One promise that I had made to myself when I was in my late 20’s was that I would strive to never allow myself weak excuses for not being physically active. At that time an acquaintance of mine, Jim Payton, a very active and inspiring runner and high school coach, who had run numerous marathons, had just been diagnosed with Parkinson’s and was forced to stop running. It was what he loved and it was stripped away from him through no fault of his own in a very short period of time. Every race I ran after that came from a place of doing it for all those who wish they could but can’t. I used to say to myself, on those days when it was so tough to get out of bed early and put on the running shoes, “Jim would give anything to go for a run today, so stop whining and get out there for all those who can’t.” That has stuck with me for all these years and has driven me in many areas of my life. You never know what tomorrow brings so be the best you can be every day and do everything you can today as to not have regret tomorrow.
That brings me to Camano Island. I have not only found my “happy place” to live, but have also found a career that offers me rewards beyond any paycheck I could imagine. I teach fall prevention fitness courses called SAIL (Stay Active and Independent for Life) and OTAGO, to aging adults at Camano Center. I currently teach to well over 100 students per week, most of whom have numerous health conditions, including cancer, Parkinson’s, varying forms of dementia, worn out joints, osteoporosis, fusions, immune diseases, diabetes, brain damage and the list goes on and on. I am moved to tears each week at the effort and progress that my class participants make due to their commitment to gain strength and balance. It is incredibly inspiring, rewarding and fulfilling. It’s also difficult to watch these once dynamic, active and successful people struggle to simply put one foot in front of the other due to their physical limitations. I can only hope, each day, that the social camaraderie and exercise is helping them to live their best lives and feel a sense of accomplishment and happiness in addition to the physical health benefits. I can honestly say that each and every class puts a smile on my face and fills my heart with extreme appreciation and if the participants gain even a fraction of what I do then I consider it a huge success.
Now to June 24th, 2023 at the Camano Center Crab Dash. I was asked to lead the warm up before the 5K walk/run. Of course it was a compliment to be asked and I was very much looking forward to that, but more importantly, I had encouraged my class participants to sign up for and walk the 5K if they were able. At last count, the age group above 50 years, was over 50% of the total registrants. So, I made it my goal to continue to encourage my students to sign up for the walk and represent the SAIL and OTAGO classes and the strength and ability that is being gained in the classes. I was so proud knowing that so many of them were going to attend. Several of us gathered together at the starting line and off we went. I immediately got lost in conversation with Tesa and Gene, two members of the OTAGO class. Tesa has limited mobility with excruciating pain throughout her body and was using a walker to complete the 5K. Wow! What an inspiration! We spoke about their home, their steep driveway and stories of getting stuck in snow and enjoying vegetables from Island Harvest Farm as we strolled by the farm fields. I also had a great uplifting visit with Jeff, a SAIL participant, about our wonderful community and was just enjoying the slow pace while getting to know my students on a more personal level. At a point about a quarter of the way into the walk, I looked back and noticed one of my students Jerry, and his wife, getting ready to come down a steep hill. Jerry was also using a walker and I became concerned about him coming down the hill and not being able to control the speed of the walker and decided to run back and check in on him and his wife. It was at that point that I knew by their side is where I would remain for the “race”.
Talking to Mary Jo and Jerry was so interesting. I learned more about Jerry’s diagnosis and evolution of his Parkinson’s disease. I learned a small bit about his service in the Vietnam war and his longtime career, his love of gardening, his drive and tenacity and even learned of difficult losses. The two of them shared and entertained me with stories and parts of their lives the entire 90 minutes we were on the roads of Camano Island. There were times we encouraged Jerry to take a break and he insisted that he keep going. There were only a few times he sat in the walker and Mary Jo, without hesitation, would begin to push the walker. She never complained and took his efforts in stride, knowing full well that he couldn’t be stopped if his mind was set on something. They both said to me several times, “You don’t have to stay with us.” But, I can honestly say, there is absolutely NO PLACE I would rather have been. It was shaping up to be the best race I had ever participated in. Now, when we came upon steep hills, either up or down, to be honest I was nervous and thought how are we going to tackle this and my fear of him falling was growing. But, in Jerry’s mind, and I’m only speculating here, but I don’t think it ever entered his mind that he wouldn’t conquer each stage that we encountered. He’s had so many life experiences preparing him for these moments. I’m sure these hills were nothing in comparison to some parts of his life. But for me, it was an experience that was going into the depths of my hard drive and one of my life’s shaping moments. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER give up!!! It’s a motto I have aspired to live by for my entire life, but here I was seeing it play out in a way that drove it home like never before.
At about halfway through the course, we could no longer see any other walkers or runners. In fact, the fastest runners had passed us on their way back to finishing the course before we were even 15 minutes into the race. We were on the course alone going up and down hills, but every so often we would come across a volunteer waiting to cheer us on. They would be clapping and cheering for us, encouraging Jerry and being inspired by what they were seeing. It was magical to see the inspirational affect that Jerry had on so many without him even knowing. My heart swelled and so did my eyes at each of those turns. I’m not going to lie, there were times that I felt we were alone and even a time where I wasn’t sure the speeding car was going to go around us. But alas, we climbed the final hill and came upon the turn back onto Arrowhead Road, the homestretch. This is where we were met by Candi and Bob, two race volunteers cheering, clapping, waving and encouraging Jerry as he crested that last hill. We finally got Jerry to take a short break at that point and that is when Bob and Jerry realized that they knew each other and had a short visit, which also provided a minute of rest. Candi and Bob could not have been more encouraging and were also inspired and moved to tears by Jerry’s determination to complete the course. Being that they had waited for us to reach them, they packed up their belongings and walked in ahead of us. Again, it was just the three of us visiting and walking and knowing that the last leg was now under our feet. We were nearly 90 minutes into the walk and I’m certain that the soles of Jerry’s shoes had likely worn thin due to the shuffling of his feet. I also learned that he had a torn Achilles tendon and plantar fasciitis. Now, just one of those “small” items would have kept most people from leaving their house on this morning, but to Jerry, those were just inconveniences. It really makes you put things into perspective, which the entire 90 minute walk did for me.
Now in our sights was the final turn into the Camano Center and the finish line where the volunteers and several others had gathered to welcome Jerry in with cheers, clapping, chanting and support. By this time, his legs were really getting tired. He was having a tough time controlling the speed of the walker as we descended into the cheering group for the final turn. I kept my hand on the walker slowing it down a bit because the last thing I wanted, with 3 miles behind us, was to have a fall. I can’t imagine what must have been going through Jerry’s mind knowing I was purposefully slowing him down. (Sorry Jerry!) Yet, he and Mary Jo continued to graciously thank me.
As he turned that last corner and sped up to cross the finish line with the commitment, determination and tenacity that he had started with, there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd cheering for him. I wept. It was the greatest race of my life!
Walking Jerry and Mary Jo to their car, Jerry continued to thank me. No Jerry, thank you!!! You have no idea the strength and courage you showed me and so many others today. I will never forget the race that I lost. I won the best prize that could be awarded!
Thank you to Jerry, Mary Jo, Bonney Eckley and all the staff and volunteers at Camano Center for all that you do and most of all for supporting me in the best job on the planet. And thank you to ALL of the SAIL and OTAGO participants who inspire me and teach me every day to do today what I may not be able to do tomorrow and to do it with grace and a smile.
Traci Smith/Camano Fit
606 Arrowhead Road
Camano Island, WA 98282
Monday through Friday
9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
2nd Chance Thrift Shop
1335 State Route 532
Camano Island, WA 98282
10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Thursday-Saturday (No Wednesdays)
10:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m.