A Walk For The Cure

We lived in the city of Avalon on Catalina Island when I went into “training” (and I’m using that term very loosely).  Alan, my sweet and encouraging husband said, “Are you nuts?  My God, I hope you don’t have a heart attack or stroke or something. You do realize you’re almost 60 years old?”

A Walk For The Cure
That’s me on the left in green standing next to Emily Beckman, my sweet niece with her mother, Kay Bernards. Alice Ryan, our leader, is in pink. Kay was unable to walk with us but met us along the road and cheered us on.

If I am anything, I’m spontaneous.  So I didn’t think twice when my sister Alice called and asked me to join the “Jelly Bean Team,” the group she was assembling for a Susan G. Komen “Walk for the Cure and Breast Cancer Research.”  After all, I knew the heroic battle her sweet daughter-in-law Lori was waging against cancer.  Surely, a sister could step up to the plate, or in this case, out to the street, for such an important event.

“I’m in, sissy.  When is it?”

And with that quick response, I had just agreed to walk 60 miles in three days.  Plus, I had agreed to raise my share of the entry fee … $2,500.

See, Alice had taken on quite a job.  She had agreed to raise not only her fees but also the money for her son and his wife.  With travel costs and hotels, Alice was planning to raise over $10,000.

“That’s a lot of money, sissy,” I said, trying to be realistic without being negative.

But Alice was steadfast.  “I can do it.  I will do it.”

And she did do it.

Normally gentle and rarely outspoken, when it came to raising money for the Jelly Bean Team, Alice turned into a lioness.  First, she got my husband to donate an old Ford van we used for office deliveries and moving stuff around.

“Alan,” she said boldly one morning at the office.  “Why don’t you let me sell the Ford van so I can raise money for my team?”

Without so much as a whimper, Alan agreed.

Next, Alice and I started making guest soaps in the shape of flip-flop sandals.  They were adorable, and since we lived close to the beach, they became hot sale items at a local craft fair and on Catalina Island. Within a couple of days of coming up with the idea, we were in full production, along with Lori, who was a talented artist.

We made over 400 pairs of guest soaps in the shape of flip-flop sandals. They were a big hit with the beach crowd and raised $2,000 towards our goal.

Eventually we made and sold enough pairs of flip-flop sandal soaps, at $5.00 a pair, to raise over $2,000.

I won’t bother you with the rest of the details, but thanks to the generosity of family and friends, Alice reached her goal with money to spare.   In fact, she had a significant sum of cash left over to give other “wanna-be walkers” who fell short of their entry fees.

So, with the entry fees taken care of, my next emphasis was on training.  What?  Twenty miles in one day?  Three days, 60 miles?  What on earth was I thinking?

Yes, I’m active.  No one ever accused me of being a couch potato.  But it had been years since I skied or attended aerobics classes.  Plus, I had never trained for distance in anything.  Heck, I get exhausted walking around South Coast Plaza when I’m Christmas shopping.

As I always do when I start a new project, I bought the proper attire.  Spiffy white workout shoes, black tight-fitting pants with a matching jacket, striped sweat socks and a stretchy pink and black halter top.  I was going to look like a runner (or walker), even if I got tired just taking my shopping bags out to the car.  “OMG…shoes are heavy.”

We lived in the city of Avalon on Catalina Island when I went into “training” (and I’m using that term very loosely).  Alan, my sweet and encouraging husband said, “Are you nuts?  My God, I hope you don’t have a heart attack or stroke or something. You do realize you’re almost 60 years old?”

“Thanks Alan.  I needed that pep talk.”

Dressed to the nines, except for my new white shoes which I was saving for the “big” event (would it have been smarter to give them a road test and break-them in? In hindsight, DUH!), I headed straight down Crescent Avenue, smiling to an occasional friend and telling everyone within earshot that I was in training for the “Walk For the Cure.”  Crescent Avenue is the main thoroughfare running along the beach. It was early afternoon and the cool ocean air felt delightful on my face.  I felt like an athlete and I knew I looked like an athlete.  I was strong and determined.  The further I walked, the faster I walked.  Briskly, I proceeded, moving my arms in circles, warming up my body so I’d be ready for the streets ahead, which I knew would be much more challenging than the flat concrete along the boardwalk.  When I came to Marilla Avenue, I took a sharp left and headed uphill on one of the steepest streets in town.

“Good grief,” I huffed to myself as I instantly started to pant, “This is crazy!  And, it’s going to be hard…really hard!”

Straight uphill I walked.  Straight.  Uphill.  Did you know the word “uphill” can also mean “requiring arduous and protracted effort ”?  Let’s just say that those words can’t possibly describe the effort it took for me to climb up that street.

As I struggled up Marilla, Alan’s loving words came back to mind.  “OMG…I hope you don’t have a heart attack!”

Have I mentioned that Marilla goes straight up?  Okay – not 90 degrees, but still.  Huffing and puffing, and cursing my spontaneity, I reached Viewdelou, the short street that connects to the one-way road coming down from the bell tower.  The bell tower chimes each quarter and hour of the day for the villagers below.    Well, the bell tower was where I was headed, with my hair flying wildly in the wind, sweat pouring down my face, and panting like a German Shepard that had just treed a raccoon.

“Oh please,” I prayed silently.  “Let me live through this and find that stupid bell tower.”  I could hear it chime on occasion, but I couldn’t see it.  With my heart pounding, my calf muscles cramping and exhaustion setting in, I feared the chimes might be my death knell.

Between heavy panting and bending over to take a breath, I guzzled cold water from the container strapped to my fanny pack, both purchased from “Runners’ World.”  Seriously, at this point, I felt like such a poser.

“Make sure you hydrate, sweetie,” the sales girl had said that day, so cheerful with her high-pitched syrupy voice. “You know what they say…hydration is the foundation of elation!”

“That’s ridiculous,” I thought to myself.  No one says that.

I was pretty sure from the way she looked at me that the syrupy-voiced salesgirl was thinking, “This old broad will never make 60 miles in three days…who’s she kidding?”

Foundation or not, I was happy to have my water bottle.  But, in all honesty, I would have been more elated with a super-sized Red Bull energy drink.

Eventually, with the help of my devoted Sherpas, I made the summit (okay, that’s a little dramatic — I FINALLY arrived at the bell tower.  I stood at the peak, admiring the view, and I thanked God that I survived the hike.  The water on Avalon harbor sparkled like diamonds below, under the glow of the afternoon sun.  I knew going downhill would be a breeze.  So, I straightened my hair, wiped the sweat out of my eyes, took a few gulps of water, and headed back to town.

With day one of “intense” training under my belt, I headed for Coyote Joe’s, our favorite local pub and the best taco joint on Catalina Island.  But, I wasn’t looking for tacos.  I was there for a Buffalo Milk, a delightful concoction of vodka, Kahlua, crème de cacao, milk and fresh bananas, all blended with ice and topped with whipped cream and a sprinkle of nutmeg (bananas are a required part of my training regime; they are loaded with potassium).

When I heard the charming bell tower chime three times, I knew Alan would be at Coyote Joe’s with his golfing buddies going over their score cards and re-telling old stories about life as kids growing up in Avalon.  And I was right, Alan and his golfing buddies were at the bar.  I quickly made myself at home and ordered a Buffalo Milk, Catalina Island’s signature drink.  With each frothy sip, my potassium levels increased and the torturous memory of my first day of training faded away, like foam on Avalon harbor.  Properly hydrated, I was getting more elated with each Buffalo Milk.  I was proud of myself and it felt great to be alive.

Each day, I increased my walking regimen.  Up the hills I went, dodging the noisy golf carts carrying tourists back from their island sightseeing.  Each day, I walked more and panted a little less.  Day after day, and week after week, until at last it was time to take the boat ride over to the mainland and meet the Jelly Bean Team for the actual event, the 60 miles in three days event. The walk was from Del Mar Race Track to downtown San Diego.

Here’s how they advertise the Susan G. Komen 3‑Day® journey: “Begin with an inspiring, emotional Opening Ceremony. You’ll walk through gorgeous oceanside neighborhoods and beautiful parks and spend two fun-filled nights bonding with your fellow walkers. It all culminates in a celebratory Closing Ceremony.

Okay, sure, the journey was all of that and so much more.  But … there are several lessons I learned along the way.

First of all, shoes.  I did not believe syrup girl back at “Runner’s World” when she said I needed a pair of their $200 “signature” athletic shoes.   Oh please…not born yesterday.  I knew I wasn’t planning to continue long distance walking after the big event.  Besides, being all young and peppy, what did she know?  So, I bought a pair of really cute bright white $25 athletic shoes from K-Mart.  They looked practically the same, less some strategically placed padding and other technical stuff the sales girl sort of mentioned.  But really, how much better could those fancy shoes be?

When Alice saw my K-Mart shoes she gasped, “Paula, why didn’t you buy some decent athletic shoes?”

“Why? $200, that’s why,” I answered. “These K-Mart shoes will do fine.  It’s only for a couple of days and besides they were on sale.  Seriously sissy, how much better could those fancy running shoes be?”

Alice just stared at me, shaking her head back and forth. “I’ve seen you buy a pair of earrings for $200 without batting-an-eye.  You’ll be sorry,” Alice said, “You’ll be VERY sorry.”

Alice was soooooo right.  On day one of the walk, I got bad blisters and had to stop at every other first-aid station for Band-aids, so many Band-aids.  Day two, my blisters had blisters, and I had to cut the toes out of my shoes because my feet were hitting the fronts of my shoes.   Hmmmm, maybe that’s what the “strategically placed padding” was for.  (Actually, I may have started a fad because by the third day, lots of walkers had cut the toes out of their shoes.  Evidently, I wasn’t the only attendee who skimped on footwear.)

A nurse at one station told me I would lose all my toenails when I got home, and she was right.  I went back to Catalina Island in sandals with ten black and blue toenails, which eventually fell off and left my feet disfigured for weeks.  In the ensuing month, more than one person asked, “What the heck happened to your feet?”

So – don’t skip on shoes.  This is pretty big.

Second, regardless of what you hear, there is not a Starbucks on every corner in Orange County.  At numerous times on the walk, I would have traded my last pair of clean socks for a triple shot iced latte.

Third, a two-person tent set up in a park and a sleeping bag on a blow-up mat is every bit as inviting and comfy as a fancy hotel bed when you are weary, worn out, dead-tired, fatigued and completely physically spent. However, 3,000 identical black tents lined up in long rows in a big park at night, can be difficult to differentiate between when you’re groggy from exhaustion and have just made your third trip to the porta potty.  (Note to self:  if I ever do this again, I will bring a giant flag to put on my tent so I know where the hell it is.)

Fourth, you can walk through pain.  When your feet are bloody and blistered, and your muscles and shins are sore, and you have just a pinch of diarrhea (get it?), you can forget it all when you’re surrounded by a bunch of like-minded ladies and men talking and laughing and sharing life experiences.  Especially, when you really notice how many are wearing pink hats and pink shirts with “survivor” written on them.  Or, just about the time you start to complain about some mundane event in your life, and you spot a bunch of gals wearing matching t-shirts that read, “We Walk In Mary’s Honor.”  A few Band-aids seem … pretty manageable.

Finally, encouragement can make all the difference in the world.  On the third and last day of the walk, I was at my breaking point.  My body was sore from top to bottom (with emphasis on the bottom).  My feet were killing me, and I was suffering from stomach problems that had left me with a rash we need not discuss.  In any event, there I was, alone with my thoughts, shuffling beside a beach with downtown San Diego in the distance.

It was then that I got what should have been some of the best news I’d heard in my life.

One of the gals yelled, “Hey guys!  See that bridge.  That’s the end of the walk!”

But, instead of feeling relieved, I felt overwhelmed and right then I wanted to give up and hail a ride from one of the mini-vans that were provided for stragglers or quitters or people feeling sick.  My determination was diminishing rapidly, and I was conflicted.  Could I make it even that far?  Or should I hail the van and give up? With those thoughts rumbling around in my head, I rounded a bend in the road and spied a group of Girl Scouts, dressed in their uniforms. They held up signs and were yelling to the walkers.

“You can do it!  Keep it up!  Don’t give up…you’re almost home!”

My eyes met the glaze of one little Brownie, who was smiling brightly as she held a handmade sign above her head that read, “You are my hero!”

Now, I had been a Girl Scout.  But, I had had never felt like anybody’s hero before.  My reaction to her words was instant and worked like gasoline in an empty tank.  My engine fired right up, and my pain disappeared.  Her sign and her eyes had ignited my heart and my spirit and gave me all the strength to finish what I had committed to so many months before.   I was her hero?  Hell, she was MINE!

It was about this time that Alice and some of the others in our group locked arms and headed for the finish line…together.  Those last five miles flew by and we were met with cheers from crowds of family members and encouraging strangers that had made the trip to San Diego to see everyone cross the line.

The rest of my family was not there to greet me, but, I didn’t feel slighted one bit.  Because this was not about me.  Alice and I had not done this for ourselves.  Our efforts were just two of so many.  This was for Lori and all the others that had come before.  It was, after all, a walk for the cure.

And sadly, but hopefully, we still have so many miles to go.  So trust me … buy the good shoes.


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