Halfway to My 50 State Race Goal!

I’ll admit my conversations and connections to other cancer patients are fairly limited.  Building a community of cancer survivors around me isn’t a priority in my life right now; that might change as my children grow up and depending on how the cancer progresses, not really sure.  But I definitely know that many times people will take up a cause (usually cancer related) or project to help the community at some point during their diagnosis.  I think it’s a really great thing to have a project to move towards and help take your mind off the cancer.  About a year ago I decided my project would be to attempt to run a race in all 50 states.  I realize this isn’t a money-raising, community-building, better-the-world-through-finding-a-cure noble type of journey.  I’ll be honest, while I’ve really benefited from all of the money that goes into breast cancer research, I don’t feel a strong desire to raise more money for breast cancer.  I’ve alluded to it before, but breast cancer gets a lot of money in the grand scheme of things and if I were to fund raise or raise awareness for something, it probably wouldn’t be breast cancer.

The reason I feel that this is a good project for me is that one fairly big pain point for me with my diagnosis is that it seems like the majority of other patients are significantly older and less mobile than I am.  I remember excitedly looking at a brochure for a rowing club for breast cancer patients in Madison only to see a bunch of retiree-types in the photos.  Although, as I’ve mentioned previously, my running has slowed quite a bit, I would say my overall activity and energy level is still pretty high all things considered.  Don’t get me wrong, my kids wear me out beyond belief, but I don’t think that is the cancer, I think that’s just my base really-not-built-to-run-after-two-boys steady state energy level.  Ever since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015, but especially since the cancer spread 18 months ago, I’ve always felt a little out of place, like “too healthy”, as wrong as that sounds.  I guess I’ve just always wanted to see other young women in my situation who were still active and still going about their lives like normal.  When I race, I proudly wear a shirt with the states I’ve been to highlighted and the phrase “Thriving with metastatic breast cancer”.  This isn’t me just bragging about being a runner with cancer.  By wearing this shirt I’m hoping to be an example and inspiration to others.  I don’t know that I would have really cared about or noticed someone running with cancer before I was diagnosed, but maybe I would have.  Maybe I would have read the shirt and then at the time I was diagnosed, not felt my life was over, but have been filled with the knowledge that life can go on as normal.  I also grew up taking road trips with my family and I enjoy driving and seeing the countryside.  I know my husband does not appreciate a good road trip like I do.  I am not sure yet about my kids, but I do know that three trips in one summer was too much for them and they are not in any hurry to go anywhere anytime soon.

After “starting” my quest last September in California (I already had five states under my belt at that point, but those were all done pre-diagnosis), I officially reached the halfway mark of 25 states by completing a four-day, four-state, 1000 mile, hot, whirlwind trip in August with my kids and parents.  When I thought about this realistically a year ago, I thought I could probably try to get the majority of the states done in the next five years.  Although I’ve been aggressively traveling and running races for the past nine months, I expect to slow down somewhat and think that five years is still a realistic goal.  I’m not sure if I’ll have the outliers—Alaska and Hawaii done at that point.  This also brings up the morbid question of how many running years I have left.  Of course, that is a mystery at this point, but I’m guessing I’ll still at least be walking/able to travel in five years.

Over my months of planning, race-finding, and traveling I’ve learned a few things about how this works.  For example, I quickly figured out that many races/states can be knocked out during a long weekend or holiday.  I took advantage of the Tuesday New Year’s holiday last year in the southeast.  I’m slowly learning now that there are specific 50-state races set up across the US.  I feel like these traditionally target marathons or ½ marathons, both of which would be too much for me to do back-to-back, but I did find one that offers 5Ks and am planning to complete that in November (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada).  Sometimes the planning really comes together and I’m able to efficiently travel and run with ease; sometimes I have to force the issue a little more.  Unfortunately, most of our family trips tend to feel a little forced around my running schedule.  A short road trip to Ohio and Michigan seemed crammed around my races and our big summer vacation, Colorado, also seemed to revolve around the races a little more than I had hoped.  I will add though that the races forced us to see some beautiful parts of western South Dakota.  Some of the trips I’ve planned specifically around races and generally those trips have been more of a pleasant surprise in terms of seeing different sites.

Another result of increasing my travels in general has been an increased knowledge of traveling “tips” to help travel at a lower cost without sacrificing too much comfort.  One major cost saving measure that I generally try to do is to travel during off-peak times.  November is generally a pretty cheap month to travel, so I’ve taken advantage of this with trips to Costa Rica and Egypt and an upcoming trip to the southwest United States.  Chicago in March was cheap (who really wants to be in the upper Midwest in March?!?).  And while Texas in August was almost miserably hot, it was cheap.  My sister helped me develop more confidence in the New York subway system, so I’ve been able to utilize that quite a bit during trips to New York City.  This has probably saved me hundreds of dollars in cab fares.  I save on meals by booking hotels with continental breakfasts.  I’ve pretty much gotten this down to a science when booking as I can plan on our meals’ costs being reduced by about $50/day when traveling with our family of four.  That basically cuts our daily food budget in half.  This gives me the power to make an informed decision when booking a hotel and weighing the benefits of a continental breakfast.  I generally utilize the Hotwire mystery hotel discount when booking hotels.  This usually results in a 10% savings over other discounted sites.  I have been burned by this a few times, they usually have stricter policies regarding cancellations and changes, but I think overall it has been cost-saving practice.  I’ve also gotten pretty comfortable with what kinds of hotels I’m comfortable booking.  Sometimes either I don’t want to fork over the money for a short stay or the location dictates only one hotel and we end up staying in 2-star hotels.  I know these hotels will generally have some type of deficiency that will affect my overall stay, including possible smell, questionable security, lack of pillows, and/or lack of hot water.  I also feel more confident about whether or not I should purchase travel insurance.  This is something I definitely would have avoided in the past and generally still pass on, but if it’s relatively cheap and the trip doesn’t seem secure to me, I’ll purchase it.

Finally, I would like to close out with a summary of highlights and lowlights of my races so far.  The best race was the Hot Chocolate race in Chicago last November.  Getting candy at every station was a big hit with me and although the race was expensive and crowded, the crowd was very well managed and price was worth it for all of the extras that we got.  The people who run the Hot Chocolate races know how to put on a good race!  The most pleasant surprise was the trip that I took with Cabe to Connecticut and Rhode Island.  I was really nervous about the trip going into it.  We flew into New Jersey and stayed the first night in Queens with some shopping in Manhattan.  We used a variety of trains and subways to get to Queens and this was all uncharted territory for me, so I was sure something would go wrong, but everything went pretty smooth and we were able to make our stops in New York City without breaking the bank and then moved on to the beautiful states of Connecticut and Rhode Island.  I loved the peaceful feeling of the New England coast and experiencing the rich heritage.  I look forward to similar experiences when I run in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.  The cities I’ve enjoyed the most were Kansas City (great city, really hope to take the family back there), Oklahoma City, and Fort Worth (these cities proved to be friendly and relatively cheap).  I also really liked Ann Arbor and Boston, both of which are just such fun college towns.  I wish I had been a student in those cities.  The toughest trips were both unfortunately trips that my parents joined me in.  They were short, driving-heavy trips to the Southeast (Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, and Kentucky) and the South (Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri).  These trips involved four races in four states in four days and boy did we feel it.  A lot of driving and a couple run-down hotels with 4 to 5 a.m. departure times.  It was tough, but we made it through.  I envision the next 25 states being completed at a more leisurely pace and I’m excited to see some new sites.  Now that I’ve been on a little break enjoying time at home in Madison, I feel my battery is being recharged and I’m excited to see some new places.  I know there are more great running adventures in my future!

Running in the USA

Running is in my blood.  It gives me a feeling of freedom like nothing else.  It’s weird because I consider myself a fairly sedentary person, but the inner need to run is always there.  I quickly lose patience for standing or walking.  Running helps me think, rationalize, and sort out problems.

All kinds of crazy thoughts go through your head when a dramatic life event occurs.  It’s like all of a sudden you are within reach of the finish line in the race of life.  When running a race, your running changes as you feel yourself nearing the finish line.  You run faster, with more aggression.  I now have the finish line in view and it has changed how I live my life every day.  I want desperately to get so much out of life in such a short time period.  Being a runner, I want to conquer my goals and feel a sense of achievement through running.  Shortly after my diagnosis, all I could think about was running.  I toyed with the idea of running races in all 50 states.  Then life got in the way, I realized I still had to lead a responsible life as wife and mother and that probably wouldn’t involve a bunch of crazy running excursions.  Then fate stepped in, I actually verbally told a few people about my dream, and I realized this is something I need to do.  So, I am attempting to run a race in all 50 states.  After I sat down to think about how this would realistically work, I realized this is a crazy, awesomely difficult idea.  I’m not sure if I’ll actually reach my goal.  I’ve got to have realistic expectations for how much time and money I can really invest in this.  But I think it is achievable and I think it will be excellent for a number of reasons.

Anyone who has ever participated in a running race will probably agree with me that you’ll never find nicer, more positive people than runners and walkers at a race.  It’s humanity at its best.  I’ve never felt so good about mankind as I do when I’m at the starting line of a race.  This is what I need right now, positive energy, the feeling that I can do anything.  The hopeful feeling that this group of people around me is going to achieve something they have worked hard for.  They are all going to cross the finish line and proudly say they have done it, they finished.

I have a few hurdles.  At some point, I became a really slow runner.  I tell people this and they think I’m just being humble or trying some kind of modest psychological technique so I won’t disappoint, but I’m really slow.  I don’t know exactly what happened, but prior to my initial cancer diagnosis almost 4 years ago, I was usually in the top 20% of racers overall for any given race.  I now run about 30% slower.  Where I used to run a seven minute mile, I now will run about a nine minute mile.  I used to fairly easily run 10 miles if needed for a last-minute race or practice run.  Ten miles will now feel like a marathon to me.  I think a variety of factors have played a role in this.  Some of it could be age or general lack of training time, I am a 38-year-old mother, so that might definitely play a small role.  I think exposure to chemotherapy has given me a slight chronic fatigue that I never recovered from.  Now that I have metastatic cancer I think I have additional fatigue from that.  So, I don’t really know.  What I know is that where I used to proudly (and lest I say, smugly) stand up at the starting line knowing I was going to blow by 80% of the field, I now marvel at the speed of the group, wondering how they do it.  But, I still love it.  If fact, if anything, I’m even more proud when I’m able to finish.  I’m able to bask in the post-race glow a little bit longer.

The major practical hurdle I face is logistical.  How am I ever going to travel to all of these places, run races that are sprinkled randomly throughout the year, mainly on weekend days, without driving everyone around me crazy?  I already feel I don’t give enough time to my kids, my husband, my job, and other community responsibilities.  This has to be the most selfish thing I can do.  I have thought a lot about this and thought about just throwing up my hands and not even trying.  But, I just feel so strongly that this is important to me.  I could rationalize this by saying that races generally support a good cause and I’m hoping to pass along a love for running and seeing our beautiful country to my kids, both of which are true, but in the end, this is just me.  This is what I choose to do and I feel if I can spread the love of seeing a different environment through a race with just one other person, it is worth it.

So, I made my decision and decided to go for it.  Now I just needed a plan.  Well, as it turned out, my husband and I were planning a much-anticipated anniversary trip to San Diego.  Great, this was my chance to prove my commitment and cross off the sixth state on my list (I had already run races in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, and the very prestigious Boston Marathon in Massachusetts…I also feel I should get bonus points for a marathon in Winnipeg, Canada).  It was a laid back trip with only my husband and I in a large city, this should be easy.  Well, it turns out it wasn’t as easy as it should have been.  According to the sub par race-finding website I was using, there was really only one race that would work for the location and dates we were looking at.  I found out retrospectively that a huge AIDS walk/run was also being held that weekend, but for some reason that was absent from the website I was using.  I could tell that the race would not be a large race, but it was a race, so I signed up.  I don’t really know anything about San Diego and didn’t have a car, so I just gave the Lyft driver the address listed in my e-mail and hoped it would be easy to figure out how the packet pick-up and starting line were arranged.  I was dropped off at the Transportation Center which was essentially an office building in what seemed to be a remote part of San Diego.  The race started at 4:00 p.m. on a Friday (another bad sign).  It was 3:45 and I started my trek around the building.  It kind of seemed everyone had gone home for the weekend, but I finally ran into someone in the parking lot.  “Where’s the race?”  blank look….”umm, maybe try the security guard up front”.  The security guard was equally confused and at this point I started to have an inner melt down.  This plan was doomed for failure.  I couldn’t even make this work and this one was supposed to be easy.  I hadn’t even gotten to the remote areas of the country.  Finally, the security guard called someone and told me the race was in the parking lot.  I went out to the corner of the parking lot and sure enough, there was a group of about 7 guys standing around the sign-up table.  Apparently this was more of an intra-office competition than a race.  I still don’t know why the website I was looking at had this listed, but I made it to the start and I was going to go through with it.  As most runners can probably imagine, this was not a well-marked course.  I quickly got separated from the other 13 runners and found myself running completely alone on what appeared to be an abandoned bike trail along the San Diego “river”.  There were 3 total water stops on the 6.2 mile course and the water coolers were not user-friendly.  I almost took a wrong turn about ½ mile before the finish.  Being a “slow runner” I was afraid I would be at the tail end of the race.  Well, I wasn’t at the tail end, I was second to last.  The finish line was somewhat of a blind finish around a corner.  When I got close, I figured it didn’t even really matter anymore, I was just happy to be about done and slowed to a walk.  I rounded the corner and walked into the group of 13 people, cheering me on as if I had just won Boston.  I got a medal, 2nd place for the women.  These are runners for you.  They will never stop cheering you on, never stop believing in you.

Race in my sixth (at the time I guess I thought it was my fourth) state, California.  This was also the first race I received a Red Solo Cup in my goodie bag!

Next stop, the Hot Chocolate Run in Chicago!  It’ll be the longest race I’ve run in a while, 9.3 miles.