LIVESTRONG Challenge, Philly, 2011: It's Not About the Ride
31 Aug 2011
For the sixth year in a row, the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the LIVESTRONG Challenge returned to the Philadelphia area. Early on the morning of August 21st, thousands gathered as the organization's founder, Lance Armstrong, took to the podium. After a few brief words and thanks for support, Armstrong announced that this year, he would be participating in the 100 mile ride, the longest route of the event. This was met with a roar of cheers and jubilation, to which Armstrong simply responded: "...you know, I've rode 100 miles before." Many chuckled. Certainly to this champion, a seven-time Tour de France winner (all after his battle with cancer) and winner of 22 stages of the coveted major cycling event, 100 miles wasn't difficult. But that's not the reason for the laughter. As it happens, those gathered on that morning got the joke: Armstrong's toughest challenge will not be the 100 mile trek across the Pennsylvania countryside. It wasn't even the Tour de France. His battle with Cancer was his only real challenge.
But it's not about Lance.
Despite the money raised and the impact that LIVESTRONG has had in the battle against cancer since its founding in 1997, possibly the largest victory thus far is the culture that has developed around the organization. The LIVESTRONG Challenge is more than just a fundraising event; it is the embodiment of the organization's motto: Unity is strength. Knowledge is power. Attitude is everything. Those that participate in the Challenge series commit themselves to running a 5k or a 10k, or they commit to riding between 10 and 100 miles (or both). They have also raised money for the organization, over $2.8 Million USD at the Philadelphia stop alone. But the real benefit of participating in the LIVESTRONG Challenge is that you will ultimately be a healthier person in the end. You will have improved your cardio performance and you'll likely have lost weight. You probably eat and drink healthier, manage stress better and have a better spirit and mind. Wouldn't you know it, all of those things have been shown to reduce the likelihood of contracting certain types of cancer. Well, isn't that an interesting surprise? Or was it perhaps the goal of LIVESTRONG all along?
But to better understand the culture, perhaps I should share my story. We lost my mother, Geri, to Renal Cell Carcinoma (Kidney Cancer) in 2002. It's a rare form of cancer, and hopes of her survival weren't incredible, but she was an inspiration right up until the very end. The takeaway was that had she led a healthier lifestyle earlier in her life, she might have had a slightly better chance of survival. Her diagnosis was a bit of a wake-up call to my brother who lost several pounds and began to lead a healthier lifestyle. The LIVESTRONG Challenge came to Philadelphia in 2006 without much warning. My brother, Steve, caught wind of it and entered to participate in 2007. Be it my anger or frustrations towards the disease, or perhaps it was my ignorance about whether I could actually make a difference, my brother was not able to convince me to join up so early. Then in 2008, a few weeks before The Challenge that year, Steve was also diagnosed with cancer: Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). It was then that I vowed to take up the LIVESTRONG Banner. But it was too late for me to join that year. I, too, had let my fitness level slip and I was in no condition to run that year. But I got in shape and I made my Challenge debut in 2009, and in turn every year since.
As for Steve: CLL does not have an immediate impact on its host. To many, my brother might seem asymptomatic - but those of us who know him best can see it slowly wearing on him. At least for now, he is still able to run and ride in the LIVESTRONG Challenge each year, and will continue to do so until his treatments require him to step down for a while. But that day will unfortunately come, and I am happy to say that LIVESTRONG will continue to be there for him with whatever support and knowledge they have to share.
But it's not about Steve either.
When I signed on the LIVESTRONG dotted line, I was expecting to raise some money towards a cause that I thought would one day have an impact. I did not expect to see the organization's influence spread so quickly. I'm not talking about the wonderful programs and research that the organization supports. I'm not even talking about the money they raise. I'm really talking about the personal connection I've had with hundreds of positive-thinking and inspirational strangers since getting involved. What really has helped me to cope with my brother's battle is meeting others who are in similar situations, or others who have beaten this disease, or even doctors and nurses that have helped hundreds - if not thousands - fight cancer and win. Many take their runs and rides very seriously: "My suffering is insignificant compared to those battling Cancer." Others are much more lighthearted, wearing crazy costumes or even tailgating before and after their event. One participant, a cyclist and cancer survivor who is now dealing with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), joked that he supports LIVESTRONG first and foremost because "...those MS folk mean well, but their whole [event] is depressing."
Yes, we all seem to handle the fight a little bit differently. However, we all seem to respect that fact. The one thing that cannot be said about LIVESTRONG is that it's depressing. If I were to describe the event, or the organization as a whole, in one word, it would be: Motivational. There are small traditions that leave a huge mark and really set the tone. The title Survivor is given to anyone who has beaten or is currently battling cancer. You will never hear a negative connotation like "victim" or "sufferer" mentioned at LIVESTRONG. At the finish line, volunteers organize to gift Survivors each with a single yellow rose: A symbol of their fight and an inspiration to onlookers. All throughout the village are banners and flags with the words "Fight", "Defy", "Courage" and challenges of "Game On Cancer". And we cannot forget the children who write messages to participants in yellow chalk at the finish line just after everyone begins their journey. There is no negative stigma here.
I participated in the 10k run on saturday, but the highlight of my weekend is on Sunday while my brother and our teammates make their 7 hour journey. Some may think it crazy to spend so much time on my own wandering about the small campus. Three years ago, I might have thought so, too. However, this is when I meet others affected by cancer and I get to hear their stories and share my own. I may not know their names, but some I recognize and most recognize me year after year. This is my support group. These yellow-wristband-wearing folk are my friends. We are all LIVESTRONG. One day, we will beat this crazy disease known as Cancer. But in the meantime, we have each other.
And that is what it's really all about.