To Test Oneself

I scheduled my first scan since surgery last week. I will be going to the hospital, pushed through this magnetic donut looking contraption, and then return for a follow-up appointment on New Year’s Eve to get the results. We do this because, obviously, it’s the least invasive way to know what’s going on inside of me. And that’s something I want to know, if for no other reason, because I hate not knowing. I’m of the Type A persuasion, where I want plans, calculations, facts, and understanding, and so I REALLY don’t like just going forward with cancer while not knowing what might be going on in my body. The scan, purportedly, is to tell me what’s going on inside my body, whether the cancer is shrinking, whether it is growing, or whether it’s just hanging out as it has been the last year. Of course, one of those outcomes is more preferable than the others, but I have no control over that. I do want to know what’s going on inside of me, but not just because I’m curious about the present state of my body, but to also know what to expect in the coming year.

I’ve been off chemotherapy since 3 weeks before my surgery, not counting the 5 days of infusions I had in the ICU, and my biggest fear right now is having to go back on it. I’ve gone against my own good advice and gotten too comfortable being away from chemo, not feeling so awful every day and stopping any additional side effects from accumulating in my body. It feels, relatively, great. So part of me knows that chemo is what might have been stopping my cancer from growing and possibly saving my life, but that other part of me hopes it wasn’t, but that something else was at work and going back on it would just be excessive and unnecessary. Because right now, not being on chemo, has given me a window of opportunity in my life, to get back to doing what I love to do most without restriction.

Even as I type this, the cancer cells might be reproducing. I don’t know. And beyond that, I don’t even know what is happening in my body after all the damage surgery inflicted on my insides, or how long that damage is going to last. I don’t know if cancer is growing and I don’t know if my digestion will ever be the same again. I don’t know if my current inability to transfer oxygen efficiently through my body will ever reach previous levels again and I don’t know if the numbness in my feet from neuropathy will ever dissipate. Unfortunately, no one knows. Not me and not the experts. Every cancer patient I’ve talked to about these side effects from chemo and surgery have different stories about recovery, so no ultimate conclusions can be drawn, and I don’t like that. I don’t like not knowing what is going on in my body and what to expect in the future.

Running has trained me to not only be incredibly in tune with my body, but to also expect certain progressions in fitness through consistent and directed training. Within reason, I know the outcomes and expectations of running a certain number of miles a week, of doing two speed workouts and one long run each week, and testing myself along the way. Unfortunately, cancer growth and cancer treatment aren’t so predictable, which is why we do these scans at the very least, to see what’s going on inside the body in one specific regard. We test the body through X-rays to determine what our plan of action is going to be, and although this is always nerve-wracking in some regards, it’s necessary too. I know that I’ll be comforted with the results of this test, even if the results are not what I desire. At least I’ll know what’s happening and I’ll have scratched that Type A itch pestering my consciousness.

I do, however, still have this window of opportunity afforded to me right now, which I’m taking full advantage of again. I’m working with my coach on a dedicated training plan leading up to a half-marathon in May – the goal being to set a “during cancer PR”. I’m back to 7 days a week of running, a long(ish) run of 12 miles, a 50+ mile load, and two speed workouts…just like the good ol days…sort of. Just as I don’t know what’s going on in my body with cancer, I also don’t know what’s going on in my body with running. Everything has changed. The expectations are fundamentally different and we’re learning as we go now.

Where before, when I took a sufficient break from running, getting back into it would be slower, but a turnaround would come quickly and I’d be back to high-performance levels and significantly increased mileage without concern. Now, however, that’s just not the case. Admittedly, I’m only four months out from surgery, with three months of running (it still shocks me to recognize that timeline), but the return to normal expectations is simply not coming and I don’t know why. I mean, obviously I know it’s because surgery completely ruined parts of my body, temporarily at least, and because I have cancer, and because chemo is a red blood cell killing poison, and because laying in bed for a month while barely eating atrophied my muscles, but how to combat all these performance killers is highly elusive.

My body’s ability to regenerate despite all these setbacks is an amazing process, but fitness still remains a consistent battle, a mystery in regards to what we had learned from past training progressions. Recovery is severely compromised and my coach and I decided to switch from one day of recovery between workouts to two for the time being, until the body is forced to get stronger and makes all the necessary adaptations we are striving towards. My range of effort is also significantly restricted, where going from easy pace to threshold seems to come with a simple incline or push in effort. There is no “moderate” pace at this point. There is easy and there is hard…and I don’t know why. I don’t know what’s going on inside my body…but there are changes.

I’m making fitness progress, it’s just very slow. And although I don’t know why it’s so difficult, I do know it’s happening…because we are testing the body. My first 5 mile moderate runs quickly degenerated into very slow efforts, but we kept testing. My next run turned into a 2 mile effort before I had to stop and recover, followed by another mile before recovery, and then the final push. But we kept pushing and we kept testing. The next time I got 3 miles in before I had to recover and finished with a 1 and a half push. And we keep pushing and keep testing. It’s the only way to know.

I hate not knowing what’s going on in my body with cancer, whether it’s holding steady or spiraling out of control, and I equally hate not knowing what’s going on in my body with running, whether I’m ever going to “flip the switch” and run back into the 5:00’s again or stay struggling like mad at 6:45. There is only one thing to do, however, to formulate a plan for the future and work towards the hopeful outcome…to test myself again and again, to get the scans, to run the miles, and finish this process one way or another.

AICR Interview

The American Institute for Cancer Research will be a beneficiary of the Runner’s World Cover Contest. In return, they interviewed me for their blog, of which the content is below.

Click here for the landing page.

Runner’s World Contest Winner: Running through Cancer

Running is a process – and a powerful one, says Scott Spitz, a cancer survivor who is currently featured on the cover of this month’s Runner’s World. A competitive runner, Scott continues to run through treatment for a rare form of abdominal cancer. We talked with Scott about why he runs and how running has helped him grapple with the physical and mental challenges of treatment.

Congratulations on winning the Runner’s World Cover Contest. Why did you decide to enter?

I was a little reluctant to enter because I didn’t want to assume my story was better than others, but I’ve heard from a lot of people who said they gained something from hearing about my experience. I’ve never won anything like this before, and I was humbled and flattered that they recognized the power of my story.

What drew you to running and why have you stuck with it?

I discovered really young that I enjoyed running and had a talent for it. I ran competitively in middle and high school, but then I didn’t run for 13 years after that. I was living in a small town and wanted a physical outlet, so I went for a run and all the experiences came rushing back. I started running regularly again and never stopped. I can cite all the health benefits of running, but ultimately I run because it gives me a sense of accomplishment that has added immeasurable value to my life.

What advice would you give someone who wants to start running or being more active?

First, I would encourage people to find something they actually enjoy doing. Work within your limits and then very slowly start pushing your limits. Understand that it’s going to be a process. I ended up going 5 miles on my first run. It felt awesome, but it was way too much. I scaled back and started doing 2 miles at a time, then 2.5, then 3. Before I knew it, I was doing 13 miles. It’s amazing what we can do when we try, but there’s a healthful, sustainable way of doing it.

How do you encourage your son to be active?

Fortunately, 7-year olds don’t need much encouragement to be active! My son’s mother and I both don’t watch much TV and we don’t have video game systems in our homes. Just living an active life and including him in it is a really big influence because kids like to mimic you. When he comes here over Christmas, I’ll run and he’ll ride his bike along side.

How has running helped you through your cancer treatment?

It’s important to retain as much of your previous life as possible. Running has given me that sense of consistency. It’s something that I did before cancer and it’s something I will continue to do during and after cancer. Running has also helped me deal with the psychological and physical effects of chemotherapy. Cancer treatment is hard on the body, but running has taught me that pain is only temporary. I do think there’s a physical benefit as well. My doctors say, “We don’t know what’s working, so just keep doing whatever you’re doing.” So I’m going to keep running.

What do you think people should know about diet, physical activity, and cancer?

The public has the perception that cancer is a disease that completely stops your life to the point where you’re huddled in a dark corner with a blanket over your head. I want people to know that you can live a very full and active life through this experience. Physical activity and nutrition are important when facing cancer for the same reasons that they’re important for anyone. They improve your emotional state and boost your immune system, which will help you deal with the physical and emotional aspects of facing adversity.

Julia Quam is an Education & Communication Intern at AICR. She is currently completing an MSPH/RD degree in Human Nutrition at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is passionate about educating others about healthy eating in order to prevent and treat chronic diseases.

Fascination

If I haven’t already mentioned it before, I’m FASCINATED by my cancer. I’m not joking. And I know it borders on the macabre, and maybe even insulting to others, but it’s true. In part, I’m fascinated by my cancer because I never tried to anthropomorphize it, by giving it intent, or consciousness. Cancer isn’t really my “enemy”. It’s…just..just what it is. It’s there. It’s physical. It’s a part of the world, directed by energy and evolution in the same way I’m directed by energy and evolution. We can place all this subjective morality onto everything, but ultimately, we’re just physical beings navigating our way through a physical world. Humans, mushrooms, horses, mosquitos, pine trees, planets…we’re really only separated in the most meaningful ways by our consciousness and ability to consider the happenings around us.

My cancer is no different.

And so I don’t so much “battle” or “fight” my cancer, as live with it, manage it, and do whatever is necessary to stop it from reproducing and surviving as it attempts to do the same with me. We are merely in a battle for resources and survival, just like everyone of us is in a battle for resources and survival with other people, organisms, processes and cultures around the world. It just so happens that the process I’m currently struggling with is INSIDE ME.

And that’s where my fascination begins.

My cancer isn’t an invader, so to speak, but actually a part of me. It is a part of all of us. We all have cancer, in that we all have cancer cells and they periodically reproduce. We also all have systems of checks and balances, however, which stop that reproduction. It’s a clean and efficient system that keeps everything moving along as we’d like it to happen. Sometimes though, systems fail, and that’s when cancer reproduces out of control, desperately trying to survive on the energy of it’s host, which actually keeps it alive. It’s a suicidal mechanism really.

Cancer is in all of us, but it’s not often the same. The typical representation of the cancer process is a tumor, a sort of dangerous bump, that grows on an organ and keeps expanding until it starts to cut off life support systems. That is a necessary simplification, but also just a starting point for laypersons. Cancer, as we also understand, also spreads. It leaves it’s home base and travels through lymph nodes to find other places to live within the body, to reproduce again, to make it harder to eradicate. That…is amazing. This unconscious, undirected process of cellular regeneration seemingly changes DELIBERATELY. It “gets smarter”.

And as unique as we all are as individuals, cancer is no different, so it inhabits and reproduces in the body in many different ways, eluding capture, escaping eradication, and does so on an individual basis. The saying goes, “We are all a statistic of one”, because each cancer is different, each treatment is different, and each person responds differently…making “THE cure” essentially impossible.

Which brings us back to my cancer and my fascination. So let me describe how my cancer works.

Where, from my understanding, most cancers start reproducing as a tumor in one location, affixed to one organ, mine is no different. But my cancer doesn’t just stay on that initial organ as a tumor, growing in size until it starts to choke surrounding life support systems…it actually secrets more cancer cells like..like…a cancer fountain. First, it starts as a tumor, which can be relatively easy to remove depending on the size and location, but instead of traveling through the body via lymph nodes or blood streams, like other cancers, mine grows until it ruptures through the peritoneal cavity wall and starts spewing out cancer cells covered in a protective “mucin”. This freakish, alien-like process causes two problems.

1. The cancer cells are protected by this mucin, allowing them to travel unharmed by both cancer-killing properties of the physical body, but also chemotherapy. The assassins can’t reach their targets. They’re shielded.

2. The protected cancer cells are free-floating, meaning they can drift around the peritoneal cavity and get into all the nooks and crannies of the snaking, overlapping, seemingly endless intestinal tract. All it takes is one cancer cell to begin reproducing again, so when you have not just a tumor to remove, but individual cells all protected and hiding and buried under bodily organs, the recurrences rate gets quite high as removing them becomes incredibly problematic.

Because of the way my cancer reproduces itself a special treatment was created specifically for this process, involving not only tumor removal through knife and blade, but also a “chemo wash”, which entails “bathing” the peritoneal cavity in a heated chemotherapy treatment for 90 minutes, effectively getting the liquid solution into all the nooks and crannies the cancer cells managed to work their way into. It’s equal parts hunting, equal parts hide and seek.

And forgive my enthusiastic way of describing this, but it’s FASCINATING. I mean, cancer is SMART. And by cancer, I mean the processes of life, of the need to survive, to adapt, to adjust, to do whatever it takes to survive in the context of all the world’s complexity. With the right perspective, one can even gain inspiration from cancer, from it’s self-preserving nature.

And, ultimately, self-preservation isn’t reserved for cancer, or “the wild”, or humans in economically troubling downturns…self-preservation is the baseline for existence itself. Self-preservation and our ability to continue onward during our abbreviated moments of existence and consciousness are all one process, interconnected, and undirected. They just are.

So, I can’t hate my cancer. I don’t want it, yes, but I also can’t see any reason to feel offended by it, to feel slighted, to feel ashamed, to feel punished, to feel like I’ve been dealt an unfair hand. I haven’t. I’m just a physical being among all the other physical beings in this abbreviated moment. So then, the only beneficial perspective for which to view my cancer is with fascination. I can appreciate it, respect it, and remain fascinated by it’s ability to preserve its existence, while acting to preserve my own all the same. This isn’t a battle or a fight. This is merely an attempt to retain resources for my use and not anything else’s – creature, being, or process. So instead of lamenting my situation and hating my cancer, I’m just going to stay fascinated by it, and express that same fascination for all the ways human knowledge has found ways to counter cancer tactics for our own benefit all the same.

Thanksmas

So many people have helped me over the past year and a half, and this time of year – Thanksgiving/Xmas/Festivus/etc. (We’ll call it Thanksmas..deal?) – I always feel compelled to give back, to acknowledge them in some way, but there are simply too many people to recognize and I feel paralyzed in action. I don’t want to inadvertently leave anyone out and nothing I could do would ever pay back the support I’ve been given throughout my cancer experience, however, maybe a wider social gesture might be the most appropriate action now. I’ve given to charities in other’s names this time of the year before, deliberately eschewing the idea that we need buy THINGS for people in order to show our appreciation, but I feel compelled more than ever to do so…but to also suggest you do the same.

With that in mind, I’ve listed a number of worthy organizations below, which speak to my interests, and links to their donation pages. I hope everyone that has offered me support, whether financial, physical or emotional through the past year and a half appreciates this small gesture. Let’s make this a sustaining tradition.

Veganism

Tamerlaine Farm
Farm Sanctuary
10 Billion Lives Tour

Personal

Cancer Shall Not Pass
Heather Dane Family

Cancer

WorkOut Cancer
American Institute for Cancer Research

Active Living Politics

Run For Justice
Playworks

Run For Justice

Living Against The Dying Season

The best thing about year round running…is year round running. By that, I mean actually being outside, all year, in every season, all types of weather, ALL types. That means the water boarding humidity of summertime to the face biting cold of the winter air. There is something uniquely awesome about not just knowing when the seasons change, but actually FEELING them. Don’t bother with reports from the weather man, just talk to your local runners. We’re up before you, out the door while you’re still in bed, and can tell you exactly what’s going on before the radars beam back their projections for the day.

And I can tell you, from experience, the seasons are in an abrupt shift, from the beautiful lung opening air of fall to the almost dangerously cold sting of winter…and this is awesome, because last year I COULDN’T tell you this. Last year, I missed winter. I missed it emotionally and I missed it physically, not because I couldn’t sum up the will to get on the other side of the door for a run, but because I physically wasn’t able to endure cold temperatures. Honestly, I physically couldn’t endure tepid temperatures. I couldn’t endure anything under 72 degrees. I wish I was exaggerating.

Last year, I was being filled again and again with chemotherapy, every third week with infusions and every two weeks straight with pills. One of those drugs I took was Oxaliplatin, of which a side effect happens to be “cold sensitivity”. The description sounds a little benign to be honest, like, “Oh, I’m a little more chilled than usual…sometimes I wear a sweatshirt to bed.” But no. It’s not like that. The first time I REALLY felt the side effect was during a drive, in the summertime, when I turned the air conditioning on to help cool off and placed my hand up to the vent. Two seconds later I jerked it back in surprise, as a very weird sensation filled my fingers, something between a mild electric shock and a rapid freeze entered my fingertips. It felt like my fingers were flash frozen, as if I dipped them in liquid nitrogen. I had been getting Oxaliplatin infusions for a bit leading up to this point, but the accumulation had suddenly hit a point that I would start feeling the effects, and it was still hot. I was sufficiently worried for the coming winter cold.

Each infusion brought an increase in side effect sensation. At first I felt it in my throat, when trying to eat or drink anything from the fridge. The liquid would go down my throat and I felt that same flash freeze sensation fill my esophagus, a scraping feeling would accompany the swallowing of any food. It was awful and almost immediately I stopped eating or drinking from the fridge. I left water out on the counter to reach room temperature before ingesting or just stuck to hot tea and coffee. For months I think I went without straight water completely.

Then as the temperatures dropped, just being out in public became increasingly difficult. Coffee shops that blew air less than 70 degrees had me almost running in panic for the safety of my warming car. I would be typing on my computer and start to feel my fingertips respond with small shocks as I hit the keys, then the flash freeze sensation creep into my hands. I started wearing gloves, coats and winter beanies indoor to fend off the side effects as long as possible. Ultimately though, I would also pack up and leave in frustration, unable to handle customers dropping the overall temperature when the doors opened and closed as they came and left. I didn’t want to stay home, but I feared going out in public too. I would go to Whole Foods for lunch, for the hot bar, looking for innards warming comfort food like samosas, but I would have to grab them with tongs while wearing my running mittens. I would buy the hot food and literally run to my car, crank up the heat to it’s highest setting and sit there, rather pathetically, stuffing myself with samosas and soaking up an environment-killing level of fabricated heat as the car idled in the parking lot. I may have looked ridiculous, but I had no other choice. The interior of my car was the only temperature I could effectively control without inconveniencing another person and actually remain comfortable. I feel like, all last winter, I was miserable….in part because I was.

For the first time, I was afraid of the weather, of the changing season I once welcomed with excitement.

And yet, I still managed to run through it all, well, when my hand and foot syndrome wasn’t out of control or my blisters had subsided enough to get in a few miles. I did this indoors, of course, on the treadmill at the Y, but even there I was relegated to wearing arm warmers and gloves as my sweat cooled on my body and brought the painful sensations back into my hands. At some point, however, running on the treadmill got me past the suffering, through either a bearable warming of my core or a distraction from the misery with a more rewarding sort of pain. Being outside, let alone RUNNING outside, was completely out of the question, but that was no hindrance to getting some miles in whenever I could. My appreciation for the treadmill has grown immeasurably.

It is now the end of November, and in typical Hoosier-state fashion, the seasons are changing. This time, however, this winter, I saw it. I saw it and I FELT it. And it was AWESOME…my excitement heightened by completely missing out on it last year, this time it was like being reborn in an entirely new way. I watched the leaves change colors with the dropping temperatures, then watched them blow to the ground like over-sized snowflakes, and ran over the trail painted with their small deaths. Despite the hardiest species still hanging on, the trees are now all bare and with a quick blast from the north, the leaves are now covered in a softened layer of freezing snow. The air now threatens to bite any skin left exposed to the elements, but the lungs are free to breathe with abandon, supplying oxygen to the systems that keep us going with speed and control. I know this, because I get to run in it once again. I have been patient, just waiting it out, and to describe how it feels to be out there again, to experience living, well…will always be inadequate.

Still, it’s not easy. But it’s the GOOD kind of not easy. I’m still adjusting to the drop in temperature and having to relearn how to properly dress for the various temperature changes. To put it simply, I’m out of practice. I forget what I wear in the 30’s, the 20’s and the teens. I forget what layers to put on, which gloves to wear, how long I can get away without wearing tights. Dressing for the weather becomes more of an art than it does a survival mechanism, and I need to brush up. During last Tuesday’s speed workout I thought I could get away with mittens over gloves, not realizing the evening temperature had dipped into the low teens with a windchill around 1 degree…and I paid for it. The pain that filled my hands as they thawed out in the car had me almost wanting to cry, waiting for the warmth to come coursing back in and masking the pain. Of course, I made it through. Then this morning, heading out for another speed workout in the cold, I brought my turtle fur (it’s vegan..duh) neck warmer and boxing glove type mittens, thinking I was ready to go, but quickly I realized I should have put on a warmer base layer as my chest struggled against the wall of cold air trying to force it’s way in.

But you know what, I don’t mind this problem. This is the GOOD type of struggling against the cold, the kind that just takes a little getting used to. I don’t mind, not only because I know this adjustment is temporary, but because I actually get the opportunity to struggle, to adjust, to experience the amazing power of the winter season, of air that stings the face, of a beauty that rivals summer sunsets, of a secluded quiet only the runners get to hear as they gently flow over snow covered pathways.

Last year I feared the winter, legitimately, and felt too close to those who constantly whine and cry about the natural world’s necessary shift in temperature and adversity, but not this year. This year I get to embrace the shift again, to not fear the change, but rather to be a part of it, to take my place among the creatures struggling for warmth against the cold and feel the joy of living through a dying season.

Go ahead and complain about the winter if you want, but keep perspective that you are CHOOSING to do so, that you have the opportunity to embrace the seasonal shift and be a part of it, while others in less fortunate circumstances have no other option but to cower in cold and fear. Maybe, in recognition of this privilege, we can choose to enjoy the experience, to be a part of it, to live against the dying.

I know I’ll be out there, salvaging every missed opportunity taken from me last year. Come join me.

Remembering Running

It’s been so long. Approximately a year and a half too long, which admittedly, feels like 3 years. From diagnosis to surgery to chemo treatments to the second surgery, I haven’t been able to run. I mean, I’ve been running, but I haven’t been able to REALLY run, worry-free, to let go. I’ve had to stop training, knowing any performance ambitions were going to be cut short by chemo treatments and compromised fitness. The runs I have been able to do were restricted by incredible pains in my feet, a pad of blisters on my soles. The awful feeling of chemotherapy coursing through my veins overshadowed certain joys I could pull from my efforts. Even the brief period of chemical-free running leading up to my surgery was anti-climactic, knowing I was just squeezing in small victories before complete physical failure.

But, now, I’m running. This time REALLY running. And it was almost like I had forgotten what it felt, but now that I’m back in the routine, it’s all coming back, that distinct difference between running and TRAINING, between managing and PROGRESSING, between completion and ACCOMPLISHMENT. I, for the moment, have a piece of my life back that was immediately lost that evening in April of 2013 when I felt a pain fill my abdomen. And it’s wonderful, almost indescribably wonderful…all the varied experiences that come with consistent, obstacle-free, routined running. I feel compelled to share two of these recent experiences that seemed so distant, and continuously fading, just last year.

After the unveiling of this month’s Runner’s World cover contest, involving 10 finalists, one of which also lives in Indianapolis (what are the odds?!), a friend and runner I coach connected to me to the father of the other finalist, so we could go for a run. That runner is Andrew Peterson, a 21 year old Special Olympian and motivational speaker, who manages fetal alcohol syndrome. I strongly suggest you visit the RW contest page, read his story and watch his contributed speech.

After the connection to Andrew’s father, we arranged a day and time to meet for a quick run, along one of my favorite running paths in Indy. Knowing his story, I asked his father for suggestions in communicating with Andrew, to make sure I wasn’t stepping over bounds or making it more difficult for him to answer questions. What I discovered, however, was that I could barely keep up with Andrew’s enthusiasm and really had nothing to worry about. Andrew is developmentally restricted, yes, but not in any way that hinders him from getting the most out of life, as I’ll try to explain.

We met in a parking lot by the running path where I was greeted by Craig Peterson and Andrew, a huge smile spread across his face. I congratulated him on being a finalist, checked in with Craig to make sure a 40 minute run was ok, and then immediately went jogging down the street. I asked Andrew a bit about his running, where he lived, about the cover contest and…well…then he took over.

We jogged down the path at a pace that might have stressed my conversational abilities…if I needed to talk, but Andrew was the one doing all the talking, about his family, his interests, his ambitions and impending fame. I worried he was wearing out his lungs, unable to keep the pace without a rhythmic breathing pattern, but he kept telling me about his life. He talked to me about everything that WASN’T running. And I loved it.

I learned which of his brothers was a “couch potato”.
I learned who his LEAST favorite actor is…Denzel Washington.
I learned all about a lengthy scene in the Disney movie, Tom and Huck.
I learned about the choreographed fight scenes he films and edits with his brother for their YouTube channel.
I learned about the mild jealousy his brother has for his newfound magazine exposure.
I learned about his aspirations to be a motivational speaker and maybe meet some celebrities.
I learned about the people who want to have their photo taken with him after he speaks.

What I DIDN’T learn about was his running, because when I asked him what time he ran his 5000 in at the Special Olympics, he balked,

“Oooh…I’m not sure…people always ask me that and I tell them my father knows, but I don’t know.”

See, he doesn’t pay attention to that stuff. He didn’t start a watch before we went running. He didn’t check mile splits, pay attention to form, or even discuss much running related. He wanted to talk about karate, and youtube videos, and least favorite actors…because that’s what matters to him. He’s, essentially, and I say this with much adoration, a kid. He’s wrapped up in kid things and I was instantly sucked in to his world, despite knocking out some 7+ minute miles. I remembered what it was like to run for the joy of running, without really paying attention to running. I remembered what it was like to have running as just a part of active living, while thinking about all the other fun stuff that occupied my life. It was an experience of running I had essentially forgotten about.

We finished the run and I felt light and, just…happy. I remembered us running, but I was more struck by Andrew’s enthusiasm for life, for having a good time, and seeing running as just another part of all that. It wasn’t about times, form, splits, progression, ambitions, or the weight of all our adult considerations. It wasn’t even about consciously stripping away the excess that can become weighted baggage to our running, but simply doing it, almost subconsciously, just because it’s fun. It’s a part of our unbridled enthusiasm, as part of our childhood. And he helped me feel that again.

But admittedly…I am an adult, and my relation to running has changed from my careless childlike enthusiasm to knowing the intensity of training and progression. It’s not that I want to leave behind that exuberance, but there is a different sort of joy that comes with accomplishment and hitting new physical plateaus.

And, again, I’m training. And it feels AWESOME. Like…REALLY DAMN AWESOME. For the past year and a half I’ve only been running, just to get by, just to retain some manner of my previous life, just to feel as if I’m doing more than just having cancer, but now I have a window of opportunity, a mostly chemical-free body, and the ability to not only stay strong as a runner, but actually get STRONGER. Until I either hit a physical ceiling or the cancer / chemo plan gets in my way again. I haven’t lost sight of that, of course. But for the time being…I can train again. I can get faster. I can run further. I can feel my body actually change, flow smoothly down the trail, and watch the minutes per mile drop while my heart rate does the same. I’m flipping the switch on my body again.

Last week I spent time in North Carolina, seeing my son for a brief evening visit and staying with Laura’s parents as she gave me impromptu tours around town and, most enjoyably, running the beautiful trails and paths of Raleigh. The consistency was great and I felt, for the first time again, a change in my body that came with the efforts. It was a progression, of getting faster, of feeling stronger much further into the run, and feeling as if running was a continuous part of my day instead of fleeting moments grabbed when cancer wasn’t looking. It all culminated in a final morning “longish” run our last day in town.

We met Laura’s Ultra-running friend Duran (seriously, his name is Duran..as in enDURANce), who took us into the trails at Umstead Park for an hour and fifteen minutes of easy running while he finished up a 3 hour training run. The pace was as easy as the conversation, but I didn’t mind, just wanting to have a successfully completed long run, the longest yet since surgery. The runs leading up to this one were encouraging, but not without effort as I struggled to maintain heart rate and strength towards the end of six milers or 8 milers with speed intervals displaced throughout. My goal, that day, was to simply complete the distance.

When we finished the trail running, however, it was only about 7.5 miles in and so I needed to continue on while Laura and Duran caught up back at the cars. The trailhead met a road of crushed dirt and gravel that wound directly into the state park on a gentle, but continuous uphill rise. I looked down at my watch, 1:13, and started up the trail, feeling my lungs open up a bit and my legs turnover with a quickened pace and sense of freshness, as if they were finally able to go at their natural gait.

I climbed the hill with a steady stride, enjoying the tunnel of trees towering above on either side of the road, the solitude and quiet in the crisp 35 degree air, and the sound of gravel kicking out from under my feet. I felt smooth and unrestricted. And it was then I realized that I actually hadn’t felt THAT in a long time. My heart rate wasn’t maxing out, threatening to reel back my efforts, and I could continue supplying oxygen into my legs as they kicked down the road. I pushed on, passing groups of runners heading back to their cars at the trailhead, gently rising and falling down the road that stretched deep into the forest, turning only gently before stretching out into the distance again. It beckoned me to go and keep going…until I couldn’t go anymore. But I knew I was pushing it.

I wanted to keep going…to make the most of this moment, this feeling I hadn’t experienced in so long, as if I could go comfortably, and yet swiftly, all day. But at 1:30 I knew I needed to turn around and head back to the car where Laura and Duran would be waiting, and to also prevent running myself into injury as I’m apt to do in these moments of seemingly boundless strength and energy. I made the turn and continued to run alone, seeing specks of color far ahead, the jackets of runners I had passed on the way out. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was moving fast enough to catch them. Rolling over the gentle undulations I waited for the impending threshold, the ceiling of my abilities hit again and again, the sapped oxygen and weakening legs…but I kept going. The gravel kept rhythm as it shot back beneath my feet, a metronome to my effort that shifted only when the road rose and fell.

I continued running out the distance when I realized something…the switch in my body had been flipped, even if momentarily, even if only just for this run. I was running, and the further I got, the faster I got. This is a rare moment, even for sub-elites, and one that comes only with consistent, determined training. It is a moment we wait for, an experience we seek through repetition and intense effort, to know that where we should be getting weaker…we get stronger. Admittedly, I didn’t expect this. Not this soon. Not after some of the struggles I had earlier in the week during my runs. But when it happens…you know it. It’s undeniable.

And I went with it.

A mile and a half out from the car the road took on a gentle descent, just enough to free my legs that much more, allowing me to increase speed and that sense of flying. That’s what it feels like. Flying. I kicked down the road without concern, without fearing my lungs getting out of control, picking off runners as I opened up and swung my arms in rhythmic unison, feeling my breaths exchange without stress. I threatened to completely let go and race to the car, but I decided to hold back, to continue all the way in feeling swift, in control, flying. My breaths came and went faster and faster, but not in abandon, just in response to my legs stretching out before me, bounding off the softened surface and covering ground in the air more than fighting against the gravity of the road. Further and further. Faster and faster.

And suddenly I was done, slowing to the easiest of efforts, letting the relief cover my body like a warm blanket, comforting and safe. My heart rate fell in control and my legs eased their muscular tension as I completed a short cool down feeling powerful, but freed…something like a bird…something like..like being driven by an unseen force.

I’ve felt this before, this being on top of the world, this special, unique strength…many times. But it has been so long. I hadn’t forgotten, but I hadn’t felt it either. And now, it was back, if only momentarily…but it was back.

Of course, now I want to feel it again. All of it. The child like joy and the superhuman strength. As long as this window of opportunity stays open, this chemo-free timeline, this post-surgery strength, I plan to seek it all. For the time being, I don’t have to remember what running feels like…I can just EXPERIENCE it.