Radiation, Breast Cancer, & The End of A Decade

I feel like a walking paradox at the moment. I’m more tired than ever, yet I’ve never felt more alive; I’m a little worse for the wear, but grateful beyond measure. I am so happy I want to shout it from the mountaintops, yet so humbled I want to sit in silence. It’s been three weeks since I finished radiation for breast cancer treatment, and two months since I finished chemotherapy. As if I don’t already feel a decade older, on October 10, 2020, I turned forty years old, officially leaving my Thirties behind. 

It’s been a long road since I was first diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2B, on February 3, 2020. I’ve written often about the importance of keeping a positive attitude, gleaning gratitude wherever you can find it, and cultivating flow and grace during this time. I’ve found these themes to be my guiding light throughout this tunnel-like process, but after months of treatment, and finally reaching the “end” of the road, I am also feeling the collateral damage my body has endured. I am simply exhausted.

Radiation was a long haul. Starting on Wednesday, August 19, I went in daily, Monday through Friday, to the Kaiser Santa Clara Cancer Treatment Center for a five-week regimen. The appointments were anywhere from fifteen to forty-five minutes long, getting shorter as the weeks went on. I scheduled my appointments for the afternoon, after work, and would drive the roughly forty minutes over the hill. 

I was evacuated from the CZU Lightning Complex Fire for the first eleven days of treatment, which I wrote about in my previous post, and had just returned to work after a six month medical leave-of-absence. After eight rounds of chemotherapy that I finished in early August, I was pretty beat from the start. The threat of losing our home compounded the stress of treatment and going back to work, and I definitely felt overwhelmed. I’m a tough cookie, but the shots just kept coming. 

Radiation fatigue can set in quickly for some people, or build over time, but it is some serious business. About ten days in, my fatigue really intensified. Although I’d adapted to a regular feeling of tiredness, I felt exceptionally beat, like I could fall asleep sitting up. Granted, I hadn’t been sleeping much while evacuated, as our cat would cry incessantly every night. 

The hardest part of radiotherapy was positioning my shoulder for the linear accelerator machine. I would lie supine on my back, with my arms outstretched above my head. It was important to lie still and hold position once settled, but it sometimes took several tries to confirm. The nurses were very nice, and would gently move my left arm as needed to get me in the right position. However, I’ve separated this shoulder a few times, and it would freeze up being in these awkward positions, blood draining from my arm and falling asleep as the minutes passed. It was truly painful sometimes, especially with the plastic backboard pushing into my trapezius muscle as my contorted shoulder was placed into all kinds of uncomfortable positions. When I’d finally lower my arms at the end, I’d have to physically pull my left arm back down because my shoulder was so tight. This was the most challenging part about the appointments. 

The scariest part was actually receiving the radiation. My whole left chest wall, from my lower ribs to my armpit and up to my clavicle, was treated; since the heart is on the left side, the risk of heart disease increases. Thus, breath holding is used to try to minimize exposure to the heart. The nurses spoke to me through an intercom from the other room, instructing me to Breathe In, Hold, and Breathe Normally. Knowing that my heart’s health depended upon me holding my breath just so, pushing out my chest cavity to protect it as much as possible, was a heavy load to carry. No pressure! It was much harder than holding my breath if I were standing up straight; try lying on your back and holding your breath for thirty seconds, and you’ll see what I mean. I focused intensely on keeping my breath in, and knowing how much it mattered made it all the more imperative to keep every molecule of air in. 

There was a startling moment during treatment when I had been holding my breath for over thirty seconds, and I could still hear the machine; it makes a unique buzzing sound while delivering radiation. The nurses had instructed me to exhale and breathe normally, but I could still hear the machine sounding. Reluctant to exhale, I thought it was stuck on, and kept holding my breath. 

Breathe normally, they messaged again through the intercom. Scared to let go, finally the noise stopped. I exhaled with relief, and then asked them if the machine had gotten stuck. They came in to explain that the machine can make noise when it’s not delivering radiation, kind of like warming up, and that it hadn’t been stuck on. I felt better understanding that, but it was a bit shocking at first. 

Each day got a little more efficient. The actual treatments themselves took only several minutes; most of the time was spent aligning me in the exact spot, laser beams measuring every contour with precise angles. I received several freckle-sized tattoos to help map the treatment area, too. Every couple of weeks, I met with my radiation oncologist for a check-up of my skin, which started reddening about two weeks in, subtly like a mild sunburn. Skin changes are the most common side effect from radiation, and it wasn’t too bad at first. 

By four weeks in, I was definitely getting redder, and my exhaustion was growing by the day. They’d warned me that fatigue worsens as you go, and they were right. I was tired of driving over the hill everyday, and one day in particular, I got a dead battery in the parking lot after treatment. It was one of those long days where I just felt beat, and then my car wouldn’t start after my appointment. Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I cried with surrender, feeling the build up of so many emotions. Just keep ‘em coming! I bemoaned.

I called my insurance for a jump start, and within the hour I was driving back home. The obvious symbolism was glaring, though: my battery was dead, my battery was drained. I needed a jumpstart; I was running on empty. For all the looking on the bright side that I typically do, I couldn’t deny that I was standing in the shadows. Despite my positive disposition, this whole experience was difficult, depressing, and draining. 

My usual medicine of exercise when I’m feeling down about something wasn’t fully available, with my bike awaiting repair. My carbon rim had cracked, and I was awaiting a warranty replacement from Santa Cruz Bicycles; I also sent my suspension in to Fox for servicing during this time. The skies were so smokey from wildfires that I couldn’t go for a run safely, especially since I was in radiation. There is a risk of fibrosis in the lungs if you smoke or are exposed to smoke during radiation, so I really didn’t want to breathe hard when particulate levels were at dangerous, and sometimes hazardous, levels. Without my daily endorphin rush from exercise, I felt cranky, defeated, and unfocused. I knew I needed to get outside of my situation, to escape to the hills for some blood-pumping thrills. 

What better time to demo a downhill bike?

I went to Northstar and rented a downhill bike one Sunday when the air quality was better up in Tahoe than it was here in Ben Lomond. I had never ridden one before, and after a few weeks off my bike, I was seething for some flow. I had an awesome time hitting the trails on a 27.5” Scott Gambler, my first time on that wheel size as well. I needed to hit the dirt, and it charged my batteries to be back on two wheels. It was a month before my bike would be back together in working order, the longest stretch of time off my bike in years. 

The upside of being off my bike so long? My lymphedema all but went away. I had noticed some swelling in my thumb, fore, and middle fingers at the end of July, with shooting pains down the back of my arm by early August, signs of lymphedema. I continued doing my daily regimen of stretches and exercises, but it wasn’t until I stopped mountain biking everyday that I noticed an improvement in my symptoms. It was a blessing to see such a clear correlation between mountain biking and lymphedema, to figure out what was exacerbating it; it was the only thing I was doing differently that month. 

I’ve been back on my bike for weeks now, and am being cognizant for any signs of lymphedema. I have noticed some hints of it returning after a couple of long rides, but mostly, I am symptom free. My physical therapist advised me to take frequent breaks during my rides, and to actually do the stretches while riding, when possible, like flat sections where I don’t really need both hands on the bars. So far, so good, but this is something I’ll have to keep a close eye on as time goes on. Hopefully, it will remain all but gone. 

I finished radiation on Wednesday, September 23. By the end, I was extremely tired, and my skin was really red. The nurses were so sweet, cheering me on during my last treatment. When it came time to take my final breath in and hold, they emphasized for the last time. When treatment was over, I thanked them for their care and expertise, especially during a pandemic. 

I physically felt lighter leaving the clinic after that appointment. No longer would I be driving over the hill and back everyday, and from now on I could look forward to healing. I slept in that weekend until noon, I needed it so badly, but the following weekend, I was ready to celebrate the culmination of months of treatment. 

I got my port removed on September 25, two days after I finished radiation, and exactly six months after I had it implanted. I was so ready to get that thing out! The surgery was quick, but painful. They gave me a giant lidocaine shot, which hurt like heck, and it wasn’t nearly enough. I felt everything – the incision into my chest, a few minutes of tugging pressure, and then it being pulled out of my chest. She sewed me up with eight stitches; I felt every loop of that needle through my skin. I didn’t want to ask for another shot, as that would just delay everything, so I just lay there and toughed it out. It was pretty gnarly, but I was so excited to get it out I almost didn’t care. It was just another hoop to jump through in this obstacle course.

Ron and I had an incredible weekend away to Downieville and Northstar for closing day of the season at the start of October. We stayed at the Downieville River Inn on the Yuba River, and had an awesome mountain bike ride from Packer Saddle down the Downieville Downhill. Hauling down Butcher Ranch Trail, I saw a bear standing right in the trail! I slammed on my brakes and skidded to a stop as quickly as I could without crashing, and about thirty or forty feet away, it stoically held its ground. A few seconds passed before Ron rode up behind me, and I shouted Bear! 

Startled, it sauntered uphill off the trail, and we stood to watch it for a quick minute before continuing on. Though black bears aren’t prone to attack humans, we didn’t want to linger too long. It was the second time we’ve seen a bear this Summer in Downieville; I think of all the other times we just didn’t notice them. It was really cool to see; I love animals so much! The next day, we rode Northstar, basking in the Autumn sun and bliss of riding well-maintained jumps and berms for the last day of their season. 

It was a wonderful way to cap off treatment, but the collateral damage was becoming more evident. My skin had darkened to an extreme red, and was quite itchy. I was using all kinds of creams and oils – Calendula cream, coconut oil, vitamin E oil, shea butter, aloe vera – trying to moisturize my parched skin. My skin was physically hot to the touch, and my left chest wall was swollen. The seams of my clothing were irritating, and I could only take so much hot water in the shower. I was pretty uncomfortable. They had warned me that radiation has a cumulative effect, worsening seven to ten days after your last treatment, and they were spot on. Like clockwork, I’d gone from having a mild burn to a frighteningly dark burn. As the days went on, my skin began to peel. The fatigue stuck around, despite getting exercise everyday, and felt more intense than chemotherapy on some days.

Now, I’ve turned forty, on 10/10/2020. The numbers were certainly neat: 10 + 10 = 20, and 20 + 20 = 40. I had a fantastic weekend of mountain biking, disc golf, going to the beach, and I got to see my mom, dad, and stepdad to boot. Although I’ve finished the biggest parts of treatment – mastectomy, chemotherapy, radiation – now I’ve starting the next phase of treatment with Tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen pill given as chemotherapy, for the next ten years. I’ve made a lot of progress, but I don’t feel totally done with treatment. 

My youth feels a little bit like a growing reflection in the mirror. I’ve spent so much of my life with my identity tied to my youth, whether it was my athleticism, vibrant energy, or appearance, and with its light fading, I can’t help but resent its growing absence. I am happy to still be alive, but I can’t deny the significance of this moment, of shifting phases in my life. Turning forty seals the deal. I feel more lucky than resentful of aging, though, and each day brings an opportunity to experience more and grow wiser.

It’s been a lonely experience, at times, especially in the time of COVID-19, to no fault of those who love and support me. I have been so blessed with such amazing, loving people in my life! Many days I was actually alone, merely because no one could come to appointments with me or visit during shelter-in-place orders. There are so many aspects of going through treatment – mentally, emotionally, and physically – that are impossible for me to fully describe, try as I may.  I feel like I can’t quite get all the words out when it comes to conveying my experience with cancer, yet I continue to write, as it’s always been part of my process, helping me make sense of life’s major forks in the road.

Now that I’ve reached this milestone in treatment, I face the uncertainty of recurrence. It’s mildly unsettling to know there’s no guarantee anything worked, and that ultimately, I could die. I’ll see my oncologist every three months for the next two years, and will be on watch for any illness or issues; after that, I’ll go in every six months for three years, and then annually after that. I won’t be having a PET scan right now. 

It’s scary how much my future depends upon me letting my doctors know if I’m not feeling well, because I didn’t feel so well at times over the last two years, and I went to my doctor twice because I was so concerned. As I’ve written about before, nothing came of it. My bloodwork was fine, there was no family history of breast cancer, and my large fibroadenoma in my left breast had been checked regularly for years; it was also likely obscuring my cancerous tumor, so I didn’t feel it until after it had grown measurably. The assumption was that my sleep apnea was causing my fatigue, and my occasional tension headaches and bouts with nausea were from pushing myself too hard exercising with too little sleep and nourishment.

After years of being on top of all my appointments and physical exams, and feeling so in touch with my body, I still can’t believe I didn’t feel any new lump until December 2019, even though I knew something was off. It makes my blood boil sometimes, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.

Although there were several songs that exemplified my cancer journey, my Cancer Playlist helped keep my spirits up; these were some of the songs that spoke the strongest to me. Music is healing, and whether it was dancing around my living room to it playing at full volume, singing along in the car ride to an appointment, or playing along with my guitar, music helped me feel less alone.

How Do You Sleep? by Sam Smith is a song I first heard when I was floating in a hotel hot tub in Calgary Canada, at the end of January 2020, right before I was diagnosed. We had an incredible snowboarding trip with family, and I felt charged. Soaking up the heat of the hot tub, this song played loudly in the pool room, which I had all to myself that day, and I instantly fell in love with it. Though the song is about infidelity, for me it represents the last moment of tranquility I felt before my life changed.

Anyone? by Demi Lovato perfectly captured how I felt after being diagnosed – alone and somewhat desperate for compassion, for an escape. I am in awe of her beautiful, powerful voice. Fade to Black by Metallica was my anthem for a bit; that song is so beautifully structured, with words that spoke to me right through my shaking heart. I learned how to play quite a bit of the song on my guitar, and relished in trying to play along to the song in my living room. Somedays, I felt like I was fading to black myself. 

No More Tears by Ozzy Osbourne was the song I blared on the way to my first chemotherapy appointment. I’d done enough crying by then, and was ready to put my game face on and get it done. There is a victorious air to this song, of pushing through a challenge and persevering. I love the second bridge of this song, with echoes of animals filling the transition. This song just rocks!

Formation by Beyonce reminded me to keep my sense of sassiness and confidence…I Slay, I Slay echoing in my head. Anything by Beyonce will put you in a body moving mood! Blinding Lights by The Weeknd was an inspirational, energetic homage to what I was going through. I loved dancing to this song! It sounded like my battle with cancer. I equally loved dancing to Drake and Rick Ross’ Money In the Grave, a fast paced song balanced with a serious undertone. For years I thought the girl in the song said Latenight music, but Ron corrected me recently: it’s Maybach Music. Funny how we can mishear lyrics for such a long time before noticing it!

Roar by Katy Perry speaks for itself. I’m sure thousands of other women danced around their living rooms to this song, too! This is the perfect anti-cancer anthem. Savage by Megan Thee Stallion dropped in Summer, and the first time I heard it, I was blown away; such a badass song of female empowerment and celebration!

Sometimes, I felt like a savage myself – mountain biking through chemo, and keeping a good head on my shoulders. When everyone would complain about how bad 2020 was, I wanted to offer them a different perspective. Even after all I’ve been through this year, I still don’t think this was the worst year ever! Many people had it way worse than me, and others had it better than me, but life is always about making the best of what you’re given, not comparing the hand you’ve been dealt. The opportunities I had to gain wisdom, patience, gratitude, and strength were not lost on me. 

I Still Believe by Tim Cappello is a soul thumping, hopeful message of strength and tenacity, exactly what I needed to get through cancer treatments. I always think of the movie The Lost Boys, when they perform this song on the Beach Boardwalk. It makes me want to sing out loud.

Shelter From the Storm by Bob Dylan was what I felt I needed this year. I longed for refuge, for a safe harbor from violent seas. Listening to this song, and singing along with my guitar, made me feel peaceful and calm. 

Patience by Guns ‘N Roses was the embodiment of what I would need to help me through this entire process. This was all a huge test of patience, and I’ve definitely extended my patience span. When there’s nothing you can do but wait, you’ve got to adapt. It’s amazing what you can grow inured to when you have no other choice.

I am eternally altered by this experience, by these long months of fighting for my life. I’ve reached the end of a decade, my youth firmly behind me, and I have no guarantee of how much of this next decade I’ll get. Though it may not be in the forefront right now, the shadow of cancer will always be in my peripheral, in both hindsight and foresight, and carry the potential to return front and center at any given moment. I’m grateful to be alive today, but now that I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me, I’ll always be on alert for it to happen again. I never had a guarantee of another day before cancer, however; we never know when we’ll die. The only difference now is I have something specific to look out for.

I want to make the most of each new day and appreciate it for the gift that it is. My gratitude is high – for my health, for having a home that didn’t burn down, for my loved ones, for my fun lifestyle; for my eyebrows, lashes, and hair growing back in, which is awesome to see. Everyday since we got to come back home after the fire evacuation feels like a bonus day, like an extra gift. Like cancer, wildfire threatened to take all I love. I made it through this round, but the prospect of it happening again is palpable. I won’t live in fear, but I’ll always remember how it felt to almost lose it all – my life included. 

I feel empowered by finding flow and grace in my life, doing the things I love. Coming close to losing everything has redoubled my passion for my humble little life, and whatever I have left of it. Reflecting back on the last year takes my breath away sometimes – did I really go through all that? Equally, I think about how I got through all that – with gratitude for all of the graces I’d been granted, a web of loved ones to support me along the way, and lots of exercise outdoors. The healing power of movement through nature is remarkable, permeating through the mind and body. It’s also pure fun, exactly the relief I needed while carrying such a heavy load.

There were plenty of inspiring moments throughout it all; stargazing in the mountains, conversations that probably wouldn’t have been had without my cancer diagnosis; short escapes out of town that relit my fire. Ultimately, it reminded me how strong I am. Humility is in my core, but I feel pretty darn fierce right now.

Though it may be the end of a decade for me, it’s also the start of a new one.

The Gravity of the Hill

Life is but a series of cycles, symbiotically played out over the course of time. We are born and we die only once, but we experience many different stages throughout our lives. Our childhood, youth, and phases of adulthood can feel like different lifetimes. Weathered by the climbs and descents of life’s peaks and valleys, we grow wiser and more resilient with each hill we summit.

Special attention is often given to one particular hill in life: the hill of getting older. Being over the hill is often associated with being over the age of forty, although that’s just another stereotype. I’ve mused about this topic before, but now that 2020 has arrived, it’s taken on a new significance: this year I turn forty years old.

I recently registered for a bike race, and was shocked to see myself in the Women’s 40-49 year old age bracket, as race age is determined by the last day of the race year, December 31. I’m still in my last year of my thirties, but a new decade has begun, even though my birthday isn’t until October 10. Until then, I’m in the trite position of contemplating my senescence and mortality, like every other person on the cusp of adulthood and middle-age (cue dismissive eye-roll). It must be a rite of passage to ponder your aging body as you approach what society, and some medical research, to be fair, has deemed the top of the hill.

Forty is the notorious hallmark for the gateway to middle-age. As I cling to being thirty-nine years old for ten more months, I question my own hullabaloo about turning the big four-o, as I can see the signs of its arrival already etched into the lines on my face. As a woman, I am also immensely aware of closing the window on the reproductive stage of my life. I feel like I’m sitting near the cusp of my physical peak, getting ready to go down. Clearly, it’s giving me some unpleasant feelings about getting older, especially in regards to athleticism.

This is not a rant about a woman getting older, however. That’s a story as old as time, and my intention is not to be a spoiled brat complaining that she’s getting older; yawn. I am genuinely curious about the psychology of aging. I am particularly interested in how athletes feel about physical aging, since so much of our identity is tied to our bodies. Many professional athletes have described having a hard time letting go of their prowess, of course.

I know I am lucky for every day I get to grow older; it beats the alternative, as they say. It’s an absolute treasure to have lived so long. I’m extremely grateful for the years I’ve been blessed with so far. All of the experiences, relationships, and knowledge I’ve gleaned made me who I am today. I’ve lived most of my life feeling like an eighteen year-old, physically speaking, but my looming birthday carries a weight I cannot ignore, and not simply for the societal emphasis it gets. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve built my life upon daily exercise, based upon a pure love of movement, and getting older presents the possibility of slowing down.

I am not afraid of getting older in and of itself, as I firmly believe people get more interesting as they age. There is something so inspiring about a ninety year old woman sharing stories from The Depression, or a one hundred year old sharing heroic stories from Pearl Harbor. Our elders are our guides in society, and deserve recognition for all of the wisdom they have cultivated in their storied lives. Everyone has a story to tell. I hope I’m fortunate enough to live so long to tell my tales, to be an esteemed sage.

I am especially inspired by our elders who continually break age barriers and expectations, running marathons in their eighties, mountain bike racing in their seventies, and swimming laps into their hundreds. I am equally inspired by my elders writing books, helping charities, and being amazing grandparents – there are plenty of activities besides sports that enrich someone. These are the idols I aspire to be like as time goes on; the ones who prove the old adage (ahem), Age is just a number.

What am I so afraid of then?

My greatest fear is not being able to feel the gravity of the hill – or feeling the gravity of the hill, depending upon how you look at it.

First, there’s the gravity of flowing downhill, and then there’s the gravity of climbing the hill of life, a cliche metaphor for aging. The former stokes a lust for life, while the latter challenges it. Though we all know we’ll age and die someday, it’s not until the footprints of age emerge on our lifepaths do we heed its gravity. I am starting to feel the gravity of the hill of aging; I can’t deny I’m entering a new stage of life. Though I may still feel young physically, knowing what lies ahead is humbling.

What worries me most is losing the gravity of the hill – the good hill, that is; the fun hill, the sweet flow of moving downhill. That scares me, and keeps me up at night as I watch the sands of my hourglass trickle near the half-way mark. I think any athlete feels this way when they evaluate their own mortality. 

When we’re young, we don’t have to think much about aging, although we often do anyway. The gravity of age hasn’t hit us yet, and we are free to live with freedom and abandon, recovering quickly from injuries and setbacks. We progress in our given sports, getting good, and grow proud of our finesse. As we approach older age, and big birthdays that usher in new decades of our older lives, it’s only natural to reflect upon our health, lifestyle, and goals for the future. When you’ve spent your life centered around sports and physical pursuits, the prospect of losing your acumen in those realms is not only humbling, but disconcerting.

I’ve never really struggled with insomnia, but lately I’ve had a few restless nights, caught in the tunnel of aging anxiety. Ron and I only have so many more bikerides together, I fret. Only so many more snowboarding trips, so many more adventures in the mountains… I start panicking about running out of time. I visualize the number of rides left in our lives counting down, shrinking by the day. I think about aging loved ones and family, and all the memories I still long to create with them.

When you think you’re running out of time, any second spent idly is a second wasted, even if it’s the middle of the night. There’s an urgency to seize the day, enjoy it as much as you can, and fill your heart with as many memories as possible. I don’t take life’s blessings for granted, but even when you appreciate every day, time still goes by too fast. My husband Ron and I do a pretty decent job seizing the day, going riding and snowboarding as much as we can, and I still feel like there’s not enough time.

I remember being in my mid-thirties and consciously thinking to myself, I’m at my physical peak; I’m the best physical shape I’ll ever be. Appreciate this time. I did appreciate it, and still do. Gratitude doesn’t slow down the hands of time, though. Inevitably, time catches up with you. I appreciate all of the experiences that got me where I am today, the wisdom I have, the peace of mind (except about aging, obviously), but it still doesn’t make aging any gentler.

Aging isn’t easy no matter who you are, but is it emotionally harder on athletes?

Athlete or not, we all need our bodies to live a good life. We are nothing without our health. We all want to live independently, to move comfortably by our own volition. Whether reading a book, knitting a sweater, or running a race, we enjoy the world through our bodies, manifesting our dreams.

As athletes age, though, we face not only physical decline, but losing part of our identity; at least that’s how it feels to me. The threat of losing my ability to be outside doing what I love seems insurmountable. Feeling the gravity of moving downhill is exhilarating, breathing life into our veins. We cherish the feeling of a good day on the mountain or on the water; we chase the rush of flowing through a gnarly section with grace. The inherent challenges of the sports we do provide us not only with a sense of accomplishment, but happiness. Stoke and flow are popular buzzwords for good reason. Meaning of life stuff, as I often remark.

The deep-seated joy we get from doing our sports is like therapy – clarifying our minds, sharpening our skills, and leaving us with a contented sense of calm. The emotional benefits of exercising outdoors are grounding and powerful, but the fun part is what hooks most of us into a sport.

For most athletes I know, physical activity is simply part of who they are; it is more than just a hobby or sport, but part of their existence. They live and breathe their passions through physical movements, honing their craft over years of muscle-memory building experience. They are their sports. They’re often also happy, contented people. One of the main reasons I am so active, aside from feeling like I’m driven by a motor at times, is how amazing, even euphoric, it makes me feel. I’ve always been active, and I love how I feel during and after being physical. There’s also a spiritual aspect to it, as if being in a holy Land.

I love the intensity, rhythm, and focus of mountain biking; it’s my main love. The Santa Cruz Mountains are a dream for riding. I enjoy the feeling of freedom I get from trail running – powerful and independent, relying on my own two feet, no gear or interface between me and the Earth, except my shoes. I feel like I can seriously do anything when I’m in a solid running stride. Rock climbing, yoga, snowboarding, a little surfing and paddling have also been big interests over the years. I’m happy if I can just go for a walk through the forest, though. Being outside in nature is where I belong.

Living in Santa Cruz, California, there are plenty of active people living in our community; most notably, surfers and mountain-bikers, which makes sense given the waves and terrain. Weekend parking lots are full of trucks with bike and surf racks. West Cliff Drive teems with runners, walkers, bicycles, and sightseers from all walks of life. It’s a beautiful sight to see so many people out enjoying the incredible natural habitats we are lucky to live among. There are many towns like Santa Cruz across the world, full of active, outdoorsy people taking advantage of the gorgeous areas they live in. Whether it’s a mountain town, beach town, or valley town, if there’s a strong contingent of athletes living there, you’ll notice pretty quickly. It definitely keeps you inspired, and occasionally, accountable.

Perhaps just as important as the physicality of sports is the camaraderie and community we develop within those realms. It’s deeper than the stereotypical image associated with our sport; more than the clothes and brand names, more than pop-culture references from movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Vertical Limit. We experience bonding adventures, overcoming challenges only other athletes within our sport would understand. We share knowledge, gear advice, and time together doing what we love. There’s a lot of unspoken understanding and communication. If we don’t share our sport with someone directly on the trail or on the water, we most likely share our love for it online through social media or websites dedicated to our passions. I read the Comments section of many forums, and I usually learn something new from them. In this day and age, we are tied in many ways to the sports we love, and develop a sense of belonging from that relationship.

Our sports also become part of our identity, something we can label ourselves as with pride. When athletes are asked to describe themselves, we are quick to identify ourselves as mountain bikers, runners, soccer players. While ego can get involved with sports, and it’s okay to be competitive and proud, most fellow athletes I know are in it for the true love of it.

How can we maintain our connections to the sports we love as we get older? Aside from the established efforts of a healthy diet, exercise, and low stress, one piece of advice emphatically stands out lately:

Keep on moving.

That’s it. Just keep moving, as long as you’re able. I’ve heard this from more elders than I can remember, and succinct as it may be, it rings true.

I thought of this recently when I was snowboarding at Kirkwood, one of my favorite places on the planet. It was a super cold day, maybe 12℉ with wind chill at the top. I’m used to wintry weather, but I was feeling especially tired. I thought about the warm hotel room waiting for me, the hot tub, the comfortable bed to curl up in. It sounded so wonderful, and though lifts were turning for another hour or so, I considered stopping early. I took a short break and got some hot coffee, which always helps improve the situation.

Looking out on the windy, icy expanse outside, I got a gut-punch feeling to go back, like a push. Get out there. The memory of how fun it is to glide down a snowy mountain face is like nothing else, and powerful enough to motivate. It’s the same thing that happens every time it’s a uniquely cold Winter day. I went back out and got a few more runs, getting one of the best of the day.

Returning to the hotel room later that evening, and basking in the heavenly embrace of a perfectly heated hot tub, I appreciated it down to my chilly bones. Though not the coldest or hardest day I’ve had by any means, I reflected on how moments like these shape us into more resilient beings. Every time we are uncomfortable, cold, nervous, whining (especially whining), and otherwise reluctant, it is easier to just stay home and give up. It’s easier to find one of the many valid excuses not to subject yourself to freezing winds and blowing snow, and stay cuddled up in the hotel room nice and warm.

Every time we get outside, despite our complaints and minor discomforts, we persevere as more confident, and disciplined, athletes. We also streamline our habits and get the best gear possible to stay as comfortable as possible; we evolve, ideally, to become more efficient at withstanding any kind of weather. Think back to when you were a kid and first went skiing; you likely complained that it was cold, wet, and uncomfortable. If you kept at it, though, you soon got over those inconveniences and accepted them as part of the fun; you probably also found what clothing worked best to keep you warm.

As we get older, it may seem easier to just stay home and skip the discomfort, which is why that sage advice becomes more important: keep on moving. Especially when it’s cold, especially when it seems tempting to just stay in, keep on moving. Keep going outside. It’s always easier to stay comfortable, but we grow stronger when we make ourselves just a little bit uncomfortable, and then push through it. I’ve learned this lesson before in more challenging situations, but as I reflect on aging, it carries a lot more weight.
There’s another piece of advice I live by, that came to me years ago when I was being hard on myself and comparing myself to other athletes:

It’s not what; it’s that.

It’s not what you’re doing, it’s that you’re doing it at all.

It’s not what trail you’re riding; it’s that you’re riding.

It’s not about what boulder problem level you’re sessioning at the climbing gym, it’s that you’re climbing at all, that you came into the gym in the first place. You could have stayed home, but no, you chose to challenge yourself and move. You kept moving. You showed up to the trail, gear and all. It’s about honoring our efforts to show up and participate, which is often the hardest part.

It doesn’t really matter what level you’re at; it just matters that you’re doing something you love. While it’s wonderful to be talented at something, we can always find someone better than us, or someone we think we’re better than. It’s hard not to compare yourself to others, especially as an athlete. The mantra that, not what keeps things somewhat in perspective for me. Moreover, keep on moving.

May I be so blessed to live long into elderhood, for life is so unpredictable. Life is more than just peaks and valleys, stages and phases; it’s a vibrant, emanating force that drives us all to feel the gravity of the hill, to love deeply, to live courageously, to examine our short little lives for all they’re worth.

I don’t know if aging is any harder for athletes to cope with, but I do know life is sacred, and warrants our full attention. More importantly, it calls for reverence – for those who have lived before us, and for all of the experiences we have had in our own lives. The collective experience of humanity bonds us all, from zygote to ashes. Someday when I die, these words will evaporate into the universe. Until then, everyday is an opportunity to appreciate life, and that includes the gravity of a sweet downhill.

When I’m eighty years old, I don’t expect to be charging down the same trails I ride now, but if I can ride my bike even just a little bit, I think it would bring a smile to my face. When I’m ninety, I may not be snowboarding like I do now, but if I can get on a pair of skis and hit the hill, I’m going to do it. When I’m one hundred, I may not be running up and down hills through the forest, but if I can stroll through the Old-Growth Redwood Loop at Henry Cowell, I know that’d satisfy my soul.

When I’m old, I may not be winning mountain bike races anymore, but if I’m riding a bike at all, I’ll be stoked. If I can’t ride? Then by all means, put me on two wheels somehow and tow me around so I can feel the wind in my face. The gravity of the hill is what I need.

Team KatRon