Cancer and Badwater

Cancer and Badwater
Mary Campilongo

There is nothing mysterious about cancer. It’s simply a disease that can kill you like many others. It can also force you to live, really live, your life. There is a quote by the poet Rilke I keep with me that has helped me through many difficult experiences: “Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

My family has a history of cancer so I wasn’t completely shocked in June 2000 to hear the diagnosis of colon cancer. It’s not something you ever expect to hear but given my family history, the writing was on the wall. My number had come up. When I was 17, my father died of the same kind of cancer. I was charged with taking care of him during his last year. Both my siblings were out of the house and after a very long, and very bad marriage, my mother could not, would not and did not want to deal with him or the circumstances. I witnessed firsthand how this disease can rape your soul and ravage your body. I vowed silently to myself when I heard my diagnosis not to let this happen to me. Besides, I had the ‘real’ race of my life in 5 weeks (the Badwater 135 ultramarathon) and I had trained so long and hard for this opportunity that nothing was going to get in my way.

Towards that end, I kept my diagnosis to myself. I told no one. Not one single person. Not even my race crew. I knew that people would discourage me from doing the race. After all, it was Badwater. A running event, which is essentially 135 miles of ‘bad’ road through Death Valley in the apex of the summer. It’s a given that you would need to be fit and healthy to even think of attempting something like this and sometimes even the healthiest and most fit participants don’t finish. And technically I wasn’t healthy. But I didn’t feel ‘sick.’ Sure I had been having some problems that had caused me to go to the doctor but I didn’t feel any different the day after my diagnosis as the day before. Maybe I was in shock. Certainly I was in denial, but denial can be a wonderful thing. Whatever it was, I knew that the worst thing for me to do would be to not do my race. That seemed tantamount to giving up. And ever since I had taken up running ultras, I had jokingly answered in response to folks when they asked how I could run such distances that my ‘motto’ was “Never say die.”

I spent the immediate days after my diagnosis in relative and almost complete solitude. In the privacy of my heart I wrestled with those nagging questions-of fate, of opportunities missed and things as yet undone, whether I was living the life I was meant to live and if I was going to die, how exactly did I want to do that? Underneath the everyday struggles we all experience, I believe we all long for that kind of clarity which will somehow align the elements of our life into a coherent and satisfying whole.

Additionally, my decision to keep this to myself was based initially on my experience with my father. When he was dying, it was all very undignified and chaotic. There was so much drama and in all of it we all lost sight of Dad. He died alone essentially. I refused to replay his death. As well, I knew that when you tell people you have cancer, it usually has the effect of scaring the crap out of most because they figure you’ve just told them you’re going to die. Understandable. And maybe you will. Obviously I didn’t. Then comes the pity. People feel sorry for you. Yeah, it’s terrible, but for me, neither of these reactions/responses worked for me nor did I want to deal with them. I’m not saying I didn’t have the usual anguish upon hearing my diagnosis. However, I realized from my experience with my father that I what I needed most was a calm and clear understanding of what is true: that no conditions in life are permanent or reliable even. Anguish emerges from a desire for life to be other than it is. So, in this sense, although I had a desire to continue living, at the same time I had to accept these circumstances. In circumstances as seemingly dire as this, it is only possible to deal with what is unfolding when our minds are stilled. I somehow knew that dealing with other’s reactions to these circumstances would likely keep my mind and thoughts in a restless state. I needed to ‘retreat’ in a sense, to disentangle myself from the social and psychological pressures of others. All too often in my life I fell into the trap of using my mind in a conflicted manner and this latest ‘circumstance’ caused me to do that initially. What I really needed to do was to reclaim my fundamental nature: a pure mind. And that could only be accomplished simply and peacefully by myself.

As well, even though I had a small handful of what I had considered ‘close’ friends, none of them had really ever been the sort that could be counted on in even not so dire circumstances. Most could never even remember my birthday so it was a reasonable and logical assumption that they could not be counted on under these circumstances. Since I had been divorced, I had spent all of my holidays and birthdays by myself. And so it was that I realized that I was truly on my own. It was in this way that I was able to realize that what counted most was not necessarily the end result or destination but the resolve to take the next step. And the next one. And the next one. I was committed to seeing this through in a way I had never experienced before. However, commitment to even the most worthy purpose is of little value if we lack the confidence in our ability to realize it. Ironically, it was the first time in many years in my life that I had the utmost confidence in myself. It wasn’t an arrogant denial of what I was facing but, without sounding haughty or conceited, I realized I had the courage to face this without losing my equanimity. At the same time, I was also humbled by the lessons I was learning.

Whenever something really bad happens in my life, I usually say to myself, “There are worse things.” Of course, most folks would probably wonder what the hell could be worse than hearing you have cancer? It’s all in your perspective I think. As well, things really only become ‘problems’ when we label them as such.

These types of responses and reactions simply suck you into being a cancer victim. I already had a good career; I didn’t need or want to make one out of having cancer. A sick person. That’s not how I see myself. And it’s not how others see me. I was/am in the prime of my life. Healthy, strong and vigorous. That was/is part of my identity and this is how I intended to keep it. I had to have faith and part of having faith is knowing that you’re not defined by the circumstances you find yourself in. As well, things don’t always turn out the way we want them to. Cancer happens ya know? I wasn’t in end stage so I still had some time to decide on a course of treatment. So, it was easy affect a Scarlett O’Hara persona and ‘think about it tomorrow’ (read: after my race). Which, for the most part, is exactly what I did. In a very real sense, it’s necessary to ’embrace’ cancer. That is, to accept it without immediately trying to put your own agenda on it. I learned that most things become problematic when we resist them. Resistance keeps you stuck in a small box of uncertainty and fear. When we resist the circumstances of our lives we are essentially saying no to reality. By making a conscious decision not to resist this circumstance in my life, to not put my own agenda on it, I was able to move towards a more expansive approach to dealing with it. I realized that the only thing I really have ‘control’ over is my decision to try to control things. Once you get past your own bloated ego and the notion of being so omnipotent, and realize that you can’t control even the smallest events, things flow because the realization of fighting all these essentially useless battles wastes so much precious time and energy. Letting go of the idea that somehow I could in some way dominate this situation really allowed me to put my energy towards ‘controlling’ my focus on what would unify, comfort and still my mind.However, in a moment of ‘weakness’ (when I let my fears and anxiety get the better of me) just before I began my 6 weeks of radiation treatments, I decided to tell a guy I had been seeing for a few months, Bob Peltcher, that I had cancer and would be undergoing treatment. His response to me was, “It will be okay. You’re a tough chick.” I never heard from him after that. Cold? Certainly. However, Bob’s response furthered my resolve to get through this on my own and on my own terms. There was an important lesson to be learned here and I am thankful to Bob for helping me to learn it. I was truly on my own this time. I realized for the first time since my father died that I was completely alone. No real wisdom here. I had to finally be 100% truthful with myself because I realized that I was full of shit about many things thus far in my life. And that is cowardly. It was the kindest thing I could do for myself. All I had to do was muster the courage to do it.

One of the most difficult aspects of this experience was being so vulnerable. You have to work to stay strong and yet at the same time you are completely exposed and defenseless. And this was never more apparent than when the one person I chose to tell about what I was dealing with turned away from me. What we need most in difficult times is a sense of connection. The essence of faith is connection. And just as importantly, we need to have faith in our own capacity to love even if, especially if, you’re dying (or that’s within the realm of immediate possibilities), and you don’t know what the next moment is going to bring. However, when facing one of the most fundamental challenges of life, you have to be aware of what you reach for. If we haven’t learned intimacy on a very fundamental level, we look for it in the wrong place. I learned that intimacy is not dependent on the other person being a certain way. It has to do with your own capacity for openness, for ‘oneness’ with the experience. I learned that when I bring that awareness to my relationships, there is a deep and genuine and lasting basis for deep connection. I have learned that the loss of a single person you have loved is something you have to integrate into yourself, not something to transcend and put behind you. Dealing with cancer can be pretty grim. Eventually though, I realized that there is no adjusting to something so profoundly grim, and that this circumstance combined with the loss of this person I loved very deeply would not allow me to return to the innocence that predated them.

There are two schools of thought: one says that you have to think long and hard about what you’ve been through and the other that says you have to get away from the terrible realities you have endured. However, I think there is a balance to be struck between remembering and forgetting. You can’t hide from the facts of your life. And feelings that aren’t acknowledged or felt are like explosions waiting to happen. And, as I know all too well, feelings that are felt too vividly oftentimes implode and can be just as deadly as any cancer.

In addition to not wanting to replay the chaos and confusion of my father’s cancer ordeal, I realized that I needed to prove to myself that I was strong enough to get through this. My eighteen-year marriage had ended in divorce the year before. I fell apart. At times during my divorce I wanted to die. Now I had cancer and I wanted to live. Where’s the logic? With cancer, oftentimes, there isn’t much. One of my initial primary concerns after my diagnosis wasn’t whether or not I was going to die but rather, since I was self-employed and had been without health insurance since my divorce, how I was going to cover the costs of my treatments. I had to liquidate one of my retirement accounts. For a long time I was more anxious about losing my retirement monies than anything else. The irony of worrying about my future financial security while facing possible death was not lost on me even then as I have this unique ability to see and appreciate the absurd in even the most dire circumstances. (The reality being that I might not even be around to use this retirement money I was so concerned about hanging onto.)

I recall the days and weeks and months before Badwater spent in preparation and training. It was good. No, it was great. I had something to hope for. I had no way to know what the outcome would be in the race or with my cancer but damn it, I would be on that start line in July and go blind to get to that finish line. I read once somewhere that there are 3 things necessary in life: (1) Something to do (that has meaning and value), (2) someone to love, and (3) something to hope for. Prior to this time in my life, these seemed like unreachable ideals. For the first time in my life though, I felt as if I had all three. And as unambitious as this may sound, you know what I would tell people whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grow up? I would answer: To be a good person and to be loved. The same guy who told me I was a ‘tough chick’ and then disappeared was one of my crew members at Badwater. He was there because he loved me. I was doing work that I thoroughly enjoyed and which had a positive impact in other’s lives. And despite the seriousness of the health issue I was dealing with, for the first time, I was truly hopeful for a future I could not see and also felt that my life might not be lived in vain.

Despite bailing on me later on, Bob did love me. Before this time, before this relationship, I had always unrealistically thought that if you truly love someone it is ‘forever.’ My husband Steve was only my second boyfriend and when we divorced, I had essentially spent half my life with him (23-41). Throughout most of our years together, I had lived my life in reference to him. I loved my husband with all my heart. However, I learned in my marriage that sometimes this just isn’t enough. Feelings and relationships are never static. In the end, after he had decided to file for divorce, he told me that one of the reasons was because he finally realized I would never be the person he wanted me to be. At the same time, he also admitted that he had never really given me a chance. And he didn’t know why. And so, when we divorced it was a difficult adjustment for me to be without someone who, despite our difficulties and differences, had been a vital part of most of my life. However, the very nature of life is transitory. And with cancer, you find yourself standing in the middle of a transition where you cannot remain standing.

For the first time in my life, with Bob, I knew what it was like to love someone with a purity of heart that I had never experienced before. I learned some valuable and vital lessons about loving someone and relationships during this time. I wasn’t concerned any longer if our relationship would ‘last’ because I realized that I might not ‘last’ and all I had, all any of us really has, is today. And that allowed me to be fully present. And when we are, our relationships are no longer based on dependency but rather on connection. Before this time, I could not have grasped love without attachment. Not being fully present is what keeps people apart. To love is good. Love is such a strong emotion that it is often difficult for one human being to love another. We have to learn it. That’s why when we are young, we oftentimes fling ourselves at each other when love takes possession of our heart and it most often ends up scattered and disordered. When we are first learning to love we can sometimes lose our self for the sake of the other and in the process, we lose the expansive possibilities that are at hand. Hopefully, the oppressiveness of our failed efforts will not leave us disgusted and disillusioned.

I recall saying a ‘prayer’ of thanks the day before the race. I was at peace. I had no fear of death any longer. Bob was absolutely fantastic during the race. He kept me laughing and despite some real difficulties, which made it look like I wouldn’t officially finish the race, he never lost his belief in me. This, along with my other crew members who also had the same faith in me, is what helped me most throughout the race and what enabled me to reach that finish line.

I had some real crew issues/problems to contend with which I started to ‘sense’ after the first third of the race. If you go solely by my finishing time alone, it was what many would probably best describe as ‘pathetic.’ After all, I barely finished within the cutoff time (1 minute and 43 seconds to spare). And upon my return home, the most common response I received was not one of ‘congratulations’ but rather “what happened out there?” (Which we all know is simply a polite way of asking someone why they sucked.) As the race ‘progressed’ one of my crew members became noticeably disgusted with the entire thing, at one point telling me in no uncertain terms that he hadn’t realize when he agreed to crew for me that it would mean having to stroll through the desert at a snail’s pace. By the last day, this crew person was no longer allowed out on the road to ‘pace’ me. As dreadful as their behavior may seem, you have to remember that crewing for this event is probably harder on the crew than the runner. Besides, I was on pace during the first third of the race to buckle. And remember too, that no one was privy to the health issue I had hanging over my head so, it just didn’t make sense that I had slowed to the point I had.

As well, although I sensed some conflict with my crew chief, it wasn’t until after the race was over that I realized fully what the cause of it was. I was told that during the last part of the race up the Portals Road when it looked like I might not finish within the cutoff, he stated that he would not go one minute past 60 hours because he had a ‘reputation’ to uphold as a crew chief (he had crewed 4 other times previously at Badwater) and that when that 60 hour time came, if I hadn’t finished he was turning the support vehicle around and going back to the motel. In fact, on my last day out there on the road, I was so upset by his treatment of the other crew members (he would continually bark orders at them) that I called him out on the road with me to ‘discuss’ what was going on. Essentially, we had a 2 mile screamfest during which he not only told me that he had never seen an athlete behave as horribly as I had and treat their crew so poorly. (After hearing this, when each of my various crew members came out to pace me I apologized to them. However, they all denied what my crew chief had told me, saying that they didn’t feel as if I had behaved in any way that needed apologizing for.) At one point, when my crew chief told me that I needed to pick up the pace, and when I responded that I was doing the best I could, he yelled at me, “Your best isn’t good enough!” Appalling? Yes. But, he was doing what he thought he should be doing. There is no way to predict for these types of occurrences. As I said, it’s a very difficult gig to crew for this race. This is really how it was meant to be played out.

Except for my crew chief, none of my crew members had ever done anything like this and so, taking that into consideration, they all did a phenomenal job. Gene Belknap, who despite his 69 years, was the rocket on the crew. It was hard to keep him off the road with me. He had this quiet strength and innate sensibilities about his job. He somehow knew just what to say or not to say. “Just let her cry.” I heard him tell the others on one of the breaks in which I firmly told my crew “I’m through. I’ve done all I need to do out here.” (It was one of the 3 times I “quit” the race on the last day. One time even going so far as to take my number off. And then each time, when I would find myself going back out on that road, I was left wondering whether or not any sound was coming out of my mouth when I spoke. “What am I doing out here again?” I would find myself asking silently.) And then, Gene or one of my other crew members was putting my shoes back on my feet and asking me what I wanted in my bottles. I know many times, especially during that last day, I drew on his determination and energy.

Badwater is an amazing event even if you don’t have cancer. To even think of going that distance is mind-boggling. Then add the heat. There were times during the race that I would fall into a less than ideal state of mind. These were the times when I would allow myself to think about the cancer. I don’t think I ever ‘took ownership’ (yeah, yeah, I became the queen of denial) of this disease from the time of my diagnosis to the conclusion of my treatments. I worked hard on accepting it as a circumstance I had to deal with but I didn’t want it in my life. This obvious denial is what allowed me to continue to function fairly ‘normally’ during the weeks before and after my diagnosis and Badwater. As well, since no one knew about what I was dealing with when my treatments started, it didn’t allow me the luxury of making any excuses for not carrying out my life in a normal way. I had clients scheduled, my dogs had to be exercised and cared for, and I needed to keep up with my own training as best I could, etc. Sure there were days when I was extremely fatigued and/or nauseous but I called on my Badwater experience. I recalled that during the race, I was sometimes nauseated for hours on end. But it went away. (I’m not a big believer in drugs, so I didn’t take anything for it during the race or during my treatments.) And certainly by day two of the race, I felt more fatigue than I had ever experienced before. And I got through it. So, with my treatments, it was the same. I got through it.

Another truly unique aspect of Badwater is that because of the distance and the extreme elements, it requires you put aside all of your self-referential ideas, emptying out our tendencies towards all the other myriad distractions at hand. Your heart and mind must remain attentive to the task at hand. Every second there is a tug-of-war that pulls your attentions here, there and everywhere. The loud, speeding cars and trucks which were literally inches away and set off natural internal alarms tied to fear, protectiveness, uncertainty and helplessness. Breathe, walk, run, listen, observe. The tension would sometimes sink into my stomach and hands. But, I tried to stay present to the whole, to the sense at times of these real threats to my survival. I struggled with the slowness of my walking. I was torn between acting and not acting. There were times when the pain in my feet and legs would simply seem to disappear and I could run again. And then it would return and try as I might, I was unable to will it away, to manifest whatever it was that allowed me to not feel the pain(s) in my body and so, I was reduced to an abysmally slow walk again. At the times when I allowed myself to think about the cancer, it seemed like a huge indulgence for me to try to remain mindful and aware when I feared so much was being lost with each step I took. Then I had to reel myself in. To find a more considered way of acting that wasn’t based on old reactive fearful responses. I learned to cultivate a tolerance for unresolved conflicts/fears. Each time I found myself fading back into these paralyzing traps of self-absorption, I would breath slowly and deeply and try to notice the details of where I was. I would pay attention to my feet moving one after the other, to my breath, to my body moving through the landscape.

I vividly recall to this day going up the Portals Road. I was sobbing most of the way. Waves of immense grieving washed over me. I recall looking up that mountain and feeling such complete joy and at the same time such utter, inconsolable grief. I recall thinking about my cancer, and feeling the ‘exquisite’ pain in my feet and legs and body (I had already traveled over 120 miles at this point) and telling myself, “There are worse things Mary. You will get there.” I knew I would not stop until I reached that finish line. I recall thinking about my Dad dying and my divorce and realizing those were ‘worse things’ and that I had made it through. This only involved walking and running through the pits of hell on earth and finally up this last stinking mountain.

If nothing else, Badwater will force you to learn how to be flexible. I went into the race with a sound and reasonable ‘game plan’ of pacing, eating, crew schedules, etc. However, in these ultra-long distance events, anything can happen. And usually does. And so, you must freely find new ways to achieve the desired goal, abandoning whatever has lost its effectiveness. Too much walking? Too much sitting? We revise. Too much talking, not enough silence? We shut up. Too much silence, not enough communication? We speak up. “What do you want in your bottle, Mary?”

I knew I was cutting it close time-wise to be an official finisher. But, at one point after I had started up Mt. Whitney, that stopped being so much of a priority. Of course I wanted to finish within the time limit but I had to put that out of my mind for the time being. If I became too caught up in the numbers at this point, it would be counterproductive, as it would make me tense and anxious. Although I didn’t wear a watch the last day and had instructed my crew not to tell me about the time, I gauged/guessed the time from the movement of the sun and the sunset.

I realized I was cutting it closer to the cut-off than I had thought when I was about 5 miles from the finish and the two finish line officials came down the Portals Road and met up with me and my crew. They had taken the finish line down and ‘closed up shop’ because the reports they had been receiving caused them to think I wouldn’t make the cutoff. I recall one of them (Jeff Bell) telling me there wouldn’t be any race official at the finish point but that I should continue and he thought what I was doing was very ‘courageous.’ While I was lucid, I was too mentally fatigued to assimilate that. Courageous. Hmm, I was just trying to finish a stinking footrace. Yeah, it’s a long one but I didn’t think that descriptive should necessarily be assigned to my efforts. After all, I figured I was DFL at this point (and I was). And while I was alternately walking and running, I was still moving at basically a glacial speed. So, taking this into consideration, his saying what I was doing was courageous seemed out of context to me at the time. Then, he and Howie Stern, the other finish line race official, watched me for a while and Howie decided that “she just might do this” and convinced Jeff to go back and put the finish line back up. Jeff Bell came up to me at the post-race breakfast get together the next morning and told me that seeing me finish the way I did made the entire 3 days worth it to him. I was humbled by his comments. Especially in light of knowing that I had come so close to not officially finishing. It didn’t make sense to me. I still had not assimilated what I had done. It wasn’t until after I returned home and looked at the time splits that I saw I had made it up that last leg to the finish line faster than the women’s winner that year. As well, I was also told that when I passed by the last time station/webcast room in Lone Pine, all of the guys there simply shook their heads thinking there was no f-ing way I would make it up to the finish line in time, despite the fact that I had resumed running again just outside of Lone Pine and was running a 7:30 per mile pace as I went by the last time station through the town and up the Portals Road. See, anything can happen.

Throughout the 4 hours it took me to get up the Portals Road, I recall folks driving up and stopping with my crew support vehicle to cheer me on. It only made me cry more. I recall sometimes thinking to myself, “If you only knew the real reason for my tears.” I was accomplishing something far more important than simply finishing this long race. I was seeing myself through to the end. I was “living everything” for the first time in my life. I was strong still. My spirit was soaring even amidst my tears. I was completely humbled by it all. I felt so thankful to be alive and such enormous gratitude to my crew. After all, they had followed my sorry ass through the desert for over two days. These five people each gave up a total of five days of their life to help me do this ridiculous race.

Surprisingly, with only a few exceptions, I didn’t think about my cancer much during the race. For one thing, I knew I’d have plenty of time for that later. For another, I just had to keep my focus. Of course I had moments of sadness during all of this experience and likely will continue to on occasion. But now, when I feel this sadness, I am attentive because I realize that I am at that place when I first heard my diagnosis and it was at that moment when the future had set foot in me and I was/am so much closer to life. And I remain still. I am more patient and more open and so allow the new to come into me. “The future stands firm, but we move in infinite space.”

When I reached that finish line (with 1 minute and 47 seconds to spare), I was seated in a chair and I bent over with my head in my hands and continued to sob for several more minutes such intense tears of joy and grief and relief and every emotion you can possibly think of. Jeff Bell and Howie Stern had to patiently wait for my sobfest to subside before they could put the finisher’s medal around my neck. It is these small acts of kindness and patience that I never lose sight of to this day. As well, I am thankful for their faith in me.

Even to this day, I have told only two of my crew members about my cancer. I underwent my treatments in October and November of 2000. I think I had an ‘easy’ time of it for the most part. I also think it was made ‘easier’ by the fact that I had kept this to myself and so I didn’t have the luxury of wanking and whining to anyone when, after a treatment, I was fatigued or nauseous or fearful. That is, because of this, I had to keep to my ‘regular’ schedule and couldn’t and didn’t reschedule many client appointments (I was a full-time fitness and athletic trainer at the time) and so, no one was the wiser. I did tell Ralph Havens, one of my oldest and closest friends, about my treatments when I still had two weeks to go and he naturally asked me why I hadn’t told him. At first I was glib and just responded with “It never came up in conversation.” Which it doesn’t. After all, there’s really no easy way to drop a bomb like that in a friendly, casual conversation even with the closest of friends. Then I told him about my father and about not wanting to have to deal with other’s reactions and that I needed to prove to myself that I could do this on my own. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the reality was that these circumstances caused me to realize that my friends, even the ones whom I had considered to be ‘close’ friends, were simply ‘fair-weather’ friends. That is, they could only be counted on for an occasional social get together or a run but nothing more. Put simply: most people just can’t deal, they simply aren’t well-equipped enough. And my friends are an even less capable lot than most. I was perceptive enough to realize this early on in this whole experience. I knew it would be harmful to my inner resolve and confidence if I had again attempted to reach out to others for any kind of support and once more been rejected wholesale. So, I didn’t. After that, I told a couple of other friends. But I made it clear that this wasn’t to become a topic of conversation with me. It’s just how it had to be. Cancer happens. I am not this disease. As well, I prefer that my friends care and concern and interest in me/my life be motivated simply by knowing me rather than because I might possibly die.

In November of that year, I ran the Long Beach Marathon one weekend and the San Diego 24 Hour Track Race the next. I was going into my 6th week of treatments when I ran Long Beach. I had paid for my entry as well as one for Bob (yeah, the guy who bailed) because when we were seeing each other, we had planned to use this race to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I was looking forward to it for a couple of reasons. First, I had lived part of my childhood in Massachusetts. And second, my husband and I had such separate interests and had always led such separate lives that, in my relationship with Bob, it was the first time I had been able to enjoy making plans with someone, actually share something that was of enjoyment and interest to both of us. As luck would have it (or lack thereof, again it’s all in your perspective), he came up on me about 8 miles into the race. He thanked me for the entry and commented that he thought I had gone out “sort of fast.” I could only reply that it felt like a comfortable pace to me and whatever I did that day would be acceptable since I was going into my sixth week of treatments. It was a bittersweet moment. He still had a place in my heart. But, I didn’t want to be reminded of the time that I was so fearful and anxious. I no longer cared about qualifying for Boston. I wouldn’t be going as I had planned. So, after the half-way point, I stopped to pet a couple of dogs alongside the race course, I didn’t rush through the aid stations, and basically took my sweet time. My finishing time didn’t really matter any longer. In another strange twist of irony, I ended up finishing only 6 minutes behind Bob (just this side of 4 hours). He didn’t have the best of days. But I still had another week of treatments. And the 24 Hour event the next weekend. I finished up my treatments 2 days before the San Diego 24 Hour Track Race. I told John Metz, the RD, about my cancer and treatments which would end 2 days before the race. I trusted him. I knew he wouldn’t make a big deal out of it. He was supportive and truly glad to have me back again this year, no matter what my performance. I only managed a workmanlike 87.5 miles that year (as compared to 100+ the year before).

I’m sure you’ve heard many folks say that having a life-threatening illness helps you get your priorities straight. Maybe. Maybe not. I think my priorities were straight before, now they’re spot on. What helped me was my abject refusal to make cancer a part of my identity. Most importantly, cancer helped me to cherish the short amount of time we have on this earth. In taking life for granted as most of us do, we likewise fail to notice it. It has helped me to remain present in today. Badwater and cancer gave me an awareness of this earth that we tread on daily that I would not have had otherwise. I now cling to nature. I notice the little things that most hardly ever notice. And this is a direct result of the aloneness I experienced in dealing with cancer. When I am out running, I am so connected to the moment’s experience-what I’m seeing, the smells, the feel of the air on my face and body. It is almost as if there is no separation between me and everything around me. I first experienced this during Badwater. I recall during the race, seeing a mountainside at sunset seemingly airbrushed the most perfect and gentle pastel shades that it could make your heart stop. And to see more stars in the sky at night than I have ever seen at one time filled me with such awe it is indescribable. Most people think intimacy starts in relationships but it doesn’t.

I don’t often talk about my experience. This is the first time I’ve ever gone ‘public’ with my story. However, Scott McQueeney asked me to write about my experience. He thinks there is some merit in sharing what I have experienced. I’m still not convinced. After all, boatloads of people get diagnosed with cancer everyday. I’m not sure many would chose to go out and run 135 miles through Death Valley with that hanging over their head, but it’s just what I had to do. Whenever folks go off about how amazing it is to do these events that I participate in, I ‘correct’ them. I consider myself to be a pretty ordinary woman. A little left of center on many things but certainly not ‘amazing.’ (Besides, despite having a fair amount of natural athletic ability, in reality, I ‘barely’ finished the race if you look at my finishing time at Badwater.) Scott ran Badwater the same year I did. For obvious reasons, our paths never crossed during the race. I met Scott’s young daughter Shannon at the race in 2002 as she was also staffing the race with her Mom and Dad. She has been through her own battle with cancer this year and she touched my heart. She has this smile that is so engaging and bright. She sat outside on the bench in front of the Dow Villa with me for hours while I tended the 5th Time Station through the very early hours before dawn until her uncle demanded that she get some rest. She had recently finished up her treatments and was in remission. I remember wondering how, how, how in the freaking world could this wonderful girl get cancer? And I prayed that she would remain healthy. And she has. And for that I am thankful.

When I was a young child I was told that I was very inquisitive, always asking “why.” “Do not now seek the answers…” And now I don’t. But I continue to ask the questions. And live everything.

Be well, love much, laugh often.
Peace out,
Mary Campilongo
“‘Be kind, run humbly, practice peace”

“For if we think of this existence of the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and down. Thus they have a certain security. And yet that dangerous insecurity is so much more human which drives the prisoners in Poe’s stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their abode. We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us. We are set down in life as in the element to which we best correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we hold still we are, through a happy mimicry, scarcely to be distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors, they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abysses belong to us; are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us. ”
–Ranier Marie Rilke

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