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The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

The Student News Site of Bethel University

The Clarion

‘Everyone needs a dragon to slay and a mountain to climb’

Cancer survivor and runner, Mikayla Erlenborn has a different outlook on challenges

By Hannah Hunhoff

For Mikayla Erlenborn, there are some challenges in life she chooses, and others that choose her. Four-and-a-half-year-old Mikayla snuggled up in her mother Christine’s lap, as she read her a bedtime story and tucked her into her purple quilt in the top bunk bed. That night, Erlenborn would ask a question that her parents would never forget.

“Mommy, did God give me leukemia?” 

Her father Chad Erlenborn recalled that Christine was taken back by the difficult question and turned to the Lord for wisdom. 

“No, of course not, God did not give you leukemia,” her mother replied. “God gives you the strength to fight leukemia. God is our strength, our rock, our source. Mikayla, we all face hard things – mommy got in a car accident, Caleb was born with an angel kiss and daddy hurt his knee. We all face difficult things, and we do not get to pick them.”

Mikayla Erlenborn drives around the pediatric oncology floor at  Children’s Minnesota Hospital in a turquoise toy car, as she received a blood transfusion through her implanted port in the summer of 2006. In the next few years, Erlenborn hopes to return to the same oncology floor as a pediatric nurse and serve children who experience the same health challenges. “I feel like I can make a difference in that area and really impact and support children in a way that not everyone can,” Erlenborn said. “I did go through a similar situation and was in the same bed they are in. I can relate to them and support them in a higher way that some people just like can’t because I’ve been there. | Photo submitted by Mikayla Erlenborn

Mikayla saw these words come to life in a myriad of ways, both in her childhood and early adulthood. She believes that both the challenges that she chooses and others that she doesn’t pose a rare opportunity to help her “grow into the woman she aspires to be.” 

Now a junior at Bethel University studying Pre-Nursing with a minor in psychology and a top runner on the Bethel cross country and track teams, Erlenborn plans to pursue a career as a Pediatric nurse and desires to return to the oncology unit at Children’s Minnesota Hospital to serve young cancer patients. She received treatment in the same hospital beds and understands the weight of both the mental and physical challenges that young patients face.

Before her diagnosis in the summer of 2006, the bright sun rays and sandy beaches full of turquoise water greeted Mikayla’s family on their vacation in California. 

After noticing some small bruises on her daughter’s leg, Mikayla’s mother rushed her to a local clinic in California.

 “Building sand castles, body boarding and laughter soon turned into shock, tears and fear of the unknown,” Mikayla said.

After doctors administered blood tests, the Erlenborn family sat in the bare waiting room and amused their toddler with thumb wars and reading books. Mikayla and her dad practiced hopping on one foot to pass time. After they had waited for over an hour, the doctor walked through the door to deliver the news of Mikayla’s leukemia diagnosis.

“I didn’t know what that queer word meant but knew it was not good as from the corner of my eye, I saw a tear fall from [her father’s] face,” Erlenborn said.

This news would lead Mikayla’s family to the Los Angeles International airport, boarding a flight back home to Minneapolis where she would receive two and a half years of chemotherapy in the oncology unit at Children’s Minnesota Hospital.

“I must admit that it was painful to watch Mikayla overcome her challenges because as parents we did not observe her challenges, we absorbed them,” her father said. 

Losing her long, golden-brown hair. Sitting through X-rays. Getting blood tests done. Tossing and turning through painful, sleepless nights. Erlenborn later came to view these challenges as a part of a greater story that God has been orchestrating in her life.

All over the country, Mikayla’s health was being lifted up in prayer.

“Our family, friends and faith community all played vital roles in overcoming cancer and other medical challenges,” her father said.

The Erlenborn family pose for a photo after Caleb, Mikayla and Anika complete a kids triathlon at Lake Ann in Chanhassen, Minn in August of 2010. The Miracles of Mitch Triathlon—now called Pinkyswear Foundation—exists to support children diagnosed with pediatric cancer and their families. “As my sister has gone through incredible difficulty throughout her life l have learned that in order to make it through deep valleys you need people, people that carry you, and people that are committed to your success more than you are,” Anika said. “In this instance, I have seen my parents be these people on a thousand different levels.” | Photo submitted by Mikayla Erlenborn

These two and a half years of surviving medical challenges that Mikayla didn’t choose instilled a unique calling in her life to impact others.

 “Walking through a life-threatening illness produced many beautiful things in Mikayla: bravery, courage, gratitude, compassion, resiliency and hope,” her mother said.

Throughout her childhood, Erlenborn was found wrestling with her sister Anika in their shared bedroom, which Anika said resulted in her sister “winning and sitting on top of her head while she begged for mercy.” Her strong bond with her family has been a source of strength in good and hard times.

“I have seen Mikayla not only overcome trials but excel through them,”Anika said. “In this, Mikayla teaches me all the time that discipline, consistency and doing hard things are wildly important. Her day-to-day life is a walking example of this.”

“Challenges grow us to be the humans we aspire to be. In a way, I feel like I am living on borrowed time, which means that nothing is taken for granted. As my dad used to say, ‘Everyone needs a mountain to climb and a dragon to slay.’ Challenges make us better.” — Mikayla Erlenborn, Bethel cross country runner

Erlenborn finds the thrill of overcoming challenges in running cross country and track at Bethel, ringing in the eighth fastest 6k in program history at the recent Tori Neubauer Invite on Oct. 15. Erlenborn’s seven-year running journey has been no cakewalk – facing stress fractures and surgeries on her feet, hand and shoulders.

“Challenges grow us to be the humans we aspire to be,” Erlenborn said. “In a way, I feel like I am living on borrowed time, which means that nothing is taken for granted. As my dad used to say, ‘Everyone needs a mountain to climb and a dragon to slay.’ Challenges make us better.” 

Her father’s principle is rooted and grounded in biblical truth found in James 1:2-4, which displays that the deep waters of trials can develop faith-filled perseverance. “God allows trials to enter our lives to make us stronger and develop our faith,” her father said.

Growing up with a father who played in the Junior Hockey League and a mother who worked as a Pediatric Critical Care Nurse, Erlenborn was taught the importance of fostering a healthy and active lifestyle. Erlenborn moved to nine different homes and eight different schools all throughout her life but her family’s bond and love of sports remained constant in her life.

In the seasons of fall, spring and summer, Erlenborn’s family enjoyed swimming, biking, hiking, football, baseball and running. When winter arrived, their days were filled with ice hockey, cross-country skiing and sledding. 

“Mikayla was always happiest playing outside and even saying,  ‘Mom, I love to run fast,’” her mother said.

While hockey was Erlenborn’s first taste of sports, she decided to follow in the footsteps of her older brother Caleb by joining the cross country team during her freshman year at Foothill Technology High School in Ventura, California. Due to the mental and physical challenges that she had overcome early in her cancer and school journey, she knew she could push herself to excel at running. Running led to miles of tribulations and presented Erlenborn with another dragon to slay and mountain to climb.

“I decided to join the cross country team, ignorant of the sport itself. However, just after the first day of summer practice, I not only experienced the pain of running but the joy of community,” Erlenborn said. 

In Erlenborn’s sophomore year of high school, the Foothill Technology girl’s cross country team achieved a first-place State Cross Country Championship title. Her coach Kevin Reeves taught her that running is 90% mental and 10% physical. Reeves also reminded her that if running were easy, everyone would do it.

On the days when running doesn’t sound appealing, she remembers the times when she couldn’t run. 

Arden Hills, Minnesota – Seated on a flight from California to Minnesota in Jan. 2022, Erlenborn was on her way to Bethel – where she planned to join the track and field team. Feelings of excitement emerged as she stepped off the plane and returned to the land of 10,000 lakes. Now in the state of hockey, Erlenborn and her dad booked it to the 2022 NHL Winter Classic at Target Field.

While she encountered mounds of snow amid negative 17 degrees, she would soon experience the warmth and vibrancy of the Bethel community.

Erlenborn felt called to leave California Baptist University and travel across the country to attend Bethel because of its focus on the Christian faith, its prestigious nursing program and the opportunity to work at the same hospital where she received cancer treatment.

Only a few weeks after her arrival at Bethel, Erlenborn achieved first place in the mile at the Vanessa Seljeskog Classic meet. 

The following month in March 2022, Erlenborn fell during a run, stretching out her entire shoulder and tearing her labrum. Her surgery on March 30 resulted in her sitting out of the rest of the track season and not resuming running until the end of the summer. Some members of her track team compiled a handmade gift to lift her spirit.

After surgery, Erlenborn was forced to rely on the strength of others. She couldn’t type her papers on her own. Teammates carried her food tray throughout the Monson Dining Center. Friends held her backpack around their shoulders as she walked to science labs.

“I learned from this experience that it’s OK to ask for help,” Erlenborn said. “It doesn’t mean you’re weak, but it means you are strong.” 

This year, Erlenborn has launched into her first cross country season in three years with a heart full of gratitude. Double knotting her black HOKA training shoes and pulling her hair back in two french braids, she joined the team of 20 other runners as they spent the season enduring miles of running. 400-meter interval runs at the Royal Stadium and a 3.2-mile pre-meet loop around Tony Schmidt Regional Park was on repeat.

“Mikayla is obviously a talented racer, but it’s her unrestrained joy in running itself that makes training with her fun and encouraging. She knows that workouts and races hurt, both physically and mentally, but all that is secondary to appreciating the gift of running itself.” — Anna Decker, Bethel women’s cross country captain 

After a team meeting led by Coach Kevin Rengo  Oct. 27, Erlenborn and Josie Harms contemplated their daily mileage as they did leg lounges near the stairs of the Royal Stadium. The pair stood at the bottom of the stadium stairway and hit the start button on their Apple  watches, sprinting off in unison on the pathway past Heritage Hall. Autumn colors danced in the trees around them, as the brisk wind propelled them down the street and into the “Mellow Yellow” course.

During her first three races this season, Erlenborn has improved her 6k race from 23:34 at the St. Olaf Invite Sept. 17 to 22:26 at Tori Neubauer Invite Oct. 15. Her dedication is not only seen in her results but in her approach to overcoming challenges and ability to see running as a gift.

“Mikayla is obviously a talented racer, but it’s her unrestrained joy in running itself that makes training with her fun and encouraging,” Teammate Anna Decker said. “She knows that workouts and races hurt, both physically and mentally, but all that is secondary to appreciating the gift of running itself.” 

At the Tori Neubauer Invite in West Salem, Wisconsin Oct. 15 Mikayla Erlenborn leads the Bethel cross country pack and secures 8th  place overall with a time of 22:26. Her 6k is reportedly the 8th fastest 6k time in program history. | Photo by Teresa Brubaker

The day before any race, Erlenborn knows how to set herself up for success. Sitting in an ice bath. Eating bagels with peanut butter and bananas. Playing “Warm Up” by NF. Calling her dad for some words of motivation.

Coming up, Erlenborn will prepare to race at the NCAA Division III Regional meet  Nov. 12 in Northfield, Minnesota.  After each race, Erlenborn has gotten into the routine of immediately grabbing her water, collecting herself and running back to the finish line to cheer on her teammates. 

With her first collegiate cross country season almost done, a track and field season ahead and her journey to becoming a nurse unfolding, Erlenborn knows that life will be full of more mountains to climb and dragons to slay. Erlenborn may one day scan her nurse ID card at Children’s Minnesota Hospital and take the elevator up to the oncology unit, where she will share this very message with leukemia patients. For now, she is focused on taking one day at a time and walking with her God. 

“Running made me practice once again to never give up and persevere through pain and struggles,” Erlenborn said.

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    PeggyNov 16, 2022 at 9:12 pm

    Mikayla is truly a remarkable young woman. Thank you for sharing her story and she will make a wonderful nurse! Auntie Peggy sends her love!