Awake at 3:30 am on Sunday, May 2, 2010, I'm thinking about what brought me to where I was right then and there. How did I get here? What brought me to this up scale hotel in a foreign country to do something so brutal and crazy? How did I get here? Do I even remember the story?
It started in the summer of 2009 when crippling back pain drove me to put on my tennis shoes and take a walk. While the medical field was looking for what caused the pain on the inside and handed out narcotics like candy, I took to my neighborhood streets. The only "natural" pain relief I could get was to move and walking seemed to be the ticket. My poor little dog took many of the walks with me. I would use narcotics as much as I could but they really knock me out and as a mom to six kids with places to be and go, I needed to be alert and not knocked out on drugs so I did a lot of walking.
I walked while the doctors took their time (or so it seemed) to figure out why I hurt so much. I'm not a stranger to pain and I don't complain too much so there had to be something. My women's doctor sent me to a Urologist who found kidney stones so I took two weeks trying to pass them, but the pain was still there. Off to my general doctor who sent me for x-rays and finally a MRI. All the time I was stepping on their scales and noticing that the numbers were going down. How cool! My back pain was forcing me to get out walking and the number on my scale was going down. I had to find the positive in this.
I looked at the calendar and noticed that soccer season was right around the corner and so were the rains. I knew that once those things start I would find an excuse not to get out there and walk or run as walking was no longer sastifying to me. Running also limited the number of stops for my dog to stop and sniff and I need to keep moving to help stop the pain. I thought that maybe if I had a goal to run for that I might continue when things were tough. I started looking for marathons six months out. I picked a few and almost signed up, but I thought maybe I should figure out the back pain before I laid down Steve's hard earned money. Little did I know that the MRI my doctor ordered would change my life forever.
It was during that MRI that a mass was found on my back. Ten days, three biopsies and four scans later I was in Dr. Kraemer's exam room when he told me that I had Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. I'm sure he said a lot of things that day but all I remember was the word: CANCER!
After I went home I spent the night on the computer figuring out what type of cancer I had and how I was going to beat it. I visited many websites yet spent most of my research time at the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) website. I clicked on almost every link they had there. I learned so much but processed very little. The next day I was back there trying to learn a lot more and processes even more than the day before. This went on for a few days. Every time I was there I would click on the Team In Training (TNT) website. It was always on the right hand side. I did nothing about it but file the information in my brain, just like all the other information I was gathering at the time.
The back pain was still very intense and the only relief was either to knock it out with narcotics or run. By now I had bought a pair of $100 running shoes and was running five days a week every morning. I was only running 30 minutes and probably only going about 2 miles, but I was out there killing the pain. I sometimes would sneak in another run before soccer if the pain was too much. I was using the narcotics at night so I could drive my kids and function like a mom.
The doctors still had a few more tests to run before they started radiation treatment so I suffered in pain for a couple more weeks. Once I had passed the third day of radiation the pain was almost gone. One night I actually didn't take Vicodin to go to sleep. (It was actually a mistake because my brain wouldn't shut off and I really didn't get a good night's rest because of worry.) I was almost pain free! I didn't need to run during the day. I didn't HAVE to run! But by now I was hooked. My weight was still falling and I really enjoyed my 30 minutes of solitude with old 80's music running through my ears. Could it be possible for the girl who told her track coach, "I don't run anything over 400 meter, I just throw," was enjoying running two miles five times a week?
I still was spending time on the computer trying to figure out how to beat cancer. I kept going to the LLS site and of course the TNT site kept staring at me.
Of course I had to let my three soccer teams know that their coach was fighting cancer. I told the kids and also their parents. One of the players came up to me and told me why one of my players wasn't playing this season; he had Leukemia. I went home and sent him an email of support and love. I know first hand what it feels like to have someone say, "You have cancer." I wanted to reach out to him and tell him he wasn't alone and that I was praying for him.
About a week later his mom sent me a little care package through that soccer player. In it was a flyer for Team in Training (TNT). Once again I visited their website only this time I clicked on "First Time Here" and did the second stupidest thing I have ever done in my life. I signed up for an information clinic. I went. There I did the stupidest thing, I signed the form that said, "I would raise $2900 and run in the Vancouver BMO half marathon."
So, as I am trying to go back to sleep that Sunday morning and thinking back on this story, I'm here because I signed my name to a paper and I try to honor my obligations. Sleep escapes me and my heart is beating faster and my stomach is doing flips flops I think back to the summer and fall of 2009 and what else besides "obligations" got me to the wonderful bed.
I give up trying to go back to sleep and decide to take a shower. This swanky hotel has one heck of a shower and so I take a rather long one which gives me time to think about "the rest of the story".
After signing the contract to raise money and run, I had to go to work. I had to raise $2900 and then spend five months running the schedule they handed me at the information meeting. The running schedule looks doable, but the money... that is a lot of money. I posted a message on facebook and got a few people to drop a few dollars in my account. I spent the weekend formulating an email to broadcast to every one who has ever sent me and email or to whom I sent an email. By Monday I had raised $2900 and had a friend tell me that if I raised $5000 his foundation would match it. My fundraising was done and I hadn't even gone to one team practice. Now I had to train. I also had to get rid of the cancer inside my body.
Running became therapy in itself. My doctors told me that the major side effect of radiation, fatigue, was lessened by exercise. No wonder I sailed through radiation--twice--with minimal side effects. One thing I had to be careful of was running more than the training chart told me to. It was so tempting to run longer or more often because in February the pain came back. I had to wait until March before they could image me again and find what was causing the pain yet again.
I marveled at how fast medicine can work and yet how slow it seems. What seemed like an eternity was really only a month, but after countless blood tests, alphabet scans and exams, Dr. Kraemer said, "We will have to do chemotherapy." I only had two questions: "When do we start?" and "Can I still run in two weeks?" He just smiled and said, "Monday we will place the port and Tuesday we will start chemotherapy." He didn't say anything about running, he just smiled.
The surgeon who placed the port on a Monday, April 19 made me promise to wait seven days before I ran, so I did. I had to anyway because the bone ache from chemotherapy was so bad I could barely walk and I was so tired I don't know if I could have run up my driveway. So on Tuesday, seven days after surgery and five days before my race, I laced up my shoes and hit the road. It was a disaster! My port jiggled way too much and forced me to change my gait which caused my knees to hurt. The emotional part was even worse. I knew I was not going to be able to run in six days.
I had spent over six months and put on over 550 miles on my feet and I wasn't going to let a stupid port stop me from running. I wasn't going to let down hundreds of donors who helped me raise over $10,000 for the society. I wasn't going to let cancer beat me! I was going to finish!
Two days later Steve taped my port and I went out for a test run. It worked! I was going to cross the finish line.
Later that day the phone call came that would change it all. My white blood count was way too low. If it didn't go up then I would not be running. I couldn't be in a crowd. The danger of infection was too great. I had a 1:30 Friday blood draw and if I get an 8.5 then I could go. There is nothing you can do to raise a blood count, it is totally up to the body to produce the cells. The only thing I could do was pray. Pray I did.
Friday I hung around the clinic as they counted my white blood cells. I made small talk with nurses, changed a few appointments and in walked Dr. Kraemer. The nurse handed him my results and with a sly smile he said, "Go and win."
I find myself in the shower, water pouring over my head at 4:30 am in Vancouver, BC. My tummy is jumping and turning flip flops still. I dry off and realize that I have over an hour before I have to be down stairs to take the bus to the starting line. Down stairs waiting for me will be some of the neatest people on earth. They are my Team in Training running mates, mentors, coaches and friends.
Those coaches got me through some of the hardest running days, blisters on toes, achy knees, questions that never ended and they were going to get me through this marathon, literally. Zach, Jay and Lisa are my heroes! They devised a plan so that over the course I wouldn't have to take a drink from the water stops. (Dr. Kraemer was very thankful and so am I.) Those mentors, team mates and friends were going to get me through the race.
I have enough time to put some make-up on so I do. I try to eat something; can only stomach a half of pancake with peanut butter on it. I get Steve to come wrap my port up and give me a final "good luck" kiss before I'm off to the starting line.
Thankfully my teammates will be able to tell me what I need to do. This is my first marathon after all and I have no clue what to do. Potty stop first, then walk into the starting chute. Make small chat while we wait for the gun. Off it goes and off we go.
Coach Lisa, teammates, Amy, Ilana, Karen and Judy escorting me we make our way through the mass crowd of runners. I'm still wondering how I got here. Obligation, medical clearance and friends still doesn't answer the question of why I'm here running in the rain with 14,000 other crazy people.
I'm not sure how far the hotel is from the starting line, but as we round the corner near the hotel I see the reason I'm out here running. I see six beautiful children and one very handsome husband cheering, "Go mom!" They are out there in the rain cheering for me! That's why I am here. That's why I am going to run 13.1 miles on May 2, 2010. It wasn't for the obligation, the medical clearance or those friends next to me, but for those seven human beings cheering "Go mom!"
Those thoughts are the ones that propel me up Prospect Point when I want to lose my breakfast and dinner. The thought of them make my legs continue to move forward. Then as we come out of beautiful Stanley Park there they are again! They are at the very place I need them at the 11 mile mark when it is so hard to pick up my feet and put them down. I need the reminder of why I was running.
The last couple of miles I chant, "Kray, Jay, Mike, Matt, Chris, Jess, Steve" over and over and over. Each stride has a name.
The finish line comes into focus and I am going to cross it even though my legs are screaming at me. I truly don't recall my thought process at that point except I remember thinking, "I did it! I finished the race." My mind was so focused I don't even remember the crowd cheering. The guy on the loud speaker said my name, "Nellie Doreen" and something about it being my first half marathon but I missed all that as I crossed.
It was an outer body experience crossing the finish line. Somehow I gave Lisa the biggest hug of my life. She got me up Prospect Point, through nausea, through muscle fatigue and over the finish line. Ilana, Kathy and Judy carried my extra water, but they weren't there yet, but they deserved a hug too.
I found myself in a wheel chair as I felt my blood pressure drop. I have low blood pressure to begin with and after a long run it drops quickly and dramatically. I knew it was going to happen and it did. I spent a few minutes in the medical tent getting fluid and having my blood pressure checked. After pushing some fluids, trying to get warm (I was soaking wet from all the rain) and fighting off leg cramps, Steve was able to come pick me up. Thankfully they finally let me go and I was on my way to the hotel to get showered and warm.
This journey was just short of a year in the making with so many twists and turns I'm not sure I could draw a road map. I'm sure that even though back in November when I signed the contract to run the finish line was in Vancouver, I found out that this finish line is just the beginning. It is the beginning of something grand. I wish I could tell you where this journey ends because I would like to know myself. I just know that along this journey I need all those things that made this part of the journey possible: I need an obligation, a support team outside my family, a medical team and I desperately need my family. The finish line I crossed in Vancouver in 2 hours 15 minutes and 36 seconds is just the beginning. I have so much more to accomplish in my life and if I can do this under these conditions then I can do just about anything.
This is just the beginning.