I still haven't absorbed it completely.
Three days, two states, 55 miles. All on foot. Together with 50 other men and 1,951 women, I walked from Bear Mountain, NY (near West Point) to Central Park in Manhattan. We slept in tents on football fields . We ate under large canvas tents, we laughed, we talked, we cried, we drank water (and A LOT of it), but mostly we walked. This journey did not merely begin at 5:45 a.m. on a Friday surrounded by mountains, fog, and a lake, but began for many of us some time before.
For me, it was at a bar in Greenwich Village in February, when I committed to raising a minimum of $1800 to fund Breast Cancer Research and programs that help women with little or no access to healthcare get educated about the importance of early detection. I was asked many times why it was that I wanted to walk. Mine was the physical challenge. As I got to know my co-walkers, however, I felt more and more humbled by comparison. The stories were tremendous. Battles against breast cancer that lasted years. (A person is not considered fully recovered until 20! years after the cancer is removed.) Men and women who had lost sisters, mothers, and daughters to the disease.
There were women walking with hats, shirts, ribbons, and pins that had the names and pictures of the people for whom they were walking in honor or in memory.
As soon as I got on the bus at the Port Authority in New York, I knew that it would be a unique experience. I was one of 2 men on the entire bus. As my cousin Lisa said, "Jeremy, you're in your element."
Once we arrived in the beautiful State Park around Bear Mountain, it was a whirlwind of activity. We had to register, get our tent assignments, turn in our pledges, and most importantly, watch the introductory video.
The 50 minute video set the tone for the weekend. There were three themes...
Sara Smith, the director of the Walk (she reminded us "this is a walk, not a race") emphasized that these three days would change our lives. We were asked to be kind and to think of others. This would be particularly difficult after we had finished the first 20-mile stretch, but it would be precisely that type of effort that would make the experience worthwhile. If we saw someone struggling, Sara implored us to offer assistance.
As for stretching, they could not repeat it enough. If we did not stretch 5 minutes every hour, she guaranteed us that we would not have a good time.
Finally, safety. We would be walking on roads and paths, living in tents, and eating together. We'd have to always be on the lookout for cars, bikes, trucks, potholes and more.
Actually, over the course of the three days, another theme emerged: "Fluids In, Fluids Out." With the heat as it was, dehydration was a huge danger and at every "Grab and Go" or "Pit Stop" (the primary difference being the amount of food and medical attention available), the porta-john lines were long as could be and the water and Gatorade were free for the taking. As were oranges, bananas, nutri-grain bars, granola bars, bagels, sunscreen, Ben-gay, ace bandages, ice packs. You get the picture. Basically, on the food and drink front, we were covered.
Anyway, I digress. The video continued. Sara asked us to remember why we were walking. It was for the memory of the women who had fought cancer and lost. It was for the honor of those fighting and it was to help educate women about the importance of early detection, especially underprivileged women, increasing their chances of survival dramatically. The words rolled up the screen:
When you are tired and think that you can't go on....
- Keep Walking
- Remember who you are walking for....
- And Keep Walking
- Remember the women who have died from breast cancer...
- And Keep Walking
- Think of those fighting
- And Keep Walking
- Just Keep Walking.
This type of message continued throughout the 50 minute presentation and the crowd was entirely hushed. By the end of the video, I was ready. Not exactly sure what I was ready for, but I knew this would not simply be a walk. There were people around the room crying and the emotion was palpable.
After a night in a local hotel, we arose at 4.15am and by 5, the walkers were amassed on the field for breakfast, followed by the Opening Ceremonies. The mist still hung low over the mountains and the sky was gray, though off in the distance, we could see the sun breaking through the clouds. We were welcomed to the walk, led in our Opening Stretches by a 9-time Ironman Triathlete, spoken to by the CEO of Avon (a man), whom we learned would be joining us on the entire walk, and sufficiently revved up.
From the sound system on the stage, the music changed and the mood turned somber. We gazed towards the middle of the field, to a cordoned off walkway. 9 women walked down the aisle in a circle forming a "Survivors' Circle." The space in the middle, intentionally left open to signify the "Missing Walker."
It was now time for "the First Step."
We were lined up and released in groups of 20 and 30. As we departed down the roped-in paths, we were surrounded by screaming, cheering supporters- a scene that would repeat itself over and over in towns all along the way. Raising our hands triumphantly, we crossed the threshold, embarking on the 55 mile journey, not knowing what was in store.
Day 1 went well. There was an air of excitement and we all embraced the spirit of the walk. We started off on a beautiful nature trail for about 4 miles, walked along some roads and through small towns. All along the course, we'd call out to strangers "Good Morning" and passing motorists would honk their horns to show their support. Our attire was uniform, we felt like a team. The official navy blue "Avon 3 day" shirt could be seen stretching for miles down roads and congregated in fields at each rest stop. Support vehicles, drove by at frequent intervals to ensure the safety of the walkers, and each rest stop had a creative aspect. They decorated the pit stops with themes ranging from "Under the Sea" to Cafe Tuttu and many more. Truly, the unsung heroes of this walk were the all-volunteer crew that made it possible. They catered to our medical, emotional, safety and spiritual needs.
By lunch, the sun was out in full force and we were starting to get tired. We had covered 11 miles by now and the heat and pressure of Day One was felt in full force. To pass the time, we chatted. I met breast cancer doctors and nurses, teachers, stay-at-home mothers, lawyers, accountants, consultants, actresses, one opera singer (I convinced her to share her talents as we walked eliciting a round of applause from our surrounding walkers), a dietitian--an impressive range of professions Most of the women were middle and upper middle class and I put the average age at about 45.
It was not until Day Two that I started to meet the survivors themselves. Signs around the campsite questioned us if we had "asked a survivor about her story that day." I hadn't as of yet and for lack of a better introduction, I simply said, "so, what's YOUR story?" I was amazed at their openness to discussing their ordeals and the perspective they had gained from it. By the mere discovery a small lump in a breast, sometimes via self-exam, sometimes by a physician, and one by her husband during intercourse, their lives had been inextricably altered.
Throughout the three day, I cherished my role as one of the only young, single men on the walk and even fielded some offers to be my tentmate, to which I replied that the price was rising steadily across the course of the afternoon.
At mile 17 of Day One, I was joined by Meg, a 42 year old employee at IBM and together we ascended the monstrous hill that preceded the finish line--and what a glorious finish line! We turned a corner and before us lay a city of tents, mobile showers, mobile kitchens, dining tents, massage, podiatry, physical therapy, concierge, and media tents. We heard the roar of the crowd as we approached and soon there appeared hundreds of people cheering and clapping. I high-fived everyone as I crossed the finish line triumphantly.
That first evening was spent on a high school football field. We were in our tents by 9pm, after a night of dinner and dancing, believe it or not! In fact, we hardly rested at all, since throughout the night, people were up going to the bathrooms (I got up 4 times myself.)
Camp came to life at 4.30am the next morning and by 7am, we were back on the road, for what would be the longest day of the walk: 22 miles. In our hand was the "3 Day Today," the daily newspaper of the event, and plenty of water.
Day 2 was the most challenging, but it was also the most rewarding. People said that Day 1 was easy since it contained the excitement of the event and that Day 3 would hold the promise of the End of our journey, but Day 2 clearly transformed the Walk into a collective experience.
It was hot. Our muscles were sore from the previous day and as we made our way through places like Nyack, Piermont, and under the Tappanzee bridge, the shared experience and bigger-than-life feeling of the event really became evident. At one stop, in a sudden burst of male-bonding, my fellow walker Vinny suggested that we get an official picture of all the participating men.
I seized the idea, instructed Vinny to tell all the men he saw, told his wife June to interface with the official Avon powers-that-be, and told every pit stop crew member about the idea. At 8.15 that night, I led the men of the "Avon 3 Day" in an official portrait with cheers such as: "No Shower Lines," "No Sports Bras," and the ultimate crowd pleaser: "The World is our toilet."
The women of the event really gave us great support and one of the first questions that I fielded was "what motivated you to do this?"
Day 2 continued to mount in intensity, heat, and most significantly, mileage. By mile 17, I was feeling it. We'd had some 3 mile stretches without breaks and my ankle was starting to flare up. I had to slow down, but it was my co-walkers that kept me going. People stood on the side of the road, cheering us. There were homemade signs urging us to go forward. Little boys and girls were giving out free water and ice. One family even passed out sugar cookies in the shape of the pink ribbons symbolizing the fight against breast cancer. Motorists yielded to us with a nod of the head as we crossed streets and through intersections. Though we were tired and quickly turning into a picture of the walking wounded, our spirits were high. One other rule of the introductory video had been "No Whining. No Complaining" and amazingly enough, this was adhered to, for the most part. It's tough to expect women who got up in the morning, went to the porta John, applied make up and then walked 22 miles to be happy all the time, but they were indeed troopers.
We crossed into New Jersey and then were on the final stretch that took us to the finish line of Day Two. It was late afternoon, but from a distance we could hear the roar of the crowd and as Lily, Margaret (two new friends) and I together came over a small ridge we saw the yellow and blue flags that symbolized the entrance to every rest stop, so we knew we were there. Had we been allowed to run (No Running was yet another rule) I would have done it, but instead we just li mped. People were whooping and clapping. The intensity far exceeded what had occurred on Day One. Whereas on Day One, most people simply finished, found their luggage, showered, and then ate or got some ice, and then went about their business, on Day Two, finishers did all of the above and more. Instead of lounging around, they lined the curbs of the driveway that approached the finish line. What this meant was that as more people finished, the throng of people grew and the accompanying cheers that welcomed the finishers increased.
The later you came in, the louder the roar of the crowd. It was the anti-Race.
I sat on the curb, with ice on my knees and ankles, high-fiving, clapping, and whooping for all of my new friends. The intensity was tremendous and ever growing. The three loudest cheers were reserved for the "Poster Walkers."
Poster Walker number 1 was not even a walker. She was in a wheelchair and covered the distance with only occasional assistance.
Poster Walker number 2 was a 79 year old man whose wife had died years before from breast cancer. He walked the entire distance accompanied by his two sons. This relatively frail man, walked with the aid of a cane and literally took baby steps the whole way. When he came in, there was not a dry eye in the house. The heart and dedication that he showed was a true inspiration. Thinking about him even now wells me up inside.
Poster Walker number 3 was a 23 year old survivor of breast cancer. On Day One, she had torn a ligament and was rushed to the emergency room, where the doctor had told her that there was no way she would finish the walk. The urban legend that quickly spread throughout the camp was that her response had been: "I beat breast cancer, I'm going to finish this walk." She finished at 8.30 pm, after 15 hours on the road and she did it on crutches. The roar for her was deafening and the tears were flowing.
These three epitomized the spirit of the Three Day.
Day Three dawned and our anticipation mounted. Between 6.30-8, we exited the camp on our last morning of the walk. We made our way through Englewood, NJ and after going under a roadway, we turned to our left and saw the two rising towers of the George Washington Bridge. This lifted our spirits and elicited yet more tears. Our objective now was truly within reach. Slowly walking across the bridge, taking in the water, the cliffs of the New Jersey Palisades behind us, and the magnificent Manhattan skyline, we reflected on what this final bridge crossing signified. I, on the other hand, was busy pitching the CEO of Avon on the idea of marketing the event to single men of all ages, given the ratios. He didn't like the idea, but believe me, most of the women I told thought it was great.
Entering Manhattan at 178th St., any local could do the math. We had about 90 blocks to go, 4.5 miles. Lunch was served at the Riverside State Park and we were told that with a short distance to cover from 145th St. to the "Holding Pen" where we would stay before the Closing Ceremonies, we should take our time at lunch. Since we were so close to the goal, we weren't really at the point where we could be happy that we were finished, but we were realizing that for all intents and purposes, we were done. The camraderie among the group was as strong as ever. We knew that we had succeeded in pushing ourselves to our limits and done what we set out to do.
At 11.30, I set out for the final assault. Once I hit 122nd St., seeing Grant's Tomb (where Grant is buried) and Riverside Church, I knew I was there. This is my neighborhood. We crossed Manhattan on 110th St. and all the way to the other side of the park to 5th Ave. Thinking we were headed straight into the «Park, we were confused to see that we actually were to end up on 98th and Park Ave. in a playground adjacent to an elementary school. About a block away, we heard the loud rock music blaring. The neighborhood kids had picked up the yellow and blue flags and were waving them on either side of us as we approached the finish line. Every single walker turned the corner, entered through the gate of the playground and found themselves on a landing above five steps, looking out at the entire walker community, all of whom were cheering and clapping. Each of us got a personalized standing ovation as we crossed the finish line.
There's no one image that stands out, but without fail, it was the faces of the walkers that told the story throughout the Three Day, but especially at the Finish Line. Each one was different, but the same in its meaning. We had done it and when the three Poster Walkers came in, each at their own pace, they brought the house down.
I don't know where the energy came from, but we were leaping out of our seats, some were dancing and singing in circles, and euphoria reigned.
We were given new Avon Breast Cancer 3 Day t-shirts and lined up on 5th Ave. at the entrance to the park on 100th St. or so. Looking down 5th Ave., the blue shirts extended multiple blocks and for a few moments, the 2000 walkers all stood still and silent. Finally, we got the word and into the park we marched. The veil that had shielded the amassed family and friends was pulled back, the music that had accompanied us on the way out of Bear Mountain only 2.5 LONG days before was playing, and the announcer introduced us as we triumphantly made our way down into the center of the Ceremony area. Lisa and I danced our way down the hill. I looked over to the side and saw Emily frantically waving toward me. I ran over to her for a joyous reunion and further down were my cousin Ben and my sister Dina, all there to share the moment with my fellow walkers and me.
The closing ceremonies were just as emotional as the Opening, if not more so. First the walkers came in. Then, in pink shirts, all of the cancer survivors who had made the walk came in, and then again, the Survivors Circle. We heard a few closing remarks, held hands with our neighbors in memory of those who didn't make it, thought about the reason we'd done the walk, thought about what we'd learned about ourselves, about the human condition, remembered what it meant to live by the motto of: Kindness (and stretching) and hoped that these three days would positively change us for the rest of our lives.
Thanks to all of you for your support in making this experience possible and more importantly, in supporting programs that fund research and early detection programs for women of limited means.
Shana Tova and Happy New Year.