Every adventure racer will inevitably confront that white-knuckle moment of truth when it seems that ones life is precariously held in balance. A treacherous nighttime glacier-field crossing. A capsized kayak in pounding ocean surf. Severe altitude sickness far above treeline. But for Louise Cooper, her moment of truth occurred in the shower of her suburban West Hills, California home when she discovered that she had a lump in her breast. A biopsy was performed, and two days later, her doctor announced grim-reaper news: she had a tumor, Her-2/ Neu, a rare and deadly form of breast cancer. Louise had two choices: surrender or fight. "I viewed the cancer as another adventure race," says Louise, "filled with the unknown and obstacles to overcome, but a great team to help me through. I replaced my best racing team with a team of the best doctors: breast surgeon, oncologist, radiologist oncologist, chemo nurse, a heap of other medical specialists, family and friends. Success had a new connotation. I had to be a winner. There's no second place when racing against cancer."
And just like Lance Armstrong who said that beating cancer was tougher than winning the Tour de France, Louise triumphed over her cancer before it could wreak life-destroying, metastasizing cellular mayhem. And like Lance, she returned to racing by competing in extreme endurance events such as Badwater, Raid and Eco-Challenge. Lace yourself up in Louise's Nikes. Imagine going from supreme aerobic conditioning to not being able to run more than a mile without stopping every 50 yards to catch your breath, a debilitating consequence due to the physical side-effects of chemo and radiation treatment.
"I gradually lost all my muscle mass, as was pointed out to me by my massage therapist who came once a week, and my bones ached from the drugs," recalls Louise. "Then there was the 15 pounds I gained from all the steroids I was on. A most attractive addition to the bald head. I resembled a Buddha on Halloween."
Now try to imagine setting your athletic sights on completing the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon in Death Valley just five months after the doctors stopped zapping your system with electron beams and poisonous drugs, and not only do you finish the desert race in hellish, asphalt-melting heat, you place 13th overall, and second woman. Lady Louise is a profile in courage.
A South African emigr and former hard-core triathlete with seven Hawaii Ironman finishes to her credit, she became an U.S. citizen just this past year. Then, captaining teams usually comprised of New Zealanders, Louise sported numerous top-ten finishes in multi-day adventure races dating back to the mid-90s, including a second-place finish at the South African/Lesotho Raid and Baja X-Games.
This Californian transplant definitely walks the walk as a fierce competitor but talking the talk is a different story. Together with her bejeweled and feminine demeanor ? I like wearing gold jewelry in an adventure race for negotiating purposes, she says with a sly wink, because you just might have to trade a bracelet for a bike wheel ? and a most mellow-sounding voice, all soft and sweet with a boarding-school precision, she comes across as gentle, considerate, caring, compassionate. Shes a warm, loving bundle of Oprah positive energy contained in her toned, well-conditioned body. These complementary traits come in handy in her other line of work. Louise has taught second grade at a private elementary school for nearly two decades. This year, she takes on third graders.
When she's not running, paddling, biking, or preparing lesson plans for her active charges, Louis spends many blissful hours toiling in her garden. "I simply won't let my regular gardener touch my rose bushes!" Shes also a serious dog lover with three strays currently taking up residence in her home.
As for RailRiders, she's been wearing the duds for years -- in Borneo, the Philippines, Vietnam." I especially like the Eco-Mesh shirt. It feels like you arent wearing anything with its soft and forgiving fabric. As for the Weatherpants, I wore them in New Zealand for the Eco-Challenge and in Switzerland for the Discovery Channel Race, in some pretty rugged terrain. They were very lightweight, durable, exceptionally comfortable, and the beauty of the fabric is that they dry very quickly, but still keep you warm when they are wet. RailRiders clothing is a natural way of dressing. It is functional in a variety of settings, out in the jungle, on a boat, or in a classroom. It's so convenient to have that type of versatility in clothing, and it's childproof."
But how does this fashion maven put up with the sweat, grime, and dirt that are adventure racings occupational hazards? "I really never give any consideration to what I look like when racing. It's a relief to know that my clothing choices are narrowed to what I have in my backpack. I do pay attention to personal hygiene, but at the end of the race, I am ready for a shower. Yet when I get home, and see my three bedrooms full of my clothes and now I have all these choices again, I say to myself, I have nothing to wear!"
With her can-do spirit and bottomless optimism, Louises personal story is more than a road-to-recovery inspirational tale. She admits to like living life by stepping outside the comfort zone. No amount of chemo or radiation could ever hope to erase the thrill of adventure that runs strong in her blood; cancer cells, yes, adventure lifestyle, no. And yet shes a realist. Still shy by a few years of that watershed half-century mark, she is matter-of-fact about what the future might hold. "The cancer I had was a particularly virulent kind, with a 60% chance of recurring. But nobody has guarantees in life, and I have had less, so I try to do what I can. Spoken, like, well, a true champion."
Q: How did you deal with those chemo and radiation treatment days when you must have felt so low and discouraged?
Louise Cooper: Uncomfortable, inconvenienced, fatigued? Yes. Discouraged? No. There was no time for pity. My students at school energized me with their encouragement and love, and kept me focused on daily routine. My students would kiss me and pat my bald head. It was very comforting. I was never alone.
Q: What physical side effects did you experience? Describe your loss of conditioning.
LC: The effects were cumulative. I was given a particularly high dose of the chemo drugs due to my prior level of conditioning (my oncologist was a personal friend of mine and knew my activities well.) I kept working out, running every day, weight training, paddling, biking. I gradually reduced the activities until by the end of my treatment, I was literally running 50 yards and then walking 50 yards, for perhaps 2-3 miles, 3 days a week. I was important to me to keep doing something, however small it was. It gave me a sense of control. My friends were wonderful, dragging me around the block, telling me what a great pace I was doing.
With her Eco-Challenge teammates in Borneo during a river crossing.
Q: How exactly did you make the transition from chemo to running in the Badwater Ultramarathon so quickly?
LC: Every day after the chemo was completed, I added a little more onto my 50 yard walk/run, until I could run a mile without stopping. That gave me all the confidence I needed. Several of my friends were doing the Catalina Marathon one month later, and that gave me the incentive I needed. Being a very goal-oriented person, I had set my heart on doing Badwater, which was five months away. Catalina was so much more in reach, From then on, I just kept plugging, knowing that finishing that, even if I had to walk, would signify my return to normalcy. Training for Badwater just became a continuation. It certainly had itsmoments. While training for Badwater in May in Death Valley, I suffered from hypernatremia and was helicoptered to hospital in Las Vegas. I learned that I now needed more sodium than before. All in a day's work!
Q: What lessons have you learned from adventure racing that you apply to teaching, and what lessons have learned from teaching that you apply to racing?
LC: I live the life of the principles I teach, which include setting goals, how you go about achieving them, about dealing with failure and success, about trying new things, learning new skills, always trying your best, perseverance--especially when the going gets tough, problem solving, team work, leadership.What I've learned from teaching and spending time with my kids, is that it's okay to go play in the mud with my friends.
Q: What do your students think of your racing, or of when they see you on television? And, for that matter, what do some of their parents think?
LC; The kids think I'm cool.They love what I do. Several of my older students have become interested enough to do some of the activities. The majority of the parents endorse what I do too, and enjoy that I can be a positive role model for their children, especially the girls.
Q: Describe your scariest or most frightening adventure racing experience.
LC: Canyoneering during the Discovery World Championships in Switzerland. The water was icy, we were fatigued to start, and fast becoming hypothermic while being made to swim through rapids. Rather unpleasant and very frightening for me. Paddling in big water is also always a challenge for me. More due to claustrophobia. I don't mind being in the boat, it's being out of it, under a boat or under water, unintentionally that bothers me.
Q: Any thoughts on being a member of a "pack" with your dogs as compared to being a member of a "pack" with your racing teammates. And as team captain, are you an alpha female?
LC: The dog trainer who I hired for one of my dog which suffers from separation anxiety told me that it's a dominance issue. Apparently the dogs dominate me! It cost me $300 to hear that! "What, dogs don't sleep on your bed, on the couch, or wherever they want? Nobody told me that!" Oh well, too late now. However, with my teammates, it's never an issue. Everyone is treated the same. Whoever is most equipped to make the decisions at the time need, is "captain." We don't need titles or positions, though my pre-race role is one of logistics and coordination and getting veryone to the starting line. Once the gun goes off, the team gets us to the finish line. It's more comfortable that way. I love racing with the New Zealanders best of all. Multisport racing is very natural them since all the activities are part of their daily lives. They have a wonderful relaxed approach, and I enjoy their company. They have this total lack of ego which is so refreshing.
Q: Describe your weekly training regimen.
LC: Varies daily, but always includes running, biking, paddling, weights, hiking, and consuming inordinate amounts of chocolate.