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Climbing Mountains


I’ve told the two gentleman next to me at dinner about my plans to go to Brisighella and then from there to cross the Apennines on the old Roman road.  I’m seated next to two businessmen travelling to Ravenna for work, one from Florence and one from Genoa who both have good English.
Mr. Florence sits back, and with a dramatic hand gesture says, “That’s impossible!” 
Mr. Genoa says, “How do you know she doesn’t bike 300 Kilometers a day and that it’s not possible for her. “  He turns to me and says, “You send him a picture from the top.”
I explain that there is a train that runs parallel to the route so if I need to catch the train I have a backup.  But as much as I appreciate Mr. Genoa sticking up for me, it’s Mr. Florence’s “Impossible!” that has just implanted itself in my head.
I’d been looking for a good route back towards Rome over the Apennines.  I’d found other potential routes, but none I felt comfortable attempting.  I wanted a bail-out plan in case something went wrong – with the bike or with my stamina or with my leg strength as I hauled a fully-loaded touring bike through the mountains.  Or if I felt I might be at risk for a lymphedema flare-up and needed to stop. 
I’d met a couple of Americans in Comacchio the day before who were taking a self-guided bike tour.  We swapped travel info – I told them about the Cinque Terra trails being closed and the offline GPS navigation apps.  They showed me this route over the mountains between Faenza and Florence.  The climb seemed doable but long – only getting steep near the pass, and there was a train that followed the route offering several opportunities to bail out along the way if I needed.
The day before my flight I was still hours away by train from the Rome airport in the town of Brisighella.  But the reason I had come to Brisighella was because it was a launching point to make the climb. 
The night before I pondered my options … I could just catch the train to Rome and hang out near the airport in the port town, leisurely pack my bike and have plenty of time.  Play it safe.  Or I could ride up the pass, see I felt at each train station, and just try to make sure I got to Rome before it got dark. 
So I was on the road by 8AM heading up a steady but low-grade climb to the mountains with a fully loaded bike that included a bottle of wine and half a liter of olive oil.  Despite purging baggage at the hotel – I was still leaving Brisighella loaded heavier than I’d arrived.
The ride up the valley was one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever taken.  Gorgeous green valley framed by terraced hills with olives and vineyards with the dark green mountains in the distance.  The wildflowers had started to come out and they lined the fields and the road.  And I rolled through one medieval town after another – steadily climbing up the valley. 
As I rode through the first town with a train station, I felt fine.  And it seemed silly to wait the 3 hours to the next train.  The second station was the same.  And by the time I hit the third I just kept going.  By the fourth town I was well up the valley and this was the last station before I was committed to climbing the full pass.  I told myself I could turn around and go back if I needed.  But I thought the summit must be coming up soon based on my map and what I’d been told by the Americans who told me about the route.
A supported bike tour must have come through this route over the weekend because there were chalked signs English on the road pointing out water and offering words of encouragement.  As I kept climbing past the last bail-out point, and as the road got steeper, one of those signs said, “The climb starts here.” 
Oh … Crap.  All of those miles were just the pre-climb.  Not the real climb.  This is always a bad feeling … to realize that when you thought you were almost finished, you really haven’t even started.  Mr. Impossible from Florence kept popping into my head – I hoped he wasn’t right.
I still felt OK so I kept going, but I was watching the clock because I wanted to make the train on the other side of the pass to have a prayer of making to Rome before dark.  Climbing and climbing – up and up – past a beautiful town, past tall pine tree forests, past gorgeous open wildflower-filled meadows, past the fast-running Lamone River that fed this green valley.  The grade got steeper and then would ease – but always steady up.  Swing left around the bend of a mountain.  Steady up.  Swing right.  Steady up.

My new touring bike was handling beautifully – even with the surplus wine and olive oil weighing it down.  And while I occasionally looked for extra gears on some of the steeper sections generally I had enough.  But I was slow … so slow.  I started to resign myself to missing the train. 

I stopped occasionally to let my heart rate come down and stretch out my arm and give my body a small recovery … by now I was pushing the limits of what might trigger a lymphedema flare-up with the prolonged exertion beyond anything I had done since the last long bike ride had caused a flare-up that took two months to subside.  I hoped all the miles in the past few weeks had built up my capacity to handle the extra load on my lymph system.  So I just rested and stretched and then kept going – hoping for the best.  Because there was no way in hell I was turning around now.  I just hoped that I’d reach the top sometime soon and didn’t do any damage.
Finally I came around a steep turn and a weary road cyclist in his pink and green kit rode towards me from the opposite way.  He saw me – hauling those bags on my chunky bike and gave me a big grin. “Bellisima!”  And I saw on the road chalked in English, “Congratulations!  You made it”.  And the sign by the road with the name of the pass at over 900 meters.
Hah!  Take THAT, Mr. Impossible.  And hauling wine and olive oil, to boot! 
Roughly 25 miles of climbing.  On a bike so heavy I physically couldn’t lift it.
After a couple of minutes of gloating and self-congratulatory selfies at the top I checked the time.  Half an hour to get my train.  I hopped on and headed down the Florence side of the pass.  I hauled down that pass … and my bike handled beautifully – even fully loaded and moving fast down switchbacks.  I blew down the pass and rolled into Borgo San Lorenzo, found the train station and went running in with three minutes to spare.  I bought a ticket from a surly woman at the station bar and asked an attendant about the train to Florence and he pointed to the next track.  The train was a couple of minutes late – maybe I could still make it. 
He pointed way down the track to a ramp that would take me to the track.  I turned the bike and ran in my bike cleats down to the ramp, around the maze under the train station, under the tracks and up a long ramp to the right track.  I thought, “I will never make it” as the thwack thwack thwack of my bike shoes echoed down the stairs and through the tunnel. 
I looked around the corner when I reached the correct track and the train was still there – and the nice station attendant was talking to the conductor and they had held the train for me.  They helped me load my bike and panniers and off we went … Rome bound and now officially at the end of my journey.
And I made it to Rome and rode into the hotel just before dark.  I slept in my all my compression garments that night, mindful of the exertion and of the long flight the next day – flying can also trigger lymphedema.  And so far, so good as I write this somewhere over the Atlantic. 
I’m hoping my body will not let me down again.  I’m hoping that this trip – culminating in that climb – marks the end of this long and painful scramble to reclaim all the ground I have lost since diagnosis and treatment. For me, the recovery was harder than the treatment itself – and I did not expect that.  Like I did not expect the summit of this climb to be miles further up the road.  And like I never could have imagined that the end of treatment was really just the beginning.
It is important to me to take back what I lost to cancer.  I need the pre-cancer ME back before I can move forward.  To reclaim my base.  To regain everything I was capable of doing before cancer – and the treatment that reeked so much havoc and damage on body and mind and soul. 
Because I will not let cancer destroy the person I was.  
Post-cancer the world looks different.  I am different.  I am making different choices.  I am less afraid. 

I have no idea where this will end.  But I’ll know that cancer didn’t take anything away from me that I didn’t take back.  And I expect I will end up a better person because of the struggle.
Leigh Pate
Leigh Pate is a writer, former political consultant and two time cancer patient and cancer research advocate living in Seattle, WA

One thought on “Climbing Mountains

  1. So proud of you Leigh. What an amazing journey…not just Italy but cancer, recovery and always remaining brave. We can all learn a lesson from you. You are brave.

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