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Out Living It in Leadville

By: Genevieve Harrison

September 6, 2006 and July 5, 2017 are days I will never forget. The first is the day my mother was diagnosed with a stage-4 glioblastoma and the later is the day it came back. During the ten years and three hundred days in between, she outlived it in Leadville.

The initial diagnosis turned our family’s world upside-down. I was thousands of miles away beginning a year of study in Italy when I heard the news. The narrow streets of Florence, which had welcomed me with the promise of freedom and adventure, felt as if they were closing in on me. I had to go. I had to get to mom before the months the doctors gave her were up. Home was wherever she was.

Her other four children made a similar journey to the Ohio home from their respective landing spots around the country. We were brought together by the illness, bonded by the tears, and the fight, and the fear, and the goodbyes.

The goodbyes never came, though. Mom decided she wouldn’t be beaten then, as she still had living to do. She wanted to see more of the world’s beauty, hear more songs, witness the marriage of her children, and meet her eventual grandchildren. They decided to pack up and move to Leadville. The serene, simple stillness brought the requisite peace, friendships, and adventure that would help them to savor every second.

After the first bout, she lost a lot. Her years of practicing movement were washed away, though she worked to retrain her brain and balance. She could read the classical music she had once performed and taught, but her fingers could no longer make the piano bring them to life.

I like to think that that which she gained from living surely outweighed the losses.

There were birthdays and holidays in Leadville, my wedding in the backyard. Loops around the Fish Hatchery with friends, children, and grandkids. She even learned to move in a manner that resembled her former run and she used it to mosey up and down The Boulevard, finding profound peace in her daily four mile loop.

Running was the bond that held the deepest secrets of our souls together. It’s how we became best friends when I was 11 years old and fortified our relationship in the decades that followed. My passion for movement, running, and giving my all were grown from the seeds sown by my mom. The laps and love we shared on The Boulevard were all indispensable, but the 2017 Leadville 100 sticks out beyond the rest.

It isn’t unusual to see someone with a broken gait, hobbling along The Boulevard. It is mile 97, after all. Folks look frail, like shells of themselves. In that sense, my mother was no exception that August morning. She, like the racers, had chosen Leadville for the sense of adventure and it’s beauty. On the other hand, me and the other racers chose to sign up for the suffering and soreness that running 100 miles entails, while the suffering and pain brought about by cancer seemed to have chosen my mother.

A few months before race day we had celebrated her 10th year in remission. A few weeks before, the new tumor had been discovered. A few days before, she’d gone back under the knife and was since unable to stand without assistance, speak, or even express emotion. 

The whole crew wore “Livestrong Cece” t-shirts that day and I meditated on my mother with every step. As I closed in on the finish line, those three miles from the end, I came to the mouth of my parent’s driveway. Mom was there with an empty wheelchair beside her. Her face was full of emotion, teary-eyed and smiling; expressions we weren’t certain we’d ever see again post-surgery. If I could bottle up any feeling of love forever, it would be that which I felt when she hugged me that day. I could feel her joy, her fear, her pride in me, and her hope for the future.

I felt both the comedy and the tragedy of the circle of life when, that very night, I learned that I had run the race and hugged my dying mother with a pregnant belly.

A couple of weeks after that child was born, we said goodbye to mom for good. She knew what living meant to her and she stuck around to see it through: the weddings, the grandchildren, the years brimming with beauty and adventure. It was truly a miracle she had outlived it at all.

Over the coming years, my father opened his home up to the First Descents community during the Leadville Race Series events and I, too, became inspired to contribute to the young adults and families who were searching for the hope and strength to outlive their own diagnoses.

In 2021, I joined the First Descents team as a fundraiser and racer in the Leadville 100. This time it was around midnight when my sister paced me up The Boulevard and past my parents’ driveway. We embraced my dad in the spirit of my mom and then continued on, finishing in second place, nearly seven hours faster than I’d previously run. Though mom wasn’t there to see it, it never would’ve happened without her, she wove the fabric of our family into Leadville’s landscape. Every time I breathe the mountain air, I know that she is there; and I know that the harder I breathe the closer she seems. 

Ready to embrace adventure?

2022 is the year to start #OutLivingIt. Join us at one of our epic program locations across the country and experience the healing power of adventure. Inquire at firstdescents.org/joinus to learn more and stay up to date on all the programs we have to offer this year.

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