Friday, September 28, 2012

Why do I support LIVESTRONG? I like beer.

If you like beer, donate to LIVESTRONG right now.

No, seriously, if you like beer, donate now.

See, there's a secret we LIVESTRONG Leaders share with Lance, Doug and the crew at LIVESTRONG. You're not really funding cancer survivorship support. Your investing in a future bar.

I mean, the layout is there, with a dance area, a stage, a kitchen, and plenty of space for mingling. The location in Austin, TX is perfect. The artwork is on the walls and there is plenty of parking. It's perfectly accessible by train, too. And did I mention the outdoor dining and drinking area? Oktoberfest will rock.
Still think I'm kidding? I'm not.

There are only 2 things standing between us, today, and this bar.

1) It houses this pesky thing called the Lance Armstrong Foundation.
2) Cancer

Confused? Allow me to explain...

By definition, "We (LIVESTRONG) provide support to guide people through the cancer experience, bring them together to fight cancer—and work for a world in which our fight is no longer necessary."

"... A world in which our fight is no longer necessary."

Lance, Doug, and everyone who is employed by LIVESTRONG, to an extent, prays for the day they that all employees are given the option to accept a severance check and a pink slip or to take on new careers as bartenders, bus boys, waiters & waitresses and bouncers when the Lance Armstrong Foundation closes its doors and is converted into a bar because it will mean that cancer has been extinguished from the planet. The war will have been won. The only thing left for the folks who worked at the Foundation to do will be to find a new career and send themselves off with a brewski while Lance and his buddies turn LIVESTRONG Headquarters into the biggest, baddest bar Texas has ever seen.

So, if you hate cancer, donate to LIVESTRONG right now.

If you like beer more, donate to LIVESTRONG right now.

If you love Shiner Bock, donate to LIVESTRONG right now.

If you love Guinness, donate to LIVESTRONG right now.

If you like Michelob, Bud, Miller, or Rolling Rock, donate to LIVESTRONG right now.

If microbrews like Fat Tire, Brooklyn Brewery, Dogfish Head, and He'brew, are your thing, then donate to LIVESTRONG right now.

And, if you never, ever, ever,  want to hear me ask you to donate to LIVESTRONG right now, but you'd much rather hear me ask you out for a brew with the same frequency, donate to LIVESTRONG right now.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Why do I support LIVESTRONG? For those whose time ran out

As much as I hate to admit it, I can hold a grudge.

March 1980. December 2009. February 2010. I could go on and on listing months and years marking the loss of loved ones and those I knew who died fighting cancer. Lance articulated this last year at the 2011 LIVESTRONG Challenge when he explained these fighters didn't "lose" their battles. They were still fighting. But their "time ran out."

That means there is still a battle to be fought, even after they are gone.

For me, my war was waged to take revenge on cancer for taking my Gramma away from me when I was only in 1st Grade. Cancer had previously taken my other grandmother years before I was born. But Gramma was the only living grandparent I had. I was closer to her than any other person on this planet. Cancer robbed me of her in a matter of months.

The fact that it swept up a string of loved ones, friends and family members of those I encountered like a tidal wave within my first year of becoming a LIVESTRONG Leader didn't help.

Another fact is that once time runs out for our loved ones, we feel incapacitated. What's next for us?

Of course, we remember our loved ones.

But my grandmother was a fighter. The odds she fought in her life were incredible. She was a tiny woman, but she had more strength than 10 football players, physically and emotionally, if she needed it. She astounded me with her brawn.

Whether their time ran out today or 25 years ago, we can still continue our loves ones' fights. We can ride in their honor. We can run in their honor. We can raise funds to give back to others who are fighting where they left off.

If I know my grandmother like I think I do, there is no question in my mind that if she were alive today, she would have walked the 5k ROCK the RIDE & RUN this year with me in Pound Ridge, holding my hand, with pride. She might have even ventured on her gold and white 3-speed and ridden with me a bit to get me back on the bike.

So, I walk, ride and do what I can with her spirit in my heart, hearing her voice in my head, and knowing that the fight she fought isn't over until no one has to lose their Gramma the way that I did ever again.

Please help me support my war, and consider donating in memory of your loved one whose time ran out, today.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Why do I support LIVESTRONG? Community

On Sunday, close to 100 people turned up at West Rock Ridge State Park, including racers and spectators, to participate in the ROCK the RIDGE benefiting LIVESTRONG Mountain Bike Race. Folks gathered from Maine to New York to New Jersey and everywhere in between. Of course, many may not have cared less what the cause was, it was merely the series finale of the New England Championship Series for the Eastern Fat Tire Association. But others turned out to show support.

During the racers' meeting, when I reminded folks of the cause and why it was so significant, as we, in EFTA, lost a beloved member to cancer a couple of years ago, there was a tangible shift in mood. Everyone was still excited, but there was a sense of intensity that seemed to hover in the air.

It's not the first time I've experienced that.

When I decided, long before I was diagnosed, that I was going to ride 200 miles to support LIVESTRONG a couple of years ago, I was more excited about the adventure than the cause. That is, until I learned of a couple of friends who were fighting cancer. Then, it hit me, when I found myself struggling, that I was doing this for something greater than me. And, as I rode, and I chit-chatted with other riders along the way in the New York City Century Tour, and told them why I was riding, their smiled turned serious - not angry, not sad, but intense, and we rode a little faster.

Online, on Twitter and Facebook, LIVESTRONG Leaders, registered Team LIVESTRONG members and others in the "community" form a support network. Again, before I was diagnosed, I merely mentioned that I was doing a ride for LIVESTRONG, and all of a sudden, there was a throng of survivors that were connecting with me. I joked that I felt in with the "in" crowd without having cancer. (Oh, the irony.)

But I'd found a community.

When I was diagnosed, I thanked my lucky stars I was already plugged into that community, though, there is no doubt in my mind, that had I come in off the street and asked for membership, I would have been welcomed with open arms. Why? Because I see it done. With everyone that says, "I need help - I have cancer," or, "My dad has cancer," or, "I just lost my cousin to cancer," a note of encouragement is sent by someone at LIVESTRONG, fellow leaders, etc.

So to, on Sunday, at the end of the race, there was a community - even though it was a one-day community, it was there.

There are rare instances in one life where, blindly, you are accepted into a group. And there is no time as important as during a battle with cancer when that is needed.

LIVESTRONG is a global community of caretakers, survivors, supporters and leaders.

To show your support for this community and the cause, please consider a donation to my LIVESTRONG Challenge account: HTTP://LAF.CONVIO.NET/GOTO/RICAROCKSAUSTIN2012

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why do I support LIVESTRONG? For hope

"We choose to go to the moon in this decade ... because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win" -- John F. Kennedy

When James Lipton asks celebrities of all types on "Inside the Actors Studio" Bernard Pivot's infamous question about what their favorite 4-letter word* is, we all laugh as we hear f-bombs being dropped, the s-word flung about, etc. But one day, I'd love to hear someone respond with the 4-letter word, "HOPE"

Tis but a foolish word, "HOPE." So simple. Simple to say, simple to spell, and simple to think about - that is, until hope is tested.

We all "hope" that our children will do well in school starting the first day they hop on the bus - and it's easy to hope that. But when a child is diagnosed with a learning disorder that prohibits an easy academic life, that hope becomes challenged.

So to, when we "hope" that our loved ones "have good day" when they leave for work or hope they "feel better" upon reporting that they have a cold, it rolls off the tongue without a second thought. And when we "hope for the best" for ourselves and others, we don't stop and wonder about any alternative to the "best."

That is, until there is an immediate challenge.

For those of us who have been diagnosed with cancer, even the most optimistic among us feel hope fade - even if it's just for a moment, it does. We can't help it. For those whose loved one is diagnosed, their hope may even falter even more - not only do they question hope for their own future, but they now worry about their loved one.

And, for those cancer fighters among us who have the dreaded determination that the cancer has come back, hope is tested once more, and sometimes in a far more brutal way. You see, when you've fought it once, and you've made it through the "other side," however that's defined in anyone's particular case - whether it be a no evidence of disease declaration from the doctor, finishing chemotherapy, recovering from surgery, etc - we instinctively begin the (sometimes grueling) process of rebuilding our hopes, possibly developing new and greater hope. Imagine, if you will, just coming out of that process, just starting to bathe in the light at the end of the tunnel only to learn that you have to fight that fight again.

For first time fighters, like I was, it's terrifying. For those fighting repeatedly, I can't imagine.

So, when hope is tested, sometimes our immediate loved ones can fill in, sometimes they can't. But LIVESTRONG can. LIVESTRONG helps us remember that there are things to look forward to - whether it be a LIVESTRONG Challenge, a program like First Descents, financial assistance, or helping to find the right program, medical facility or doctor - LIVESTRONG can be that beacon when others feel their hope tested.

Today, for example, was a wonderful case of why a foundation like LIVESTRONG's existence helps foster hope.

On the one hand, I have a friend who has a unique form of cancer. It's been very hard on them, and they are facing a new barrage of treatments - none of which are easy by any account. While several of us have been struggling to figure out what we can do to help and support this friend, contacts at LIVESTRONG coincidentally spread the word that today MD Anderson was making an announcement about a new program - Moon Shots. MD Anderson drew inspiration from President Kennedy's words quoted above, hence the program's name. "The nation’s No. 1 hospital for cancer care, with its unparalleled resources and capabilities, is uniquely positioned to accelerate the end of cancer. It’s closer than you think. What’s learned from these initial cancer 'moon shots' will ultimately lead to cures for all types of the disease."

While LIVESTRONG does not fund medical research, they do have ties to MD Anderson, and one is hard-pressed not to hear MD Anderson being referred by LIVESTRONG Leaders and staff.

As it happens, the Moon Shots program specifically addresses the challenging cancer that my friend is fighting, as well as several others. My friend was on the verge of giving up all hope. And, thanks to LIVESTRONG's communication network, we learned that my friend has a reason to hope - even if it's just the chance to look at an alternative.

Hope is such a simple thing on the surface. But look below that surface.

I pray none of you have to test your hope outside of what I ask you to do in this blog post.

But if you do, know that you can always turn to LIVESTRONG for reinforcement of hope for you and your loved ones.

Please consider a donation to my LIVESTRONG Challenge Account - The LIVESTRONG Challenge, since my diagnosis, provided me with a goal and hope and something to look forward to while I was in treatment, and now that my procedures are winding down, something to continue to hope towards.

* FYI, yes, I know, he actually asks what their favorite "curse word" is, but that would have defeated the lovely literary thing I had going there.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why do I support LIVESTRONG? For those of us in the fight

Today I was given the news that I'm still NED (No Evidence of Disease) by my doctor at my 12-month oncology check-up. Of course, it's a sigh of relief on my part.

But don't think that means my fight is over. You never know how long that status is going to last.

I could feel an ache in my abdomen, go to my doctor, get a scan, and learn that I've developed ovarian cancer, at which I'm at high risk. I could develop a cough and learn that the breast cancer has spread to my lungs. I could be declared, officially, cancer free at 5 years, and then, the next day, learn that my breast cancer has appeared in my brain.

So far, knock on wood, spit on the ground, spin around, etc., I'm one of the lucky ones. And I know that. My fight is experiencing a cease fire - but I know it can be temporary or permanent, and the choice isn't mine. I'll always be on the defense to an extent.

So will 28 million others in the world today.

The fact is that until there is a be all/end all cure, all of us who have been touched directly by cancer are in the fight. If we're lucky, we're only called into battle once, but some of us may be sent to the front lines over and over.

As I indicated this week, cancer has no concept of what's fair or what's not, despite our desperate hopes.

In that regard, I'm reminded that a yellow ribbon represents those of us that we love that are away from home fighting. In some sense, our LIVESTRONG yellow wristbands aren't that different - only they represent that part of us that, once a diagnosis is given of cancer, that is always in the fight.

We are all veterans as well as active duty in this battle. And, just like our military heroes, a yellow wristband on your wrist lets us know that we aren't forgotten, that you respect the fight in which we are entrenched, and to celebrate our bravery.

Every day, I sadly learn of friends, and at times, family, who are called to battle once more. In the past week, I learned that one dear friend, whom I consider a kindred spirit in this fight, was, at times, B.J. to my Hawkeye as we fought in tandem in the hell of our little breast cancer M*A*S*H unit. We were both hanging in the 4077th until I got the call from her that she was being called up to the 8063rd to active duty and I have to stay behind in the Swamp, with nothing left to do but to pray for her well-being and her family.

LIVESTRONG provides fighters like her, and her family, support and empowerment.

But to keep doing that, LIVESTRONG needs our support. I will fight, even from behind the front lines, on my bike, in Challenges, running events like Sunday's ROCK the RIDGE, etc.

Please consider making a donation today. HTTP://LAF.CONVIO.NET/GOTO/RICAROCKSAUSTIN2012

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Why do I support LIVESTRONG? For my family

Today, I have a family member going through chemotherapy and another who is having surgery for cancer as we speak. Within one year of my own diagnosis and embarking on treatment, 2 family members were diagnosed and began their treatment. One survived cancer once before, and another didn't see this coming after years of diligent screenings.

This disease, or as Lance Armstrong pointed out in March at the LIVESTRONG Leader Summit, this collection of thousands of diseases with their own personalities, traits and Achilles' Heels, does not discriminate. It does not distinguish between fair and unfair. It doesn't appreciate irony or Murphy's Law. It has no concept nor care of how it can push an individual, or a family, beyond their breaking points. It's oblivious as to what a burden it is on us. It simply doesn't care.


While I cannot come out publicly, at this time, with specifics, I can tell you that in the past few days, as little was being asked of LIVESTRONG, the organization reacted and responded. Two days after letting a contact at LIVESTRONG know, a box was shipped to my family member with support material. A fellow LIVESTRONG Leader participated in a mud run with my family member on his back. I've gotten advice on this person's type of cancer already, how to help after today's surgery (as this surgery is very different from my own), and tips as to how to help this person deal with their upcoming radiation treatments, which I didn't have to endure. They are willing to reach out to other caregivers.

And, all the while, without intruding on my family member's situation, as they went within one week from out-of-the-blue diagnosis to surgery. I know, without question, they will be ready when this person is ready to speak with them, and I also know they are available to those immediately around this cancer fighter when they need help and support.

More so, LIVESTRONG is providing an outlet for the frustration that we feel - that cancer does not - at having our immediate network barraged by this infernal disease within a calendar year - my children and I will take our aggression out on the road at the LIVESTRONG Challenge in a month.

I hope my fellow family members fighting cancer can join me someday at the Challenge to see the masses of supporters they have and don't even realize right now.

Your donations do that. They really do. Your donations provide LIVESTRONG the ability to fund programs that can directly, locally, touch cancer fighters and their families, like mine. Supporting the organization allows them to provide a unique opportunity for cancer fighters to gather together and fight the only ways we are able to - on the road, with our own bodies, letting out our anger, frustration, and triumph, in a celebration. A donation today will continue to enable us to be a safety net not only for the cancer fighters themselves, but their support networks.

Please consider a donation today. Do it in honor of my family. In honor of yours. And in honor of the families around you that you'll never know are fighting, too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why do I support LIVESTRONG? For my children

As I get closer to this year's LIVESTRONG Challenge, which marks the end of the 2012 fundraising year, I decided that I would share a little bit more every day about why I support LIVESTRONG.

Today's thoughts focus on my children, specifically, the programs that LIVESTRONG helps come to fruition to support all kids touched by cancer.

When I talk about programs like this, I'm not talking about programs for children currently fighting cancer, though I know LIVESTRONG works with organizations that do. I'm talking about providing support for a population of children that tend to fall between the awkward cracks of not having cancer themselves, but being too young to be considered "caregivers" and therefore can't find that kind of assistance and community. I'm talking about the children of cancer fighters, and those who live in a household or have a close family member who has fought or has been fighting.

Thanks to LIVESTRONG, my daughter was able to attend a 1-week camp called Camp Kesem, at no cost, in Connecticut this summer where she was able to enjoy herself and bond with other kids in the unique, and difficult, situation of having had a parent or loved one fight cancer. (My son was supposed to attend, but unfortunately, the night before, he was told by his doctors that pneumonia, which landed him in the hospital a couple of days later... but that's neither here nor there.)

For my YJ and Jewish friends, yes, that is "Kesem," as in "Magic," in Hebrew. (And, yes, they play gaga!) To quote Camp Kesem's website:
Working with Hillel at Stanford, staff member Iris Rave helped the four student leaders set up Camp Kesem. The group chose the word Kesem, which means “magic” in Hebrew, because its goal was to bring “magic” to families coping with cancer. Since its inception, Camp Kesem has been open to student leaders and campers of any religion, race or ethnicity.Thanks to the hard work of many student leaders, Camp Kesem at Stanford hosted 37 campers at its first one-week summer camp in 2001.

Thanks to their tenacity, and LIVESTRONG's grant, Camp Kesem is able to hold 1-week camps all over the country. LIVESTRONG's contribution includes:
"Through the 2011 Community Impact Project LIVESTRONG will fund the replication of this program at 12 universities with seed funding of $10,000 per campus. These funds will not go directly to the school, but will instead be managed by Camp Kesem for students to use towards camp expenses. Initial trainings and communication will begin in the summer of 2011 with the award covering a 12-month period. The camps funded through this cycle will be held in the summer of 2012. This program is entirely student run, and requires input and work from a broad group of students as well as the university itself to succeed. Students implementing the program would be responsible for additional fundraising for the program to succeed and continue on an annual basis."
The bottom line? My daughter, who fed me grilled cheese sandwiches upon demand, took on the laundry and other household chores, would comfort me after chemo and surgeries, make me special breakfasts every morning I had chemotherapy, snuggle and help keep herself entertained while I was fighting, got to meet other kids who went through similar experiences, bond with other kids who knew how she felt as opposed to having kids that really didn't have a clue try and sympathize, and the chance to feel free enough to express her emotions without fear of hurting anyone else, like me, about how unfair cancer is.

And above all else, she was able to smile. Not be strong for someone else, not show a game face, but just smile and help others smile.

Photos speak 1,000 words. These photos speak words to last a lifetime.
My daughter and her new friend, whom she met on Day 1.They now talk online regularly to keep in touch.

With Jack Bouffard, a fellow LIVESTRONG Leader.

Home at last with her Grumpy!

This is just one parent's experience of how Camp Kesem changed their child's confidence and made her feel like she wasn't in this alone. If it weren't for LIVESTRONG's grants, think of how many kids wouldn't have this chance? With LIVESTRONG's support, think of how many kids, that wouldn't ordinarily get support for their ordeal, can create a community for themselves.

Help continue to support programs like Camp Kesem by making a contribution today to my LIVESTRONG Challenge account.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

You really are a little bastard, aren't you?

I can't divulge identities or relationships on this one. At least not yet.

But I just learned of another diagnosis of cancer. And it's close to home. Too close for comfort.

I've already got one family member fighting cancer, a repeat diagnosis. I have another friend who just finished treatment and was diagnosed again.

Last night's news, however, has me pissed.

When I have "clearance" to talk about it more, I will. But just know that this disease is messed up. They way it picks off its potential victims is ruthless, brutal and just unfair.

If you're as pissed as I am, help me wage this war. Consider a donation today.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

12 Days to Go Until We ROCK the RIDGE!

Last year, we ran this race in spite of Hurricane Irene. In spite of the promoter, aka Me, having just had major surgery. In spite of a last minute date change. And we pulled it off.

This year, we need to kick ass. We need major turnout. We need volunteers. We need you.

If you are in the Tri-State/New England area and want to come out for a day of fun in the sun at West Rock Ridge State Park, come out on Sunday, September 23 for a day of Mountain Bike Racing for a cause.

We'll have our Tribute Wall, where you can put up a bib in honor or in memory of someone that you know who fought cancer, we'll have prizes and other fun stuff. And, oh yes, the SERIES FINALE for the NEW ENGLAND CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES of Cross-Country Mountain Biking!

For more details and to register, please go to:

Can't make it to the race but want to contribute? Please, make a donation here:

Friday, September 7, 2012

What I learned from First Descents and... What's Next?

It's hard to believe it's been a full week since I've returned. That's got something to do with the fact that I learned en route to home in Dallas that my son had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia a couple of days earlier, but my folks didn't want to worry me while I was in Colorado and didn't tell me. Or the fact that I just finished up my Z-Pak after contracting bronchitis as a result of mild altitude sickness and spent Saturday night through Tuesday sleeping in bed with my bottle of cough syrup spiked with codeine.

Either way, it's hard to believe that it's been a full week and a day since I crested the top of The Castle and were with these amazing people.

But it's given me time to reflect, through these blogs, and in those moments at work when I'm waiting for a call or an email.

First, I can't wait to do my next First Descents adventure. I only wish they had their 2013 schedule set up so I could pick my next adventure.

Second, I have unfinished business at The Castle. I need to rappel down that damned cliff. No ifs ands or buts. I have to rappel that cliff. So I'm already trying to figure out how I can afford to go and when I can get back to Estes Park and book with Colorado Mountain School.

Lastly, as much work as I have ahead of me, I still got it. Yes, I'm getting winded so much faster than before. Yes, I was surprised at the amount of leg strength I have to rebuild vs. upper body strength. But I do still have it in me.

Which leads me to what's next: two major events - one I'm running and one in which I'm participating.

  • The 3rd Annual ROCK the RIDGE is coming up fast on September 23. We desperately need volunteers, so if you're interested, let me know. Additionally, there are still spots open, but pre-register fast - since this is our first year as a Season Finale event, we don't know how soon it's going to be before those floodgates open! This is such a fun Mountain Bike Race & Fun Ride!
  • The LIVESTRONG Challenge: Austin. This is a mac-daddy event, and one with which I have unfinished business. Yes, I went last year despite having started chemo. And, yes, I got on the bike. But I didn't even make it 10 miles.

    In all honestly, it's bloody embarrassing to me. I have to rock this out this year.

    I'm not saying I'm going to do the full 90-miles. But I'd like to at least make it to 25? Or more?

    But, I need my cheerleaders. I really need to kick my training in gear.

    I need to know you have my backs. And, frankly, the easiest way for me to know that is if you could find it in you to make a gift to my LIVESTRONG Challenge Account. That provides a solid, money-where-your-mouth-is promise from you to me that you have my back, and from me to you that I will fight hard - harder than for myself - for you. You are my sponsors. My employers, if you will, and I won't let you down.

    Think of it this way - for only $10 or more, you could sponsor an athlete. How cool!
I'm ready to start training. I'm ready to face my fears of the bike, now, and finish 2012 on 2-wheels once more.

Imagine what I'll be able to do, if, with your help, I meet my 2012 goals, in the year 2013?!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

First Descents: Graduation Day Part 2: Onward & Upward

“Real friends are very special, but you have to be careful because sometimes you have a friend and you think they are made of rock, then suddenly you realise they're only made of sand.”
- Maria Callas
I wasn't expecting the burn. No, my muscles weren't burning, nor was my skin burning. It was my shins and calves. They were scorching with pain as I scraped the flesh off bit by bit against the rock. I hear some of my friends referring to it as the "cheese grater." But I have no choice - my legs are so much thicker, and carrying a much greater burden that I have to use every inch of flesh on them in the climb - whether it be kneeling and pulling my way up, dragging the skin against the rough surface of rock, or standing up straight, allowing the razor to shred skin off. I wince with every maneuver, but there is no choice. I must go up.

By now, we're between one third to halfway up the rock. We climb section by section in a rotation - grey ropes first, red ropes second, green ropes third, purple rope last. I'm the first red rope - red stripe - so I'm the third to climb each section. Some sections go smoothly and swiftly - my climbing skills have increased since Day 1, and I'm not afraid of any of these rocks. Some I struggle with, requiring McStillin to boost me by either placing a foot or two onto an invisible foothold while I concentrate on holding my body up over a ledge or by, gawd bless him, using his hands to shove my sorry ass over a hump in the rock.

At the moment, there is a pine tree whose wiry roots have woven a nest for itself in the crease of the rock. A light purple rope with loops tied into it every few inches dangling my way, hanging off the tree. A teal mesh ladder hangs down from the tree as well, and my left foot is trying to stabilize itself. The ladder is loose - closer to a net, so my weakened ankles keep rolling from one side to the other, putting me at the risk of a sprain or worse every time I put pressure on it. Poor McStillin, whose nose, I'm quite certain, is halfway into my anus, is trying to position my foot in such a way to prevent that rolling so I can take the pressure off my forearms, now mantling this ledge.

"I think this counts as our third date, McStillin."


"Am I good to go?"

"I think so. On the count of three. 1... 2... 3..."

I stand on my left, slowly, feeling another ribbon of skin tearing off my leg and I place my right foot next to my right hand, allowing me to take my right hand and wrap it around the purple rope in between loops. In my mind, I repeat, "Happy little tree!" as I watch the pine tree ache, with roots quivering, and tiny bits of grit sliding my way. I drag my left leg up in a similar fashion, and I reach up, over several loops knowing that the rope will give a bit, and pull with every inch of my body. Little Bits stands over me, cheering me on, and I see Spare Parts pacing, in what appears to be impatience, looking over the rocks above me, his jowls taught until he retreats back to the cluster of ropes. In one move, I swing my left arm around the base of the pine tree, dislodge my left foot from the ladder, swing my right arm around the tree, and schmear my right foot while my left foot flattens against the rock. I rise, standing, and I hear some clapping.

"Yeah, Hit 'n' Run! Yeah!"

"Whoop, whoop!"

"Thank you, little tree," and I lean over and hug the tree. I toe my way to the left, then up, then to the right and join Mermaid, Hot Pink & Spare Parts. At this point, despite the slightly mirrored lenses he wore, you could see the ballet of multicolored ropes Spare Parts is choreographing in his mind as each climber, associated with yet another rope in his tangle of ropes and caribiners, makes progress up the rock. McStillin comes up next, and he tells him to go under one rope, stand over another, untwist another pair of ropes, and then help belay so he can get ready to set up the next climb.

I apologize again to my new boyfriend, McStillin (after all, I think it's safe to say that after our third date, we're exclusive), for making him have to shove his hands into the bulbous mass of my ass. He laughs, shakes his head, and says it's a pleasure. I purr and tell him I look forward to our fourth date, but I think I have to introduce him to my parents next. Lilac crests the rock next, and Spare Parts bounds down, shouting placement instructions to Lilac and McStillin. Lilac and McStillin dance around the ropes until they take their places.

I sit back, and find I'm still struggling to breathe. Could the chemo have caused this much damage to my lungs? This week, surely, has tested my aerobic threshold more than anything since last October, but this is absurd. My concern grows as I feel that rattle that my son gets when he's on the verge of a major asthma attack. Earlier in the ascent, McStillin took my backpack with his, and he's in the middle of some double-belaying - I can't ask him to give me my pack yet. Unfortunately, that means no water. I close my eyes and try and slow down my breathing - in through the nose, out through the mouth.

I clap and cheer folks on as they tumble over the last ledge, regroup, and get ready for the next ascent. Little Bits, already anticipating my need for the ladder, sets it up. Mermaid & Hot Pink head up - I see Hot Pinks delicate hands and feet start to quake - she's starting to fatigue on her right side. I cheer her on, even giving her butt cheek a boost McStillin style. She and I have a lot in common, not the least of which is that we're the most recently out of treatment. Hot Pink's hair is a little bit farther behind mine in progress of regrowth, but we're both still feeling the effects of chemo. It wasn't until this trip, actually, that I'd realized I was still recovering - I mean, I knew it would take a full year for the toxins to leave my body, and that the weight gained during chemo would take a while, but this is different. I think there was a mutual empathy at the realization that our hairstyles were not lifestyle choices, but still the aftereffects of a battle thrust upon us, ready or not.

That's kind of how I was feeling on this trip at times - that there were challenges thrust upon me, ready or not. The difference was that I invited this adventure, barbs and all. I was not, however, thrilled with this breathing situation.

The next ledge was deceptively tricky. I literally held myself up by the boobs (the real testament to Dr. Nordberg's skills - would they, literally, hold up?). You see, my fingers slipped from the handholds, my feet couldn't find anything to grip, and the rope had gotten tangled and caught in a crevice in the rock. So I hung by the tatas. (Good thing they are silicone - good grip!)

"McStillin - Time for date number four!" and, without missing a beat, he was there, helping me get my feet into a place from which I could boost myself up, grabbing onto the purple knotted rope and hoisting my sorry ass over this ledge. I crawled up, yay more grated skin, and got to the next climb. There was Spare Parts, pacing, muttering, grumbling in between the rocks, but I also saw some of the other gals from another group! We were nearing the top and regrouping! Cool! They were sitting, backs against a large rock, relaxing. Sidetrack was there... Three J... and I think Snapjacks?

I don't even bother telling Spare Parts that I'm climbing at this point - he seems to know that as soon as one rope quivers, it's time to tighten the slack. Besides, I keep getting that command wrong. "Red rope climbing... er... red stripe... on belay? Oh, hell, I'm coming up, Parts!" is usually all that I ended up blurting out. This climb was easy except for the last bit. I pull myself up, must have looked a bit like Kilroy, and no one is paying attention.

"Hellooooooo? What's next?" Nothing. I shrug (at least in my head, I'm a little occupied,) and I climb over the last bit, sitting in the clearing. I look over and see Whatevs and Three J kind of meditating on this landing they found, Sidetrack bubbling as usual with Hot Pink, and I realize I'm hungry. And thirsty. McStillin comes over and I ask if, for our fifth date, he can take me out to lunch. He gets my backpack out of his and I pull out my cheese sandwich and apple and my water bottle. I scarf down the sandwich, despite the near choking I experience as I literally inhaled my food, start drinking (but it's not going down), and pull out my apple. I'm feeling good - quite good - despite the trickles of blood dripping down my legs. But that's no biggie, despite the gawks I get from the others. I tell them the truth - that I'm so used to bleeding that I don't even notice anymore. (Like, at the beginning, when Ranier insisted on putting a band-aid on the first cut. I laughed and told her it wouldn't be the last and that it wasn't worth it.)

I'm just about to have something to drink and eat my apple when we're told to get up and keep moving. We look off to the distance and we see that strange grey streaking in the sky - there's rain in the mountains. (I'd never seen anything like that before this trip. I'd seen rain clouds - heavy, dark, pregnant with rain, but I'd never seen what it looks like with the clouds birth the sheets of rain of a storm). Where there's rain, there's going to be thunder and lightning. I reluctantly close up my water bottle, of which I've had 1 or 2 swigs at the max, pack that and the remaining lunch back into my backpack and McStillin snatches it away. I do decide I am going to keep my apple, so I start eating it as we casually walk on some soft ground towards the next bit of climbing. This doesn't look too bad at all, with the exception of a short slope around a tree - there are two paths to take - one to the left and one to the right of the tree's girth. The more advanced team is going on the right, whereas Parts & Bits have laid our ropes to the left. From where I stand, the right looks easier, but I've learned to take their words for it.

Soon enough, it's my turn. I already have my fair share of pine tree sap globules clinging to me, including a nice blob on my ass, so it's no surprise that I now have some under my breasts, where I had to wrap both arms around the stump jutting out of the side of the rock, as I climbed my way past the tree. I realized this is the closest I'd ever gotten to climbing a tree when I use that same stump as a boost up the rock. Now, I'm in familiar territory. It's an oversized rock garden - no biggie - I just have to pick which rocks to use as my steps. I hope from rock top to rock top in ascension with as little struggle as I would on a water hike at camp, going from one dry rock top to another, crossing this invisible river of mountain air.

Finally, as I reach the last wall of rock to climb over, I peer over and see Spare Parts, who is encouraging me, (I hear Little Bits also sounding surprised at my agility in this last bit), and a few more folks from other teams. This is the top. I've done it. I was elated, or at least I should have been, but once I get to the peak, something is off. I'm woozy. I'm cold. I'm coughing. I'm shaky. I'm quivering.

Which is just plain stupid. I reach into my backpack to get my 2011 LIVESTRONG Ride for the Roses pullover jacket, and in horror, I realize I left it in the van. My breathing feels so labored, but I'm not tired - yes, I worked out, but I didn't work out. It has to be the altitude - there is no other reason for this. I shake as I pull on the long-sleeved dri-fit top I threw in my pack for some protection as the cold rain starts. I'm not in a good way. I make my way down some rocks to sit, and I try and find something to eat that I find appetizing, but nothing really appeals to me. I look to my right, and I see Spare Parts setting up the rappel.

CRAP! I'd forgotten about the rappel back down! Ugh.

I see folks starting to line up. I look up to Lilac and say, "So this is how a lemming feels..." No response. Oh, dear. I've lost my funny.

A couple of people get hooked up and repel down. I'm not even sure who, because I'm distracted by Little Bits making direct eye contact with me and drawing me to him with his index finger. In true Hollywood fashion, I look around me to see who he's looking at, point at myself with a quizzical look on my face (like I didn't already know the answer), and ask, "Me?" Little Bits nods and my heart jumps out of my chest, through my throat, and into next week.

"Dead Man Walking," I say to myself in my head as I walk past these well-meaning individuals cheering me on. Two Dogs, our camp dad, is suiting up. He's supposed to go down along with me. It's a blur of flesh tones and identical shoes until I am nearly blinded by the glimmer of light beaming from Spare Part's grin. I can't tell if this is meant to be reassuring, or his sadism creeping through as he is about to spin me down another rappel. My heart has returned to its home, beating like a hummingbird's wings and I feel all the blood rush to my fingertips. I have a sudden urge to poo. I start quivering, ever so slightly, from my bowels to my chest. My hairs stand on edge.

Little Bits puts his hand gently, reassuringly, on my shoulder, and it feels as though he's Freddy Kruger digging razorblades into my flesh, as he asks if I'm ready to do this. Through a clenched jaw, I say, "Not really." He smiles - he's such a kind soul, he's trying so hard to make this easy for me - and says it's ok, that I can trust them, it's going to be great, etc. I grit my teeth harder, which I think is mistaken for a smile, and I get the sensation that all of my inner organs have just been swallowed up by a black hole and are no longer in my body. At this point, the body quake is slowly making its way through my pelvis and shoulders. My clavicle is chattering. Before I know what's happening, Spare Parts and Little Bits have me clipped into things, I'm attached to something else, and McStillin is there.  I just keep looking at the rope, onto which my fingers are wrapped like wires melding into a tree they were wrapped around for too long. I hear voices, but they aren't making sense. I just see the rough, multicolored textures of the granite slabs I'm on and that are surrounding me. The sun must have come out, because things are more golden and less steely now.

I hear Little Bits tell me to walk backwards. I take a step back. It's a decent step - a good 4 inches. I think he wraps an arm around my shoulder - I'm not sure - as now all of my skin is as numb as the tissue now enveloping the silicone implants - I can feel a semblance of pressure, but not much else. More words of encouragement, now coming from all directions, but I can't really tell which direction I'm in. McStillin's face comes into focus, and just behind his is Spare Parts, who, for the first time since I've met him, shows a bit of concern - the cockiness has fallen away. I feel a spin coming on as something starts dropping onto my lips, my chest, and sounds come out of my mouth that I can't recognize. The saltiness tells me that I'm now crying, and I don't know what I'm saying - I'm deafened by the silent spin I feel. My feet - I focus on my feet, which feel like they are filled with lead, and all I can manage to do as I near the edge is shuffle backwards 1 inch.... half an inch... maybe a quarter inch... are they moving at all? Have my feet melded into the rock? Voices are getting louder, and I just get more and more confused.

"NO!" Did I just shout that? "I can't! I can't! I can't do it!"

Who the hell said that? It must have been me, because now there are shadows coming around me, telling me I can, that it won't be so bad... and that's when the burning from the black hole of my bowel starts to surge upwards. There's a rush of nothing good. I feel like I'm going to choke. I don't know if I'm crying or screaming or silent, but all I know is that the next thing I'm off the ledge, with Snapjacks by my side, the monkey, which had been attached to my harness all day, in my hand, shaking.

My brain is still in slow motion, processing what happened moments prior to me being back in the clearing - I just now hear Little Bits say, "If you promise to go the next time it's your turn, we'll let you get off now." I think I said that I would. Shit. What was I thinking? Oh my G-d, I did - I promised him - I looked him in the eye... oh no... I scramble to get up as I start to cough and cough. I can't breathe and I start to heave. Snapjacks holds me as I throw up invisible rivers of fire, phlegm, apple, my sandwich, and water in between a few rocks and some bushes.

I need to lie down. I am having the most horrible out-of-body experience I've had. I can't make sense of where I am or what's happening.

Things start to come into focus a bit more. I'm lying down, sideways, on a rock. It's not comfortable. Snapjacks is off to the side. The guides are by the ledge. I feel the sun on my face. I feel like I've been punched in the gut by The Thing over and over and over again. I think I'm still breathing, but it hurts when I do.

I can't remember if I get up on my own or at the prompting of someone else, but I manage to stand. When I become aware of what's still ahead of me, the heaving begins again. I'm then reminded of my promise. Snapjacks offers to go down with me, and I shake my head. She can't handle this.

I overhear voices... "panic... threw up... not good... only way... " and I don't like any way those words and phrases can be pieced together. My head feels like it weighs 500 pounds. Little Bits tells me it's time, and like the bobble head that I feel like, I start to walk over. Spare Parts now has his sunglasses off, and I can see in his eyes his dry humor is nowhere in sight - he's got his game face on. This is serious. Little Bits light eyes are glistening, and his brow is furrowed in thought. Two Dogs isn't there - he must have gone down before me.

I have McStillin on one side and Little Bits on the other, and I become aware of ropes connecting the three of us. That fine line between reality and fantasy blurs again and I think someone explains they are both going with me - one in front, one in back. I don't remember the purpose. Spare Parts is belaying us down. I think I'm nodding in response to something, but I'm not sure. Everything goes numb again. I start walking backwards. At least I think I am.

And then there's a tug at my back. Like someone is pulling my underwear towards them. I scream - I don't even know what. Another tug, and now I am nothing but a giant reflex. I plant my feet, drop my weight, and lean forward as hard as I can. There's more tugging, and I lunge for a hole at the tips of my toes. I dig my fingertips as deeply as I can and pull. More tugging and yanking. I'm screaming, "NO!" at the top of my lungs.

Body weight on me. I'm completely helpless under him. My shoulders are pinned. I'm screaming and nothing is happening. His hand is over my mouth and no one can hear me. I can't breathe and my mind escapes through the ceiling of my dorm room.

Wait. What the fuck was that? I'm holding onto this rock, but my finger tips begin to slip. I leap forward, chest first, at another rock, and I am able to wrap my arms around it completely, almost locking my fingers together. There's another strong pull from the back. Men's voices are shouting.

Each one has a limb - one has a leg, another has an arm, a third has my other leg and a fourth has my other arm. They are pulling me down, forcing me onto a gurney. One comes out of nowhere with straps and buckles.

I get dizzy and I'm back in that dorm room, his shadowy figure above, with no air for me to breathe. I can't believe I've been overtaken. I've never met anyone from whom I couldn't wrestle away. But he's so overwhelmingly strong. Am I even fighting him? Everything goes black.

"We're so sorry - it's the only way to get you down!"

"Please trust us!"

The sun is on my face, drying the water streaming, but the screams aren't stopping. "NO!"

I press my cheek into the rock. I don't care if I shred my face, I'm not being forced into this.

The officer tries to swipe my legs out from under me. I outmaneuver him. Another officer comes from the side, but all I can do is break free. Four in all are keeping me from that bridge. I'm stronger than this. I've taken greater than this. I'm jumping off that bridge if it's the last thing I do. Two on each side, and I'm the Incredible Hulk, dragging them along towards the edge. I just want to go over. I just want to fall. Metal snaps and my wrists are being cut to shreds.

"I SAID NO!" I screamed, as I hear the metal of the caribiners rubbing against the rock, and the tugging continues around my waist. To my right is a small hole between the rocks. I slide, as though it weren't gnarled chunks of rock I'm slipping my already torn up legs through, but a child's water slide. I wedge myself in and find another rock to hold tight.

I just want to die. He kicked me out of his house. Of his life. Despite his protests that it will just be a matter of time, I know. I know it will never happen again, in my gut. I'll never speak to him again, rather, he'll never speak to me. Our friendship is over. The man who taught me so many years ago the mantra that kept me moving forward through so much, "Trust your feet," who had become one of my closest friends, who promised to never break our friendship, broke every promise. He broke everything. He shattered my trust over nothing. And he was so "over it" that his eyes were cold and callous. Those same eyes that made me feel safe time and time again were full of vitriol and hate. I was done. I just got so foggy...  

I didn't really want to die. But I didn't want to disappoint him. But I sure as hell didn't want to die right now. And jumping off that ledge? It's suicide. It's the bridge. It's that night. No. I can't face what I was going to do. I don't want to die anymore.

 These men are holding me down, forcing me in the direction they want. It has taken more than one to do it, but I'm yielding despite every inclination I have. Every muscle in my body is lurching forward, but theirs are heavier and greater than mine. Darkness.

I won't be overtaken.

I can smell the vodka. And who knows what else. I can feel the palms of his hands forcing my shoulders down. He seems to have grown 3 feet and 1,200 pounds since we met at the bar. I can't move. I can't budge. Every attempt to break lose forces him to cause me more pain. Every wriggle yields a new punishment.

"I SAID NO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

And it stopped. It all stops. There is no pulling at my waist. There is no more talking. No more dizziness. No one is moving. I look up, and McStillin, Little Bits and Spare Parts are motionless, frozen in their position with my blood curdling exclamation. For the first time in what feels like hours, my shoulders relax.



"Ok. We're stopping."

"Ok. You'll stop pulling me?"



Shaking, spent, exhausted, I ease my way out of my retreat and slump over the rocks. I overhear them, "Can we sedate her?"

"Do we have any medication or something?"

"No, we don't."

"Is there something we can give her?"

"No, nothing."

"There's only one way down."

"I know."

I pant on the rocks.

Little Bits comes over and says, "Look, if we could get you down any other way, we would."

McStillin apologizes, "We didn't want to force you over, but we really didn't have much of a choice - it's actually the safest, and fastest way back down."

"The alternative makes no sense," Spare Parts continues, "We could call for rescue, but it would take hours, cost thousands, and all they'll do is have a net and you'll still be rappelled down the side. That's going to be worse"

I look at all of them, broken, and just say, "But that's not going to happen."

There's an unpleasant silence as we see a flash of lightning.

We really do have to get moving.

"Can't you just let me walk back down?"

"No," all three in unison say.

"Why not?"

"Because," Little Bits explains, "there's no other way down, except the way that you came."


"'Ok,' what?"

"Let me go down the way I came up."

"That's crazy."

"Why? I know the way... I did it once before going up. Going down would be easier!"

Little Bits, the most experienced answers, "Don't you remember how hard you struggled on the way up?"


McStillin chimes in, "All those boosts you needed from me?"


Spare Parts looks me in the eye for what seemed to be an eternity, saying nothing, like he'd just discovered a wounded deer in the forest and he was having a connection with its soul. He closes his eyes, nods, looks at Little Bits and says, "Ok."

I hear whispering, and I think another guide is there, and the group comes back.

Little Bits explains, "Here's the deal. We're going to climb down the way we came. There will be some rappelling down, but nothing like this. This is so much harder than just rappelling down. Are you sure about this?"

Feeling like a child who was just given the most shiny, expensive, perfect toy in the world, I giddily respond, "YES!"

I really don't think that the guides, or McStillin, know what to do with me, but we start off. I feel like I have sea legs, like they aren't really worthy of standing, but the adrenaline from the joy of knowing I don't have to rappel down that cliff is enough to keep me going.

"Parts, hang on. How are you going to belay me? You way nothing."

"Don't worry about it."

There's a moment when the other guys are conversing and it's just me and Spare Parts.

"You really weren't going down that edge, were you."


"You're bad ass."


"We're climbing down this thing. I've got you, you know that, right?"



I start down the rocks, and I'm feeling much greater tightness in the rope now than before I went up.

"Spare Parts, a little slack?"

"I'm keeping you tight to the rock."

"Yeah, I know, but I kinda can't move or breathe!"

Spare Parts loosens the rope a bit, and I'm scurrying down over the overgrown rock garden, through the first landing, and down another bit of rocks. The guides catch up and look at me like I have three heads. I don't know if they think I had faked everything at the top of the rock (which, believe you me, I hadn't) or if I'm completely insane. But they're all pretty happy I'm moving. We get to the tree with the two paths.

"McStillin, Little Bits - which side should I go down?"

"I'll go down first and then help you," McStillin answers. He goes down and helps me get down along the right. A few more crab walks and Again shows up out of nowhere from around a rock. I guess some of the whispering included a phone call to the other guides. I start down towards where we'd climbed, and Again says, "Let's take this way."

Uh, excuse me, Again, but you're late to the party. The theme is "Go Down Something I've Gone Down Before," not, "New Territory."

"Trust me, this way is faster. Look, you'll have to rappel some of this either way, and it's about the same distance down this way, but it will save time. We really have to move."

I nod (I think to the surprise of everyone), and I turn towards the rock. I look up to make sure Spare Parts is ready.

Intensely, he looks at me and says, "Look me in the eyes." I do - there is no breaking that gaze. "I have you. I am not going to let you fall. Give your heart to the skies." I nod. "Now, just look at me - don't take your eyes off mine." I nod, as though in a trance.

Staring at him, I lean back into a sit position, and I feel my harness change from a restraint into a comfortable seat. I hop back and feel myself drop. I move my feet downward, looking Parts in the eyes the whole time, and move down the rock. As he falls farther and farther away, I lower my feet and I'm on the ground. Done.

Spare Parts flashes his signature smile, Again, Little Bits and McStillin have a nervous chuckle and clap and cheer me on.

All of a sudden, I hear a chorus of, "Whoop whoops" and applause. I turn around and look down. In the distance, the entire First Descents camp is watching the show. I grab the monkey off my butt and wave him in the air, returning the, "Whoop-whoop!" battle cry.

The rest of the guides come down and we continue on, only with this next rappel, I immediately lean back, no hesitation, staring at Spare Parts, and wave the monkey. We keep moving, and before any of us know it, Glass holds a tray of cupcakes with one left.

"We saved it for you."

I made it down. The guides come down after me, and I just hug them all. Parts comes up and says, "Ok, we'll ease you down the rest of the way."

"Parts, as much as I genuinely enjoy being  tied up to you, I don't think it's necessary."

"Ok, you can clip out."

"Nah... I kinda like you leading me along by a leash." I wink at him and we make it down to the vans together.

Those men, those amazing men - Little Bits, Spare Parts, McStillin and Again - have no clue (until now) of what kind of a panic attack they were dealing with at the top of that rock. I'm still processing it myself. Perhaps that's why they seemed a bit surprised at how grateful I was to them at the end of the day.

When the four of us got together for a picture after dinner, I held them all and said, "I don't know what I'm going to do when I get home without you three. You're my heroes."

I hope, someday, they'll understand in how many ways I mean that. And how, strangely, this particular climb was meant to conquer issues remaining from cancer, but, in my case, attacked fears that long pre-existed cancer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

First Descents: Graduation Day Part I: The Lead Up

A rock pile ceases to be a rock pile the moment a single man contemplates it, bearing within him the image of a cathedral.
 - Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I opened my eyes to a blur of tan fuzz, a little grey furry face next to mine, warm toes, and chatter. It was too early. It was dark. There were cups clinking. I pulled the beige blanket from over my head revealing the monkey doll tucked under my chin and sat up in the recliner chair in front of the fireplace on the main level of the ranch. I tried to sleep in the sofa bed in the loft, but I just couldn't sleep for more than 10 minutes at a time. I thought that perhaps the World's Most Comfortable Piece of Furniture could help me sleep better. If sleeping 30 minutes at a time was an improvement, then G-d Bless. The hot tub had me feeling relaxed, even if my REM quota was severely lacking.

I head up to the loft to grab my towel, toiletries and my clothes and shower up downstairs. The crust tightening my skin from the hot tub the night before washes off down the drain, and I try and relax my muscles. I don't know what I'm going up against. All I know is that I keep hearing the words, "epic," "challenge," "ridiculous," and did I mention, "epic?" being used to describe the event today. These are words best used to describe mountain stages of the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, not a rock climb. In my simple mind, that's like taking me, simple bike commuter, on my pink hybrid and putting me on the Alpe d'Huez. I rinse the thought from my mind as I rinse the conditioner from my hair and I get out of the shower, get dressed, and head into the dining room.

I layer my bowl as I do at the office - nuts, raisins and a dash of sweetener first, a scoop of oatmeal, another layer of nuts, raisins, fruit and sweetener, more oatmeal, and a topping of fruit, nuts and sweetener. While getting my coffee, I let the oatmeal sit and steam cook the fruit, making the raisins blossom and mel the sweetener into a river running through the layers in the bowl.

I pull out my laptop for two reasons: 1) I have to see what this Castle Rock hoopla is all about and 2) I make a last ditched effort for some green/yellow courage - a plea for some donations to my LIVESTRONG account, so I have some accountability preventing me from quitting. Little Bits comes over and sits next to me. I can see as I tell him that I'm looking for photos of Castle Rock to get an idea of what I'm going up against that he's debating whether or not to help me confirm which photos are accurate. He's gotten to know me well enough to know that surprises don't suit me well, and that I need time to let my head wrap around the challenge, absorb it, and start to break it down. We look at some of the photos, and, of course, I first see a photo of some spider-like human defying gravity by climbing upside down under a ledge. I raise an eyebrow, look at Little Bits and do nothing but point at the screen before he turns it back to me and says, "You won't be climbing that side of the Castle." I nod and keep looking. Apparently, there weren't too many photos of the exact course that the team I would be on would be climbing. Little Bits reassures me that he and the others are also going to use some "aided climbing" techniques and tools vs. the free climbing we'd been doing. He had some mesh netting/ladder type items, some ropes that we can hoist ourselves up with and some other tricks. I roll my eyes and regret all those times Mr. Festo at Bi-Cultural Day School tried to get me to push harder climbing up the ropes during the stupid President's Physical Fitness Challenges during the Reagan years and shrugging them off to move onto shooting baskets.

I post a harried blog with some photos of what Bits confirms we'll be working on, I close the computer, and eat my breakfast. I'm going to need to fuel up.

We have a good hour-long drive ahead of us, so I pack up my copy of The Shining that I'd picked up from The Stanley Hotel (much slower read than the Hunger Games books), my iPod, which I've decided will be my secret weapon, a simple lunch and my 3 water bottles. We head out to the vans and I try and get myself pumped. I listen to my "Riding" mix - complete with Eminem, Metallica, Kelly Clarkson, Gaga, Madonna, etc. When I find that my little Nano cannot compete with the satellite radio that McStillin & Hot Pink have playing, I yield to what they are playing (everything from Elvis to Top 40 to Hip Hop to Willy Nelson) and try reading The Shining.

Looka dat face! What a shayna punim!
In the meantime, Spare Parts, that stoic, icy, strongman who bears an unnerving resemblance in physique, attitude and humor to that old friend who first told me to trust my feet, is not doing well. He's sitting next to me, in the middle aisle of the mini-van, looking somewhat squeamish. He explains that he gets car sick. Part of me cannot help but laugh a little - here's a guy that I could envision hiking Kilamanjaro in a pair of Birkenstocks, a parka, a pair of jeans and a single Clif Bar because he's such a badass, and he's getting nauseous in the minivan. I smile and offer him some mint gum, which I hoped would ease his stomach. I then joke with him, letting him know that no matter where he is on the rock, again, if something goes wrong, I will blame him. It will all be his fault. I will curse his name. He laughs, with those deep, sun-bronzed dimples turning his chiseled, taught tanned cheeks into ravines of chuckles, his white teeth shining with what I swear was that superhero twinkle on the front tooth, making his eyes bug out a little more than usual. The smug son-of-a-bitch can turn from cold and too-cool-for-school to all-American-boy in a second. Ya gotta love the guy. I guess my gesture towards a truce breaks him down a little more, and he passes me a slip of paper. I cannot understand what the hell all these cryptic scribbles mean until I realize he's showing me his team list - he and Little Bits have me on their team along with Hot Pink, Lilac, High Five, Ranier, McStillin and Mermaid. The preview was well-received - what a cool crew to be with!

Some backseat driving and smacktalk later, and we're making a quick pit stop in Nederland, Spare Parts' former stomping ground. We wait in line to use the bathroom when I notice this gas station offers more water pipes than any head shop I'd ever seen in Manhattan. Impressive, but not terribly surprising. We do what the guides advised us to do all day yesterday and this morning - try and evacuate everything you can - once we were on the rock, there really wasn't anyplace to go.

We reclaim our seats in the van and take off. In a flash, we are pulling into a dirt road and on one side of us, there is a river, on the other a rock. And another rock. And another rock.


The Castle.
The phrease "Holy Sh*t Balls" comes to mind. 
Prepping to climb, realizing this other group (upper left) claimed what was originally supposed to be one of our climbs.
Stupid tourists....

The guides making sure they didn't forget anything. I sure hope Spare Parts can count...

Part II coming....

First Descents Day 3: So, this is what you call a "Rest Day?"

Yoga is not my friend. It never has been. In my mind's eye, it would go something like this:

Or this:

So why, after knocking over co-workers at Cendant years ago at our lunch-time yoga wellness program session like dominoes, and all my previous attempts & fails at yoga before, I decided to join the yoga session on our 3rd day with an instructor named Pretzel, I couldn't tell you. Perhaps it was because I was so in the moment, and I had succeeded in suspending enough of my neuroses that I felt that I could conquer it.

I'm pleased to report that I didn't knock anyone down. But Pretzel's pace was too great for me to keep up with and her "modifications" weren't frequent enough for me to follow. I'd asked her before the class if she was going to include modifications, which she said she would, but me thinks her definition of "modifications" and mine were about as similar as chocolate and umami. But, that's ok. I had done enough Windsor pilates to be able to modify some of the poses well enough. Besides, thanks to Bethenny Frankel, I kept reminding myself that yoga is more about the breathing and feeling one with the breath than the actual poses themselves.

It wasn't until we got to some of the stretches of the chest and back, however, that I broke down. As many of my fellow teammates from my years in basketball, fencing, softball and even ballet can tell you, I've always been flexible from the waist up. I could hook my arms backwards and pull myself in all kinds of different directions. Before. Before the butchery.

However, as we held a simple stance, reached behind ourselves, grabbed our hands, and then had to stretch our clasped hands up, I felt a strange tugging and disconcerting shifting in my chest.


The implants. My pectorals. These fucking, G-d forsaken foreign objects that yield to no one, that have turned my pectoral muscles to the surface just below my skin, so that every twitch of the muscle causes a disgusting, gut-wrenching yank and pull and ripple in what had been my soft, supple cleavage. I could lift 100 pounds, and my breasts still looked feminine. Now, just stretching made me look like a roided up Arnold Schwartzenegger in the Mr. Olympia contest.

My primary goal of this adventure with First Descents was to try and feel like myself - something I haven't felt since my diagnosis. I hate my body for betraying me. I hate my body for falling apart. I hate my implants. I hate these stupid fake nipples with no sensation. I hate my skin that is in a constant state of tangible numbness. I hate it all.

I felt the tears start to fall, and I tried so hard to stick it out, but when I felt the onslaught of sobs, I had to bail. I tried, as quickly and quietly as possible, to run to the bathroom where I just let it go. I felt so defeated. I'd have slammed my fists to these false breasts repeatedly, beating them up, if there were any option to feel anything - even pain. But there wasn't any point - I wouldn't be able to feel anything. I couldn't do anything with them. And I couldn't feel anything with them. They simply fill in my dresses and bra cups. That's it. They are hollow, useless, and unattached, but attached, permanent accessories.

I broke down, curling up on the floor, breathless with grief. My breakfast to this point consisted of my coffee cup and now a serving of tear water and snot. I was mortified. I couldn't believe I abandoned the class. I couldn't forgive myself for not being stronger. I just wanted my cat, Sammy, to force me to play with him and out of this funk. But he was at home. I had to do this by myself. I closed my eyes and just breathed. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. In through the nose. Out through the mouth.

I tossed cold water on my face, as I know I have inherited my mother's tendency to get flush and terrible red eyes when crying, and I go back to the outside patio where the yoga class was continuing. I struggled through the poses again, quivering, stumbling, kneeling, chest heaving...

Yoga ended, Namaste, and I just wanted to curl up and die. But it was breakfast time. The coffee and food was too good to escape company, so I joined the group at the table. We prepped for the next part of our rest day - a hike, some shopping in town, and chilling. (I was opting for the shopping, as I wanted to see the town and I always enjoy seeing what the locals do wherever I visit.)

We pile into the vans, and our first stop is a drive through Rocky Mountain National Park. The views were spectacular. The photos say it all:

Hot Pink in a field of wildflowers...
Well, not really... just a planting at the gas station.

Yeah. I climbed over the safety wall. And?


The Amazing FD 2012 Estes Park Gang
"I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school...
I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy... "

The Amazing Wildflower

Yes, that's an Elk Bull.
Yes, we were that close from the car.
Next, we were onto our hike at Gem Lake. Those of us who were shopping would not complete the entire hike while the rest actually completed the trail to the lake itself. Though I'd been feeling winded during some of the walks we were doing to the rocks, it wasn't too problematic - I simply dismissed it as altitude or something. But I figured this hike should be a piece of cake - I've always been able to hike - granted, my knees would be problematic, but it's not that much of a challenge. Hell, most of my mountain bike races are hikes on the way up, and that's with a full Camelbak and a Trek 3900 in tow! But, in this case, it was merely a backpack with a couple of light items and no bike, and I was near hyperventilation almost immediately. Not only was it inconvenient, it was thoroughly pissing me off, which wasn't exactly helping. Chopper, Mermaid, Little Bits and I walked along - clearly, they were designated sweeps. The negative was falling back. The positive was that I was with a local, a photographer and a local birdwatcher - this meant I could take in the beauty around us. This trail was stunning. Well kept, looking over vistas that I'd never seen in this country, birds flitting about - it was lovely. We talked, got to know each other.

I didn't know that Chopper, for example, was a former cycling pro until Bits & I started talking about cycling, and I was trying to explain some of the strategy to Mermaid. He seemed impressed that I knew about the sport, the Tour, etc. If I recall, it was when I was comparing hiking up to cycling, and pointed out that I was more like a Jans Ullrich vs. a Contador when it comes to climbing, but the ideal is to be more like an Armstrong - with powerful legs but not overly heavy, so you can be a well-rounded player. Unfortunately, the topic didn't come up until we were almost at the overlook, so I didn't get to pry Chris with questions.

Here, Wildflower explained we would have a rock ceremony. We were, in silence, to choose 2 rocks, and a Sharpie marker. On one rock, we were to write down everything that we wanted to leave behind - every insecurity, trait, etc. One the other, what we hoped to keep with us, earn or takeaway with us. Tomorrow was graduation day, so it was time to really think. For my positive rock, I found a lovely stone with quartz crystals. It was small, light and lovely. The other had to be huge. I had a tome to write in order to list all the things I wanted to relieve myself of - so many issues, qualities, etc.

Now, I've participated in my fair share of similar ceremonies. And there is always this forced silence while you wait for everyone else to finish. But this was different... there was no urge to break the silence. There were no giggles, sneezes, awkward shifting. I sense that most of us finished our rocks long before anyone said a word. The air was so clean, the sun felt so good - it felt like such a whole moment that I don't think any one of us wanted to disturb that purity.

We all gathered at the edge of the overlook and, on the count of three (well, I needed 4 since my rock was SO large that I had to wait for everyone else lest I accidentally hit one of my friends in the head with mine), and our rocks went flying over the ledge. Poetically, mine hit an edge and splintered into hundreds of shards. I breathed in, looked at Snapjacks and the others (she happened to be right near me) and I said, "I may have been the last one up here, but I'll be damned if I'll be the last one down!"

It seemed like a bold statement, I could understand that, but bear one thing in mind - while I'm not a great cyclist, and at the speed required for mountain biking, I can't always find the line, when I have the chance to study a course, I can pick some damned fine ones. I knew I didn't have to run, but just find the lines of least resistance and approach it to scouting out a bike trail or road course. So I zipped down. Except for the occasional confirmation that I was making the right turn at junctions, there was no looking back, no stopping, no slowing down - just forward momentum. Until I saw a hairband on the ground.

Suddenly, I had a strange urge - something that had merely been a longing for months. I picked up the hairband, ran my fingers through my hair, pulled back as hard as I could, and deftly wrapped and tightened that band against the stub at the back of my scalp. More than likely, I looked more like George Washington vs Lady Godiva, but, for the first time in just under a year, I was able to pull my hair - my own hair - into a pony tail. (Ok. Pony tail is stretching it - maybe a bunny tail.) I grinned and then just let gravity lead me down. Before I knew it, I was leaning against the van, looking up at the trail, and I couldn't see Wildflower, who was the first one in the pack behind me. It was a few minutes before the group broke the clearing into the parking lot.

I had done it. I finished first. And I was barely winded.

Shopping in town was fine, though not my cup of tea. We only had an hour, which was a shame, because that barely left us much time to do more than hit some of the typical t-shirt/souvenir shops and an ice cream store. Personally, I love to mill around, look at the galleries, look at the craftswork, jewelry and art work and spend $50 on a piece of local, handcrafted specialties that represent the place I'm visiting vs. $50 worth of t-shirts and hats, but that's ok. I was able to find keychains for both of my kids - a tradition I started several years ago - a keychain for every state I travel through for each of them, a couple of magnets and some postcards (which, dummy me, I forgot to put into the mail). Besides, I'd already gotten my special Estes Park goodies earlier in the week, anyway - a key chain and key from the Stanley Hotel Room #217 and a door plaque for my bedroom, now known as Room #217.

I will say this: Huckleberry Ice Cream is Colorado's equivalent to Maine's secret weapon, Blueberry Ice Cream. I won't choose one over the other, but they are both equally divine.

We met up with Wildflower and the others and headed back to the ranch for dinner and our campfires, which aren't actual campfires - but more like a communal gathering where we reflect upon the day and award each other with one of 3 special tokens - a monkey for work "On The Rock," a set of maracas for work "Off The Rock," and a turkey hat for... well... anything else - spirit.

Before dinner, though, I was feeling stiff and tense for the next day's climb. The guides and staff had been hyping it all week, and the fact that, at best, I'd done moderate climbs, everyone else had attacked the advanced and expert climbs. I didn't. I felt out of my league, so I did something I didn't think I would - I went into the hot tub. Everyone else went downstairs to play Hydration Pong (I never really got Beer Pong, anyway), and I just took in the mountain air while surrounded by bubbles. I started to sing. I felt that if I could sing, in the hot tub and perhaps even the mountain, I could maintain my breathing and pace myself. I think I was in there for 2 hours.

Then, I heard the announcement that dinner was ready - those beautiful lasagnas Antelope Jamboree and Chamomile had been working on all day with their hearts and souls. It was sumptuous. Everything (but the pasta) was homemade. It was divine, comforting, soothing, nutritious and filling.

As we went through our campfire ritual, we gave our staff and guides a token of our affection - a Red Solo Cup printed with a cute message, signed by each of us. And then it was onto the awards.

I was still so relaxed by my soak in the hot tub, I was barely awake when I heard Snapjacks re-quote me to the group,  "I may have been the last one up here, but I'll be damned if I'll be the last one down!" My meltdown repelling on Day 1 made an impact on everyone, as it was mentioned a few times at Day 1's campfire as a moment of inspiration, but this one I wasn't expecting. The next thing I know, I'm receiving the monkey for work On the rock. ME.

I was honored. And stupefied.

And I realized I had a lot to live up to the next day on Graduation Day. I would be carrying the monkey.

Failure would not be an option.

Was I ready for the Challenge?