On May 6, 2012, Norma Charest stood at the start line of the Cox Rhode Races’ Marathon, near the State House in Providence, and trembled with fear, her stomach doing triple somersaults.
Charest, then 45, worried if she was too old, too unaccomplished, to attempt to complete a 26.2-mile trek around the city and its suburbs. She had finished more than a few half marathons, but this was twice the length.
“Will I cramp?” she thought. “Can I last?”
When the gun sounded, the Pawtucket resident took off, but doesn’t recall much about what was for her not a race but a quest.
“I remember sprinting the last half mile because I couldn’t wait to cross the finish line,” she stated at her home gym – Blast Fitness – last week. “I wasn’t thinking about being tired; I couldn’t wait to experience the feeling that I did it, and could call myself a marathoner.
“It was a beautiful course, with a lot of scenery, the bay, the trees,” she added. “My sons were there, and – once I crossed – they were shocked. My best friend and sister cancer survivor was there, and she told me, ‘Oh, my God, Norma, you’re amazing. You did it!’ It made me feel awesome!”
Charest – who stands just 4-foot-11 – completed the distance in five hours, three minutes, 38 seconds, good for an average of 11:35 per mile.
For someone who had never considered herself an athlete a day in her life, now she could.
“If I hadn’t been diagnosed with breast cancer, I never would’ve known I had this inside me,” she offered. “It feels wonderful!”
As a little girl growing up in Santa Caterina Mita Jutiapa, Guatemala, Charest would race around, playing with her peers, but never thought herself a runner.
In June 1990, after marrying her sweetheart, she decided to move with him and her eldest son, Emerson, to Santa Ana, Calif., where his mom resided.
“She had asked us if we wanted to come and give it a shot, so we did,” she mentioned. “A little while later, my ex-husband had a childhood friend living in Rhode Island, so we moved to Pawtucket.
“I never got to go to high school because I had to work to support my family; I was never involved with any sport. I went to Tolman High School at night to take ESL (English as a Second Language classes), as I had always wanted to learn it. I was so impressed by it; it sounded so elegant and intelligent.
“Plus I wanted to know what everyone else was saying!”
All the while, she worked as a teacher’s assistant at Shea High and Jenks and Goff middle schools, but received a layoff notice. Not long after, in 2005, she landed a job working as a direct support professional for the ARC of Northern Bristol County’s Pro-Ability, Inc. in Smithfield, where she remains.
“I work in the day program, and we teach adults with Down Syndrome and other disabilities how to perform daily life skills, how to cook, how to wash dishes, how to balance a checkbook, etc.,” she said. “I enjoy it very much. It makes me feel happy to be able to help these people.
“They’re so thankful,” she added. “They smile, and they’re very appreciative of all the little things you do for them. If you bring them a piece of candy, they smile, and it makes me feel great. They’re so happy, so you feel happy, too.”
Life was surreal for Charest, who had happily remarried and reveled in caring for her new husband and two boys, including youngest son Rene, now a Davies Tech freshman.
But her words come slowly, deliberately, as she describes the events of Labor Day Eve, 2007.
“I was doing a self-exam for breast cancer, and I found a lump on my left breast,” she said sullenly. “I was so scared, I didn’t react. At first, I kind of ignored it; I didn’t think I could ever have cancer. I thought, ‘It will disappear. I’ll check again tomorrow.’
“I would, but it wasn’t gone,” she continued. “I thought it would go away. Day after day I checked, but it remained.”
She immediately recalled the date of her second doctor’s visit, the first having concluded with mere tests and promises all would turn out OK.
“It was 5 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2007,” she noted. “I really didn’t think much of my appointment; my son (Rene) had one of his own, and I was much more concerned about him.
“I walked into my surgeon’s office in Providence, and she had the results of the biopsy. That’s when she told me I had second-stage breast cancer. I remember she held my hand, and they were so cold.
“I was in shock,” she added. “I started crying, ‘I’m going to die!’ She just told me I wasn’t going to die. I don’t remember what else she said, but it was something like, ‘This is curable.’ She kept holding my hand, but I continued to weep. She looked in my eyes and said, ‘You’re not going to die. I’m going to be here with you every step of the way.’
“I was thinking, ‘How am I going to tell my sons?’”
She confided in Emerson first. He had been living in New Jersey at the time, attending a BMW automotive class as an auto technician, but traveled home on the weekends.
“I told him, ‘I have breast cancer,’ and he just looked at me, then hugged me,” she claimed. “We cried together, but after a few minutes, I just asked him to be strong. I said, ‘I’m sorry I’m crying, but I have good doctors. I’m going to be OK.’ He continued to cry and hugged me tighter.”
By week’s end, Charest had visited an oncologist at Miriam Hospital, and she indicated, because of her type of cancer, she’d need immediate treatment.
“It was very aggressive; the lump was two inches long,” she said. “She told me it would grow rapidly, and that I needed to have 16 rounds of chemotherapy, one every three weeks for four months. She told me I’d lose my hair.
“The day after I was diagnosed, I realized I would,” she added. “I remember as I slept, my mind started to wrap around the fact I had breast cancer, and this was big. Back then, my hair was really long, almost down to my hips.
“I told myself, ‘Norma, you’re not going to let cancer take your hair,’ so I had my head shaved. I did because I was going to be in charge. I was thinking, ‘I’m ahead of you. I may be bald, but it’s my choice, not yours!’
“I also wanted to donate it to ‘Locks of Love.’ I didn’t want it to go to waste.
“I kept my ponytail in a plastic bag on top of my bureau; I did that for about a month. I wasn’t ready to let it go. It made me sad, but I wanted to help others.”
On March 5, 2008, Charest had a lumpectomy, then began a second, similar round of chemo.
“It was toxic; I got very weak, and it made sick to my stomach,” she explained. “I had very little energy, and there were days I couldn’t get out of bed. It was excruciating pain, from my toenails to my bald head. It hurt even to breathe.
“I’d feel that way for two weeks, and the third, I could go for a little walk around the block for fresh air, but then I had to do it all over again. Each time I went back, I felt closer to being cured, to being alive again. I just wanted to get back to being me. I missed being me!”
That round ended on June 10, but then came 36 radiation treatments, five days a week, for about six.
“Summer is not a good time for radiation because of the heat,” she claimed. “It burns like the worst sunburn. It was the worst feeling ever, but I went at 7 a.m. so I could spend the rest of the day with Rene. We’d go to the movies or to the mall because I needed to be somewhere cool.
“He’d come in my bedroom and lay down with me; we’d watch cartoons and we’d cuddle,” she continued. “He’d tell me, ‘Mom, I’m giving you love so you feel better. You rest, and I’ll be right here with you.’
“I’d cry, but I never let him see me. I wanted to be strong for him. Even though I was in pain, I didn’t want him to know. I wanted him to feel secure. He said, ‘I don’t know what I’d do without you.’ I couldn’t let him see me weak.”
In the process, she gained 15 pounds, and wasn’t happy. She told her doctors she wanted to begin walking again. They vehemently told her, “Don’t!”
Once the radiation treatments were over, she chose to go back to Weight Watchers on Aug. 20, 2009.
“I knew how I was going to go about (losing weight),” she said. “Healthy eating, portion control, exercise. I’d walk, and I went back to the gym after over a year off. I’d do upper-body lifting.
“My surgeon had told me about the Gloria Gemma Breast Cancer Resource Foundation, so I went for a visit in early September. They were very nice. I realized I wasn’t alone, that I had a big family there. I continued with my regimen, and it felt awesome. I also loved being with my fellow sister survivors.”
When she learned of the Gloria Gemma 5K in Providence in the springtime of 2010, something clicked. She claimed she didn’t want to walk it, because she already knew how to do that.
“I trained myself,” she grinned. “I went online and looked up the basics of how to train for a (first-ever) 5K, then I did. I’d walk for five minutes, then run for one, walk for four and run for two and so on. By the Fourth of July, I was able to run a mile without stopping. I couldn’t believe it. I was running!
“During my training, I got up to four miles; I wanted to make sure I could complete that distance,” she added. “I showed up on Oct. 9, and my time was 30 minutes, 53 seconds, for a (mile) pace of 9:56. It was the most amazing feeling in the world! I was a survivor. While undergoing treatments, I’d have no energy, and here I was, three years later, running my first 5K.
“I was hooked. I loved the adrenaline rush it gave my mind and body, the accomplishment of finishing. My sons were there, saying, ‘You did it, Mom!’ I was ready for more.”
Only 22 days later, she went to the Monster Mini Dash 5K in Providence, and crossed the adored finish line in 28:10 (9:03 per mile average), a time that astounded her. On Nov. 25, she completed the Newman YMCA Turkey Trot 5K in 28:21, then took on the Downtown Jingle Bell 5K on Dec. 5, closing in a PR of 27:52.
“At that point, I thought I needed to step it up,” she smiled. “I wanted to do a 10K (6.2 miles). That winter, I trained three or four miles a day, four or five days a week, but then I found myself running 10-15 miles. I realized I loved endurance, I had stamina I never knew I had. I figured out since I was diagnosed I have a lot in me.
“Later that winter, I said, ‘The heck with it! I want to run a half-marathon.’ I was really nervous because that’s 13.1 miles, and I knew I had to make sure I could finish. I wasn’t about to quit.”
Charest competed in four area 5Ks in the spring of 2011, just to “get the feeling of crossing the finish line again,” then took on the Blackstone Valley Half Marathon in Pawtucket/Central Falls/Lincoln on May 21.
“It was hot, and I was thirsty and sweaty, but I knew I could do it,” she said. “We finished in front of Pawtucket City Hall, and I cried. Even in pictures, my hands were on my face, ‘How’d I do it?’”
Her clocking: Two hours, six minutes.
The came the Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon (2:15:23), and six more races at 3.1 or 13.1 miles before Christmas.
“Every time I’m running, even now, if my body gets tired, I think of all my sister survivors who are having treatments,” she offered. “I found this trend in me to run for them. It makes me feel great. I feel like I’m giving them hope.”
She admitted that winter she missed the “rush of crossing the finish line.
“It’s almost symbolic; I thought, ‘My God, I’m still alive, and I’m running!’ It stirs me, it astonishes me. It leaves me speechless. There were times the notion popped into my head, ‘A marathon? Knock it off. That’s too much,’ but the idea kept bugging me. It wouldn’t go away. I decided in late November (2011) I would.”
Again she “Googled” a training plan, then went to work. She nailed down this past May 6 to do the CVS Rhode Races Marathon in Providence, and partook in the New Bedford Half Marathon on March 18 to prepare herself.
She finished in one of her best times, 2:07:06.
After her initial marathon, she chose to pick it up a notch, completing a half-marathon a month for six straight. First, however, she and her family vacationed back home in Guatemala.
“I told my mom about me being a marathoner, and she said, ‘Oh, Norma, you’re crazy!’” she laughed. “I just said, ‘I love it, and I’m not going to let anyone or anything stop me. If you try to block me, please, get out of my way!’”
Upon returning, she hustled the Blackstone Valley Half Marathon on May 20 in 2:22:01, and – six days later – finished the By the Bay 10K in an hour, 58 seconds.
In order, she took on the Castle Awards Half in East Providence on June 10 (2:07:35); the Harvard Pilgrim “Finish at the 50” in Foxboro on July 3 (59:53); the Mad Half Marathon in Vermont on July 8 (2:25:02); the United Health Care/Jamestown Half on July 14 (2:09:13); the “Blessing of the Fleet” 10K in Naragansett on July 27 (1:43:13, a walk); the Rock N’ Roll/Providence Half Marathon on Aug. 19 (2:08:26); and the Gulf Beach (Conn.) Half on Sept. 15 (2:39:16).
Incredibly, she trekked to the Gorham (Me.) Marathon on Sept. 30, and closed in 5:22.25; for sentimental reasons, she went to the Gloria Gemma 5K on Oct. 7, and ran a PR of 27:10).
A week later, she completed her third 26.2-mile event, the Amica Insurance Newport Marathon, in 5:38:28.
“I wanted to do the six half marathons because I wanted to join the ‘Half-Fanatic Club,’ and I’m now a proud member,’” she giggled. “After that goal, I set another one, joining the ‘Marathon Maniacs.’ To do that, you have to run two marathons in 16 days or three in 90.
“The Amica was tough, it was cold and windy,” she said. “It was brutal, and I was sore, but it was worth it. After I crossed the finish line in Newport, I realized how much I loved the longer distance; it’s much more challenging.”
Just for the fun of it, she said, she attempted the “Better Pace Six-Hour Ultra Marathon” at Warwick City Park on Sunday, November 11. In that event, a competitor must complete as many loops around the park as possible in that span.
“I ran 11 loops, which equals 29.7 miles, in five hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds,” she said proudly. “I had 30 seconds left before time was up … I just wanted to see if I could run farther than a marathon, and I did.
“I’m still sore as hell, but it felt amazing,” she added. “A friend of mine and I went to the after-race party, and I had a few beers, a plate of lasagna and pasta, hot dog and fruit. I was nice and full.”
She hesitated, then promised a few more such ultra-distance races would be in the offing.
“You know, I wake some mornings and I’m shocked at myself,” she explained. “I’ll think about all the runs I’ve done and I’m, like, ‘How the heck have I done it?’ It blows my mind.
“But then I’ll think about my sisters who are enduring treatments; that’s why I did it, and for me, too. I gave all of my half-marathon medals in 2011 to my sisters at the Gloria Gemma Foundation because I want them to know that, if they’re in pain or struggling, I was once there.
“I want to help them run the marathon of their lives. They could look at their medal and know that, and also that I’m still going to run for them.
“I plan to do the same thing this year,” she continued. “Breast cancer has taught me there’s life after the disease, and to never give up. I want everyone who’s experiencing cancer to live life to the fullest, to enjoy every moment. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t, because you can.
“Look at me. I did, and I’m having the time of my life!”