first 60-mile walk to honor my friend Mary Kay as she was wrapping up what we prayed would be her last treatment phase. I was driving to the Jersey shore every few weeks to be with her during chemo to help with her kids and just to be with her. I was focusing on her needs, but had begun ignoring my own. When I became committed to Mar’s care cycle, I dropped my own exercise routine. I was lamenting about that loss of balance to a friend one day as we walked into a store together. There, as we walked in the door, was a life-size cutout of two women, powerfully striding across an unseen finish line. The caption read:

“The 3Day Walk for Breast Cancer. Do something bigger than yourself.”

I am not generally a believer in signs. But hey, that was definitely a sign. I registered the next day and immediately started training and fundraising. Three months later, on May 17, 2001, I headed east to Leominster, MA. These days, walkers and crew take care of all the technical stuff in cyber land. We register online, fundraise online, get our tent assignments online, and watch safety videos online as well. But in 2001, the internets were still pretty young. Back then, all that stuff happened at a big in-person gathering of walkers that was referred to as “Day Zero”. A lot of stuff happened at the carnival of Day Zero. Everyone waited in lots of lines and began building a community. I met a man that day – another walker – with whom I have now walked and crewed for 9 years. I actually married that walker 4 years ago. I suppose you might think that’s what made my first walk so life-changing. It certainly is one way that my life changed because of that first walk. But the walk itself changed who I was and what I believed in.

That change began at Day Zero when I watched the required “safety video”. They called it a safety video because it contained all the important rules of the walking road, but it was about way more than just our safety. It was also an inspirational video. The intent of that video was to remind of us the ways that we each could build a spirit of community. Those twenty minutes were filled with examples of the ways that we could take care of one another on the event. Helping another walker set up their tent at the end of a long day was an opportunity for kindness. We could take an extra minute to hold a door open. We could show kindness by simply picking something up for someone too tired to do so him/herself. We could always find someone who needed us. The message was powerful that we had a unique opportunity in these three days to build a community of kindness and caring.

That 20-minute video shaped my weekend. I embraced the vision of kindness and I was embraced by it. For those three days, I helped to build a community of kindness. For those three days, every person really felt that s/he could make a difference in the world. We touched one another by setting up tents or by walking across a field to bring water to someone whose blister was just ‘too much’. We created a world of hope and strength simply by being kind.

Before my three days started, I was confident that I was making a difference in the fight against breast cancer with the money I had helped to raise. And I knew that I would be making a difference with the awareness that our army of walkers would raise as we walked through the communities of Massachusetts. But by the end of those three days, I had learned a lesson about making a difference that has become part of who I am. I learned that being kind is what it takes to create a community. I recharge that personal vision every time I return to the community of a 3Day event. Those events are an amazing experience in being engulfed in a community of people who have learned that kindness and giving really can make a difference. We, the walkers and crew of The3Day, have learned that finding ways to give to other people is the best way to live. When you see how simple it is to make a difference in another person’s day, you begin to realize that you really can make a difference in the world.

It isn’t always easy to translate the kindness of The3Day into the “real world” but do I try every day. Being kind can change the world. I can change the world.

I really can do something bigger than myself. And so can you.