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Race for the Cure: My three hour introduction to a wonderful movement

About a month ago I saw a brightly colored poster in the gym I go to that read: "NC Triangle Race for the Cure." I had heard about the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure before, but I didn't really know what it was all about. So, even though I hardly consider myself a runner, I decided to run in the race and learn about the event. I learned a lot.

The Race for the Cure is about remembering loved ones that were stolen from us by breast cancer. The Race is about personal participation and contribution to try to make a difference in the fight against breast cancer. The Race is about celebrating those who had faced the disease and were winning. And the Race for the Cure is about two five-kilometer (5K/3.1 miles) road races: a run/walk for women and an open coed run/walk.

Nancy Brinker, Founding Chairman of the Komen Foundation, organized the first Race for the Cure in Dallas, Texas in 1983. The Race for the Cure is now the largest series of 5K runs in the United States. Since its origination the Race for the Cure series has grown from one local race to a national series of five-kilometer (5K) and one-mile fitness runs/walks to be held in a record 99 cities in 1999. The 1998 National Race for the Cure in Washington, DC became the largest registered five-kilometer (5K) race in the world with a record field of more than 50,000 runners and walkers participating.

Proceeds from the Race for the Cure Series fund both national research efforts and local breast cancer initiatives. A majority of the proceeds fund local community programs related to breast health education, screening and treatment and are based on specific area needs determined by local Komen Foundation representatives. 25% of the proceeds fund national breast cancer research and project grants

I arrived at about an hour before the coed race, signed in, paid the entry fee and received a Race for the Cure T-shirt and a race number. It was announced that over 8,000 participants had turned out for the third annual NC Triangle Race at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina. Proceeds from the event raised more than $300,000 for the cause. After donning my Race for the Cure T-shirt and race number, and doing a little warming up I wandered over to the starting area where participants were assembling.

All sorts of people had turned out: young high school and college students, middle aged women and men, seniors, serious runners, kids, groups from large businesses in the area, and breast cancer survivors. Participants who had survived breast cancer wore special pink Race for the Cure T-shirts. Those who were running in memory of a friends, family or loved one lost to breast cancer wore special pink "In Memory Of..." signs bearing the names of those they had lost. Other runners wore pink "In Celebration Of..." signs to celebrate breast cancer survivors.

Although confident I could run around the 3.1 mile course without collapsing in exhaustion, I had never competed in a road race and I wasn't sure what to expect. So I lined up near the middle of the pack, next to the sign that said "8 minute per mile … just here to have a good time." The race started and we began to move forward at a slow then faster walk. It took about a quarter of a mile before people in my pack could actually start running. It wasn't long before my macho ego pushed me to pick up my pace and start passing other runners on the outside of the pack.

The race wound through quite streets of a nice residential area of Raleigh, past pretty homes, tall trees and green lawns. Several residents had come outside to watch the race from their front yards. One family decided to use the opportunity to have a garage sale and one man had prominently displayed his car for sale (a racer next to me shouted an inquiry for the asking price and car's age as he ran by … the price seemed high).

At the halfway point I was starting to feel tired, my macho pace was taking its toll on my out of shape lungs and heart. The Raleigh streets had several hills that made the runners work hard. At the two-mile mark my breathing was getting labored, but for some reason I kept running faster. My mind started to wonder if I could keep running, but my heart told me I couldn't quit. I had to run as hard as I could. "How can I give up with only seven minutes left to go?" I thought. Then I started to notice that other runners around me were really "huffing and puffing", but no one was giving up. After making it over another tough hill, a race volunteer shouted, "that's the last hill!" I noticed a fit couple just ahead of me looked at each other as if to say "let's keep going, we can do it!"

When I passed the final quarter mile marker, I was feeling really exhausted. Had it been a normal jog, I would have stopped running and started walking. But then a bold thought popped into my mind: "there are women in this race that have had the courage to battle cancer and win, don't you have the guts to keep running for another two minutes?!" As I thought about the fierce determination of so many women fighting breast cancer, I noticed that people were starting to line up to cheer us in to the finish. My heart was pounding and my lungs were screaming, but somehow the thought of letting down those people we were running for pushed me to the finish line.

Once I finished, I grabbed some water and tried to cool down and catch my breath, I felt delirious. "Well, I made it!" I thought. Local restaurants and businesses had donated water, juice, fruit and other snacks for the racers. Participants were very happy to get some fluids and energy after the race.

The next hour I chatted with some people and munched on some snacks and listened to the band play "I can see clearly now." The crowd started to thin out, so I began wandering in the direction of my car. Then I witnessed what for me was the best part of the event.

All of the breast cancer survivors in attendance had gathered together about 100 yards from the stage. They were all laughing and hugging and each woman was holding a bundle of pink balloons. Then someone up on the stage shouted "hey when are you ladies gonna march up here to the stage?!" All of the survivors turned to face the stage, and a minute later they started to march up in groups, each group lead by a woman holding a sign showing how long they had survived. Observers and participants crowded in and everyone was cheering and applauding. The ladies in pink were all wonderful smiles and laughter.

At that moment I understood what the Race for the Cure is really about. It’s a celebration of life and victory, honoring those we had lost and applauding those we still has with us. As those women marched by, all total strangers to me, I felt so incredibly proud of them. They were openly fighting a horrid disease that just a decade or two before was only talked about in whispers. One of the final groups walked by holding a sign that said "20+". Almost at the very end of the procession, one bold lady was really soaking up the moment and proudly danced and bowed for the crowd. Luckily I had my sunglasses on so no one could catch the tears in my eyes.

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation was established in 1982 by Nancy Brinker to honor the memory of her sister, Susan G. Komen, who died from breast cancer at the age of 36. The Foundation is a national organization with a network of volunteers working through local chapters and Race for the Cure events throughout 42 states and the District of Columbia, fighting to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease by advancing research, education, screening and treatment.

Through early funding of basic research, The Komen Foundation has laid the groundwork for some of today's most promising breast cancer treatments. In addition to funding research, the National Grant Program funds innovative breast cancer education, screening and treatment projects for the medically underserved. Hundreds of thousands of men and women receive the life-saving message of early detection through Komen outreach efforts. The Susan G. Komen Foundation website can be found at www.komen.org. A special breast cancer information resource is maintained by SGK at www.breastcancerinfo.com, and a website about the Race for the Cure Series including a schedule of races around the country is at www.raceforthecure.com. The NC Triangle Race for the Cure maintains a website at www.nctrianglerace.org. The News and Observer article about the 1999 NC Triangle Race for the Cure is available online at www.news-observer.com/daily/1999/06/06/tri00.asp.

Many participants including numerous survivors and women whose breast cancer is in remission took over an hour to walk the three-mile course. A few macho men probably had to stop running in the heat to catch their breath. The winner of the coed race I ran in finished in less than 14 minutes. But those details are really not significant. What really mattered was that people came out to participate and show their support for breast cancer research and for women who are fighting to beat the disease.

As I walked to my car I saw two athletic men who had been in the coed race headed back toward the stage. I blurted out "see you next year!" as they nodded to me and walked by. They smiled and one said, "You bet!"

If you have never participated in a Race for the Cure event, I make my strongest encouragement for you to do so. Breast cancer advocacy is a wonderful and very important cause. But tapping into the energy of those survivors in pink and witnessing the triumph of the human spirit was an awesome, heart welling event that everyone should get to experience at least once in their life. Regardless of your aspirations or struggles in life, it all comes back to the spirit conveyed by those ladies in pink: to win in life you must have faith, hope, and love. I'll be back for another dose next year. How about you?