Campus Life vivian's reflections

Walking the Boston Marathon for cancer research

An experience worth remembering

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The Boston Marathon finish line in Copley Square.
Vivian Hir–The Tech
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The last stretch of the Boston Marathon on Boylston St.
Vivian Hir–The Tech

At 6 a.m. on Oct. 2, instead of asleep in my cozy bed, I was getting off the shuttle and walking to the official Boston Marathon starting line in the sleepy town of Hopkinton. The sun wasn’t out yet, and the wind blew so strongly that my hair covered my face. Besides the streetlamps in the park and on the street, the surroundings were dark. Along with many others, I was participating in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, an event that raises money for cancer research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Little did I know at the time that this experience would be one of the most unique and memorable experiences of my entire life.

This was the day I had been waiting for ever since I signed up for the fundraiser back in May. All of the work I put into training for the marathon walk over the entire summer culminated in this one event. While the walk wasn’t designed to be a race or anything, I was still a little anxious. Despite having successfully walked long distances exceeding 15 miles, I was worried I would suffer leg and foot injuries by the end of the route. But now wasn’t the time for negative thoughts.

In the beginning, I walked with Teresa and her friend Crystal, some people that I briefly chatted with on the shuttle to Hopkinton. But I quickly outpaced them and ended up approaching a group of four guys after a mile or two. All of them wore a shirt with a zebra logo that had the words “Brothers for Bryce” underneath. Although the majority of people in the walk kept to themselves or talked with their team members, I decided that making small talk with some strangers couldn’t hurt.

After I broke the ice and began chatting with them, l learned that the team leader, Ryan, brought his good friends along to help fundraise money for his seven-year-old nephew Bryce, a kid with a rare immunodeficiency disorder. Although the Jimmy Fund Walk’s primary focus is to raise money for cancer research, Bryce was a special case as he received bone marrow treatment at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. It was the first time I met someone who had close relatives with this rare disease. Wanting to gain more perspective, I asked Ryan what Bryce’s life was like.

“How does he attend school if he’s in the hospital?”

“Unfortunately, he doesn’t go to school and has a tutor in the hospital.”

“How long has his life been like this?”

“He’s been living like this for most of his life.”

Hearing this sentence felt so jarring. Experiences commonly associated with childhood, such as having fun in the outdoors and recess in elementary school, aren’t a reality for kids like Bryce. It was at that moment I realized how much I took simple things for granted, whether it was my physical health or my family’s general well-being. What alarmed me was how most of us, myself included, don’t know much about the lives of children suffering from diseases like cancer as they are tucked away in hospital beds.

I walked with Ryan and his friends from Ashland to Natick. The first half of the Boston Marathon route wasn’t that scenic, as I primarily passed through suburban towns. Despite the lack of scenery, I didn’t mind walking past some strip malls or residential neighborhoods. Even small quirks of each town were memorable, whether it was the unusual number of clock towers in Ashland or the yellow sign that said “CHILDREN” in all caps in Framingham.

When Ryan’s group decided to stop by a local bakery in Natick, I said goodbye and continued walking. From Natick to Wellesley, I mostly kept to myself. During this part of the marathon walk, I wondered how I would entertain myself for the rest of the journey if I had no one to talk to and there wasn’t much to see on the way to Boston. Sure, I went on long walks during the summer, but none were as long as this one. Based on my 20-minute mile pace, the whole journey would take me more than eight hours to complete. Would boredom drive me to insanity? I initially thought I would listen to the This American Life episodes I downloaded, but I decided to not use my phone throughout the journey besides taking a couple of pictures.

In retrospect, it was refreshing to avoid the noise and clutter of digital technology — to not do anything but walk. To my surprise, the long walk didn’t feel that mundane. There were a couple of times I tried to occupy my thoughts with something, but overall I allowed my mind to simply wander and observe my surroundings, a state of mind that I rarely experience on campus.

As I walked, I entered this state of being present, a sensation I wish I experienced more regularly. I stopped thinking about what was going to happen in the upcoming week — next problem set deadline, next midterm date, next meeting appointment. The goal now was to focus on making each upcoming mile and reaching the finish line. I simply paid attention to the road ahead of me and made observations of each place I walked past, from the amusingly-named Big Boi Meat Market to a cute window display of the Boston Marathon mile 10 marker.

Although Boston felt far away, it was still nice to reach the markers stationed every half-mile. Each marker sign featured a picture and quote from a patient. Although there were patients of all ages, most were children. It was touching to read their words of appreciation for the Jimmy Fund and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Despite how much pain they had to go through from treatment, their faces beamed with joy and some shared their aspirations and goals for the future. Taking time to pause and learn about these Jimmy Fund Walk heroes gave the fundraiser a more human touch, as I had a better understanding of how the money I raised was going to help people like them.

After walking through Natick, I was delighted to see the town of Wellesley sign and a change in scenery. I was getting close to mile 13 in the heart of Wellesley. There were lush, green trees right next to the road and the pond was crystal clear. Some cars whizzed by, but overall the road was quiet. The tranquil, peaceful setting was perfect for solitude. Having not much to do, I attempted to sing some songs from my childhood, such as “Hey Soul Sister.”

Up until mile 13, my legs were fine and I didn’t feel any pain. I predicted that my legs and feet would start to feel pain around mile 20, but unfortunately the pain started much earlier. Once I passed the halfway marker and entered Wellesley Square, I decided to sit down on a bench and change my pair of socks. As I raised my left leg to put on my new socks, a sudden surge of pain went through my entire leg. I’m not sure what caused this to happen, but it felt like I pulled a muscle.

I was surprised that this was already happening around mile 14. While I did follow the recommended training schedule in the summer, I ran half of the distance and walked the other half. As a result, I didn’t take into account how walking causes more time to be spent on each foot compared to running. I winced and waited for a minute or two to let the pain subside. I hoped that things would get somewhat better after that incident, but I started to feel foot pain that ended up persisting for the rest of the journey, and my feet swelled to the point that I wished my shoes could grow an extra inch or two. I wondered how I was going to keep walking like this for 12 more miles.

For the latter half of the walk, I walked gingerly, as each step felt robotic. My feet felt like they were on fire from the constant friction with my shoes. Each mile felt longer than the one before, and I couldn’t wait to see the town sign for Newton. While the pleasant landscape of each town along with the novelty of walking the Boston Marathon route distracted me from thinking too much about the physical pain, I started questioning why I even signed up for this in the first place. Did I forget from reading online articles that I was probably going to get blisters and not be able to walk for a couple of days?

But I told myself to think about kids like Bryce. The physical pain they experienced from hospitalization and chemotherapy was beyond my comprehension. Despite these challenges, they were grateful and happy for many things in their lives, like their families and patient care teams. I then thought about the people who walked in memory of loved ones that passed away from cancer; the emotional pain that came from mourning and grieving was magnitudes more than what I was feeling.

I had no good reason to complain: the pain I experienced from this walk was nothing compared to that which patients and their loved ones experienced. In my case, there were four more hours to go and the post-walk pain would last at most two or three days. For many others, however, the pain they underwent was an ongoing or long-term process. I also thought about other participants who have done this fundraiser for many years to walk the same journey again and again, as well as walkers who were much older than me. Inspired by the people around me and the patients I learned about from the mile markers, I decided that the pain was worth it and kept going. I couldn’t give up on my fundraising pledge.

As with previous towns,, the walk in the town of Newton took a long time. I expected Heartbreak Hill to be very steep and daunting, but it turned out to be more approachable given that I was walking the whole thing. After passing by many houses on Commonwealth Avenue, I finally reached Boston College in Chestnut Hill. I couldn’t believe that I was getting close to Boston. Sure, I was still far from Boylston Street, but now I felt like the goal was within my grasp.

I remember the last hour as a series of vignettes that when compiled together, feel like a time-lapse. I processed time like a clock counting down to 0. I couldn’t believe that there was only an hour left when I entered Boston’s Brighton district. After a brief time there, I walked along the Green Line in Brookline and checked my watch. There were 40 minutes to go. Yes, I still felt foot pain, but happiness began to overtake me. Reaching the finish line that once felt so far out of my reach now felt possible.

My surroundings didn’t become familiar until I saw the iconic Citgo sign near Fenway Park. In 20 minutes, my whole experience would be over. I was only a mile away from the finish line. What was 20 minutes became 15, then 10 as I passed by Fenway-Kenmore and entered Back Bay. At mile 26 on Boylston Street, I started walking faster so that I could reach the end and relax for once. After walking the last 0.2 miles, I finally crossed the finish line in Copley Square and completed the 2022 Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk.

When I reached the finish line, my legs were exhausted. At the same time, I was so proud that I did something that I had thought was impossible not too long ago. Participating in the Jimmy Fund marathon walk taught me so many lessons. Meeting people from various backgrounds along the way provided me with a greater understanding of the unfortunate realities that many cancer patients have to face on a day-to-day basis. Not only that, but talking to people from various backgrounds along the way was also moving, as they were all determined to help in any shape or form with battling cancer.

I thought that my thoughts would quickly revert to matters related to school when I returned to my dorm, but I still thought about all the lessons I learned from the Jimmy Fund marathon walk. Wanting to know more about the children featured on the mile markers, I decided to go on the fund’s website. As I read quotes about their passions and saw their angelic faces, tears welled up in my eyes. Initially, the rational side of me didn’t understand why I wanted to cry for people I never knew personally or met in real life, but the recurring question of “why” kept ringing through my head. Why did they have to be subjected to so much pain and have their childhood taken away from them? Why was life so unfair to them? Why did they have to consider the possibility of death or a shorter lifespan at such a young age? Topics I rarely thought about such as life and death never felt so close until now.

Yet, amid the despair I felt at the moment, I thought about how strong and resilient these patients were as they underwent many rounds of cancer treatment. Instead of feeling even more hopeless, I left feeling inspired by their stories. While the things I saw along the Boston Marathon route and particular conversations I had with others may fade, I will never forget how the walk changed my outlook on confronting life’s challenges with hope and optimism and taught me about the  strength and resilience of those who do so every day.