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.

Django Unchained. Everything Unchained.

Laura and I went for our run Saturday, hopping in the car to drive out to our favorite running path…and almost made it. Driving down the street adjacent to a fairly neglected neighborhood we both caught sight of a dog walking down the sidewalk, his tail between his legs and a large chain padlocked around his neck. Padlocked. Seemingly involuntarily I hit the brakes on the car and pulled over. The dog stopped.

I tentatively got out on my side of the car and talked to the dog in a calm voice. He didn’t run, but didn’t come towards me either, frozen in either fear or curiosity. I waited for him to start barking or growling, but he did neither. I saw wounds on his legs and assumed the worst. I didn’t walk any closer and he trotted a safer distance away from my strange presence. I walked to the back of the car and knelt down, trying to appear less intimidating, talking to him in a high-pitched voice. It must have worked as he instantly trotted over to me, checking out the situation and certainly in need. As he got right up to me I saw the wounds all over his face, head, ears and legs. The padlock hung around the chain on his neck and he shook his head back and forth with force. Without thinking through a plan I knew this dog needed help and decided to get him in the car. I tapped on the back of the bumper of our hatchback and he instinctually hopped right in, apparently quite comfortable with us.

Seeing all the wounds on his body, suggesting his role as a “bait dog”, sent me into a mild panic and I tried to calm myself into action.

“Shit. Shit…who do I call? Who should we call?” I asked to Laura.

A few of our friends work as vet techs and we immediately tracked down their numbers, sent them texts and left voicemails, waiting for responses as we paused our plans to run and brought him home to our garage where he would be safe until we could figure out a better plan later. He was calm in the back of the car, but let out saddened moans before settling down as the car headed home.

We pulled into the garage, opened the back and he hopped out to check out the immediate surroundings. Laura went inside to get blankets, cat food (all we had) and water. I kept him company as he pressed up against me, his tail between his legs. I wanted to comfort him, but was wary of making sudden movements and his fur was absolutely covered in a crusty filth, which I later realized was dried blood that had poured from all his wounds. While waiting for Laura I saw his ear was dripping blood onto the garage floor and assumed some of the wounds he showed were relatively fresh.

Laura came back out with towels to put over a blanket and without hesitation he laid down on the garage floor as we discussed our plans for the morning. We decided to get our run in while waiting to hear back from others, knowing he was now safe for the time being and there was little we could do but wait. Admittedly, the run was psychologically difficult, as I couldn’t help but want to finish in order to get back and make sure he was going to be taken care of as soon as possible. I imagine Laura’s was the same.

Fast forward to today and this is a summary of what has taken place since we came across this dog…who we named Django.

- Our vet tech friend from FACE, Adria, brought over a bag of dog food, antibiotics for his wounds, and a bolt cutter. We chopped off the chain immediately.
- Laura and I bathed him, which turned into an emotionally charged experience as the dried blood washed off into the tub and Django shook his still bleeding ear and face all over the bathroom walls.
- Django laid calmly in the basement nursing his wounds as we scheduled a vet visit for Monday morning.
- Django was neutered, vaccinated, checked for heart worm (negative) and sent home with antibiotics, anti-inflammitories, and a collar which he absolutely hates.
- A friend offered us a soft collar, which has been so much better for him, and he has fully accepted us as caretakers, crying when we are just upstairs and pressed up against us at every opportunity. He’s calmly laying next to me as I type this.
- A call went out online as we are desperately trying to find him a permanent loving home. We have an older cat, two kittens and an on-the-go schedule that doesn’t work with giving the attention Django needs.

Those are the logistical specifics…but there was also the emotional change and relation we experienced between each other. Django trusted us when we stopped to help him on the street, though he probably should have been frightened and defensive. Although tentative, he got in our car, then slept in our garage, followed us in the house, and made a spot for himself in our basement. But he was, rightfully, scared. His wounds hurt. He had been abused by other animals, and most likely, through the dictates of other animals that looked just like us. Except, we talked to him differently. And we touched him differently. We made a bed of cushions for him and continued to check up on him. And all that broke his fear…mostly.

He would wag his tail when we came to see him, but wouldn’t come until we called. And when he pressed up against us and we would reach out to touch him, his tail would go between his legs and he’d freeze. Any sudden movement around his face and he flinched. Sometimes just stroking his back caused him to twitch. He wouldn’t eat unless the food was on the actual ground. When we went out back, he found dirt to lay in, maybe out of a familiar environment? But slowly, he changed. He wags his tail more and more. He still presses into us, but instead of dropping his head, he has begun looking into our faces. He trots after us when we run across the backyard. And he grunts in happiness, laying next to us in bed. Despite the continued abusive treatment shown through both bleeding wounds and the hardened scars on his head and legs, this animals emotional life and trust towards others somehow remains intact. His transformation in just a few days with us is as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

And that’s where it stands. People have kindly referred to us as “heroes” and “saviors” for taking in Django, but this is somewhat hyperbolic. We did what any other decent, empathetic (read, all of us) human would do, who happen to also be in the circumstance to take care of a frightened creature. We stopped the car to help. We would have done the same for a child or an adult in obvious need of assistance.

And this dog needed assistance, badly.

But so does almost every animal in our society. And although this experience with Django doesn’t surprise me in one bit, it’s hard to turn off my consideration of the deeper issue here. Django is an animal, as humans are animals, with a level of consciousness and emotional depth that is comparable by no relevant divide. Every single person with a pet knows of this emotional depth. They experience the bond between human animal and non-human animal, and it affects them…but somehow, that divide in our relations to animals remains, primarily through disassociation and disconnectedness. We maintain that divide in the way we treat animals, caring for and securing the safety of some, while imprisoning, using and abusing others.

Bringing a rescued animal into your life exposes this divide with an incredible intensity, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart because I know the emotional life of Django is deep, and should I take care of a rescued chicken, the depth would be the same. If I took care of a liberated cow, the depth would be the same. If I took care of any creature, no matter it’s ability to express it’s emotional state, it would be deep enough to warrant care, protection and relation.

You can imagine, this only further drives home the reality and frustration of a culture that disconnects us from all the other animals that deserve care, consideration, or at the very basic level, a life lived on it’s own terms, away from confinement, away from physical harm, away from abusive hands and the butcher’s blade.

But this is not the case.

And despite the relative hypocrisies of my genuinely well-intentioned friends helping secure a loving home for Django, with honest care for his well-being, but who still live by these divides and disconnects…Django was, by all signs, tortured by this same disconnect. My friends would never torture an animal. They would never tie him up and let other dogs attack him, training them for dog fights. They would never disconnect from his emotional needs and allow him to be beaten, left out in the cold, or mistreated in any way.

But the reality remains, other animals we have undeniable connections to, physically if not emotionally, are in imaginably worse conditions due to our disconnect. They are the chickens, pigs, cows, mink, goats, mice, dogs, cats, etc., kept in factory farms, fur farms, laboratories, and all the institutions of our dominant culture that have found ways to use them for human gain, primarily profit. Some of these institutions we have found easier to not support, whether they be the fashion industry or experimental laboratories, but others we willing engage in without consideration. We buy leather, wool and silk. We eat their bodies without a second thought. We use beauty products or drink their milk without even acknowledging what we are ingesting or the process of how it got into our hands.

The disconnect is pervasive. It is a huge wall…literally.

And yet, it is an illusion. The reality of these animals lives, physical and emotional, is at our fingertips. It is on the internet in videos of factory farms, fur farms, and laboratories. It is even a stones throw, literally, from the highways on which we drive, inside the windowless factory farm sheds. You can stop the car, walk over to them, and look inside at the horror. You can see dead animals lying on the ground. Some will be sick. Some will be bleeding. All will be miserable. You can view the videos and see the abuse delivered at the hands of overworked, underpaid, emotionally disconnected farmhands. And you can see the inherent process of violent killing every animal must experience in order to be packaged, sold and prepared to end up on your plate. All for a simple meal, a celebration, an unconscious eating of their bodies without knowledge or regard for their emotional lives.

And, without hyperbole, every one of those animals is Django. Every one of those animals has the capacity to create a connection towards human animals, to evoke an emotional response the same as Django has with friends and strangers alike.

Ultimately, this is our ability to relate to non-human animals, to see ourselves in them. The problem is, we never get the chance. We do so with our pets because we have a continuous connection to them, and therefore vilify those that will imprison and torture them. Sometimes we vilify their INTENT to harm, but sometimes these people are just acting by the dictates of dominant culture, that teaches us to view animals as commodities, as means to ends, as creatures unworthy of a deeper care or consideration. This is the same fundamental dictate that tells men to do the same towards women. The rich towards the poor. It is domination, plain and simple.

When Laura and I stopped to see if Django needed help, and if we could help him, it wasn’t because we were being “heroes” or “saviors”, but because we have rejected the divide our culture places between human animals and non-human animals. We have recognized that in the context of civilization, we have a self-imposed obligation to consider those less fortunate than us, to acknowledge their drive to live as free as we hope to, and act towards that. It is why we stopped to help Django. It is why we choose to live a vegan lifestyle. It is why we support organizations that work to erase the divide between humans and non-human animals, who liberate them into the wild, who strive to reconnect humans to the natural world while also keeping our actions in the context of a civilized existence, who give both human animals and non-human animals the chance to experience fully liberated lives.

I commend and fully support every individual who acts towards non-human animals with the care and consideration we have morally established towards own own species, but we can do more. We can first widen our circle of consideration, to which we then widen our circle of compassion, to include not just the animals we have made immediate emotional connections with, but also to those who always have the POTENTIAL for emotional connection…not out of selfish desires for companionship or reciprocated love, but simply because it is moral, it is just. Of course, the easiest way to do this, daily, continuously, is to go vegan. Eat beans, grains, fruits, vegetables, greens, cookies, cakes, coffee, nuts, seeds….everything that isn’t animals. Leave them off your plate, out of our crumbling civilization, and let’s find a new way to relate to animals until we’re all liberated together.

Unchain Django. Unchain non-human animals. Unchain humans. Unchain everything.

My 15 Minutes?

RW Cover

A lot has happened today. A LOT. Ok…mainly a lot of clicking on my keyboard trying to keep up with social media congratulations. There is so much to be said, that I will try to devote the time and emotional energy to in the coming days, but for now, I need to compile some of the articles and videos that have been created about my story for this blog. I certainly want to keep track of all this for my own chronicling, but to also acknowledge the work others put into creating these stories. It is insufficient, but still, I think you with all the gratitude I can muster.

http://www.indystar.com/picture-gallery/life/diet-fitness/2014/11/10/runners-world-has-an-indy-cover-model/18801967/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/10/scott-spitz-running-with-cancer_n_6109402.html

http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/third-metric-runners-world-cover-contest-winners/5457b1b278c90a09880000ce

http://c.brightcove.com/services/viewer/federated_f9?isVid=1&isUI=1

http://www.runnersworld.com/runners-stories/cover-contest-finalist-scott-spitz

http://www.workoutcancer.org/Scott_Spitz.html#.VGFw6NwYFBU

Hello…umm..world?

Well hello, nice to meet you. This is somewhat awkward. Meeting you, I mean, like this. Some of you already know a bit about me through my writings, but I’m assuming there has been a huge spike in my traffic by the time this goes live, because I’m thinking a lot of you recently ended up here after seeing me on the cover of Runner’s World. Yes, that happened. And I’m as surprised as I am humbled. The thing with being on the cover of Runner’s World and having my sort of “15 minutes of fame”, now extended to maybe 20 minutes by the power of social media, is that I feel a small manner of responsibility, of preserving my identity, of making sure that who I am is laid front and center for anyone who may want to engage with me further past just reading through some of my blog posts. I don’t want to be elusive, misrepresented, and just plain something that I’m not. If we’re talking about making friends and enemies, I err on the side of honesty and let come what may. This might seem an unnecessary introduction, but I still feel it worthy, so bear with me on this initial post, then read on to others if you’d like. Let’s just get into it.

My name is Scott Spitz and as you probably gathered from the Runner’s World profile, I’m a runner and a cancer patient. I’m also a number of other accepted identities, whether that be an anarchist, atheist, parent, skeptic, dork, and so on. I’m human, which is to say, very inconsistent (I refuse the idea of being “flawed”), and I won’t pretend to be anything else, so if you’ve come here looking for some idyllic representation of a “cancer warrior” or “admirable role model”, I’d suggest looking elsewhere. What I would advise, as I practice with others, is gathering what suits you, evaluating, and either tolerating or eschewing the rest. That’s my advice anyways. With that in mind, I feel compelled to clarify a few things so you know what my premises are and what to expect from this blog should you stick around.

I love to run. Duh. I discovered my talent and passion for running at a young age and although I spent a number of years without it as a central component to my life, I was fortunate enough to rediscover it at the most opportune time. I am not just a “runner” though, I am a competitive runner. A competitive, distance runner. A vegan, competitive, distance runner. I could probably add more descriptors, but that should be suitable. All this is to say that I don’t separate my politics from my recreation, and my recreation is to a degree that most would find obsessive and excessive. I feel most myself in racing shorts, completing 100 mile weeks, and daily seeking an experience that has never been matched by anything else but running. It isn’t just an act. To me, it is an experience, an emotional state, an accomplishment in it’s own right, but also a reaction to the passivity of our daily lives. Running makes each day worth living…and when I don’t run, well, you know how that feels. Running feels like my own private superpower and to let that power go unfulfilled just feels, for a lack of better term, wrong. Absolutely, undeniably wrong. That, to keep it succinct, is how I view myself as a runner.

I’m also vegan, as should be very apparent. But I’m not the vegan stereotype that is portrayed in the media today. Ok, that stretches the truth a bit…stereotypes exist for a reason, but rest assured, I’ve moved past the more annoying traits that come with over excitable individuals who have discovered a new identity, lifestyle, and wealth of information that must be shared. Admittedly, I went through all that, but this was 20 years ago when most of you probably had never heard the term vegan and so couldn’t care less. Yes, I went vegan back in 1994, and I did so for ethical reasons, which defines my approach to much in life, and remains the basis for my decision. There are a lot of reasons to engage the vegan lifestyle – health, environmental, etc. – and I won’t mince words about it all, but now I do so with a little more social tact and genuine consideration of alternate viewpoints. That said, I do feel adopting veganism is a crucial step for a moral individual and society to take in order to truly live up to our aspirations of compassion, care, stewardship, love, and acceptance. Too often we throw around these words as feel good affirmations instead of doing the actual work to make them a reality. Going vegan and liberating animals from their positions of confinement, both within our social structure and in cages, is the easiest way for the individual to affect real and lasting change…immediately. I urge you to click through some of my links to find more information about making a permanent transition.

I’m also an atheist…which is rightfully criticized for saying very little about a person. Of the many identities I’ve accepted, I specifically choose to clarify this one, because I feel it is a crucial aspect of my overall worldview and approach to my potentially fatal disease. The fear of cancer isn’t so much about the ravages of the disease as it is the abbreviated timeline and the forced consideration of one’s mortality. It is about not just CONSIDERING one’s death, but very concretely KNOWING it, in the short term. This isn’t a mental exercise anymore, it’s a reality. But hey, our mortality is always a reality. Everyone one of us has the potential to die tonight, or tomorrow, or in a month…but often those are considerations of chance and risk, of not stepping in front of a bus, of hoping the pilot flies us to safety, and although they may be legitimate concerns, they are simply that, concerns. Disease and the process of evolution and survival taking place within our bodies is not a “concern” as it is an unavoidable physical reality. It can be said we are in the state of dying and so to consider what happens at the end of that process and onward becomes of the utmost importance…at least for one’s preferred way of handling the emotional stress of considering mortality and the desperately hoped for “afterlife” or recognition of the survival instinct.

So yes, I am an atheist, and I came to that accepted identity around the age of 22, which has held immeasurable importance in my dealing with cancer and the potential abbreviated end of my life (which, by the way, seems to be halted and maybe, just maybe, potentially reversed at this point). See, when I was hit with the diagnosis I had already come to terms with what it meant to die and be dead, with nothing to follow. I was ok with that. I accepted it and appreciated it, so when cancer came, I spent so little time dealing with that added emotional weight or trying to “get right with god” (if one accepts that manner of judgement), that all I had to do was face down the physical battle in the immediate sense and “get busy living” as the phrase goes.

I could go on. I could tell you about my catholic upbringing, my deep consideration of morality and judgement, my intellectual research into various religious perspectives, my reading list of books both on theism and atheism and everything in between, and how after all was said and done, I became immovably comfortable with the reality that THIS is all there is. That we are the most indescribably fortunate products of immeasurable chance and circumstance…and how I have no words to describe how awesome that is. And then, how all that affects my approach to having a cancer diagnosis.

But I’ll leave it at that.

I am also a parent, and although a novel of decisions (some good, some bad) took place where my son ended up with his mother in North Carolina and I stayed back in Indiana, I still feel I’m a damn good one. I love my son to death and do everything I feel is pertinent to give him the best life I can while enabling him to become an individual of great character. I’m not sure what else to say about that.

I am also, as you might deduce, an “extremist”, which is such a poor and misleading term. “Extremism” is a concept based on standards, and so if we’re using dominant culture as the baseline, the middle point, then I am certainly an extremist. I am an admitted and accepted extremist because I find little of value in dominant culture and the life I choose to lead puts me at odds with its moral dictates, it’s economic structure, it’s forced passivity, and it’s drive for a sense of achievement that seems to level everything in it’s path – floral and fauna. I then find it imperative to speak out and live against this dominant culture of violence, instead of resorting to concessions, begging for change, and resting on hope. These actions, although tactically debatable, feel like soul killers. On my deathbed (not yet cancer!) I want to say I opted out of the social structure at every opportunity that mattered and made sense, and I want to know whenever I had the chance to speak up and act out for the most oppressed of our society, that I did. This might help explain the image of the Animal Liberation Front on the header of my blog. I also, for the same reasons, don’t pull punches. If I see absurdity, I call it out. Even at the expense of removing my foot from deep within my throat later, I err on the side of saying something rather than keeping the peace. In my years of varied experiences, I feel this is the best approach.

I know, all that sounds rather bombastic, maybe intense, maybe “extremist”. But rest assured, as central as these identities and perspectives are to my being, I am also a completely, absurd, ridiculous goober. My ultimate goal each day is to make people laugh, to be a good person, to know friends and strangers walked away from me thinking, “hey, that’s a pretty good guy right there.” I don’t always succeed. My social media filters are significantly more filled with holes than my face to face filters, and I’ve made enemies. In the end though, I want to be a good person. I want to use every experience I have to make the time we share more enjoyable between us, whether that is through my running, my writing, my parenting, my politics, my actions, my bad jokes, my struggling wit, my approach to cancer, my approach to life. This shit, all of it, all we see, is just too damn amazing, too damn awesome (I won’t say “too damn short”), too damn everything to waste on absurdities. We all need to lighten up, cut out the bullshit, and go out of life like running off a cliff screaming with passion. Whether anyone else feels the value in that, I don’t know, but that’s how I want to go…and that’s how I choose to live.

So there. Now you know A LITTLE more about me than what can fit on a couple pages of a popular running magazine. Maybe you’ll stop reading right here…that’s cool. I get it. No hard feelings. But if you do continue to read on and find value in following along, I hope we make a real connection and I hope we become friends, just remember, my filter is full of holes and my runs only go further and faster. I hope yours are the same.

The Ravages of Repetition

Chemotherapy destroyed my body. It dripped from the bag, down the tube, into a port placed just below my skin, through a vein, and into my heart where it was powerfully pumped away from that terminus into all the connected pathways throughout my body, trying desperately to seek out the cancer cells in my abdomen, killing its  intended target. Along the way it killed other good cells, disrupting the normal functioning of my body, from oxygen delivery, to nerve sensation, taste, touch, etc. The ravages are too many to list.

Initially, however, I felt very little. Once we got past that first night of vomiting, enabled by a break in communication where I was not given anti-nausea medications, I went about my days feeling little more than just a temporary feeling of fluid bloat. I rode my bike everywhere, ran outside, did half-marathons on the treadmill, and just tried to keep on unhindered. I was told about the effects of chemotherapy treatment, but felt tenuously fortunate that I seemed to be avoiding the worst of them.

Then came more infusions. And more. And more. And more. Coupled with the pills I took everyday for weeks, I began to experience small changes in my body. Dried, cracking skin. A mounting, consistent nausea always sitting just below the surface. Sensitivity to anything cold. Odd taste sensations. More. More. More. The infusions and the pills continued, repeating, seemingly ceaselessly, until my body’s ability to metabolize or flush the chemicals simply couldn’t keep up. Where I once hoped these treatment effects were episodic, I realized the repetition couldn’t be stopped and the accumulation of chemotherapy continued within. My body was being slowly eaten from the inside out…possibly along with the cancer.

Finally, it all came to breaking point, and my previous physical abilities were all but stopped. The slow, continuous, non-stop repetition of chemotherapy had created a new reality in my body, one of continuous degeneration. My fingers split and bled from the creases. I could barely turn on lamp lights without great effort and pain. Some mornings I couldn’t walk due to the abrasive hand and foot sensations. I couldn’t stay in a room under 72 degrees. Nothing below room temperature could be swallowed. Nausea continued to consume me. My feet went completely numb as the nerve damage mounted. And, undoubtedly, an unseen, unfelt deterioration was taking place inside me through red blood cell depletion…and who knows what else. I fear to consider the long-term effects.

All this I was warned about, but for as long as possible I held to the idea that I might be able to fight it back. I could run it out. Each treatment could be met with an attempt to help enable the drugs to get where they needed to go and then get the hell out of me. But I soon realized…it wasn’t the chemotherapy that was killing me…

It was the repetition.

Our bodies are amazing. We can consume and process so much thrown at us – nutrients, chemicals, medicines, etc., some valuable and some a little more problematic. I knew, through years of running, just how regenerative our bodies can be, from the process of breaking down and building back up our systems. Miles upon miles upon miles and yet the body continues to get stronger, faster, more efficient. So I wasn’t completely surprised by my body’s ability to fight off the effects of chemotherapy, as the nurses told me I was feeling the initial effects many months after most patients do, but I was beginning to feel them. Until that’s all I felt.

The repetition had become too much. I couldn’t expel enough of the chemo from the previous treatments before more was added. I wanted a break, badly, but that wasn’t an option. I put my head down and kept pushing through, trying to stay active at every opportunity, hoping to retain the strength and ability to push back against the ravages of chemo whenever possible, whenever I felt moments of respite from the repetition.

Then suddenly I had the option for surgery, again, and that break from repeated chemo came. I was given the go ahead for surgery months in advance and I instantly began marking the days until I could be done with my infusions, off my pills, and open wider that window of opportunity to get back to running, to reigniting that other manner of repetition that was my life before cancer.

Ultimately, I ended up with three weeks of not one more repeated chemo treatment before surgery, giving my body just a small moment to really let loose. And I took advantage of that…repeatedly…maybe TOO repeatedly.

There is a political idea known as The Reproduction Of Everyday Life, in that the actions, relationships, and engagement with the world around us, which we repeat most often, become the lives we lead, entrenching us within systems we may or may not agree with, but are continued through repetition.

I wanted to engage in this reproduction from my previous life, to repeat the running I once did before cancer, before chemo…to reproduce a life of running. With that 3 week chemo-free window of opportunity, I tried, ramping up my mileage, my intensity, despite the ravages of chemotherapy, until I started to reproduced something else. A pain, in my foot, that began spreading along the outside and into the heel, leaving me limping at the start of each morning run. I was able to get away with the unadvised mileage despite my repeating and increasing pain because I knew I was about to lose this repetition as soon as I went into surgery. I suspected for months. So I ran, poorly. I ran with a form that  was compromised by my lingering hand and foot syndrome and mild, but noticeable, neuropathy, each mile building upon itself and slowly breaking down my foot strength, leaving me in greater and greater pain. But I didn’t care, again, because I knew this repetition was temporary.

Then came surgery. My only solace being THIS repetition is so far apart from the first surgery that recovery is inevitable.

And recover I did, leading into the present day, where I am trying to reproduce on my terms yet again, without chemotherapy for the time being.

I have a new window of opportunity…a much larger window this time. As explained in a previous post, we are in a “wait and see” moment, determining if chemo was keeping my cancer at bay during the past year and a half, or some other process entirely, which affords me the ability to live without the repetition of cancer infusions. I have an open road, so to speak, in front of me.

Two months ago I started down that road, repeating my previous life, tentatively putting in mile after mile, hoping to capitalize on this chemo-free moment and get back to, not just running, but training. I began building and building and building, feeling the benefits of the repetition as my endurance increased, my mile paces began dropping, and my strength allowed me to put in greater intensity…until I couldn’t.

The foot pain came back and I was momentarily crushed. I thought I might have become too ambitious, despite only hitting 30 mile weeks, and repeated myself right into injury. A stress fracture? A bruised bone? This repetition was supposed to be positive and regenerating, not destructive. I’ve had enough of that.

I found myself back at the St. Vincent’s Sports Performance center where the best Licensed Athletic Training in the country is there to help any struggling athlete like myself get back to doing what they love. Now, as much as I know I’ll get the best care possible through this institution, I also feared the recommendation all runners try to avoid.

“Stop running.”

Darrrell Barnes, the LAT who I trust the most to get me going again, knows this fear though and he gives only the best advice for both physical and psychological recovery. After a thorough examination, we determined what I suspected in the back of my head. It wasn’t that I was overdoing it…running too much, repeating too many miles, too quickly. It was that I was doing it WRONG. The lingering effects of neuropathy have trained me to avoid landing on my foot properly and put too much strain on one side, repeating an abuse that my body couldn’t recover from, just like chemo.

The best part about this realization is that Darrell didn’t need to tell me to stop running…I just had to run differently. It came down to repetition, but in a way that would retrain me to run properly, to slowly diminish the pain and get back to complete strength and fluid movement. I couldn’t have been happier if he told me my cancer was gone (ok, slight exaggeration…slight). The window of opportunity remained open.

So here we are….further and further away from the repetitive degeneration of chemotherapy, leading into the repetitive degeneration of poor form, and into the regenerative repetition of running properly…but still running, still reproducing the life I want to live despite it all, for as long as I can.

And yet, this hope is tempered. I want to continue with these 3 months of chemo-free living, leading into 6 months of chemo-free living, and onward toward the next surgery when we can try and get rid of cancer once and for all…but I know this is all so tenuous. I know the CT scans we are soon scheduling can come back with a different plan, that puts me right back on chemo and slams the window shut before I really get to let loose. I know my surgical oncologist can pull the plug on my plans, replacing the worry-free regenerative repetition of my running, with the increasingly degenerative repetition of chemo infusions and pills yet again. And somewhere..somewhere down the line…an estimated year, year and a half, is the third surgery. The other manner of repetition.

But for now…I just want this one extended moment, this one window of opportunity to make the most of my time away from chemo, despite the lingering side effects of it’s own repetition, to push back with mine, to put in mile after mile, rebuilding moment after rebuilding moment, winning psychological battle after psychological battle, creating red blood cell after red blood cell, forming muscle fiber after muscle fiber…until I can get as close as possible to the life I had pre-cancer. Even if just for this temporary moment.

We have opportunities every day to create the lives we want, to live to our own standards, despite obstacles, despite adversity…but they will always remain moments, entirely temporary if we don’t continue to repeat them. Ultimately, we must choose to repeat the lives we want to live, through our bodies, our relationships, our engagements with the world around us, so that the negative repetitions don’t break us down, don’t erase all we’ve chosen to build. I’ve tried to never stop this reproduction throughout cancer…there has been no reason to…but the bigger struggle has been to do so physically.

At some point, though, I can only hope this reproduction of cancer, this manner of repetition, ends, and this whole experience becomes only a footnote t0 my life. A moment. A process that ceased repeating. And I can say that, despite it all, I never stopped reproducing the daily life I always wanted for myself and those around me.

But, until we get there…I’ve got more to do…over and over again.

 

 

Run Fast. Run Vegan. Running, racing, nutrition and vegan primer.

Before cancer I wrote this primer to answer the repeated questions I would get regarding running, racing, veganism and nutrition. It was initially going to be a simple PDF, but once I started writing I couldn’t stop and it turned into something much more extensive. Then cancer hit and I put this on the back burner, but after re-reading it between surgeries, I felt it was still relatively decent. I brought in a handful of people from Registered Dietitians, Ginny Messina and Matt Ruscigno, to my personal coach, Matt Ebersole, to vet the information.

I recently finished the work and am glad to offer it as an online document or printable PDF. Feel free to print, share, and spread it around should you find it worthwhile.

I regret I couldn’t put more time into making it visually pleasing or finding someone to help me make it a physical document, but all the information is still there. I’ve included the link below and in the links to the side, which lead to a downloadable PDF.

Thanks for checking it out!