Monday, August 30, 2010

2010 Philadelphia LIVESTRONG Challenge (Part I)

I've been putting off writing this account of my participation in the 2010 LIVESTRONG Challenge in Philadelphia on August 21-22 because I genuinely dislike writing. But out of fear of forgetting some wonderful moments from a mere week ago, I figured I should commit these memories to paper or, in this case, bytes before too long. If this account is long, it's because there is just so much I experienced that I fear forgetting let I put it down here. In particular, since this is the first time I'm blogging about the Challenges, I thought I'd provide some background before going into the events of the Challenge itself.

This was my third Challenge since my second cancer diagnosis in 2008. Prior to that year, I had only a vague sense of who Lance Armstrong is, had never heard of the foundation bearing his name, had next to no interest in running or cycling, and had mostly put my first cancer diagnosis (in 1996) behind me. I understood cancer could change one's life. I just never imagined exactly how when I was diagnosed for a second time two and a half years ago.

For the 2008 Challenge, my partner Sean and I joined a team (Team LOVEstrong) consisting mostly of fellow TC survivors and caregivers, most of whom I had already met online on a cancer forum or in person. I walked the 5K event at that Challenge, hardly a challenge for me. Much more difficult was receiving a yellow rose, given to all survivors, at the finish line and struggling not to break down emotionally. That was hard. The previous months of surgery, recovery, sense of loss, anxiety, anger, and relief at being given yet another chance at life all came together in a mix of emotion.

For the 2009 Challenge, I decided to do something more demanding so I started training to run the 5K beginning in February of that year. I had always hated running, associating it with a particularly sadistic high school phys. ed. teacher. By the time of the Challenge, however, I had gotten myself to the point at which I was able to squeeze out a 5K run at a respectable pace of 8.17 minute mile. Not bad considering I had drunk so much coffee before the run that my bladder was literally bursting by the time I finished. I still remember clenching my survivor's rose in my teeth in the Porta John within minutes of reaching the finish line. Watching Sean come back from his bike ride, cheering Nathan on his very first century ride, raising more than $3000 for that Challenge and helping to recruit several new people to the team all made that a great Challenge.

But cycling seemed like so much more fun than running at that point. When you run, there is no such thing as coasting. And while completing a run can leave you with a huge endorphin rush and sense of satisfaction, starting a run has always been difficult for me. Had it not been for that year's Challenge, I probably would never have bothered. I was also aware that, in my forties, I couldn't count on being able to run pain-free indefinitely. Finally, I was done with my ride in no time while everyone else spent much of the day seeing beautiful scenery and interacting with fellow riders. So off I went to buy a bike for the first time since I was twelve or thirteen years old. I was apprehensive, wondering if I could really take up cycling, feeling overwhelmed at all the technical aspects of the sport and, ever the frugal shopper, preparing for sticker shock from all the many things cyclists seem to spend money on. I settled on a Trek 7.5 FX, a bike that has proven ideal for me. I've since customized it with Shimano pedals and extension bars.

By the time this year's Challenge rolled around, I had taken to cycling much faster than I could have imagined. I owe a lot of that to my friend, coworker and fellow former economics grad student Nathan whose enthusiasm for all things cycling is infectious. He thought nothing of challenging me to join him on rides that he would admit, always after the ride was over, had challenged him when he first started riding years ago. His devil-may-care attitude could be exasperating sometimes, especially whenever we came to a hill he seemed to climb effortlessly while I lagged behind with my tongue hanging out, gasping for breath at each pedal stroke. He would chide me for recoiling from tough climbs but then praise me every time I completed our rides together particularly when they broke new ground in terms of hills, speed or distance. As much as I felt like a complete neophyte to the sport, Nathan helped me feel like I actually belonged to this strange group of people in lycra shorts known as cyclists. Yes, I did succumb to wearing bike clothing. Thanks to a lean build and years of weight-lifting, I have to say I don't look half bad in lycra.

While the number of people on our team was much smaller than in 2009, I was looking forward to Nathan participating for his second year, seeing my friend Michael join us for the 5K walk, being joined by our Brit friends Kate and Mike (both runners) and their daughter Miriam, and seeing some of the people I had come to know over the past few years of raising money and awareness to fight cancer. Sadly, this effort had found a new member in my colleague and friend Don who had, just a few months ago, lost his wife to this terrible disease. It was shaping up to be a memorable and cathartic Challenge for so many of us. The only thing that remained was to decide on what distance to shoot for at the Challenge and to hope for good weather after a particularly scorching summer. So on to the Challenge in the second part of this blog entry...

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