My friend with ALS Arthur Cohen said 'Until further notice, celebrate everything.' I felt like celebrating.
Given this celebratory time of year, and given how often the word “celebrate” comes up when talking with Andrea Lytle Peet, the above quote, which appears more than once in her barnburner of a book, Hope Fights Back, seems as good a place as any to jump into our wide-ranging conversation, which takes place via Zoom on a Tuesday afternoon, the week before Christmas. In the chapter from which the above quote is taken, Peet celebrates living two years from being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (ALS) an incurable degenerative illness in which the brain stops being able to communicate with the muscles, resulting in loss of function and eventually, death. Peet celebrates those two years, and the two marathons she had completed since diagnosis, by getting two swallows tattooed on her arm. She has continued the tradition each year on the anniversary of her diagnosis. The swallows now number eight.
When I think about it, the notion of celebrating seems like the only place to start any discussion of Peet, her running and triathlon history, her life as a wife, daughter, inspirational speaker, and foundation head, and yes, even as someone living (and how!) with ALS. The more I talked with Peet, the less it felt like I was interviewing someone with a book to plug, a new documentary set for a nationwide release, a charitable foundation to manage, a pernicious affliction to manage, and more like what it was: a chat with another longtime and totally addicted runner.
“It is a celebration, being out there, moving,” she says. “I get to really feel my body. When I’m out there, I just feel like I’m so lucky to experience this, to feel my muscles, so lucky to be able to keep doing this.”
When Peet talks, her speech slowed and slightly slurred by ALS, her voice is infused with a power that pulls a listener in close. Her words radiate joy and wonder. When she speaks—and when she writes—about moving through the world, at speed and under her own power, she taps into those experiences all endurance athletes treasure, but too often take for granted: the feeling of the wind in our faces, the sun on our skin, the world flying past in a blur as our well-trained muscles, hearts and lungs power us through the landscape. Peet expertly, and seemingly effortlessly, (though nothing these days is effortless) makes her listeners and readers remember just why we are so in love with the simple, irreplaceable act of putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible.
Once upon a time, Peet, too could take running—and swimming, and biking—for granted. She was young, healthy, fit, blissfully married and upwardly mobile. The future was so bright she had to wear high-tech, wraparound shades! It was a given that there would be another pool session, another ride, another road race or triathlon, ad-infinitum into the rosy and child-filled future. But then one day in the pool, her finger “got stuck” and the days of taking things for granted were over forever.
During a triathlon swim-training session with her father-in-law, Dr. Dave Peet, Andrea’s right index finger froze up, “got stuck” in a bent position, adding an uncomfortable wrinkle to what had been a great swim. But after a few hours, the finger was back to normal and she forgot all about it. Soon enough though, other odd, fleeting ailments began to occur: shaking muscles after workouts or while performing normal tasks, difficulty writing quickly, and finally, a collapse in the crosswalk, halfway across a busy city street. Still, thought Peet, she had just completed a half Ironman, right? How serious could it be? As the symptoms began to multiply, and after more than a year in a terrible diagnostic limbo, she got an answer: ALS. About as serious as it could possibly be.
Hope Fights Back chronicles this time in unvarnished, honest, riveting prose. It conveys the helplessness of uncertainty, the strain of not knowing on Peet’s psyche, on her relationships with family and her husband, David, (a model for husbands everywhere, btw) the strain on a worldview that simple hard work could overcome any obstacle. The book chronicles, but does not dwell. The book does not shy away from what a diagnosis of ALS means, but it does not linger there. The book, like its author, is too busy examining what it means to live. And to live, as Peet will quickly teach you. Is to celebrate.
But after climbing that hill, I thought, ‘What if there are more races ahead—for me?
On the way back down the hill, I let myself fly. As the trike picked up speed, I smiled and leaned into the wind. Faster and faster until the houses streaking by became a blur.
‘Why have I never done this before?’
By the time I reached the bottom of the hill, I made a promise to myself. I decided to live bravely—not just ask others to do it.
I would sign up for a full marathon on my trike.
‘What’s the worst that can happen,’ I thought? ‘I crash and die? Big deal. That is going to happen anyway.
The above quote comes from one of the most powerful moments in the book, a scene where Peet finds herself racing (unbeknownst to her opponent) a woman out running on a local bike path. Peet had forgotten what these secret duels felt like, and was digging reclaiming that feeling. But soon the woman turned onto an unpaved trail, where Peet, on the lightweight recumbent trike on which she did her training and racing, could not follow. Instantly, the giddy feeling of reclaiming her power disappeared, replaced by the crushing realization of all that she had lost. She had run a triathlon, created the Team Drea Challenge, wherein people set goals for themselves, finished a race, and raised tens of thousands of dollars towards ALS research for the Blazeman Foundation, she had achieved and was achieving miracles, but in that moment, watching the woman bound away up the trail, Peet felt nothing but desolation.
As she turned and pedaled toward home, however, that taste of competition remained in her mouth, and when she noticed a road to her right that climbed a long, steep incline, she thought Well, that hill looks like a competition.
Climbing that hill was hard. Climbing that hill felt good.
Screaming down that hill felt even better. Apparently, there were more races in Andrea Lytle Peet’s future. Fifty marathons, to be exact, in fifty states. The chapters of the book that serve as travelogue for her marathon tour, the incredible challenges, the setbacks and triumphs large and small, the descriptions of so many people and places, these are my favorite chapters. Anyone who to some degree lives to run, will be enraptured by these chapters. I urge you here to run—not walk—to your nearest bookstore and buy a copy.
During our talk I asked Peet which marathon was her favorite. She didn’t have to think twice: Montana.
Memorial Day weekend found Andrea and David Peet in Bozeman, Montana for marathon number 30, the tiny, but scenic (and inexpensive!) Frank Newman Memorial Marathon. The marathon began with a seven-mile climb that took Andrea over two hours and every climbing trick and technique she had learned over the previous twenty-nine marathons, including and especially the “make-husband-meet-you-at-the-bottom-of-the-hill-and-walk-up-while-encouragong-you technique.” The next nineteen miles took less than ninety minutes, and saw Peet reaching a speed of thirty miles-per hour. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and a flat-out hoot.
“I was flying, just inches above the pavement,” she told me, the thrill still fresh in her voice, “I concentrated, just trusted myself to be able to control the trike, going that fast. Of all the marathons, Montana was both the hardest and most fun.”
Peet chronicles each of the fifty marathons in the book, and each one is a gem. The chapters on Boston (unofficial, and number 51) and Alaska are by themselves worth the purchase price. Her marathon odyssey will be documented in the full-length film, Go On, Be Brave, appearing in theaters for one night only, on January 17, 2024.
It was then that I understood the difference between “not dying” and “living.”
Not dying was racing until ALS caught up with me. ‘Living’ meant having real dreams—And yes, long-term plans—for the future.
For someone with ALS there is little difference between chasing a dream and living the dream. We hear the expression live in the moment so often that it nearly loses all meaning, but for anyone whose life is stamped with an only slightly nebulous expiration date, living in the moment is the key to a life lived joyfully.
Long-distance runners and cyclists know this instinctively, even if we’ve never thought deeply about it. Sure, we plan for a long training run or a marathon, we set goals, we bring along hydration and fuel, but once we take that first step, the natures of time changes. The run becomes a single unfolding moment that doesn’t end until the last step. The most satisfying runs are those where we don’t tick off the minutes until it is over, but where we can just be, soaking up every nuance of that single unspooling moment until the moment ends. Imagine living life that way: planning for the future, sure, but living in the now, letting life unfold as we exist, soaking up every bit of what the moment allows us.
It wasn’t an easy process, nor is it always painless, but Andrea Lytle Peet has this way of living—of being—down to an art form. It will come to no surprise to anyone who spends a big chunk of their day out on the road or trail that some of Peet’s favorite parts of the long moment are those spent out on the roads.
“Being out on the trike is life, “she told me, “Returning to myself as an athlete, being out there like everyone else, smiling at others, even though I don’t know them. I feel the most okay when I’m out there.” Her voice trails off. She’s looking away from the camera with a dreamy smile.
Yeah, that’s a feeling I understand perfectly.
When I ask Peet about any specific dreams she might have, given that this is the time of year for plans and dreams, for hope and resolutions, and given that this is a Dream Chasers story, it unsurprisingly turns out that the dreams she has are for other people. She looks into the distance somewhere above her screen, thinks for a moment.
“I think the hardest part of having no guarantees to be brave enough to hope, then with that hope, live the way you want to. To be vulnerable enough to say, ‘I want this.’ My dream is that people realize that the journey really is what matters, that they can focus on their moving bodies, their muscles, appreciate where that body is every day, and where it progresses to.”
Since being diagnosed with ALS in August of 2014 and given roughly 2-5 years to live, Andrea Peet has swum, biked and run a triathlon. She has trained-for and completed fifty-one marathons, one in every state in the union. She has started, and continues to run a foundation that raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for ALS research. She has written (with talented co-author Meredith Atwood) an absolutely unputdownable book. She has helped make (and starred in) a full-length documentary. She has made speeches, given a zillion interviews. She has loved her parents and husband and friends unreservedly. She fills the air in any room and the airwaves outside that room with joy that radiates and pings off everyone it touches. If that’s what Go on, be brave means, if that’s what living in the moment means, well, sign me up! After all, what do we have to lose?
On January 17, 2024, fifty-one Regal theaters across the U.S. will be showingGo On, Be Brave for one night only. Regal is promoting the film as a great way to jumpstart motivation in the new year and is letting Regal Unlimited members bring a guest for free. This is an incredible opportunity for the independent film!Here is a list of theaters.