Beaming, with her hands in the air and a bright green balloon tied to her back, Alexis Erickson crossed the Capital City Marathon’s finish line.
For the first time since her breast cancer diagnosis last summer, Erickson, an Olympia native, ran a race.
On Sunday, she paced the marathoners aiming to finish near three hours, 45 minutes. She ran the second half of the race, finishing in perfect time alongside her friend, Katie Hackney.
“It was so great to be out,” Erickson said. “It was so good to run my first race since everything. Just the energy out there. Everyone was so amazing and cheering on the runners.”
Erickson, 39, enjoys pacing the race. She’s run the full marathon twice, and the half-marathon several times, but she said pacing gives her an opportunity to be a tour guide in the city she grew up in.
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Sunday, she ran with a man from Iowa for a while, and with some familiar South Sound faces along the way.
It was a warm morning, deviating from an otherwise cold and rainy spring and a hard day for the racers, Erickson said.
She’s had some hard days, too, the past year but was thrilled to be on the course encouraging others. Running propelled her through five months of cancer treatment.
“It’s uplifting and heartwarming that you can see someone who has made it through to the other side, and is immediately giving back,” said Kevin Wright, who coached Erickson at Capital.
Molly Ivanovich, a regular running partner of Erickson’s, who paced part of Sunday’s race with her, said Erickson always kept a smile, even during treatment.
“She always put a brave face on,” Ivanovich said. “I think her positivity just really shined through.”
A DIFFERENT MARATHON
Just two weeks removed from winning the Trials Legacy Marathon in Olympia in July, Erickson got a phone call.
She’d had a mammogram after discovering a lump in her breast but never expected the result she was about to get.
“I’m not even 40,” she said. “When you’re young and you feel so healthy, you’re like, ‘It’s fine.’”
Erickson was making her kids lunch when the phone rang. They were getting ready to leave for a friend’s birthday party.
“You’re with your kids, and you don’t want to react. So I went in the closet and cried,” she said.
She called her husband, Justin, who was having lunch at a cafe in Lacey with his father and uncle. He said hearing the news was like a punch in the gut. He rushed home, and the two stared at each other.
“It was just a totally surreal experience, nothing I would have expected or knew how to deal with,” Justin Erickson said.
“But, I’d say she had a very positive attitude from the get-go. She was upset, and there were a lot of tears. But it was, ‘We’re going to deal with this, it’s going to be OK.’”
Alexis Erickson took her kids to the birthday party and tried to act as though everything was normal.
“I was sort of in this weird fog,” she said. “Like kind of underwater, trying to be normal and talk to people, but not really sure what’s going to happen or when you’re going to tell people.”
Erickson was diagnosed Aug. 4 with an invasive ductal carcinoma, the most common form of breast cancer, but she didn’t share the news right away.
Ivanovich visited later in the week. The two women met as students at Capital High School and reconnected several years ago when training for separate marathons.
They kept bumping into each other during daily runs, eventually started training together. They have been running partners since.
Erickson knew continuing to run would be a big piece of her upcoming fight, and Ivanovich embraced that.
“We knew that was what was going to keep her going,” Ivanovich said. “That’s what we said, we’d just keep going.”
Erickson started chemotherapy in September, on her son Charlie’s 11th birthday, and went on her first run the next week.
She ran around Capitol Lake — her favorite run.
“I felt super proud,” Erickson said. “They talk about a runner’s high. That’s what happens. … I was like, ‘Look, I can do it! I’m feeling so good!’”
‘I RAN THROUGH THE WHOLE THING’
Erickson approached her five-month treatment plan like a marathon.
Each chemo was a mile-and-a-half, and she’d visualize where that was on the course in Olympia, and how close she was to the finish line.
“Running keeps her grounded, keeps her mentally in check and keeps her fighting,” Justin Erickson said. “If she feels like she can run, she feels like life is normal, and she can deal with anything else.”
Alexis Erickson received treatments at Providence St. Peter Hospital until January. It was physically and emotionally taxing, and had a compounding effect.
“My best way to explain how you feel, for five months, is terribly hungover,” Erickson said. “Like you were partying until 2 a.m., but you didn’t have any fun.”
Still, she continued to run almost daily.
“To me, it was so important because it made me feel so much better, so much more normal,” Erickson said. “I ran through the whole thing.”
Running has been a constant comfort in Erickson’s life since she was 7 years old.
She was a Brownie in the Girl Scouts when Olympia had the first Women’s Olympic Marathon Trials in 1984. She carried the torch, and watched Joan Benoit cross the finish line.
“I totally remember this as a huge event in Olympia,” Erickson said. “It obviously impacted me.”
Her own running career blossomed from there. Erickson ran track and cross country in high school, and graduated from Capital in 1995.
She first ran the Capital City half-marathon in 2001, ran her first marathon in Portland that fall, and has competed in 11 more since.
Erickson and Justin won the husband-wife division of the Victoria Marathon in 2011.
“When she decides to do something, she’s all in,” Justin Erickson said. “She’s the type of person who is going to accomplish whatever goal she says she’s going to.”
Including beating cancer.
Running kept Erickson in good spirits, Ivanovich said. She attended chemo with Erickson a handful of times and said Erickson was always positive.
“It’s a sad place, but she was always the optimistic one,” Ivanovich said. “All of the nurses loved her because she was so positive, and held her own.”
There were tough days, though, Erickson said. In November, still two months away from the end of treatment, she felt exhausted.
“There’s still a lot left to go, and you’re bald, and you’re tired,” Erickson said. “I just couldn’t do everything I wanted to be doing.”
She prayed, and embraced the support that friends, family and the community continued to give.
“I sort of took that and thought, everyone is being so loving to me,” Erickson said. “I’m just going to be as loving as I can be, because this is my life.”
CROSSING FINISH LINE
Near the end of Erickson’s chemo, she and Ivanovich went on a run. Erickson felt low on oxygen and energy, and had to stop and walk.
She cried, frustrated, and she and Ivanovich stood there hugging in the street. Ivanovich said she just wanted to take her friend’s pain away.
Erickson just wanted to keep running.
“She was such a stud through everything,” Ivanovich said. “She ran, she exercised, she put on her happy face and still rallied. It was impressive.”
On Jan. 23, Erickson walked out of chemo for the final time at Providence to a group of girlfriends holding a banner that read, “Finish line.”
Erickson and her family celebrated shortly after with a trip to Hawaii. She met a man there who asked her what felt better — winning a marathon or finishing chemo?
Finishing chemo, she replied, definitely.
“It’s so terrible and there’s nothing fun about it, and there’s no choice,” Erickson said. “It felt so good to be done.”
She went on a run with her 9-year-old daughter, Abby, in Hawaii, and she and Justin ran up Diamond Head State Monument on O’ahu.
Justin Erickson said his wife’s journey has brought strength to their relationship, and has helped emphasize what’s important in life.
“Hopefully, she knows that I love her beyond all of this. And I’m glad she’s here, and she’s conquered,” he said. “She’s a great mom and a great wife.”
Alexis Erickson is signed up to run the Chicago Marathon in October with a group of friends.
She’ll be nearly a year removed from the beginning of chemo when she runs one of the country’s biggest races — she’s already run Boston and New York — and plans to keep at it from there.
“As a runner, as someone who has run 12 marathons and won one, there’s a certain drive,” Erickson said. “My goal is to run.”