Sister Sirens

Ultra-Running, Cancer, and Time

A year ago, January 17 was a Friday. I was sitting in “the chair.The only one in a physician’s exam room, that is, other than the rolly one with the round black padded seat on which Dr. M sat. I can still see that black seat today, but the room is empty now. Marcy is not sitting on the exam table answering his first question, “How’s your pain?”

Ask most ultra runners about pain and they look at you like my border collie, tilting his head, curious. “Pain? Whaddya mean?” He drops something more important at your feet. “Let’s work,” he demands staring at the muddy tennis ball.

Marcy after her first 100-mile race.

Marcy after her first 100-mile race.

“Pain?” Marcy and I tilted our heads in the same direction. Hard work begets pain, a part of our sport at some point. We push ourselves to an edge only we can judge. Harder? Back off? Enjoy the high? Only we know. Marcy, always willing to talk, launched into a dissertation on her perception of pain starting with her most recent finish. She and her pacer, Greg S, pushed at the end of her first 100-mile race. They and another racer, Emily, and her pacer, ultra running legend, Billy S, leapfrogged each other. Marcy and Greg powered up the climbs; Billy and Emily overtook on the descents, each encouraging the other in the exchange. Attracted by the shared value of personal exploration and new friendships, at race finish they shared how each had inspired the other to demote pain. She’d noticed the pain, she told Dr M, but that was part of finishing in the best way she could.

“This pain in my back has…been a little different,” she acknowledged.

Dr. M listened, focused on Marcy. His assistant-in-training failed to hide her fear of what she expected Marcy’s reaction would be. She already knew the answer to “How long?” Dr. M continued asking questions, easing into the results of the PET scan. I captured every question he asked, Marcy’s answers, her questions, what he didn’t know.

“Do you want to see the scan?”

Wait, not yet. We have more questions, I have more questions,” I thought. Things were moving too fast, but Marcy matched his pace.

“Yes, I don’t want any bullshit. I want to know everything.” It felt like we were at Chautauqua Park in Boulder ready to train, running and power hiking up the steepest trail to Green Mountain. “Let’s make this mountain our bitch,” I’d challenge, and we would. I caught up with Marcy and we started climbing. “Let’s make this answer our bitch,” I tried.

Dr M scooted his wheelie chair over to the computer and clicked a few keys. As the scan revealed Marcy’s body in black and white, I noticed the dark and light spots in Marcy’s torso. I didn’t need to understand the scan. Marcy’s face lost color, Dr. M’s revealed sadness, the assistant caught my eye then looked away.

A storm billowed in over Green Mountain and the temperature dropped 30 degrees. In shorts and short sleeves, we were unprepared for the raging blizzard trapping us a mere mile from safety. Even with two medical professionals by our side and years of mountain running experience, there were few options to restore our prior lives. Marcy had more questions.

“How could it be that advanced? How did I run a 100-mile race in 26 hours with this in my body? How could I not know? What did I do to bring this on? I’m healthy. I’m fit. I’m a badass ultrar…”

“That will probably help. There’s nothing you did…”

“What can we do?”

And then she asked him.

“How long?”


Marcy at her birthday party, 2013.

Marcy at her birthday party, 2013.

I’m not big on annual remembrances. After we humans took charge and did everything in our power, the cancer still took her. I thought the anniversary of Marcy’s diagnosis of Stage IV pancreatic cancer would come and go as her birthday did in October. What good does it do to indulge looking back? Marcy is not here to celebrate her birthday and we can’t change the outcome of decisions that she made or the way I, all of us, reacted.

What value is there in an anniversary of a sad moment? Why do these moments strike us when they do? Why today, the anniversary and not her birthday or some other happy moment reminding me of the joy in her fabulous smile and spirit? Is it a warning to take charge again?

I don’t know the answer yet. I’m still exploring, fumbling my way through living, feeling hope that there is something good, although I don’t know what “good” really means, to come of this. Marcy said often that she was supposed to learn something from her diagnosis…that something “good” should come of it, but we didn’t have time to talk about it before pancreatic cancer stole the conversation away.

Today, on the anniversary of her diagnosis, I remember every word of our conversation after Dr. M and his assistant left us together for fifteen minutes. What stands out most is the moment both of us broke down. I’d abandoned the chair and joined her on the exam table.

“But I want more than three months,” Marcy cried, as we embraced each other, fearful, determined, angry, hopeful, united in going forward, the only choice we had. I wanted more too. We all did.

On this anniversary, I cry remembering that moment with Marcy. Maybe the crying is as much for the sadness of losing her presence in our lives as it is at the potential loss of my life and its potential. If I only had two months to live, what would I do? Would I do what I’m doing in this moment? Would I have the courage to trust that my momentary actions add up to living my best life?

Marcy and Wendy on top of Mt. Elbert after running their first peak

Marcy and Wendy on top of Mt. Elbert after running their first peak

Even though almost every day it feels like utter failure, I keep trying. Just like January 1 is an arbitrary clean slate, a new beginning, this anniversary of Marcy’s diagnosis, feels somehow like a new beginning for me. Perhaps, just maybe, that is the value in anniversary.

—— Marcy Servita was an ultrarunner based in Boulder, Colorado. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on January 17, 2014. She died sixty days later. She completed her first 100-mile race at Marin Headlands in September 2014 in 26 hours, 24 minutes.

Wendy Drake is an adventurous endurance athlete, a twenty-five year veteran of the computing industry, and Chief Human to Scout, Explorer Extraordinaire, an online border collie when his human isn’t hogging the computer. Based in Boulder, Colorado,

Drake’s mountain project, Elevating a Cure, raises awareness and funds toward a cure for pancreatic cancer.