A few weeks ago I ran in the Susan G. Komen 5k. When you get to the race, you can make a pink card to pin to your back that says who you are running in celebration of or in memory of. The first year I ran, my pink card said “I’m racing in celebration of my Mom.” She was in remission then, and doing well.
It’s funny to think that there was a time when we thought Mom made it, beat cancer for good, and would one day be one of those little old ladies who could say she had breast cancer years and years ago. She fought so hard for so long, I guess we all assumed she’d live forever.
This year, we got a late start to get to the race. I had tonsillitis, and almost decided not to run, but my husband Casey talked me into it. He said I would feel better if I went. Turned out he was right.
We didn’t get there in time for me to make a pink card in honor of my mom. I felt like a phony, like someone who was just there because they loved running, and not because they’d lost someone they couldn’t live without.
The first half mile or so was ok, but after a few minutes, my breathing got really heavy. I could feel the fact that I was sick, and tired, and in no shape to be in any sort of athletic event that day. Still, it was nice to be surrounded by all of the people in their race shirts, both official and homemade. There was a small group of women wearing black t-shirts that said “Save Second Base,” and an older man with a pink ribbons pinned all over his shirt, which read “I’m here for the Boobs!” There’s really no other place that it’s ok to put so many boobie references on your clothing, and where so many people will high-five you for it.
A little over a mile and a half in, I knew I was in bad shape, and would have to walk for a bit. I convinced my husband to run ahead without me, and told him where I’d meet him after I finished. Grateful to be left to my own huffing and puffing, I slowed to a walk. I was feeling so defeated and sick. I thought about my mom, and how with or without my pink card, I was running in memory of her. Then I drove myself slightly crazy wondering if it even counted if I had stopped to walk. Mom would probably tell me not to run at all if I was so sick. I felt torn, and confused, and generally sorry for myself.
That’s when the lady in the dark pink t-shirt jogged slowly past me. She was older, maybe in her 60’s. She was a little shorter than I am, with a scruffy, sassy little blonde ponytail sticking out over the back of her visor. She had about a million freckles on her legs, which made me smile, since I have always loved freckles, always wished I had more of them. The dark pink official race shirt she wore with her little black running skirt meant she was a breast cancer survivor. I decided that if she could run slowly across that bridge, I could run slowly too.
So I started to run again. Actually, it was more of a labored jog, but it was definitely not walking, and I was pleased with that. We jogged down the off-ramp, rounded a corner, and started up the last big hill. I’m not sure who designed the 5k course, but that last hill gets me every time. I honestly wasn’t sure I could even get up it walking. But I looked just behind me, and there she was, in her black skirt, with her freckled legs, jogging ever so slowly towards the hill. And so we went up.
I jogged past two young boys who I had seen earlier, who had “I race in memory of my Mom” signs on their backs. The tall man next to them wore a sign that said he was racing in memory of his wife, Robin. If they could get up that hill, without their mom, without his wife, I could get up that hill. I turned a sharp corner at the top of the hill, wheezing, and started towards the final stretch.
I passed a smiling woman who was set up on the sidewalk in her wheelchair, with a pink t-shirt and a pink bandana covering her bald little head. She cheered and clapped and yelled thank you to all of the runners and walkers. I remembered, from when Mom was sick, how hard it had been for her to even get out of bed some days, never mind get out to a race and have thousands of people see you. That woman was such a hero to me in that moment, such an inspiration to keep going, to keep moving forward. I applauded her, and yelled thank you back to her.
I turned the last corner, saw the finish line banner, and started down the last hill. I kept my slow and steady pace, kept my eyes on the banner, and started talking to Mom. I thanked her for fighting so hard for me and Dad and my brother Aaron, when I knew it would have been easier to just give up and give in to cancer the first time it came. I thanked her for showing me what it meant to love others more than yourself, to put yourself through things that you would never ask them to put themselves through. I thanked her for teaching me what bravery and grace really looked like in the face of chemo, and radiation, and endless hospitalizations. I promised her that if I ever had breast cancer, I would fight as hard as she did, for my family. I told her I loved her, and how proud I was of her, and how much of my personality and values and beliefs I could trace back to her. And then I crossed that finish line in memory of Mom, with or without my pink card.
I found Casey, who was patiently waiting for me, as promised. I saw the woman in the dark pink t-shirt a few feet away. She looked up just then, and we shared a victorious smile, knowing we had both just done our best in that race. I like to think that she could somehow sense what she had done for me that day, since there are just no words for that sort of thing.
That’s the funny thing about grief. You may find strength in someone who doesn’t look anything like what you would expect. My role model that day was a sweaty little old woman with a scruffy ponytail, freckled legs, and a dark pink survivor t-shirt. She didn’t know that I was running because of her, didn’t know that without her, I would have walked the rest of that race. But she was there, and I stayed near her, because I needed her. She kept running, so I kept running. I couldn’t run too slow, or I would lose sight of her. I couldn’t run too fast, or I would leave her behind. She made me run at precisely the pace that my sick little body could handle that day. Not one step faster or slower.
In the end, that’s what we all have to do, find our woman in the dark pink shirt, and run with her on the days that we just can’t set our own pace. We need to identify people who, on any given day, can challenge us to get just a little better, fight a little harder, push our limits just enough to break a sweat without breaking, and remind us not to go faster or farther than is healthy.
In a river of thousands of racers, that woman just kept trucking, kept running at her own solid pace. I will never know what it took for her to run that day, will never know if she faced a time when treatment made it difficult for her to even walk. Her persistence reminded me of something that I had learned long ago, from my own Mom. Mom also kept going, ran up impossible hills, pushed herself to her limit, and inspired friends and strangers along the way. She set her own pace, fought hard, and never gave up. She showed me what being a strong woman was really all about.
So today, I send out gratitude and thanks to my Mom, and the woman in the dark pink shirt, and all the strong women who have come into my life, for showing me how to run, and fight, like a girl.