I have not put pen to paper, or in this instance, keyboard to screen, just yet, because I just don't know that I have the words to describe my 3-Day Walk two weeks ago. But I have to get it out there, even if I don't do it justice.
Remarkable. Inspiring. Gut wrenching. Amazing. All of these words, and many more. These words aren't just for the three days I spent on the walk, but for the nearly 10 months I spent getting ready.
I walked this year, truly, because my friend Shelly walked for me last year, and I knew she wanted me to go with her. I didn't think I could do it. I honestly didn't know when I signed up that I would even see it through. She was so right to ask me to come along, because it was life changing for me.
My sister, after some degree of cajoling (I believe I stopped just short of begging) came down from Chicago to walk with me. Having her here with me, encouraging me, walking beside me, sharing a tent for those twelve minutes I was actually awake, was a huge factor in me getting through the experience.
My friend Vicki walked with me most mornings this summer, at the butt-crack of dawn, in unbearable heat and humidity. She never complained, and she never once backed out on me.
Friends, family, clients, and businesses I frequent made donations. Some more than I ever would have expected or imagined. My precious baby girl brought me a fist full of one dollar bills one evening, saying, "Mom, this is for your walk." Sometimes total strangers took me by surprise by donating, some of them very, very generously. I asked everyone I came in contact with for a donation. And then I asked some more. At the end, I had raised over $6,000.
My dear sweet friends at work supported me and encouraged me and put up with me talking about the walk again and again and again.
MrG was tireless in his efforts to be sure I was properly outfitted...sleeping bag, camp pad, blow up pillow, a funny little flashlight to wear on my head. Heaven knows he has no idea what I spent on shoes, shirts, socks....and since I do sales and not math, not even I will ever know.
After all the training and fundraising and worry, the first day of the walk dawned clear and cold. Bundled in layers, adrenaline flowing, we finally began our walk. We encountered shortly an elementary school with students cheering, flags waving, and pink balloons floating in the air. It was here the lump formed in my throat and I swallowed back tears. That lump stayed with me all three days.
All along the walk, cars passed us, honking, waving, sending encouragement from inside their warm little cocoons. Homeowners came out, offering candy, water, encouragement. Cheering stations were set up along the walk path, and sometimes I think they just randomly formed, like a flash mob of love. You cannot imagine how much the cheers of strangers can mean when you're trying to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again.
I will never forget what happened shortly after lunch on Friday. We had a chance to sit down, take off our shoes, wiggle our toes and rest for awhile. We ate a healthy lunch, rehydrated and headed back out. It is so much harder to start once you've stopped. About a mile or so in, I honestly thought I was not going to be able to make it. We came around a corner, and I saw on the right two signs. One said "Go Stephanie," and the other said "You Can Do It." Jokingly, I said to my teammates, "I am going to pretend that is for me - it will keep me going." Right about that time, Vicki, my summer walking partner, jumped out and hugged me. It kept me going all right, just as it's making me tear up as I relive it right now.
We finally made it to our campsite that evening where some lovely college students pitched our tents for us. It's good they were there, because my legs were so sore that if I had knelt down, it might have taken 911 to get me back up. We had a hot meal, a hot shower, and slept very, very soundly as temperatures hit a low of 39 degrees.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Day 2 was cold. We got an early start after a hot breakfast and walked hard. We had enjoyed light chatter and laughter for most of the walk, but after lunch, we all sort of pulled inside ourselves, willing one foot in front of the other again and again. Saturday was very hard as the physical and the emotional effort weighed heavily on all of us. The high points on Saturday were the cheering stations, and of course our Walker Stalkers, my BFF and my mom.
God bless them. They were there for us at every stop, bringing coffee, cookies, mom kisses, and allowing us to offload layers of clothing as the day warmed up. I will say this without hesitation. I could not have done this without them. Just knowing they were 2 or 3 or 4 miles down the road was enough to keep me going, and they cheered us and fed us and encouraged us all along the way. I will never find the words to tell them what their support meant during those three days. LittleG and MrG were honorary Walker Stalkers on Saturday and Sunday, and seeing my sweet baby girl and her Daddy really lifted me up when my spirits were down.
Somehow we made it back to camp at the end of Day 2, fed ourselves, showered, and fell again unconscious in the cold night air. We woke on Day 3 where some nice Boy Scouts helped us take down our tents and get our gear to the gear trucks, and after breakfast, off we went again.
The trip on Sunday was shorter, and when we finally arrived at the finish line, we walked across it together, hand in hand with our team, and went through a group of crew and other walkers who cheered us in. I can't tell you what it's like to have a thousand or so people cheering you on at the end.
We cheered the last walkers in, and they got us lined up to move into the closing ceremony. Because I'm a survivor, I separated from my team and moved into a holding area with the other survivors. The sea of white shirts parted as those of us in pink walked through, and thousands of women celebrated our success. I will never forget what it felt like to walk through the applause and tears, through the sea of white.
I could write for hours and still never describe what I saw or do justice to what it felt like to walk those 60 miles. Men in bras and pink skirts, women still bald from chemo, crying as we passed them on the street. Men holding signs thanking us for walking for their wives. Thousands and thousands who cheered for us. Popsicles, candy, even hot french fries and ketchup, shared in love with total strangers.
I have thought for some time that I do not want my life to be defined by breast cancer. I got it, we caught it, I beat it. My life was never in danger. I had some extremely frightening times, some painful ones. But this thing was never going to kill me. And yet, I get to wear the badge of Survivor, to walk proudly in my pink shirt, surrounded by people celebrating my success.
I raised over $6,000, and I did it without cheating, or without backing from national corporate sponsors of the event. I got up on summer mornings, when I much would have rather slept in, and walked in the heat. I stuck my hand out and asked for money again and again. From friends and family and strangers. When that wasn't enough, I asked more people. I bought a sleeping bag, for the love of all that's holy!
I walked more in one day than most people walk in a week. Then, I slept in a tent. On the ground. In the cold. And I got up the next day and did it again. Twice.
My blisters and sore muscles have healed. Physically, I've recovered. But I don't know that emotionally I am there yet. And I'm not really sure I want to be.
I don't want my life defined by my breast cancer. But my breast cancer walk? That's a different story. I am proud to say I challenged myself physically and emotionally and I did something I never truly thought I could do. Besides becoming a wife and a mom, it's the biggest thing I've ever done. And it was life changing.
So thank you Shelly, Rhonda, Leigh Ann, Vicki, Mom, Jimz, MrG, LittleG, and countless donors, supporters, and cheer squads, for the experience of a lifetime.