By Alex Shoemaker, The News-Enterprise
Cardinal Loop is unassuming. At only 0.3 miles in distance, it’s gone almost before a runner would even notice it.
It’s located behind the pavilion at the Elizabethtown Nature Park, a triangular loop that local runner Lori Masterson named.
There isn’t anything that really sets Cardinal Loop apart from the rest of the scenic trail, other than the cardinals that frequent the small portion of Masterson’s favorite training ground.
“It’s not particularly pretty; it’s just a field,” Masterson said. “It’s not very long, but it gives me time to think.”
Masterson and 99 other runners will share Cardinal Loop and the rest of the 3.25 mile course at the Elizabethtown Nature Park on Aug. 20 as participants in the second annual Backyard Classic relay race, which Masterson has helped coordinate.
From 8 a.m.-4 p.m., runners will attempt to complete the course as many times as possible. Race day will fall almost one year from when she began treatment for cervical cancer, and a year since she lost her father.
“It’s just a reminder that he’s still there, and that he wants me to keep going so I can see more things,” Masterson said. “I’m not done yet.”
Masterson never thought about mortality, much less her own. An ultramarathoner in her mid 30s at the healthiest point of her life, why would she?
Masterson used running to push her physical limitations, trying to find her breaking point.
That point came one year ago, when Masterson didn’t know if she’d make it through her toughest test, or if she wanted to.
Running was taken from her; her father, too, and nearly her life.
“The pain that you go through in a race is nothing like the pain that you go through losing a parent, or a loved one, or the pain of thinking you could possibly lose your life,” Masterson said.
“It doesn’t discriminate, cancer,” she added. “It just comes out of nowhere and gets you.”
Masterson belongs to two exclusive fraternities. An ultramarathoner, a cancer survivor.
She picked up running in 2008 and in 2009, Masterson competed in 45 5Ks.
“You could say I got pretty in to it,” she said with a laugh.
In October 2013, Masterson progressed from 5Ks and 10Ks to ultramarathons, pushing her body to new heights.
Her time of 6 hours, 44 minutes and 46 seconds at the Rock/Creek Stumpjump 50K, a 31.25 mile race, was good enough for 113th place, the 11th fastest female. More impressive than where she ranked was the simple fact that she finished.
Of the 570 racers, only 343 completed it – a 40 percent drop out rate.
“It’s one of the premier races in our region,” Masterson said. “That was before I realized I was sick.”
Masterson’s running career blossomed in March 2014, with the highlight being a first-place finish in the women’s division of the Land Between the Lakes marathon in Grand Rivers, completing the 26.2 mile course in 4:47:52.
She completed the BG26.2 marathon in Bowling Green later that year, cutting her time to 4:04:39 as the 13th fastest woman.
Nothing would suggest anything was out of the ordinary for a runner hitting her peak, but Masterson could sense something was off.
“I think then – I didn’t realize something was wrong but I didn’t feel quite right,” she said.
Siting in her office at Jewish Hospital and St. Mary’s HealthCare in Louisville last July, Masterson, an X-ray technician too familiar with the horrors of cancer, couldn’t have foreseen how the call she’d receive would forever change her life.
“It really was just an ordinary day,” Masterson recalled, fighting off tears. “You’re never ready to hear those words: you have cancer.”
The whirlwind of emotions, and the multitude of whys and what-ifs, circumvented to the forefront of Masterson’s thoughts.
Why did this happen to me?
What did I do to deserve this?
And what if I waited any longer to be checked?
The diagnosis was grim, but it was far from a death sentence.
“It would have been a very bad outcome if I didn’t get checked when I did,” Masterson said, pausing momentarily. “Luckily I didn’t have to have chemo, but we would have been looking at something very different.”
Occupying most of her attention was the Backyard Classic race, then in its infancy.
Masterson and running mate Kelly Berry ran a collective 40 miles in the race, 20 miles each, and two days after the Aug. 22, 2015, race, Masterson was prepped for surgery.
“It was hard being like, ‘Hey, by the way, I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to run. I hit this little bump in the road, just cancer,’” Masterson said. “How do you tell someone that?”
While Masterson’s form of cervical cancer was slow growing, it was aggressive, zapping the once bubbly and fit mother of three of her physical and mental strength.
Masterson had a swollen lymphnode in her groin for years prior to her diagnosis, but to this day Masterson isn’t sure how long she was sick before it was discovered.
Surgery removed all the lymphnodes in her pelvis, biopsying each, which came back negative. Had any lymphnodes come back positive, treatment would have been longer, more frequent and more intense.
Masterson knew she’d need surgery, a very invasive procedure that would ultimately keep her bed-ridden for close to a month. After closer inspection, it became clear that while chemo wasn’t required, radiation was.
From reaching mountain peaks and rising the ranks of amateur runners, Masterson was completely reliant on family and friends to tend to her every need.
Gone were early morning runs and time at work tending to patients. Now, she was the one needing to be saved.
For three weeks after her surgery, Masterson was barely able to leave her room, much less run or take care of her family.
Communication to the outside world, most importantly her father who was still in his battle with cancer, was reduced to a few phone calls from bed.
“They finally gave me permission to drive, I drove down to see him and we were just watching ‘Walker, Texas Ranger,’” Masterson said. “He just looked at me and said, ‘You know what, we’re going to be alright.’ At that point, I knew that he wasn’t going to be OK, but at that point I thought I was.
“When I look at these people that I take care of in my work place, and I’m like there’s people who drink Mountain Dew, eat chips, don’t take care of themselves and smoke,” she added. “Then somebody who’s a 36-year-old ultra runner and eats semi healthy, takes care of themselves and gets plenty of sleep – why? Why did I get that and why did I get that the same year that my dad did? That doesn’t even make any sense to me.”
Masterson’s radiation treatment started the second week of October last year and continued into November, including the day of her father’s funeral.
Terry Masterson died Oct. 31, two weeks after his daughter started treatment.
“Why keeping going,” Masterson recalled asking herself. “They had given him 6 to 12 months, and two weeks later he was gone. There were too many things that we didn’t get to do because we still thought we had time.”
Through Masterson’s intensive treatment, she was introduced to Scott Goodman, the supervisor of the radiation department at Hardin Memorial Hospital, who was there at the lowest point of her life, when it almost seemed pointless to keep fighting.
Radiation treatment lasted through to Thanksgiving, and Goodman told Masterson to visit him after running her first ultramarathon a year from then.
“I just looked at him and said, ‘Who said it had to be a year?’” Masterson recalled.
Masterson wasn’t able to pick up running until February, four months after completing radiation treatment. Rehabilitation had given her time to think, a blessing and a curse.
Now without her father, Masterson’s thoughts turned to her own children. A mother of three teenagers, she wasn’t ready to leave them the way her own time with Terry was cut short.
“Losing a mom this way, and losing a grandfather at the same time,” Masterson said. “It was just, you start having to make hard decisions that you don’t want to make when you’re 36 years old.”
Conversations included where her children would live if Masterson lost her battle and what would happen to her assets.
“The thought of them being without a mom is really hard because I never thought that would have to happen to them,” Masterson said. “I took care of myself, so surely I’d live to be an old lady.”
Masterson’s cancer and treatment challenged her family just as much as she was.
Before her diagnosis, and Terry Masterson’s diagnosis, Masterson said her children were fortunate to have been sheltered from the harsh realities of the world.
Because of her slow recovery, tasks included taking care of Masterson and handling the household chores.
“To go through a parent having cancer, your grandparent having cancer, they were asked to handle a lot,” Masterson said. “There’s a noticeable difference and they’re very quick to jump in and help with things. I don’t have to ask for them to help out in the kitchen, make dinner, because they’re right on top of it.”
Masterson was finally able to pick up running again in February of this year.
“I had a goal of just walking a mile, and I’d have to sit down three times,” Masterson said. “Then I just tried to build that up, build that up.
“I ran through March, and that’s when we started talking about the Backyard Classic,” she added. “We decided that we’re gonna do this right. That’s when we decided that money is going right back to Hardin (Memorial Hospital) because that’s where it needs to be. It just made sense at that point.”
Being a runner through the biggest hardship of Masterson’s life wasn’t so much a choice but a calling.
“Any time I’ve gone through any traumas, or any trials in my life, I always go back to running,” she said. “I don’t need a new hobby, and I don’t want to start something all over. Running’s never let me down, it’s never disappointed.
“I always knew I’d go back to running, I just didn’t know what it was going to be like, and what my limitations were going to be. When I start to think about it, I’m not going to let anything limit me.”
From the lowest point of her life less than one year ago, Masterson said she hasn’t reached her peak just yet.
She’s unsure how far away that point is, but nothing will limit her.
“Sometimes you’re down in a valley, but you’ve just got to climb out of it,” Masterson said. “That’s the only way out of it, you’ve just got to do it. I’ve made my way out of the valley even if there are some dark days still.
“Keep climbing, keep running. Don’t stop.”
In her lead up to the Backyard Classic, Masterson competed in the Race Under the Stars in Corydon, Ind., on July 9, a 10-hour timed race which, like the Backyard Classic, is a challenge to see how far you can run in the allotted time.
Masterson set her goal of 26 miles, nearly doubling it by running 51.3.
“Probably one of the happiest times was being able to reach that goal,” Masterson said. “Knowing where I came from a year ago, at a point that I couldn’t even walk and a blood clot in my lungs, unable to breath – it came full circle and finishing that I was completely elated.”
One of the first people to hear about Masterson’s accomplishment was Goodman.
Once a caretaker, he’s remained in Masterson’s life as a cheerleader.
Goodman has worked in oncology for 13 years, and said Masterson’s recovery is one of the most inspiring he’s ever witnessed.
“She’s the only ultramarathoner I know, which alone is pretty impressive,” Goodman said. “Everyone’s recovery is different, but she’s really doing everything she can to be active. I’m still kind of surprised that she’s (running) this soon, but then again it really shouldn’t be that surprising if you know her.
“She hasn’t just beat cancer, she’s really just left it in the dust.”
With a $35 entrance fee and 100 participants, a total of $3,500 was raised from this year’s Backyard Classic, which will be split between Greenspace, a Hardin County trails organization, and to the Hardin Memorial Health Cancer Care Center.
“With what I had been through, it was just obvious where the money was going,” Masterson said.
Nearly every element of this year’s race will be connected to a memory.
Last year’s Backyard Classic was more of a distraction than anything else, a simple way for Masterson to maintain some normalcy in the cloud of uncertainty that her life would soon become.
In the week leading up to the race, Masterson focused on keeping the race afloat.
“It wasn’t about getting my bags packed and ready, or making sure I was good to go,” Masterson said. “It was Backyard Classic first, and it still is, really.”
The race, for better or worse, reminds Masterson of her father, who was always the first one to hear about her accomplishments on the trails.
Terry Masterson may not have understood his daughter’s fixation with running, but they always shared a love for the outdoors.
From an early age, Lori Masterson could be found helping in the garden, fishing or just exploring.
Her arduous journey has brought her full circle, where she’s never alone. Somewhere in the Elizabethtown Nature Park on Aug. 20 will be Terry Masterson, accompanied by dozens of cardinals on his daughter’s favorite loop.
“It’s hard now to finish 50-plus miles, wanting to go down there to tell him and I can’t,” Masterson said. “Dad never really understood why running, why I like it. But I think he’d be proud. He’d be proud. He’d be proud of where I’ve come from.”
Alex Shoemaker can be reached at 270-505-1758 or email@example.com.