Carol France is a high-maintenance, Southern matron with not one athletic bone in her body. But given a choice between taking part in an Ironman triathlon, the ultimate test of endurance and will, or having breast cancer consume her body, France would easily choose the first, her daughter Cindie Hill said.
However, Hill has options that have passed her terminally ill mother by, so she began training Jan. 1 for the Vineman Ironman on Aug. 23 in Napa Valley, Calif., hoping to finish one of the world's most grueling physical challenges on behalf of her dying mother.
"I wanted my mom to know that on days she didn't feel good, there was someone out there maybe feeling worse," Hill said. "There were times she begged me not to do it."
And there were lonely, long walks during training where Hill literally gave herself headaches thinking about life, death, suffering and why she was pushing her body to the point of breakdown.
The same thoughts consumed Hill's mind for the 15 hours and 13 minutes she was out on the Ironman course Aug. 23.
"I had no doubt I would finish," Hill said. "But I never imagined hurting that bad. I knew it would be painful but not that painful."
An Ironman triath-lon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, otherwise known as a marathon.
Hill concedes that living in Steamboat and taking part in an Ironman isn't out of the ordinary. She and her husband, Paul, have friends who have competed in multiple Ironman events.
The difference between Hill and many others who opt to enter Ironman triathlons is that Hill hates distance running, partly because she grew up a sprinter but mostly because she has two surgically repaired knees and an injury to one of her illiotibial bands that makes running even medium distances extremely painful.
The IT band is a piece of connective tissue that extends from the pelvis to the tibia.
Doctors and physical therapists have advised Hill not to run, but orders and reason finish a distant second to a mother, a daughter and a goal. Scott Blair, physical therapist at SportsMed at Yampa Valley Medical Center, worked with Hill's knees and IT band so that she could train and compete for the Vineman after having to drop out of the Steamboat Marathon in June. She trained for the final leg of the Ironman by walking, a training technique she's never heard of anyone else using.
Hill will never do another Ironman, but she said crossing the finish line in California was an unforgettable end to an eight-month process in which she learned immeasurable amounts about herself as a person and an athlete.
"You become an Ironman on some sleety, cold day in March in the freezing rain," Hill said. "It's not when you cross the finish line. It's when you train. Besides the professionals getting paid to run, everyone else has some sort of reason for doing it. I don't know if you can do the races and train because it's fun."
Initially, Hill's parents planned to watch her in Napa Valley, but John and Carol France could not make the trip from Baton Rouge, La., because Carol France is too ill to travel. Instead, Paul Hill called his wife's parents after each transition to let them know how their daughter was faring.
Cindie Hill gives her husband, an avid biker, credit for pushing her on days when exhaustion took over.
"My main thing was to help her stay focused," Paul Hill said.
Paul Hill did all the training required for the triathlon but did not compete. Instead, he followed his wife in a car on lonely California roads with the headlights on, guiding her toward the finish line in the dark hours after the winners had finished.
At one point, Paul Hill got out of the car and shuffled along with his wife because she could no longer run.
"The lowest point was mile 14, watching people behind me finish," Hill said. "I had a lot of pain. I started saying prayers. Then I saw a woman who wasn't running or walking but shuffling. I thought maybe I could do that and I could keep a 14- or 15-minute mile pace. Then it got dark and they handed us light sticks and we were shuffling through the vineyards at night. For miles on the dark road, that's all you saw."
For Carol France, the first low point came 12 years ago when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as surgery, enabled her to remain cancer free for seven years.
Several years ago, while visiting Paul and Cindie and grandchildren Matthew and Christopher Hill in Steamboat, Carol France learned she again had breast cancer. It has since spread to her lungs, bones and liver. She resumed her chemotherapy treatments in Steamboat until she regained enough strength to return home to Louisiana, where she has since ceased treatment.
For her, the suffering from chemotherapy became too heavy a price.
"They talk about cancer survivors," Cindie Hill said. "My mom isn't going to beat cancer, but she is a survivor to me."
Suffering, Cindie Hill said, is the same whether it is shuffling along dark, lonely roads, saying prayers or laying in a hospital bed, alone, saying prayers. She never wanted her mother suffering alone.
And Carol France said she hasn't felt alone. A love between a mother and daughter is strong, but a bond formed when a daughter helplessly watches breast cancer consume her proud mother is a feeling Carol France wishes upon no one.
"Cindie is one of those people that would do anything for me and for any other human being. That's who she is," Carol France said. "I know how much she loves me, and she knows how much I love her, and I know how much this cancer issue has torn our lives up, but she's there for me. Cancer, when it gets into your life, it'll never be the same. I pray for a cure for all women."
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