Carmel Marathon – Race Report

Every runner carries a story. For some it may be as simple as the competition of the race, against others or themselves. For others, it may be something deeper, like disease, death, loss, or even more positive expressions of celebration, redemption, thrilled excitement. The stories are as varied as the participants in any given race, but first, it takes actually completing the distance to see the stories come out in their many expressions.

Race morning brought a drop in temperatures that had every experienced marathon runner sighing with relief, knowing the uncontrollable circumstances of heat and humidity would be absent and all efforts would be determined by the physical preparation and mental strength of the runners alone. This would be an honest race. Running best in colder temps, I was thrilled to see grey skies hovering over a 45 degree atmosphere all morning. Anxiety levels were, well, typically pretty high despite my best attempts to remain calm and pretend this run was just a physical litmus test. I TOLD myself I was just seeing what sort of shape I was in. I TOLD myself this wasn’t a big deal. I TOLD myself I was just going to have fun with the distance. I TOLD myself all this, probably because I was avoiding potential disappointment, while also trying not to burden myself with the emotional weight of what this race meant to me deep down.

Admittedly, I had signed up to run the race about 12 days prior, but I did so because I had knocked out a handful of 20 milers at 6:30 pace and I wanted to see if I could hold that through the full 26.2. Oh, and there was that whole thing about the race being held on the four year anniversary of my diagnosis and first surgery. It felt right, and important, to celebrate where I seemed to be at this point, considering all that had happened in the past four years, to me and to my friends. It also fit in well with my routine of doing something somewhat challenging soon after my periodic scans, one of which I had just completed. A few days prior, my oncologist assured me that tumors were still present and mucin was likely also present, but that we were still holding stable and it was advisable to hold off another 9 months for a scan and determine then if we should take more drastic measures for treatment. Coming to terms with the realization that I will likely never have a “You are cancer free” moment, these 9 month breaks between surgeries are the closest I get to living outside the stresses of cancer. That’s reason to celebrate.

One more thing. I had kept this marathon secret from most people, but I had run into my old coach (now new coach again) prior to the race and word spread through my running friends. We began some texting back and forth about race goals and I had learned that a group was being unofficially paced to a 2:50:00 finish, which was my exact goal. This initially gave me a dose of relief as the work I would have to do would be carried by others for a portion of the race and I could just sit in for the ride until I needed to take over. I also heard word about 15 to 20 mile per hour winds, which although wasn’t encouraging, was going to be less of a big deal if I could tuck in with a group of runners. The greater concern arose when my friend said the following,

“This is going to be a race for second.”

“What do you mean?” I inquired.

“Jesse (teammate who wins the race every year) signed up and so the pack is going to be racing for second.”

“Surely there are other 2:30 / 2:40 guys in the mix right?”

“Dude, I put my finishing time as 2:50 and I got number FOUR on my bib.”

Well shit, cue anxiety skyrocketing. We joked about race strategy a little more and I envisioned all the scenarios that could go down if that prediction of a pack of 2:50 guys racing the last four miles came true. It was mildly exciting and I tried to find the fun in it, but I also know how marathons tend to break everyone down over the miles and couldn’t imagine everything being so cut and dry. Well, come race morning, as we warmed up around the start area, I found the unofficial pacer and confirmed that he was leading us through 2:50, and he hesitated and explained that because of the winds we would probably be going 2:52 to 2:55. Right then I bailed on the plan. Wind or no wind, I knew there was a very strong chance I could hold 6:30 pace through the finish and I didn’t want to compromise that 2:50 goal. I was feeling good and decided to go it alone. Ultimately, I had nothing to lose.

The countdown began as I lined up next to my old teammates and toed, literally, the start line, though this time I was back at the front and I felt legitimate being there. Even though I hadn’t dedicated training to this race and wasn’t planning for full on race mentality, I knew I had enough fitness in me to warrant being on the line with everyone else, even if they all ran away from me when the gun went off.

At the sound of the air horn we leaned forward into the course and pushed directly into a wind that wasn’t overbearing, but definitely noticeable. With fresh legs and open lungs we moved through the first mile to settle into a groove that, if all went well, wouldn’t fluctuate too much throughout the distance. Jesse and some half marathon runners moved out ahead immediately and the 2:50 pack was forming somewhere behind me. I knew I would likely be just ahead of that group, but decided to go by feel before really settling into either a pace or using other runners. As we strung out into the first mile I hovered around two others runners that put me in 8th place to begin the effort. Flying blind into this course, I didn’t even know if there were going to be mile markers at each mile and relied only on feel. At this point I was very, very comfortable and seemed to be cruising at a solid 6:30 pace, which is when I heard one of the other runner’s garmin beep out the first mile location. I looked at my watch and it flashed back, “6:10”. Welp, that was fast, but I notched it up to race start anxiety and freshness and decided to let the pace settle as we moved ahead.

As more distance fell behind us I remained tucked in with two other runners following the string of leaders out ahead. I didn’t know the status of things behind us, but that wasn’t a concern really. I was more concerned that pacing was suited to fitness and that I wasn’t being too ambitious so early on. I always tell my marathon runners, run not how you feel the first five miles but how you WILL feel the last five miles. This distance is about patience, a slow burn, and managing all way to twenty miles when the effort really starts. I FELT like I was running at a pace that I could hold past twenty, but I wasn’t yet convinced that I had settled back into 6:30’s. Not having mile markers didn’t help.

After the initial long stretch of the race and a few turns I got a sense of which directions the wind would be an issue and which ones it would help. It was definitely a noticeable factor during the race, but I didn’t figure it would really kill an effort that day, and overall things would eventually even out with tailwinds. I considered using the headwinds to my advantage if necessary even. Moving into one of those headwinds I saw  the signs for the first half marathon split where the shorter distance runners would peel off and the marathoners would continue ahead. I was interested to see if the two runners I was keeping pace with would continue on and we could keep working together. As we neared the split the leaders came our way, one of which was a teammate I gave encouragement to, and as we passed the split only three had cut from the line. That left 5 of us taking the marathon out. I got a little excited about the prospect of making top ten for this race, but wasn’t about to get comfortable only a handful of miles in.

We continued on at this rather pedestrian pace until we finally passed the first time clock of the race, which flashed back 30:00 flat…at 5 miles. My math isn’t always so good during races, but this calculation was easy. That average had us at 6 minute miles, a considerable cut from the 6:30s I was hoping to maintain. Here’s the thing though, I didn’t panic. I felt so calm and in control that internally I was just like, “Well, ok, this feels good, let’s just see how thing go at 10 miles then.”

Somewhere ahead Jesse and another runner had run out of sight leaving the three of us to follow in their wake, with who knows what playing out behind us. I didn’t hear anyone off our back, but I had no inclination to check either. Continuing ahead, one of our three started to back off, or maybe maintained as the other runner picked up pace. I’m not sure how it played out, but I moved past the runner in our triad and picked up fourth place as he slowly dropped off the back of us. That left the two of us to keep eating up the distance as the course weaved through neighborhoods and down long stretches of two lane roads. I still felt completely in control, but did notice the runner in third was pulling away from me ever so slightly, though I could tell it was because he was picking up pace and not because I was falling off. Periodically I found consecutive mile markers and hit my watch, surprised to see the averages hitting at 5:59, 5:57, and still hovering around the 6:00 mark. Sometimes as we ran into a long stretch of wind or up an incline, the pace would drop to 6:05 or 6:07, which boosted my confidence as I could still feel comfortable moving at a pace significantly faster than my expected estimate as the miles piled on top of each other. The other comfort gauge was my ability to move through aid stations without issue. I was pulling fuel packets pinned to my shorts with ease, ripping the tops off between my teeth and grabbing water without faltering. The surprise at how I was moving through this distance increased my positive thoughts and resolve to maintain this pace and…OH FUCK IT…LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS!

The course turned off the road and onto a winding, curving rail trail through an isolated park and although the runner ahead was putting space between us, I was holding around 6:00 to 6:05 pace and still had him in sight. As we made a sharp 180 I was able to catch the first visual of runners behind me, of which I couldn’t make a good estimate of just how far behind they were, but I was not interested in keeping ahead of them as a goal. Just maintaining this pace, well below my 2:50 finishing time, was significant enough victory for my preference. I could get passed by 10 runners and if I maintained this I would be ecstatic.

We came out of the winding path of the park and into a less turn heavy, muscle taxing portion of a neighborhood, nearing the 12 mile mark. It was then I had a small moment of panic. The Wednesday before the race I had put in my last preparation run, of which could have been a simple 6 to 8 miles of easy running, but I decided to do a speed work tuneup by throwing in a handful of 2:00 on / 1:00 off efforts, which left a muscle (tendon?) behind my leg overworked and worryingly sore. The last thing I needed was a potential muscular grenade waiting to go off in my body late into this race as the stresses built. I felt it’s subtle presence even during race warmups, but hoped it would loosen up and not become an issue at all. However, nearing 12 miles I felt it and not in any small way. It was really becoming apparent and a sort of embarrassing dread increased all the same, as if I had made a huge mistake and I was going to have to actually DNF, hang my head, and explain away why I actually thought I was capable of running / racing a marathon again. And then…it went away. I don’t know what else to say about that, but damn was I relieved.

I reset my focus as I looked ahead and saw a mass of runners coming out of a neighborhood and realized that we were about to merge with the half-marathoners again. I was somewhat invigorated by this as I would have something to break the mental monotony of the effort by moving through these other participants. I quickly started flowing past the back of the packers and picking the lines that didn’t have me dodging and weaving excessively, but trying to maintain a straight line and expend as little effort as is necessary. We all turned into another neighborhood and as I looked ahead I realized I had lost sight of the third place runner in front of me. I had another short moment of panic, wondering if I had missed a turn for the marathon course and had inadvertently jumped in with the half marathoners, but with longer stretches ahead I would momentarily see the jersey of third place moving faster than everyone around him. He had now made considerable distance between us. I figured he was either motivated by the dynamic of being around other runners or was playing out a move he had figured into a race strategy. Either way, he was totally running away from me.

I stayed patient as I worked up some undulations in the neighborhoods, working against the wind as much as I was using it when possible, while trying not to put too much of a burden on my legs, knowing the effort still lay far ahead into the course. The efforts at this point still felt completely in control and when I crested one rise or another I let my breathing settle and checked myself by taking one deep breath, affirmation that I wasn’t putting myself into an oxygen debt I couldn’t climb out of. Passing aid stations, I was still able to grab cups of water and still keep enough fluid in to aid hydration. The accumulated efforts brought me through the halfway point where I looked at my watch to gauge overall pace, which read out 1:18 and changed. Feeling somewhat incredulous at what was happening, I laughed at myself, realizing I had just beaten my post-diagnosis half PR (previously 1:20:02) that I had run at the Runner’s World half before my most recent surgery. Something crazy was happening this day, but I wasn’t about to back off at this point just because I hadn’t determined if these were warning signs or positive affirmations. I was banking on the latter.

I settled into the second half, breaking up the distance into 5 mile increments and resetting at each one, finding my way to 15 miles and looking forward to the race at 20. I was warned about a twisting rail trail section further into the race, and when I got there I understood why it was a less desirable section of the course. Not only did the twisting and turning of the course build more effort and strain on the legs, but the limited trail space had to be shared with the half-marathoners, making even more bobbing and weaving unavoidable. I did my best to keep a straight line, while trying to run the tangents, but it wasn’t easy, and I sighed relief when we exited the trail and were able to pick a more unbroken line of effort.

As is usual in a marathon, the effort was taking it’s toll silently and it was only in small moments did I realize the trajectory was evening out and about to arc downward against which I would need to start fighting. The first moment came as the course took us straight down the Monon trail and I caught sight of an aid station ahead, somewhat congested with runners and volunteers. I was trying to keep a straight line through the other competitors while running a solid 2 minutes faster per mile than most of them and also preparing to grab some water. As I snagged a cup from someone’s outstretched hand I looked up to see a wall of people yelling and pointing up the road, 90 degrees to my right. I was almost running straight past the course and had to pull up quick, skid as I turned and regain pace as the other thousands of runners stretched out ahead. I let out a “Oh shit!” as I heard spectators chuckle at my mishap and correction. Fortunately, the momentum wasn’t completely lost and I wasn’t shaken too much, able to get back in line and begin passing runners as we moved up a long, inclining piece of road.

Somewhere during this relative mayhem with the half-marathoners we had moved through 17 and 18 miles, at which many less prepared people will start to feel the building effects of the distance. I was hoping to make it to 20 or even further before I started to feel those distinct pains and struggles, and so far I was still holding on. It was encouraging to have the cheers of other runners (and sometimes shocked expressions) as I passed them along the way, helping occupy my mind moving into the real effort of the course. At the top of that long incline nearing 20 miles we turned and the runners thinned out, giving me a longer line of sight, at which point I was somewhat surprised to see third place in view yet again. And although I could sense small moments of failings in myself – spilling water at aid stations, more difficulty taking down fuel – it was also apparent to me that third place was in “striking distance”, that is to say that if I maintained this pace and he started to falter in the last five miles, I would likely overtake him. He was far enough ahead, however, and this was more a mental consideration than an aspiration or strategy, that I didn’t give it much more thought. I had my own battle to keep winning at that moment and that was really all that mattered to me.

We then broke away from the half marathon course yet again, and it’s at this point that a lot of the memories start to get a little lost in the effort. It was also this point that we passed the 20 mile clock, which read out 2:00:47…or something. I don’t know…I just know it gave me that 6:00 average again, I was feeling in control, and the “halfway” point was about to begin. This is the point that the human body has expended all it’s stores of energy and everything is an increasing struggle to endure through oxygen depletion, but primarily, muscular degeneration. This is where the pain builds. This is where the marathon becomes the marathon. This is where races are won and lost.

This is also where I saw the runner in front of me and…damnit…I think he was coming  back. We moved up the road, alone in our efforts, but into a headwind and small, but noticeable incline. I told myself that each stable push into the wind will be an advantage against anyone letting it wear them down. I figured if I could keep tension and intensity into the wind that I’ll have the best chance of maintaining pace and making distance on the runner in front of me. We pushed into another portion of the course consisting of a curving trail and sharp turns that tested our muscular stability, bringing our crossing paths close enough to give us a more exact gauge of how far apart we were.

Still not sure of what mile marker we might be near I concentrated more on keeping the runner ahead of me in sight and visually measuring whether he was actually coming back or not. He was still in striking distance, but was also far enough out that he could hold on to the finish if he was keeping a measured pace. At that point, however, probably 22 or 23 miles, we turned directly into the consistent headwind and down a long stretch of road. He had nothing but road to chase and I had him, which can make a significant difference in effort that deep into the distance. With each short stretch I watched his back get closer and closer and realized I was going to run him down, and likely overtake him. I’m not sure if just thinking about it helped me tighten the screws or the distance was really showing itself in my legs, but I started to feel focused points of pain in my quads, first in my left, then my right, then my calves…but then I was right on him.

I moved up behind him, started to pass, and tried to offer a helping hand…or pair of legs, “Let’s go buddy!” I hoped to bring him along, help him help me, or whatever. The end of the marathon is horrible and all help is appreciated. He had fallen off though, likely going out past his comfort level early on and paying for it now, which is the greatest learning experience of the marathon distance. Patience.

I ran past him and had only road to run with ahead, which carries it’s own sets of challenges, because the worst thing I could do now was relax. I now had to go inward again to keep pushing, to run through the increasing pain, to hold pace and find my way to the finish, because believe me, the marathon isn’t in the bag until you cross that line.

With that said, the mental encouragement of moving into podium position was no small thing and a new realization started to come over me. “Is this happening?! Am I running 6:00 miles when I wanted to go 6:30? Did I just overtake a runner in the final miles? Did I just run into podium position?!” Truly, I did not expect any of this and I was caught off guard by just how perfect everything was going. I let that excitement build, but didn’t let it get the best of me, as I looked ahead to see the half-marathoners stretched at where we merged again for the last time, and realized it was into a headwind and up a long stretch of road. This was no small final effort. By now the pain was full body and everything hurt. I had been here before and it was no less shocking or easy as I noticed my legs on auto-pilot, pushing off the ground, but almost as if on their own volition and not by my effort. I felt my face tighten and grimace and I had no idea what mile I was on.

I felt slow, like crawling, even though I was still passing the half-marathon runners, and all I could do was repeat to myself “PERCEIVED exhaustion. PERCEIVED exhaustion.” This is the state where you FEEL horrible and you FEEL slow, but in reality you are likely running close to the same pace you have been all race. Like a prayer I decided to believe in this unprovable fiction, just to get me through the inclining road, into the headwind, with these stabbing pains in my lower body. I had now broken the race down into individual miles, desperately looking for mile markers to work towards. I think I remember seeing 24 miles and hitting my watch, hoping so much for 25 as soon as possible. I tried to keep my mind occupied, unwilling and unable to look behind me for coming competitors, as the pain continued to consume me. The course finally turned, still into the wind, but downward before slightly rising and turning again towards a finishing stretch. I gave myself the permission to look at my watch and it read 8:46, which was a massive relief because it meant we had passed 25! LESS than one mile to go.

We made another turn away from the wind and I started to feel the finish excitement build. Despite the consuming pain in my legs and the grimace on my face, the thrill of holding on, of running this distance, of pulling this motherfucker off started to take over. I craved that finishing effort and started to let myself go. I looked up to run past an “800 meters to go” timing mat and knew it was over. Maintaining the pace was all I could do to hold on and that was all I needed. Cresting the final small incline I made the final turn and with the wind at my back ran past the chute of spectators hearing my name yelled out by friends along the way. Somehow, despite the all encompassing pain I was able to open up a bit, aided by the downhill finish and push all the way in. I heard the announcer yell out my name over the PA system, something I hadn’t heard in so long, and ran past the finish line throwing a punch in the air to myself, unable to contain the intensity that got me to that point. I caught a final glimpse of the clock as I came in, 2:40: and some seconds I couldn’t register.

As I put on the brakes and struggled to stay upright against my momentum something else began to take over. As if being chased by an emotion all the way in, I became consumed. I stopped completely, putting my hands on my knees as a volunteer wrapped a heat blanket over my back. I lifted my head up in disbelief, put my hands over my face and then fell to my knees. Huddled under the heat blanket my head fell to my forearms and something came over me like I’ve never experienced before.

I’ve never understood “tears of joy”. I’ve heard about it and watched professional athletes cry after championship games, but honestly, I always thought it kind of ridiculous. Like, what are you crying about? I tried to empathize and tried to understand what crying out of happiness would feel like, but it just never made sense. I realized something though, the term “tears of joy” isn’t correct, because that’s exactly what happened to me and they aren’t tears of joy. They are tears of EVERYTHING.

I began sobbing, uncontrollably. My whole body was shaking under the heat blanket and no one could really see what was happening. But I was crying, and I wasn’t crying out of some sort of sadness or desperation, but also in a way I was. I was crying out of everything. At first I tried to stop. I heard voices around me.

“Oh dude, you don’t want to do that. Laying down is the last thing you want to do right now.”

“Hey man, you’re going to want to keep moving.”

I knew this. But I couldn’t. I sat up on my knees and came out from under the heat blanket, my face now covered with tears and saw the volunteers kind of stop. I got to my feet and walked a bit, but crumbled back down right away and started sobbing again.

Honestly, it felt good. It felt great. It felt fucking amazing. Because they weren’t just tears of joy, they were tears of everything. What everyone probably sees are the tears, but underneath all that is so much more. There are also smiles, eyes bright with excitement, a heavy sadness, and a calm relief too, but maybe everyone only sees the tears. Really though, it’s a full emotional experience that can’t be contained, that was building and building and just comes spilling out without control…at least, that’s what was happening to me.

And this is my story. This is what everyone around me in that finish chute couldn’t understand. What they saw was a grown ass man sobbing like a little boy who just watched his puppy get hit by a car, and it was probably a bit uncomfortable for them. But for me, it was everything. It was a redemption. It was an overcoming of everything I had experienced over the past four years. It was, in some way, having that “you are cancer free” moment, because it was winning in a very physical, measurable, emotional way. It was an affirmation that I have come through so much. There are so many who have gone through so much more than me, but I can admit that, by most people’s standards, I’ve definitely been through a lot the past four years. This moment was my redemption over all that. It was coming back to this same spot four years later and saying, “Fuck no, chance and circumstance, I’m not beaten.” This was recognizing my friends and family, for losing Denver, for losing Chelsea, for losing Cari, for losing John, and for my friend, Shane, recently diagnosed. This was knowing that the worst of three surgeries, of losing all muscle, of all oxygen, of all will…comes back. This was feeling the permanent damage of chemotherapy and saying, that’s cute…watch this. This was saying to every person who offered support, donated money, gave encouragement, and was there for me the past four years…thank you. This was a moment for myself, to prove, against all the deepest perceptions I had of myself…you’re not done.

So many cancer patients have such little hope, understandably. It seems they are most caught off guard when the scans come back blank. When the followup with their doctor is met with a “You are cancer free” instead of a “Ok, this is what we are going to try next” or “It’s back” assessment. Those are the scenarios we most crave, of course, but are often such distant hopes, and I’ve resigned to the stable comfort of knowing this isn’t my future, so in the finish chute of the marathon last weekend, I was caught off guard, and this feels like my “you are cancer free” moment, or the closest I’ll get to it. So, I think, the accumulated emotional baggage of the past four years – the fear, the frustration, the excitement, the struggle, the sadness, the hope, the everything…spilled out of me in that one final moment. With no hint of romanticization, I won. And the moment was bigger than me as everything spilled out.

I got back to my feet, trying to walk through the finish area, looking for Laura, but I had to keep stopping, leaning on the barricades and feeling the emotions pour out over and over again as my body shook with sobs. I heard my name and turned to see laura squeezing through through barricades and I walked over and fell into her arms, letting it all come out again in her comfort. I was consumed, yes, but it was with the most thrilling relief I’ve ever experienced in my life. When I toed the start line that morning I had no idea what was about to happen. I had no illusions of running outside myself like that again, of reaching that level of ability, of getting that close to where I was pre-diagnosis, of…in a way…a comeback. I don’t pretend to know what’s coming either, but even though that race has finished, and even though in my own personal race it feels like I’ve already won, in another very real way it feels like a brand new start.

Now…watch this.

Sort of Secret

I wasn’t even going to tell Laura I signed up for the marathon, and for a few days I didn’t, but she caught me looking at the website and teased me about considering the idea. Little did she know that consideration came and went, when a certain espresso fueled night of inspiration had me clicking the “submit registration” button…eleven days before the actual race.

Commence swarm of butterflies.

I haven’t told anyone else I did this either, save three other people, mostly strangers (and now anyone that reads this). I’m not trying anything big with this race, but just trying to get my feet wet with the training I stumbled into the past few months, and with as little anxiety as possible, which is no small feat. I should mention, I actually signed up for ANOTHER marathon previous to this one, which takes place in May. Even more absurd, it’s a trail marathon with ridiculous elevation changes, scrambling and a course that makes the effort more about finishing than displaying fitness. That seemed the perfect sort of race to enter where I could simply enjoy the absurdity instead of getting mired in anxiety and feeling “on display”. I don’t really want a lot of that right now…I just wanna see what I can do in a race setting.

Once I signed up for that first marathon though, the compulsion to REALLY see what my body can do had me signing up for the next one. It’s a local marathon of which I have yet to run, so I can’t measure expectations against past performances, which is what I really need right now. I continue to struggle with suppressing my past running self in an attempt to create a new set of aspirations and expectations, but that’s not easy. For now, I’m just seeing where this stretch of training has taken me, and what I can do with it, while keeping anxieties as low as possible.

I do have expectations though, sort of. I’ve been knocking out 20 milers around 6:30 pace through the past couple of months, so if I have any measurement to consider, it’s that. I would be plenty happy to continue that last 10k at that pace and come in at 2:50, which is actually what I put down for my “expected finishing time” during registration. Even if that meant not throwing down and not redlining any significant portion of the course, I’d be happy. I respect the hell out of the marathon distance, so to just finish consistent would be a victory and push towards the next level with current fitness. My mind, of course, wanders to other “what if’s”, of faster finish times, and even disasterous finishes, as tends to happen, but I’m trying to remain level and stable and keep anxieties low…as I keep repeating as a mantra to myself.

There might be more to this. I say might because I’m not sure if this was a subconscious act, of running this marathon, or if the idea was more front and center and I’m only absorbing it after the fact, but this marathon essentially marks 4 years to the day of surgery. I remember standing on the sidelines cheering on my teammates in 2013, an abdomen full of cancer (apparently ridiculously close to death), and waiting out the last day until I checked into the hospital for the first of three surgeries. It was my last pre-surgery, pre-chemo, pre-everything running event to participate in through some small gesture, as a spectator.

I’m not trying to make a bigger deal out of this than I genuinely feel, but maybe this is some sort of personal celebration of being where I am at this point, not only living through the past four years, but also remaining dedicated to staying functional, to actually living, and to do so primarily through running. Maybe this is some sort of anniversary affirmation. It seems fitting to, in a way, start, where I last finished.

It also seems fitting to, personally, acknowledge the friends I’ve lost to cancer over the past four years. Specifically, I’m acknowledging my friend Denver who succumbed to her cancer a bit over a year ago, by wearing the shirt she created for a benefit in her name. Unfortunately, I’m also running with the thoughts of another good friend newly diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma last week.

These thoughts and gestures will be positive affirmations for me, and I’m fortunate to add to that positivity with another 9 months of non-treatment as relayed to me by my oncologist this week. My most recent scan showed “areas of calcification (tumors)” and “what might be mucin…it’s hard to tell”, but no tumor growth or metastasizing from the previous scan, which means we’ll continue another 9 months of doing nothing until the next scan. No surgery, no chemo, no nothing but engaging in that continued human pursuit of chance existence and emotional depth.

For me, that means opening up the potential to take this marathon affirmation tomorrow and capitalize upon it, to create a new baseline of performance and experience, determine how to proceed from there and then go for it. I can’t commit to what sort of shape that will take as I tend to be somewhat fickle and fragile in my motivation as of late, but with the right amount of espresso, the best expression seems to formulate into deep run training. Of course, I’m not trying to get ahead of myself here. I’ve still got 26.2 miles to complete before I go any further. Let’s get past those first and see where we end up.

See you on the start line.

Suppressing Fear

I didn’t know I had it in me. I really didn’t. Hell, I wasn’t even planning on training seriously again, but as seems to be a case of groundhog day with me, patterns keep repeating themselves, especially with running.

There was that one moment though, months ago, when the fire burned hot, a flood of emotions filled my stagnant body, and I became fully committed to marathon training once again. High mileage weeks. Long runs. Two speed workouts per week. The whole shebang. I was ready to wake at 6 am, 5:30 if necessary, and put in the work no matter the weather, under sleeping skies…whatever it took. I just wasn’t done. Two weeks later and my aspirations burned to ashes with a hamstring that tightened so violently I was lucky to make it through a work day, let alone a work out. I relented back to periodic jogging and admitting defeat to cancer, slowly internalizing the truth I wanted to pretend didn’t exist, that cancer had taken running away from me. Even with renewed psychological and emotional aspirations I wasn’t quite sure my body was up to the task, with the various offenses it had endured, the lingering numbness in my feet, the compromised lungs. All of it. The tightened hamstring was less a muscular tension and more a punch to the stomach.

I kept running though, quietly, calmly, with no other motive but to finish the mileage I started and begin the day accomplished, relaxed, and with the confidence only covering a certain distance can create. It was, again, my catharsis, my therapy, and not a lot more.

Of course, the slope of running tends only to run downward, compelling one to pick up speed, cover more ground, and experience the body changing towards some matter of positive progression. Each week tallied more and more miles. Long runs became longer and longer. The feelings of accomplishment piled on top of each other to become increasingly irresistible, demanding a greater and greater experience with each effort. The sum of these efforts, of course, add up to the great “what ifs” embedded within our competitive nature. What if I raced a half marathon? What if I raced a marathon? What if I could break my post-cancer Half PR? Hell, what if I could tap into my PRE-Cancer half times?

The slope had pointed downward until it veered dangerously close to vertical. I found myself suddenly timing my easy runs, returning with surprisingly quick efforts. I added an interval workout for the sake of variety and to play with the joy of running fast and breathing hard, which is like (I assume) taking “one small drag” of a cigarette after quitting for a year. I had, obviously, started training again. Because soon after I was keeping track of weekly mileage and planning for future weeks, then committing to two workouts a week, while building long runs to efforts that required a significant post-run recovery time. And I was eating a lot. Like, a lot a lot, and remaining hungry.

I was scared though, not just because I was training without a definitive purpose. I TELL myself I’m just being prepared for the next Ragnar relay I’m doing with my friends in June, but I know that’s a ruse. I TELL myself I want to be in shape to run well during my July vacation in Ocean City this year, which is a genuine desire, but definitely doesn’t require 80 mile weeks and speed workout progressions….and the psychological struggle that comes with both. I was scared, because I didn’t know what abilities lay within me anymore, and I’m scared to find out. I don’t know if I want to find out how far I can take this. I don’t know if I want to find out that my barrier of potential isn’t very deep, isn’t very fast. I’m scared to know that if I find myself on the starting line of a local race again, that I actually won’t be on the starting line. I’ll be tucked back in the 6 minute milers (no offense), and I won’t handle the frustration of not being able to get back to where I once was, to feeling defeated, to essentially punching myself in the stomach.

I’m also scared to find out that I might be much faster than I imagined. As wonderful as that can be, I’m scared what my type A mind will do with this information, with this need to play out the abilities within me, when I know the obsession can get out of hand. I don’t want to lose myself in the need to progress like I have in the past, and yet, I also don’t want to let potential go untapped. I’m scared, also, that I might find the physical potential to really get down, but no longer retain the psychological strength to keep pushing when the usual nerves and apprehensions come into play.

I have the excuse to quit and I’m scared I will use it.

I say most of this in past tense though, because although it is all true, I have ALREADY tapped into abilities I thought were lost to the ravages of surgery and offense of chemotherapy. The first timed workout I did using mile repeat measurements was a 1, 2, 1 effort, and although I was strained during the first mile, I never in my mind thought I could touch anything below 5:40s…but I hit my watch to read 5:23. Seriously, I had NO IDEA this was in me. I followed that up with a consecutive 5:40 and 5:39, then a final 5:24 for the last single mile effort. The fear was somewhat overwhelmed by my excitement to see myself hitting 5:20’s again for the first of my speed workouts, which, I hoped, meant I could only drop these further.

I was scared, of course, but less about not being able to tap into previous abilities and more with where I could take this. If I ever felt like I clawed back a part of my life from treatment, these numbers are it. But one workout is essentially a fluke that needed verification. Over the past couple of weeks I ran a 4 mile progression, then 5 x 1 miles, then alternating miles, before throwing down on another 6 x 1 mile workout this morning, trying to verify this fluke as genuine ability.

I found a flat stretch of trail marked by wheel-measured 1/4 mile increments, psychologically prepared myself for the workout, and did my best to suppress the fears of finding out what exactly was in me…what was STILL in me. Wherein some of the past workouts I was so fearful that I almost didn’t start them, resorting to an idea that i’m “doing enough”, this time I wanted to be ready to put in full effort from the start. The weather cooperated at 50 degrees, the trail was flat, and when I passed the finish mark for the first mile…my spirits dropped. My watch read 5:11.

5:11.

No way that was right. These markings had to be off. This couldn’t be a true mile. I wasn’t sure I’d ever drop below 5:20 again, so to dip into 5:11? No way. My workout had started, however, and I just told myself that the strained effort was going to reap physiological rewards regardless, so just go with it. After a 3:00 active recovery I started in on the next mile, crossing in 5:13. Then 5:15. Then 5:18 and 5:18 and 5:18. And I half started to wonder if maybe the distance was accurate and my fears were unfounded and I had tapped into a part of me I thought gone and what comes next and how fast can I go and what if I signed up for a race and…

I couldn’t leave those numbers just hanging there in doubt, of course, so when the running store that applied the markings opened later in the day, I walked in to confirm that, yes, these were actually measured by wheel and not the unreliable method of GPS calculation. I had actually run a 5:11 mile and then followed that up with five more within the range of 5:18. What the hell. I had no idea these abilities lay dormant within me, somewhere, just needing the time between surgeries and coaxing out through sustained training to show themselves. But, at least during this workout, here they are.

I’m not going to say I’m not scared of where this might go. I’m not going to say that I won’t be fearful of starting each workout, wondering if I can maintain this physical effort and keep pushing against that wall of ability, where it currently lay. I’m not going to say I’m no longer fearful of putting my ability on the line in a race. For now, however, I’m going to ride this wave of satisfaction and excitement for as long as I can, letting it suppress the fear that preceded my efforts.

Right now Ima see how just how far I can take this again, before biology or treatment does it for me.

Present

I’m just here to mop the floors.

The world seemingly gets crazier and crazier, though I admit to using “the world” as a lazy phrase. The world is not getting crazier. Human societal complexity is actually the only component of “the world” that is getting crazier, the problem being that our self-created mayhem is now affecting the spaces of true freedom and wildness in unavoidable and potentially irreparable ways. Being humans, however, we view “the world” and our societal complexities as the only component of existence that matters, that has relevance, that is worth considering, when we could do so much to step outside of ourselves and take the lessons of the wild, of animals with egos subdued, of anything that just isn’t ourselves. The problem being that the exaggerated ego within in us demands self-preservation of “the world” around us, of our absurdities, and the rationalization of our ridiculous slow suicides. It’s all we know and all we care to know.

So we end up with representative democracy, industrial capitalism, recycling, factory farm efficiency, presidents and congresspeople, apps, uninvented savior technologies, and a trajectory that is going nowhere good and gives us nothing of valuable experience while we travel towards that nowhere goodness.

For some of us, we have the privilege of residing in the eye of the storm, in a delusional state of comfort, either with the ability to pretend that all is quiet and sunny, or to at least bury our heads in the sand with little fear of negative consequences as the storm comes closer and closer. Where I want to pretend that this head burying mechanism is a disgusting privilege and the exposed necks should be severed post haste, I write this from beneath the sand myself, if only because I recognize both that I CAN bury my head with little consequence and also the storm is coming whether my head is outside or not. We aren’t stopping this.

The greatest human centric delusion is that we think our ability to have agency over personal situations means we can change the direction of the greater storm. We can’t. The chaotic momentum has been built and it will only halt when it is broken upon impact. Our sense of security and safety is the obstacle to be hit.

But this all will pass, in the span of seemingly infinite existence, we are nothing but blood and bone and chance and circumstance. We are just here, weighted with the curse to be conscious of our past and future. And I just want to be present. Truly present. Zen-like present. But maybe a little less selfish than just sticking my head in the sand. I don’t want to give up, I want to let go.

I’m just here to mop the floors. There is something so comforting about having an immediate task, even if that task is dictated by the drudgery of capitalist dictates, to absorb oneself within. To point an immediate focus and consider nothing else – the coming storm, the chaos built prior to the storm, those hiding behind the walls of sand built to protect their disappearing security – and to just mop the floor. For something I once felt such an inherent disgust towards, it’s fascinating to me that I now just want to mop the floors, head down, and with nothing else pressing in upon me. Back and forth. Fill and Rinse. Just mop the floors.

The truck dropped off more garden soil that I had anticipated ordering. The pile sat in front of my house in the street, needing shoveled into the wheelbarrow and then pushed to the back yard where an empty garden plot lay empty except for the borders to contain the soil. The sun was bright, but the February air bit through my gloves as I began shoveling and wheeling. Shoveling and wheeling. Shoveling and wheeling. My mind wandered, but the repetition became almost mechanical and I found myself counting each wheelbarrow full. 1, 2, 3…17, 18, 19, 20. Wheel back and dump. Shovel 1, 2, 3…17, 18, 19, 20. Each barrow filled with 20 scoops then wheeled back again. Hour after hour I shoveled, wheeled, dumped. Repeat. All external thoughts exited and I was left with the simple task of moving the pile of soil to the backyard, with no need to consider issues of “the world”, or debate the abstractions and complexities created around me. Politicians continue to build illusions. Religions extend fabricated ideologies. The very REAL world lay before me. As a pile of soil, the world and the task of moving that world is all that mattered. Bombs fall. Papers are signed. Bullets fly. Seeds grow.

I’m here to mop the floors. I’m here to move the soil.

Each workout starts out with a warmup before the task of building the physical body really sets in. I reset my watch at the bottom of the hill, look towards the top and lean into the first effort, pushing off the ground with muscles tensed but relaxed. Seeking a certain rhythm and strength, the mass of blood and bone and muscle moves forward. Lungs expand against a heart that beats in song. I reach the top and turn to find my way slowly back towards the bottom, giving rejuvenation to all the processes that enabled the first effort to succeed. Thoughts drift on the way down, the ease of the effort letting the abstractions spin and weave and confuse themselves. I reach the start and begin back up, this time with a rhythm enabled by muscle memory and the physical world within me synced to a certain momentum and velocity, powerful and personal. The top meets voluminous breaths and muscles taught. I turn and relax back down, the thoughts coming in, broken again, trying to take me elsewhere when the hill remains static, waiting. I turn back at the bottom and push again, the weight of myself pulling me into the angle of the earth. Lungs contract, legs fight against the gravity, and the mind disappears. Down again. Up again. Down again. Up again. Until presence is the only force that compels me to continue. I’m here to run the miles.

The moments that matter is the moment that exists. Without past and without future, this is how riots are birthed. They are not planned and they are not justified. They just are, as responses to conditions forced upon us. There is no need to debate “the world”, to entertain ourselves with complexities and illusions and absurdities and exaggerations and abstracts. We are the blood and bones of animals, cursed with self-awareness, while harnessed by gravity and the drive to survive come what may. All else is fabricated value systems and attempts to rationalize our discontent.

I just want to be here. Really here. I just want to mop the floors. Move the soil. Run the miles. I want the moments that allow nothing else but the moment, that put me in concert with gravity and grounding. I want the moments devoid of abstractions and distraction, that are nothing more than blood and bone. I want the moments that are so intense, so painful, so joyous that one can’t even consider how intense and painful and joyous they actually are, but are left with only the option to experience them. Sometimes those moments come while merely tending the garden in silence, and sometimes they come when forcing mile repeats into territory of tremendous suffering, of pushing towards a physical edge.

“The world” is elsewhere, as the internet, as religion, as politics, as value, as manifest destinies. The world is here, as experience, as gravity, as the storm, as the riot, as the moment.

For this moment, I’m just here to mop the floors. I’m just here to move the soil. I’m just here to run the miles.

It’s About Consent, Honey.

I’ll spare you the details of the various and recent instances where I’ve heard “the honey argument” come up in both vegan circles and pop culture, but suffice to say it has happened so often that I feel compelled to lay out my thoughts in an effort of finality on this matter. Where the conversation around vegans eating or not eating honey can rely on hyper-detailed concerns about the farming practice, complete subjectivity, or grey areas of concern, I will firmly undercut all the hemming and hawing by stating, HONEY IS NOT VEGAN.

“Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude—as far as is possible and practicable—all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”

That is, by the parameters of the vegan definition listed above, the ingestion of a product created by animals and the relationship to those animals is in direct opposition to the very idea of “use”, encompassed in the terminology of “exploitation”. It is really, truly, that simple. With that said, my gripes surrounding this issue aren’t confined to justifications by non-vegans (and vegans) in order to use bees and eat honey, but also to vegans who frame their arguments against honey on both disingenuous and insufficient platforms. It is the latter which I intend to address in greater detail, with the hopes that drawing the philosophical line with this issue will help clarify the most powerful promise of veganism in general, no matter the issue or animal or product in question.

THE GROSS OUT FACTOR

In discussing any issue regarding animal products, not just honey, vegans often rely upon being persuasive by appealing to one’s sense of visceral disgust. They tend not to engage in the seemingly abstract and more intense philosophical considerations of the issue and instead play to the low brow dynamics of the “gross out factor”. I have certainly been guilty of this approach for longer than I’d like to admit. The gross out factor involves detailing the presence of “puss” in milk, calling eggs “chicken period”, highlighting traces of feces in meat, and defining honey as “bee vomit”. The idea is that getting one to accept animal products as “gross” or causing one to develop a visceral rejection of these products will undercut all the important and necessary work of changing one’s mind, of shaping an ethical framework, or slowly eroding ingrained traditions, religious beliefs or cultural values. It seems much easier to “lift the veil” and just get one to feel repulsed by animal products, to view them not as food, but on par with non-ingestible substances such as feces and poisons.

The fundamental problem of this approach is that it is entirely subjective. Not only does trying to convince someone that honey is viscerally repulsive because it is “bee puke” go against the visceral enjoyment of honey precisely because it is sweet sugar, it also demands that one immediately reshape all their positive associations with eating and enjoying honey for as long as they have been consuming it. There is no fundamental truth in the subjective response to honey as repulsive, because subjectivity is entirely personal. Just as other cultures might try to convince the Western world that eating crickets and grubs and worms is NOT repulsive, that doesn’t change one’s attitudes about these creatures being unappetizing. All the same, just as the more extreme health foodies (too many vegans included) might try to convince us that sugar is poison and food colorings are repulsive, it changes very few minds (not to mention ACTUALLY changes visceral responses to these ingredients) towards these subjective statements. Personally, I am not repulsed by the flavor of honey nor the way honey is created by bees, but of course, relying on these subjective statements is not my reason for avoiding honey or using bees.

I would argue that most vegans are actually not viscerally repulsed by the experience of eating animal products, even knowing how they are produced. I have never met a vegan who accidentally ingested animal products and burst into uncontrollable vomiting, myself included. In part, that’s because we recognize that most of our childhood involved eating animals and that in our current lives we watch the eating of animals as normalized. We watch other people eat animals every day without having to choke them down out of duty. Further, vegans acknowledge the (tenuous) notion of a “natural order”, that is to say, a biologically determined set of eating parameters defined as herbivorous, omnivorous and carnivorous. For this very reason, no vegan would ever tell a lion that eating a gazelle is “unnatural” or “repulsive” or somehow abhorrent. For most vegans, and pretty much everyone, we view animals in the wild as biologically determined, as following a set of dietary parameters shaped by evolution and not to be messed with. So to watch other omnivorous human animals eat animals or animal by-products and make a statement that it is fundamentally gross is disingenuous. It is a subjective statement that isn’t applied to animals in the wild and holds little argumentative water. If I’m being blunt, to say that eating honey is gross because a bee puked it or whatever…is just being flat out hypocritical.

Even acknowledging, however, that one may have psychologically shaped their perceptions to view eating animals as gross or repulsive, (admittedly, this is part of establishing culture and acceptable boundaries of behavior) suggesting this repulsion to others is not only ineffectual, but philosophically empty. It is empty because subjectivity loses any argument to experience. If the opposition concretely states that they are NOT repulsed by the way honey is produced by animals and that they enjoy the sensation of eating it, not to mention its’ benefits to their health, than one has completely lost the argument. There is nothing more to say. If, to your best efforts, you fail to convince someone that eating honey is viscerally repulsive, you have no other basis to convince them otherwise. Subjectivity loses the argument. Just as someone telling you how repulsive brussels sprouts are, if you experience otherwise, there is nothing left to be said. Just as someone telling you that there are chemicals in the ground and dead insects in the dirt and that eating anything grown from those elements is repulsive, if you don’t feel the same, the discussion is over.

Further, relying upon the argumentation that eating an animal is gross or eating honey is gross is a purely selfish, human-centric perspective. In no part of that argument does it recognize the animal’s role in the experience, except as physical body. The argument essentially states that if one doesn’t see eating the animal as gross or doesn’t view the creation of the product by the animal as gross, then there is no problem. As in all issues related to veganism, by definition, the primary problem involves the exploitation of the animal. To rely on personal subjectivity is to completely ignore the perspective of the animal, which is central to our ethical framework. To say that one should not drink milk or eat honey or eat meat or wear leather because one doesn’t enjoy the experience plays into the anthropocentric perspective that puts human animals’ needs above all other needs, be they non-human animal or environmental. It reestablishes the hierarchy of importance wherein humans are on top and all others are subservient. Although tactically simplistic, the appeal to human experience when it comes to eating animals and animal products is deeply flawed in philosophy and just as selfish. As vegans, let us do away with trying to convince others that their eating habits are “gross” and rather appeal to a more fundamental and universal ethic.

VEGANISM AS CONSENSUAL RELATIONSHIP

What the definition of veganism intricately describes is a RELATIONSHIP. It acknowledges the “other” – all non-human animals – and then establishes parameters of behavior regarding those others. It, above all else, recognizes a relationship. In terms of relationships and acceptable behaviors for relationships, humans rely on an idea of agency, free-will, and most importantly, CONSENT. Between human animals, the parameters of consent essentially define all the ways in which we interact with each other and in which they shape the restrictions we place upon our interactions. We ask for consent in the physical realm and the psychological realm. Breaking these parameters of consent amount to rape and abuse. In an act of incredible hypocrisy or willful blindness, we have broken the sacred notion of consent when it comes to non-human animals. It is this acknowledgment of the agency of the “others” (non-human animals) and their emotional and physical well-being that comprises the vegan ethic and which lays bare all the weak and ineffectual arguments for not eating animals and their products (honey in this case).

Where all the subjective arguments against eating honey (and all animal products) fall short, it is the essential definition of veganism predicated on the relationships of consent that is inarguable. This idea of veganism as a relationship dynamic is what seems to get lost on most non-vegans (and vegans too). The value of veganism is often lost in the absurd discussions of plant-based diets (“dietary veganism”…blech) and nit-picky details about the treatment of animals, of which I’ll discuss in a bit, instead of the fundamental idea of an ethical relationship with animals predicated upon consent, of which we equally establish as our guide for relating to other humans. So when opponents start throwing around details about how bees are treated, or how they are “free”, or the health benefits of honey, or how bees aren’t killed, this matters nothing to veganism as an ethic, as a definition of a relationship predicated upon consent. In almost no producing relationship with animals do we establish a basis of consent, or assumption of consent in regards to a communication barrier. In all our conversations regarding animals, we must continue to cut through the “buts” and “what ifs” and reaching details with the unmovable foundation of consent.

To get into the specifics of consent itself, it is ultimately about allowing an individual to establish their own needs for the goal of personal safety, comfort, appeasement and agency. To be self-directed, whether human or non-human, is a right born through existence. To take away from one’s consent (grey areas of protection exempted) is to step immediately into exploitation and oppression. Veganism then, simply extends this consent to creatures also of consciousness and sentience. Whether it is males, females, cows, birds, spiders or bees, veganism demands an assumption of consent before proceeding with a relationship, and it is this consent that is the barrier to exploitation.

The understandable problem with relationships between humans and non-humans is the barrier of communication, and it is this communication obstacle that leads to relationships of great exploitation. It is often the justification for using and blatantly abusing non-human animals at all levels of engagement, leading to ideas of animals as machines and insentient physical bodies. Unable to communicate their desires explicitly, we write the stories for them and place them in our narratives as means to our own ends. Animals were “put here for us”. But this is just mental appeasement to do what we wish with others, as we all recognize animals as being able to communicate needs. They feel physically and emotionally and their communications with us are broken only by the specificities of human language. They are able to communicate pain, joy, fear, sadness and the full experience of self-directed existence. Although the experience of sentience and communication is grounds for an application of consent, even the areas of communication that lead us into confusion and doubt do not justify exploitation. Where doubt of sentience (or degree of) exists, our safest route for respect of one’s agency and experience is within consent. To use an exaggerated sexual analogy, we don’t assume a passed out inebriated individual is offering themselves for sexual use. We utilize the measurement of consent, of which non-communication establishes NO CONSENT, to leave the individual alone…anything else is sexual assault. In the case of bees, where our understanding of their emotional and intellectual experience is not as defined as, say, a dog’s, the value of consent inherent in the vegan ethic will still define our actions. Even excepting the very knowable sensory experience of bees in this consideration, the vegan ethic of consent can not be discounted. It is no matter that we choose not to recognize a bee’s attempt to communicate towards us (if they even do that), it is our responsibility to establish consent with all relationships, and in that responsibility we are to leave bees to their own activities. We are to let them create their own products and use them for their own purposes while we are to let the process take place and carry out our own activities for ourselves.

CONSENT AS A BRIDGE TO SOCIAL JUSTICE

Beyond the issue of honey, consent is our connection and bridge to all other issues, predominantly human-centric issues. Consent in all acknowledged and respected concerns of social justice (race, gender, etc.) is inarguable, and it is our responsibility as vegans to highlight our conjoining ethic. The terminology of consent is, unfortunately, tied into specific issues of social justice instead of applied throughout all campaigns for equality and a fundamental respect for other’s agency. It is rightfully applied directly to the issue of sexual assault for obvious reasons, but consent shouldn’t be viewed as a momentary application and rather as a consistent, all-encompassing ethic. Veganism as an ethic is predicated on this idea of consent and it should always be the first and fundamental consideration in all discussions and behaviors, but also as a connection to the many social justice issues that fail to embrace the agency of animals in their practice and perspective. When vegans rely upon relationship consent as our driving force, we immediately build bridges to other movements seeking a sense of equality, freedom, and social justice. Where consent is fundamental to an ethic, veganism can not be disregarded by other movements and individuals. Consent as an ethic is outside the parameter of species specificity, and exists as an ideal itself, therefore can and must be applied to all beings where applicable.

Consent as an ideal is fundamental to egalitarian relationships, and therefore also acts as a force of power on the side of the oppressed. Where one is gaining an advantage or forcing an advantage at the expense of another, consent is the force that not only establishes the disparity, but also levels the playing field. Viewing relationship dynamics throughout the looking glass of consent helps define where disparities lie and which player in the relationship is in need of assistance. This necessary exposure of power dynamics is critical when it comes to our relationships with non-human animals and consent tends to be an underutilized concept in our strivings for social justice for animals.

THE GREY AREAS

To bring this discussion back to the intricacies of the honey issue, it is worth acknowledging some of the absurd “grey areas” posed by the critics (proponents as well), while continuing to base our responses upon the ethic of veganism as a relationship. Next to the subjective “gross factor” argument by vegans, the TREATMENT of animals is often central to discussions around animal use, again both by vegans and non-vegans. The obvious problem with focusing our arguments for veganism solely upon the treatment of animals is that it has a limited endpoint. For instance, the argument posed by critics for honey is that the bees “aren’t killed for their honey” and are even perceived as being free and wild, left to fly and return at will. In that limited, uninformed argument it is worth pointing out that there is a degree of domestication and manipulation of bees for their honey, but also a necessity of killing in order to continue hive population and production. Beyond that obvious problem with honey production, for vegans, to concede to the idea that it is ok to consume honey because “they aren’t killed for their honey” leads to the necessary acceptance that it is ok to consume milk because the cows “aren’t killed for their milk”. If one accepts A then they also accept B, or if one rejects B then they must also reject A. But the bigger problem with relying SOLELY upon the treatment of animals to make one’s argument, whether they are cows or bees, is that the solution then falls upon rectifying the treatment of the animals. In these parameters, bees can still be used and their honey can still be consumed if we find a way to treat them well. Expanding this argument, we then begin to justify backyard chickens, free-range cows, anesthetized killings, etc., all under the umbrella that their treatment up to the point of death was acceptable. Veganism, however, doesn’t allow for acceptable treatments, because treatment itself is a negation of consent. It assumes the needs and desires of the animals, while veiling the end benefit for the human animals, instead of presupposing that an animal’s existence is to be conducted by it’s own agency, in it’s own environment free from imposed restriction. In the acknowledgement we give to our own agency and desires to live by our own accord, it only follows the same for all other animals, despite fair treatment, despite allowing bees to fly away and return on their own accord. Veganism demands not a kind life or an appeal to welfare on behalf of animals, but an ultimately liberated existence without our interruption.

It is worth pointing out here, as an aside, that in this discussion there is sometimes an interplay between the context of civilization and wilderness. It is a legitimate consideration to view veganism in the context of both, but I admit to working from the context of civilization, the dynamics of that context and the way it necessitates relationships with animals. There is an obvious sort of contradiction in dealing with animals in this context, namely via pets, domesticated animals, and similar situations, but in regards to veganism, we always seek to remove animals from our domesticated relationships while re-building and expanding the context of wilderness and/or wildness. I say this to keep focus upon the agency of animals when they are left to their own devices, in environments they have developed within throughout the processes of evolution, and not in forced confinement and alternative environments created by humans for human benefit. Specifically, in regards to honey and bees, there is absolutely no compelling reason to have a continuous relationship with them or use the products they create for their own benefit, lest that relationship is creating habitat that multiplies their populations against the concerns of colony collapse and other die-offs.

THE HIERARCHY OF CONCERN

Among the other reaching reasons for justifying the consumption of honey, by vegans as well, is an unstated recognition of bees as “lesser” creatures. In a very simplistic perspective, there is an understood emotional disconnect and hierarchy of care when it comes to animals of varying species. Probably due to evolutionary reasons, humans tend to favor human animals, and even humans of similar appearance (tribalism / neo-tribalism?), then non-human animals of close association (pets), those in close genetic approximation (primates), animals of intellect (dolphins, horses, etc.), animals of size (elephants, lions, etc.), and then the dissolution grows from smaller animals (squirrels, birds, etc.) to less attractive animals (snakes, moles, etc.) then into plentiful, nuisance creatures (wasps, mosquitoes, etc.) all the way to creatures so small as to be impossible to acknowledge (mites, bacteria, etc.). This sort of hierarchy is both understandable in evolutionary terms and practicality terms. I get this, and I do think it informs the care (or lack of) towards bees and honey. The sort of inherent apathy humans feel towards insects and bees, creatures they struggle to relate to, will drive a lack of motivation to consider them within their spheres of relationships, and bring them to discard any ideas of consent. This may be a sort of biological and psychological reality – to feel little empathy or concern – but by the ethical mandate of veganism there is no sort of loophole or tendency to accept this hypocrisy. The practicality of not consuming honey and / or not establishing a direct relationship with bees is so simple and easy as to be almost inherent. It takes more of an effort to become a “beekeeper” than it does to just let them exist. And to come back to our premise, the mandate of consent will still drive the relationship between humans and bees, of which that mandate is to allow them an existence free of our intrusion in any way possible.

HONEY IS NOT CONSENSUAL. VEGANISM IS.

While we should continue to assert, without reservation, that honey is simply NOT VEGAN, we should also continue to follow that assertion up with the explanation that veganism is about a consensual relationship with non-human animals and therefore there is no need to measure the treatment of the animals, no need to recognize the benefits to our health, no need to debate the subjective nature of how honey is produced, but to rather state that the relationship is fundamentally exploitive because it is fundamentally not consensual. In the majority of discussions I have about veganism, or hear about veganism, there is a shocking lack of consideration of the animals themselves. With the rise in plant-based diets and health conscious vegans, a confusion has developed which has muddied the conversation. This confusion is based in an anthropocentric consideration of veganism, of the intricacies of the lifestyle only in how they apply to humans. Considerations of veganism are subject to how the non-vegans feel, how veganism fits into cultural sensitivity, how veganism affects one’s health, instead of how veganism applies to the relationship between both humans AND animals.

In discussing veganism as an ethic of relationships, as a premise of consent, the animal is not made invisible or even secondary to the conversation, but is primary to the considerations. A relationship is not a relationship if there is only one individual involved. Veganism mandates at least two players in the discussion, dictating an admission of consent and so it establishes a baseline of understanding and acknowledgment for all creatures. Veganism doesn’t confine itself to subjective interpretations of what is gross or not gross. It doesn’t confine itself to the limitations of welfare. It doesn’t confine itself solely to the interests of human animals. Veganism demands a relationship of non-exploitation between humans and cows, humans and cats, humans and, yes, even bees.

It’s right to say honey is not vegan. It’s also right to say honey is not consensual. Veganism, fundamentally, IS about consent.

Beyond

I write this because I can, because I’m not superstitious. I write this, however, with an unavoidable trepidation, because coincidences have a way of lodging deep within one’s core, kinda like my cancer. Still, I want to write this.

I’m beyond cancer.

Obviously, I’m NOT beyond cancer, but right now, in some personally meaningful way, I am. It FEELS behind me, and while in the throes of treatment it felt like an eternity, in the present it feels like a significant, but somewhat momentary interruption in my life. To pretend as if there will be no more surgeries, no more chemotherapy, this whole experience lasted about as long as my time in college, which seems so incredibly distant and inconsequential. Maybe I will feel the same about being on the precipice of death in a handful of years. The necessary ability to move on works funny like that.

I had just delivered another bin of groceries to a resident doorstep when I got back in my truck to find my phone ringing. I looked at the display to see my oncologist’s name spread across the screen. I hesitated, not sure if I was ready to take the call, or if I should just get whatever news he had about my most recent scan via voicemail. Whatever it was – hopeful, dejecting or somewhere in between – I couldn’t change biology, so maybe I wasn’t concerned with receiving the diagnosis under the weight of conversational etiquette.

But I did answer the phone. Almost as if my fingers acted on their own volition.

I can’t remember what was said verbatim, but things were said.

“The scan doesn’t show much….I see what the radiologist pointed out…but I don’t see much…could be cysts…body involutes sometimes…even if I saw anything…we wouldn’t take any action…miraculous (I hate when doctors use such terminology)…another scan in 9 months…”

9 months. Another 9 months, from the previous 9 months after my last surgery. That’s what resonated with me as I got back to work, absorbing his diagnosis with a little more depth as I let the words sink in, drawing out a trajectory and expanse of my life going forward. The lightness I felt after the last post-surgery diagnosis lingered, and then expanded. The instinctual visual that develops in my mind with each diagnosis remained, an unobstructed view that stretches into a horizon, no walls or confines to navigate. Where treatment always drew a wall, an unmoving monolith that could not be seen through or past, I now look into a forever, a universe.

I am beyond cancer. I FEEL more beyond cancer than I ever have. I don’t occupy myself with concerns of surgeries, interruptions, halted perspective and objective, a world for my son without a father. I am more whole and less broken than ever. I have ambition and strength, a resurgence of focus on living one’s values and a new appreciation for developing the physical and mental capacity to do so. I feel more capable of living outside myself again, for others.

To remain grounded, however, I am not biologically beyond cancer. It remains, and I will always be, in some way, broken by the experience. Physically if not emotionally. Maybe broken isn’t the right word. Scarred is more appropriate, and visually apparent. It is immediate when I run. The effort is more strained and in a way I can’t understand. The sensation, though, is wholly felt and knowable. I can’t land my stride the same, or toe off the same, as the front of my feet are forever deadened from the poisons of chemotherapy, creating a subconsciously altered contact with the ground, but very real feeling of missing something. A difficult conscious intent is necessary to run with fluidity and form, that wavers as the accumulated fatigue takes its toll physically and psychologically. Even short jaunts in the morning leave my feet sore and burning with hot spots around my heel. I’m left wondering what my limits are again.

But I am not broken, unable to take advantage of my abilities and aspirations. I am just scarred, left with remembrances and impediments, but not obstacles.

I can breathe, physically and psychologically. I can let go of immediacy and plan for the long term, imagining process and progression, in all aspects of my life. And…that’s sort of dangerous. The slippery slope of running progression, of personal challenges, of absurd goals, of everyday accomplishment, of new frontiers still burns somewhere within. The flame never goes out. The light just gets crowded by competing interests, new walls restricting it’s shine, until the flame is just a dull flicker. But when the walls fall away and the oxygen is condensed into a singular focus, the fire grows. I can’t confidently say my fire is growing, but it’s getting fed from time to time and I don’t have many competing interests right now.

What I do have is 9 more months. 9 more months to remain beyond cancer until proven otherwise. This time though, those 9 months feel more like 90 months, and I plan to live accordingly.

 

No anthems. No nations.

Our Spanish II teacher, a woman we all knew was not to be messed with, ordered us into our daily ritual of citing the Pledge of Allegiance. This must have been our first class together now that I think about it, because it was on this day a moment of tension ensued. We stood, cited the pledge, in spanish I believe, and then sat, unthinkingly, as we always do. One of us, however, didn’t. The teacher addressed her at her seat towards the back of the room.

“Ms. Campbell. Why aren’t you standing for the pledge?” she pointedly asked.

In a response with no degree of excess, she replied, “It is against my beliefs.”

To be honest, I don’t remember my fellow student’s name, but I can tell you she wore skirts, had long hair braided down to her waist, and couldn’t have been anything else but Penecostal. She didn’t often speak to anyone and we didn’t often speak to her, keeping the divide between our cultures firmly established. I remember a certain air of superiority and judgement about her, that may have been true or may have just been my perception of religious moralism at the time.

The teacher pushed back. “And what exactly are your beliefs?”, more a dare than a questioning.

“We give obedience to our god, not our country.” she replied with no more convincing, as if this had all been scripted before.

The teacher could say nothing, though she could also not hide the tension of her authority being undermined. The rest of the class sat in the tension, waiting for an escalation by the teacher or some sort of relief to this interruption. The silence hurt. The teacher relented, I think, for the moment, maybe saying something about addressing this at another time, and then went about the business of pulling us through the struggles of a foreign language.

I remember sitting with that moment, feeling a sort of defensiveness, a who-does-this-girl-think-she-is kind of defensiveness, but also a camaraderie. In the instinctual battlefield of student versus teacher, we found our commonalities in odd places, so when this fellow student was able to override teacher authority and demand, with her physical body even, by citing a rational, untouchable ideology (even if it was based on religion) I couldn’t but help feel a sense of jealousy and even affection towards this individual. I think, even back then, I felt this resistance to external ideology, conformity, and groupthink, but lacked the intellectual, rational basis to explain it.

Along the way of personal development, into my college years and onward, I did begin to find that intellectual, personal, ideological, individualist basis for my feelings, to reject nationalism at its foundation, to reject groupthink, to be very very skeptical of authority. I was influenced by the screaming passions of punk bands and their introspective, politicized lyrics. I read into the words of Howard Zinn, Thoreau, and all the authors that broke through the abstract constructs of the human animal, both it’s mist of ideologies and it’s concrete borders. More and more I escaped the binds of the borders drawn by others, rejected the associations of nationalism, of having no other agency than the fortune of being born within pre-drawn boundaries. The very idea of drawing historical, immediate, and future cultural divisions between individuals became not only rationally and intellectually absurd, but downright bigoted and tragically problematic for the push towards freedom and cooperation.

These ideas of rejecting association to god or country or culture were, at this time, primarily intellectual. I had really not had my resolve tested as my fellow student did in facing the demanded Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish class. In a culture of demanded subservience, of a self-stated “greatest country on earth”, in the fervor of a continuously polarized world, that time would obviously come.

I told my girlfriend (at the time), “Just so you know, I don’t stand for the National Anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, or any of that stuff.”

We were going to a public 4th of July celebration, attended by thousands and thousands, watching the symphony go through a program of compositions related to history and nationalism. I was looking forward to the music, but not the patriotism and nationalistic fervor that defines our culture. I expected some degree of tension should I not stand, not fall in line, not “pledge my allegiance”, and didn’t fear it, but also didn’t want to cause tension for my girlfriend and her family with whom I would be attending.

I reaffirmed my resolve. “Just so you know, I don’t stand for any of that stuff. I don’t want to create any problems, but I just don’t. I’m just letting you know ahead of time.”

The symphony played really beautiful music and I enjoyed it deeply, but the brass and percussion would soon give way to celebrations of each branch of the military. As the conductor called out an individual force, everyone who had served in that branch would stand and be applauded deeply, followed by the next, and then the next, until after all four services were recognized, the national anthem was played and everyone was to stand and sing. The thousands and thousands, in unison, without exception, sang words of pride, intertwined with words of war, marked by unthinking obedience, and soaked in christian righteousness.

I didn’t stand. Respectfully, I sat, enjoyed the music, clapped for the orchestra, and said no more.

An older man in front of me, who had stood as an ex-army serviceman, who had leaned over to his wife after the conductor pointed out that the writer of the national anthem was a frenchman and said “Pshh…figures.”, and who had noticed that I was not standing for servicemen or the anthem, turned, while everyone sat back down, faced me, also seated, put his hands on his hips, stared me in the eye, and shook his head back in forth in absolute disgust. Saying nothing, he turned and sat. Unable to let that slide, I immediately leaned forward, got as close as I could to whisper and not make a scene, and said,

“Sir, if this is truly a free country, then it follows that we are all able to hold our opinions and be free to express them in any way we see fit.”

He turned to me, paused, and stated, “Yeah? Well, I FOUGHT for this country, so go SIT DOWN.”, as if to imply that his decision to fight in a war trumped a completely simple, basic argument of individualism and freedom of expression. To be honest, I expected nothing more. I assumed this sort of tension would likely happen, even through the most simplistic act, admittedly during a public expression of ultimate nationalism and patriotism. Maybe I was rolling the dice, holding a populace that expresses the idea of ultimate freedom to the test. But I also assumed they would fail, despite wanting no confrontation. More so, beyond this proof of assumption, I was affected by the aggregate nationalism, by the thousands of individuals standing in unison, reciting the national anthem, in a time of global tension and countries plotting war against each other. It wasn’t that I saw blood thirsty individuals, but rather a mass of well-intentioned people coming together to reaffirm the rightness of their position, of their place in the world, of their associations by least common denominator, by the chance occurrence of being born within pre-established boundaries. What I ultimately saw, were the good germans. I saw the premise for authority to enact it’s own interests, no matter how nefarious, no matter how short-sighted, no matter how violent, with the well-intentioned, but relatively unthinking subservience of it’s citizens, who can’t see to even question the validity of their nationalist declarations, of their pledges and allegiances, of where their pledges and allegiances might lead. To be honest, I saw how the Nazis were able to bring a populace to put their neighbors into ovens. I saw how Hutus were able to slaughter Tutsis. I saw how aggregate obedience creates a culture where dissent and disagreement is criminal and how even the citizens are brought to keep each other in check. I don’t know if I’d say I was scared…but I was truly affected.

Never have I felt the need or rationalized the argument for nationalism, for patriotism, and all it’s potential violence, all it’s immediate divisions. I stand on the line at running races and wait for the ritual of the national anthem, knowing this is an unquestioned part of any public proceedings. At its worst, it’s followed by a prayer, most insultingly “in jesus’ name”. I play my own role, quietly walking away from the line and giving everyone their space. Or if the option to walk away is not available, I kneel down, head bent, silently. I’ve never done this for show, as an act of conscious protest, but to simply live my values, to not continue unthinking patriotism, to not give false allegiance to borders and nations and ideologies. I do this in the same way I feel no need to bow my head to a god that doesn’t exist during prayer. I do this in the same way I avoid all other expected rituals to ideologies I do not harbor.

Kaepernick. Obviously, I’m writing all this in response to this current event. I stand with Kaepernick, or kneel, or whatever, almost fully. Almost. I’m adding one more voice to his act and his protest because in this cultural moment, the best leverage we have is turning up the volume on those of us that dissent, that don’t give obedience, that don’t follow ritual, that actually consider the words of what is being sung and said instead of just appeasing each other with our obedience. Personally, I find it laughable that people are LOSING THEIR MINDS  because an individual dares act his conscience, that an individual dares express the freedom that all the patriots and nationalists hold to the utmost regard. WE’RE THE GREATEST, MOST FREE COUNTRY ON EARTH! IF YOU DISAGREE, YOU ARE NOT FREE TO SAY IT! It’s truly, unreservedly laughable…if it wasn’t so frightening. It is this reaffirmation of nationalist identity, of self-righteous fervor, of unquestioning that leads to the most horrendous atrocities, that leads citizens to act unthinkingly, that leads to armies and red scares and black lists and good germans.

But still, people are losing their minds that Kaepernick, a publicly visible individual, a celebrity hero to some, is essentially “biting the hand that feeds.” They are losing their minds because he is not only expressing his resistance to groupthink and subservience, but is acting on it. He is physically not falling in line, which is the ultimate rejection of the processes of authority. Free speech is one thing. Free action is something entirely different.

But again, to Kaepernick, and my “almost” full support of his action. The problem with Kaepernick’s action, and I think another reason why people feel so offended by it, is that he is essentially “using” the national anthem as a form of protest. His act of not standing and respecting the national anthem is not to protest the national anthem itself, but to bring attention to the unjust treatment of people of color in the United States. His act is capitalizing on this important moment of the Black Lives Matter movement, of pointing to the hypocrisy of the United States and the expressions of some it’s most coveted rituals, in order to change the treatment of people of color for the better. This should, of course, be supported without reservation. If the expression “liberty and justice for all” isn’t being carried out through the institutions that claim “liberty and justice for all”, then there is no need to continue reciting these words, or paying lip service to the ritual. The problem arises, however, in that the interpretation of the national anthem by individuals, who stake their own claim to it’s fundamental meaning. For some it’s about unthinking obedience. For others it’s a support of the military. For others it’s about the sentiment to make the country better. The problem, then, lies in the varied interpretations and offenses people feel on an individual basis. Kaepernick is using the national anthem to bring light to the issues facing people of color by his own interpretation of the poem’s statements as literal. He is saying that until the words are carried out to their most literal extent, we should question their usage.

Kaepernick is also black.

This means that people are going to freak the hell out because he’s also rejecting the comfort white people feel in the statements of a national anthem that supposedly includes freedom and justice for all. He is pointing out white hypocrisy. The problem, for me, in fully supporting his act, is that his protest of the verses and verbiage used are a singular protest. They are related primarily to liberty and justice for all people of color, it seems, which leads me to believe that if he feels his grievances have been resolved for people of color, would he then stand for the anthem again? What about liberty and justice for everyone based on sexual preference? On theological ideology? etc.? In part, my resistance to fully supporting Kaepernick is that his act isn’t a rejection of nationalism and patriotism at its foundation, but rather it is a singular issue protest that is making the conversation difficult, because the majority of his critics are probably unthinkingly responding to his rejection of the national anthem (and their personal associations and interpretations) instead of the issues regarding people of color.

On the other hand, no matter his individual intentions, I fully support this act of openly refusing to take part in the ritual of the national anthem, if only because it is a rejection of group think, nationalism, and all their tragic outcomes. Kaepernick, right now, is directly experiencing the emotional and psychological pressure that comes with stepping out of line, of thinking for oneself, of rejecting the status quo, of spitting in the face of authority, of taking an action for justice and against oppressive authorities and institutions, but being admonished by those not in power and not of institutions. He’s being told by the good germans to keep quiet, do what you’re told, or else you might end up on the train too.  So even though he may end up standing for the anthem again, right now, he needs all the backing he can get.

For me and my friends, we don’t have the public exposure that a sports celebrity does, but I can tell you that we’ve been NOT standing for the pledge or the anthem all our skeptical, rational, thinking lives. We don’t stand for the anthem or pledge to anyone except ourselves, our loved ones and our self-created ideologies because we are individual, human animals at the core. We don’t live by abstract constructs of imaginary boundaries, by fabricated ideologies, by rule and guides not of our own making. We reject the national anthem and it’s ritual not just because we find it’s words hypocritical, but simply because it is a ritual, because it is an act of obedience, because it is an act of subservience, because it is part of a cultural aggregate defined by economies hell bent on growth, built on the backs of others, always trending towards war and conflict. We reject acts of nationalism because we reject nations, and gas chambers, and walls, and borders, and the willful obedience that makes them all possible.

We pledge allegiance to nothing and reject the anthems of nations because we know a world without them is not a vacuum of dignity and security, but quite the opposite. We know cultures comprised of free-thinking, rational, intellectual, and skeptical individuals are actually cultures of cooperation, justice and genuine freedom.