Emotional Saunders beats cancer, finishes strong in GJ Off-Road
Madge Saunders pedaled across the finish line, a job well done.
In her right hand was a lime Popsicle, but she wasn’t quite ready to smile.
Tears of joy and satisfaction had already started. Thirty miles of pain, agony and frustration were over.
The emotions of a satisfying but hard day first hit Saunders when she departed the dirt for the final three miles on pavement.
This is one tough, brutally challenging mountain bike course. Every rider who crossed the line breathed in the sweet taste of satisfaction. Truly a special accomplishment.
Most of the spectators knew nothing of the battle Saunders has faced since December.
“I’m still getting past the emotions of just finishing,” she said.
With a dirt and sweat-strained glove she dabbed away a tear while another ran down her cheek. Taking a deep breath, she corralled her emotions for a little while. But they would return.
“I did this race last year, and it’s an awesome race,” she said, her voice cracking. “I thought, ‘Cool, next year I’ll come back and kick ass.’ “
She paused as more tears escaped, then revealed, “So, in December, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Totally out of the blue.”
She had a bilateral mastectomy Dec. 20.
Emotions ran high for her Saturday, boosted by a special achievement much greater than most felt after 30 or 40 miles.
“Anytime I race, I get a little emotional when I finish, but to be even close to where I was last year is definitely an accomplishment,” she said with a smile. “This race itself is very challenging, but it’s very challenging to the upper body. So, it makes the course a little tough when you’re weak,” she said.
Saunders is anything but weak.
She hoped to beat last year’s time of 4 hours, 11 minutes, 48 seconds, but a villainous rear derailleur conspired against her on Andy’s Loop.
“I may have beat my time last year,” she said, “but ...”
She didn’t know her official time yet, and she shrugged as she left that sentence open. It was the type of shrug mountain bikers give all the time. They know racing comes with no guarantees. Flats, mechanical problems, crashes, fatigue. They’re part of racing.
Her time was meaningless in the big picture. She said she had two goals for the race: “My time and beating cancer.”
Her voice cracked again.
As she trudged through her 30 miles, she thought about her surgery and her recovery. The long road back as she made her way through the long course. She also thought about a good friend who is facing an even tougher battle.
Her friend just finished her fourth infusion of chemo.
“She has her other challenges,” Saunders said, pausing to let those words drift away.
Saunders avoided chemotherapy and is happy for that.
“I’m on my ninth month of recovery, and I feel like I’m kicking butt,” Saunders said, letting a smile take over. “I’ve done more races this year than I did last year.”
Kicking major butt. Kicking cancer’s butt.
Saunders is a nurse in Grand Junction, and she sees firsthand the devastation of cancer.
“I see so much cancer, and we have so many friends, young friends, who have breast cancer and other types of cancer,” she said.
Her friend’s battle continues.
Saunders hopes her own battle is behind her, but she knows there never are any guarantees. All she can do is stay optimistic and keep those positive thoughts cranking.
She wanted to kick butt at the Grand Junction Off-Road, and she did. She smiled, not wanting to let thoughts of her cancer ruin her special day.
“It’s all good. I hate to say it, but screw breast cancer, it’s no fun,” she said.
As a competitor she was still disappointed that the pesky rear derailleur derailed her chance at a better time.
Exhausted, sore from several crashes and emotional, Saunders smiled and spent time with friends and family who came to support her. Those friends and family got up early and welcomed her as she cruised down the Gunny Loop singletrack, then gathered at the finish line to welcome her back.
Saunders again smiled, thinking about her accomplishment. The emotions are still hard to control. But she knows this was one of the best days she’s had in nine months.
“I finished the race. I don’t feel like I beat this race, but beating cancer is great,” she said.
When she checked her time, there it was: 4:06:19. Better than last year.
That derailleur couldn’t stop her. Cancer couldn’t stop her.
She kicked some major butt on Saturday.