Running isn’t stressful, life is stressful. Earlier this spring I was getting ready to race the Gasparilla Half Marathon in Tampa, FL. I had just run US Cross and qualified for the World Team in Uganda, but wanted a race before Worlds. The week of Gasparilla, my mom was texting me complaining of stomach pain and not feeling great. 3 months prior she was diagnosed with late stage Inflammatory Breast Cancer and was now in the midst of chemotherapy. I thought her pain and discomfort might be attributed to the treatment so I felt bad but nothing else crossed my mind. The next day she said I’m going to the hospital Steph I’m in incredible pain. For the next 20 minutes I paced around my house wondering whether I should drop everything and drive down the mountain to Phoenix and head to the hospital. The boys were at daycare, I had my workout the next morning, and my race was in 5 days. Ben would take care of the kids and home life but ever since I became a mom I suffer from immense guilt every time I have to leave them even if it’s for something that is truly important and necessary. I packed a bag, and drove down to Phoenix that afternoon. Walking into the hospital, with my mom hiding her balding head with a baseball cap, I felt the terror of my past rushing in. You see my father died 15 years ago of prostate cancer and I couldn’t fathom how I would do this again with my other parent. It turned out she had suffered a terrible episode of a few hernias in her stomach finally presenting themselves. After spending an hour visiting with her and knowing there was a treatment plan, I got my shoes out of my trunk and ran along the Greenbelt for my 2nd run. As I jogged out of the hospital parking lot I couldn’t help wonder how strange it must look for someone to be in a sports bra and spandex effortlessly going out for a run. It’s my job and unless I’m sick, hurt, or there’s no option I run when I’m supposed to and when I need to. Running isn’t the stressful part, life is.
Coach Ben and my husband Ben told me to take all the time I needed in Phoenix with my mom. I stayed with her until we saw the doctor and they scheduled emergency surgery the next morning. All she could do was rest and wait. I got back in my car, drove up to Flagstaff, went to sleep and the next morning ran 8 x 1000 with my teammate Amy, while the guys did the same workout. My legs were heavy from weights but not from sorrow. I feel safe and home during practice, during my workouts. The greatest part about training and competing to me is that you choose the amount of suffering you can endure. In life, that suffering is thrown at you, at any moment, with any pressure and you don’t know if you can handle it. The workout went great, 8 x 1000 @3:20s with 2:30 rest. I went home, showered, ate, repacked my bag and headed back down to the hospital. I missed Riley and Hudson and wished they could go everywhere with me. I stayed at my brother’s the next 2 nights and went back and forth to the hospital while mom was recovering. Her surgery went very well but it was also very labor intensive. As kids we are used to our parents being our role models, strong as hell, rock solid. So when I had to lift my mom from her bed to sit up for the first time since surgery and she grabbed my arm tighter than anything I had ever felt from her I was shaken. It’s a glimpse into what’s to come. When as children, the clock turns backwards and we become responsible for taking care of our parents. I don’t even know if I’m doing it right raising my own 2 sons, how the hell can I now take care of my mom?
The next day was Thursday and Ben packed the boys up and drove down to Phoenix to visit Grammy and come stay with me. I greatly appreciate his efforts because lord knows single parenting, traveling and training is no easy task. Riley lightened the mood by peeing in the courtyard right outside the hospital, he was just beginning potty training. I debated canceling my race, thinking running is so trivial in a time like this, I shouldn’t leave. It’s not trivial. I’ve seen running help people in the midst of divorces, illnesses, losing loved ones. Running is a constant and an outlet. It’s gives me purpose and direction in a world where there’s so many unknowns. So I got on a plane Friday morning and headed to Tampa, FL. The moment the wheels lifted off a wave of relief brushed over me. I stopped worrying about my mom and focused my energy on what I could control, my effort in my race. I hadn’t raced a half marathon in over 3 years, since both of my boys were born. I knew how to run it and of course could cover the distance but a part of me was nervous. Would I remember how to gauge my effort, when it started hurting would I push through? Could I race where I did before the babies? The race was on a beautiful, warm and windy morning. I embraced all the joyful moments, the crowds, and the painful last 4 miles. I won the race in 72:55, splits: 5:22, 5:26, 5:24, missed a few, 5:24, 5:30, 5:27, 5:25, 5:49, 5:43, 5:33, 5:30. I called my mom first thing and of course she asked “did you win?” “Mom wins don’t come very easily these days”, as my mom always expects that of me. Laughing I said “well yes I did.” She recovered very well over the next few weeks. We then packed her things up and moved her up to Flagstaff to live with us while she would be receiving chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation.
Life changed a lot for us these past few months. The boys got a new dog, with my mom’s moving in with us. Our house got smaller, frequent trips to Phoenix for chemo sessions, doctor appointments, surgery, and all of adjusting to life that took a twist. Cancer is fucking brutal. When I was younger I never experienced the ugly part that is sometimes hidden from kids and well hidden from anyone not in the thick of it. I became a nurse to my mom, changing her drains and dressings after her double mastectomy. She recently returned this summer from radiation down in the valley and I’ve never seen a body so burnt and destroyed from something that doctors suggest for you. Mom is just about done with her treatment (hopefully) and she is handling with amazing poise and strength. I lost my dad to cancer, my good friend Lauren Fleshman lost hers to cancer, my running friend and fellow pro runner Gabe Grunewald had her cancer resurface this spring,#bebravelikeGabe and many more stories out there like this. We are given obstacles in life and we are given choices. I have seen those who choose strength and love and fight (even though my mom hates the word fight or battle) conquer.
I like to think of myself as a fighter. Those who know me, know my infatuation with the Rocky movies and their inspiration to me. I choose to fight when I race. It gives me power and makes me feel brave. Brave is what we all could use a lot more of. I’ve seen brave in the running community over and over again. I love the community we exist in. There’s hope and stories and meaning. I used to believe running was trivial and pails in comparison to some of the things we face in life. Don’t let the meaning of running be trivialized to you. “Human beings are designed to need resistance. We need gravity and friction to do anything. We need work. We need a rock to push that is recognizable as our own.” – Alec Duxbury in an excerpt from Believe I am Journal. Running is my rock. I wake up most days and regardless of the pressure and pain in life, for the 2 hours I’m at practice, the 2nd runs with Ben, the workouts with the team, solo run through the trails and the heavy lifting gym sessions I feel joy, I feel free, and I feel like me.