ANCHORAGE - Sunday afternoon, hundreds of skiers cut down the trail around Westchester Lagoon, packed snow crunching softly under narrow skis.
The annual Tour of Anchorage offered 25, 40 and 50 kilometer races from Hillside to Downtown to Kincaid Park, and the sky was blue as athletes of all ages made their ways through the municipality’s trail system. Small tables set up along the trail offered water, snacks and encouragement.
“We’re just here for whatever they need,” said Virginia Gill, standing alongside one of those tables set up on the trail near the north side of the lagoon. “Safety pins, cupcakes, hugs.”
She trailed off, laughing. The other women at the table were dressed in oversized costume hats and plastic leis, cheering on passing racers with painted cowbells and signs, but Gill was armed only with a large pair of green and blue pom-poms.
Together, they represented the cheering section of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training, a nationwide organization dedicated to raising money for cancer research. The 33 team members competing Sunday wore purple to mark their affiliation, and Gill was bundled up against the sub-freezing temperatures in a down jacket of the same color.
The four women shouted encouragements and waved signs, bells and pom-poms at the skiers passing by. In front of the table, a hand-drawn poster was stuck to a dowel with purple masking team and planted in a snow bank across from a set of dingy gray port-o-potties.
“Bill says… hydrate now, and forever hold your pee,” read a caption scrawled across the top.
The sign featured a simply drawn stick figure, and Gill said she first made one several years ago while preparing to cheer on the Team In Training at the summer Mayor’s Marathon.
“We put up posters all over the race course,” she said, reminiscing. “Just silly comments about marathon training or cancer, whatever, and they became such a hit they became a tradition.”
Gill said she made nearly 400 signs the first summer.
A few yards down the trail sat another: “Bill says… are we almost there yet?”
Her eyes filled with tears behind her black-rimmed glasses. “Sometimes I can look and I can laugh,” she said, voice breaking briefly. “Other times, I’m just, like, I wish he was here.”
It’s been nearly two years since her husband, Bill Gill, lost a decade-long battle with a rare, incurable form of leukemia. She said he was an avid runner before he became too ill to exercise, and a staunch supporter of research efforts throughout the course of his sickness.
Gill said the lagoon itself reminded her of her late husband: They often trained along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail together.
“It got to the point where we would come, and he could only walk a little bit, and then we would come and just sit in the car and watch the people,” she said softly. ”And then when he was too sick to even make it from our condo to here… It’s a painfully wonderful place to come, because he’s here but he’s not.”
Several skiers glided down the trail behind her but she remained lost in thought. Further down the path stood a third sign: “Bill says… on the wings of angels, we will finish.”
A smiling, angelic stick figure drawn on the front was adorned with purple, green and blue angel wings.
Although she wasn’t skiing the Tour of Anchorage trail Sunday, Gill said standing on the sidelines was just as difficult. She said she had uncovered an old batch of photos on her computer the other day, all taken during the last 48 hours of Bill’s life.
“It just brought all that back and made it painful again,” she said slowly, looking back across the lagoon and blinking back tears again.
In a way, she said the men and women sliding by her on quiet skis reminded her of Bill.
“I feel it in every Team In Training person I see,” she said. “Whether it’s here at Tour of Anchorage or Mayor’s [Marathon] where there’ll be like 500 of them, or when I go to San Francisco and I’m surrounded by 5,000. Everywhere you go it’s all hope, wrapped up in a purple package.”
There was nothing doctors could do to improve Bill’s condition in the years leading up to his death, and Gill said her husband hoped for the day others would be given some kind of option or even a little hope when they walked through the hospital doors. Through research funded by Team In Training, she said his wish was being realized.
At the very north end of Westchester Lagoon stood the final sign. It was larger than the others, and the afternoon sun glared off the white poster board. Instead of a crudely drawn stick figure it displayed three pictures of a smiling man with sparse gray hair. In one picture, wearing a green polo shirt and neat khakis, he leaned heavily on an IV rack next to him and shook a pair of pom-poms identical to Gill’s.
In another photo, he smiled weakly and looked tired, and sat propped up in a sea of starched white sheets. Underneath, a date was penned in neat purple Sharpie: 5/28/10.
The caption was simple: “Bill says thank you.”