“Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end?”
Eric Liddell, Missionary and Olympic Champion
Who is Claudia Berryman-Shafer, and Why we Honor Her Today
By Gordon Cherr
I met her somewhere at an ultra, a long ago. I just don’t remember where or when. She was a pleasant enough lady, who ran and climbed mountains with her husband, Jim. She didn’t boast of those accomplishments, but she did brag plenty on her kids. By that I mean she taught school, in Nevada, I think she said, fifth grade, maybe it was seventh. I don’t know, it was a chance encounter at the end of long day and a lot of miles. And a great many more miles have passed since that day.
I later heard that she had breast cancer. I don’t know how I learned of that either. But it really didn’t register, she was a person far away. Besides, right now I know three people who are living with “end stage” cancer. Liver, stomach, brain, lungs….why, why, why? Last week I went to “Art in the Park”, downtown on Park Avenue, and walked up on a man wearing a Superman outfit. Corey was visiting for the weekend with wife and grand-daughter, he and I were walking together and talking quietly, and suddenly both of our hearts did an unexpected flip-flop. I immediately expected to see Tim, he was Superman, remember? And Spiderman and Batman and Popeye. No one else should be allowed to wear that costume. Ever.
I thought long and hard about it that night and revisited the “Remembrances of Tim Simpkins”, which many people contributed to on the club’s web site. I reread them all. I found this one to speak the most truth to me:
“For me, thinking about Tim reminds me about every day I ever ran. The memory of Tim reminds me of every day I went down to Mike Long track in the blistering sun to run intervals and hear Tim’s over-enthusiasm. It reminds me of every race I ever ran with or without Tim, who was there and what happened . . . . Tim reminds me of what each day smelled like, felt like and tasted like. Tim makes me remember how good it felt to get to run, to run fast or to run easy. Tim reminds me of every trail, street and dirt road I ever ran down. He reminds me of all the possibilities I used to dream of, of how good I wanted to be.
Tim reminds me of everything I ever did each day before I ran. What it was like to get ready to run: by myself in my apartment, with teammates in the locker-rooms, with my father. Tim reminds me what it was like to be in school, to have friends, to go to work in the mornings, to wake up with my family, to be a college student in a cheap apartment during a Tallahassee summer. He makes me remember what it was like to look forward on all those days to going for a run. Even if I didn’t look forward to the runs on those days, Tim reminds me that I just didn’t know I was looking forward to them. He makes me look forward to them retroactively.
All of this that Tim has made me remember also makes realize how limited this time is, how few times I will get to go run. Tim makes me appreciate every opportunity I ever got to run or to race. He makes me appreciate every dump I ever lived in that was jogging distance to the track. Because of Tim, I now can never really think back on any of that running with regret. Even in spite of my failures, Tim makes me love every minute I ever ran or did anything remotely related to running. Not surprisingly, I am also beginning to appreciate just about everything I ever got to do in life.
I do not know entirely what death, or life, is. Nor (I think) does anyone. Certainly we have faith, hope, speculation and assumption. But, in part because of Tim, I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow… and I can’t wait to run again.”
(I would be remiss if I did not tell you that this tribute to Tim was written by Corey Cherr).
But what of Claudia Berryman-Shafer? I had thought not at all about her, her life, her students, her husband, her cancer until a few weeks ago, upon receiving an email from her husband, which stated simply that she was resting quietly and would soon be going on to another, better place. I felt my stomach tie up in knots because Claudia Berryman Shafer had whipped this thing, this cancer. She was a fighter, a warrior, a teacher, a mother, a wife, she was all of this tough stuff. We runners can whip anything, can’t we? Claudia hadn’t quit, given in, felt sorry for herself. Let me show you what she said about her bout with cancer:
“Well I am not sure how inspirational this might be but 8 years ago I was
diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. I had a modified radical mastectomy
and chemotherapy twice a month for 6 months. Prior to my dx I had been a
runner for 19 years. I am a no talent mid to back of packer but run for
the fun and health benefits. My oncologist told me I would not be able to
run and then amended that to I should not run during chemo ( I think he
saw the challenge he had made :> ). When I got home I checked for the
dates of races and picked a challenge a month. During chemo I completed a
50k mtn. bike race, a 50km trail run, two International distance
triathlons, I climbed Mt. Rainier and went on a 4 day backpack trip with my
husband. Six months after my last chemo to the day, I summited
Aconcagua, at 22,820 ft it is the highest peak in the western hemisphere . . . .”
I am running in the early morning darkness, during a rain and hail storm, in Phipps Park. A headlamp lights my way. I am wet and cold, I am not happy. But as I reach that open mile stretch which parallels Lake Jackson, the sun has begun to rise and the sky over the lake is a spectacular light pink with dark blue clouds racing by, pushed by the whipping wind. I am wondering about you, Claudia, how you have been so tough, yet so graceful in fighting the long odds? I don’t think that I could do that. She tells us:
“At the end of my treatment, one of the nurses told me that the doctor
started telling people they could and should exercise during treatment and
that one of his patients (me) ran “marathons” on chemo.
I really believe that my previous ultrarunning experiences helped me go
through treatment as I compared one to the other in terms of having
periods of feeling poorly but knowing that it would pass and I would keep
going. I also feel that setting goals in terms of races to complete helped
keep a positive attitude. A positive attitude will not change the course
of a disease but will make one feel better whatever the circumstances.”
As I am running the trail, I am worrying about you Claudia, just as I worried about Tim, and now am worried about Bill and Geri and Doug. The tempestuous morning sky has lightened some and a large hawk passes close overhead, carrying prey in its talons. I momentarily wonder if this is not a bad sign for you, Claudia, but quickly realize that instead, that hawk is carrying her prey to feed her young, that this is surely a sign of the circularity of life. Wouldn’t you tell me that, Claudia?
I am still thinking of you, Claudia, when the four big deer bolt out in front of me, gracefully racing each other along the lake bottom. They jump high when they run, their big white rumps flashing to each other in the morning mist coming off the lake. When deer run like that it is like a celebration of life, isn’t that what you would tell me, Claudia?
Several miles later amid the upland pines and oaks, there is a slow, strange shadow up ahead. I don’t know what it is, but it is running with sort of an odd nautical roll. I catch up in a few hundred yards. She had ratty gray and white fur and when she grinned at me, she surely showed her great age. Her teeth were worn down to a few pegs, but her eyes, well, her eyes were bright. And defiant. And on her back were her prizes, her four bundles of love. The baby possum all looked up at me, eight bright, inquisitive eyes, eight pointy little ears, four little heads, all moving in unison. They were hanging onto their momma’s back for dear life. It reminded me of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. But given the chance the momma possum didn’t veer off the trail, she elected to waddle about one hundred yards with me before something more interesting caught her attention, and off she went without even a goodbye. She showed no fear, but a quiet, even confident acceptance of her circumstances. She could have changed everything. She chose to change nothing. Until the time was right.
Life is an ultra marathon. Maybe it should be lived like one too. No need to panic when the going gets rough, it hurts, sometimes real bad, but we can deal with almost everything that comes our way, right Claudia? Even the finish line. Is that the lesson you are trying to teach me as you learn it yourself?
I suppose that some of you wonder why some of us run such long distances? It was even asked recently on the club message board. How much fun could it be? Why not stick to 5Ks and 10Ks and enjoy yourself immensely more. A fair question.
Well, there are people who live far from here (Tibet) who undertake arduous journeys through the mountains to holy places, seeking purification and forgiveness for their past sins. And they believe that the more difficult the journey, the greater their ultimate purification. It is something like that. When I run further, while it is always more difficult, I know that the longer I run, the better I ultimately feel. Eventually. It comes somewhere from within. I can’t explain it any more than that.
When I got home from the long run this morning, this message from Jim Berryman-Shafer was waiting for me:
“Claudia has amazed the staff at the hospital. They had prepared us for her
death, but I guess she wasn’t ready to go yet. Tuesday 4/19 she started
talking and Thursday she even had a couple of bites of real food. She will
probably be discharged from the hospital early next week to come home. The
breast cancer will ultimately end her life, but she’ll be back with us at
least for a little while.”
Against all odds, Claudia Berryman-Shafer is still running her ultra marathon of life. I pray that her race is far longer than she can imagine. And for Bill and Geri and Doug. But whenever it is over, she will have acquitted herself with great honor. Thank you, Claudia, still the teacher, for what you are still teaching us.
“WHERE does the power come from, to see the race to its end?,” asked Eric Liddell.