SANDY — If Elfi Ortenburger and I had met when I was in high school, I would have hated her.
Because we met well into middle age, she is one of my heroes.
Everything you need to know about Elfi can be summed up in a statement she offered, unsolicited, when we were in the midst of climbing up and down stairs in the pre-dawn hours last Friday.
As I wondered why anyone would choose climbing stairs as a workout, she balled up her fists, let a smile consume her face and got as giddy as a child about to spend the day at Disneyland.
“I just love training!” she said, with so much joy and conviction that not only did I believe her, I became momentarily convinced it was true for me. I hustled up the stairs behind her thinking, “She’s right! Training is a blast!”
I say momentarily because as soon as we started huffing and puffing up the concrete stairs in the newly constructed parking garage adjacent to the Hale Centre Theatre, I remembered, with great disappointment, I’m not Elfi.
I do not possess that unfettered affection for training. I do not crave the journey, and in fact, there is a lot of doubt about whether or not I respect the process.
I just love race day. I love game time.
My fandom for all that work that makes race day enjoyable or games a success is a lot less reliable and enthusiastic. So when I saw Efli’s sweaty, grinning mug alongside another friend, Rob Bailey’s sweaty, smiling face, on my Facebook timeline a few weeks ago, I was convinced that if I joined them in what sounded like sheer torture, I would unlock the secret embracing the pain.
I reached out to them, and they both enthusiastically (of course) invited me to climb stairs with them on any Friday morning. They do so, they said, to prepare for the Outclimb Cancer event on Saturday, March 3. For six hours, people like Rob Bailey, Elfi Ortenburger and Wendy Larson Weixler will climb up and down the 24 flights of stairs at the Wells Fargo Building in an effort to raise money for the Huntsman Cancer Institute.
All three of them are members of Huntsman Heroes. Elfi helped start the program that allows runners, cyclists and hikers to raise money for the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City.
Let’s be honest, nobody likes fundraising. In fact, I would prefer 24 hours on a treadmill in a windowless room than trying to shake down everyone I know for money. But these three sign up to do it over and over — sometimes for more than one event.
For Elfi and Wendy, the cause is personal.
“It’s close to my heart after losing my father to cancer,” Elfi said. “My husband lost his mom when he was only 13 years old.”
Cancer has robbed Wendy of some of her closest relationships.
“My father died from cancer when I was 3 years old,” she said. “My best friend died of breast cancer when we were barely in our 30s. She’d been diagnosed at 18, when she was pregnant with twins. The list goes on. So many people in my life have been touched by cancer. Some were able to beat it, some not.” Rob said he’s committed to the cause because of the camaraderie he’s found in the Huntsman Heroes.
“There are a lot of great causes,” he said, “but it’s the people that I run with and the climb that keep me coming back every year. I don’t have anyone real close that has been affected by cancer, but the friendships that I have made keep me coming back.”
One of the things that interested me in their effort was their commitment to the cause, but also their commitment to train for something that is clearly not about finishing times, impressive medals or earning a spot on a podium.
They train every Friday because they want to remind the rest of us that while we fret about a messy house or a stressful job, some among us are fighting for their very lives. They train to honor those who donate to the cause of eradicating the insidious disease.
They train to honor those who can no longer muster the energy required for the most mundane tasks. They train to honor those lost to a disease that strikes little children and healthy adults with the same ferocity. It ravages the fit and the old. It respect nothing and no one.
So they climb.
They climb through fatigue.
They climb through boredom.
They climb in whatever stairwell will have them. (Yes, they’ve been booted from at least one stairwell this year for liability reasons.)
And Elfi, that effusive lover of training, climbs through vertigo.
And they do it because they want to help those suffering with cancer, those who might someday deal with the disease, and because it keeps them moving toward their own running, cycling and healthy lifestyle goals.
“Every year is a struggle to fundraise,” said Rob, who has increased the number of flights he’s able to complete each year, with 30 climbs as this year’s goal. “But I love the people who are part of the Huntsman Hero program. I keep involved with the Huntsman program because of the friendships from the climb.”
I enjoyed a taste of this when I joined them last Friday. I had a vicious headache when I showed up, and somehow an hour flew by as we laughed and talked, and most importantly, climbed.
I left my morning with these three generous souls with more than an understanding of why someone might want to fundraise for the same cause year after year. I was reminded of many things that I seem to forget when I wrap myself in all the reasons I have for giving up. We are not designed for a solo journey. Whether we’re battling a deadly disease or making our way up a dark stairwell, we are better, stronger and more capable when we do it for and with each other.