#TorontoHeartbroken

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I know what I had planned this week’s blog post to be about. It was going to be about rebirth and feeling like you’ve been given a new lease on life. Who could have known that one of the worst acts of violence we have ever seen in our country would eclipse all of that?

Last Thursday, I went for my regular six-monthly check-in with my surgeon Dr. Cil.  Back came the waiting room of women in head scarves or bald heads. Back came the blue hospital gown, and the identification bracelet. Back came the waiting and the examination of my lymph nodes, arm pits, chest wall and collar bone to check for metastases. Back came the status of cancer patient. Thankfully everything was normal. I was just fine and told to come back in six months.

Soon everything was better than fine because spring had FINALLY come to Toronto. We Canadians endure long, hard winters and when they finally end an atmosphere of glee abounds. Patios fill up. Overenthusiastic sorts wear shorts even though it’s not really quite warm enough yet. The sidewalks fill with pedestrians and joggers. It’s an annual rite of passage as we all celebrate the end of hibernation and the arrival of better weather.

As I set out Saturday morning, for my training run the ice storm of the previous weekend felt like a very distant memory. The temperature was in the double digits. People were everywhere. The city was coming back to life just as I had been given the all-clear. I was high on my good health and the sunshine. My 7 km run felt like a breeze. Kilimanjaro here I come!

This high lasted until precisely 5:15 pm on Monday when I checked my phone after being in a series of back to back meetings and saw a message from my friend saying “Did you see what happened on Yonge Street?” Then came the message from a friend overseas. “I’ve googled mapped the incident and think it’s miles away from you but are you ok? Text me back when you get a chance?”

After checking the main news outlets, I learned that at about 1:30 pm a single male driving a white rental van had deliberately run down over 20 pedestrians in what we call “the downtown of our uptown”. It’s an area where there are a lot of offices, and government buildings hence my friend’s concern. I bicycled home. Everything seemed normal but of course nothing was.

As I pedalled along the Bloor Street bike lane, nine bodies covered in tarpaulins were still lying on the busiest street in our city.  Fifteen people were gravely injured in hospital. Toronto had joined the horrible club including Nice and London, where “soft targets” are killed by people using motor vehicles as instruments of murder.

It is hard to pinpoint the worst thing about something so horrific but the one image I can’t get out of my head is the people who headed out at lunch time excited to finally get to walk or sit in the sun who never came back.

The hashtag #TorontoStrong is making the rounds. It’s something we are supposed to rally around to show we won’t be cowed by individuals and incidents like this but right now #TorontoHeartbroken feels more like the truth for me.

Conquering a Concrete Mountain

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SPOILER ALERT for anyone who has any desire to climb the C.N. Tower and have any element of surprise involved in the experience – do not read further.

It’s Toronto’s most eminent landmark. From 1975 to 2007 it was the largest free standing structure in the world. It remains the largest tower in the Western hemisphere at 553.3 metres high and on April 6th Team Kilimanjaro climbed it.

I would love to say that months of preparation had led up to this epic task. In truth, I had done absolutely no training aside from taking the stairs in the subway. As anyone who is familiar with the Toronto subway system can attest to taking the stairs in our city instead of the escalator is not particularly taxing. This is not London, England where the Tube is deep down in the earth and at Hampstead station, for example, one has to climb 320 steps if you forgo the lifts. It was a token gesture that made me feel like I was preparing somewhat but I imagine didn’t do very much for me.

I also had really no idea what to expect of  the environment we would be climbing in or how high we actually had to go. In this, I was not alone.  Although Jason, Dwayne and I all knew we had to climb 1776 steps, none of us knew what that actually translated to in terms of number of floors.

What I did know is that we should get to the tower early. The later you left it to climb, the more crowded the stairwell would be, the sweatier you would get, and slipperier the stair rails would be. Someone had even warned me to get a pair of cheap lightweight gloves to wear to be prepared for this likelihood.

So on the appointed morning of April 7th, I was up in the 5’s, an hour I never like to see unless I’m leaving for vacation. We were at the Metro Convention Centre where the climb began by 6:20 am. Hundreds of people were already there. There weren’t too many bleary eyed souls around despite the early hour. My fellow climbers were excited, and in many instances buzzing with energy.

I am ashamed to admit that although I have lived in Toronto for the vast majority of my adult life and have been to both the Metro Convention Centre and the CN Tower more times than I can count, I had somehow convinced myself that there is a magical indoor tunnel linking the two places.  Dwayne and Jason were also operating under the same delusion. Suffice it to say there isn’t. In keeping with the non-existent spring we have been having here, it was below zero degrees Celsius that morning. It wasn’t a long distance between the two buildings but it was a very cold trip in just our climbing clothes.

We entered the tower and were directed to the foot of the stairwell. Without much fanfare we entered the open door being manned by a security guard and starting climbing.  I was nervous and made the typical rookie error of going out too fast. Initially, I left Jason and Dwayne behind. By about the 40th floor though I was starting to feel the error of my ways. I needed to stop to catch my breath. Within a couple of minutes, I could hear Dwayne’s voice guiding Jason getting closer and closer until they were in view.

By this time, I was sufficiently recovered and I fell into step with the guys. For the next 60 floors or so, there was a wonderful symmetry as we all climbed together. I could imagine us doing this on a hiking path up Kilimanjaro. All around us was grey cement and children’s artwork celebrating the World Wildlife Federation, the charity the climb was raising funds for. Every twenty floors or so there was a paramedic stationed in case any climbers got into trouble. The higher we got the less exuberant and more grimly determined our fellow climbers became. This was no task for the faint of heart.

Somewhere along the way I was told we had to climb 107 stories. When we got to 100, I was hurting once more. I decided to take another break thinking the end was very near. Little did I know I had 43 more floors to climb!

Dwayne and Jason continued on as I stopped and then momentarily panicked feeling everything in my legs seize up. Dwayne’s voice got further and further away as I waited for my ragged breathing to return to normal and my muscles to unlock.

After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a minute or so I resumed climbing. I reached 107 and it was not the end. When I got to 110, I asked a paramedic how much further I had to go. I could have sworn he said 124, but I got to that floor and the stairs continued on. At around 130, I asked a fellow climber if she knew when this ordeal was going to end. It was at that point, I was told the magic number of 144 with the proviso that it was at this level you had your time recorded but you still had to go on for six more stories after that to reach the finish.

Knowing what I was dealing with had the immediate effect of giving me a boost of energy. Those last thirteen floors felt an awful lot less painful then the 37 preceding them. Before I knew it I was emerging into the observation level of the CN Tower and a sea of happy people all thrilled to have made it to the top.

It wasn’t until we were in the elevator on the way down seeing Lake Ontario and the skyline of Toronto quickly rise up to meet me that the enormity of what I had just accomplished hit me. Not quite a mountain but definitely a major feat.

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My time for the CN Tower Climb
My time! Did it in under a half hour

Training in Toronto in April

Completing a 10 km run six months after finishing treatment
At the beginning of the Sporting Life 10 km – May 2017, Six Months Out of Treatment 

Back in law school, come exam time, I used to walk around saying “April is the cruelest month” from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. It started in first year when we were all facing 100% finals and persisted as a bit of a joke later on. This year April is feeling like a particularly cruel time here in Toronto. Winter has been around for the better part of six months and it feels like it will just never end.

When the month began, I said to myself “hibernation time is over. It’s time to get active outside.” Within a couple of days of that vow, the temperature fell to a frigid minus 11 degrees Celsius with the wind chill. Back out of my closet came the down coat. My winter hat, scarf and mitts were starting to feel like a permanent appendage.

As those of you following our Facebook page know, Jason and I are running the Sporting Life 10km sportinglife10k.ca  on May 13th to help build up our overall fitness for the climb. This run holds a special place in my heart as I did it for the first time last year when I was six months out of treatment.

Given that the event is only five weeks away, I knew that the time had arrived to get serious about my running. I consulted my 10K runner app and devised a weekly schedule. Last night, was night number one of outdoor running/walking for 53 minutes. I didn’t want to do it. The temperature outside was hovering somewhere around the zero mark. I knew that as soon as I got going my body would quickly warm up but the urge to stay in the warmth of indoors was strong.

Two divine interventions swung the balance in favour of action over inertia. My friend Clare WhatsApped me from London, England and encouraged me to go and the sun came out! So off I set in my full winter running apparel. Somewhere around the mid-way mark, and perhaps not coincidentally the point at which my route began to go downhill, I realized I was actually enjoying this. I had some spring back — not in the weather which was decidedly winter-like still, but in my step.

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The view of where we’re heading

It’s important to keep the ultimate goal in mind.  Roaming around the blogosphere today, I  found some beautiful photos of Mount Kilimanjaro. Check them out here at:

https://eccentric99.wordpress.com/2018/04/08archive-346-kilimanjaro-mono/

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The Fighting Irish

 

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Contrary to what the title might suggest, this post is not about the Notre Dame Football team. It’s about my uncle and our first Team Kilimanjaro event, the Achilles St. Patrick’s Day 5k Run/Walk  that took place on March 18, 2018.

In case my Gaelic name, Niamh, didn’t give it away, I am the first generation Canadian child of Irish parents. Growing up, St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal in our household. Not quite Christmas, but of equal stature to a somewhat lesser holiday like Easter or Thanksgiving. My dad would wear his green shamrock tie to work, bemoaning the fact he had to go at all, because in Ireland and some Maritime provinces it was a bank holiday. My siblings and I would all sport our “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons to school.

St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t about green beer and getting drunk although that came later for me. It was about pride in our heritage. Being Irish meant something. Our ancestors had survived colonization by the English, the Great Potato Famine, and historical discrimination. Being Irish meant being strong and resilient. It meant being a fighter.

My Uncle Derry, my mother’s brother, true to form, was a fighter. He fought cancer with courage, grace and determination for the better part of two decades. He passed away from lymphoma in the early hours of March 18, 2018. Only the day before, on our national holiday, he had seen his beloved Ireland defeat England to win the rugby Grand Slam at Twickenham.

I received the news of his death at 4 am and knew there would be no more sleep for me that evening. Even though this was the first time Jason, Dwayne and I would be doing an athletic endeavour together as Team Kilimanjaro, I very briefly entertained the idea of bowing out. I knew there would be lots of green, and a plethora of cheerful people in St. Patrick’s Day paraphernalia doing this run. Reminders of my heritage at this particular moment were not so much a source of pride but a painful reminder of someone I’d just lost.

One of the many amazing things about my uncle was that he was an excellent runner. Before the side effects from his treatments sidelined him, he was a Boston marathon caliber runner. I knew I was going to be tired. I knew that I was not going to run this 5 k in any great time, and I didn’t. I also knew I was going to run it for him.

The morning of March 18, 2018 was cold but sunny and glorious. I remember as I headed out to walk my dog looking at the sun streaming through the clouds in the sky and thinking this is what Joni Mitchell was talking about in Both Sides Now when she talked about “ice cream castles in the air.” It made me feel like someone up high was smiling down on me. It made me feel better.

Dwayne and Jason picked me up and we headed down to the Steam Whistle Brewery where the race was being held. There we would meet “Blind Ambition”, our team, comprised of a number of Jason’s work colleagues. After the requisite milling around, the run finally got going. It was an out and back course. As a runner, I have always found these routes challenging as when you are a plodder like me you inevitably encounter all the folks who are faster than you on their way back. This was the set-up midway through the London marathon when I ran it in 2009 and psychologically it was the hardest part of the run for me.

I would love to say that I flew around the race route but in truth it was a pretty joyless grind. Dwayne and Jason quite quickly let me behind. After what seemed like a very long time but was in fact only 37 minutes I crossed the finish line. I then decamped back to the brewery with a few members of the Blind Ambition team to enjoy complimentary beer and chili.

Sitting at the table feeling somewhat spent but also proud for having completed the run, I decided that I would add raising funds for lymphoma research to my goals for the Kilimanjaro climb in honour of my uncle and his fighting Irish spirit.

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The Fighting Irish

 

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Contrary to what the title might suggest, this post is not about the Notre Dame Football team. It’s about my uncle and our first Team Kilimanjaro event, the Achilles St. Patrick’s Day 5k Run/Walk  that took place on March 18, 2018.

In case my Gaelic name, Niamh, didn’t give it away, I am the first generation Canadian child of Irish parents. Growing up, St. Patrick’s Day was a big deal in our household. Not quite Christmas, but of equal stature to a somewhat lesser holiday like Easter or Thanksgiving. My dad would wear his green shamrock tie to work, bemoaning the fact he had to go at all, because in Ireland and some Maritime provinces it was a bank holiday. My siblings and I would all sport our “Kiss Me I’m Irish” buttons to school.

St. Patrick’s Day wasn’t about green beer and getting drunk although that came later for me. It was about pride in our heritage. Being Irish meant something. Our ancestors had survived colonization by the English, the Great Potato Famine, and historical discrimination. Being Irish meant being strong and resilient. It meant being a fighter.

My Uncle Derry, my mother’s brother, true to form, was a fighter. He fought cancer with courage, grace and determination for the better part of two decades. He passed away from lymphoma in the early hours of March 18, 2018. Only the day before, on our national holiday, he had seen his beloved Ireland defeat England to win the rugby Grand Slam at Twickenham.

I received the news of his death at 4 am and knew there would be no more sleep for me that evening. Even though this was the first time Jason, Dwayne and I would be doing an athletic endeavour together as Team Kilimanjaro, I very briefly entertained the idea of bowing out. I knew there would be lots of green, and a plethora of cheerful people in St. Patrick’s Day paraphernalia doing this run. Reminders of my heritage at this particular moment were not so much a source of pride but a painful reminder of someone I’d just lost.

One of the many amazing things about my uncle was that he was an excellent runner. Before the side effects from his treatments sidelined him, he was a Boston marathon caliber runner. I knew I was going to be tired. I knew that I was not going to run this 5 k in any great time, and I didn’t. I also knew I was going to run it for him.

The morning of March 18, 2018 was cold but sunny and glorious. I remember as I headed out to walk my dog looking at the sun streaming through the clouds in the sky and thinking this is what Joni Mitchell was talking about in Both Sides Now when she talked about “ice cream castles in the air.” It made me feel like someone up high was smiling down on me. It made me feel better.

Dwayne and Jason picked me up and we headed down to the Steam Whistle Brewery where the race was being held. There we would meet “Blind Ambition”, our team, comprised of a number of Jason’s work colleagues. After the requisite milling around, the run finally got going. It was an out and back course. As a runner, I have always found these routes challenging as when you are a plodder like me you inevitably encounter all the folks who are faster than you on their way back. This was the set-up midway through the London marathon when I ran it in 2009 and psychologically it was the hardest part of the run for me.

I would love to say that I flew around the race route but in truth it was a pretty joyless grind. Dwayne and Jason quite quickly let me behind. After what seemed like a very long time but was in fact only 37 minutes I crossed the finish line. I then decamped back to the brewery with a few members of the Blind Ambition team to enjoy complimentary beer and chili.

Sitting at the table feeling somewhat spent but also proud for having completed the run, I decided that I would add raising funds for lymphoma research to my goals for the Kilimanjaro climb in honour of my uncle and his fighting Irish spirit.

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Words to Live By

Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  He was 39 years old when he died. It is incredible to think of all that he accomplished in his short life, and how much more he could have done had he lived longer. His spirit of never giving up is an inspiration to Team Kilimanjaro. We wanted to pay tribute to him here today.

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Climbing for a Cure

“Please tell me what can I do. There must be something I can do”
― Ernest HemingwayThe Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories

 

On March 8, 2016 I was told the three words that no one ever wants to hear “You have cancer.” In that moment my life changed forever. At the age of 40, I was staring down a Stage 2 breast cancer diagnosis. Practically, what this meant for me was that the next eight months of my life would be consumed with surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. I would lose my hair. I would lose my eyebrows. I would lose a breast; but I was determined not to lose my spirit.

In the early and terrifying days after my diagnosis, I received some invaluable advice from a friend whose partner had recently been through breast cancer treatment. “Find something that is yours that the cancer can’t take away from you” he said “Do it, and do it as much as you can.”

I had been active before my diagnosis running right up until the day before my surgery but I made a commitment to myself that I would exercise throughout my cancer treatment. It would be my non-negotiable that cancer wouldn’t interfere with. Running had to be put on hold for a period of time after surgery and during chemotherapy, but I set myself a goal of walking 10,000 steps a day. Aside from the worst of my post chemo crash days, I walked every day. I didn’t always make my step goal but I always got out there.

I remember one day in the summer of 2016 when I was well into my chemotherapy treatment heading out rather unsteadily for a walk on the hilly roads around my cottage. My father who had climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 2014 suggested that I use a walking stick to help myself along, as he had done when ascending the mountain. As I set out on my walk, with an old hockey stick acting as my crutch, I imagined myself miles away from this reality. I was in Tanzania triumphantly reaching the summit of the mountain that had captivated me since I first read Ernest Hemingway’s short story The Snows of Kilimanjaro in Grade 10.

Not long afterwards, my friend Jason Mitschele and I had a conversation about making this dream a reality. Jason and I met in law school and have been friends for twenty years. Jason has lived with significant vision loss since birth and in 2005 became completely blind. Prior to my illness, we had completed a number of athletic events together including long distance bike rides, runs and mini-triathlons for cancer and vision charities. In the summer of 2016, Jason was recovering from serious abdominal surgery while I was undergoing chemotherapy. We promised each other that when we were better we would climb Kilimanjaro.

I am delighted that the day has arrived where Team Kilimanjaro, made up of myself, Jason, and Dwayne King a retired police officer who will be Jason’s guide are in full planning, fundraising and training mode. Our “Climb for a Cure” to Kilimanjaro is scheduled to take place in March 2019.

I will be fundraising for the Canadian Cancer Society to help support the nearly 1 in 2 Canadians expected to be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Donations to the Climb for a Cure will help fund life-saving research, much-needed support services for patients and their families and other important work that could change lives. In addition to raising money, we also hope to inspire others who are living with vision loss or a cancer diagnosis to embrace their dreams.

We have a number of events planned to help us achieve our fundraising goal and get us in shape to get up Africa’s largest peak. I will be blogging about them here.

Another wise friend said to me that getting through cancer treatment is like climbing a mountain. You just have to put one foot in front of the other until you get up and over it. It’s time now for the mountain of my dreams!

Please follow along with our adventures here, and if you are able join @climb2019 by making a donation today at our GO FUND ME page.

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