The magnitude of a 7.5 earthquake hit the foundation of my life leading into 2014. There were gaping cracks and debris strewn everywhere. The predictability of my health was as foreseeable as earthquakes. One day, I was an erupting volcano—full of fire, power, force and not to be reckoned with for fear of burning alive. The next day, ash with only a hint of warm coals left. A neuromuscular disorder makes pain my constant companion and an endless reminder that all nerve endings were firing.
Even in devastation, beautiful gardens of life can grow. That being said, our house is proof I don’t have much of a green thumb. Certain days were clearly suffering overwatering with tears—a side effect of trying to be what once was—a physical machine with no off switch. Other days my body and brain were the Sahara desert—dry, granular and almost uninhabitable. It took some introspection to figure out the formula for success was not to be afraid of overwatering or evaporation. The key was recognizing that I was grieving—grieving the loss of a previous self. Clinging to what once was kept me a prisoner and truthfully, made me feel awful and rather grizzly like. Change is unavoidable and well, I had been trying to avoid the unavoidable.
Accepting that the privilege of bike racing, climbing and exercise in general would take me to the outermost threshold of pain and that sooner than later, may come to a screeching halt, there still seems to be only one option for me—to live like I was dying. In reality, we all are dying with aging and perhaps through some other unhealthy choices we make. With my “never surrender” and “we only have one shot at this lifetime” mentality, changing my approach to my athletic passions was the only option. I was no longer going to cling to my performances and wants of the past, just what was possible now. How does one do that? I signed up for some races—just cuz ya never know what you’re capable of until you try and if they were to be my last races ever, they were going to count!
The races were sporadic and mostly road racing. Then there was my favourite race—the Paris to Ancaster race. If you want to know about that one read my previous blog called, “Paris to Ancaster-mud, tears and a tank of badass.” Most road racers are as swift and smooth as a sharpened arrow. Me—the Tasmanian Devil on Red Bull. All or nothing and tapping into a few half-tanks of badass! The few gifts of physical stamina my body mustered up in my short-lived racing season had its reward. The prize for a few tanks of badass arrived in the mail near the end of 2014. The package resulted in my mouth falling wide open and a holy F*ck..go figure. It was a plaque and a congratulations for placing 3rd overall in my category. Turns out great things can be achieved when boundaries are challenged. Who would have thunk!
As time passed, cycling became a quartering rack—ripping me apart physically. My life balance dropped as fast as a thermometer in Siberia. If that wasn’t enough, a new, searing pain appeared on the right side of my upper abdomen. It wasn’t helping cycling either since leaning over was like a kick in the ribs each time. The answer—have more than one athletic passion. When one doesn’t work, go to another. Not being an “eggs all in one basket” kinda gal meant an easier shift to my other life-feeding passion—outdoor rock climbing.
Having a neuromuscular disorder means exercising regardless of how many times you want to say “holy f*ck this hurts”—so my doctor tells me. Scaling rocks, in short doses, was a welcome friend and an instrument of torture. The lack of training, meant severe SUCKAGE was inevitable. Suckage, the ego and memory aren’t friends. Since suckage is impossible to avoid, memory kept reminding me of what I was once capable of and the ego kept telling me that I should be better than I was because everyone else was—ego and memory were given a swift kick out the door. The beginner’s psyche came rushing back and so did the reason I started to climb in the first place—cuz it’s awesome! Then there was the adrenaline. Oh, my faithful and invigorating friend it is. Butt-clenching whippers (big falls) on what looks like dental floss attached to my harness is the ticket to this natural drug which is better than anything that a pharmaceutical company can make.
My new pain continued to worsen. The waiting game of test results was leading to madness and all things Medusa-like. This drove me even harder to grind my nails against walls of limestone. Rock wrestling wasn’t just an excellent time-filler and distraction, it was an opportunity to connect with old friends and make new ones. Then there was my unwavering husband. He was my always supportive partner in crime, and we created irreplaceable memories watching each other shine and whine on cliffs of our local area.
Back in the day (I’m old enough to say that) my climbing skill/level was somewhat notable. I’ve been living off those days of crushing difficult climbs since then. Ah, the cruel and wonderful power of memory and youth. Venturing back to desperately clinging on rock faces wasn’t without it’s challenges but what in life doesn’t. Climbing to me is as natural as breathing, so with some time, patience, perseverance and immune boosting beverages (beer), my days of resembling a rock-Medusa almost came to life again. Well almost!
All bright skies must darken eventually and mine was no different. Another trip to the doctor’s office and my thick skin of enduring hardship became instantly thin. This time my liver acquired a new friend plus this rather complicated companion had the possibility of cancer and a prognosis of 2-5 years of life if it was. Instantly, my tough exterior became an onion skin-thick tire riding over a glass-covered road. It was time to learn to levitate or getting shredded was inevitable. Since I’m not much into shredding my tires or even vegetables, it was G.I. Jane survival mode time. Clearly, it was imperative to find a way to float over the glistening knives that were anxiously awaiting to deflate me. My two mantras, “Stay on Target” and “Never Surrender” couldn’t be more true—so Steven and I went climbing. The grasping and peeling off of credit card edges of limestone, didn’t have the boosters of a rocket, more like a hover-craft, but it kept me off the ground and inflated.
Most days of climbing distraction were glorious: sun, wind, birds, friends, Schwarzenegger mosquitoes, bleeding fingers, sore feet and a birds-eye view were the icing on the cake of climbing. Other days, a blow-torch of emotions lead to sobbing episodes on the rock from locked-in sadness and frustration with a topping of unrealistic fears. My inner being was a live volcano, building its gases and eruption was inevitable. Gripping a piece of limestone, hearing my short nails grinding down from the abrasion, the tears welled up in my eyes. Sobbing would follow with spaghetti noodle snot dangling from my face. I wouldn’t move and I wouldn’t let go of the rock. Steven was gentle and supportive with his words when he witnessed me erupting. Unable to get away from my true nature, with a Schwarzenegger voice my brain was screaming, “Get to da Choppa!” Well, not really but with equal intensity and a rather manly voice, it was, “Get your shit together. You’re G.I. Jane! Fight damn it, you’re stronger than this!” Eventually, the sobs settled, my chest stopped heaving and the spaghetti noodle was donated to the rock below or my arm. The emotional process of climbing was a powerful tool for working through the rest of my life situation. One move at a time, stop, take a breath, look around, assess the best path to take, then commit.
On the final day of climbing before a major medical procedure, Steven and I ventured to one of our favourite cliffs near Collingwood. After all, this may be the last day of climbing for a long time if ever. My goal was to throw myself at a newly established climb by a dear friend, Aaron. This climb glistened with intimidation with dime-edge sized holds invisible from the ground with long-armed moves (I’m T-rex) for 70 feet. Certain that completing the climb in one day without falling was purely fantasy, it would provide ample distraction and adventure with its terrifying, pendulum falls.
The first attempt was brutal. Some moves felt barely possible. My vocabulary consisted of “uggghhhh” and indiscernible grunts. The reality was this line of limestone needed some badass skills. It turns out that I can harness my inner-Medusa and create a tank of badass. Back on the climb, I thrutched, yarded and jumped through one desperate move after another. Fingers were barely holding on, my nostrils flared, clenched jaws grinding down my enamel and somehow I made it through the first hard part of the climb (the first twenty feet!). My breathing was sporadic and one leg began to sewing machine. “Don’t mess up now! Stay focused! One move at a time! Make this count!” I told myself. The next section was awkward and a few desperate grabs got me to a minimal rest. Minimal in that counting to ten was too long! The attempt to get a bit of recovery was futile and it was game time for the real crux of the climb. Facing a heart-stopping, frightening, pendulum fall from around a corner (my least favourite), Steven knew my fear and told me to go for it. There is something to be said for having an incredible belayer that loves you. Just a few more, “what are you made of moves” and I would be the second ascentionist of this climb. It would be a stellar way to finish the day and a wonderful memory to reflect on when I faced the difficult procedure the next day.
Reaching up, my fingers grasped the worst hold of the entire climb. A slippery, smooth piece of nothingness. Grab that with a little bit of nervous hand sweat and it felt like marble glazed in olive oil. My left foot was attempting to smear on something similar, constantly wiggling downwards only to be repositioned and slide again. My right leg flung to the side, spastically moving in space for balance. My hand was beginning to creep away. A basketball player jump to a humungous hold (if you hit the right part) and the climb was almost complete with only a bit of moderate climbing to the end. Inhaling deeply, my body tried to tap its inner basketball life (never played it). Accelerating through the air, my right hand went for the dunk and I slapped the hold. A nano-second of enjoyment was followed by a blood-curdling scream as my hand slipped off and I was airborne. I missed it by an inch and there were plenty of witnesses to prove it!
There was sheer joy and overwhelming pain felt to my uttermost core as Steven lowered me to the ground. Vibrating from the excitement of the surprising progress was swallowed instantly by the sudden onset of sobbing. True joy turned to complete sadness in a breath. My ego was a powerhouse in expressing its disappointment in my failure to summit. My want for such a superficial success was a flashing neon-sign. Somehow, in a split second, while I was on the wall my shallow self decided that my tool for coping would solely rest on the success of this ascent. If this was the last climb I got to do in my life, it would be left unfinished. My ego is as short-lived as my memory of various things so the sobbing was quickly shared with laughter. My only words while tears still flowed from my swollen eyes were, “I really wanted it!” The crowd of friends understood my emotions, not sure about the strangers! After a hug session from many, another dear friend, Mike Penney got the second ascent. It was smooth, efficient and spectacular to witness. I was truly happy that he succeeded as he deserves no less. It was this harsh and enlightening experience of failure within myself and amongst friends that gave me what I needed for the hard times to come.
The snow began to fly and our ventures to the great outdoors to scale various heights of limestone came to an end. A message one morning carved a hole in my heart. It was something I would never have predicted. A dear friend, residing in Colorado, Dave Pegg, took his own life. An incredible friend, climber and a man that was loved by all that met him around the world had been suffering from depression. The pain he felt became more than he could bear. It was heartbreaking losing such a beautiful man to this illness and seeing that it was stronger than his will to live. It was such a privilege to have Dave as a friend and he helped me be a better person and climber over the years. He was a person that made each individual feel that they were the best thing that happened to him that day. A lesson that I try to share with all those I see. This tragedy was a cold bucket of water to my face. I woke up fast realizing that regardless of my situation, it was imperative to not have a the ‘woe is me’ and I must be even better than I thought I could be, fight harder for what mattered to me and help everyone else strive to do the same.
With my prognosis uncertain, countless days in and out of the hospital being scanned, biopsied, filled with plenty of radioactive goodness to light me up like a glow worm and the weather doing what it does in Canada in November and December—cold and snowing, it was time for another shift to a less active, more creative venture—painting. These are the results of my creative time well spent. They are also the only pieces available for sale since everything else I’ve painted has found new homes and I am truly privileged to be able to say that.
It turns out that Friday, February the 13th is a lucky day and the news finally came that the tumour is currently benign. It may or may not be the cause of my abdominal pain but it isn’t cancer. That works for me! It requires monitoring and I’m cool with that. Given my cancer history and the aggressive nature, cancer is always a shadow that never leaves. It is also a gift of awareness of the fragility of life. My perky gummy bears stand at attention every morning reminding me of that. Now I have an additional presence in my liver that is a powerful force driving me towards allowing the foundation of my life thrive regardless of the challenges. My onion-skin thick tire of strength became layered and primed into a monster-truck tire.
On a final note, it was ultimately a year of success from rehearsal. All the years of sport, training, struggles, tears, triumphs, support, discouragement, injuries and change were the fundamental tools to fighting for another year of life. Every time I wanted to quit in a race but didn’t, every time I stood on a podium, every time I heard my name yelled at a climbing comp, every time someone told me I couldn’t and I did were rehearsals to create perfection in surviving with grace and being even better than I had imagined—all because there was plenty of practice and I “Stayed on Target!”
So, if you’re in front of me when I find my way back to racing, enjoy the short-lived moment because I’ll be riding over anything that gets in my way! I will, of course, provide words of encouragement like, “good job, keep it up!” as the dirt flies up and sticks to your glasses.
Looking forward to creating so many more great memories with you in 2015. Thanks for reading!