What It’s Like To Participate In A 3-Day Walking Event Like The Komen Breast Cancer Walk… I Did It, So Can YOU!

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Ok – you’ve raised your money. You’ve gathered your gear and equipment. You’ve walked your training miles.

It’s time to walk!

If you’re going to be walking in a Susan G. Komen 3-Day event (or one that’s similar), I thought you’d appreciate hearing what it was like for me…

chicago-komen-3-day-walk-participant

 

Checking In At The Event Location

At least 1 week before your event, you will be able to go online and print your credentials. It will include your name tag and any other documents you will need for the walk. There is no way to do this at the event, so be sure to do it ahead of time.

You will most likely have to check-in for the event very early in the morning. Unless you live near the area, try to stay in a hotel close by. You won’t want to spend several hours driving to the event right before you start walking.

For me, the Komen 3-Day Opening Ceremonies started at 6 a.m. on Friday (see photo below), with check-in starting at 5 a.m. I live 2 hours from the event location (Chicago), so I stayed in a hotel a couple of miles from the check-in location. (TIP: I always find the cheapest hotels through Priceline. I’ve been using them for years.)

Through the message boards on the Komen 3-Day website, I found another walker (Amy) who lived 4 hours from Chicago looking for a hotel-mate on Thursday night. We agreed to share a room and I met her there on Thursday night. Amy and I agreed that we would arrive as close to 6 a.m. as possible, giving us the maximum amount of sleeping time.

I will describe several reasons why this was not a good idea. Next time, I would arrive much earlier — giving myself plenty of time to check-in, turn in my luggage, relax a little, visit the restroom, and take in the sights.

About a half mile from the event location, we reached the line of traffic also going to the check-in. Uh-oh, had not counted on this! As the line crawled to the parking lot, I began to worry that we might be late. We got there about 5:45 am. I left my car in the overnight parking lot provided by the Komen 3-Day event organizers, remembering to take $25 cash to pay for parking when I got to camp. The parking lot was at a mall, and we were provided with a ride back there after Closing Ceremonies on the final day.

At check-in, I showed my photo ID and credentials, which you are required to wear at all times. They gave me a plastic badge attached to a lanyard, which I wore around my neck.

 

Luggage, Tent, Gear & Equipment

Our next stop was the Luggage Check-In, which was separated by alphabet letters indicating tent location.

3-day-walk-luggage-trucks

I had received my tent location via email, and I had labeled my luggage and all my belongings with it, using colored tape.

So, who’s in the tent with you?… The tents are 6’x6’, and will hold exactly 2 single-sized air mattresses (and not one thing more). You can request a tent-mate online (that is pretty much guaranteed), and they will do their best to put teammates’ tents all in a row. They will allow a male/female tent only upon your request. If you do not have a request, you will be assigned a same-gender tent-mate. About 2 weeks prior to the event, you will learn who your tent match is, and you will be able to make contact to discuss what you are each bringing.

As I mentioned before, the bag I checked weighed more than the 35-pound limit, which I greatly regretted. I have since learned that it would have been better for me to limit the large bag to 35 pounds and take a second, smaller bag with the extra items. The crew members who haul the bags are less concerned with the number of bags per person than they are with their safety while loading and unloading several hundred bags.

Keep your backpack or fanny pack with you, and always start the day with a full water bottle. (Here is everything you need to carry in your backpack.)

So I would have my camera ready for action and not buried in my pack, I used a carabiner to fasten it to my pack. I cut a small hole in the (cheap) fabric case in order to protect the camera. This worked very well, except for one thing: I did not walk with the camera like that during my training, and after the first day, the way it was banging into me as I walked became annoying. I put up with it because I wanted easy access to my camera, but I would recommend testing it out carefully during training.

After quick stop at the restrooms (porta-potties), Amy and I were ready to begin Day 1 of the walk.

 

Opening Ceremonies

What a party it was at the Opening Ceremonies!

komen-3-day-opening-ceremonies

Music was blaring and the crowd was gathering towards a stage, you could definitely feel the excitement in the air. I later learned there were 2,000 walkers at the Chicago 3-Day Walk, and they were all right here in one place. It was fun to see all the T-shirts and outfits everyone was wearing (…that we would see for the next 3 days).

I had read a suggestion to make your way to the place where the walkers would start walking early, and to be one of the first to leave the holding area. Because we arrived so “late”, we didn’t have a chance to figure out where that would be and work our way through the crowds. So we just hung out and took it all in. Shortly after 6 am, the national 3-Day spokesperson (Dr. Sheri Phillips) took the stage and welcomed everyone.

After a couple of short welcoming speeches, it was time for the Survivor Circle. About 12 pre-selected survivor walkers paraded to a circular stage, carrying flags to represent a group of people affected by cancer. They formed a circle and raised their flags, and the crowd went crazy! After that, another short processional of flag-carriers formed lines along the walking path. These flags represent different people in walkers’ lives — such as wife, mother, aunt, sister, etc. These flags were then carried all 60 miles by different people. I passed and was passed by many of these flags throughout the 3-Day event, and I saw that it was carried by different walkers who wanted to represent that particular person.

komen-survivor-circle  breast-cancer-survivor-flags

Finally, it was time to walk!

 

Beginning Day 1: Let The Walking Begin

At my event, walkers were released from the front, in 2 lines right along the stage.

komen-3-day-walk-flag-carriersWe first passed the flag-carriers, family members and spectators who lined the path and cheered us on with applause, actual cheers, and high fives. It was a small taste of what the cheering stations would be like along the path. The music was still blasting and I practically danced through my first 20 miles! I still get chills whenever I hear some of those songs. (One example: “I’ve Got A Feeling” by the Black-Eyed Peas.)

About 20 minutes after the start, I ran into one of the reasons to be at the front of the line. (Actually, about 300 reasons.) It became standing room only as we all tried to walk along the same sidewalk. Ugh. This was the only truly frustrating part of doing a walk with this much traffic. Just as I was gearing up, feeling good, and completely motivated… I had to stop.

I don’t know how it is in other cities, but in Chicago all of the walking is along city streets, through parks and along the lakefront.

Crew members working on Route Safety are stationed all along the route — ahead of all the walkers and following the last walker to camp. I cannot say enough about the crew. The entire operation runs on the blood, sweat, tears, and love of these volunteers. Many of them are walkers from another town or family members of walkers. Their job description is essentially service, safety, and motivation. They work whatever the weather, and they are probably on their feet as much or more than I was. They are truly the unsung heroes of the event. If you want to participate in a 3-Day event but are not interested in that much walking or fundraising, there are numerous crew options available.

komen-3-day-route-safety-crewRoute Safety members are at every stoplight and they give the go ahead to the walkers. They ride bikes and motorcycles to their next appointed section of the route. And their rides and clothes are completely PINKED OUT! They are completely devoted to the walkers and are inspirational motivators. Every single crew member (of any kind, and there are many) that I said “Thank You” to responded with, “Oh thank YOU for what you’re doing.” (Ok, I seriously almost cried when I typed that. There is no way to describe how being a part of this event made me feel. Like I was doing something huge, and all I was doing was walking.)

For the record, even during all the standing and waiting, it was still a great experience. It was a chance to chat with other walkers. It was easy to talk with anyone I passed – asking if they’ve done the walk before, who they are walking with (or for), what their team name means, what their T-shirt means, how they are feeling, where they are from… I could go on and on. Several times I had to cut a conversation short, because I was not always able to talk and walk at the same time. But no worries, I could always catch up with that person at the next pit stop or lunch or camp.

 

Food & Snacks

I had heard that the Komen 3-Day event is like a walking buffet, and that is true! Besides the 3 meals, there are endless snack foods provided. They were mostly sweet and salty, and they recommend you eat a variety of each. I did not always feel like eating, but I understood the importance of eating and drinking throughout the day, so I did.

Each day, I received a card with the mile markers and stops for the day. The back of the card had the camp schedule, basics about the next day, and information for people who are not staying in camp.

On Day 1, the first scheduled stop was a pit stop at mile marker 3. Approximately every 3 miles, there was some kind of stop.

Every day, along the route there were:

  • 4 to 5 pit stops (staffed with crew members, porta-potties, water and Gatorade, snacks, and a limited medical tent)
  • 1 to 2 Grab-N-Gos (with porta potties, water and Gatorade)
  • 1 lunch stop (boxed meals — Panera sandwiches at my event)

You can stop and stay at any of these stations as long as you like, but each one has pre-determined hours to open and close. So if you are a power walker and you speed-walk through all the stops directly to the lunch station, then you might have to wait for the lunch station to open.

The schedule is slightly different each day. For example, lunch was 9:50-1:45 on Day 1, 9:30-2:15 on Day 2, and 9:30-12:45 on Day 3. Everything on Day 3 is shorter, because they want everyone to finish walking and be in the holding station for the Closing Ceremony by a certain time so that everyone can participate in the Victory Walk (…and you will NOT want to miss that).

Here’s a great tip for your lunch break: Take off your shoes and dump ice water on them. It is heaven! Then, let your feet dry completely before putting on a fresh pair of socks for the second half of your day. You will not regret it!

 

Mileage May Vary

It’s important to note (and it says so right on the cards) that all mileage “may not be exact”.

Some people have worn pedometers on the walk and claimed that the mileage is way off.

My thoughts on the mileage:

  1. Mileage will be different for each walker, depending on how you cut corners (or don’t), or walk back and forth to the water and porta potties at the rest stations (or don’t), or the validity of your pedometer.
  2. Does it really matter? I have read some accounts where walkers are very upset that the mileage does not seem to be accurately stated on the cards. When you are walking 20… 40… 60 miles, does it matter if the leg is 3.2 miles or 3.45? I didn’t care then, and I don’t care now. To be honest, the same mile felt different to me at different points along the route. The last miles to camp on the first 2 days d-r-a-g-g-e-d on f-o-r-e-v-e-r!!! If you are walking the Komen 3-Day event, you will hear a joke over and over again: “Is it a mile, or is it a Komen mile?”

 susan-g-komen-walk-miles

 

Importance Of  Keeping Hydrated

Another mantra you will hear is: “Drink and pee, avoid the IV.” This one is deadly serious. They say if you don’t have to pee at every stop, you are not drinking enough.

I have a chronic bladder condition that causes me to have to pee all the time, so this was not a problem for me. But Amy went several stops without needing to pee, and towards the end of Day 1, she began to feel the consequences. Her leg muscles began to tighten up and she could barely move. She described the pain as the worst charley horse you can imagine in both calves.

She stopped in 2 medical tents for some massaging, and the medical personnel had no doubts – she was not drinking enough. She thought she was, as she would fill her water bottle at every stop and drink most of it before we hit the next one. They advised that she drink an entire bottle while resting at the station and fill up again before leaving, and she should drink every drop before the next station. She took this advice on Day 2 and had a much better day.

I alternated water and Gatorade at each stop. You will need to bring your own water bottle, and I recommend one with a wide mouth — because you will be filling it from coolers with spigots and small mouth bottles may be a challenge. Many walkers like using Camelbak backpacks with water bladders in them, but they are not easy to fill or clean on the event. Be sure to fill your water bottle before you get in your tent at night, so it’s handy during the night. If you forget, no worries, because you will be getting up for a potty break anyway.

 

Cheers And Support

Along the route, in designated, pre-arranged areas, there will be several Cheering Stations. Get ready to be a rock star!

sidewalk-cheering-komen-breast-cancer-walk  people-cheering-for-komen-walkers

The people at these stations have positioned themselves to do nothing but encourage, applaud, and celebrate YOU. It is humbling, overwhelming, and fantastic. Most, if not all of the people, have been touched by cancer and some are cancer survivors. One of my favorite “walker stalkers” (as they like to be called) was a young lady holding a sign that said, “Yesterday was my last day of chemo – thank you for walking.” Another sign said, “My grandma is a cancer survivor. She’s in the tent. Please go give her a hug.” (I did.) The most touching sign I have read about is this one.

Some of these stalkers will be at all the Cheering Stations, as well as any area in between they can find. Many of the homes along the route will have signs of encouragement, snacks, music, candy, drinks, and — if you’re lucky — spraying water!

Oh, the water… On those 3 HOT days, I stopped at every chance to spray or hose myself down with water. Yes, hose myself down. Several fire stations had hoses connected to ginormous fans – it was heaven. The best were little kids with spray bottles who loved to spray us. There were also people with buckets of ice – great for dunking your bandanna and wrapping it around your neck, on your head, or under your hat. Do not pass any of these up!

You will also pass restaurants, gas stations, diners, and other establishments which provide the opportunity to cool off, rest, and… drum roll… use a flushing toilet! If you can, make a small purchase, but don’t pass these up either! Some places had special signs like “Air conditioning and restrooms for walkers”.

komen-sweep-busAnytime you need a break or are unable to continue walking for any reason, you can flag down a Sweep bus. You will see them driving by, playing music and honking to cheer you on. If you need the Sweep, they will pick you up and take you to the next scheduled pit stop/grab-n-go/meal. You can take the bus for any reason – if you need medical attention, air conditioning, a place to sit down – anything.

There is absolutely no shame in taking the bus. I spoke with several walkers who planned ahead of time to take the bus, for a variety of reasons:

  • They were medically unable to walk the entire way.
  • Their asthma was problematic in the heat and humidity.
  • They were unable to train as much as they wanted.
  • They wanted to save some energy for part of the walk the next day.

 

Ending Day 1: What It’s Like At Camp

At the end of the day, you will either walk or be bussed to camp.

Your credentials will be scanned each time you enter and exit camp. When you reach camp, you will have many things to do, and you will want to do all of them at the same time: eat, shower, sit down, collect your luggage, set up your tent, sit down, visit medical if necessary, get a massage, watch the entertainment, check camp mail, sit down, charge your phone, shop and visit the Remembrance tent.

Here’s a little more about each of those…

In Chicago, we walked to camp on the first day and spent Day 2 walking in a huge circle back to the same camp. In some cities, you will camp in a new place each night, and some cities have camp inside a huge gymnasium. (I have read about pros and cons to indoor camping: Pro = controlled temperature, no rain and flushing toilets; Con = it tends to be a bit louder.)

You will collect your luggage from the truck, again arranged alphabetically according to your tent assignment. You will also collect a pink pop-up tent. Find your assigned spot and put up your tent. (It’s really easy.) At some locations, there are volunteer Tent Angels who will help or set up your tent for you. If you are not staying at camp, you may need to collect your bag at the truck before you go to your hotel (unless you have made arrangements with someone else to deliver your bag to your hotel).

pink-tent-city-komen-walk  komen-3-day-tent

I felt lucky that my tent-mate was a no-show (to the tent anyway; I have no idea if she did the walk). I was able to leave my gigantic bag inside the tent, which was great when it started raining in the middle of the night. Most people had to leave their bags outside the tent door. By the way, some people put as much effort into tent decorations as they do walking!

komen-shower-trucksYou will be showering in a huge truck, and although it sounds crazy, it will be the best shower of your life! Hot water, cold water – both with excellent water pressure. I will admit I was very pleasantly surprised at how great it was. There are about 6 stalls in each truck, and maybe 6 trucks designated male or female. There are chairs set up outside in case you have to wait.

When you check-in for the event, you will be given a chance to purchase Towel Service — which is exactly what it sounds like, and highly recommended. It is inexpensive (maybe $12 for 2 nights) and you will not want to be messing with wet towels. Having said that, I do recommend that you take a small hand towel of your own to have inside your tent.

You will also need some shower shoes. These can be the same or in addition to your camp shoes, which can be whatever will be comfortable for you when you take off your walking shoes. Some walkers told me they heard it was required for them to have shoes they only wear in the shower, so check the rules for your event. In my case, I had a pair of Nike gel slide sandals, which had foam cushion soles and were fantastic for my camp shoes. I also wore them in the shower, which was a huge mistake. The cushion soles (aka sponge) sploshed water all night and my blistered feet did not enjoy that. Next time, I would take specific shoes for the shower and keep the wonderful cushion soles dry.

komen-dinner-at-campWhen you’re ready to eat dinner at camp, the food will be there — again provided by great crew members. It will be a hot meal, with salad, vegetables, bread and dessert. In addition to water and Gatorade, there will be soft drinks and coffee. If you have a favorite soft drink and see it, grab it! I missed out on my Diet Coke because I took my plate to my table and then they were gone. Once the majority of walkers have gone through the lines, the crew is happy to serve seconds.

Breakfast at camp is much the same, beginning very early specifically for the crew. Know the meal times and be sure to accommodate for lines as you plan your wake-up time and morning routine. Some people shower in the morning. I chose to splash water on my face and tuck my hair under my hat. Clothes are easy because you set them out the night before. Dress quickly and you’re good to go.

Dining tables are set up under a tent (shade… yay!) around a stage. There may also be charging stations for your cell phone. (You have to bring your own charger.) These stations are provided by a sponsor for the event. I actually forgot my phone charger, but several walkers who had the same kind gladly loaned me theirs. I used my phone for my alarm clock, so this was important.

After the evening meal, there will be several things on the schedule — like local entertainment, announcements, stretching, a camp show, and a sing-a-long. The youth camp members perform the show, and then the stage is opened for everyone to participate by singing, dancing, or both. I missed all of that, because after I ate, I wanted to take a long shower and lie down, on my mattress, in my tent.

komen-last-walkerOne very special event to NOT miss is the celebration of the “last walker” coming into camp. An announcement is made that the last walker is arriving and to gather around the flag pole. When I first heard about this, all I could think was, “Oh, that poor walker, why on Earth would they bring attention to this person?” But I was completely wrong. The last walker is escorted to the flag pole by everyone in camp — clapping and cheering. The Susan G. Komen flag is sent up the flagpole, and Dr. Sheri welcomes the walker and announces that we are now ONE DAY CLOSER TO A CURE FOR CANCER! This moment is one of many that will make you feel that you are doing something really special.

Be sure to check out the Camp Mail tent. The mail address for walkers is provided well in advance, and friends and family members can send letters or packages to your camp ahead of time. I was totally blessed to receive about 30 letters. Day 1 was my birthday, and my sister made sure I felt the love! Don’t be afraid to ask your friends and family to send you mail – you will really enjoy having it.

medical-tent-for-leg-crampsThe Medical tent is there to check things out for you. Remember dehydrated Amy? They took great care of her by treating her legs with medicated cream and massage. She thought she might have to quit and go home the next morning — that’s how bad her legs felt — but she was fine the next day. This crew is made up of volunteer doctors and nurses, so take advantage of their expertise if you need it. There will also be a self-service Band-Aid Station, where you can bandage and wrap your own feet. There will be 1 or 2 medical volunteers here to give advice for this area, but they will not do the work for you. In Chicago, there was always a little line for this tent, and on the 3rd day they were running out of supplies. I took a small stash of my own supplies, and used these whenever possible.

Another sponsor provided foot and back massaging chairs at no cost. There was always a line for this, so Amy and I passed, but it would have been wonderful.

The Komen 3-Day tent is for the shoppers in the group. It’s filled with lots of fun goodies you can buy, including some items not found online. Other sponsors may also have tents for you to visit and/or shop.

komen-rememberance-tentThe Remembrance tent is very special. There is a small white tent representing each city that is hosting a walk. While you’re there, you are encouraged to commemorate loved ones lost to cancer (or who are still fighting) by writing on the tent. You can write as much or as little as you like. That tent will be taken to the next city and displayed there. The host city also has a large tent, filled with photos and letters and memorials to loved ones. As a walker, you will be able to contribute your own pictures if you’d like to.

In the morning, if you have to break down your tent and pack your gear, make sure to leave enough time for this. Otherwise, just get yourself ready and have breakfast. The route will open around 6:30 am, with breakfast available at 5 am. If you need to see medical for anything (like packing or lancing a blister), there will likely be a line for this.

And then you’re off for Day 2!

 

Day 2 And Day 3: What To Expect

Day 2 will probably be a repeat of Day 1, with a different route and sometimes very different terrain/scenery.

You will be told any important information about the route at camp the night before. So if you do miss the entertainment portion, make sure at least one person on your team is there to hear any announcements.

On Day 3, remember that all the stations are open for a shorter time than the other days. The crew will start nudging everyone to move along a bit quicker, hoping that everyone will complete the route by the time designated for the Closing Ceremony.

In Chicago, the holding area for the Closing Ceremony was at Soldier’s Field, which was pretty cool. We were not allowed on the actual field, but the waiting area was in the bleacher seats. Amy and I entered the arena with the final third of the walkers, which means there were tons of early-arriving walkers in the receiving line for Victory Lane. Prepare once again to feel like a rock star with fun music blaring and a double line of people cheering and high fiving as you walk to the end. This was a truly emotional moment. Relief… pride… exhaustion… adrenaline… joy. At that moment, it doesn’t matter if you walked 1 mile or all 60, you are all warriors in the battle to beat breast cancer.

At the end of the cheering people, you will receive your Victory Shirt. These were white for walkers, grey for crew, and pink for survivors.

komen-holding-area-for-victory-shirts  komen-3-day-walk-shirts

After you get your shirt, you will remain in the holding area until it’s time to process into the ceremony. Get some water, go to the bathroom, and see the Medical tent if you need to. Be sure to take your picture at the 60 miles sign. (I did not see this sign and missed my chance for this.) And you’ll want to spend the rest of the time stretching. Let me say it again… STRETCH! My body was completely exhausted at this point. Everything was sore and just completely spent. I sat down and did a little stretching, but not nearly enough.

The procession into the Closing Ceremony area is another loud, cheering, joyful event. Walkers go in first. Then you have a chance to cheer for the crew as they enter next. Then the survivors come in. Instead of clapping, they receive a Sneaker Salute. That’s where everyone else holds up one shoe as a tribute to the survivors. It was another very emotional yet inspiring moment; have the tissues handy.

komen-sneaker-salute  komen-survivors-sneaker-shoe-salute

There will be a few very short speeches. (I learned we raised over $5,000,000 in Chicago!) Finally, everyone will be dismissed. This will be another clog of everyone trying to get to the same place at the same time.

I went to look for my luggage and then find my pre-paid shuttle back to the longterm parking. Once I found the bus and took my seat, I began to realize that my legs were going to be a problem. We spent about 45 minutes sitting on the bus waiting for all the busses to be filled. Then we entered into post-Lollapalooza traffic on the way back to the mall. After another hour and a half of sitting, my legs were just throbbing and aching. I went to the back of the bus and tried to stretch them out a bit, but that didn’t help much.

Next time, I would try to get to the closing area much sooner — to allow more time for leg stretching and ice. I would also try to allow for better/faster transportation out. I had planned to drive the 2 hours home that night, but my legs would just not allow it. I went back to my same hotel and elevated my legs and kept dumping ice on them.

 

Thoughts On Walking Alone, With Others, Or With A Team

When I signed up for the Komen 3-Day event, I knew I would be walking alone.

I read many blogs about the event, and saw things like:

  • “You never walk alone on the 3-Day.”
  • “I felt very welcomed from the moment I signed up.”
  • “One of the coaches called me to see if I had any questions.”

So while I was anxious and excited about the whole experience, I was not hesitant to walk alone.

I found Amy, another solo walker, a couple of weeks before the event, and we shared our excitement for the event through emails. We were also able to consult with one another about our concerns. It was very overwhelming to walk into the mass of people at the opening ceremony, and I was so grateful to have a pal.

Because she and I did walk together for most of the walk, I didn’t take advantage of meeting others while I walked. I easily spotted friendly walkers who would have happily chatted me up or joined me for part of the journey though. It was nice to see the camaraderie of all the different teams – some were families, some were lifelong friends, and some were strangers who created a time via online communications. I think it has to be a personal decision each person makes.

If I were to do it again, I would definitely want someone to walk with on all the training miles – those were the hardest to walk alone. I would also like a buddy for the event, but I would not hesitate to do it alone again.

 

After The Event

So now you’ve walked 60 miles! Or not, no big deal.

Pat yourself on the back, write thank you notes to your donors, take care of your legs and feet, and bask in the satisfaction of a job well done!

3-day-walk-thank-you-notes

This will truly be a life-changing experience. It was for me.

 

The Firsthand Experiences Of Others