On the first day, I didn’t really buy into all the hype about the #powerof39. I didn’t really get what it meant to participate in such an event. I’d had friends who had participated in a similar event in Canada, but I didn’t really understand what it was all about.
I signed up for the Avon Walk back in August when I was still doing my first type of chemotherapy. At the time, I was walking regularly and it gave me something to focus on. I even wrote about how it was part of my stretch goals. However, this was before neuropathy. It was before I decided to have reconstructive surgery – and particularly a type of reconstructive surgery that had a long recovery period.
After my major surgery, I wrote about my new years goals (rather than resolutions). At the time, I still had hopes of recovering and completing the Avon Walk. This was when I thought that I would heal from my surgery. It was before I had debilitating knee and joint pain from taking too much Cipro, which I was taking because I had surgical drains. It was before I realized that I would need another surgery to fix the holes in my stomach. It was also when I thought my neuropathy would heal a whole lot quicker than it has.
In April, I was starting to feel a little better, however, I was still only able to walk 6km. I knew I was not training nearly enough. I had resigned myself to walking 4-5 miles and then taking the sweep vehicle. I could not possibly see myself getting past that 4-5 mile barrier. Even in June, when we took a week of vacation mostly to train for the Avon walk and explore the Eastern Sierra’s. I managed to hike for five days in a row – with the longest hike being 6.3km. After returning from vacation, I managed a 10km walk. That inspired me to try out a longer hike the weekend before the Avon Walk. I managed two epic hikes of 10-miles each, on the Friday and Saturday before the walk. If I had been following any of the official training plans, I should have been taking the weekend before the walk off – but this was really the first time felt well enough to challenge myself. And, it meant that I went into the Avon Walk with more confidence than I otherwise would have.
I was encourage by my walking partner. My Aunt Sharon from Port Colborne in Canada, flew down to walk with me (we were both disappointed when the Avon Walk folks said there were people from 48 states represented at the San Francisco walk, but they didn’t mention that there was at least one person from Canada!) – anyways, I was very glad to have a walking buddy, but also glad that she pushed me. In the weeks leading up to the walk, she mentioned that she was feeling ready and wanted to attempt to do the entire distance. This provided me with a little extra encouragement to keep training and to give it a try. I started focusing more and more on walking, rather than biking or swimming.
And so, on Saturday, I started walking. There were over 2000 walkers for the Avon 39 SF walk. We made many rookie mistakes – we didn’t dress right, we didn’t start quickly enough, and we didn’t rest often enough (in part because we didn’t start quickly enough).
My first attempt at a weekend charity event, was the weekend MS Ride in Ottawa back in 2010. I mostly did it so that I could have the background in which to write about such events in a cycle touring book I was working on. At the time I did not write about our experience. We didn’t really enjoy it. We found that the people generally rode with their friends in groups. There was no space for someone who wasn’t part of a group. We met one person, but didn’t stay in contact. Really, the only reason we met that other person was because he was riding a trike and we were riding recumbents (which is usually enough to have people want to talk to us).
We found the same cliquiness with the Avon Walk. I tried several times to engage the people walking around me in conversation. They just didn’t seem to want to talk. So we mostly just talked to each other. I was very glad to have my Aunt as a companion on this walk.
One of the groups at the Avon Walk is the group of non-group people, known as the Solo Strutters. They were identified by people wearing blue hats. Even though I was in a team with my Aunt, I now wish that we had also joined the solo strutters. The blue hats were meant to help people identify each other – but they also provided a signal – one that you were walking alone and willing to engage in conversation with others. The hat was a way to say “come talk to me!” This goes to our first rookie mistake – not dressing right. Everyone was in pink and many people were decked out is practical yet fun outfits. I wore my yellow shirt the first day, largely so that I could be found in a crowd – but it also meant that I wasn’t expressing the “I’m part of this movement” vibe. Scott, my husband and designated sherpa for the event, found that he needed to wear something pink so that he was identified as someone that was a part of the event (even if not officially).
Our second mistake was that we did not position ourselves at the front of the pack at the start. With so many walkers, we ended up near the tail end early on and had difficulty recovering from that. The first two miles were painfully slow, as traffic lights and narrowing paths caused the walkers to spread out. I can walk pretty well, but I cannot stand well. Walking slowly is also really difficult – so the combination of standing waiting for the opening ceremonies and walking slowing for the first two miles didn’t set me up well. We also stopped at the first rest stop to pee – which meant standing in line to use the porta potties. This cost us about 30 minutes, which we were both not walking nor resting – rather we were standing in line. To do it again, we’d have stopped at one of the several open coffee shops, grabbed a good cup of coffee, and used their facilities. Our feedback for the organizers is that they need more porta-potties at the first water stop of the day – as everyone seems to need them!
Being at the end of the pack meant that we didn’t spend much time at any of the rest stops. Our third rookie mistake is that we didn’t actually rest. Mostly the stops didn’t really have a place for you to rest. They lacked chairs – and getting up off the ground (or curb) wasn’t easy for either of us. So, instead of resting, we chose to keep walking. Our plan was to take a bit of a longer rest after the Golden Gate bridge, at the lunch stop. Then we would power on. Unfortunately, just after grabbing our lunch, as we were half-way through our sandwiches, the announcement was made that we needed to either start walking or get on one of the buses to base camp. The lunch stop was closing!
As we waited for the sweep vehicle to take us to base camp, we got a chance to met ‘the caboose’ – who is the sweep cyclist who officially is the last person on the walk. No walkers are allowed to enter a checkpoint after the caboose has left. The caboose provided encouragement for the walkers at the end of the pack – but also needs to tell people that they have to get into the sweep vehicle if they won’t make the check point on time. It is a tough job, but she did it with a smile. It was nice to chat with her a bit as they closed up the checkpoint. Once the sweep vehicle arrived, we were whisked away to base camp.
Arriving at base camp, we were cheered and congratulated as we walked the last few steps through the arches that signified the end of day 1. Neither of us felt particularly celebratory and didn’t feel like we had earned the cheers. We didn’t make it to base camp; however, we did successfully walk 17 miles – the further I have ever walked in my life.
We approached day two differently. I was prepared to take a sweep shuttle between a couple of the earlier stops, so that I had the energy to make it over the Golden Gate Bridge and from the last check point (Chrissie Fields) to the closing. I wanted to earn the cheers as I crossed the finish line. My Aunt wanted to try and walk the entire route – and so we discussed how I might get on a shuttle and we would find each other at the closing ceremonies.
We got off to a good start. It certainly helped that when we arrived back at base camp, we had a decent breakfast right before we started walking. Breakfast had not been provided on day 1, which meant we ate at the hotel more than an hour before we started walking. Eating just before gave us a little more energy to push ourselves. At the first intersection we discovered that we were being cheered on by the same group of people that cheered us on the day before – the same crew from the Moto motorcycle club and the San Jose bicycle police, as well as many other cheerers – who we saw over and over again throughout the day. Seeing the familiar faces, and being recognized made us feel a lot more part of the community.
We started out day 2 near the front of the pack. When we reached the first checkpoint, I was still feeling good, so decided to continue walking. Rather than stopping and waiting in line for the porta-potties, we pushed on to the second stop. This kept us at the front of the pack and ahead of the lines. The second rest stop also had chairs, so we intentionally sat down for 5-minutes, took a selfie, and rested. Then we continued walking, repeating this process at the following rest stops.
I did well right up until the Golden Gate Bridge. As we were coming into Fort Baker my shin splits were acting up – truth be told, they started up on day 1, but I was mostly able to walk through the pain. They started to get bad before the bridge. I was OK walking up or down hills, but was challenged on the flats. I called in my sherpa (Scott) to come rub down my shins with some Voltaren gel – hoping that would help.
As I walked off the Golden Gate Bridge, I was in horrible pain. I decided to pop by the medical tent, in hopes of seeing Laurie – my physical therapist who happened to be a volunteer at the walk. As luck would have it, she happened to be at the medical tent. I got in the queue to see her, and rested up for the final very flat 2.5 miles into Fort Mason. She did a quick bit of massage on the worst of the shins (my right), and wrapped some ice on it. They tried to encourage me to take the sweep vehicle, but I was having none of that. We were just too close – I knew I had it in me to finish. So, I was directed to remove the ice after 15 minutes, and allowed to continue. We pushed on and made it through the closing gates about 30 minutes before the caboose!
We arrived to cheers that felt so wholeheartedly authentic. I should mention that one of the highlights was seeing the same people cheering us on over and over again. The folks from the SF Moto crew would be cheering us on and directing traffic as one intersection, and once the caboose crossed, they would pass us on their bikes, and we would see them again at a further up intersection directing traffic. It got to a point where they recognized us – and us them. So, on day 2, the encouragement felt very personal – somewhere along the route on day 2 my experience had changed – I started to really understand what the power of 39 was all about.
The closing ceremonies were a particular highlight. They grouped us by volunteers, walkers, and survivors. They had the volunteers walk to the stage first, and then fill the areas outside the barricades. Then they had the family and friends walk to the front and go to the outside corral, then walkers walk to the stage going to the inside corral, so they could greet the volunteers as they went to the stage and filled in behind the walkers and further up the coral. Finally, they had the survivors walk to the stage. Just before we began to walk, I found my survivor friend who also completed the walk and gave her a big hug! We both cried as we walked to the front, being cheered on by those that helped encourage us in our walking. I saw so many familiar faces cheering us on. It was truly very touching. We danced. They presented several grants to help show us where the money was going – it was good to see the biggest grant on display – $500,000 – to a research project that was looking at medications to help make chemotherapy drugs more effective with less side effects specifically for those with metastatic disease. There were also several smaller grants to community-based groups that provide nurse navigation support to under-served populations in Northern California (specifically hispanic and aboriginal).
Overall, I left on a high note. I’m really glad I did it. I wish I was able to walk the entire distance the first day, but my accomplishments were huge. I didn’t expect that I could ever have walked 17 miles one day and 15.5 miles the next.
Will I do it again? I don’t know yet … I’m seriously thinking about it. I really did find that by the end of day 2 I was having a really good time. I enjoyed the energy. More importantly, it gave me a reason to push myself. It helped me focus my training. It provided a goal that has made me strong. I never, ever, would have contemplated a 10-mile hike, and yet, I managed two back-to-back the weekend before. I also didn’t think that I’d ever be able to walk far enough to manage The Camino de Santiago (on my bucket list). I need to be able to walk a minimum of 18km / day in order for that to be feasible. It now looks possible!
We didn’t take too many photos on the first day, as we were focused on just walking. Since we were taking rest stops on the second day, we took that opportunity to take regular selfies, which I posted to my mobile blog: http://rjhmo.tumblr.com. And here is a gallery of pictures from our walk: http://dttocs.smugmug.com/Other/20150712-avon-walk/20150712-avon-walk-good/n-BZbfGp
So for me, the Power of 39 was about being a part of a community – a very temporary one – about the energy to push yourself further than you thought possible – and about taking one step at a time until your reach your goal. You might just surprise yourself, I did!