The Spartan Athena

I always wanted to run a Spartan Race but was intimidated. I would listen to Spartan Up podcast and enjoyed hearing the stories of amazing, accomplished people sharing their journeys and successes. One day, Joe DeSena interviewed Robyn Benincasa, an ultra-endurance athlete and founder of Project Athena Foundation. Project Athena Foundation is a non-profit that helps women who have endured a medical setback to achieve an adventurous dream. Robyn herself, had endured medical setbacks, and found that placing an adventure on her calendar helped her recovery. Her message resonated with me.


Fall seven, get up eight- Japanese proverb


In 2012, while 6 months pregnant, I was diagnosed with a meningioma brain tumor. The tumor was a size of a fist and would need to be surgically removed. Because my pregnancy was so far along, the decision was made to postpone surgery until after I gave birth. The mental endurance race was on. I thought of each step as a race with hurdles. In my mind, I was running the course. Hurdle one, bring my son into the world safely for both him and I. Hurdle two, recover enough and regain my strength to endure the thirteen-hour brain surgery that was to come in eight weeks.  The eight weeks were an incredible mental endurance race of dealing with a newborn and a three- year old, monitoring my own health, and making myself as strong as possible for the impending surgery.

Eight weeks later, I had brain surgery. The surgery lasted thirteen hours, I jumped hurdle three. I was alive. The weeks after had multiple hurdles and the obstacle course became harder and more complex. Another surgery to my brain, was followed by six weeks of radiation. I wasn’t allowed to lift more than five pounds for months, but I was allowed to walk. So I walked. I did what I could to become stronger and stronger. I didn’t just want to survive, I wanted to thrive. I wanted to be that person that someone overcoming some great obstacle would look to be assured that they can do it too. They could see it is possible, with grit, determination, patience, and a belief in a higher power, that you could take this experience and use it to propel you forward. I want others to see that you can tap into your inner strength and use it to turn your situation around.


Fast forward three and a half years……


I had recovered. I was living a normal life, with a supportive husband and two small children, and continued teaching art to urban youth. I wanted a challenge and to elevate myself to another level. I was ready. I applied to be an Athena with the Project Athena to hike the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim, 24 miles, in one day. I was accepted and completed the months of endurance training to be able to complete the hike. I never believed physical endurance is my strong point, but I knew I had the grit to hang in there and do it. I took Robyn’s advice and put adventure on the calendar.


In August of 2016, with lots of guidance and help, I completed Project Athena’s Rim 2 Rim, a 24-mile hike, in 15 hours. It was one of the most difficult things I had to do physically and mentally. I faced fears I never acknowledged. It was an enlightening and amazing experience that I will forever be grateful for. I learned to become comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to grow into the person I really want to be.


Becoming Comfortable with being Uncomfortable


Becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable is my new mantra. In order to grow and evolve, we need to get out of the comfort zone and endure a little (or a lot) of discomfort. My next step in growth, was doing a Spartan. I have always admired the grit and determination of Spartan athletes and was frankly intimidated. I never signed up. But, I thought about what Robyn said, put something on the calendar. Spartan was now on the calendar. On the heels of months of endurance training for Athena, I was to do the Spartan Sprint at Citizen’s Bank Arena. I knew I would most likely need to take penalties and do burpees, but we all have to start somewhere. I humbly accepted the challenge, and took my less than perfect self to the race.


I registered for the Sprint, and also registered my six-year-old son for the Spartan Junior.

While doing the Spartan, I just thought about everything I endured over the last three years, and that this race was just like life. Our lives are filled with obstacles. Do we go over them, under them, around them, find alternative solutions, or just accept them and not move forward?  Some are easy and some seem insurmountable. I know that I do not want any obstacles to stop me from living the life I dream.  What will keep us moving forward is grit, determination, and the will to keep getting up when life, or an obstacle, knocks you down.


Little Spartan


What was most surprising is the confidence it gave my six-year-old son. I saw a fierceness and determination in him I never knew. He was a little competitor running his race with confidence and vigor. The Spartan Race gave my son a sense of pride and accomplishment and an understanding that he can do and be whatever he wants to be. I hope that this is the beginning of both of our journeys, to climbing the mountains of life with the spirit of the Spartans and the power of Athena forever gracing us.



When she was just a girl
She expected the world
But it flew away from her reach so
She ran away in her sleep
And dreamed of paradise- Paradise by Coldplay


img_3036The song was on replay in my head. As I lay in the hospital bead, hoping this surgery would work. That the second brain surgery would stop my brain from leaking fluid. I had already endured one, long thirteen-hour surgery that opened my skull to remove a fist size, meningioma brain tumor. I thought I was in the clear. Eight weeks later fluid began building in my head, resulting in a cranial spinal fluid leak. My still healing incision need to be reopened and the screws that held my skull together to to be unscrewed. Four more hours under, and I woke up with a tube attached to my spine, draining the fluid milliliter by milliliter, hour by hour for a week and a half. This was even harder to endure, because I thought I had conquered this tumor the first surgery.

I patiently waited for my brain to drain, hour by hour, day by day, as I looked out the window of the cold, gray city skyline of my window. I hoped my life would be normal after this, even with the looming weeks of radiation to come. Would I survive it and be a normal person again? The dark, stormy skies matched the mood in the hospital room. But it was March, the month things change. The month when winter lets go of it grip and flower start peeking through the soil.  New beginnings. My new beginning.


Three and half years later…..I am still alive, not just alive but living. Not just a survivor, but a thriver.

Fall seven, get up eight


This blog is about my journey. I am a brain tumor survivor/thriver. I am a mom, a teacher, a fitness enthusiast, and artist/photographer, who hopes my experience can help others overcome their obstacles and realize that through their adversity there is hope for their future. I am far from perfect, but am striving to improve myself everyday, inch by inch.

In this blog, I will share my brain tumor experience, as well as my fitness/wellness journey, in an effort to help others with similar struggles. I will use my interest in art and photography to help tell my story. I hope to inspire others to move forward in the life’s journey and purpose and make their obstacles, the way.

I do not have all the answers, but I can share what works and doesn’t work for me, things that have inspired me, and interesting things and people who have presented new ways of thinking and living. When my diagnosis was introduced into my life in 2012 while pregnant with my son, I found very little positive information about the outcome of my diagnosis. Over time, through different networks , like Meningioma Mommas, National Brain Tumor Society, and Project Athena Foundation, I have come to know many strong, powerful men and women who have overcome great obstacles to not only survive, but thrive.

This is something that is very difficult for me to do, because I am a private person who doesn’t want people to pity me or feel sorry for me. However, I think it is IMPORTANT for others struggling with health setbacks that seem insurmountable to know that your obstacle can be overcome.