A huge thanks to MORE magazine for including my story in their “Against All Odds” piece in the February issue that’s on stands now!
When I was initially contacted about doing this piece for MORE magazine, I was, of course, elated since it would talk about one of my long-time favorite loves…running! But it became especially meaningful (and extremely humbling) since it would discuss my journey back from the “lowest of lows” into thriving health and in doing so give an amplified voice to the underlying message that I am so passionate about sharing with others: that we can be strong and whole again—stronger even—after going through something like this.
I’ve said for a long time over the years that running has kept me sane and although it’s usually just a cheeky comment on my part, if I’m honest, there’s a lot of truth to it, too. Running has kept me from falling off more than one “ledge” in life. The first was a ledge of sadness following my younger sister Lauren’s sudden death while we were in college together. The migration of grief was sneaky—clearly present at first for obvious reasons but then there was a slow, almost imperceptible, yet steady slide downward as my fragmented heart came undone, piece by piece, as it struggled to patch the impossible hole in it. But then there was running. It became a touchstone of sorts, an anchor in the day and in myself, an escape from my heart’s constriction and a still point with the steady pounding of the earth that seemed to be the only thing that grounded me and kept me from sliding off an edge. And, slowly, running pulled me back until one day I was moving up the hill of life towards joy again.
And then there was my diagnosis, the impossible of impossibles, which thrust me to the brink of a different ledge as I was forced to confront my own mortally, swaying over a dark abyss. As many of you know, in the irony of all ironies, I had just run my best time in a half-marathon a few weeks before I was told I was in the latest stages of a rare cancer that had few, if any, “good outcomes” that we could find. The path forward was on blind, groping faith but I was running once again, both literally as I went through the initial chemos and figuratively as I sprinted for my life. Running was the only thing that wasn’t taken away. Everything else from my old life had been instantly obliterated—my job, my future, my whole perception of the world—gone in a moment. And then that was taken, too, as I proceeded with the two high-dose chemos and bone marrow transplants.
And through it all there was the hallowed ground where it all began. I fell in love with running during my junior year in high school when, for some reason, I decided to forego playing soccer that year to try something new. I still don’t know what possessed me to “jump ship” from what all my other friends were doing but, once I started, I fell hard and fast. Looking back I think it was the place as much as the “moving mediation” part of being alone in nature, mile after mile, that stole my heart. Kennesaw Mountain seemed a sanctuary, a “hidden garden”, a place where the outside world melted away and I got lost in the beauty of the sun filtering through the high leaves, a deer darting away close by in the woods and the acute focus required to jump over roots and rocks and fallen trees. It was a playground of sorts, rustic yet sacred, gritty yet pristine, tranquil yet teeming with life—alive in every sense. I felt infused after my runs there, addicted to the high of fresh air, a clear mind and a calm spirit.
Not long after I discovered the “magic” of running, my little sister Lauren fell in love with my newfound “passion” too and we would often hit the trails for runs together. There I was, like a mama bird, protective of the idea of her in the woods alone and yet secretly thrilled she had followed in my footsteps and loved running as much as I did. Several years past and I logged many miles in many places as I moved away and went to college, but always I would return to the trails of Kennesaw Mountain for my fill of magic and grounding, along with a nice thin coat of dirt dusting my shoes and shins. And then Lauren died and I returned once again, broken and battered by sadness, tears streaming down my face as I ran, almost as if searching for her there, yet knowing there were not enough miles I could run to find her or mend the tear in my heart. Yet with time, it was here where I found her again, trotting along beside me in the whistling of the birds, the fresh breeze on my face, the surge of life coursing through me as I ran. It was here that her spirit echoed still on a hallowed ground where many others had moved from this life to the next. The running trails of Kennesaw Mountain meander through the battlefields where one of the final sieges of the Civil War was fought and many young souls died. There are remnants of the earthworks (protective mounds made by hand with only small shovels, spoons, cups—anything they could dig with) along with the cannons they used in a desperate attempt to hold off the Union soldiers as long as they could as the North moved to take Atlanta.
For years I would pass these fields every morning on my way to school. A low point, a foggy mist would always be settled in as I drove by. I can’t explain it but it was almost as if I couldn’t help but look, my eyes being pulled to the fields and the mist. And even though I knew better, it was as if time had stopped and it felt as though the soldiers could march out of the woods onto the field, guns raised, advancing towards their enemy. It was haunting, but not in a scary way, a beautiful way somehow. I could almost smell the gun power, hear the click of metal as the guns were cocked, the crack of a shot fired. It was as if I could feel them still there. It was only years later, after Lauren’s death, that I understood why. Their spirits echoed still, an indelible imprint of their presence remained.
After my bone marrow transplants and almost a year of “house arrest” I was finally cleared to go outside again. (I had to get special permission and wear a mask because of the potential fungus in the woods…) Kennesaw Mountain was the first place I wanted to go back to—returning once again to my special, magical, healing place. Not cleared to drive again yet (super humbling) my mom and I headed to the trails for a walk. Donning my mask and a Nike running cap to keep my bald head warm, it wasn’t long after we set out that a gentlemen came buzzing by. “Good for you,” he yelled out giving me a thumb’s up, “I have allergies too.” I didn’t bother to correct him and just smiled and laughed, thinking to myself, Man, if you only knew…
Anyway, as we all know, there is a happy, happy ending to this story and a modern-day miracle by any account. So this is a story of love and loss, sickness and health and a place that stayed constant and firm through it all. I think we all need a “Kennesaw Mountain”, a place to go to whatever may come, the highs and the lows, a place to ground ourselves and sometimes search the trails and past—both inside and out—in order to find ourselves again. I never could have imaged what this wooded pocket of the world would come to mean to me, what this place would carry me through, or that I would come to know the depth of myself on it’s trails—through sweat and tears, sunshine and rain, dust and roots—and that I would find a trail back “home” when I needed it the most.
And, yes, that’s me doing a handstand… :)
Click here to see more photos—including the bags (and bags) of clothes MORE magazine sent to our house for the photo shoot, along with the adventure of changing in the great outdoors (I think I caught a deer sneaking a peek, but I couldn’t be sure…)
And click here to read the article (and also the other four (truly amazing) women who I’m so honored and humbled to be included with in the piece)!