Is This Running?

Laura is training for the Monumental Half-Marathon coming in November…and I was tired of sitting in bed binge watching Breaking Bad. Last weekend came on the heels of legitimately fall weather, that beautiful coupling of sun and low humidity that allows runners to begin cashing in all that summer training that seemed to be getting them nowhere. I, right now, am not one of those runners, but couldn’t help at least putting myself out there, to experience that shift in the air that marks something important, something great, an anticipation of success only so many of us truly understand. Plus…I was tired of laying in bed. I suggested we head to the trails of a close State park.

After locking up the car, Laura jogged off to the trail head and I began a short walk to a different trail entrance point, watching other runners go through their paces, mountain bikers zipping past open spaces in the woods, and feeling compelled. I was only going for a walk, I told myself. I wore dead racing flats, jeans, a t-shirt and heavy sweatshirt. I was truly only going for a walk. But then I stepped onto the trail and began winding through the snaking dirt, around trees, over rocks, and…well…this wasn’t working. I’m not accustomed to walking through the woods. It feels awkward. It feels forced. And admittedly, I was out here to progress my recovery. Walking just wasn’t going to do it.

After looking over my shoulder to make sure I was relatively alone, I started a very tenuous, gentle stepping through the curving trail. Not fast. Not forceful. I just wanted to see how that would feel. Then I kept going, because it felt…just fine. I wasn’t RUNNING so much as just lightly jogging, but it was enough to stress my lungs, which admittedly, takes little to no effort at this point, but still, I didn’t need to back off. My legs were fine. My abdomen was fine. My lungs were, well, not fine. But that was, in part, why I was out there. To begin pushing them back towards their normative levels. There is only so much sitting around and waiting for the body to fix itself before one must take the initiative to help it along, to stress it, strengthen it, build it back up. I’m not one for waiting, so this little walk quickly turned into a very casual, intermittent jog.

It wasn’t a run though and it was barely a jog. My lungs suddenly reeled back in my efforts and I started walking, then jogged some more, then walked, then jogged, then walked, feeling the accumulative stresses building each time I started up again, unable to catch my breath almost the second I started pushing myself each time. I was suddenly relegated to just walking the rest of the way back to the car, up a steep set of hills mind you, but still walking. I made it back to the car, somewhat surprised and thoroughly fatigued for what would, under normal circumstances, amount to nothing even close to a run or workout of any kind. Laura soon found her way back and we drove off for breakfast and coffee.

I wasn’t sure if I had started running again. It was encouraging, yes, but also very soon. I have a leftover suture still visibly protruding from my neck where a 6 inch tube was inserted just over a month ago. Sticky residue from bandages remains visible on the inside of my leg where no water or friction will wear it away. My incision is hardened scar tissue, my internal sutures just now threatening to poke through like spring weather sprouts, as they did last year. The scabs where my enter/exit chemo tubes pierced my body are still the size of bullet holes and, sorry for the TMI, staining my t-shirts with fluid and leakage. My insides…well…who knows what’s going on in there. Still, I can run. I can do that, to some degree, so that’s what I’m going to do. If we can call it that.

I woke this morning, already resolved to run around my neighborhood…this time intentionally…just to see what happens. It’s a 2 mile loop back to my house and I had already chosen my outfit for the day, actual running clothes. I woke with the same resolve and built my confidence through the morning, forcing myself into running clothes before I allowed the motivation to wane too far. I stepped out into that distinct fall weather, and although I wasn’t going to cash in any previous training, I at least knew I had no extra external obstacles to manage on top of everything internal I had to deal with.

Precariously I jogged down the street, not even attempting to push myself, but let each leg swing past the other at it’s own meter, my head down, paying attention only to the effort of my breathing, which this time STARTS as if i’m FINISHING in the death throes of a failed race attempt. It is hard. It does not get easier. It is barely fun, or encouraging, or inspirational. It is just work.

I try to breath in rhythm, but feel as if I’m breathing against myself…which, I am. I can not bring full breaths into my lungs, in part from depleted red blood cells, but also from the internal scar tissue of my incision. My lungs can only inflate so far before they push against the calloused skin, the inflamed intestines, and I’m left to take abbreviated breaths for as long as possible. I do so for the first mile, my watch mocking me with a ticking 9:30, before I bring my legs to a halt and start walking up the street, letting my lungs rest for the next effort.

Looking ahead, I make a deal with myself.

“Walk this block, then jog all the way to 11th. At 11th you can take another break. You can make it there, at least, right?”

I agree and do just that, finding my way to another intermittent finish and let the relief of a halted effort fill my body, holding onto my hips like I just finished a 5k and let my lungs ease back to neutral, except they never do. They are taxed and will stay this way. I have no other option but to make more deals.

“Walk this block, then jog the next two.”
“Walk this block, then jog the two up the incline.”
“Walk this block, then jog home…that’s all you have left.”

Somehow I agree to my demands and am able to reach each one, with lungs increasingly worn from the effort, the two miles feeling embarrassingly long and unlike any effort I’ve had to exert at this distance before. I’m still unmotivated, uninspired, unencouraged…but I had to make it home.

On the porch I still didn’t feel accomplished…just done. I tell myself not to bend over, knowing standing back up will risk a light headedness that will bring me back to the ground. Ultimately, I ran 2 miles, if you want to call it that, and glad to have done it, but not filled with a comeback attitude…that will come later. Right now it’s not about BEING inspired, but just putting in the effort, still in suffer mode, tired of remaining horizontal, too impatient to let my body do the work. This is the time that I have to begin helping things along, speeding up the recovery process and getting through it until the passion comes back, and the excitement returns.

I want to say this…whatever I’m doing…is where I start. I want to say this is where running begins again, but I have no idea. I don’t know what is to come of my body and my abilities in the next few weeks. We start with movement, then a mile, and two…and at some point see where it ends. Call it what you may, but it can’t be denied that it’s at least momentum. I’ll take it.

No Poster Child

I walked into the oncology waiting room, my mom following behind me, the eyes of other patients and relatives all lifting to watch us walk in. I knew what they were thinking…

“Which one has the cancer?”

I know this, because I think the same when anyone walks through the front door or into the waiting room from the exam area. Most of the time, you can instantly tell. We are frail, or balding, needing physical support from others, have sores on our bodies, are pushed in wheelchairs, or are simply old. But not me. I walk in with my mom or dad and know they think the patient is the parent…until I walk up to the window and begin talking with the receptionist. I, undoubtedly, stand out. Despite turning 38 last month, in the world of cancer, I’m just a baby.

I sat in one of the waiting room chairs and pulled out a book, avoiding the gaze of anyone who might be sizing me up, looking for tell tale signs of weakness. The door to the exam rooms opens and 4 people walk out, one them being supported by two others. There was no doubt who was the patient among them. He was the poster child (a misleading term) for cancer. He was old, by all definitions, but aged worse from the disease. His wife helped stabilize him as they walked him towards a wheelchair, every step a conscious effort. His skin hung from bones, spotted and marked. His stare, completely vacant. He didn’t talk…everyone spoke for him. I couldn’t help wonder what kept him alive…and why. His existence, pardon my bluntness, is not one I ever want to experience. Surely the doctors, with their unending list of patients, see little hope for treatment. I wonder if they must be simply following the wishes of the family, taking their lead, who want any time to continue sharing love and protection to their husband, their father….understandably. Sometimes, I wonder, if treatment isn’t about the patient at all, but rather the emotional desires of loved ones.

Looking at this frail old man, I couldn’t help but appreciate my predicament, valuing my relative youth, taking comfort in the life I’ve lived to this point, recognizing the reward of health and strength. I am not the poster child.

The room cleared out and we were left alone, waiting to be called to the back for examination and questioning. I didn’t feel sick. I barely felt the waning pain meds. My greatest discomfort was the line of staples still pressed into my skin, wearing out their welcome days ago. The door opened and my name was called.

After basic vitals were taken (128 lbs – race weight! – without the necessary muscle) the practicing resident, who was also one of the accompanying surgeons, gave me a simplistic rundown of my situation, expressing hope and encouragement towards my diagnosis and saying little more that gave me concern or strayed from the original plan. This has not always been the case. He quickly removed the rest of my staples, with minimal pain, and said little else that warranted remembering. This has all become so routine and the in and out of the exams have lost the emotional intensity they once held. The cancer experience, at least mine, has seemingly become little more than a checkup. I still feel confusion, and sometimes even guilt, that it has all become so easy, so routine, so…unconventional. And sometimes I still get scared, because it has become all that. Because I’ve internalized this whole situation and relatively thrived through it in such a way that I’m not as bothered as I used to be. A little more tension might do me good. On the other hand…I’m not the poster child. And I don’t want to be.

The resident left to be replaced by my oncologist, the individual truly in charge of saving my life, and he quickly went through a physical examination, mouthing approval of my healing scar. He followed with another recap of my surgery.

“I got about 3/4’s of it out…”
“I thought I could get it all…”
“Didn’t want to risk a temporary colostomy…”
“Trouble near the colon….”
“Decided to hold off and not do further harm…”

Nothing new surfaced from what he told me in the hospital. Thankfully. It all went as good as it possibly could have considering the circumstance, meaning I still have cancer, but considerably less than before, and now we have more decisions to make.

We continued discussing recovery.

“I feel shockingly better than I did last time.”

I am not a poster child.

I pressed him about the logistics.

“So you said that maybe the chemo treatments might have got to the tumors and made them easier to get out this time, right? So, were they easier to get out? Is that what happened?”

“Well..yes. They were easier to get out this time, and I wish I could have gotten them all out…now, whether it was the chemo that made them easier to get out….I can’t say. We really don’t know.” he admitted.

I knew this. We know very little about cancer, about chemo…so this I accept. We try everything and hope something works..even the processes of the human body. He confessed that it may just be the immune response from my own body. It could be of my own biological doing. It could just be a trigger..of which we don’t know. He recounted stories of other patients who came up with No Evidence of Cancer all on their own…without surgery…without chemo. It happens.

He talked further about the future.

“So, our plan now is to let you recover, for you to get stronger, and then take a CT scan in a few months to see how things are going. Then another in 6 months. We will keep you off chemo, but keep checking in before starting again.”

I stumbled over his last sentence. Chemo? Again? Please no.

Our plan prior to surgery was to “wait and see”, to see if chemo really was the dominant factor in reducing cancer or some other non-chemical mechanism, the human body, dumb luck. Anything. Anything but chemo. I thought we were going to wait and see…and that is what we are doing, but I guess I hoped we were leaning on that possibility more than the expectation of undergoing chemo again. That was stupid of me, however, because I know chemo is ALWAYS an option. I know the CT scans can come back to tell a more ominous story, but I just didn’t..and don’t..want to believe it. I want to believe I’m not the poster child, that I’m different, that I don’t need chemo. And that is a dangerous position to take…I know better…I need to stay neutral.

Still, we were just talking options. It just felt like he was more definitive in his statement. As if to say, we’ll see how things are going and then start chemo in 6 months, instead of saying, we’ll see how things are going and IF NEEDED start chemo…or forego it all together. I wished he was a little more fluid with his statements. Still, this are just options, and this is one.

We talked about surgery too…again…a third time. This I was more prepared for.

“We’ll look out about a year from now, or maybe a year and a half and see about going in and getting the rest,” he explained.

This time there was less “if’s” in his declaration. The third time is a charm. With how much he removed the first and second time, it seems a definitive that the third time would be the last time, and despite still reeling from the necessary abuse, I didn’t flinch. Let’s do it. Get it out of the way. Get it out of me and let’s move on…finally. But, despite the confidence and positivity of this approach, this is still just an option.

In the process of cancer, everything changes. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes unexpectedly. We never know how it will all proceed and a year away in the cancer world is akin to a lifetime…so much can happen. Cancer could come roaring back….or it can disappear without a trace. It can be killed and it can just die. Nothing is guaranteed within a year.

Without much more of consequence said, that was the end of the appointment. He gave me free reign to eat with abandon, do everything I enjoy, and just live my life until we meet for a CT scan and reassess the situation. There was no need to take immediate action, to respond to desperate circumstances, to give timelines, projected lifespans or survival percentages. I am not a poster child. I don’t need that information right now. I simply need my options.

We walked into the empty waiting room and out of the building towards the car, still a little defeated from the potential for chemotherapy in six months, but trying to remind myself that I’m not a poster child, that my situation is different, that maybe, just maybe, I can avoid chemotherapy completely. I won’t say I can avoid surgery too…but if I must reach past my boundaries for something, it can at least be a treatment without chemo.

Who knows…I’m not the poster child for cancer, so all possibilities are still on the table.

Hoka One One Conquest Review

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Hoka One One – Conquest Review

Overview

I never thought of buying, or even trying, the Hoka One One running shoes, primarily because I’m not drawn to extremes in running footwear. I don’t like gimmicks and I don’t like marketing. I like to put on a mid-range shoe and just go. With that said, I do have a variety of footwear and have tried out many different models over the years, from protective trail shoes, trainers, and racing flats to big lugged winter shoes, transitionals and now these Hoka’s. Through all my trial and error, I have found that I prefer a shoe that fits the specific type of running I’m doing at the time, but also nothing too minimal or too cushioned. So, why am I reviewing the Hoka One One’s then, a shoe that spits in the face of the Taramahura tribe and snake oil hucksters selling the latest saran wrap for your feet?

If you aren’t privy to my personal story I’ve put out in various places on the internet, I have a rare form of cancer, and the chemo treatments I’m receiving have the very unfortunate side effect of “Hand and Foot Syndrome” – a very real and debilitating condition where the chemo leaks from your blood vessels into the ends of your hands and feet, causing a deterioration of the skin, making one vulnerable to friction of any sort. That, obviously, doesn’t bode well for running. At the end of the weeks where I’m taking my chemo pills that cause this side effect, I can have great problems walking through the house, or just going about my day without great pain always under foot…literally. The problem is that greater pounding and greater friction cause equal amounts of pain…which is what brought me to the Hokas.

A local running store was hosting a short 3 mile run where participants could try out a pair of Hoka One One’s, and I figured I’d give the excessively cushioned shoes a try, in hopes that it might alleviate just a little of the pounding and friction that continued to sideline my running ambitions. I opted to try the Conquest model, a relatively standard performance road shoe. They offer trail models as well, but I only intended to try these for road purposes. After the test run, I was so impressed with the shoe for my own special circumstance that I ended up buying a pair. The following is my review.

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The Good

Cushion

The Hoka One One brand boasts a number of features that separate it from others, but the feature that garners most attention is it’s cushioning platform…rightfully so. Not only does it have a unique cushioned base, but the accentuated aesthetic on the side of the shoe highlights this feature, giving the appearance of a low cut moon boot instead of a functioning running shoe. Without going into too much detail into how it all works, I can just say the softness and cushion is felt immediately after putting on the shoe. It’s not a pillowy, marshmallow feeling, but the “give” upon impact is noticeable and far greater than any other shoe on the market. The aesthetic of the shoe is deceiving though. Where it does look like a moon boot, or a pontoon as my teammates and I called them, the actual cradle is the same size as any other shoe and the drop is a mere 4 millimeters, lending to an unrestricted running form. The cushioning, however, is achieved not by piling on a bunch of foam in the footbed, but rather by cutouts beneath the footbed that give upon impact. And it’s that cushioning that makes this shoe.

I’ve been running in the Conquest consistently now and the benefit of the softened impact has been just what I hoped. The effect of my hand and foot syndrome is always present, of course, but the cushioned base allows me to get much further into my run before the repeated pounding builds to a point where I’m severely compromised and can’t go much further. The softness unarguably does it’s job. How does this translate to runners without such a condition? I can tell you my teammates have been running in Hoka One One’s as their recovery shoe, going out for easy 10 to 12 milers and allowing the shoe to reduce the impact on their legs. In a way, they are using the shoes on pavement as a way to achieve the benefits of running on dirt or grass. No one I know runs in these for EVERY run, but choose to use them selectively.

Drop & Weight

As mentioned, the shoe LOOKS like a moon boot – bulky and heavy -, the external raised cushion near the heel not helping the effect, but what surprised me was the natural “feel” while running. I assumed the shoe would be heavier than most, but it weighs in at only 11.8 oz., on par with most standard trainers today, and that lack of weight is felt…or not felt. I’ve never felt that I was dragging through my gait, even towards the end of the runs when my legs are getting weaker. The shoe feels consistently light in both hand and on feet.

My other concern was the perceived bulk of the shoe. I expected to have to adjust to the raised footbed, picking my feet up a little higher to avoid scraping the sole or heel on my swing through, but was pleasantly surprised to find that I can run without any adjustment. I’ve yet to feel my heel scrape the ground on a swing through or need to compensate for any added bulk. This normal running form is no doubt a part of the 4mm drop from heel to toe. A longer test will prove if my wear patterns remain the same as other shoes.

Construction

One of the other benefits for my circumstance is the seemingly wider toe box and seamless construction of the upper. Any contact with my foot is going to result in abrasion, blistering and discomfort, so I was quite thrilled when I realized my toes had enough room in the front of the shoe, but were also not “floating” and causing friction during movement. The room in the toe box eliminates the pressure that can be apparent on the sides of the foot. Further, the seamless construction and smooth, airy upper materials caused no “hot spots” or points of contact that would rub or scrape at my skin. The upper material, as most shoes are now utilizing, acts more as a firm, smooth sock than anything else. This will benefit all runners, no matter their physical circumstance.

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The Bad

Lacing

I have four issues with this shoe overall that may or may not be deal breakers for you. First, the “speed laces” that come with the shoe are terrible. They have a sort of locking mechanism on the laces that, I believe, actually make them come loose. Every runner I know has offered the same complaint for these specific laces. They compress snugly at first, but as soon as you start running, they slowly loosen until the fit is noticeably compromised. I’ve had to stop repeatedly to adjust the fit during longer runs. The shoes do come with standard lacing, however, and I would recommend swapping them out as soon as you open the box (you will have to actually cut the speed laces, however). I actually prefer speed laces and have had great success with them on my Salomon’s, but the design Hoka uses needs reworked.

Water Retention

I have not used these shoes during wet weather, but reports from teammates that have run in them during either downpours or through creek crossings have not been favorable. I don’t know if it’s the lack of wicking in the upper material or if the footbed foam actually retains water, but reports are that the shoes become heavy and emit a signifiant “squishing” sound when wet. If you do use these shoes, I would consider running only in dry weather or on dry conditions.

Trail

This critique may not apply to trail runners who are more tentative in their approach, but I like to “attack” trails, minding where my feet fall, but doing so with relative abandon. I like to run them fast, whether uphill or down, and I’ve discovered that a “transitional” shoe works best for my needs. I used to run in the Salomon Speedcross, but the lug pattern was so gnarly and significant (wear is barely noticeable after years of use) that I couldn’t “feel” the trail under my feet before it was too late. I rolled my ankle almost EVERY TIME I ran in those shoes…no exaggeration. Due to the added cushion of the lugs, I couldn’t feel the roll begin off a root, rock or rut until it was too late to compensate. It was only when I switched to the Saucony Peregrine’s, with a 4mm drop and significantly reduced footbed, that I stopped rolling my ankle…immediately after the switch. That leads me to believe these shoes would NOT be good for trail running and I’ve heard of rolled ankle stories from other runners who have ventured into the woods wearing Hokas. This might vary by trail condition, but I’m not even going to attempt to use them.

Feel

Ultimately, I find myself reluctant to recommend these shoes to normal runners, based primarily on the feel of the shoe. Despite everything I said previously, I personally would not run in these if I wasn’t dealing with Hand and Foot Syndrome. This, however, may just be my preferred running style, as I like to “feel” the ground to some extent while I run, knowing that I’m getting the most efficient push-off that I can manage, but without destroying my leg muscles from the pounding. If you aren’t concerned so much with feel and power transfer, the cushioning of these shoes might work fantastic for you. With that said, I jokingly call these “cancer shoes”, because I would recommend them for anyone with Hand and Foot Syndrome who wants to stay as active as possible, whether that is running, walking, or just moving throughout the house. A friend who also selectively uses them said they are the most comfortable shoes he’s ever worn for standing on his feet all day at work.

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The Wrap Up

Price & Mileage

Here’s the rub…the shoes retail for about $175 to $180. Ouch. I mean….OUCH. That was almost pricey enough to just deal with my pain and blisters. The other side to this, however, is that the mileage you will get from the added cushioning has been reported in the 1000 to 2000 range. No, that is not a typo. The rep I spoke with said he would never recommend going that high, but he has repeatedly heard from others they are still running in them after so much mileage. The suggested point at which to buy new shoes is around 500 miles, so in doing the math, you’re actually getting quite a deal if you can extend these past your normal point of shoe swapping. Just be prepared to look at these as an investment rather than a shiny new toy you buy on a whim.

Again, after all is said and done, these shoes are really going to come down to your preferred “feel” while running. The construction, fit, weight and other issues are hardly deal breakers for this shoe, but the sensation you prefer while out on a 10 mile run is going to be the deciding factor whether you think the benefits of the “gimmicky” cushion are worth the trade off. For athletic cancer patients, people with foot sensitivity issues or those on their feet all day, I think this is definitely a solid choice to consider. I still plan on putting as many miles into these as I possibly can when I’m not going for speed or on the trails.

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Post-Survivorship

I don’t want to be a cancer survivor. More specifically, I don’t want to be a “cancer survivor”, a definable phrase that becomes my identity. 

I was recently talking to a friend who is 5 years in remission (though this might have abruptly changed – may the biopsy be benign) and we shared perspectives on what it means to have cancer in the midst of so many other interests and chosen identities. Speaking for myself, I am a runner. I am an ethical vegan. I am a writer and a graphic designer. I am a coach. I am a number of identities I have freely chosen and accepted for myself, that I project to others. These define me to some extent and I embrace that. But it has been a greater struggle to accept “cancer patient” as part of my identity, in that this isn’t something I created. I didn’t willingly seek out cancer…it just happened to me. So in that, I don’t feel comfortable accepting it as part of who I am. It seems to be more a part of WHAT I am rather, but maybe those are just semantics. Regardless, the diagnosis remains. 

With my friend, however, we began to speak of what it is to be a cancer “survivor”, in it’s definition as an identity more than just a physical reality. Maybe it was our relatively young age (we are babies in the cancer world), but neither of us felt good being “survivors”. I don’t mean to demean an individuals sense of identity in accepting “survivorship” into their life, but I also can’t help wonder how those individuals saw themselves prior to cancer. Did they not have a strong sense of self? Did the happenstance of cancer really bring an importance into their life that was stronger than anything else they did prior, and so being a “survivor” is who they became? 

I don’t know…that’s not my place to judge, but speaking from personal experience, I don’t want to be a “survivor”. My life and my identities prior to diagnosis held far more importance than the act of living through cancer, should that become that case. So if I’m ever given the NEC report in the future, I don’t plan on adding “survivor” to my list of character traits, but instead plan to put this whole ordeal behind me and get back to concentrating on the life I once had and am constantly seeking every day. 

I am a runner. I am a graphic designer. I am a writer. I am an ethical vegan. I am a coach. I am a father. But, regardless, cancer remains, and that is something I’m not allowed to forget in the present moment and I am also aware that I will never have the fortune of forgetting this cancer experience. That cloud will always hang above me until the day I die, but I don’t have to let it become me, not now and not as a survivor. However, if my previous stated identities must have qualifiers in the interim, so be it, cancer is still my reality. But let cancer be an addendum, not the core. I don’t mind if people say I’m that runner that has cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the graphic designer or the writer working through cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the coach that has cancer. I don’t mind if they say I’m the vegan that got cancer. I don’t mind if I’m the father who is raising his child through cancer. Just don’t switch the order of terms. I’m not the guy with cancer who runs. I’m not the guy with cancer who keeps working. I’m not the cancerous vegan. I’m not the guy with cancer who coaches runners, raises his kid and goes about life despite it all. Cancer is the addition, nothing else. 

Yet, cancer is still there and it would be irresponsible to not address it’s reality. I don’t want to hide my cancer experience, which is why I write this post, which is why I post scarring and cringe-worthy visuals on Instagram, which is why I use cancer humor on Facebook, which is why I talk freely about it all. Because it IS my reality, it IS a part of me, but it is not who I am. Again, it is what I am…in part. And so I reference cancer, but not only cancer. I reference it alongside images of my work, alongside photos documenting my runs, alongside petty gripes and amusing (to me anyways) jokes and jabs at pop culture. Because cancer is not my identity, it is my reality. 

But someday, I want it out of my reality. I want to be JUST the runner again. I want to be the guy throwing down 6 x 1 miles under 5:00 pace. I want to be the great father to the adorable, hyperactive son. I want to be the guy making a living doing what he loves. I don’t want to be the survivor. I don’t want to champion the genetic mutation I had no control over, that spiraled into chaos and almost took my life. I don’t want cancer to run my life more than it already has. I want it to be forgotten. I want to survive cancer, but I don’t want to be a survivor. I want to be my own version of human, no more, no less. 

For now, I’ll continue to live through this experience with an unwanted, but unavoidable addition to my various identities. I only ask that it remain an addition, a terminology and unfortunate circumstance easily discarded when the time may come. 

Pushing Ahead

Progress is slow. No different than building fitness through running, progress is slow with incremental changes, and sometimes feeling as if I’ve taken two steps back instead of forward. But overall, when I step back and think about how I was feeling two weeks ago, I’m definitely making progress. 

Granted, my days still consist of spending the first half in bed, letting the pain pills smother the discomfort from the night before while I binge on Netflix and try to get various design projects completed or fulfill coaching obligations. By the time Laura gets home, however, I’m ready to get out of bed, out of the house, and just feel the world outside. This consists primarily of walks around downtown, getting a coffee, and generally just being out. The problem is, these moments of physical relief get into my head, pressing me to do more. I start debating getting on the treadmill for brisk walking, sometimes even entertaining the idea of jogging for short stints. Then I remember I still have a stomach full of staples, can’t stand upright, and am still breathing through compromised breaths. As much as I want to be, I’m just still not ready. Which should be obvious. 

I’m reminded that I’m not ready each successive morning when I struggle to get out of bed without wincing in pain, hunched over considerably and taking gentle steps around the house. That’s when I take my pills to smother the pain and start the process over again. 

Still, I’m doing well. I have the memories of last year’s experience for comparison sake, and when held up to that timeline, I’m well on my way to where I want to be again. But runners are, if nothing else, impatient. The drive to run is so strong it overrides all common sense, so we tell ourselves things are great when they obviously aren’t. We run on injuries. We run through increasing pains. The second an injury starts to get better, we tell ourselves everything is PERFECT. It’s like breaking our leg, but once the cast gets put on, we assume that is the fix and we’re ready to go, instead of waiting for the appropriate healing time. And this situation is no different. I still look ahead to running again, and my impatience gets the best of me. Right now, however, the situation is bad enough that I couldn’t put in any effort even if I deluded myself into it. I’m being saved from myself at this point. 

So I’m still sitting in bed, binge watching Netflix, waiting for incremental changes in my body and getting me back to, at least, a base level of functioning. I’m still in the process of waiting it out. And as in running, again, there will undoubtedly be a point where I can get back to it again and the muscle memory and emotional experience of it all will take over again. That, right now, is where I’m headed, is my only goal. I have no race plans. No times to beat. No deadline for recovery. I’m just waiting for that moment the body heals and I can get back to running, consistently, powerfully and without restriction. I’m waiting for the period of healing to pass, to get me back to the starting line. It’s, admittedly, a little weird accepting that my current running ambition is to just run, where before it was to break PR’s, quality for the Trials, or some other lofty goal, but we always work in the context of our situation. And right now, my context leaves me no choice but to accept the smallest of victories, that I can only hope will continue to grow into greater ambitions and more prominent victories.

Today I still lie in bed, my running slate wiped clean, but outside my door the streets and trails remain unchanged, as they will be when I am able to run on them again. In small ways I keep pushing ahead, as it’s all I can do, hoping the context changes and running again happens sooner rather than later. 

Very Slowly, But Very Surely

I’m 2 1/2 weeks post-surgery, at home, and today took my first walk around the block (twice). It sounds odd to celebrate such an achievement when only 2 1/2 weeks ago I was knocking out 10 milers without reservation, but that is just time, not experience. The experience of what happened to me on August 12th and the days after gives me significant reason to celebrate…and so I will. 

Just last year, at this time during my recovery, I was nowhere near walking around the block. At this point, I was still in the hospital, for another week or so I believe. Walking down the hall took incredible effort and involved great pains to breathe, but today I walked around the block twice, stopping only when the pain of using my abdomen started to tense and heighten. I went inside to rest and try again later. I’m getting stronger, slowly, but surely. Very slowly, but very surely.

I’m going to be relying on my pain meds for the foreseeable future, as they give me a greatly needed relief between bouts of stomach spasms and overall discomfort, but I even hope to be done with these sooner than last year. For the time being, however, I need them. I take 2 pills every 4 hours, my last dose at midnight in order to get me to the morning, but without deciding to wake at 4am for another dose, I often wake at 8 with great discomfort. Laying one either side places pressure on internal organs, making it impossible to sleep heavily, while lying on my back gets old and equally as uncomfortable. Come 8 am, I need my pills, but just lifting myself into an upright position takes serious effort and is never comfortable.

None of this is pleasant, but the drive to continue getting stronger is crucial right now as continued passivity is only going to slow my recovery process. The sooner I get past this, the better, but relying on my body to regenerate itself is a restrictive strategy. As the same in running, progression takes effort. You can get better by trying, but you get much better by actually pushing yourself. Within reason, I’m starting to push myself. Last year at this time, just pulling a chair to the porch was all I could muster for the day. Conversations with friends had to be cut short as I quickly ran out of breath and tired quickly. So although I’m not at any point to start putting in serious efforts, the relative nature of my circumstance does compel me to begin getting stronger….slowly, but surely. 

Part of getting stronger involves appropriate nutrition and fueling, so having friends prepare meals for me while I struggle through the days has been important and beyond appreciated, unfortunately, my body is not completely ready to take in food or drink without complication. In just 2 1/2 weeks my muscles have atrophied considerably. My quads and calves have shrunk noticeably. My eyes are mildly sunk and cheekbones outlined. I have no abdomen to speak of and an equal amount of body fat. The use it or lose it principle has never been more glaring, so to be unable to consume the appropriate amount of calories or specific foods makes building strength and mass that more difficult. Just eating or drinking liquids is enough to cause pain and discomfort, as Laura can surely attest to as she watches me wince and moan in pain. Rehabilitation is so very difficult, making PREhabilitation so much more important. I don’t want to think where I would be had I not been pushing myself to eat well and run often leading up to surgery. Stay ready and you don’t have to get ready. 

Now, however, I’m back to having to get ready, and that’s ok. I’ll get there. It will take some time, but to consider what my physical and emotional state was at this point last year only gives me reason to celebrate and anticipate what is to come. I’ll still be struggling for awhile, but during that period I’ll be pushing as well, getting better, very slowly, but also very surely. 

And when I “flip the switch” on my body…look out. 

A Hesitant Victory

And I’m home. The rest of the tubes, staples, and bandages were removed from my body this morning, pain med scrips were written, and with a simple, “have a good day,” I was sent off the 6th floor and to the car. I’ve spent the day getting accustomed to my home environment again, hanging out with the kittens on the bed, spending time with Laura and…well…just figuring out what this new routine is going to be. Going into surgery this time I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but since everything happened so unexpectedly, so quickly, so easy this time, I don’t even know what to expect from the recovery at home. Last year I took my drug ridden body out for a run a couple months later, but I’ve already begun joking about getting on the treadmill in a couple weeks, but I’m not entirely sure I’m joking. Right now, I just don’t know what to think. 

That, however, is just the physical considerations of recovery. There are also the emotional aspects that have left me floating, unable to really commit to a perspective on my overall situation at this point. For the past year and 3 months I’ve resided in this place of resignation, where the idea of “curing” my cancer is just too far out to imagine. A place where I’m more concerned with living as passionate and rewarding a life as I can muster despite all my physical complications and limited abilities. A place where cancer seems to be an unending reality. 

The difference in my perspective and what I mostly read from other cancer patients is this resignation, this acceptance of my circumstance. Everyone else seems to be “fighting”, expecting a cure, waiting out their treatments until the oncologist can hand over the NEC milestone. But my cancer has never positioned itself in this way. Mine isn’t beaten by a determined set of chemo treatments, nor is marked by a deep set of data and reliable survival percentages. I’ve always just been living with the hope that I can make the most of my time and wait for what is to come down the line. 

But it feels different now. I just went through this second surgery, the surgery which is the greatest determinant of “curing” my cancer, of which I thought wasn’t even going to be an option. So just getting to the surgery was a huge victory, and it felt that way. But, now it’s over. And it was “successful” as much as it could be. The cancer is still there, yes, but that doesn’t mean a significant victory wasn’t achieved. Although anything can change, the procedure alone extends both my lifespan and quality of life far ahead. We’re no longer waiting to see if I make it to next year. We’re no longer waiting to see how I handle the ravages of chemotherapy. And so I’m not sure what to think of that.

Did we just “beat cancer” in some way? Am I supposed to feel victorious? 

Something feels different though. The surgery was a “success” and the hospital  recovery was shockingly quick, leading me to hope that the same follows at home, which has left me having to adapt to new expectations at home. I thought I would be laid out for a long time, just like last year…and although I most definitely will need a lot of down time, I’m starting to think I’ll be pushing back sooner rather than later. Maybe I won’t have to “wait it out” as long as I thought, and can get back to expected and new routines sooner, which is forcing me to reconsider plans. 

And with the decision to forego chemotherapy post-surgery, I’m adjusting to that new realization too. The past year my schedule has been dictated by chemo treatments. Infusions every three weeks. Pills every other week. The schedule and the effects determined my days, dictated my activities…but no more. For the time being, the blank slate of my life and little else lies before me. Now, I’m not devoid of the considerations of cancer by any means. I’ll be going in for CT scans to check on the growth/recession/etc. of the cancer every few months, which will undoubtedly take it’s emotional toll, but overall, I have very little holding me back. And that feels like victory to me. 

Because then comes running. And it’s going to come. From a mile run on the treadmill to greater efforts to strength and endurance, it’s going to come, and I’m going to do it right. I’m going to have form evaluations, schedule a training plan, commit to strength and flexibility, and basically do everything exactly right this time. Because I have another chance…and although this may change, for the undetermined future, it feels like I have another shot at running again, another shot at doing it right. And THAT feels like my greatest victory. 

But let’s not mince words. I have cancer. It is not gone and may return with a vengeance…this possibility will haunt me the rest of my life…but for now, it feels like we’ve overcome something huge. We’ve hit, not a finish line, but maybe an aid station. A place to recover before starting again, before making a surge to the finish. And this feels great. I’m tentative in embracing this emotional state full on, knowing that I’m not in the clear, but there is an undeniable sense of relief, of strength, of victory, that is forcing me to reconsider my life into the coming year. 

This race goes on, but as the miles fall away behind me, I can start to imagine what that finish line victory is going to feel like. 

Until then, we have more work to do. See you on the streets friends.