The Fault In Our Breaking Bad

I read The Fault In Our Stars just before my surgery…I think. I don’t know, the cancer timeline has blurred. I might have read it between surgery and the start of chemo. Either way, I read it when I was deep into the emotional pool of cancer, treading water in order to find my way to some stable ground, so the book resonated with me deeply. I remember thinking the author, John Green, probably had cancer because I was struck with just how much truth there was in the first 2 chapters. He, despite NOT having cancer, developed an intimate knowledge of the cancer experience, what the patients are forced to consider and what we FEEL. It was refreshing to know others understood, even if they didn’t physically feel, the experience.

Then I realized the book was set in Indianapolis. But not some fictional creation plopped down in the boundaries of our city’s namesake…but actually IN Indianapolis. I’ve been to the parks Green describes. I’ve run in the neighborhoods. I’ve filled up at the gas station where Augustus has his late night brush with death.

That book didn’t just hit close to home…that book IS home.

Part of me loved the sense of connection I felt with both the story and the setting. Even today, I run by “Funky Bones” in the 100 Acres park Green describes and all I can think of is the book and the story (anyone want a personal “TFIOS” tour?). But, in a way, it’s now become TOO close to home. With the release of the movie came the flood of excitement by so many moviegoers who rightfully loved the book, loved the story, and have approached the film with the same level of enthusiasm as a comic nerd would to the newest X-Men. And that feels weird.

That feels weird because, to many of us, this is nothing to be excited about.

I quickly debated seeing the film and then even more quickly realized that would be awful. Now, I don’t fault anyone for wanting to see the movie, to approach it with the expected disconnect that we enter most films, recognizing them as abstractions, as simply stories. I would not want to deprive someone of this experience, but on a personal level, I just can’t get excited about seeing the film. I haven’t seen it, and I most likely won’t. Not while I’m in the middle (beginning? end?) of this cancer experience. It’s simply not fictional to me, unfortunately. This is, again, far too close to home…literally.

When I was in the hospital, a well-intentioned friend told me I should start watching Breaking Bad. In his mind, he thought I would enjoy the story line and get a kick out of the somewhat dark humor of the parallels between the show and my life. He thought, “He has cancer. You have cancer. You’ll love it!” Normally, he would be right, but there is that disconnect again. It’s just all too real and although I make cancer jokes and keep myself grounded through all this, the emotional weight is very heavy and even more difficult to push aside. So when I was trying to recover in my hospital bed, I started watching Breaking Bad, when all of a sudden, in the middle of the 3rd episode I freaked out and shut it off, internally yelling, “Ahh! What are you doing?! This is awful!” I never tried to watch it again, despite the internet’s enthusiasm with the show and attempt to quell the spoilers.

And then I turned it on last night. I thought maybe I should give it another try, while I’m doing very well emotionally, and before surgery comes again. Maybe this time I could find the humor in it all. I finished that 3rd episode, then went on to the fourth and fifth before falling asleep….with a disturbed feeling trying to keep me awake. I woke feeling the same.

That was stupid.

Right now, I’m doing very well emotionally. I’m very physically active, building a living doing what I love (design and running coaching), maintaining a very stress-free life, and simply enjoying every day, but I know this is temporary. Surgery is on the horizon and everything is about to come crashing down, and I should have known better than to jump back into that emotional cancer well, knowing how hard it can be to climb back out.

Sometimes, it feels important to let go and submerge myself in the cancer experience, feeling the emotional weight press down upon me, almost wallowing in the sadness. That can be cathartic. It can give perspective. But it can also be stifling. It can cast a negative shadow on days that would otherwise be bright and positive…so I’m trying to be careful with the influences I let into my life. And I know I’m not alone in this.

I’m not the only one avoiding The Fault In Our Stars. I’m not the only one who doesn’t share dominant culture’s enthusiasm for the story.

It’s a good story, no doubt. But for some of us, it’s not just a story. It’s a reality that doesn’t end after 2 hours, without scrolling credits, without a beautiful soundtrack, without the sense of relief that comes from knowing that when the sadness ends…so does the emotional involvement. We have to live with this everyday and make the most of it.

But I don’t mean to sound scolding or self-pitying, because honestly…I’m doing pretty good, and despite (or because of) all that has unfolded in the last year, my life feels even greater than anything Hollywood can fabricate. That’s no story.

Inside The Fridge

I was asked to contribute to this food / nutrition spotlight called “Inside The Fridge”, run by Dietician, Robin Plotkin. Aside from my ramblings on eating and other such matters, you get to..well…look inside my fridge! Come on, you know you’ve always wanted this privilege! :) Check it out in the link above.
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Disclaimer….maybe Laura cleaned out the fridge prior to the photo and maybe I bought more than just peanut butter and dark chocolate almond milk…maybe.

Running, Cancer & Lessons in Recovery

Cancer has brought me to many realizations and although I can stretch any perspective into the realm of running, they don’t always apply. However, the lessons I’ve learned about recovery are undeniable, as I face them every day. For better or for worse.

First off, ask my coach about my recovery process. He’ll probably tell you I suck at it. Now, that’s not to say I CAN’T recover, but rather that I don’t LET myself recover. Where I should be running 7:00 to 7:30 miles on my easy days, I’m usually pushing 6:00 to 6:30 miles…just because…just because I like to run, I like to feel that “high”, that struggle, that experience inherent to pushing oneself at a certain limit. I don’t like running to be boring, where I’m just passing distance and not even laboring in breath. Recovery and intensity of experience are oppositional forces.

Which means I’ve often run myself into injury. Or at the very least, compromised the intensity and value of my truly hard days of running.

Cancer, however, doesn’t play. There is no, “Eh, I don’t feel like taking it easy today” with cancer. There is, quite the contrary, the effort to actually make it hard. Cancer takes you down, whether through surgery or chemo. And I’m the better, more knowledgable, runner for the experience.

My first bout of forced recovery was after surgery just over a year ago. I don’t exaggerate when I say the effect on my body was equivalent to about 20 of my 2009 Chicago Marathon efforts…as if run back to back to back, without a change in pace. I was DONE. Just reaching across my hospital bed to grab a cup, or even just sitting up in bed, was an incredible effort in both pain avoidance and muscle engagement. But that recovery was unavoidable. I knew that was coming and I knew the trajectory of that recovery was only for the better. I could only get stronger from that point on. There was very little backsliding.

But then came Chemo, and the recovery mimicked the process necessary in running. It’s still hard to say to others, “I have cancer.”, because I don’t feel it. I FEEL chemotherapy and it seems more appropriate to tell others I’m fighting chemo….both through the process of strength and recovery, and I’ve learned more and more how important this is to my running as well, in part because they are intricately linked.

I have chemotherapy infusions every three weeks and where they were once debilitating in their side effects, I still fought against the destructive tendencies through aerobic and muscular strength building. Then the worst of the drugs was removed from my regimen and it was like the clouds were lifted. I was so much more physically able, or at least the unmotivating side effects were minimalized. I was, however, still taking chemotherapy pills on a 2 week “on”, 1 week “off” basis, which is where the importance of and inherent bodily processes of recovery became very, VERY apparent. The most noticeable of the side effects is Hand and Foot syndrome, which if I can try to succinctly explain, feels like taking course sandpaper to the bottom of your feet and then walking on sharp pebbles. It’s awful, and some days I was left barely able to walk through my house. And yet, in the morning, I could still fight through 4 or 5 miles of treadmill running before it got out of control…and then I had to stay off my feet to recover. And recover I did. Amazingly. Not necessarily of my own volition, but of my body’s. It just fixed itself so quickly, allowing me to run the very next day.

But there is an accumulation process with chemotherapy and where I could get away with running despite my complications, there was a point that the recovery was never strong enough and I really started to suffer. My fingers cracked and bled. My feet were covered in blisters and just walking through the house was excruciating. No amount of inherent recovery could push back against the destruction of chemotherapy. I was breaking down quickly.

That’s when my medical oncologist felt I had enough and adjusted my schedule, switching me to a 1 week “on” and 1 week “off” regimen, hoping to aid my body’s natural recovery process. And just like that, everything got better again. My hands and feet, although still problematic, felt better. My fingers stopped bleeding. The pain in my feet held off later into my runs and I was able to build more and more mileage. Where I was forced to take off 4 days at a time, I was now able to get away with just 2 or 3. I was encouraged and motivated to keep pushing, to build strength, and let the recovery process force it’s way into my plans.

This back and forth, push and pull, really brought me in tune with my body’s recovery process, it’s ability to regenerate against such destructive chemicals, in a way I had never really been forcedt o experience. I tried to follow its path. Without a pressing race (or ability to race) on the schedule, I began allowing myself days off when I could feel my muscles stressing too far. I cut miles short. I waited until I knew I was strong enough to run again.

And I was the better runner for it. I could run stronger, faster and longer on the days I COULD run, and I wasn’t worn down from continuously trying to fight against the chemotherapy. I was really just biding my time, whether that was for a change in diagnosis or surgery. Ultimately, I was learning more and more about my body and the value in recovering from the stresses of chemo and physical deterioration. I was learning when to push back and when to let go.

Last infusion my medical oncologist took a look at my hands again…and didn’t like what he saw. My palms were severely discolored and although they weren’t bleeding or in significant pain, he took me off my pills for the week, “giving my body a break”, yet again. I’m not going to lie…I was thrilled, though I didn’t show it to him. It’s a funny thing this, being in a position to fight off a life ending process of cell reproduction, and to be excited when you’re taken off the drugs that may be keeping you alive. But sometimes…as in running….you just need a break.

I stopped taking the pills, and just as I expected, the recovery followed immediately. The pain left my hands and feet…by the end of the day pretty much. The next morning I was ready to go, ready to run, unhindered by the destructive process of staying alive, which meant I could add my own measured stresses to my body, letting recovery do it’s thing in a different way…not just pushing back against chemo, but actually building the body stronger for the next battle. And the next two weeks…oh man…they were awesome. I let go. I ran and ran and ran, even doing my first WORKOUT…with racing flats! I put the over padded Hoka One One’s on the shelf and went back to running in trail shoes and racing flats, just trying to squeeze in enough muscle/aerobic strength as I possible could in this moment of reprieve.

I also didn’t let myself recover. Intentionally. And I’m sort of paying for it. I ran myself into problematic heel/foot pain, over stressing my systems with an increase in mileage that I knew was not advisable…but in my circumstance, sometimes good advice isn’t the best advice. So I kept running, because my time of strength building is limited and chemo will show it’s face again, forcing me into a state of recovery…which is exactly what is happening now.

I started taking my pills again Monday. And just as the body’s ability to recover is amazingly powerful and quick, so is chemo’s destruction. By the afternoon I was feeling the expected sensations in my hands and tips of my fingers. By the next afternoon I was feeling mildly nauseous. And on my runs I was, again, hitting the “wall of drugs” as my red blood cells are battered and destroyed by a big FU of medicine. Actually…that “FU” of medicine is literal. The acronym for my pills is called 5-FU. No joke.

And those pills said…hey…”F. U.” to my body.

So that’s where I am again, pushing back against the wall of drugs as I run to the end of the week..on a sore heel, which is the least of my problems really. At the end of this week, however, I’ll stop taking the pills for now, and although the sensitivity in my feet will be heightened, I’ll be able to recover once again and push back, building muscle fibers, recreating red blood cells, and engaging with the process of recovery yet again. I will get stronger. I will get faster. I will have been stressed, but recovering from the stress will only make me a better, fitter runner and person.

Then come August, I will experience that same destructive process of surgery and back to that trajectory of recovery.

Here’s my hope in all this. Through running, we break ourselves down only so much in order to build back up to a better place. We do this in a controlled manner and when we allow for sufficient recovery, which I’m learning to do through this experience, we get stronger and stronger very quickly. So maybe..just maybe…this repeated process of surgery, recovery, stressing, recovery, stressing, recovery, surgery, recovery is priming my body for something amazing to come. Maybe, just maybe, after surgery, (if I’m past cancer…and that’s a BIG if), my body will be able to handle the stresses of running even better than before. It will take the stresses of 6 x 1 mile and laugh. It will say, “That’s all you got? A little muscle pounding? Please…I’ve been FLOODED with poisons. You’re going to have to try harder than that.” And then it will recover. And it will be stronger. And it will fight back with more and more oxygen rich red blood cells.

And it will run faster than ever before….with a newfound sense of controlled recovery.

That’s my hope.

Running Towards Patriarchy?

As much as I’m an individual that thinks about and engages with the act of running, I’m equally an individual that thinks about and engages in social politics, though I often try to keep the two separated. For one, there isn’t a lot of crossover between the two. But also, politics is tiring. Wait…running is tiring too…but in a different sense. Anyways, I try to keep my running intense, but not weighed down by the trappings that seem to consume political action and groups. Sometimes, though, things need to be said, and today I engaged in a race environment that left me with a lot to say. So here goes…

I joined Laura at the Indianapolis Women’s Half-Marathon and 5k race downtown this morning, there as a supporter and spectator. This race has been plagued with a number of issues the past couple of years, the responsibility of which lay directly with the previous race director. This year the race was taken over by a much more professional and respectable promoter, bringing back a number of runners who had sworn it off due to the previous complications. Overall, the race was handled well, despite a few unfortunate logistical mishaps, and the promoter should be congratulated for salvaging a struggling event.

With that said, there are other issues with the overall presentation that I think are worth addressing. To summarize the event, it’s a women-only race, that seeks to engage women in the running community and, I have to assume, bring them into an activity and event that welcomes and supports them. I think that’s great…although, admittedly, I’m not quite sure the running community has ever been an environment where women have not been welcomed. I believe the gender breakdown overall falls in favor of more women at running events than men, though don’t quote me on that. Regardless, this isn’t football culture. This is running.

And I think it’s this generally gender neutral promotion of events that makes the running community so diverse. It’s also why I think there is a little pushback when it comes to the aesthetic and logistical promotion of these events. I know for a fact that a number of runners were put off by the stereotypical “feminine” aesthetic of the promotions, using flowers and butterflies and other dainty, pretty, soft elements. On the other hand, I got word that the butterflies were taken off this year’s logo, and there was such a swell of complaints that one of the butterflies was put back on the logo and this years Tech-T. Well, you can’t please everybody, of course. I will say, the dark blue Tech-T’s were a good color choice in staying away from the typical feminine aesthetic, and seemed to be received well.

The race, as races go, was a pretty standard start to finish affair, and that’s great…and although the “pump up” music at the start was a little cheesy, especially the dance remix of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, that can be overlooked. I’m not convinced it falls into my overall critique and frustrations. Speaking of that critique, it all came together at the end of the race.

At the finish line was the normal digital clock, MC calling out names and encouragement, and a suspiciously stacked finish spread. There was the expected water and bananas, but then pizza, cookies, strawberries, and more. Again, I don’t want to LOOK for critiques, but was this just good planning or a touch of extravagance for the female crowd? Anyways…there was something else at the finish that put me off. Roses. For ever runner. Roses. I have NEVER been offered flowers at the end of a race. And guess what, I like flowers! I would actually like a flower at the end of the race, but, of course, no one would think to give flowers to all the finishers, because really, only women like flowers. Right? Right. I digress a little here.

There was another thing. At the finish there were very “manly men” draping medals over each woman before they were given a rose. These men were National Guard soldiers, stereotypes of the type of men our culture tells women they are supposed to desire. Strong. Protectors. But let me address one thing…it turns out these soldiers were volunteers for the race and were there from the start, helping set up the event, and helping close it down. They weren’t, as far as I know, “staged” as representations of “manly men” offering medals and roses to the expectedly swooning women. These volunteers may be nothing more than, if I may use the term, “collateral damage”, in the war on sexism, but the fact stands…other women-only races end with models, scantily clad dressed men, firefighters and other archetypes of the “desired male” handing out medals, jewelry (yes, jewelry), and flowers to the women. So, these soldiers may not have been set up to present this specific “extravagance” on the women, but we can’t separate gender stereotypes from well-meaning actions in this context, and that’s too bad.

So here are some of my thoughts about all this. Unfortunately, we live in a society severely skewed by gender privilege. We live in a patriarchy where men have the privilege, have the resources, and exploit them to their needs, which often amounts in subjecting everything “not male” to their desires. Women can be included in this hierarchical structure in so much as they serve roles to men. They can be waitresses, sexually-tinged dancers, and other objects of subjection. They are, at best, not taken seriously. They are, at worst, dehumanized slaves…literally. And, unfortunately, the processes of sexism range from the overt to the incredibly subtle, in ways that can even be seen as supportive, or internalized by women themselves. And it is the accumulation of all this subjectivity, overt and subtle, that culminate in a patriarchal society where domestic violence seems to be the norm rather than the aberration. And that’s not ok.

So when I see events organized against, or in this case for, women, I become highly critical, because the end results of sometimes well-meaning gestures are not pretty.

What’s the big deal with a rose then?

Well, that rose represents so much more than an object of beauty, unfortunately. That rose represents a perception of women as fragile, dainty creatures who are more interested in pursuits of beauty than they are strength, confidence and accomplishment. And that rose, culturally, represents the exchange between males and females that is predicated on the male as the giver, the wooer, and the female as the passive recipient, the wooed. She should be touched and grateful that her gentle femininity is being acknowledged. As a tangent, I can’t help but think of the time Laura bought a new car and out of the blue a salesman brought her a rose as some weird thank you gesture. I bought my car at the same place and barely got a firm handshake. I’m not trying to exaggerate this seemingly nice gesture. Our culture is far beyond the idea of a chivalrous knight rescuing the helpless princess with a rose in his teeth. Because you know what, when I saw the winners of the half come sprinting down the last .1 of the 13 miles, their suffer faces on full display, I didn’t see anything dainty, weak, or concerned with nothing more than the advances of the knightly men around them. I just saw some badass runners killing it against all common sense.

But let’s talk about those men some more. Admitting that they might have been just inadvertently placed volunteers, and ignoring the gesture of the rose and the typical exchange it represents between man and woman, there are other problems to address here. Notably, I reiterate the presentation of these chivalrous or sexualized archetypes at other races. There are the fire fighters. The scantily clad models. The men in tuxes handing out Tiffany jewelry. These are blatant ploys of, not service to women, but representations AT women. These are archetypes of the “desirable” male, that both insult the varied preferences of women and the idea of what constitutes a desired male. What if, instead of sexualized male gender representations, the individuals at the finish were men who worked in domestic violence organizations, or partners of the participants, or teachers, or any non-sexualized, non-relationship based individuals. Or, at the very least, what if the men weren’t there to offer wooing gifts of jewelry or roses to the women, but were simply there as most other volunteers were there…as support. As encouragement. As the individuals who helped collapsing runners to the side, or gave water, or directed them to the bushes for post-exertion puking. (see, I can retain a sense of humor through all this). What if the race was simply just like every other race, but with women only, acknowledging that there IS a need to create space for women only, for anyone not on the top of the hierarchical structure, but without all this other gender-based baggage?

And there’s something else. The men at the finish, whether inadvertently drug into this problematic social dynamic between genders or deliberately placed there by race promoters (such as at other races), are men. And women are women. And not all women are attracted to men. So not only is this dynamic subtly or blatantly sexist…it’s also heterosexist. It’s isolating the women that simply don’t care about sexualized males as props. And that’s gotta suck to some degree…to not be acknowledged in this way. And the same critique goes the other way. There are few representations of women in sports more annoying than the ring girls holding signs for the crowd, or the podium girls of the Tour de France. Women don’t exist for men. They are not props and they are not sexually rigid.

Organizing any event for a wide swath of people without discouraging some is hard…maybe impossible, but when trying to create a supportive, encouraging event that is aimed at a very specific demographic, the nuances can be tricky to manage. With that in mind, the best route is neutrality, or simplicity. Even if one’s attempt to appeal to a specific demographic is done with the idea of support or encouragement in mind, it is very easy to isolate or misrepresent that demographic when we resort to stereotypes, assumed desires and interests, or even aesthetics. Sometimes, although I hate to admit it, being sterile and bland is the safest approach.

Ultimately, I think creating spaces and events for individuals lower on the rungs of social privilege is a needed and necessary action, but must be carried out in a way that allows inclusion of that specific demographic and little else. It doesn’t assume their interests. It doesn’t try to represent their lives. It just exists and enables their participation, allowing them to derive from the event whatever it is they need. It might be camaraderie. It might be accomplishment. It might be the avoidance of judgement. It might be any number of things to the individual.

You might be saying…dude…it’s just a little fun. Lighten up. Some women liked the roses. Some women loved the military men. Some women love scantily dressed models. This race was a good thing that brought a lot of women together. Yes…I completely agree. It’s not that some women didn’t enjoy those elements or that they SHOULDN’T enjoy those elements. Not at all. But in an event where such diversity of perspective is going to be inherent, and in a social context where women are still primarily subjects, nothing is beyond critique. Because these well-meaning gestures (or just thoughtless gestures) so easily lead to the next level of subjugation, that lead to the next, that lead to the next that lead to women’s lives destroyed by acts permitted by a patriarchal society. And I won’t apologize for the perceived exaggeration, because, unfortunately, it’s not an exaggeration.

I want to see this race continue. I want to see this race grow with even more participants next year, but I want it to exist as nothing more than a race OF women, not necessarily for women, meaning not an act of coddling or attempted representation. Let the individuals represent themselves. That will get us much closer to another example of gender equality than any forced attempt.

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With all this said…I am of the privileged male sector of the population. I don’t attach myself to the “feminist” label because I’m too concerned with other things to worry whether I’m playing the game right or not. I’m just a dude trying to do good…that’s all…so these are thoughts influenced by my position of privilege and entitlement. Please feel free to add your own comments to this critique, whether as a participant of this race or just an individual concerned with the overall issue (or my critique itself).

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And finally, Laura ran a huge 5k PR at this race, finishing 3rd in her age group and clocking in at 24:22. That made me walk away from this race with positivity more than any other feeling…so that’s awesome. :)

Parallels

I don’t want to die. I’ve said this before, and I hear the same expected chorus of refrain come back to me…”Duh.” I know, it sounds relatively absurd to voice, but there is a reality to this consideration that many in more fortunate circumstances don’t necessarily understand, because sometimes…it all does seem to get too much. In this cancer “battle” (for lack of a better term) with no definitive timeline of conclusion, the waiting can really wear on you. It’s different when you know the pains and frustrations are going to end, like in a race, but something else entirely when you imagine battling through the daily discomforts until…well…an unhappy ending. When you realize that all this struggling can still end in defeat, the weight feels even heavier, as if the effort doesn’t actually matter. Sometimes, the struggle just doesn’t seem worth it. Sometimes it gets really old walking (and running) on feet consumed with pain, watching the skin on my hands dry and flake away, having to weigh the effect of every meal I eat, working against the overall physical fatigue and emotional frustration of doing so every day. And if this sounds a little like the struggles we go through as distance runners, it’s because there are parallels….just imagine taking the pain and fatigue of 100 mile weeks…and multiplying them by 10. Or 100.

I’m not going to cover up the desperation either. I’ve ran through the considerations of taking my own life in light of this desperation. I’ve talked to friends about this and they, compassionately, acknowledged my considerations. Mind you, I don’t want to take my own life and don’t dwell on the circumstances that would bring me to that point, but in moments of desperation…those considerations entered my thoughts. Don’t worry, it’s healthy. To become introspective across the emotional spectrum is a defense mechanism and acknowledgement that something is amiss. Again, I don’t want to be in the position to have these considerations, and am glad that I’m away from that desperation, but I understand when others face down the agency of managing their own mortality.

I do, however, want to live, and imagine coming through this cancering experience in victory and triumph, instead of absolute defeat. It was that image which entered my consciousness while out on a run today, a triumphant lifting of the arms as I broke the tape of the cancer experience, my surgeon mouthing the words, “You’re cancer-free.” That is the finish I hope to experience. But, as we distance runners well know, there are other potential outcomes to face. First, though, the preferred envisioning involves tackling a course, no matter how difficult, feeling the physical wear and tear, but running the race well, coming to the finish in victory and living to fight another day. My vision for cancer is no different.

Then there is the converse. Either the strains of the course proved too difficult or the body was unprepared, too weak to fight off the increasing deterioration, and we fall short of the finish line, dropping out in complete defeat, metaphorically “dying” as we like to put it. In the cancer experience, though, there is no metaphor. Dying is dying. And the course is unfinished. It just goes on until someone draws a line in the sand and you cross it, finishing before you even realize it’s over, when someone says, “You’re done. You’re cancer-free. The scan came back negative.” Until then, you just run and run, hoping you prepared well enough, building enough strength to take on every obstacle the course throws in your path, to make it over each hill, each mountain. The problem is, you don’t always know what’s coming or when the course ends. So, you just put your head down and go. You have little choice. Admittedly, some obstacles are foreseen and you can do a little preparing. The next hill…err, mountain…in my course will be met on August 11th, when I find myself at it’s base. HIPEC mountain we can call it. It will take me some time to climb up and over, very gradually picking up speed on the descent, but I’m confident I’ll get there. Where I go after that…well…who knows. Either my body is strong enough to keep taking on the unseen obstacles to come, or I run across the finish line with increasing speed and my hands in the air.

Or…

I find a middle ground. I cross the line defeated, as we distance runners sometimes do. The course throws obstacles in our path that break us down, slowly, over and over. Our muscles tire and drain, shifting strength to other areas of the body, then drain those, until there is nothing left before the finish and we find our pace slowing further and further, our heart beating out of control, our motivation decreasing with the effort increasing, until we reach the finish in desperation….sometimes walking through with our heads hung low, and others, crumpling to our knees in total exhaustion. But….we finish. That is a victory in it’s own right, and with cancer, it’s more than just a fulfillment, it’s an absolute triumph. It’s cause for celebration instead of disappointment, because no matter how we get there, to cross the finish line is the ultimate goal. And most importantly, the triumph is in what comes next, both in running and disease…the recovery. We know, no matter how the finish is reached, that whatever damage has been done up to that point, a recovery, a regeneration will follow and we’ll live to fight another day. In running, that means a shot at redemption, at revenge. In cancer, it means to live another day, without restriction.

It’s something telling about the cancer experience that when even crossing the finish, while broken and beaten, is cause for celebration. It is a victory. I’ll take either outcome, whether that necessitates doing the “survival shuffle” (another apt comparison), or a full on sprint…just as long as I don’t “die”. Metaphorically and literally.

There is one more parallel to point out. We runners will talk about our PR’s and our finishing times, because they are summaries of our goals and efforts, measurable against others and in their own right, but that is only for simplicity sake. Get us talking long enough and we’ll tell you about the course, about the the hills and heat we had to overcome, about the parts that wore us down and where we felt strong and light. We’ll tell you about everything that happened between the time the gun went off and when we made it to the finish, because we don’t run to break the tape….we run to run. We run for the experience. We run for everything in between the start and finish…no matter the outcome.

My approach to this cancer experience is no different. I don’t know where the finish line is. I don’t know what obstacles will spring up before me. I don’t know when I’ll feel broken and beaten or when I’ll feel strong and swift, but I’m going to make the most of all this time between the proverbial start and the elusive finish….because that’s why we run. That’s why I live. And that’s why I don’t want to die.

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Lastly, I want to acknowledge those in the race with disease that don’t know where their finish line lies, but do know there are no more descents, no more tailwinds and no victory at the finish. There is only the efforts they have until the body breathes it’s last breath. All I can offer are these words….don’t die because you stopped breathing…die because you ran out of breath. I’ll run with you for as long as I can, and then try to reach the finish for you.

We All Have Cancer

We all have cancer…it’s just that we seem to forget every morning we wake up.

The thing about cancer, is the fear and dread is not necessarily about the cancer, but rather the realization of the worst case scenario..that it will end in death. Cancer is not always a losing proposition, so a diagnosis today isn’t always a reason to just curl up in a corner and wait to die. Many of us are attempting to show a different reality, but that doesn’t mean the fear of ultimately dying sooner than expected isn’t always present. It is. But as we navigate through our days, hit peaks and valleys through chemotherapy treatment, and wake each morning along with a rising sun, we are reminded there are unwritten moments strung far out ahead of us, waiting to be experienced. Cancer simply isn’t always a death sentence…or at least an immediate one.

There is the heavy burden of waiting for death, however. There is the realization, sometimes more conscious at times than others, that we are trying to live in moments that may be taken away more abruptly than we expected. Physical digression can happen quickly and the predictability we desperately hold onto can be lost should cancer turn the tables. Cancering is a very smart process, learning to overcome our ingenious defenses. Ultimately, we, as cancer patients, fear death just like everyone else, but the reality of that end stares us down more pointedly, more directly, more consistently.

But dying is always there….whether you are diseased or not. In that sense…you have cancer too. You have to face the fear of dying just like everyone else and you have to make decisions in your life, not just for survival’s sake, not just to avoid dying, but also to live a life that is full, rewarding, and makes the most of your brief blip in our existence brought about by chance and circumstance. For those of us that face it down every day, the strength and drive to make the most of our days is never lost. It is never lost, because we never forget about dying. We can’t. It won’t let us.

When I wake up every morning, I’m greeted by cancer. I’m greeted by hands and feet that are broken down from a year of chemotherapy treatments. I’m greeted by a stomach that taunts me with hunger or concerns me with blockages. Sometimes I’m greeted by headaches, nose bleeds, nausea, or any other list of physical annoyances. And the forgetting never comes. I’m reminded every time I go for a run and have to cut the mileage short. I’m reminded when I can’t drop beneath 6:30 miles. I’m reminded when I’m worn out from the daily annoyances and can’t find the drive to put in another ounce of physical effort.

Some of us just don’t have the luxury of forgetting about our imminent death.

But that’s ok. Our survival instinct, our motivation to avoid death, coupled with that distinct and deep realization of an ultimate end is what compels us as humans to pull the most from our days, to treat others with kindness and do as little harm as possible, and to simply live a valuable and intense life with the time we have. I truly believe I’m FORTUNATE to never forget my dying. But it wasn’t always this way.

I too, before cancer, forgot about dying and would only revisit it at my convenience. I always appreciated the perspective it gave me to dwell on it for a period, but it would often fall to the wayside in the face of so many petty, daily distractions. Facebook, news media, chores, work, etc. etc. They all eroded and chipped away at the more valuable realizations that comprised my existence. I could easily get wrapped up in petty arguments, issues I had no control over, celebrity absurdity and so much more. And, although it’s fun to dabble in that from time to time, I now have more pressing issues facing me down, stripping away the perceived importance of our attitudes and perspectives of dominant culture, so that I’m constantly reminded of what REALLY matters to me, what I REALLY have control over, and I’m compelled to focus my energies there. I’d rather make the effort to spend the evening with friends planning our Wilderness Academy (side project I’m involved in), or get up early for another trail run, or force myself to write a rambling blog post, than give in to so many other distractions.

These are simply choices Ive chosen to make with the impetus of getting the most out of my days, now that they might be shortened. I make these choices because Cancer doesn’t let me forget about dying…about not existing…about my consciousness being turned off like the light in a burned out bulb.

And really, the only difference between my dying and yours, is that cancer has brought a more predictable timeline to my end. Yes, I could get hit by a bus tonight….just like you. Yes, there are a myriad of ways we can all die before we even realize what happened, but those are the unpredictables, the ones we really can’t bother ourselves with. It’s the timelines of disease that bring a new urgency to our consciousness…and your timeline, in the larger picture of all existence, is really no different than mine. We are all blips.

I’m just forced to face my dying blip every day…and I’m the better for it. I only hope the same for you.

In that way of viewing our physical existence, we all have cancer, in that we all face down death. And every one of us has the choice to spend our days in either petty distractions, frustration and regret, or in seeking valuable experiences, passion and excitement.

If nothing else, never forget that.

Run With The Foxes 10 Mile Trail Race – Race Report

If there is one constant in the world of the diseased, it’s that nothing is constant. Nothing is predictable, for better or worse.

Leading up to this race I was tentatively excited about my running progress, being able to put in a couple weeks of pretty consistent running with only minimal issues from chemo side effects. My legs felt stronger, my lungs expanding, and although I continued to hit a wall at about mile 3 during all my runs, I could still get through the varied 6 to 8 miles. I even put in a full hour on the trails of Brown County, a running duration I had not achieved in quite some time. Still, I say everything was “tentative”, because I’m never sure what is going to happen each morning I wake up and put my feet to the cold, wood floor. Sometimes I have to stabilize myself against the wall from the pain. Other times, the blisters on my feet shoot warning shots across my path. For the past couple of weeks though, I’ve been able to hold the problems at bay…tentatively.

This time, a couple consistent weeks of running created the expected blistering I’ve come to accept as an unfortunate trade off. The two days before race morning I babied my toes with opened sandals, zero running and a building nervousness that this race might have to be endured more than enjoyed. I only hoped the pre-race adrenaline might quell the pain far into the run…so imagine my surprise when I put on my trail racing shoes at the last second, went for a precarious jog up the road and found almost no pain at the end of my feet. The blisters were there, but the rubbing was not. In concert with the ability to run freely in the moment were refreshed legs, filled with a strength and responsiveness I had not felt in some time, no doubt aided by the two days off prior. To put it succinctly, I felt far better than I ever expected.

Still…I was not out to compete. I was out to simply run the course with the hopes that building foot pain would stay manageable and I could finish with enjoyment instead of relief.

———-

We gathered around the starting line after pre-race instructions and I tucked myself in a few rows back, admittedly, in a position I’ve never allowed myself to be. It felt awkward, but safe, and respectful to those going out to kill it. We pinched the watches on our wrists, the countdown dissipated, and with a chorus of small beeps we all pushed forward up a short rocky section of fire road that would bring us into the singletrack snaking through the forest. The top of the hill leveled out and I stayed tucked in with a larger group of runners while I watched the faster runners try to move ahead and begin stringing out into place. I wasn’t breathing hard and felt my gait restricted in a lack of effort.

“Nope…this isn’t going to work.” I thought to myself.

I immediately ran to the outside of the group and simultaneously passed about 10 bunched together runners, at the tail end of the faster runners stringing out ahead, just as we turned down a steep decline with sketchy, rutted footing. The line ahead moved into the forest like ants following the path of those in front of them while I played it safe, still unsure of my strength and fitness for this distance, securely sitting behind a couple runners with greater speed than those behind me, just as we started hitting the climbs that defined this area of the forest. It was these climbs that compelled me to play it safe.

Unlike the trail hills I’m used to running, these go quite vertical, marked only by switchbacks so steep that squared posts are burrowed into the trail as natural, makeshift steps. One doesn’t so much run these as merely pick your way up and over each, trying not to catch a toe and smash a shin into the sharp angles of the wood. The inclines quickly pulling away any quad strength and stored breath you withheld up to this point.

I worked my way up these steps, letting my lungs go and trying not to overexert my quads, pushed up against the back of a runner directly in front of me doing the same. I probably could have passed him on the climb, but wanting to rein in my ambition, I stayed at his back. We crested the incline, rolled through the woods some more, and then down a hill where he started to get away and a couple runners behind me started moving up behind. I instantly realized I was taking it very easy on the downhills in an attempt to keep from pounding the sensitive soles of my feet, in hopes that I wasn’t building increasing pain for later in the run. I simply wasn’t descending with the abandon I’m accustomed to…but that was ok. Still, when we hit the forest floor and started the next climb, I was immediately back on the runner in front of me and getting away from those behind. They were naturally faster on the descents, but as I’ve come to realize over my years of racing, I’m strong when unrestricted or faced with obstacles and adversity…such as hills. And I didn’t so much take advantage of that, as I had no other choice.

At the second portion of snaking singletrack on the forest floor I was breathing down the back of the runner in front of me…almost literally. I worried about annoying him being so close, but more just felt restricted in my gait, so although I wasn’t out to compete and trying to play it safe, I called out,

“Passing on your right.”

I made the move, got out in front of him, and with little more effort suddenly found his footfalls fading and the conversation between the runners behind me slowly drifting further and further back. I was now simply running my own race….and it was going to stay that way. Now it was just me, the course, and the distance…competing against who was going to break down first.

I continued alone through the woods, feeling relatively strong, pushing through the abbreviated breaths on the inclines and saving my legs on the descents, but taking every opportunity of relatively level trail to push ahead and keep pace and rhythm as I felt most natural, always assessing my strength and potentially increasing pain burrowed into my shoes. The pain was holding off, however, and I was bolstered by the realization.

I wasn’t in the clear though. For the first half of the course, the inclines were still marked by the strength sapping steps that forced me to pick my legs up higher than I would have liked, exerting more effort and less speed than can be defined as trail “running”. At some point, I made the decision to utilize “power hiking” as it is called. The thoughts of Anton Krupicka came to me when he described the crucial strength he saved in scaling back in effort and resorting to the seemingly unnatural tactic of bending over, putting your hands at the top of your knees and striding out up the hills. Doing so immediately puts the breath back into your lungs and saves your quads from excessive damage with little gain.

So yeah, I thought I’d try that…and it worked!

When I pushed up an incline until my breaking point, in lungs or legs, I scaled back to power hiking until I conserved enough effort to get to running again. I didn’t have to do this on every climb, but when it became a necessity, I went to it without reservation, finding an incredible relief and moving up on a string of 5k / 10k runners our course had merged into.

And with this new tactic that I have never felt compelled to utilize in the past, I was still able to keep a controlled, but relatively fast, pace through the forest, enabling me to actually enjoy the run instead of forcibly endure it. I felt the same sort of euphoria that keeps bringing me back to the woods over and over – this sort of strength, speed and emotional depth that is unparalleled anywhere else. I was, as I’ve humorously been calling it lately, “Legolas-ing” that sucker. You know, imagining flying through the forest with a swiftness and grace, maybe carrying a bow, shooting down Orcs without breaking stride…you know…LEGOLASING IT!

Anyways, I was enjoying the race, and with my strength remaining intact as I continued to move deeper into the woods, eating up distance, passing aid stations and short course runners, the thought hit me….

“Wait. There weren’t many runners in front of me when I made my moves early in the race. And there’s a good chance they are probably doing the half. So…am I WINNING the 10 miler? That would be pretty neat.”

I gave it little thought more, however, as I still wasn’t trying to compete. I wasn’t trying to stay ahead of anyone or pick off the runners ahead. I was only concerned with eating up the miles and trying to finish before the pain set in.

And it did start to set in. But not how I expected.

My feet remained solid, not building the abrasion I’m accustomed to after the repeated friction during twists and turns throughout the trail. Instead, I felt a weakening throughout my muscles. I had not run trails this hard in a long time, and although I could get away with doing so for a shortened duration, I was also trying to complete 10 miles, which I also can’t remember the last time I finished in one continuous stretch. The effort was going to take it’s toll. At first I felt my lower legs giving out as my ankles began to roll on less stable portions of trail, forcing me to concentrate more on footing and catching my form before injuring myself. Doing so brought the effort to my quads, where enough strength still remained to move me through the woods, but the succession of downhills and inclines began doing their damage as well, ever so slowly building a weakness…leaving me with little except the relief of a finish line.

Without mile markers along the course, I had no idea if I was outrunning the building weakness, still unsure if I was going to beat the course or the course and distance was going to beat me. Then I heard sounds on the trail, like talking…or singing, only to come running by a discretely placed speaker yelling out the lyrics to “What does the fox say?”, but not in earshot of the finish line PA system. I still didn’t know how close I was to the finish, but estimated I had about 3 miles to go.

Just then I popped up to an aid station where my running friends Scott Breeden and Becky Boyle stood, cheering on friends. Breeden yelled out as I ran by, “1 mile left!”, and I was stunned. So much that I yelled back,

“Shit! Really? Hell yeah! Thanks!” and continued on with equal parts relief and excitement, allowing myself the satisfaction of extra effort to the finish despite my fully weakened lower half. I knew then I was going to win this race…not in placement…but in effort, in overcoming my compromised strength and getting through a distance I wasn’t sure my body was going to endure. I passed the final group of onlookers standing at the junction for the 10 milers and the half-marathoners, pounded down an unforgiving asphalt road and up into the makeshift finishing chute, pinching my watch one last time to complete the run. 1:18:00 flat.

—–

Ultimately, I discovered I DID win the 10 miler, which, I won’t lie, was an encouraging realization…a little icing on the cake, but didn’t mean a whole lot to me really. I was there to test myself, to see what has happened to my body since feeling a little more consistent in my running, and to push against the always prevalent side effects I continue to endure. So, the real accomplishment and satisfaction for me wasn’t that I finished the race, but that I finished it with enthusiasm, with a relief from the effort, not the pain…that I regained another moment of my previous life by running with an effort (seemingly) almost devoid of cancer and chemo. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. I just felt more myself again. Less like a charity case, a pity party, an “inspiration”…but just a strong, swift runner. In that moment, I won.

——

I need to give special mention to Robert Gee who, out of the blue, offered to pay for my entry into this race. I didn’t even give it thought to run until he made his generous offer, and in doing so gave me this opportunity to prove myself…to myself. I’m incredibly grateful for his gesture.

I’m equally grateful for the friendship of everyone in the community I got to share the trails and morning with, whether it was words of encouragement on the course, short discussions and new introductions after, or extended time spent when it was all over…the whole experience always means more than I probably let on at the time. So thanks friends. I hope to do it again soon.