Here’s what I posted on Facebook while watching last Friday night’s opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics:
Heather Borden Herve has an Olympic stadium-sized amount of admiration, awe and pride for my sister. She rides in the CT Challenge tomorrow, 50 miles! She has left cancer in the dust, and will show the world her amazing strength and spirit. Ride, GG, ride!
Perhaps I’m over-generalizing, but for many people, we present a sort of ‘facebooked’ life these days. We take life and boil it down to limited-character quips that don’t quite capture what the essence of reality is. That post of mine, about my sister, doesn’t even come close to what I feel.
A little over two years ago, my sister, Gayle, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. A mom of three (one an infant at the time), she had yet to turn 40, and her diagnosis threw our family into uncharted, terrifying waters. Of course, it was nothing compared to what she was going through herself. As she recently put it in an email to friends and family:
“Gut-wrenching disbelief turned to extreme fear, which morphed into panic and deep loneliness. The fear was so profound, there was a space between me and myself…and I had to quell the feelings of wanting to jump out of my own skin to run away from the truth and myself. I have never felt more lonely in my life as I realized that, despite an incredible support system of loving family and friends, ultimately, it was my cancer and my body and the fight would be mine to have.”
And fight she did: surgery, radioactive radiation, time away from her husband and children, weakness, blood tests and major lifestyle changes. But of everything, perhaps the biggest effort she has made has been in linking the physical battles with the mental one.
“Unlike any time in my life before that point when I might have taken my body's power and health for granted, nothing could be left to chance...my body was all that I had, and I had to dig deep to connect with it and join it in its fight.”
In the two years since, Gayle reconnected so much with her body to keep the cancer away, that she — who, up to that point in her life, admittedly hadn’t really been overly athletic or committed to regular exercise — rededicated herself to staying as healthy as possible. She trained hard and this past January ran her first half-marathon. She has said that setting and striving to reach that kind of goal helped her find a great sense of accomplishment, and overcome fear and self doubt.
There was a bigger challenge she set for herself to meet, one which, until this past weekend, she didn’t realize would be so healing and empowering.
She committed to ride in the , an annual event where riders bike 10, 25, 50, 75 or 100 miles to raise funds for the CT Challenge Center for Survivorship, a health and wellness facility that opens this September in Southport, CT, and that offers support to cancer survivors — free of charge.
She decided to bike the 50-mile ride, despite having never ridden a road bike or raced before in her life. (Or in her words, “I’m going to ride my tail off, for myself and for the other survivors!”)
Overcoming fear, finding strength, redefining success and health for herself — she acknowledged needing to dig deep and find some inner power in places she said she never knew she had.
Not surprisingly, the day of the ride was incredibly meaningful. Of the more than 1,000 riders, 83 participants were survivors like Gayle. The opening ceremony included a triumphant march of those survivors through the rest of the riders. Cheering, hollering support, the crowd gave them a rousing ovation that marked the start of an emotional day in which she felt continuously embraced by encouragement and support.
Fellow bikers would see the ‘Survivor’ bib pinned to her back and bearing her name. Through the whole 50 miles, they’d urge her on with cries of “Go Gayle!” “We’re with you all the way!” Affirming and caretaking, they’d ask her as she pushed up hills, “Are you okay?” or say, “You can do it!”
One mystical thing happened that was inexplicable and will likely be one of the most powerful moments of her life. CT Challenge organizers kicked off the ride with a butterfly launch, releasing thousands of butterflies into the air. One of those monarchs flew to Gayle and, as she put it, “Chose me and my heart.” Sitting just over Gayle’s heart, that butterfly stayed with Gayle as she started pedaling … and stayed. And stayed. And stayed.
That butterfly, which, to Gayle, became a symbol of hope, belief in herself, and fearlessness, stayed with her for 10 miles.
In fact, it decided to fly away at precisely the moment Gayle was going to face her biggest fear of the course — riding up the highest, most challenging hill of all. Perhaps it was saying, “You don’t need me anymore, rely on yourself — you can do it on your own.” But with it that butterfly talisman took away whatever fear remained.
So feeling fearless, triumphant, cared for, affirmed — and just a bit exhausted — Gayle did do it on her own. She took in some of the most beautiful Connecticut landscapes. She exalted with other riders biking beside her on the same course. She cursed the seemingly 17,000th hill at mile 22. She sobbed at mile 40. She celebrated herself and her strength riding solo for the final 15 miles, finishing ahead of her 4-hour goal at 03:42:00.
Of the more than $1 million raised by this year's ride, Gayle's fundraising contributed more than $3,300 to the effort.
Through it all, she learned how to rely on her body, to rely on her mind, and to rely on her heart, realizing she truly had the amount of heart it took to triumph over so much more than 50 miles of a bike ride.
Like Gayle, all of her fellow rider-survivors have triumphed, making it to the top of that most challenging hill of all. Some may encounter other hills along the course that lies ahead, others may be able to coast on easier downhills and flats. That’s why they call it a ride, and not a race. Because it doesn’t matter how fast you finish, just that you appreciate it along the way, taking in the experience and the ability to make it happen.
Gayle is indeed a survivor. My sister is most definitely a survivor. I couldn’t be more proud or deeply grateful.
Anyone wishing to contribute to the CT Challenge efforts can visit the website. Donations will continue to be added to the race tally through the end of September.