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Sergeant Stephanie Foster is usually the first to know.
A member of the Oklahoma National Guard’s 120th Medical Company, she works in her civilian life as a laboratory technician in pediatric oncology. Her job is to locate cancer cells in children. After drawing a young patient’s blood, she peers through a microscope at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, looking for evidence she desperately hopes not to find.
But find it she does—far too often: malevolent cancer cells lurking amid healthy ones. That’s when she knows that a family is about to begin a life-and-death battle. Foster forms relationships with her young patients and their loved ones, even though doing so risks a broken heart each time. “It’s totally worth it,” she says. “The way they touch your life, it’s amazing. They’re so strong—stronger than the strongest Soldier out there.”
Strong enough to inspire Foster, a fitness instructor and versatile athlete, to push her physical limits to raise money and awareness on their behalf. She has previously entered walking events to raise money for cancer research. But nothing quite like what she’s about to try. She says it’s the least she can do, after what she’s received from them.
All of her patients touch her heart.
B.J. Morgan touched her soul.
It’s the first week in December, and the CureSearch for Children’s Cancer Ultimate Hike is days away.
The charity hike, an intense, one-day, 22-mile march through scenic mountains in northwest Arkansas, comes with several changes in elevation. Foster and her daughter, Specialist Jessica Cousins, also of Oklahoma’s 120th Medical Company, had signed up to raise money for research in B.J.’s honor. They’re calling their two-person team Soldiers of C.H.A.O.S. (Cancer Help and Oncology Support).
Leading up to the hike, organizers told participants to be prepared for temperatures in the 50s. But the weather takes a drastic turn a few days before the event. Forecasters call for temperatures in the 20s, with a snow and ice storm coinciding with when Foster, Cousins and 26 other hikers are scheduled to arrive. Organizers make it clear: Safety comes first. If the trip to Rogers, AR, will be dangerous, stay home.
To get to Rogers, Foster must drive 200 miles through the storm. I call Foster, an 11-year Guard Veteran, to ask whether she still plans to go. If I knew then what I know now about her perseverance and passion to fight cancer, I wouldn’t have bothered.
She tells me she has driven her 1-ton diesel Western Hauler truck (nickname: “The Beast”) through worse ice storms. The cancer patients she treats can’t stop being cancer patients when an unexpected obstacle gets in their way, so she won’t stop trying to help them when an unexpected obstacle gets in hers.
In Rogers, 5 inches of snow pile on a thick layer of ice. The governor declares a state of emergency. Nine of the 29 registered hikers never make it in. But Foster and Cousins, fresh off a six-hour drive from Oklahoma—twice as long as it should have taken—smile broadly at a meet and greet the night before the hike, proudly proclaiming that they will hike together in honor of B.J.
B.J. did not give up in his fight against cancer. They’re not giving up hope to hike in his honor.
But as they learned the next day, getting there was the easy part. Completing the hike will take all the strength and perseverance they can muster.
The weather forces organizers to change on the fly, moving the hike from the Ozark Highlands Trail, which is unreachable, to urban trails that go around Lake Fayetteville in Fayetteville, AR, into town, then back around the lake.
Hike morning dawns colder than predicted. The temperature sits at 5 degrees, and the wind makes it feel icier than that. Using their National Guard training, Foster and Cousins come prepared with layer upon layer of clothing. For the first and most important layer, they pulled on matching moisture-wicking polyester shirts that say, “Some people touch your heart! Others touch your soul!” on the front and “Team B.J. Never Quit!” on the back.
It’s no coincidence that those words nestle closest to their hearts.
As Foster and Cousins step into the biting wind at Lake Fayetteville at 9 a.m., a long day awaits. All types of calamity seem possible—from frostbite to exhaustion to serious injury—as ice coats everything in sight. Within 10 minutes, one hiker’s water freezes. “This is not my comfort zone,” Foster says. “I’m a diver. I’m a warm weather girl.”
But she revels in a challenge. A fitness instructor for 16 years, as well as a boxer and a kickboxing instructor, she says the key to successful workouts is to make them fun, and hiking 22 miles in 5 inches of snow in single-digit temperatures is fun—in a crazy way. And “crazy” is the word she uses most to describe herself.
“If my nose freezes off,” she says, “will the Army issue me a new one?”
For the first 2 miles, it’s too cold to talk. Walking warms us up, and I ask her about B.J., who was from Tuttle, OK. She says they became close as he fought osteosarcoma (bone cancer). As she has with countless other patients, she got to know him by talking to him while drawing his blood, which she did almost every time he came to the hospital. She and B.J. had inside jokes about how she drew blood and how she put tape on his arm. She became friends with his parents, too.
“He loved hunting. He would’ve loved this,” Foster says, waving to the woods around us. After one of his surgeries, doctors told him he couldn’t hunt with a bow and arrow anymore. The surgery sapped strength from his right arm and hand, which he used to nock arrows. Months later, the doctors were stunned to learn he was hunting again. He had taught himself to nock arrows left-handed.
He beat the cancer, at first. Then it came back. He died at 21 last October. Foster and Cousins were already interested in participating in the Ultimate Hike. After he died, the decision was easy.
B.J. made Foster laugh because he always said what was on his mind, and she never knew what was going to come out of his mouth next. “He reminded me of that girl right there,” she says, using her pole to point to her daughter.
A former Marine named Mike Reed leads the hike. He served in Vietnam, then joined the Air Force in the late 1980s and retired after nearly three decades in that service. He says something that many other hikers echo, referring to Foster and Cousins: “That’s one heck of a mother-daughter combination.”
The other hikers were impressed by their service, determination, enthusiasm and banter throughout the hike.
Cousins: “It’s so tempting to hit you with a snowball right now.”
Foster: “There’s going to be a Jessica snow angel if that happens.”
Cousins: “I’ve never been so excited to see concrete in my entire life.”
Foster: “You don’t understand how excited I was to see grass when I got back from Iraq.”
Cousins [as the two pose for a photo]: “It’s going to be a better picture if I’m in it.”
Foster: “Oh, shut up.”
When Cousins followed her mom into the National Guard at age 17, their already close relationship reached a whole new level. For the 120th Medical Company, Foster serves as a medical laboratory specialist and Cousins as a combat medic. “Now we’re best friends,” Cousins says. “She’s such an inspiration.”
Foster tells me unprompted three times: “I’m super proud of her.”
The organizers set up checkpoints every few miles to keep the hikers safe, hydrated and fed. Cousins laughs when her mom takes a spill at the first one. At the third stop (mile 7), organizers offer cheeseburgers to all the hikers. Foster doesn’t go anywhere near her cheeseburger. She’s a health nut and keeps close tabs on what she puts into her body.
We make our second-to-last stop in a hospital parking lot at mile 11, and the temperature drops as we eat and drink. Considering that, earlier in the day, a hiker’s thermometer read minus 3 degrees, I don’t want to know what the temperature is now. We get back on the trail, and for the first time, finishing 22 miles seems unlikely. Other hikers have already dropped out. More do so at this stop. Fewer than a dozen people are left.
And it’s about to get worse.
The hardest stretch of the hike comes on an ice-covered hill in mile 15. Our guide says this isn’t just the toughest hill on the hike; it’s the toughest hill in the entire city. A hike organizer says the conditions today mean each step equals 1.6 regular steps. With temperatures dropping, it’s far worse than that now. Foster and Cousins climb on, slowly sliding one foot ahead of the next.
A few months earlier in October, Foster and Cousins ran the Fallen Heroes Half Marathon in Norman, OK, for the 45th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. They trained together for this hike, and they had taken part in similar walks for this charity, too. But nothing could prepare them for the ice, snow and cold on this day. Instead of using one simple stride throughout the hike, they use four—one for pavement, one for ice, one for snow and one dubbed the “oh [expletive]” step, when their legs would slip out from under them. All of those steps combine to put more stress on their muscles and joints.
But Foster and Cousins refuse to give in. “As tired and as cold as I am, I know I get to go back to the hotel [eventually],” Foster says, her feet sloshing in soaked boots. She already changed her socks once and needs to again, but she won’t, because stopping is worse than having cold feet. “Mile after mile, we can raise more money for more research. These kids need to know we’re with them all the time. Not just at the clinic, [but] twenty-four/seven.”
Her head down as she regulates her breathing, Foster offers this quote from Mother Teresa: “We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean, but if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.”
Foster trudges on. It’s been about seven hours since the start, and the fun stopped hours ago. Every step is cold, painful, exhausting. Ahead of her, Cousins walks like she’s mad at the snow. Foster walks like she won’t let it beat her. “My body will give out long before my mind does,” she says.
They reach the top of the hill and enter Lake Fayetteville Trail. At the pinnacle of the hike’s ugliness, they find beauty. On each side of the trail stand signs with the names and pictures of the people for whom we are hiking. Cousins and Foster stop at B.J.’s sign. They kneel in front of it. Foster wipes tears from her face, which was already red from exposure but now glows with emotion, too.
Seeing B.J.’s picture rejuvenates her. The tears wash away the pain of that hill and prepare her for one last grueling stretch.
Five and a half miles left. One lap around Lake Fayetteville. No stops.
As Foster walks over a dam, she tells her daughter, “Thanks for taking a ride on the crazy train with me.”
Cousins says, “You’re welcome,” but adds, “I’m not doing it for you.”
She knew B.J., too, after meeting him while helping her mom put up decorations at work. He told Foster, “I’m going to get her number.” She and B.J. made plans to get a steak dinner together after his final surgery. He was never well enough to go through with it.
Four miles left. Eight of the 19 hikers still going.
With the end approaching, the hike becomes fun again. Cousins carves snow angels, one for each of the four children on the signs. She finds the energy 20-year-old daughters have and 38-year-old mothers strive to find. She disappears ahead of her mom.
Foster laughs as she tells me about her deployment to Egypt in 2010 and how bad the drivers there were. She says she fulfilled a lifelong dream by visiting the pyramids. She tells me she boxed while she was deployed in Iraq in 2008.
It’s about 6:15 p.m. Night falls quietly upon Lake Fayetteville. Water glistens in its center. Headlamps light the way as we step in frozen footprints. I have barely been able to keep up with Foster for the last two hours, and now I simply can’t. She pulls away.
Far down the trail, she’s just a trace when a red light appears from out of the woods, coming toward her. The red light bounces up and down. It’s coming from Cousins’ headlamp. After finishing the 22 miles, she had turned around and run back to join her mom. They walk the final half-mile together, hand in hand.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
To find out more information about the Ultimate Hike or to make donations, visit CureSearch.org
SGT Stephanie Foster pays special attention to what she eats and drinks, especially when fueling her body for a 22-mile hike. She says water is her most important fuel. “I sipped water continuously,” Foster says. “After years of working out, I know what it feels like to wash the electrolytes out of my system, and I never felt anywhere near reaching that point.”
In the extreme cold, Foster says she kept the water in her backpack’s hydration system from freezing by blowing water through the mouthpiece and hose into the bladder.
After the hike, she celebrated with two glasses of wine, and “slept like a rock.”
Her diet for the Ultimate Hike:
Night before: Carb-loaded dinner of lasagna, a bowl of salad, one serving of green beans and 10 oz. water
Morning of the hike: One serving of Zeal for Life Wellness (a concentrated nutritional powder of antioxidants and vitamins) mixed with 10 oz. water and a splash of juice in a blender into a shake, one banana, one melon, one yogurt and 12 oz. water
Midhike: Granola and “backpacker puck” (homemade granola bar consisting of nuts and fruit with low sugar and low sodium, provided by the hike organizers), Zeal for Life single-scoop to-go bottle with 4 oz. water per serving, and continuous water intake from a backpack hydration system
Dinner: Chicken and spinach wrap, broccoli cheddar soup and 10 oz. water
Foster sums up her workout philosophy with three words: “Keep it fun.” If workouts get boring, she says, people stop doing them. Here are three examples of ways she keeps workouts interesting during her training regimens.
Try a little mud
“I am a platoon sergeant for an ancillary platoon, and I got clearance from my chain of command for my platoon to do the Warrior Dash, a mud obstacle course, last May. We ran it as a platoon, got our butts kicked and had a great time. It was good physical training and helped build camaraderie. My commander and first sergeant are great about encouraging creative training ideas, so hopefully we’ll get to do something like that again.”
“At Halloween, I used twenty pumpkins as a medicine ball workout during my fitness class. I downloaded Halloween songs for that workout, and my students raved about how fun and hard it was. Then I made my class take the pumpkins home, along with a baked pumpkin recipe I printed so they could enjoy the fruits of their labor. They were scared I was going to bring in frozen turkeys at Thanksgiving.”
Hit the bag
“Picturing whatever stressed you out during the day makes for an intense anger-releasing session and wears you out at the same time.
I give visual cues: ‘That hook should land right where your opponent’s jaw connects to their ear. Knock ’em out!’ ”
FOSTER’S KICKBOXING WORKOUTS
“Some [fitness] classes are pre-choreographed. I never learned to teach that way,” says Foster, who currently trains civilians but who previously taught fitness classes to Guard Soldiers while deployed and for a few months at the Oklahoma Military Department. “I had an awesome mentor when I was a new group fitness instructor, and she taught me to think on my feet. I have a set of basic moves and string them together however I feel they ‘fit’ during the workout.”
Here’s a typical Foster class:
All the punches—jabs, crosses, hooks and uppercuts—and the technical forms of kicks. “We do bob-and-weaves, strikes and squats, followed by a short jump rope set and jumping jacks,” she says.
20-to-30-minute punch-and-kick combo session
“We put all the basic moves together into various short combos [e.g., jab, cross, jab, cross, duck, front kick]. In between combos, I transition with lunges, power squats and jump rope sequences. Working those large muscle groups in the legs gets the heart rate up fast.”
“When I see form starting to fade—usually around the twenty-five-to-thirty-minute mark—I run them back through all the basic moves we started with, only slower and with less power.”
10 minutes of ab work
“Push-ups, plank variations and crunch variations are all some of my favorites. Flutter kicks are fun as well, but my classes don’t think so.”
Another minicool-down and stretch session.