Saturday’s American Cancer Society benefit-run in Stockton took less than an hour out of my life. I prefer to think that running in the ACS Relay For Life actually added a little longevity back IN to my life. Either way, I was enriched emotionally, and truth-be-told, I was unprepared for the lessons I learned during my time on the track – the anecdotes kept coming and coming, one after another, lap after lap on the track at Bear Creek High School. It was as if the whole hour was scripted and all the volunteers and walkers were actors and I was the unwitting, unknowing person in the center of it all. One part Truman Show, one part reality show. I left with a lump in my throat and the never-more-evident belief that life is good – really good.
Here are some of the many lessons I learned, in rapid-fire fashion; just as they came to me on Saturday:
- Pulling in to the parking lot at the Stockton high school: “Dang, there’s a lot of people here. This is bigger than I thought.” In that instant I realized that I had seriously underestimated the impact cancer has on my local community.
- I was amused, yet troubled by the bumper sticker on the car next to me, “Cancer is my bitch.”
- Live music, dancing, kids, food, face-painting, balloons, everyone’s smiling and laughing – this is a party! Being an ACS event first-timer, somehow I thought it was going to be sobering and solemn. I WAS WRONG!
Because I chose to run at a time when everyone else was walking, I found myself eavesdropping on a few seconds of dozens of conversations as I rounded the track. I actually turned off my iPod once I realized I had a LOT to learn from the people all around me. Here are some of the memorable moments on the track:
- One “30-something” woman told her walking companion, “The surgery was harder the second time around.”
- A young girl, squeezing her grandpa’s pinkie, told him, “Mom said she would miss me.”
- Tee shirt slogans I remember: “Cancer Sucks”, “Fight Like a Girl”, “I Survived, So Can You.”
- An annoying ten-year-old sprints past me, grinning as if to taunt me. I think, “You can’t run that fast forever, I’ll catch you.” I said to myself. Tortoise and the hare.
- Chicago’s “Feeling Stronger Everyday”, started playing on my iPod, right as I noticed a familiar-looking middle-aged man with two carbon-fiber prosthetic legs just leaving the track. It occurred to me that I had seen him two years ago at the Avenue of the Vines half marathon in Lodi. This guy inspired me then, and here he was again two years later at an ACS event supporting a great cause.
- The half-gazelle, half-human ten-year-old swooshes by me once again and I speed up momentarily in a half-hearted attempt to catch her… “tortoise and the hare,” I remind myself.
- A glance into the crowd and I’m struck by the party atmosphere; everyone’s smiling, high-fiving, laughing and having a genuinely great time. NOBODY in this stadium is letting the dreadful disease damper their spirits. I smile to myself, and pick up my pace.
- With every lap, I pass the same booths again-and-again. I notice that they are beginning to recognize me as I approach, since so few others are running. With applause and fist-pumps, they are encouraging me to keep running. “How ironic,” I thought. It’s so natural for these volunteers – some of whom have endured great challenges in their own lives – to provide encouragement and strength, they thought nothing of cheering on a complete stranger to keep running. So I did.
- Half-way through the third mile, I realize I hadn’t seen my young antagonist for some time, so I scan the track looking for her. Then I saw her. She was sitting on the side of the track with her brother, I assume, and he was holding her water bottle for her while she was itching her scalp. I watched her reach under a wig to scratch her head. I was surprised and breath-taken. For the first time, I slowed to a walk, momentarily, as it sank in. “She’s just a kid.” I thought. Drawing inspiration from the celebratory mojo all around me, I started to run again. As I passed her, our eyes met and this time she smiled.
Mile 4 (and a half)
- A couple more tee shirts with catchy slogans, “Yeah, they’re FAKE. My real ones tried to KILL me.” “Don’t let breast cancer steal 2nd base.”
- I knew I was nearing the end of my run and I was feeling exhausted, but uncharacteristically peppy. I trudged on, and by now had turned my iPod back on again. Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” began to play. It’s a haunting but beautiful song, and just felt appropriate, given everything I had encountered.
- A good-natured volunteer who had watched me round the track nearly 20 times, said to me as I pulled off my headphones and left the track, “You sure are happy for someone who just ran for an hour.” I was going to manage a smile for her, then realized I already was.
Editor's note: Photo, courtesy C. Douros