Thursday, June 18, 2009

Anniversary of my First Marathon

Four years ago today, I became a marathoner in the Mayor's Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage, Alaska! I walked it as a member of Team in Training and as a cancer survivor, but it was a marathon all the same. A couple of years later, I wrote a story about it for the TNT “Team Ties” e-zine, and in memory of this day, one of the most amazing days in my life, I decided to post that here, with a few modifications. I've also thrown in a few photos from the day, which don't always occur exactly at the point being discussed.

My First Marathon

In May of 2002 I got the shock of learning that I probably had lymphoma, then confirming that I did indeed have Hodgkin's lymphoma. I started chemotherapy that June and went into remission on December 9. During that time of much illness and physical misery, I had a chance to meet a lot of others who were even more ill than I was, with even less certain futures. I reflected a lot on the many things in my life that I was grateful for, and tried to stay positive from day 1, determined to recover and try to make a difference somehow. I read a number of inspirational books, including Lance Armstrong's story "It's Not About the Bike", one called "Cancer Combat", and another called "Chicken Soup for the Survivor's Soul".

About the time I went into remission, I learned about TNT and The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and thought that this would be a great way to give back something for the things that helped to save my life. I was too weak for a while to consider it, and then, truthfully, kind of forgot about it. My interest was renewed in 2004 when I was in the National Susan Komen Race for the Cure, only a 3.1 mile race, but still a first step to giving something back. I learned about and thought about doing the Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day the next year, but then in January 2005, I remembered TNT and got in touch. Being a lymphoma survivor, that was a pretty natural fit. After going to a meeting about TNT, I signed up for the marathon in Alaska, and dove right in with fundraising and training.

At this same time, a friend was losing his six year battle against renal cell cancer. His name was Allan Bernstein, and he was always very courageous and upbeat, and thinking of his suffering - he was going through an especially difficult time in January - and his great spirit helped give me the resolve to train hard and persevere. He was my personal honoree for the race, and he was so touched and excited that his birthday was the same day as the race, June 18. Sadly, he died about 2 weeks before the marathon. Along the way, I was also touched and inspired by our two team patient honorees. They were Emma McFeely, a little girl who survived leukemia at age 10 weeks, and Ed Stone, who survived leukemia as a young man and has gone on complete marathons and triathlons for TNT. As I fundraised, I offered to write the names of donor's honorees on my shirt, and learned about many of their stories as well. During the race, with all of these names on my shirt, I felt that they were all right there with me every step of the way. It was just a fantastic experience, a lot of work of course, but for all the effort I made, I got even more back. After the Midnight Sun Marathon, I wrote my mile by mile thoughts as best as I could remember them from the race. So I will close my story now by sharing my memories of a few of these miles:

Pre-race: This is exciting but the weather is iffy, plus one thing we never trained for was standing for two hours prior to doing our miles. Coach Bob gives us last minute instructions, everyone braves the porta-potty lines, we line up and at 8AM, we step off. I will walk the first 17 miles with Cheryl from Virginia. Happy birthday, Allan – this one’s for you, big guy!

Milepost 4 – Porta-potties with short lines! Great, I was about to stop along the road (no privacy at all but getting desperate). The first mile post where the rain has stopped, and there is a little sun. Maybe the weather will improve. Feeling good, walking along. Mountains are so pretty. How amazing to be doing my first marathon in Alaska – I feel so grateful.

Milepost 11 – Solid rain now, forget about pictures. The trail climbs and is narrower now, very slick and muddy. We spray mud with each stride over ourselves and each other. Mood is high, the few spectators cheer us on and the adrenaline rushes, all along the route, when this happens. There is a man, maybe older than me. He has an artificial leg but is laboring along, slipping on the steep, muddy parts of the trail. On his back is a picture of a woman and the words “For Tina” – actually I can’t remember what the name was but you get the idea. Someone tells me that he has done this race every year with his wife along to help him over the rough spots. This past year, his wife died so he is doing this alone in her memory. This is so inspirational but so heart-breakingly sad. I cannot imagine what he is feeling.

Milepost 15 – legs are sore now, getting tired. Slowing on the soaked and muddy, narrow downhill sections (they call this part the Ho Chi Minh Trail). I almost fall several times – it is so slippery. How did the runners do it? Feel so cool, worried about hypothermia. Everything is soaked, but still I am in Alaska in a marathon – how bad can that be? Have not even had to use my mantra yet (“Each step saves lives”). Where the hell is this midnight sun we have heard about – will the damned rain ever stop?

Milepost 23 - It stopped raining and I finally get my third mile post photo. I start thinking of my friend Allan, who's birthday is today and who died 2 weeks ago of cancer. "Help me out here, Allan - give me a little shove." I feel a wave of emotion thinking about him dying and nearly cry. I think of his widow, Marcia. I think about all of the names on my shirt, those who have died, and those who have beat this thing, including me. I will finish and honor them all. It is pretty here - what a gorgeous wild area near a college campus!

Milepost 24 - Oh, my God! I know I will finish now. I do two miles all of the time. I will be a marathoner today. The blisters will heal, the cold and wet fade, the sore muscles recover, but I will always be a marathoner. I feel a huge smile. Now it's raining again. What is this? A single spectator, standing in the rain with a big sign: "Leukemia Survivor - Thank You." I stop, point to my chest with pride and say "Lymphoma Survivor". We chat for a bit, and I give her a hug, say "God Bless You" and go on. I am so appreciative for her waiting out in the cold and rain to thank us and cheer us on.

Milepost 25 - A mile to go is nothing. Rain coming in sideways; the path is going along a lake, heading around a little bend and up "Insult Hill". This is not such a bad hill at all, and I start really hauling ass. A coach yells to slow down on the hill, risking a muscle pull. I slow down. At 25.75 Coach Bob meets me with his moose head hat. I start talking, then babbling. I tell him about Allan and his birthday today, how he just died. I tell him about some of the other names on my shirt. I start talking about how I swore I would do something like this when I had cancer, and now I was doing it. I realize that I am close to tears and tell him that I may cry. He says to go ahead, I've earned it. But I stop babbling and get it under control.

Milepost 26 - My God, thanks for this. I am nearly a marathoner! I feel strong. Everything hurts, feet, legs, but the feeling is great. I see Sarah Clarke, our TNT Staff person, screaming my name, jumping up and down, yelling "Go Art, Go Art"! I take off my soaked hat and wave it to her. The finish is just ahead. Bob stops and congratulates me, and we bear hug each other. My smile feels a mile wide as I leave him and cross the finish line. Three years, two weeks, and one day after starting ABVD chemotherapy and feeling so scared that day, I became a marathoner! I hear them announce "Art Ritter, Glen Allen, Virginia" over the PA. I hoped those poor, cold photographers got a good photo of this, because this is one moment I wanted to capture. What a great feeling, one of the great moments in my life.


SusieQ said...

Thanks Art - I loved that day. Truly one of most moving experiences of my life.

Racn4acure said...

Wasn't it incredible, Susie? I will always, always remember it. Art

Elayne said...

Loved reading this post Art and as always you have encouraged me with my upcoming ( Dec.) Marathon which will be 2 years and 4 months from my 2nd diagnosis with cancer.

Racn4acure said...

Hi Elayne - I am glad that you enjoyed the tale of my first marathon. I keep thinking of your race coming up the end of the year. It will be amazing for you. And the feeling you get as a cancer survivor doing this is almost indescribable. Art