Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Finding Aloha to Finding Kona: Alaskaman Bridges the Gap

My husband remarked a while back that 2017 was the year of epic adventures.  And this has certainly been true thus far.

After Ultraman, I had a girls weekend planned with my sister in June.  She is doing the 50-states marathon thing and found a race that put on 3 marathons in 3 days in Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah.  I signed up to go with her (mostly just to get valuable time alone with my sis) and at that last minute, changed my registration from the marathon series to the half marathon series because I knew that my post-Ultraman legs could not handle 3 marathons just yet.

Bear Lake Half Marathon day 1:  Idaho

We met in SLC and drove up to Bear Lake, chatting and catching up the whole way.  She has 2 boys- 2 and 3 years old, and works a full time job, so it's rare for me to have time with her-- let alone 4 days of having her all to myself!  

At this same time our other sister was in the process of being diagnosed with invasive ductular carcinoma.... breast cancer.  She called me to tell me the results of her routine mammogram earlier in the week, and she was scheduled for more testing that Friday (day 2 of the race series).  She called us that afternoon to go over the results from the second round of imaging.  In all honesty, it was nice to be in a quiet space with my younger sister when we received the news and could start processing it.  I went through every range of emotions you could think of, and I can't even imagine what our older sister was feeling.  

I felt angry.  How could she have cancer?  She is 17 months my senior.  She's too young and too healthy for cancer.  She eats organic and clean and she exercises but not excessively.  I felt guilty.  She has 3 kids between 8-12 years of age.  They NEED her.  Why couldn't it be me instead?  I felt overwhelming fear and sadness at the thought of the treatments she could be facing.  I could wrap my head around surgery.  As difficult as it was to picture her with scars wrapping her body,  I could not even contemplate chemotherapy.  

Bear Lake Marathon series with Lil Sis.

As I ran the final day of the race series, I slipped my ear buds in because I needed a distraction from the endless thoughts in my head.  Blake Shelton's Mine Would be You came on half way through my playlist and when he got to the verse where he sings, What's the one thing you'd rather die than lose?  Mine would be you, I nearly lost it.  That verse summed up how I felt about the entire situation and over the remaining miles I resolved to do whatever I could to help my sister fight this.  This did not have to be a death sentence.  It is something she has to deal with very aggressively, but there are plenty of women who are surviving this disease every day.  Back at the hotel that night I started researching the various types and stages of cancer so that I could ask good questions and be informed when she described her doctor's recommendations.    

I was at Cadence Running Company getting a little bit of work done before the Tuesday evening group run when she called me with her biopsy results.  I made it through the conversation but when I put the phone down I cried so hard I couldn't breathe.  I had been holding out hope that maybe it would be benign or maybe they had made a mistake and there wasn't really anything there.  Having an official diagnosis made it real.  We thought about canceling our trip to Alaska.  But in the end my sister's radical mastectomy was scheduled for the end of July so we decided to go ahead with it.  Our hotel was non-refundable, and even though I had insurance on the rest of it, I really was looking forward to being away and in the mountains.

I wrote about our experience in the Smashfest Diaries.  You can read about them HERE.  When I signed us up for the race a year ago, I overheard on of my co-workers talking about how she and her soon to be husband wanted to go to Alaska one day, but with the wedding and the honeymoon she thought it would be a while.  I thought what perfect timing.  They are young, fit people that could easily hike 7 miles up a mountain with us.  I would be booking our hotels anyway, so they could just stay with us, saving a little money.  So I proposed the idea of being our crew to Christa and she went home and talked it over with her now-husband, Roy.  When she said yes a few days later I was so excited and we started making travel plans.

As the day got closer we met to go over some basics about the race and logistics.  To be honest, being the first year, I didn't have a lot of wisdom to share.  But I knew enough about self supported races from Ultraman that it actually ran very smoothly.

Seward, Alaska

Alaska ended up being just what I needed.  It was insanely beautiful.  If I've said it once I've said it a thousand times.  There are ocean people and there are mountain people.  I am a mountain girl.  Not that I don't love the ocean and the beach, but the mountains speak to my soul.  In the mountains I am me... I am home... I feel free.

Practice swim with Team HPB teammate Taryn.

On the days leading up to the inaugural Alaskaman Extreme Triathlon we swam a little in Resurrection Bay, biked the path that paralleled the highway, and relaxed with the gorgeous scenery just outside our hotel window.  I love Colorado, and the mountains of California, but Alaska is untouched.  It's beauty is pristine and pure in a way you just don't see in the lower 48.  It was breathtaking but I felt like I could breathe.

On Alyeska property.  Just a momma bear strollin.

It started raining on Friday morning before race day and didn't stop until we were halfway to Girdwood on the 111 mile bike course.  On race morning we racked our bikes in transition, donned our wetsuits and hopped on the shuttle to the swim start.  There was a fog blanketing the mountains and the bay, and we were told to sight off of the bright lights of the fire trucks 2.6 miles in the distance.

Pre race.

We had to tread water for about 5 minutes before the gun went off and I started shivering in the cold water.  It took a few minutes for me to warm up once we got moving.  I saw two guys pull way ahead at the start of the swim and after a few minutes I settled into a comfortable pace with another guy.  We basically had our own kayaker all the way through the swim because we were far enough ahead of the next group back.  Half way through we passed the part of the bay where a glacial waterfall empties into the ocean.  The temperatures dropped significantly and I went from being fairly comfortable to being numb and very cold.  I started to feel like I was not making forward progress and almost stopped to ask the kayaker if I was still moving.  My perspective never changed as we were swimming so it was very difficult to tell.  Eventually I did reach the far shore and was able to pull myself upright to get out of the water.  My feet, hands and face were numb so it was impossible to talk and I had zero dexterity.  I was glad to see I wasn't the only one with extremely slow transition times.

Out of the water 4th overall, 1st female.
I changed out of my swim suit into completely dry clothes to start the bike, even though it was still raining a bit.  The air temp was in the 60s so it really wasn't that cold once I got moving, but it took a good 10 miles for my body to defrost.  Christa was able to start her job of crew at mile 30 of the bike ride so from there until about mile 70 I gradually peeled off layers to hand off when we exchanged bottles.

Scenes from the bike course.

My body felt great for about 50 miles, and good enough for a total of 70.  After that my lack of training over the previous 6 weeks became evident as my body started to fatigue.  I had plenty of endurance to handle the miles, but my body wasn't used to being in aero that long and my neck and back started to let me know.

My gem, enhanced by the backdrop.

Thankfully the final 25 miles of the bike ride I had the aid of a nice tailwind so it made that final hour fly by.  I was ready to be off the bike, but didn't want to give up the incredible views I had been enjoying.  We had to carry our phones on the course for emergency purposes and it took everything I had not to stop and take pictures along the way.  I kept telling Christa, make sure you are taking photos!

DB and his gem.

I pulled into transition and a volunteer brought me over a chair to sit in while I got into my run gear.  Being self supported meant that you had to carry your own food/ water during the run leg.  Our first aid station would be at mile 14.5, so I had a hydration pack with 1.5 liters of water, and enough gels to get through at least the first 20 miles.  As I stood up to leave transition, my husband (who never caught me on the bike because he had to change a flat 4 times) rolled in.  I waited for him as he pulled on his run shoes and we headed out of transition together.  I kept telling him not to wait for me, I didn't want to hold him up.  But he assured me that he didn't really care about his time-- he had lost 30 minutes on the side of the bike course so he was well out of contention for a prize at that point.

Running up one of the many hills toward Alyeska.

It was so nice to have him there.  We ran and talked about life, and goals, and racing.  We enjoyed the views and talked about the wildlife we wish we had seen.  Pretty soon, our first 20 miles were up and we met up with Christa and Roy to start the final leg of the journey- the 7+ mile hike up Mt. Alyeska.

This was by far the highlight of the day.  The course we took was so steep.  25% grade we were told by the race director.  It was relentless but the view that unfolded as we made our way to the top took our breath away.  It had warmed up when the rain stopped, and with the humidity I was actually getting pretty warm.  I was thankful to be on the mountain and climbing in cooler temps.

View from the top.  Only 4 miles to go!

We stopped in one of the snowfields and threw a few snowballs.  We soaked our hats in a creek filled with snowmelt.  And when we came to one that was too wide for us to jump across, we plunged right through, the icy cold water stinging our feet.  I wanted to savor this time and take as much as I could from our adventure.

We got to the top of the first climb and there was a narrow ridgeline we had to traverse before descending back down.  The 360 degree view from the ridgeline was nothing short of awe inspiring.  We took a few photos and started the equally steep descent back to the lodge.

Savoring the moments and the views.

At the bottom we regrouped and started the final climb up the North Face of the mountain.  This was my favorite stretch of trail as there were build in steps and switchbacks.  I was able to get into a good rhythm and power up the hill.  At the top I stopped to wait for Dan and he grabbed my hand as he went by and we finished the final switchback hand-in-hand before we crossed the finish line.  Christa and Roy took video and a few pics.  We didn't linger long at the top because we were starving and it was getting a little bit chilly.

Christa and I at the finish line!
The next morning we went to the awards banquet and brunch.  I was happily surprised to receive the award for the Overall Masters Female (over 40 division).  I had hoped to be able to take home a coveted mining pan but I wasn't sure where I had finished among the women.  I believe I was 7th overall out of only 26 women that finished.

Overall Master's Female.

We relaxed during the day, lounging in bed late and biking in the afternoon down the bike path.  On Monday we swam in the resort pool and when I was on deck after our dip showering off, a bear walked through the property just outside the window.  It was the second bear we had seen on the property and made our trip complete.

The resort pool.  #nofilter

Arriving home I felt refreshed and ready to get to work helping my sister fight her battle.  I rearranged my work schedule to allow me to fly home for 10 days to be with her in the immediate post op period.  I knew her husband needed to continue to work as much as possible (medical bills don't pay themselves!) And I knew my parents couldn't manage taking care of my sis and her very active kids at the same time.  Either of those jobs is a full time job.

I arrived home late Thursday last week.  We drove down the block from my parents to my sister's house on Friday morning to wish her well before surgery.  Her kids were still in bed sleeping and it was all very rushed as she had to check into the hospital for a dye study prior to the actual surgical procedure.  But it was good we didn't linger because I had been choking back tears for 24 hours by that time and we just needed to get the ball rolling.

Family fun day on the trace.

Friday was the longest day ever.  My parents and I took the 3 kids to the "trace" as we call it, an old rails-to-trails biking and running path that runs for over 70 miles, with the western terminus only minutes from our house.  4 of them biked, and I ran with one of my nephews.  We ran and biked to distract ourselves.  We ran and biked to drown ourselves in sweat because if we didn't do that, we might reach for a less healthy distraction.  Throughout the day we got updates from her husband who spent all day and night at the hospital with her.  7 hours of surgery and it was done.  We prayed that the cancer had been completely removed from her body.  We prayed that she would have a fast and smooth recovery.  We prayed that she would continue to be the positive beacon of faith and hope that she had been over the previous 6 weeks.

My sister is recovering beautifully.  After a sleepless night in the hospital she was released to come home on Saturday evening, 24 hours post op.  The first 24 hours at home were a little rough.  She was uncomfortable, and still feeling negative effects from the anesthesia.  She moved slowly and mostly napped off an on in the privacy of her own bedroom.  As I was helping her get ready for bed I did get her laughing and it was good to see a glimpse of her true light.

Today, day 2, she is a whole new person.  She's been out walking the neighborhood and hanging out with the kids.  We've been laughing more and enjoying the dark humor in all of the things she is dealing with during recovery.  I have no doubt she is ahead of the curve on this whole process.

She'll have biopsy results back at her 2 week post op recheck.  Then she'll meet with the oncologist in another couple of weeks after that to determine the rest of her plan.  I was afraid of chemotherapy and radiation before.  But now I know she's strong enough to handle anything that comes her way.  And I hope to prove my value this week and be invited back to help out when she needs it in the next phase of treatment.

Prior to coming home I expressed my worry about being brave enough to my friend Jackie, who is a 10 year survivor, and she told me you have courage in buckets.  And I guess she's right.  When you don't have a choice in the matter, you just find a way to make it through.  And we could be negative, and feel sorry for my sister.  Or we can dig deep into our buckets of courage and find a way to laugh, and love, and go on living every day to the fullest.

Since Ultraman ended I have been doing a lot of reflecting on the last couple of years.  It is completely normal to go through the post race blues, and as you can imagine, they are a thousand times worse after something so amazing as Ultraman.  In the last 4 years I have been tied to one single goal and that pursuit filled me up and satisfied me physically, mentally and emotionally.  I didn't just give my time and energy to #findingkona, I was completely invested in every sense.  The journey fulfuilled my spiritual needs as I was connected with the goal and the process.

Ultraman took that to the next level, shepherding me from the finish line in Kona to the beach in Australia over an incredible 6 month journey.  The triple half and Alaskaman also fed my needs while helping me gradually return to a normal life.  But what next?

After Alaska, I decided to pull out of Wisconsin.  I need a little more time to be ready to go after my next goal for 2018, and the thought of slogging through a 12 hour Ironman race just to get another medal didn't align with my 2017 year of amazing challenges.  I am recovered enough physically, but we've been careful not to overdo anything in the aftermath of Ultraman.  So I'm taking a step back, and a step into more consistent training.  And looking forward to back-to-back races at the end of the year, which DOES align with my 2017 year of challenges!                    

And in case you missed it, I sat down with Jess of the Yogi Triathlete Podcast two weeks after Kona to talk about the journey.  You can listen to that HERE.  Jess and I have been friends since 2008, and like any long distance relationship we often go months without any sort of communication.  But I feel like Jess was dropped into my life this year to help me with the transition from this 4 year pursuit of Kona into the next phase of #findingkona.  If you're not already a YTP fan, you need to get on board, and listening to just 1 or 2 podcasts interviews is all it takes to realize how yoga and mindfullness have enhanced her triathlon life.  I practiced visualization leading up to Ironman Arizona in 2015 and I think I drifted away from that once I achieved my goal of qualifying for Kona.  I am ready to bring that back into my life and take it to the next level to help me achieve the goals I have for next year which include qualifying to race the Ironman World Championship 2018, and applying for the Ultraman World Championship 2018.  


Dave Lundberg said...

Wonderful writing as always Mary. Sharing your thought and hopes along life's journey gives such inspiration to us all. Praying that your sister comes through the cancer challenge. She's lucky to have you there for her. What a year of accomplishment for you Mary. And to share it with Dan too must be special.

Kelly O'Mara said...

You've got courage in buckets. Sending all the best to you and your sister.