Michele Martineau’s off-road odyssey
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
The silence provided Michele Martineau with the perfect opportunity to reflect on a turbulent year.
From the intense lows of doctor visits and surgeries to the exhilarating highs of assembling an off-road racing team and lending a helping hand to countless women, Martineau had endured a veritable roller coaster ride of emotion.
Parked at the Powder Puff off-road race starting line, at the wheel of her green racing truck and donning a helmet that drowned out all outside noise, a flood of emotion blindsided the New Castle resident.
“It was really my first time to sit down in silence, to reflect on everything,” Martineau recalled. “It was much more emotional than I expected it to be. I couldn’t believe I had gotten there. I couldn’t believe all the help I had getting there.
“The moment, just thinking about everything I had gone through during the year, it was dramatic.”
She certainly had plenty on which to reflect.
In the year or so leading up to the 2010 Powder Puff, Martineau’s first stab at an off-road race, she had undergone a double mastectomy as means of beating breast cancer before it ever had a chance to derail her life. She raced while in the midst of a series of breast reconstruction surgeries.
In the fall of 2009, Martineau found lumps in her breast. Doctor visits determined she had fibrocystic breast disease, a condition characterized by the presence of noncancerous lumps in the breasts that makes mammograms more difficult to interpret and, therefore, cancer more difficult to detect.
“I was going to have to have MRIs every six months for the rest of my life because mammograms wouldn’t work for me any more,” she said. “That’s going in every six months to find out if you have cancer.”
Coupled with a family history littered with instances of breast cancer, the odds weren’t in Martineau’s favor. So she did something about it.
Surgeries, both to remove her breasts and to reconstruct them, followed. Complications led to a drawn-out process, one that, while draining, was very much worthwhile.
“My mom had cancer,” she said. “Hers metastasized. She’s had cancer for 20 years. She’s a fighter and she’s strong, and I can’t imagine going through that. So if I can avoid it, that’s what I’ll do.”
So Martineau opted to become a breast cancer “previvor.”
Simultaneous to the seemingly countless surgeries, Martineau decided to chase a newfound passion, one that led her to Barstow, Calif., for the Powder Puff, an annual race that raises funds for Cedars-Sinai Breast Cancer Research Center.
A few months prior to Martineau’s initial surgery, she assisted in the production of a documentary featuring off-road racing legend Larry Roeseler. The documentary was filmed in northwest Mexico’s Baja peninsula.
“Larry Roeseler’s won more Baja races than anyone,” Martineau said. “He led us down Baja, and that was the first I’d ever seen it in person at that point. I thought, ‘I’ve got to find a way to do this.’
“That was the same trip I found out I had problems in my breasts. When I got home, that’s when I thought, ‘I can make this happen.’ If I want to drive off-road and Baja in California, this is my chance. What if next time it is cancer. You’ve got to take the chance when it’s there.”
Martineau’s love affair with automobiles began much earlier in life.
“My brothers had muscle cars,” the 39-year-old Georgia native said. “I just kind of grew up around cars. My mom would tell me stories about how, when she was younger, she used to street-race the boys in hot cars and stuff like that, so I just kind of grew up loving cars.”
Team Courage took root shortly after Martineau’s introduction to off-road racing. And it’s much more than a racing team. Martineau uses the team as means of raising money for breast cancer charities and to “encourage frightened women to fight for their lives.”
She also developed a website to help women facing a predicament similar to hers.
“Maybe this happened to me for a reason,” Martineau said. “I know how to communicate. Maybe my reason is to help other people, so I started trying to put the word out. I started the website about helping people through reconstruction and also started the race team.”
On both fronts, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The letters I get from people, either giving me kudos or from people who have lost somebody, are amazing,” she said. “Whenever I feel like it’s too much, then I get an email that touches me or makes me cry and I realize, ‘OK, this is important.'”
Donations helped Team Courage quickly take form. Martineau estimates that she received some $20,000 worth of support – including the donation of a racing truck by Bryan Rodgers, whose mom died of breast cancer – in pulling together a team for the 2010 Powder Puff.
“The next thing I know I have someone that’s donating a truck and someone that’s donating paint,” she said. “Everybody just totally came together to make it all happen. From the time I decided to have an off-road team to the time I had my first race, it was less than one year. It’s been amazing.”
A year after that first race, in which she finished fourth in her category, Martineau is ready to return to Barstow to give the Powder Puff another whirl. This year’s race is Oct. 8.
She’ll also head to Africa for the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles in March and tackle the Mexican 1,000 Rally in Baja in May.
Martineau will race the Powder Puff alongside co-driver and fellow previvor Heather Berger. She’ll be teamed with Emme Hall during the Rallye Aicha des Gazelles.
On the medical front, surgeries remain for Martineau, but it’s nothing she can’t handle with an army of support behind her. Foremost among her supporters are her husband, Jon, and 15-year-old son Jamie Harris.
Jon’s thrilled to see his wife pursuing her dream.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for her, and also for her cause,” he said. “She’s always been interested in off-road racing. We both get to enjoy it.”
And the women Martineau aims to inspire also benefit. They’re the reason she does what she does, and they’re the ones who rushed into her mind as she lined up in the desert for her first race last fall.
“It was impossible to get in the truck and not think about the women who hadn’t made it in the year it took to get there, or the women who had just had surgery, or the people that had contacted me in that year,” she said. “To get in and start driving around, part of my brain is thinking, ‘OK, what line am I going to take and where are the other cars?’ The other part of my mind is thinking, ‘I want to do this for my friends and I want to do this for the other women who are afraid.'”
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