People say habits are formed in 21 days. I say lessons are learned in 49. At least, that was the case for me this summer as I ran across the country with a group of 22 young adults raising money and awareness for young adult cancer. The opportunity to run for the Ulman Cancer Fund’s 4K Team New York from San Francisco, CA to New York City, NY was about more than running or even cancer. By the time we hit 4,000 miles it was a lesson learned through blood, sweat, and tears about the commitment to live intentionally and the power of vulnerability.
On day 3, while running up an incline of 8500 feet in Lassen National Park, California the lesson of commitment came knocking, or more appropriately rolling, down the hill. 12 miles in sweltering California heat up an active volcano after 3 nights of sleeping on the hard ground in a sleeping bag. Demoralizing, depressing, and downright difficult. The only thing that pushed us through was our own commitment and intentions set before this trip. All of my teammates were affected in some way by cancer. Mothers, fathers, cousins, grandparents all snatched up into it’s terminal grasp. Gasps of “I can’t do this” were answered with personal stories of motivation and resilience. The commitment we each made in fundraising at least $4,500 for the Ulman Cancer Fund was in the back of our minds. The names of cancer victims whom we dedicated each day to scrawled on the back of our calves served as a reminder for each running partner. The decision to live this summer with the intention of experiencing our country in a unique way and giving hope to others affected by cancer was ever-present. That lesson would continue to build at the crest of every hill and the drop of every rainstorm.
Team meetings in Oregon, Iowa, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and others were points at which we’d remind one another of our commitment. In Oregon, the commitment was to understand how to advocate for cancer patients. In Iowa, roughly our halfway point, the commitment became to finish out the race despite injuries and aches. By Wisconsin it had transformed into a determined promise to see each other through the end of the journey and beyond. By the time we hit day 48 in New Jersey before our final 28 mile run into New York City it grew into a pact to always live as intentionally as we had on the 4K.
The power of vulnerability is a lesson I think every young adult spends their youth avoiding. Individuality is alienating, weakness is a plague. Not so on the 4K. When you spend 24 hours 7 days a week with 22 strangers you are going to have a weak moment. A bad e-mail from home, some severe homesickness, a moving visit with a cancer patient, or just a really painful day of running; it happens. What makes the 4K so unique is that you learn to embrace that weakness as proof of the endurability of the human spirit. This lesson hits like a battering ram every time we got the opportunity to interact with a cancer patient at a hospital during service. Young or old, they all embraced their own vulnerability. Further than that, they saw the positivity in their cancer diagnosis. Some went as far as to say they were grateful for the cancer. If it weren’t for being diagnosed with cancer, they wouldn’t have the friends or support system they met through treatment. They wouldn’t be living so intentionally every day.
Our team started to emulate their behavior. The cancer patients and their families that we met along the way inspired us to open up like never before. Personal battles became team battles and every day was an opportunity to share how much someone meant to you. In Wisconsin we went so far as to share how each teammate had changed our trip and our lives for the better. At an age where talking about feelings is ‘uncool’ in a culture that buries emotion, it was a hurdle we overcame like all others: as a team.
By the end, it wasn’t “I ran across the country this summer.” It was, “I had the best summer learning how to live my best life with 22 strangers turned family. And I ran, a lot.” Accents would change, weather would shift, and landscapes morphed from dry deserts to plains to cornfields to great lakes to suburbs, but the message of intention and vulnerability never did.