Exchange Surgery & Summer 2021

Sir! Excuse me, Sir!

I ambled to the next window to check in for the downhill mountain bike race at Snow Summit in Big Bear, California. It was a hot, sunny day, with a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. I’d been told by a kind employee to go to a particular window, and that I did not have to wait in that line. 

Again, I heard a shout:

Sir! Excuse me, Sir! Did you just cut this whole line?

I didn’t know who she was shouting at, but it sure as hell wasn’t me…or so I thought.

A few seconds later, she approached me.

Sir! With just one look in my eyes, she realized the mistake she was making. 

Yep, I was being called Sir. 

I’m sorry, Miss, but did you just cut this whole line? She interrogated. 

I couldn’t believe it. I’d been told specifically to go to this window, and now I was being called a guy. Awesome start to my day. 

I was told by that employee over there, I began, pointing to the nice lady, to go to this window to check in for the downhill race. 

She immediately said I was right, and was in the correct spot. Yelling back at the long line of people waiting to buy tickets, who had taken interest in seeing me get schooled for “cutting the line”, she said: 

It’s okay everybody; she’s a racer! The sarcasm in the way she said the word racer was a taunt to the people in line, a few of whom laughed and mocked, Ooh, a racer!

The lady walked back to manage the line, and I continued with my check-in. My mood changed from excited to sour pretty quickly, especially being called a dude in front of all those people, and being accused of line-cutting. I’m a rule follower and I don’t believe I’m more important than other people; I will wait my turn, no problem. But if you’re doing a race, and they tell you to go to a certain line, that’s what you do. 

I was angry, and dejected. I know how awful my hair looks right now, short and in the mullet stage. This is the hair of someone who’s lived through eight double-dose chemo infusions for breast cancer last year. I know my hair looks crazy, but my body does not look like a man’s!

I decided to let her know how I felt. I walked back up to her and said:

That was a pretty bad way to start my day here at Snow Summit – being called a guy in front of all of those people, and then being accused of line cutting. You were kind of aggressive about it too, as if I’d done something wrong. It might help you to know that my hair is so short and crazy because I went through treatment for breast cancer last year. I know how bad my hair looks. So you calling me out in front of everyone was a really crappy way to start my day. 

She apologized, genuinely from what I could surmise, and I felt better saying something to her, in front of all those people in line who’d laughed at me. As for those guys, I just scowled at them. The hell you looking at? I sneered under my breath.

It was a bad start to my day, and after getting on the chairlift, I admit I cried. Sometimes I just want to escape from the world, and situations like this. Of course I know how bad I look right now; I am reminded everyday when I look in the mirror of the woman I am no longer. I have felt uglier than I ever have over the past year. It takes a toll on your self esteem. I am already feeling so down about how I look, to be called a dude reminded me that even if I finished cancer treatment, I am still dealing with its ramifications in so many ways. Having someone else call it out stung. It was similar to seeing that old colleague in the market by my house who had gasped Your Hay-ER?! 

It wasn’t that the employee was an evil person for mistaking me, but that I was already so sensitive about my short hair. The usual, more confident me would have shaken out my long hair in a model-like fashion, saying, Excuse me, M’aam? I don’t see a Sir anywhere around here, batting my eyelashes for flair. 

But the current Katrin? I already feel lower than normal, anything coming at me feels like a tsunami. I wasn’t so angry at her for calling me a guy, but I was angry about the situation in general: angry that I got breast cancer; that I ultimately lost my hair, albeit lucky not to lose it all at once because of the cold-cap. I am still dealing with a lot of anger about the entire thing – all of my breast cancer experience, not catching it sooner, etcetera…

I let myself have a quick cry, alone on the chairlift, thinking to myself, Watch me beat half those dudes down Miracle Mile

I had a great first run down Miracle Mile, one of my favorite trails at Snow Summit. It had been a couple of years since I’d ridden there, but I knew the trail well. I was a little distracted by what had just happened with the security guard. 

All was going well until the very last jump; I hucked it fast, forgetting it has an off-camber landing that you can’t see from the approach. I saw that I was going to land on the slopeside, not the flatter side, and came down in a somewhat controlled slide out from my jump. I abraded the hell out of my right arm, and of course, wasn’t wearing elbow pads that day. I was otherwise okay and had managed to slide out of it alright, but my arm was quickly bleeding. 

I knew I’d hit hard. I went to the bathroom, and, trying not to gross everyone out, rinsed out my arm. I had scrapes and abrasions from my forearm up to my shoulder, and I could see a couple of deep gashes that had split the skin open. Worried I might have broken it, I decided to see the Medics on site. 

They dutifully cleaned out my abrasion, and said it was up to me about stitches; it wasn’t so long of a gash, but it would be a slow heal without them. They dressed my wounds and advised me to see a doctor the next day if pain increased. They did some stress tests on my arm, which didn’t show any immediate signs of fracture. I felt like I was basically okay, save for weeks of healing from my abrasions to come. 

I thanked them for their time, and took a minute to sit outside on a park bench in the shade. Here I was at Snow Summit, just an hour ago so excited to ride, and now I was hurt – physically, and emotionally. I felt defeated. 

I knew right then and there that the best remedy was to get another lap in. I got back on the chairlift, rode up to the top, and did a second lap down Miracle Mile. This time, I angled the last jump better so I could land in the flatter spot, not hillside. I was jazzed. I felt renewed. Forget being called a dude, and forget my throbbing arm! More importantly, I was happy. I wasn’t going to give up after that crash. 

I did a couple of more laps, finishing the day feeling good and confident. The race was the next day, and I felt ready. I had a great dinner with my awesome Dad, who came to join me in Big Bear for the race, and went to bed early. 

On raceday, my arm was certainly hurting worse, as I would have expected. Just the slightest vibration from holding onto my bars made me wince. I started questioning whether I’d be able to finish the race it hurt so badly. Feeling unsure of my situation, I lined up toward the back of the starting line, as I didn’t want to slow anyone down should I need to pull off the course, or possibly crash. 

This turned out to be a mistake. I ended up having to pass two riders, which is always sketchy during a race. There wasn’t a good spot for them to pull over right away, so I lost some time waiting for the space to pass. This picture sequence captures it perfectly. 

I ended up with second place for this race, Open Women 40+, 23 seconds off of first place. I wondered over and over whether I would have made up that time if I didn’t have to pass, and it was a reminder to me that no matter the injury, you’re always going to give it all you’ve got. I should’ve lined up toward the middle, at least. I was happy with the race, though, and I certainly like the format of a Downhill race better than an Enduro race, which I would tackle the following weekend. 

First, I would head back home, only to leave for a couple of days in Big Sur the next day to celebrate my fifteen year anniversary with Ron on the Summer Solstice, June 21. I love that our anniversary is the longest day of the year; quite apt for us! It was one of those perfect trips – calm, warm weather, no fog, just pure bliss. We love meandering down Highway 1 and exploring this gorgeous coast. I feel so lucky to live so close. I love Santa Cruz, but Big Sur is exceptional.

A few days later, I took off for China Peak, where I’d race the California Enduro Series Enduro race. I was going to do the Expert category, which would require climbing twice, but knowing how I’ve been struggling with endurance and shortness of breath lately, I changed categories to Sport, which only had one climb (which was still a killer!). 

On practice day, it was super hot, and the lines were equally long – about an hour just to get on the chairlift. As I’ve become somewhat of a vampire since radiation, only able to tolerate periods of direct sun for so long before I start melting, despite still loving every ray, I only got one practice lap on Stage 4, my favorite run. I just couldn’t stand in that long line, in the beating sun. I’d raced here in 2017 and 2018, so I knew I could ride the course, but obviously it would have been better to preride the entire course.

I went for a beautiful hike among alongside a riparian zone through burnscar near Huntington Lake, from the Creek Fire in 2020.

On raceday, I had my usual nerves and stomach ache; this is one thing I hate about racing, and haven’t learned to quell, yet. We started off with the climb, getting it out of the way in the morning, before it got really hot. I stopped to take many breaks on the way up, feeling the altitude with every foot gained. 

My confidence waned as I grew more tired; starting off the race with this long climb took most of my energy. I felt fatigued, which is the worst way to feel when you’re about to race. I didn’t push too hard, and just focused on completing the race. I crashed once on each stage; not badly, just slid out in the loose, deep corners. My handlebars got knocked crooked twice after falling, which made for an amusing finish to those stages. 

It was a stacked category of 16 women in my Sport category, and alas, I was eleventh – ouch. Just like the last Enduro race I’d done at Exchequer, I’d landed toward the bottom. This was my first California Enduro Series race I’d done that I hadn’t made the podium. I miss the days of being fast and placing well, but my body is doing the best it can post-cancer treatment. It was a beautiful trip, though, and I enjoyed hanging out with everyone on the mountain. 

With my exchange surgery looming on the horizon for July 9, I knew I only had a week or so to seize the Summer before I’d be on a mellow schedule for a few weeks as I healed from surgery. Thus, a couple of days after I got back from China Peak, I headed back up the hill to Downieville for a couple nights of Yuba River heaven, and mountain biking.

I also did something I’ve always wanted to do: hiked up to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout. This is about 2.5 miles from the parking lot at Butcher Ranch, gaining about 1,500’ of elevation in that length. It’s a good hike up, about an hour, and it went fast coming down.

The fire lookout is like being on top of the world. After hiking up to the peak, you ascend multiple stairs up to the lookout, which is a small room fit for one or two people to play sentinel. The views are panoramic and expansive, with Mt. Lassen visible to the North, and multiple geologic features popping up in all directions. The dominant rock type is quartz porphyry. I was awestruck. Unfortunately, I watched as the Beckwourth Fire Complex simultaneously grew to the East, giving this location its apt name. 

It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time: mountain biking in the morning, Yuba River swim in the afternoon, with a sunset hike to the Sierra Buttes Fire Lookout in the evening. I slept like the happiest baby there ever was that night. I just love to play hard outside during the day! I rode Northstar the next day, which is always a rip roaring good time. 

The next week, I went back up the hill for a couple more days of mountain biking at Northstar, spending the night on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe. I had so much fun I didn’t want to come back down the hill, but I literally had surgery the next day! Here I was sitting at Northstar, all my gear on, on the phone for my pre-op appointment, then minutes later flying down Livewire. It was an awesome way to spend the day before surgery.

When surgery came on Friday, July 9, I was ready. While my expanders were somewhat okay, they always had a temporary feel to them, and certainly didn’t look the way I wanted them to. I was reminded every time I looked at them of breast cancer. I didn’t feel so confident. 

Surgery went well; about two hours later, I was waking up in the post-op room. There were no drains this time, as there were in my initial mastectomy and lymph node removal. The pain was almost non-existent. I went home that day, and stayed up until evening, puttering around the house as usual, minus any heavy lifting. I was really blown away by how easy the surgery felt! He had done some liposuction from my stomach to contour my new silicone implants, and my stomach was quite bruised and sore for a week or so, but aside from that, I felt fine. One of the hardest parts was not being able to sleep on my side for the first few weeks, and of course, not being able to go for a mountain bike ride, or run, or surf. Basically, the first few weeks you’ve got to take it easy. I always miss my runner’s high when I don’t exercise.

As I did after my first mastectomy, I walked a lot. I went to the beach almost everyday, and went for long hikes. It is a saving grace when you’re healing, and eternally proves itself as such. I read, did crossword puzzles, watched Netflix, and let my body rest.

Ron and I went down to Big Sur for a couple of days, staying the night in San Simeon. We are really enjoying ourselves in this stunning landscape! I’ve always visited this part of the coast, but lately, it’s emerging as a revered Eden for me. I feel drunk on its beauty, albeit I haven’t been drunk in over eight years. It is intoxicating, aesthetic perfection.

 

Entrance & Exit

I even made it through a claustrophobic wooden tunnel to get to Partington Cove. It wasn’t overly scary, but I did jog through it to get it over with quickly! It was a bit spooky for me, but after everything I’ve been through with cancer, doesn’t pare in comparison.

The best part about this trip? I saw California Condors for my first time! There were three flying among a group of vultures. I quickly got my binoculars from the car to confirm their identity, but their giant size set them apart instantly. I am an avid birder, and have long wanted to see one of these giant, endangered birds, of which there are only some 440 left in the world, with less than 300 in the wild. I was so happy I cried! It was momentous.

Two weeks after surgery, Ron and I headed up to Lake Tahoe, where my mother’s friend has a cabin that she rented out for five nights. We spent five blissful days in Meeks Bay with my family, soaking up every second. Lake Tahoe is a magical place! We swam everyday, hiked, hung out with each other, and just dove into it. It was one of the best vacations I’ve had in a long time! I’m so grateful we were all able to spend that time together. It was priceless. 

Total Bliss

Now, I’m in my last week of Summer vacation. I am happily back on my bike, three weeks out from surgery; it feels heavenly!

We’ll start school on Wednesday, August 11, and finish on May 26. I’m excited to start this new school year. After last year, with distance learning until March 29, 2021, I think the kids are, too. With the Delta variant rising, I hope we are able to carry out our plans for full-time, in-person learning without any interruptions or returns to distance learning. If there’s anything we’ve learned from this pandemic, however, it’s that we never know what the future holds. 

As my Summer comes to somewhat of a close, I am immensely aware of the difference between this year and last year. Last year, I was going through chemo. This Summer, I got to focus on play. Having my exchange surgery was one of the final puzzle pieces to completing my breast cancer journey, though I know it may not be the last; life will always keep you on your toes! For now, I celebrate this milestone. I feel more like myself again. I am really happy with the results. It’s fun to put on a dress and feel good about myself. I am so grateful to live in a time when this kind of treatment is available – from my initial mastectomy, to chemo, to radiation, to the Tamoxifen I take daily, to this exchange surgery, which proved to be more than just a physical process, but an exchange of diffidence for confidence.