The Girl on the Train

This weekend is the Broad Street 10-miler. I am not racing because I am racing the New Jersey Marathon. But Broad Street is one of my all time favorite races to do. I have done this race many many times. And I can’t let this week get away from me without sharing a short story about the girl on the train. It’s just my way of remembering Barb and a reminder that cancer takes good people all the time.

While riding the subway in Philadelphia to the start of the 1995 Broad Street 10-Mile Run, I met a girl. A great race by the way, but this is not a race report. The girl’s name was Barb and I sat next to her and her friend on the train. We exchanged pleasantries. The usual stuff…the weather …the race… Barb was new to the area and had a few race logistical questions. When we arrived at Central High School, the start of the race, we parted ways and wished each other good luck. But for some reason every time I turned around, I kept bumping into her. It became a little ironic, almost like we were unable to say goodbye. Then at one point during the actual race, as I glanced around me, I saw her again. Then again. Then again. Finally, at the conclusion of the race we once again said farewell.

Little did I realize at the time that saying goodbye really wasn’t necessary at all. Barb and I would continue to bump into one another all over the place for the next decade. And eventually became great friends. We started as “race friends” in that we would exchange emails and try to say hello whenever we were racing the same events. That led to planning some training together with other friends in our extended running and triathlon families. And before you knew it, a friendship was born. Although the foundation was sprung from our common interest in endurance sports, it led to a more meaningful friendship. And we all know how adult friendships can sometimes be. Months could go by and we wouldn’t see or hear anything of one another. But we were always only a phone call away and we always had each other as race buds or tri buds or whatever the heck we were.

I would think nothing of calling her or dropping her an email and telling her to get off of her butt and go train. And she would do the same to me, or for me, depending on perspective. Over time I realized what an amazing talent Barb really was. She was one of those people that completely wreak havoc on something once committing to doing it. When she decided to try her hand at triathlon, she showed no mercy on her competition. I remember one ride in particular. It was right after she really caught the tri bug. We were riding down the shore and I thought I would teach her a thing or two. So, I hammered by butt off into a head wind opening up a huge gap between everyone around me. Everyone except Barb. She was practically in my jersey pocket, smiling. Her look almost said, “OK, now what are we going to do?”

Her top overall and age group finishes are too many to mention. And the girl could swim. I was extremely envious of her swimming ability. But that is to be expected given her all-everything swimming resume growing up and in college.

Through Barb, I met some great people. Through my friendship with Barb, I became friendly with people like Dave Greenfield, President and owner of Elite Bicycles and general ambassador of good karma. And Stuart Trager, who when he is not ripping off sub 10 hour IM’s, the Dr. is either in surgery, or serving as a walking Atkins testimonial.

Through me, Barb was introduced to my band of tri comrades in the area. That spawned off some wonderful friendships for her. It was cool how our two independent networks of friends and training partners became intertwined into one. But that too is the beauty of the sport of triathlon.

Barb was an Amazon. She was capable of doing anything she set her sights on. She was a testimonial to Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. An amazingly strong and talented woman when she wanted to be, but very human and fallible at the same time. She eventually learned not to take this stuff too seriously.

She knew how to fully enjoy whatever she was doing. And she knew when she needed a break. If she didn’t enjoy something, she would take some time off to regenerate, and then return again with an even bigger zest. After taking some time off to reflect and take some personal inventory, Barb was recharged and believed the upcoming season was to be her best yet.

I spoke to Barb around Thanksgiving of that year. I hadn’t heard from her for a while and dropped her an email, which led to a phone call. I was sorry to hear that Barb had been suffering from some kind of respiratory something. Maybe it was the flu, maybe pneumonia. She wasn’t too sure but her doc was going to run some tests and with some much needed rest, she was expected back on her feet eventually… eventually.

A couple of weeks later, I got the word that things were much more serious than anyone realized. My friend Barb, the athlete, was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and her long term outlook was not good. I spoke to her again the day before New Years Eve. She was back in the hospital. Too weak and groggy to say too much, Barb spoke for a minute but then handed the phone to her sister. The conversation was short. But her sister filled in the missing pieces. As I was talking to her sister, my radio was eerily playing Melissa Etheridge as she belted out the chorus “It only hurts when I breathe”. The irony in that is physically painful.

Barb’s condition continued to worsen over the next few months. She eventually moved back home to Indiana to be with family during her last days. She fought the way she always did. But in mid-March Barb lost her battle.

How was this possible? Never mind, I know damn well how it’s possible. It’s life. Precious and beautiful one minute, fragile the next and gone before you know it. But as much as we can understand it on an intellectual level, it doesn’t help to ease the gut wrenching pain of its reality.

As much as it hurts and as sad as it is, I feel lucky. I feel lucky to have known Barb when she was on top of her game. I feel lucky enough to have been considered a friend and confident when she wasn’t. And I feel lucky enough to have been able to talk to her during her last days. I still don’t understand it. But I’m thankful for having been a part of her life and she a part of mine.

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