On Winning and Rising

By Pan Pan

I reread her words twice. Cancer? It was foreign, “alien” as she would later say. I couldn’t believe it. How could that happen? She’s so young. She’s so phenomenally athletic. But most shocking of all, she’s my friend, and my little kit of “life tools” has not prepared me for this. Has it prepared her? Reading what she wrote one more time, and retracing my memories of her, I realized this: No, it’s not she who has no idea. It’s not the rest of us who has no idea. It’s cancer. Cancer has no idea who it chose to invade.

This is dedicated to a Team Mum pillar and wonderful friend, Charlotte.
* * * * *
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise. – Maya Angelou
* * * * *
I was out for a spin one December morning in Connecticut with a small group of friends. It was cold that morning, and as our bottles threatened to freeze over around hour three of what would become a five-plus hour ride, the topic about the purpose of cycling (naturally) came up. We wove through the back roads from Killingworth into Madison that were lined with patches of bare trees, and the silence was the type of silence you can only expect in winter, when everything feels grey and asleep, waiting for snow. We were heading South toward the sea. What I remember from that conversation about why we were on our bikes that day resulted in something like, “Well, it gives you a sense of both an every day goal and a long term goal. You get up. You ride. You accomplish something. A year later, you’re a lot stronger than the previous year. It teaches you how to suffer, how to be strong. And, we can eat whatever we want after; a hot chocolate will never taste as good as after a long, cold ride.”

Sometimes, I wonder if we’re all out there breaking ourselves in the name of athletics just to prove something for ourselves, our strength, our determination, our ability to pull ourselves up from our bootstraps after a bad race, bad season, bad injury. Sometimes I wonder if all these things are our ways of preparing ourselves for and dealing with (and please excuse the cliché) good, old, unpredictable Life.
* * * * *
What do you think of when you think of “testing strength”? Do you think of a race, like a marathon or a triathlon? Do you think of it as a career accomplishment, like becoming a doctor, lawyer or academic? Do you think of it as climbing through the work ladder and finally sitting on top as partner?

What if that moment your strength is tested is a quiet moment, when you are alone, receiving a phone call from a doctor or making one to a family member? I imagine that is how you searched for your deepest strength: during the moment sitting in your kitchen thinking about everything, letting your mind rest on what it all means. I imagine it was a quiet, and you may have cried (I’ll never know), and as you thought of what to say (to find the words from somewhere inside you, which felt hollow from surprise), you wanted to be strong. I imagine you made that decision immediately, maybe out of habit, maybe for everyone else, maybe out of love.

I imagine this is the greatest test of strength there is: a quiet test, a test that lasts for a long time that doesn’t end after 26.2 miles or 140.6 miles or 3 hours. It’s a test that comes early in the morning when you feel a shudder at facing the day, or when you feel exhausted just lying there and looking up at the ceiling, or when you feel hopeless and scared and nauseous but don’t want to voice it. But I have faith that it’s just that, a test, and that you will – as you have proven over and over again – come out stronger, so that you can one day teach all of us how to do it. I’ll be here, with my pen and paper, ready to take notes.
* * * * *
I’m convinced our little brains cannot wrap themselves around nonlinearities. Why would it? Time moves in one direction, entropy rises, and we desperately hold on to this belief that we can plan things (next year I’ll do this, and the following, I’d like to accomplish that, and yes, Life, please give me a family and house by the time I’m forty). The more years I rack onto my own little history book of experience, the more I am beginning to realize that although we can only move through our every days as if Life were linear, we have to process it very differently. Memory allows us to move outside of time and love allows us to transcend reason. There’s nothing linear about it. So, what feels so important today can all of a sudden feel trivial the next: the value I place on the workout that I thought about all day disappears suddenly and is replaced by the little, every day thing I tend to forget – a smile from a loved one, black coffee with the newspaper as the rain hits the shutters, laughter with a friend. Yes, those things we have every day, those small things, those become precious suddenly, unexpectedly.

I remember our bike ride through the light rain one November, when we stopped so you could give me a blinky light, worried that I wasn’t safe to ride home alone. We stopped on a narrow road South of London, and our bikes were filled with the dirt of old farm roads. When we stopped, I looked up and saw horses standing near us, looking at us, their breath like smoky clouds from an engine. Do I remember our races? Barely. But I remember the horses, and I remember that red light you put on my dirty bike.
* * * * *
I don’t believe that the strongest are the ones who can live alone. I don’t believe that we were meant to be isolated from one another, prisoners to the tiny, self-worshipping skulls that trap all our insecurities, fears, selfishness, and shame. No, if that were the case, we’d never have those transcendental things: friendship, love, companions, and if Life meant for us to embrace Her alone, prisoner to ourselves, we’d never meet one another. We’d never share laughter or stories. We’d never spend evenings all together, sitting in your living room, eating “spuds” (brussel sprouts?).

So let me say it now: if you feel very tired one day, and you feel that you cannot walk any further, that’s alright. But you cannot lie down or stop because if you do, we will carry you. And let me promise you, there will be a day when I may not be able to walk, and I’ll want to stop and sit down, and you’ll come and carry me. That’s friendship. It’s why it’s there – so we never have to walk alone. And after all the schooling, all the philosophy, all the traveling, it’s one of the few things that make sense to me.
* * * * *
The days are slowly becoming longer now, as we’ve pasted the Solstice. I imagine a grey London with cold and damp mornings that frost the grass at Richmond Park. I imagine the brown Thames rolling along, as you all commute to work, a landmark compass through the windy streets and alleyways of the city. I think of the espressos at the café, scones, and cake. I look forward to seeing you all again, and most importantly, laughing with you once more.
* * * * *
As many of you may know, Charlotte was originally running the London Marathon this April to raise money for cancer research and awareness. Given the recent events, Susie Easton, Charlotte’s sister, will now bravely be running in her place. For more information on sponsoring her, please go to: http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/fundraiser-web/fundraiser/showFundraiserProfilePage.action?userUrl=Charlotterunsthemarathon

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One thought on “On Winning and Rising

  1. Charlie, my thoughts are with you. I’m a dear friend of Pan’s and one of her NYC teammates. She’s told me many wonderful things about you. I wish you much strength and courage and hope that you clear this obstacle quickly so that you may return to chasing your dreams and engaging your passions. Best wishes.

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