Llamas (or Alpacas?)

“I’ve walked for miles; my feet are hurting…”

–“Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones

This past weekend, I went for a walk around Atlanta.

A 60 mile walk, that is.

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A standing llama. Or maybe it’s an alpaca. 

I’ll circle back to her in a bit, I promise…

Gosh, Tina.

The Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk has always been on my bucket list, especially after I ran my first half-marathon. When that ING course split off and the marathoners shuffled down one way and the halfers went the other way–back towards the city–I knew that I would never run a marathon. But walk one? Twice in a row? Oh, yeah, I could do that.

Even though Russ suggested several times that I do the 3-Day Walk, I never followed through on it any more than to say, “yeah, I should.” I was full of excuses. I didn’t even know where to begin. I’d never spent the night in a tent before (seriously). Those 3-Day folks get up early, and I am not a morning person, especially not for 3 days in a row. How could I convince someone else to do it with me? And Lord knew I didn’t want to ask folks for donations.

Then I began to see women around me being diagnosed with breast cancer. A friend’s grandmother.

A friend’s mother.

A friend.

Thanks to my baseball playing son, my paths crossed with a new friend, Carolyn, who is the captain of a team of women who do the 3-Day every year. Fast forward a few months, and I’m signed up to walk this year’s 3-Day with 3 other moms from our baseball team. One blog post later, I’ve hit my initial fundraising goal. Next thing you know, it’s Friday, October 19th, and Carolyn is picking me up in my moonlit driveway at 5:35 a.m. (Remember that part about me not being a morning person?)

5:35 is early, people.

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With my main companion group of walkers:  Meredith, me, Alice, Gina, and Cynthia.

The best girls around. And certainly some of the funniest.

We headed out of Stone Mountain on foot around 7:30 a.m. (that’s still early to me, people).

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This would be what sunrise looks like.

We walked around Stone Mountain. Walking around Stone Mountain is slightly boring. We walked down many, many miles of the PATH foundation trail. The PATH trail, while a fabulous addition to Atlanta, is also slightly boring. We crossed 285. Twice. We walked down roads I’ve never been on in my life. We joked about how we had no idea where we were.

At some point, we began to pass cheering stations and spectators. Strangers handed out Chapstick and Kleenex, shiny pink beads and stickers, high-fives and pats on the back. Volunteers handed out snacks and Gatorade. I gave my necklace to a tiny preschooler whose class came out to cheer us on. We started to talk to each other. We met John and learned about his amazing journey. We met Glen, who told us a similarly amazing story about himself. Glen and John then told us this beautiful little girl’s story. We did all this before we even made it to lunch on the first day.

This was going to be a long walk, indeed.

A little over twenty miles later, we ambled into camp at the Georgia World Congress Center. The ever-energetic Carolyn had already done the grunt work and pitched our tents and even hauled our duffels off the truck to us. Over 1,000 of us settled in for the night in a sea of bright pink tents. I’d never met my tent-mate before.

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With tentmate Mary on our first night at camp.

She turned out to be lovely–smart, clever, dry witted…just what I needed from a stranger who was sleeping 5 inches away from me.

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Alice and Gina, ready to brave day 2.

The pink dawn came early:  the lights were flipped on both mornings at 5:30. That’s a.m. again, people.

Sleeping on an air mattress after walking 20 miles pretty much insures you will be sore and tired. My hips and ankles, of all things, were what hurt; they felt stiff and locked up. My friend Gina said she felt like a donkey had kicked her in the thigh. But we were the lucky ones; the lines for the medical tent were long as people waited to get giant blisters lanced, to have toes wrapped with moleskin, to gather up Advil for the day’s journey.

Saturday greeted us with rain and lots of hills.

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Stiff-ankle-girl on the left, donkey-kick victim on the right.

The morning slowly dragged on, but eventually we started seeing spectators again. Today’s rounds of impromptu cheering stations often featured creative costumes and crazy, borderline-raunchy posters–all of which made us laugh.

(These ladies happily informed us that the nipples on their costume squeaked if you squeezed them. We took their word for it.)

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Is that responsible attention to hydrating or a jello shot? I’ll never tell.

But no matter how you slice it, 20 miles is a freaking long way. Twenty miles for the second day in a row is even longer.

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Thank goodness for escalators. There’s no way Meredith and I could have managed the stairs.

The pink dawn on Sunday came even earlier. My hips were even stiffer. It was icy cold outside in the pre-dawn when we made our way out of camp. We walked the first few miles in relative silence, speaking only to point out the college girls enduring a walk of shame through the Georgia Tech campus (truth) or the empty beer cans lining a fraternity house front porch. I was tired of walking. I was tired of being away from my family and my puppy and my house and my bed and myself. I was tired and grumpy and very uncomfortable. If I could just muscle through this last day–I told myself–I’d mark this sucker off my list and move on, relieved to be done.

Then, the catharsis.

[It’s hard to sound like anything but a brat when I write this next paragraph, so please forgive me.]

When I backpacked Europe a zillion years ago, I spent the majority of the trip in a state of discomfort. I was nervous, homesick, exhausted, frustrated by my inaccuracies with languages and currencies, and just plain over being cooped up with the same 4 people for days on end. But once I finally accepted all of these inconveniences as a defining part of the grand adventure (a seriously emotional breakthrough I had on a balcony in Corfu), the world opened her doors to me.

I tend to forget this aspect of life’s journey every now and then. When it reaches up out of anxiety and fatigue and shakes me by the shoulders, I can’t help but listen.

The last 5 miles of the walk were nothing short of beautiful. The group of 4 companions with whom I’d begun the walk was determined to finish the walk together. We laughed so hard at so many things that were funny only to us: titanium “power-necklaces” we were given at mile 16 but couldn’t figure out how to open; bikers treating the PATH trail like the autobahn and nearly running us over; get-rich-quick schemes involving food trucks and non-traditional milk; speculations on a certain podiatrist’s object of affection. The laughter was soul cleansing. In the end, I had fortified four new friendships.

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Finally at the last pit stop!

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This giant thing against the bluest sky ever. 

Has to be a metaphor.

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Walking into Turner Field was a breathtaking experience. I am still basking in the feeling of accomplishment. We set out to climb one big huge mountain, and we did it.

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Hugging these guys on Sunday made my heart skip a beat.

Climbing Mt. Everest is an unbelievable success certainly worthy of celebration. But it would be an impossible achievement without the Sherpa guiding you, right?

Well, sort of.

The real hero in this scenario is the yak (not a llama or an alpaca, by the way) who hauls all the stuff up the mountain. Repeatedly. With little to no acknowledgement, save a bowl of yak-kibble or two along the way.

But have you known anyone to follow the chain of gratitude that far? The climber gets the glory; the Sherpa has merely done his job. But the yak? The beast of burden has just listened to its life’s calling.

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This old girl is a llama, not a yak, but she has likely earned her little rest.

Spend 58 consecutive hours and walk 60 miles with a few people, and you’ll start to talk about such pseudo-philosophical things. The great catharsis experienced by pushing oneself to the limit is not about just enduring discomfort or learning from it–it’s about embracing it as well. 

There are times when we are climbers and times when we are Sherpas. 

There are also times when we are yaks.

Endure. Learn. Embrace. What a glorious trio of tenets to have been reminded of this weekend. 

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