Don’t cry… it’s just a cacti!

Early morning at Usery Mountain in Mesa, Arizona

Race days begin in the dark. The alarm goes off and we don’t hit the snooze button. Instead of burrowing back into the covers, we breathe deep, feeling our ribs expand and our lungs swell with air. We take a minute to wake up our muscles, stretching our limbs (or what’s left of them), before opening our eyes and crawling out of bed. Already laid out clothes are quickly donned, children are bundled up in blankets and buckled in the car, and the pre-programmed GPS begins to guide us to the start line.

The road is clear and it seems like everyone and everything else is sleeping. Our headlights shine upon the red dirt and the cactus on the side of the highway. The warm, fuzzy, fog of sleep wears off fast. Tommy has been training 4+ hours per day for this race. We are both excited the day is here.

I have found that it is in moments of stillness, when you know something big is going to happen soon, that a certain clarity enters the mind. Some of our best conversations happen at this time. He had been very quiet so it startled me when he suddenly turned to me and said, “I always get nervous before a race. It’s the same feeling I had before going out on foot patrol in Afghanistan. I ask myself… did I train hard enough for these moments? Will I be strong enough when I need to be?”

I know the answer to these questions is yes, although he isn’t looking for confirmation from me. I’m looking forward to seeing him after he crosses the finish line. His normally dark brown eyes will look gold. Any tension he has been holding in his body will disappear after using his muscles for so long and then finally relaxing. He will be enjoying a moment of peace after accomplishing something he has been thinking about doing for so long. He has worked hard to experience this natural high. I remind him how good he is going to feel….. afterwards. We laugh and acknowledge that he is going to feel really crappy for a while first. 26.2 miles is a long ways to push yourself in a wheelchair.

Tommy, the first racer to be at the start line

Tommy was previously an IV meth user. There’s no quicker way to get an instant rush. A high that speeds hotly throughout your veins, spreading throughout your whole body. The thing with artificial highs though is that you feel horrible afterwards. Think about our legal “high” from alcohol. A hangover can leave you lethargic, nauseous, achy, and with a splitting headache. It typically takes many hours before you feel well again.

This morning we agree that natural highs are backwards. You must feel horrible first, and then get the reward of a natural high. We visit about how natural highs usually are from things that make our lives better; exercise, competing, graduating from school, getting a new job or promotion, having a child, traveling somewhere new, falling in love. Something that makes us push past our boundaries, past our bodies and minds screaming that whatever we are doing is HARD and it would feel good to stop whatever it is we’re trying to accomplish. Something that encourages us to embrace CHANGE.

We arrive at the start line. Tommy double checks that he has an extra pair of gloves, that his headphones are working, that his freewheel attachment is connected well. His phone rings. It’s a friend from his Marine Corp days that he recently reconnected with. Someone whose advice and example he admires. His eyes light up and he answers the phone, giving me a kiss to send me on my way. Talking to his friend will get him more fired up for the race. Who we decide to let into our circle is a determination of how we will be… and he has some amazing people in his circle now.

I leave and take the kids to go get pancakes smothered in whip cream, fruit, and syrup. It’s rough being support staff. I type Tommy’s bib number into the Mesa Sprouts Marathon racer tracker and watch his progress. He’s making amazing time! I see that he just made it half way completing 13.1 miles in one hour and thirty one minutes! We quickly finish out breakfast and make our way to the finish line joining the huge crowd that is also waiting for their loved ones to cross. I keep tracking his progress and when I know he is getting close I start a Facebook live video… there are so many people that are excited to see how he is doing in the race.


Tommy finished his first half marathon in 3:08:01. This is only three minutes and one second short of qualifying for the Boston Marathon!!! We wade our way through the sea of spectators and participants until we find him. I have already scouted out a patch of green grass for him to jump out of his chair and lay on. He seems exuberant instead of tired but lays on the grass and stretches out. I notice he still has his left glove on and understand why when he gingerly peels the glove off… he had an encounter with a cactus while racing and still had cactus spines coated with dried blood stuck into the flap graft on his left hand. He said that on his fifth mile his hand had met with a cactus on the side of the road. He had stopped and tried to pick out the spines and after realizing that it was taking a while had placed his hand in his armpit and pulled, breaking off the remaining spines. He had put his second set of gloves on and kept going. He didn’t seem overly concerned with his injured hand and laid in the grass with Millo, enjoying an after race popsicle.

Tommy and Millo enjoying a popsicle after the race

After the race we spent time visiting vendors and talking to the other athletes. Not once did Tommy mention his run-in with the cactus. When I asked about it he said, “No one cares! Everyone, myself included, just wants to know about the end result.” I disagree with that. Stories matter and when something big happens in someones life I think it is interesting to hear the details, the adversity they faced, or the things that happened to make it easier for them to achieve their goals. I do think it says a lot about his character that he is not the type of man to make excuses EVER or complain about inconveniences in his life. He is the type of person that plays well with the hand he has been dealt, the kind of person that promises himself he will do better next time and learn from his mistakes.

Battle wounds from racing
All smiles after the race

We spent the rest of our time in Arizona enjoying family that lives there, exploring aquariums, going to the science museum, eating good food, and hiking at Papago Park. With his free wheel attachment, he could get a little ways up the trail but not all of the way to Hole in the Wall. The kids were so excited to explore this area and walk all of the way to the top… Tommy knew he wouldn’t let the lack of a wide trail stop him. We went as far as he could in his chair and then he left it on the side of the trail. He crawled up the thin, rocky path that led to the top.

Tommy deciding how far he can go in his chair before getting out and crawling

I often forget that our life is any different because of Tommy’s willingness to do whatever needs to be done, until I meet someone that is surprised by what he is up to. We did meet several people that were surprised to see Tommy climbing up the trail and it reminded me how extraordinary he is. How he doesn’t let anything hold him back from what he wants to do. I am thankful for his example and the outlook it gives me on life, and the outlook it gives the kids on life. Natural highs are worth cultivating. Adventure is waiting. All things are possible.

Tommy at the top of Hole in the Wall Rock at Papago Park, AZ
Enjoying the view from the top!

4 thoughts on “Don’t cry… it’s just a cacti!

  1. Thank You again, for sharing your extraordinary story of a wonderful and supportive relationship with a true American Hero. Your both are truly the inpedimy of a great love story full of strength, patience, endurance and a strong faith and loyalty.
    PLEASE write more of your lifes’ adventures together, along with those beautiful and happy children.
    Thank you Dara and Tommy, you are truly an inspiration to us all, but in my opinion, you’ve put “King Kong” to shame!
    Carry on! I am already anxious to read more of your spellbinding words of endurance and strength towards building a remarkable life together. Thank you so much for sharing!
    Most Sincerely, Illa P

    1. Thank you so much for your encouraging words! I am so thankful for our life and find comfort in writing about our experiences and insights we have into life. I appreciate it!

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