(RNS) Sixty miles, 126,000 or so steps, 27 hours of walking, 12 hours of shinsplints.
Edema, stiff hips, swollen knees that sound like popcorn when I alight stairs, and “cankles” that lasted a full week.
It was physically the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. And It was totally worth it.
Every moment of the recent Susan G. Komen 3-Day Walk for a Cure for Breast Cancer in San Diego was a prayer and a blessing, an adventure and a lesson.
What did I learn? A lot of things, but the greatest was this: We need to cheer more.
For each other. For “their” team; for “ours.” When the going is rough and when the sailing is smooth. All the time, in every endeavor; we need both to encourage and to be encouraged.
Encouragement is a spiritual gift that the Bible calls “exhortation.”
Even though I was a cheerleader in junior high and high school, I never understood what effect my chants and hoots might have had until I turned a corner somewhere in Point Loma not knowing if I could take another step.
I was in pain. I felt discouraged. And I was walking alone, having trailed behind the faster part of my team. Participants aren’t allowed to wear earphones or talk on their phones while they walk, so there was no “fire-up” playlist on my iPod I could turn to for some much-needed pep.
It was up to the kindness of strangers to help me keep going.
“Thank you, walkers!” a clutch of women yelled. “You got this!” shouted a middle-aged man standing with his wife and teenage son.
Complete strangers doled out bottles of water, pieces of candy, Mardi Gras beads, sunscreen and spray-on muscle soother. I was particularly grateful to one elderly couple who offered us cornichons (those super-savory, tiny French pickles) — the perfect jolt of sodium and crunch we needed.
There were hundreds of hugs and thousands of high-fives. I’ve never touched so many strangers in my life.
It was as if Someone knew exactly what I needed, precisely when I needed it most.
Like the sweaty bearhug from the lady in the “Mamas for Tatas” T-shirt. Or the San Diego police officer in pink “Hello Kitty” knee socks who would appear out of nowhere singing along to the awful music blaring from the red boombox strapped to the back of his bike.
And then there were actual cheerleaders from nearby high schools who stood on either side of the sidewalk shaking pompoms to form a you-go-girl gauntlet of encouragement.
In my lowest moments, though, on the afternoon of the second day, around mile 15 of 20, I met Benita. I like to think of her as grace with feet and a handmade pink crocheted beret.
I heard her before I saw her. She was behind me and, delivering a hilarious running commentary on the people around her, what she saw as she walked by, and what her plans were when she got back to “camp” that night.
Her monologue continued and I laughed harder. We were both 3-Day “virgins” on our first walk. We ended up walking the next few miles together, keeping each other company and making each other laugh before Benita’s knees forced her to hop on one of the “sweep vans” and head back to camp.
On the third day, I reunited with Benita and we walked together for a long while before we parted ways at the enormously steep hill that stood between us and lunch.
Standing at the bottom of the hill, alone, looking up the road at the nearly 90-degree incline before me, I felt every second of my 43 years in my aching hips and bad knees. I doubted my ability to climb it. Frankly, I doubted my ability to walk another few yards to a bench in the shade.
At that precise moment, a text from my best-good friend Bubba in Mississippi arrived. When I heard my phone chirp I did break the rules and looked.
“Hang in their, Toots, you’re almost home,” he said. “I’m so proud of you.”
Bubba’s exhortation got me to put one foot in front of the other. And the folks who lined the street all the way up the hill, handing out tiny shots of sparkling wine, cheering me on, thanking me for walking, and the little girl in pink cowboy boots with the sign that read, “You’re my hero,” got me to the top.
The last seven miles of the 3-Day were a blur of cheering crowds and awkward dance moves (on my part). Part of my team was about a mile ahead of me and another part maybe a mile behind. I was walking alone.
At a stoplight a few blocks from the finish line, in a crowd across the street I spotted that pink crocheted beret and then I heard the distinctive voice, laughing.
“BENITA!” I screamed. “BUH-NEEEE-TAAAAAHHHH!”
“Where you been? I’ve been texting you for hours,” she yelled back, as I limp-jogged into her arms.
Twenty minutes later we crossed the finish line hand in hand. I burst out sobbing, big boo-hoo tears rolling down my cheeks as I held on to Benita in a sweaty bearhug.
“No boo-hooing, now,” she said, laughing again. “You can do anything — you know that now. But you cannot boo-hoo in my ear.”
Collectively, we walkers raised more than $6.1 million (my backers kicked in $5,542) toward a cure for breast cancer. That’s a lot of free mammograms for women around the world who couldn’t afford them otherwise.
With a little help from our friends, and a lot of cheering from kind strangers, we can do anything. We can even make breast cancer a thing of the past.
One step — one cheer — at a time.
(Cathleen Falsani is the faith & values columnist for the Orange County Register. You can follow her on Twitter @godgrrl.)
KRE/AMB END FALSANI