Whew! It’s been almost two days since I finished one of the more major challenges of my life, and I’m finally finding time to sit down and write about my Very Pink Weekend. For anyone who happens not to know, I participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer this weekend in Chicago.
The total event is 39.3 miles over two days — a marathon the first day and a half-marathon the second; and participants raise a minimum of $1800 each to benefit breast cancer treatment and research. My friend Dara and I flew in from Austin and Atlanta respectively to spend a couple of days sight-seeing and then tackle the event itself. We were a little nervous about all our walking around the city on Thursday and Friday, since we knew we’d need fresh legs to tackle such a big challenge. But anyone who’s been to Chicago knows that it’s pretty irresistible from a traveler’s perspective. There are just too many things to see, do and eat to stay in the hotel room!
When we made it back to our hotel Friday evening for the “Event Eve” registration, I began to get the idea that this walk would be different from anything else I’d done. The atmosphere was electric and upbeat; people crowded around tables examining buttons, gear, and rain ponchos; and there was pink EVERYWHERE. We checked in, picked up our “fantastic fundraiser” hats [thanks to many of you who gave generously!] and made our way to the hotel restaurant for a hearty, early dinner. While there, we talked to the first of many die-hard walkers we would meet that weekend, who was preparing for her 6th year participating and wore a ‘bedazzling’ pink ribbon hat covered entirely in sequins.
Before setting the alarm for a freakishly-early 4:30 a.m., I made some notes in my journal about my frame of mind and reiterated some promises I’d made to myself during the very difficult training: do the best you can, go as far as you can, but don’t push yourself so far that you get injured. When I originally set out to do the walk, I thought I would easily [ha, ha] master all 39.3 miles in my 12 weeks of training. But one pulled calf muscle and hundreds of lonely training miles later, I realized that my original goal may not have been the most realistic one — especially when the opportunity to do long training walks on Sunday mornings also meant missing out on our only day to spend together as a family.
So, since the Avon Walk offers the option to do a half marathon both days (for a total of 26.2 instead of 39.3), I thought maybe that was more realistic for my current phase of life and in the last four weeks had more or less adjusted my training schedule accordingly. By the night before the event, I was filled with anxiety that I might not even be able to do that much — after all, the most I’d walked in one day was 12 miles, and never two days in a row! I was torn between the strong desire to prove myself worthy of all the generous support I’d received and the knowledge that there is really no shame in whatever distance I walked. I said some reassuring words to myself, watched The Replacements on TV for cheesey inspiration, and slept comfortably until the alarm went off way, way too early.
We boarded the shuttle bus to Soldier Field sometime around 5:30 the next morning, standing in line with our bags and lots of strangers who were taking the same journey. Even at that point, people had their reasons for walking pinned to their backs — names of loves ones lost to breast cancer or still battling, words of hope for the future, pictures of mothers and daughters (including an ultrasound image of a daughter still in the womb of a pregnant participant).
In line for the bus, we were behind a group of girlfriends who have obviously made this event an annual tradition together, who were chatting happily and each wearing some iteration of this quote: “I walk for my daughter(s), so the only pink ribbons they wear will be in their hair.” As the weekend wore on, we witnessed so many poignant expressions like this one — along with so many displays of sisterly, family and friendly bonding — that I often found myself close to tears and warmly comforted at the same time.
When we arrived at Soldier Field a half hour later, it was to a sea of frenetic pink activity. Checking in, getting coffee and breakfast, taking pictures, stretching, dancing — the activities were varied and seemingly endless, but all toward a common purpose. We made our way to the stage area for opening ceremonies and began noticing the unique and interesting team names and slogans on the shirts of those around us — spotting and pointing these out became our own little version of the “license plate game” over the next two days. [Some of my favorites: Operation: Save My-Raq, Hakunah Ma-Ta-Ta’s, Girls Gone Miles (Uncensored), A Tale of Two Titties, Blister Sisters, The Ta Ta Sisterhood, and the simple but elegant “Boobylicious.” I also particularly liked the “Pink Sluggers” team who had baseball-style shirts on with their bra sizes as their jersey numbers.]
At the Opening Ceremonies, we also started seeing survivors out in full force (more than 300 survivors walked with us) and their families showing support. I was particularly touched by a woman with a cape and bandanna, accompanied by a man and two little boys with shirts that said, “My Mom (Wife) Fights Like a Girl.” We saw fun costumes and accessories ranging from pink feather boas to bunny ears to foam princess crowns and capes. Buttons proclaimed “F–k cancer” (in elegant pink, naturally), “Blisters don’t need chemo,” and “Save Second Base.” There were also buttons like “3-year alumni” for those who had walked before, and “5-year survivor.” During the ceremony itself, we learned that we had raised $7.7 million as a group, and we heard inspirational stories from survivors and family members, along with this guy, who recently lost over half his body weight on Biggest Loser and walked in memory of his aunt.
And then, we were off. The first couple of miles were incredibly slow, as all 4,000 participants — mostly women, but lots of men, too — bunched together on sidewalks and running trails, and particularly when we crossed over narrow bridges. We soon learned that we were sharing these spaces with pedestrians and cyclists — some of whom were gracious and supportive and others who were annoyed and even downright rude about sharing their bike routes with us. I guess you can’t win everyone over! We followed a path northward along the edge of Lake Michigan, with me pausing neurotically at rest stops and benches to make adjustments to my shoes (inserts in or out?), my water bottle (hanging from my bag or carried?) and rain gear (on or off?).
We learned the ins and outs of rest stops: “Drink and pee, ladies! Drink and pee, no IV!” We were entertained by volunteers in outlandish costumes and a couple of large men dressed head to toe in pink, dancing on a cart being pulled by an ambulance through the streets.The rain threatened to appear all morning with some minor sprinkles and clouds, but by mile 6 — just as we moved away from the lake and into the city — it started pouring down.
Miles 6 through 9 were soaking wet, but the city also brought new inspiration as we left the contested beach path we’d shared with territorial cyclists and wandered down sidewalks that seemed to be expecting us. Shop windows were decked out in pink crepe paper, balloons and the occasional “Good Luck Avon Walkers!” sign taped to the glass. People waved and honked their horns as we passed, a stampede of pink beneath wet ponchos and jackets. There was a group (a gang?) of bikers — Harley, not Schwinn — who volunteered to help us through the busy intersections by directing traffic, blaring upbeat music and shouting words of encouragement about how far it was to the next rest stop.
As we came to more residential neighborhoods, there were organized cheering stations between stops where supporters shouted encouragement, slapped our hands, handed out candy, and thanked us for walking. Restaurants gave us free lemonade and handed out plastic to-go bags to help people protect things from the rain. A few houses even had supportive signs hanging from balconies and kids came out into the small city yards to cheer, wave, and even play drums for us using pots and pans. Even with wet hair and tired feet, it was impossible to feel anything but warm and happy. We had lunch at around Mile 10, and the weather cleared from then on, so that by the time we hit the half-marathon point, it was warm and sunny.
We’d been “behind” the prescribed schedule for walking farther than the half marathon all day (the organizers had a time-table for leaving each rest stop if you planned to walk more than 13.1 miles, and Dara and I had consistently been behind it all morning because of the large, slow-moving crowds and our positioning toward the back of the walk). By the time we got to the half-marathon finish line, we were only five or ten minutes behind the marathon schedule, so we had to make a decision: sit in the grass with our shoes off and enjoy our 13-mile achievement before heading back to the “wellness village” where we’d camp for the night, or move on with essentially no time to rest and see how far our bodies would take us.
Even though we were already a mile past what either of us had done in training, we both felt pretty good, especially since (unlike many of our compatriots) we were blister- and limp-free at that point. We stood up, filled our bottles with a water/Gatorade mix, stretched our achy muscles, and went on.
The next three miles went by more and more slowly, as we pushed ourselves beyond anything we’d done before and simply kept asking our feet to comply with the wishes of our hearts (at least that’s how it felt to me). At mile 15.5, we faced a small hill that felt more like a mountain, and stopping for traffic lights felt more painful than walking. By the time we got to the rest stop at Mile 16, I sensed we were done. Dara, who sometimes has a better relationship with reality than I, recognized it first, and she sat happily in the grass to wait for one of the sweep vans while I toyed with the idea of trying to make it alone to Mile 18. I put my shoes back on after airing out my pained feet, and stood up “to see how I feel.” She was nice enough not to laugh at me as I took a couple of wobbly steps before acknowledging defeat. Looking back on it, I think I might’ve been able to make it two more miles if I’d been willing to (a) walk less on Day 2 or (b) come home on crutches. Neither is really an appealing option, especially with an active almost-one-year-old to chase around, so I’m glad my friend was the voice of reason for us both.
We took the bus for the next 10 miles of the route with companions who shared our mixed feelings of pride, satisfaction, and maybe just a bit of disappointment they hadn’t made it the whole marathon distance. We passed the walkers still on the route, viewing them with some mixture of sympathy and envy. Some were slowing down like us, nearing their own time on the sweeper van, while others walked as though they were still on Mile 2. Particularly amazing to me was that some of these latter women were 30 years or so older than I, and I noticed that several of them wore indications that they are breast cancer survivors. It was awe-inspiring.
Just before Mile 26, the bus let us off at Warren Park, where we walked the final .2 miles to the Day One finish line and the Wellness Village. We hobbled across the finish line amidst more cheers and worked our way to the gear truck to gather our luggage and supervise the boy scouts who were still putting up tents (including ours). We had a refreshing, surprisingly passable dinner under the enormous dining hall tent and went to a smaller tent for a yoga class that was challenging but made our tired muscles feel soooooo much better. Avon provided mobile showers (my first shower on a tractor-trailer, as far as I can remember), and there were doctors, nurses, chiropractors, physical therapists and massage therapists all tending to the walking wounded.
Exhausted, we skipped the “Fireside Follies” that promised entertainment in the main tent and retreated to our own tiny space before dark to read and journal. As the late walkers filed in from the route, we heard stories of those who had pushed themselves beyond their limits and ended up vomiting, disoriented or passing out entirely. Friends, parents and in some cases, ambulances carted away those whose spirit and determination had outlasted their physical abilities. Coming back from brushing my teeth I saw a woman awake and sitting up but barely able to respond to the attending paramedic’s questions. For me, this really affirmed our decision to stop when we knew it was time to stop; but it also made me realize how passionate and committed many people are to this cause, this fight, and I felt re-inspired for the final half-marathon the next day.
But first, we had to survive the weather. Overnight, in our tiny little tents, we experienced what I later learned was a severe weather system that killed several people in other parts of the Midwest. I heard rumblings from the staff the night before about “evacuation plans” but no one ever pulled the trigger on that. In the middle of the night, as the winds whipped our tent around violently, the anxious part of me hoped nervously that the non-evacuation was because we were really pretty safe (after all, the flimsy tent always makes things seem worse, right?), and not because the storm had come up so fast that no one knew how bad it was until it was already right on us. I’m pretty sure it was the former. In any case, everyone in the event survived the night and only a few people had to move to a more sheltered area after their tents blew over. Seriously, the tents blew over. With people and gear in them. Sheesh.
For our part, Dara and I only experienced the whipping winds, a small puddle in the tent by the door, and the hardship of being placed in a tent right next to those people who never go camping and thus don’t realize that the tent walls aren’t like real walls, and just because you can’t see through them doesn’t mean you can’t hear through them perfectly. So we endured some way-too-loud conversations and phone beeping at both 10:30 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. from them…. but if I’m honest, I probably would’ve been awake at both times anyway!
So, a little grumbling and muttering and rubbing of sore backs, and we were packed onto the gear trucks and sorted out for breakfast. The atmosphere was still lively as everyone prepared, refreshed, for Day Two. I heard later on that there were 2800 of us starting that morning, but in the close quarters of the Wellness Village and with all the lively chatter, you never would’ve guessed our numbers had shrunk by 1200.
The route re-opened to walkers at 7:30, and we were off into one of the most perfect days imaginable. The sun shone merrily and the morning was cool and dry — not even a hint of the storms from the night before. We walked through quiet neighborhoods all the way east toward Lake Michigan, where we turned south through Loyola’s Chicago campus, which is astonishingly pretty and beach-like, especially on a quiet Sunday morning. I thought I would be sore from Saturday’s exertions, but I felt really fine and actually had a bit of a bounce in my step for the first three or four miles.
We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day as we weaved our way through the parks along the lake, taking in the sights and doing a much better job avoiding run-ins with cyclists and joggers than we had the day before. It seemed everyone was refreshed with the knowledge that the end was in sight. Again, we were greeted along the route by our friends the bikers, and by little cheering sections of cancer survivors, families, and health care professionals. Just when the day was getting warmer and my legs beginning to get tired, we passed a man standing next to a healthy-looking woman in her 40’s; and he held a colorful homemade sign that read, “My wife is a 6-year survivor. Thank you for walking.” It brought tears to my eyes then, and it still does now.
The miles wore on as they had the day before, with the same regular rest stops and congeniality. As we got close to Mile 10 and our scheduled lunch, the conversations around us began to turn to planning for after the event – coordinating rides, dinner plans, thinking about soft warm beds for napping. At lunch, with only a 5K left to walk, the park where we stopped looked, in Dara’s astute observation, like a war camp. The grass was littered with people bandaging their feet, icing down sore muscles, wrapping up knees and ankles. People seemed to eat more hurriedly than at previous meals and very few were taking pictures with friends and teammates.
The remaining 3.1 miles took us across the Chicago River and back into the heart of the city. We were so spread out along the city sidewalks that instead of a formidable sea of pink, we sometimes even blended in with the crowds of tourists and residents out enjoying the street festivals of a warm Sunday. I was so grateful that the end was coming (and frankly not sure how much longer I could’ve walked if it wasn’t), but it was also a little sad that our united band of warriors sharing a common experience would soon become separate individuals once again, melting back into our separate lives.
The final 1.2 miles seemed to take an eternity. From the last rest stop at 11.9 miles to the finish line at Soldier Field, each step seemed like its own little endurance test. I found myself envisioning falling down in the grass outside the stadium and simply sleeping there until I took a cab to the airport. Conversation slowed as everyone seemed to focus on the single goal of making it to the finish.
But what a finish! Back at Soldier Field, the crowds had gathered, and husbands, friends, moms, dads, and many others waited for us, cheering wildly from the 13 mile marker all the way to the finish line. It felt amazing to be crossing the finish line, and vicariously wonderful to watch relieved and proud walkers fall into the waiting (and even more proud) arms of their loved ones. My intense happiness at that moment was rivaled only by my intense yearning to be celebrating with my own family and wishing that MDH and our son had flown in from Atlanta, too.
Dara and I both did collapse on the grass, after finding someone to take our picture at the finish line and getting sufficiently out of the way of the other walkers. And we might have stayed there a while, except that the rain returned just at that moment to spur us onward to collect our gear. Now thanks to my poor planning when I booked my flight, we were unable to stay for closing ceremonies, which would’ve been cool in many ways [Suze Ormond was a speaker, and the foundation presented checks from our donations to the beneficiary organizations]. But as it was, I loaded my large backpack onto my back and we set out for the El to take us back to the airport. We ended up walking another mile or so to the El station, so whenever anyone asks how far I got in the walk, I feel very comfortable rounding up to 30 from our official distance of 29.3!
In a way, I think having some quiet time on the train and at the airport to reflect on the weekend was as valuable to me as the wrap-up of Closing Ceremonies would’ve been anyway. It was an amazing weekend, and I think I have learned (and will continue to learn) so much about myself from it. I’d like to say something profound in summation, but the truth is I don’t think anything I can say will beat the simplest words of love, tenacity and gratitude that we saw all weekend on homemade posters and screen-printed t-shirts. And since most people reading this have been affected by breast cancer in one way or another, I know that you don’t need me to say anything more, either.
Thank you SO much to everyone who supported me in this undertaking – financially and emotionally. I am so appreciative of the donations, the well-wishes on Facebook, the text messages during the weekend, and all the positive energy. We are better together, in this fight as in all things!
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