A few years back, as midlife began to sink its cruel claws into me, I made a promise to myself to get in shape and to do something every year to contribute to the world in a positive way. So, when a friend asked me to join her for a two-day Avon Walk for Breast Cancer that year, it seemed like a no brainer. Training to walk 40 miles put me in the best physical shape I’d ever been in and raising the $1800 required to participate in the walk made me feel as if I’d made a respectable contribution to the breast cancer cause. In fact, I enjoyed the effort so much that I repeated it with another friend two years later.
This year, my friend Celeste asked me if I was interested in doing another long walk. She suggested we do a three day, 50-mile walk for MS. I have to admit that I hesitated when she asked me to change causes. I was comfortable with my ability to talk about and raise funds for breast cancer care and research. Celeste then mentioned that the MS Challenge Walk required a $2500 fundraising effort, a pretty hefty sum in today’s sketchy economy. And, just as I was about ready to tell her that I wasn’t sure I was prepared to switch causes, she mentioned that we’d have to go to San Diego for three days to do it. Suddenly, my loyalty to the breast cancer cause was in question. After all, I love a good challenge and 50 miles was 10 miles further than I’d gone before. And how could I resist a late-summer walk in San Diego near the sand and surf I so rarely get to see by virtue of being a landlocked Coloradan? I mean, maybe it was time I started fundraising for a different charity? Was it really fair of me to put all my efforts towards one already well-celebrated cause? Shouldn’t I share my time amongst equally deserving charities? I decided that I had to go along with Celeste on this adventure.
So, when I finally locked in my $2500 fundraising requirement, I used my United miles to acquire a “free” airline ticket and on this past Thursday afternoon I boarded a flight for San Diego, walking gear in my carry-on bag and California dreams in my head. The flight touched down just before dinnertime in San Diego, and when I stepped out in the sunny, ocean-humid air, the whole weekend seemed full of joy and promise. I pushed the 50-miles of walking out of my head and focused instead on the idea of an ocean view, the fragrance of jasmine, and a glass or two of red wine by the pool.
Awesome glass of Napa cabernet aside, my dreams of a relaxing stroll by the ocean were quickly squashed on Friday morning when I realized with chagrin that I had apparently signed up to do the walk not with my fun-loving, game-for-anything pal, but instead with her alter ego...the competitive, wild-eyed, mule-driving overachiever. Less than one mile beyond the starting line, Celeste started bobbing and weaving through the walker crowd like George W. Bush dodging Iraqi shoes. She was a woman on a mission. I reiterated that this was not a race, but sensing that she was not to be trifled with I decided to shut up and run alongside her, off the curb, through the bike lane, around the crosswalks, until we’d safely garnered a substantial lead on most of the rest of the walkers who by then were looking at us as if we were insane. Ask me what I remember about that day and I will tell you two things: we finished in the top 10 and we made friends with a nice guy who spent his entire day getting ahead of us at rest stops only to get whooped by us as we raced past him again five minutes later.
As luck would have it, though, our substantial, kick-ass pace was greatly lessened the second day with the advent of several blisters that formed on Celeste’s heels. Our second 20-mile day found us still walking at a fairly good pace, steadily passing folks along the sizable hill up into Torrey Pines State Reserve (thank heavens for all our high-altitude training in Denver), and more gingerly strolling down the backside of said hill trying to keep from damaging our already sore toes any further. We accepted that we were not going to be breaking any land speed records that day and we enjoyed talking with other walkers and pausing occasionally to take in the beach sights: surfers waiting for the perfect wave, sea lions darting in and out of the surf, high school kids smoking pot, and hot California guys in wet suits wandering by. Celeste continued to play “slug bug,” pounding me on the arm every time she saw a VW Beetle, while I winced and whined about it all day. We finished about an hour later than we had the previous day and only after I had removed my shoes and socks and waded fully clothed into Mission Bay, thereby realizing the opportunity, however brief, to enjoy the sea.
As much fun as the two long days had been, I got a reality check on Saturday night. I’m not sure if it was the sheer exhaustion, the bottle of cab that Celeste and I shared, or the candle-lighting ceremony in the dark ballroom, but as I sat there with tears streaming down my face it hit me how much this cause meant to most of the people in that room. For me, the trip had been a selfish one, full of my desire to get exercise, get tan, and see the ocean. But, that night I realized that while I was having a great time and laughing it up with Celeste, many of these people were truly suffering: suffering with MS themselves, suffering with the thought of a friend or family member who was in pain, or suffering through the loss of someone dear to them to the disease. I hit a level of awareness I’d perhaps subconsciously been trying to avoid and, for the first time, I entered into the magnitude of the whole experience and the scales tipped.
Sunday’s last 10 miles were much more somber than the previous 40 had been. We were tired. Celeste’s feet, blisters literally built upon blisters, were killing her. My muscles were valiantly fighting the influence of the copious amounts of ibuprofen I’d taken that morning. As we reached mile 9 where we gathered to complete the last mile en masse, I wasn’t the competitive, race-happy person I had started out as on Friday. I was one of the lucky ones. A sea of orange shirts denoting those walkers with MS was a stark reminder of my random luck. MS is an arbitrary and completely mysterious disease and, as I looked at those brave individuals walking in those orange shirts, some who walked with arm braces or canes just to get through the 50 miles along with me, it was hard not to think about how ridiculously blessed I am.
My weekend trip to San Diego was amazing and certainly everything I hoped it would be. The sun, the sand, and the sea did not disappoint. The company was awesome, the food was plentiful, and the views were stunning. Celeste and I learned a bit more about each other (I have got to get better at that slug bug game) and a lot more about MS. But, the best thing about the weekend was finding a purpose to continue my now cherished, long-distance walks. If hubby is kind enough to acquiesce again next year and agree to tolerate yet another long season of training walks and the trip to San Diego, I promise to be a better fundraiser for MS and a better walker, one who is more grateful for what it means to be able to walk at all.