United by commitment, North Coast-Powered By Optimism walks for the cure


You might have seen them on the coast, walking in a pack, wearing lots of bright pink gear and on at least one Saturday, wearing funky bras on the outside of their shirts and in some cases, on top of their heads. They have fun and they can be silly, but their cause is important and their commitment is fierce.

The walking crew is Powered by Optimism, a North Coast-based team in training for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, coming up on Nov. 20-22. The team is known as Powered by Optimism because they know deep down in their hearts that there will be a cure. They walk because they cannot walk away.

From a small initial group of walkers six years ago, the group has grown to 121 members this year, 75 percent of whom are walk veterans. Since 2010, they have touched the lives of more than 250 team members, and in their sixth year will have raised $1,041,803. The team has raised more money than any other team in San Diego for the past three years.

“They’re a family; I can’t explain what it was that drew me to them,” said Carmel Valley team member and four-time 3-Day walker Joanne Max. “I thought I’d only do it once, but the team camaraderie is so fabulous and you meet so many fantastic people.”

As Max said, it’s not easy to train to walk 60 miles in three days or to raise the required $2,300 apiece. But it’s not as hard as a diagnosis or chemotherapy or daily radiation or reconstructive surgery.

Powered by Optimism was founded by Oceanside resident Amy Benoit. She did the 3-Day for the first time in 2008, as a close friend was battling breast cancer.

“I just felt so hopeless. I felt like I wanted to do something to help the fight and bring recognition to the cause,” Benoit said.

Sadly, one month after completing her first 3-Day, her friend passed away.

“I continue to walk for her,” Benoit said. “And my list of people that I walk for keeps growing and growing.”

Benoit had been part of a team for her inaugural walk, and it had been a wonderful experience but the team had disbanded by the next year. In 2009, she did the Seattle 3-Day and trained on her own. She knew if she did the walk again, she wanted to have that team feeling back, so she founded Powered by Optimism.

“I just decided, I’m going to start a team and invite all my friends to walk with me and see who joins in. That first year, we had 23 people and they were not all my friends,” Benoit said. “It just grew from there.”

Susan G. Komen trains people to be walk leaders and provides a sample training plan, which Benoit stuck close to. To spice things up, she found that when she gave fun and silly themes for training walks, attendance would go up. Training for the 3-Day is a big commitment so it’s important to drive the “fun factor” up, she said.

“Once the mileage starts getting up there, it’s pretty much an all-day thing,” Benoit said. “Walking 15 miles takes a long time.”

So PBO has theme weekends like the “Crazy Bra Walk,” which took place on Aug. 29, and the upcoming “Guacamole Walk,” a 15-mile outing that begins in Oceanside and ends at El Callejon in Encinitas, where members can “hydrate” before hopping the train back up to Oceanside.

Benoit said being a PBO leader is almost like a second full-time job, doing all of the planning and coordinating. But she has learned a lot over the years, trekking all over Carlsbad, Encinitas, Cardiff, Solana Beach and Del Mar — such as that Moonlight Beach has the best and largest restroom pit stop.

“You don’t think about things like that until you have 30 people that need to use the restroom at the same time,” Benoit said.

PBO co-captain Martin Heflin of Rancho Bernardo will be walking for his seventh year this year. He began walking as he had recently retired and wanted to get some good exercise while raising money for a good cause.

After that first year, he was hooked and has gone on to serve as a crew volunteer for 3-Day Walks in San Francisco, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle. He became a Powered by Optimism co-captain in 2010.

“I think what really made it so successful was Amy,” Heflin said. “She put together great training walks that interest and attract people. And people gravitate toward this team. I think there’s a cachet to want to be a part of the largest fundraising team.

“It is a really great group of people; it became more than just getting together for the 3-Day. It became a family,” Heflin said.

Benoit said many members have been teammates for four or five years, so there is a lot of excitement to see each other once training begins. Lots of team members also meet up and stay connected during the “off-season.”

“To see year after year the impact it has, on new people and people who have done it before is what makes it so special to me,” Benoit said. “To be able to watch people change …for some people it’s a way to heal and become more confident and I’m addicted to that. I thrive on that. It’s the overall satisfaction you get from being a part of something that is so meaningful to them.”

Officially the group starts training in April, with shorter weekday walks and long walks on the weekends. PBO hosted a “Mini 3-Day” walk over the three-day Labor Day Weekend, and the longest training walk is an 18-mile walk from Oceanside to Solana Beach.

“The first year I was walking six times a week — I was so nervous I wasn’t going to be able to do it,” Max said. “But it was a breeze because I was so well prepared.”

Max said this year she is walking three to five times a week and participates in the big group weekend walks.

Each day of the 3-Day features a significant hill: Day one it’s Torrey Pines, day two it’s Naragansett Street in Point Loma, and day three it’s “Juan Hill” in Old Town. PBO tries to work the hills into their training walks so that walkers have the assurance they’ve done it before and will live — they’ll hit Juan Hill on Halloween weekend.

Max said PBO is the most embracing team of people, offering more than just physical prep but lots of support and ideas for fundraising. The team has helped each other raise funds through golf outings and garage sales, casino nights and Max’s favored method, recycling, which pulls double duty raising money for the cause and helping the environment.

San Diego is home to the biggest 3-Day event in the country with 29,000 walkers. Heflin, who has experience in other cities, said the community support in San Diego is unlike anywhere else.

“In Del Mar, the whole community turns out and it just really means a lot because you have put in a lot of time for fundraising and training, typically walking 500 miles in preparation. It’s a big effort,” Heflin said. “To have that community support is a great feeling.”

“The people cheering and thanking you for doing this is heartwarming,” echoed Max. “They say ‘Thank you’ for their mothers, for their sisters. Ever since the first year I did the walk, I haven’t gotten over that feeling — you feel like a celebrity. It’s amazing.”

Heflin said he is blessed that no one in his immediate family has dealt with breast cancer, but since he has been involved with the 3-Day, he has known numerous women in the final stages of their lives.

At camp, there is a Remembrance Tent filled with photos of past 3-Day walkers who have passed away after a fight with breast cancer.

“Unfortunately, we’ve had team members’ photos up in that tent, and it’s the thing that keeps you going,” Heflin said. “You remember them and realize that all the blisters and the shin splints and the time away training is for a reason, and the people whose faces are reflected in that tent are the reason.”

Like Heflin, Max has never been personally affected by breast cancer, it was just a cause that she became passionate about. She is not only powered by optimism but by the memory of her mother, who had multiple sclerosis and would not give up walking no matter how hard it was.

“She was not going in a wheelchair,” Max said, noting she used every assistive tool she could to continue to walk for herself before she passed away. “She was a real fighter. So every time I go for a walk, I remember to be grateful.

“It’s so empowering to do the Three Day and know that you’re doing something for the good of other people.”

The end of the walk on the last day is special, as walkers honor the 500-member volunteer crew that has supported them through the past few days, as well as their fellow walkers. A moment is taken to recognize survivors, and walkers take one shoe off and raise it in the air.

“It is a very emotional, very powerful moment. You’re physically exhausted and mentally drained and you’ve spent the last three days with people who started out as strangers but are now your friends, your family. It’s indescribable. We walk arm in arm into Petco Park, sweaty and exhausted but incredibly fulfilled.”

Added Heflin, “If you have any doubt about self-worth, participate in this and realize how many people are supporting you every step of the way. It’s what keeps me coming back.”

To contribute to Powered by Optimism, visit their team page at the3day.org.