Team IMPACT: Meet Kristjana Cook

Apr 14, 2020

The 124th Boston Marathon has been rescheduled (due to Covid-19) to Monday, September 14th, and IMPACT Melanoma is once again proud to present Team IMPACT. Comprised of a dedicated group of runners that come from different backgrounds and levels of running experience, each of our runners share a passion for our cause – which is to spread awareness and prevention initiatives with regard to the incidences of melanoma around the United States, and, with our lead, the world.

Many of Team IMPACT’s members are survivors, family members of survivors, or a person who has lost a loved one to melanoma. Together, along with our partnership with the Boston Athletic Association, we’ve been able to make great IMPACT over the years raising in excess of $2 million, which has gone to directly benefit IMPACT Melanoma’s mission of prevention, education, support, and advocacy in the fight against melanoma.

As mentioned, each of our team members have unique reasons as to why they’re contributing efforts to Team IMPACT, and, as such, we’re highlighting a handful of them in support of their run, and their campaign to raise necessary funds.

With that in mind, please join us in welcoming and thanking, Kristjana Cook!

IMPACT Melanoma: How’d you learn about IMPACT Melanoma and Team IMPACT?

Kristjana Cook: I was diagnosed with melanoma in January of this year. There was a small age spot on my face, just below my right eye. Right before Christmas, I noticed was getting a bit pink and bumpy, and a week later, there was a small black dot in the center. I made an appointment with my dermatologist and even before she took the punch biopsy, she said, “I have to tell you, this doesn’t look good.” Five days later, she called to confirm that it was a small melanoma and referred me to a plastic surgeon to have the skin excision done as soon as possible.

I started “googling” like mad, trying to learn whatever I could about melanoma and skin cancer, and I found the IMPACT Melanoma website. I filled out the contact form to get connected with a support group, and while surfing the site, I found out about Team IMPACT! I had already signed up to run this year’s Boston Marathon, so I reached out to see if there was a way to get involved with the charity team as a qualified runner. In the meantime, I had the melanoma removed from my face, only to find out that the pathology report showed that the “small” melanoma had nearly tripled in size in the two weeks between the initial punch biopsy and the excision surgery, and the margins were not clean.

I had to wait four weeks for a second surgery, this time with an oncologist, and this time with a sentinel lymph node biopsy at the same time. I now have a three-inch scar on my face and a two-inch scar on my neck, but I am elated to share that I am cancer-free!!!

IM: What made you decide to get involved and commit to a spot on the team? What does said spot mean to you?

Cook: As a melanoma survivor, I am more determined than ever to spread the word about sun safety, skin cancer awareness, and melanoma research and education. I am proud to partner with Team IMPACT and honored to be a part of such an important organization! I have never tried to raise money for an organization before and committing to Team IMPACT was a leap of faith. But I realized that being honest with others, and sharing my scars, can go a long way in keeping others from enduring what I have. I didn’t think I would ever get skin cancer – no one does! – and I believe with all my heart that contributing to education and awareness is the greatest gift I can share from my personal experience.

IM: How many marathons have you run in the past? What do you take away from these experiences?

Cook: I’ve learned that there is great joy in hearing your feet pound the pavement and that you are never too old to try something new. This Boston Marathon will be my 7thfull marathon, and my second run at Boston! I came to the sport of running later in life and used to joke that I would train for my first marathon when my youngest kid got to kindergarten and I had enough time. I had such a great time training and challenging myself that I knew I wanted to do it again. I’ve run 6 marathons in the last 5 years, as well as several half marathons, multiple 5k and 10k races, a half Ironman, and just this past fall, my first 50k ultra race. Another unexpected surprise was that I was invited to join an elite racing team with Charm City Run for 2020. For the first time, at age 45, I am now running with a team logo and the incredible support of a group of accomplished athletes and coaches. Team IMPACT and the CCR Elite Team have given me every reason to be the best runner I can possibly be.

IM: I know it’s hard to predict, but how do you think this particular run will stack up (from a philosophical/humanitarian/or just straight physical point of view)?

Cook: I believe that this year’s Boston Marathon is going to be absolutely unforgettable! With the postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I think that this September’s race is going to be an historic celebration of the human spirit and sport in general. My husband and my three sons will be coming to Boston to cheer me on and support the team, and having them there means the world to me.

As far as my own “performance” at Boston this year, it will be a challenge! There is so much unknown right now, it seems as if every day holds more questions than answers. Having the marathon postponed in the middle of a training cycle leaves you in physical limbo. You know that you can’t sustain that specific level of fitness for an extended time, and you need to give your body a chance to cycle down a bit. That’s a hard thing to allow yourself to do! But you have to trust that the process will work. Stress plus rest equals growth, and without an adequate amount of physical recovery, you simply can’t engage in a full training cycle to be ready for the new marathon date, especially when it is so far away. That’s my biggest challenge right now: allowing myself to hold back the miles a bit so that I can start a new training cycle fresh and ready to run my best!

IM: How did/do the events associated with the current national pandemic effect your training routine(s) and how you’ll approach this year’s race differently?

Cook: That’s a tough one… I keep thinking of Joni Mitchell singing, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” When I first started running, I was a new mom and running was a way to get away from the noise and have some quiet time to myself. I craved that alone time. When my boys got older, I was introduced to a local mom’s running group by a neighbor, and through that gang of incredible women, found the joy and strength the comes with training with others. Now, suddenly forced to run alone again, I’ll be honest: I have had a really hard time staying motivated.  A two hour run goes by a lot faster when you are laughing! Not to mention the fact that getting out of bed before dawn is easier when there’s a friend waiting for you down the road. I don’t think I’ll approach this race any differently, but I will be over the moon to be running in a crowd again, that’s for sure!

IM: Is there any benefit to the extended “wait” period leading up to this year’s installment of the Boston Marathon?

Cook: Selfishly, as much as I was looking forward to that special Marathon Monday in April, there is a bit of an advantage to the postponement of this year’s race… I had two melanoma surgeries back to back, in mid-January and early February, and even though the incisions are on my face and neck, surgery itself affects your whole system and requires lots of rest. I lost about 4 weeks of focused running, so racing Boston in April would have really compressed that training time for me. I would have been able to get myself into enough shape to physically run the 26 miles, but I also knew that it wouldn’t be easy (not that 26.2 miles is ever “easy”)! Knowing that I could take a full step back and finish recovery was a bit of a relief. That being said, it is also going to be a huge challenge to find the time to train in those last four weeks leading up to the new race date in September: I’m a Middle School Cross Country coach and our season starts up in mid-August. All three of my boys will also be starting their own different fall sports, so time to get away and run will be tight. It’s a good thing I’m an early riser!

IM: What is your personal stance / battle cry with regard to skin cancer and taking care of one’s skin?

Cook: I will be honest: before my own melanoma diagnosis, I was a sun-worshipper. I have the kind of olive skin that never burns and there’s nothing I love more than a day at a hot sunny beach. I always put sunscreen on my kids, but never bothered with it myself. I just didn’t think I needed it. That’s why I am fully committed NOW to tell everyone I know that being smart about sun safety can literally save your life!! Not just wearing sunscreen, but hats, UV-protected clothing, staying in the shade whenever possible, and regularly checking your skin and seeing a dermatologist is absolutely vital. I’ve been sharing my story on social media and I can’t believe how many people have sought me out to let me know that they went to a dermatologist and found a spot, or that they’ve started wearing sunscreen on their morning runs. Not only that, but I am working with the superintendent of our school, where I am a cross country coach, to have IMPACT Melanoma sunscreen dispensers installed on all of our athletic fields by the beginning of the fall sports season. I am also planning to host a sun-safety night for our athletes to share my story in person and help them understand the importance of taking care of their skin.

IM: What’s your pre-race ritual? Some sort of specific cuisine the night before? Specific stretching routine? Special socks? You tell us!

Cook: The night before a race I am a little superstitious about my dinner! I always have salmon, sweet potatoes and spinach. And a tiny glass of red wine. The morning of, I wake up early enough to have a good, strong cup of coffee and drink a couple glasses of water. I eat about 400 calories worth of fuel (usually a Picky Bar, a banana and sometimes a little handful of nuts) and listen to a specific playlist that pumps me up, calms my nerves and reminds me to be grateful for every mile. After getting to the starting area, I do some dynamic stretching and a little jogging, and I say a prayer for my husband and each of my three boys, picturing them in my mind, and mentally thanking them for letting me do this thing I love to do. While I’m running, I’ll often picture the routes I’ve run in my training – particular stretches of roads and scenery – and say to myself, “ok, these next 5 miles I’m running the loop around the park” or whatever it might be. It helps break up the miles into manageable chunks. I definitely make an effort to thank police officers at intersections and volunteers at water stops, and I try to say a few words here and there to the people I’m passing around me. Oh, and I should mention that I always buy a brand new pair of socks at the packet pickup expo the day before the race! I don’t wear them at the race because they haven’t been washed yet. It’s more like a souvenir to remind me later, ‘hey, I bought these socks at the Boston Marathon!’

To get involved and make a donation:

Visit Kristjana’s runner profile here to help her reach her personal goal:

https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/impact-melanoma/kristjanacook

Visit our Team IMPACT profile page here: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/impact-melanoma

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