The Circle Of Cancer

Chelsea

Like it’s circular, cellular shape, Cancer surrounds your life once you’ve been diagnosed. Radiating inward, oddly enough, the circle envelops, contains you, putting boundaries on your timeline of existence, but it also creates other circles outside of your own, through the people who will share your experience. The goal, for all of us, is to keep those circles close, but not too close. For some, they accept as many radiating circles as they can into their lives, the clarity, definitions and emotional depth of each weakening as it fades into the distance.

I’ve always made an attempt to limit my circles. I don’t want that much confinement, that weighted emotional potential in my life. I have my own circle I can’t avoid and want to keep as distant and blurred as possible, and then also the circles of my friends whose struggles I will also take as my own. I’m tentative to step within anymore, because I know how quickly they close in on us.

I’ve inadvertently found myself confined by the circles of support groups, absorbing stories of death and depression without end, but just as quickly stepped out. With cancer, I know the circles I’ve created will, at some point, close in on me and I don’t want to surround myself with that emotional confinement anymore than I must.

For some time, the circles have been so far away. My own, fortunately, resides far off in the distance. It will come into focus a bit more when I undergo my next surgery in October, but even then, it’s boundaries are blurred and weak. Where it once rung my throat and threatened to choke the life from me, it’s now as familiar as a coastal border, somewhere far off in the distance.

But the few other circles are not so far away, and one I hoped would disappear completely came back, quickly, forcefully, and now my friend is going to die.

I met Chelsea when we both found ourselves working at a local vegan cafe, built from the neglected shambles of the last cafe, by just a handful of us given the opportunity to try it out. She was a student dietician, dating a fellow vegan, straight edge, distance running friend of mine and we all got along from the get go. Admittedly, it’s pretty much impossible to not be friends with Chelsea. She’s all huge smiles, loud laughs, and an overflowing energy that becomes instantly infectious. Our friendship grew from the cafe, around veganism, and then through our discussions about running nutrition and the obsessive personalities that both I and her boyfriend, Alan, harbor.

What I didn’t find out until later, is that Chelsea had lived through cancer just a couple years before we met. It’s not something you go throwing around in conversation all the time, but it became one more connection between us after my own diagnosis. Chelsea and Alan have both been there for me through my benefits, surgeries, and recovery, but it was out of genuine friendship, not pity. They stepped into my circle willingly, but I don’t think any of us imagined her own circle coming back to overlap mine.

Until it did.

Anyone will tell you, when cancer comes back, it’s infinitely more frightening than the first time. The stories and statistics all line up, often with tragic endings. Chelsea’s cancer did come back, sort of. Her cancer didn’t grow back…a new one formed, get this, as a reaction to the treatment to eradicate her first. It’s an all too common biological response to cancer treatment. Kill one and facilitate another. That’s what happened to Chelsea.

It started with a pain in her shoulder, that turned into all sorts of tests, into an official diagnosis, troubled by careful treatments that couldn’t be too aggressive as she suffered heart damage from the treatments for her first. She went through various drugs, signed up for clinical trials, and then the symptoms got worse. The scans were not encouraging. And before we could even consider another option, cancer spiraled out of control, taking over her body. One week I was talking to Alan about the next treatment option and days later he was texting me to say she was now entering hospice care. Just like that. The circle had begun choking.

I went for a run in the hot, humid air this morning. A 12 miler with 5 miles getting progressively faster, but my legs felt as weighted by the emotions dragging down my psyche. I pushed through two miles before everything gave up. And yet, I couldn’t stop running. I passed the 5 mile mark, then my turn around at 6, and kept running. I’m not sure why I kept going. Part of me thinks I wanted to run the sadness of my dying friend out of my head. Part of me felt obligated to suffer, in my own way, just a little bit, along side her. Another part needed to keep going…because I can…because she can’t. It was something of a celebration, living a little bit more for her.

Laura and I visited her in the hospital later in the day, and I wish I could say we laughed hard, but she’s having trouble doing anything right now. She’s out of her head on pain meds and surely doesn’t remember we even visited. It’s hard seeing your friend, barely recognizable from the swelling of steroids, in and out of consciousness. It was like seeing my sister again in her last days. They look a great deal alike actually. I can say, however, we did make her laugh, as much as it pained her. I bought her two pairs of socks to replace the hospital socks they give their patients. One pair said, “Fuck this shit.” The other said, “I don’t care. I’m high.” I knew she would like them. They would be the socks I would want if I was in her position. I only wish she was capable of laughing with all the energy she used to give.

I don’t regret surrounding myself within her circle. Even if I had the choice to step out of it, I wouldn’t. She and Alan stepped into mine after all. I only wish we could have pushed it off into the distance again, both of ours, if only for a little bit longer.

With tears falling down her face she told us she was terminal, that she’s so sad because there was so much more she wanted to do. We tried to remind her how much great stuff she has already done, that she did more in her time than most even attempt in their lives. But really, there is never the right thing to say in these situations, no matter how true the sentiment.

I assured her, however, that I ran my miles for her today and that I would continue to run more. As a matter of fact, my benefit run this summer is wholly because of her, and now I owe her every single mile.

I wish Chelsea didn’t have a circle of cancer ringing her life, but I’m glad I was there to step within it and share that space with her. We’re going to miss you Chelsea.

chelsea2

———

When I heard Chelsea was diagnosed again, I needed to help her. She and Alan have been there for me, and as a friend, I wanted to do anything I could to help her manage treatment. While planning the ultra run fundraiser on her behalf, I also linked up with Family Reach in order to spread the benefit into other circles. Without any prompting of my own, Family Reach contacted Chelsea and her social worker to facilitate a grant that helped pay for months of rent and medication that would have been financially crippling otherwise. I am forever indebted to Family Reach for helping alleviate this portion of Chelsea’s burden and I know her family is too. It is with great sadness that Chelsea won’t be here to see me finish this run organized on her behalf, but I’m proud to say the money raised will go to help so many others who find themselves in a situation similar to hers, giving both financial and emotional relief.

Thank you to everyone who has donated so far. I am deeply grateful.

www.stayclassy.org/becausewecanrun

Hawthorn Half Day Relay

This past Saturday I ran the Hawthorn Half Day Relay. It’s a little unique as far as relay races go, wherein teams are camped out in one location and everyone runs the same 5k loop over and over again, trying to tally the most miles in the 12 hour window. It gets real interesting, and exciting, at the end when the last 30 minutes is transitioned into an 800 meter loop, so all the teams gather and cheer on athletes knocking out 800 after 800 on incredibly compromised legs and lungs. Somehow, even after all the intense, consecutive trail 5ks, runners find a deeper reserve of energy and strength to lay down really fast 800s. It’s definitely a unique, “I can’t believe I’m doing this” kind of experience.

I’ve never been much of a relay runner, preferring intense, measurable, solo efforts to the party atmosphere of relay racing, but, well, cancer has thrown a significant hurdle into my running path and I’m more apt to take on anything I can get these days. I’ve come to really enjoy these efforts, and just appreciate the experience more than trying to gauge fitness or walk away feeling supremely accomplished. With that said, the appreciation I had to be running this specific race was greater than most of my past races as I had a connection to this race through my Personal Best Training teammates.

The summer following my diagnosis, my teammate Jesse Davis entered into the Ultra run category of the race, in part, as a fundraiser for my needs post-surgery. Never having run more than 26.2 miles, he managed to break the course record and complete 77 miles, raising a significant amount of money for me in the process. The same summer, a team formed to support me in spirit, calling themselves The FC (fuck cancer) Crew, winning the event by completing 118 miles in 12 hours.

I can’t underestimate what these two gestures meant to me. It may seem like a bit of lip service, just naming their team after my struggle, but I can assure you the encouraging words and recognition helped push me through darker times of treatment and recovery. On those days where I could have just stayed in bed, opting not to make it to the gym and run, I would be compelled by the many gestures of support by friends and strangers alike, who were putting in efforts of their own for me. The sense of obligation and reciprocation I felt got me out of bed, out of the house and compelled me to push myself to a new state of strength and recovery. Those gestures kept me pushing ahead, finding new levels of fitness, and had me back running and closer to the life I wanted to lead sooner than ever. Sometimes, just a few supportive words are gestures can have a positive effect you never imagined. Who knows, if it wasn’t for the accumulated support over the past two years, I may not have found myself running this race last Saturday. So to actually be out there, running myself, was more important than most probably realized.

Then there was the financial support from Jesse, who received donations and pledges-per-mile (I wonder how many people regretted doing that!) on my behalf, and even offered incentives for breaking the course record, which he did. On a personal level, I wish I could have been there to watch, but I was deep into recovery and treatment and was not able to make it to the race. Being out there this year, however, suffering a bit myself, and then watching the ultra runners keep going and going and going really brought home the degree of sacrifice and suffering he endured to reach his own personal achievement, but to also aid me in the process. I am wordlessly grateful for his literal endurance.

The benefit of the finances he raised through this effort were immeasurably important to me all the same. In concert with all the other fundraising and financial support offered to me during this time, I was able to maintain the stability of my life as it was prior to diagnosis. I could pay my rent, keep the utilities on, buy good food, and parent my son when he was with me. I was also able to concentrate on getting stronger and recovering well while I was unable to work. The emotional comfort of knowing that your only responsibility is to keep living and living well, while all the potentially disastrous economic obligations have been taken care of, can’t be understated.

I don’t want this to sound like I was taking an extended vacation. Believe me, no matter how good things may be, chemo is no beach resort. I actually did try to get back to working while going through treatment, but the ravages of surgery on my body were just too much. I accepted a couple jobs, only to back out at the last second when my body let me know it was too early. I truly couldn’t work. As someone who takes their self-reliance seriously, being helpless to provide for myself in some way did not feel good at all. Fortunately, the financial donations from Jesse’s ultra run and all the other benefits allowed me to continue waiting out my recovery and building my strength to a point that I could get back to work without issue…mostly.

But…here I am. I’m working (self-employed as a graphic designer and distance running coach…which is perfect for future surgery and treatment)….and running. I don’t have the speed that I did prior to diagnosis (still searching!), but I officially have the endurance. I’m knocking out 90 mile weeks and hitting 20+ mile long runs…and running consecutive 5k loops during relay races. And I dare say I might not be at this point if it wasn’t for the gestures of teammates in both word and financial action.

The same as those 5k loops during the Half Day Relay, things have come full circle, as I’m now able to use my strength and abilities for the benefit of others during my Because We Can ultra run down the state of Indiana. I feel a great responsibility to use every able moment I have for the benefit of others and this run is, personally, a gesture of reciprocation for all those that helped me in the past. During my training runs lately, especially as the heat and humidity has risen, I’ve drawn from the inspiration of those who will benefit from the money raised in the coming months, but also from the recognition of what others have gone through on my behalf. I know what it is to suffer and endure, so for others to do that for my sake is forever humbling, and it would only feels right to use my current strength for the same selfless purposes. Right now, all this drives me towards August 23rd when I’ll begin my run down the state for Family Reach and the patients and families they serve. Even if part of this run is, admittedly, for myself, the greatest impetus has been by those that have helped me in the past and for those who it will help in the future.

I ran the Hawthorn Half Day Relay this past weekend because it sounded like an exciting (and absurd) running experience…just how I like it. And although every run is a victory now, and I never forget the importance and appreciation I have for each effort, I was caught off guard by how much the experience would resonate with me due to the efforts of my teammates in previous years. I only hope I can reciprocate the appreciation for others all the same.

Thanks for everything friends.

Perspective

Hey friends…I want to introduce you to someone.

Dylan B.

This is Dylan. He’s 11 years old and was diagnosed with mixed phenotypic Leukemia in March of 2013, one month before I was diagnosed with my cancer. Personally, the last couple of years have been some of the most rewarding for me, but also the most difficult, however, to hear what Dylan has gone through since diagnosis makes my struggles pale in comparison. And yet, his mother says his excitement for living has only deepened.

Dylan is being treated for his leukemia at the University of Chicago’s Comer Children’s Hospital and lives at home in East Chicago, Indiana with his mom, dad and two siblings. His mom and dad are both disabled and their family has very low income. Cancer treatment has made it close to impossible for this family to make ends meet.

Dylan had a lengthy treatment course including chemotherapy and matched sibling bone marrow transplant in June of 2013. Unfortunately, Dylan had multiple complications before and after his transplant including a severe allergic reaction, resulting in altered mental status and ultimately complete loss of vision in both eyes.

Dylan’s social worker at Comer Children’s Hospital brought their story to the attention of Family Reach when the family was significantly behind on their rent and in desperate need of car repair. Their social worker reported that Dylan missed several appointments due to the family having an unreliable vehicle. Family Reach immediately provided a grant to cover several months rent, to help this family get back on track. With Family Reach assistance, the family was also able to afford the repairs for their car.

Dylan also developed autoimmune hemolytic anemia which requires frequent clinic visits. Dylan has regular follow-up visits with oncology, ophthalmology, endocrinology, and pulmonology at Comer. His mother Patricia stays at home with Dylan and his siblings and provides home-schooling. His father works as a laborer but is often needed for care giving due to Dylan’s follow-up schedule. Now that Dylan’s follow-up care is decreasing, his father is able to devote more time to employment.

This month I will be meeting Dylan personally, to help spread his story, to be inspired by his example to complete my fundraiser and run, and to showcase the crucial work Family Reach achieves for so many people in need. Sometimes it’s hard to understand the value of a small donation, and sometimes the effect of your contribution seems to disappear the moment you hit the “send” button, but I wouldn’t ask for help if I didn’t believe in the work of Family Reach and if I didn’t understand what these dollars can mean to a family facing the unbelievable financial burden of cancer treatment.

I’m working with Dylan because he is an example of the effect of your donations, of how your extra funds can keep a family from sliding into a well of debt they can’t climb out of. Your donations allow families and patients to keep their cars running in order to get them to life saving treatments, to help keep the water running in their houses, to pay the rent that keeps a roof over their heads, and to simply alleviate the emotional stress of wondering if they’ll be able to pay all the bills each month. We can all understand how comforting it is to know we are somewhat financially secure and you are offering the same comfort to those who find themselves in unavoidably difficult circumstances due to no fault of their own.

This August i’m going to be running down the state to highlight the work of Family Reach, to raise funds for the families they serve, and guided by the encouragement of Dylan for all 7 days and all 350 miles of the trek. He says he’s even looking forward to running with me when we meet!

Please consider spreading the goal of my fundraiser or contributing yourself if you can. All contributions during the month of June get you entered into a drawing for one of four autographed John Green books. If you’re a cat lover, you can order one of the shirts I created for this fundraiser (see previous post), of which every penny goes to Family Reach. Thanks for helping Family Reach, for helping Dylan and his family, and for helping all the families who will face the burdens of cancer to come.

Because We Can Fundraiser
Family Reach

CAAAATTTSSS!

Purchase now at teamlegsandlungs.com

Purchase now at teamlegsandlungs.com

www.teamlegsandlungs.com

I guess you can’t say you’ve done everything in life until you’ve “gone viral”. Consider that box checked.

Long story short, this idea came to me while on a long drive somewhere and it instantly struck me that it was one of those CAN’T LOSE ideas. I just KNEW people would eat this up. But…there is just TOO MUCH STUFF in the world, so I decided not to actually turn this idea into a t-shirt image. But then people were asking if I was going to make something for my Family Reach fundraiser, and instead of making something that would only appeal to my close connections, I figured it was best to dig this up from my deep deep well of archived “good ideas I’ll never implement”. At first, I hoped this would appeal to a handful of people outside my closer circles, but when I teased my instagram with the image, MANY people responded. I decided to make an initial order of 100+ shirts and run with it, but little did I know where the image itself would run.

And it went viral.

My friends bought up the first batch of shirts in the initial 24 hours, but during that time, the image got shared…again…and again and again…

And it’s still going.

Fortunately, I have smart, helpful friends and one of them stepped up to help me get a page built for pre-ordering the shirt. During all that, it kept getting shared amongst friends, strangers, on Facebook groups, via Instagram, and then on Canadian radio station Facebook pages. Honestly, who knows how else it got around, but I got an influx of orders from Australia…so there’s that.

As I type this, orders keep coming in through my email…again and again and again. I have something of a nightmare of fulfilling these orders soon, but it’s going to be worth it because,

This is for Family Reach. This is for my fundraiser that I’m conducting through October, just before I go under for my third surgery. Mind you, ZERO of this money is for me. Every last penny goes to Family reach for the work they do in assisting patients and families during the financially troubling aspects of managing cancer and treatment. I’m just thrilled to be in the position that I can benefit their work.

There will be more information about Family Reach and my partnership with them soon. I’ve just been connected to one of the families they have supported and you will soon learn about an amazing child who is inspiring me through the coming months leading into my run.

And you’ll surely understand why their work is so important and feel THAT MUCH BETTER about buying one of these shirts. Cats are awesome, yes, but expressing your love of cats while directly helping families who are facing cancer, in less fortunate circumstances than yourself, is icing on the cake, or fresh cat food in the bowl, or purrs in your lap…or whatever.

Please consider being totally Pawsome (I had to) and sharing the sale of this shirt for my Family Reach fundraiser.

-Scott

www.familyreach.org
www.stayclassy.org/becausewecanrun
www.teamlegsandlungs.com

John Green Signed Book Raffle

Cape Cod Ragnar – An (Inadequate) Retelling in Three Parts

Anyone that has been through a Ragnar can attest to the depth of experience that evades description, whether from failing wordsmithery or a simple accumulation of worthy events they were unable to retain. I am no different. For example, for the life of me I can’t remember handing off the slap bracelet baton to my teammate Christine at the end of my second leg, which admittedly was run in the middle of the night, but no matter. I spent a good hour on my drive home trying to bring up that memory and just can’t do it. That is also telling about the Ragnar experience, as the entire two days, from start to finish, are juxtaposed as a conflict between deprivation and fulfillment. And sometimes, the deprivation of sleep erases some of those moments of fulfillment. That exchange was one of them. Who knows how many others I’ve already forgotten. Fortunately, there are enough memories retained to retell, and although I’ll never do justice to the entire experience, for lack of bandwidth if nothing else, I’ll share a few dynamics of the endeavor to attempt a decent overview.

crew

Teams

“We Eat Our Veggies. You Eat Our Dust.”

The two Ragnar Relays team Strong Hearts Vegan Power ran prior to Cape Cod involved, what seemed like to me, mind-boggling logistical coordination. There was team registration, an understanding of the “Ragnar Bible”, shirts to be printed, 2 vans to be rented, gas to be paid, food, nighttime running apparel, and overall coordination in getting everyone to the start and the finish. I don’t know how the initial team captains pulled it off…but they did. After the last two years, I decided I wanted to step up and ease the burden, but little did I know to what the Cape Cod logistics would amount. In short, they grew threefold.

They grew threefold, because the hype we built with the two races prior resulted in a flood of interested runners when we put the call out on the internet. Not only did we have one team of 12 runners ready to go right away, then we had 12 more, and suddenly 12 more! I dare say, if we kept asking, we could have had another team. Ultimately, we decided it was best to cap everything at three in fear of what the organizing might mean. Then after getting all 36 vegan runners on board, we followed that up with 6 vegan van drivers, and the required 6 race volunteers (who I think all might have been vegan as well!). We didn’t just have a team…we had an army.

But an army of the nicest, intelligent, most compassionate people you’ve ever met. I wish I could profile each and every runner as we all have a story worth telling and I didn’t meet a single runner on the team that I wouldn’t be proud to call a friend. From the dedication and passion of Jasmine Singer to the quiet speed of my van mate Christine Tylee to the unreserved hilarity of Martin Rowe to the shining positivity of Aaron Zell, I wish all 36 of us could have rode in the same van.

Surprisingly, despite being separated into three teams and those three teams into two separate vans, spread throughout the 200 mile course, we all seemed to remain connected and engaged. That became increasingly solidified at the end of the race when each team gathered to run with the following coming in, until the last of our teams neared the finish line and all 40 some of us (runners, van drivers, volunteers) flooded the finish line in black shirts…like an army. It was a beautiful sight.

It would be a disservice to try and detail our connection further, but suffice to say I feel as if my own personal army of friends has grown threefold…and I can’t wait to see what comes next, whether we find ourselves crammed into an increasingly cluttered van or simply enjoying our new connections in less adverse situations.

Trials (of miles)

“Naughty By Nature, Countin My Kills.”

leg

The Ragnar Relay is comprised of 12 runners (per team) covering 200 miles, each one running 3 legs of varying distances. Each runner will complete one run in the middle of the night or sometimes two in the dark, depending upon your placement. Understandably, the combination of sleep and nutrition deprivation begins to take it’s toll as the hours and miles add up. No matter how hard or easy you run your distances, there is a point where you question just how you’re able to continue with some semblance of respectful speed or effort. I can admit that my last run, despite being only 1.6 miles, was a complete effort with poor results…but with good reason, which I want to detail.

My first leg was the longest of the race, being 12.8 miles, just shy of a half-marathon. Deemed “Wicked Hahd” by the pronunciation challenged East Coasters, I would even receive a special medal for my effort upon completion. I won’t lie, I was intimidated by the distance and made a point to study the elevation changes for proper control of intensity. The course started off with a relatively steady climb, dropping only briefly, before capping out around 2 miles. At that point it dropped somewhat sharply towards three miles and continued a rise and fall pattern towards the 11 mile mark where it began to climb back up to the finish at 12.8. This was going to be no joke. Add to the length and difficulty of the course, I haven’t had much confidence in my ability to run far and fast for quite some time, experiencing a predictable rise in heart rate and crash of speed and strength as the distance wears on. I expected no different from this run and prepared to suffer towards the end.

I lined up under an overcast, grey sky, the wind coming off the ocean chilling the 46 degree forecast and shivering me against the air. I waited in an unceremonious and minimally populated exchange point, teammate Micah Risk keeping me company as we waited for Scott Gilroy to complete his run and send me off to eat up the distance. One other runner stood by me waiting for his turn as well. A familiar black jersey with big block letters that read “VEGAN POWER” came into sight as Gilroy flew down a steep decline towards me in the exchange. I hit my watch and pressed out of the chute towards the immediately climbing road as the runner next to me did the exact same.

We started off together and I fought the competitive urge to keep pace with his rhythmically spinning legs, but even so, I felt like the effort might be too ambitious. I was just off his back as we began climbing and climbing and climbing. My heart rate expectedly rose a bit as we began moving up the hills, but I was pleased to find it wasn’t immediately spiking as it had in the past, and I was able to stay with this other runner as we began passing slower teams. Now comfortable with the pace, I committed to staying at this effort until I crested the hill and determined how I felt. That’s when the other runner suddenly created space between us. I caught him looking back every once in awhile as the second between us doubled, then grew to three, then four, then five. He was getting away, but I wasn’t panicking. My only concern was getting over the hill without completely ruining the rest of my run in the process. My heart rate and subsequent crash lay somewhere further into the run, and I would meet it there rather than right from the start.

The hill topped out at 2.0 miles and would then drop almost a complete mile, quite drastically. Drastic enough that when I started on the downhill I was instantly back on the runner that got away from me on the climbs, and then he was next to me, noticeably braking against the descent, and then behind me as I let gravity dictate my speed, trying to manage that comfortable space between braking against the road and yet not letting my quads get pounded by gravity. I feared that I might be quickly sacrificing strength, but encouraged by starting to leave behind the runner I thought might get away from me, just said, “Screw it…let’s go with gravity.”

All the way through the mile I bombed the course, excited to feel the sensation of speed in my body as the trees and runners flicked by me like blips and blinks. I was undeniably MOVING. Even better, my lungs were resting from the aid of the descent and the building suffering was staying somewhere further down the course. And yet, the descent wasn’t going to last forever, as the course began to work against my efforts.

To my surprise, though, I had strength in my legs…and my lungs…a lot. I wasn’t running at the downhill bomb pace from the mile prior, but I was in no way slowing…I was still MOVING. Quickly. I had a strength in my legs that I hadn’t felt in LITERALLY years. I began climbing the hills, rolling back down the other side and then climbing back up, but shockingly not feeling the building fatigue I have since resuming training in November. It hit me…something was different.

There was little time for consideration though, I was running strong and fast and enjoying the hell out of it! Not only did my body not resist against my efforts, but my mind followed in step, almost daring my body to go faster with excitement! I, however, resisted that and kept working to eat up the distance.

I’ll tell you though, that excitement continued to grow as I met each rise and crested it with the same level of strength to keep rolling hard back down the hill and back up. Sometimes, I noticed, I was running STRONGER up the hills than when I was going down or on the flats. It was like my body had finally turned on, or my training, with a little bit of rest and tapering, was finally paying off.

It wasn’t just the strength that refused to leave my legs though, it was also my lungs. 5, 6, 7 miles into the distance I was pounding out a rhythm in my chest that didn’t fade, didn’t weaken, didn’t change from “THUMP, INHALE THUMP THUMP” to “THUMP THUMP INHALE THUMPTHUMP THUMP”. It was consistent. It was familiar. It was MINE. By that, I mean, it was the rhythm and power and unweakening beat that filled my chest for every race I ran prior to my cancer diagnosis, prior to the year of chemo, prior to the two surgeries I underwent.

And in that moment of realization, I swear I could have either broke down crying with relief or took off into a full on sprint of adrenaline and euphoria.

So, I didn’t break down crying or take off sprinting, but I also decided it wasn’t time to hold back. Running with what felt like a proverbial fist of personal victory in the air I kept launching myself at the hills, pushing up each incline with the mantra of overcoming in my head, “Don’t let this hill break you. Don’t let this hill break you,” before letting loose down the other side with a separate motivator, “Let go. If anyone is behind you, make it hurt like hell to catch you.” Hill after hill I climbed with a driven anger and flew down the following descent without worrying about my heart rate going out of control or my legs breaking with the pounding. I just kept attacking and attacking, going into that mental and physical space of intensity that demands full concentration…where I haven’t been in years.

Right then, I wanted to tell my teammates, I wanted to tell Laura, I wanted to tell anyone that understood…”You’ve gotta see this! I can’t believe this is happening! Look what I’m doing!”

I know it sounds a little romanticized and ridiculous, especially considering my pace still doesn’t rival my pre-diagnosis abilities, but the experience, the FEELING I had in my body was undeniable. It was the old me. I hadn’t forgotten…I just hadn’t felt.

I refused to look behind me. I refused to check my watch. I refused to do anything that might break this moment, that still felt somewhat fragile, as if the crash was still just a misstep or significant hill away. But I knew I was getting close. Then at 11 miles the course rose again until finishing at 12.8 miles under the almost darkened sky. I ran at the hill, my legs continuing to burn and weaken, but always recover at the short moments of relief in elevation, climbing and climbing until I could hear the familiar cheers and noise that comprises each exchange point. By now many teams and teammates were watching and cheering in the runners who agreed to this “wicked hahd” leg, signaling the finish with blinking lights and audible exclamations heard down the course.

With an unexpected level of finishing speed in my body at the end of this near half-marathon, I started my usual controlled kick, picking up pace as I got closer and closer to the finish, finally making out my teammate Christine with her arm outstretched, waiting for me to slap the bracelet on her wrist. I pushed in as fast as I could, catching onlookers making statements of surprise, reached out to slap the bracelet on Christine as she took off down the chute and then slowed down and put my hands on my knees for that moment of unparalleled relief.

And yet, I was hardly tired. I was fatigued, undoubtedly, but I could barely contain the excitement of what just happened to me through those almost 13 miles. I had run fast. I had run strong. I had run with an effort I was able to maintain through the entire distance, worlds away from the runs I had pushed through in all my training since November. I had, it felt like, finally cashed it all in. I was the runner I have been seeking since pre-diagnosis. I was the runner that set my PRs, that crushed my first marathon, that won races and felt consistently superhuman. Forgive me if this sounds overly self-absorbed, but I mean it with great humility, I had found the runner in me I wasn’t sure I would ever meet again. Truly.

If I was somewhat insufferable to my teammates for the time after my finish, repeating statements of self-congratulation, forgive me…that run was more than just an awesome run to me. It meant something much deeper and exciting. It proved to me that I’m haven’t completely lost my previous running self to cancer and treatment. Even recognizing that I will be wiped back to zero after my next surgery in October, there is still hope to experience this, even just once more, before that happens. To have felt it that night, however, was satisfaction enough and I plan on riding this high for as long as I can.

Granted, I finished with an average pace of 6:15 for the full 12.8 miles, which is nothing to write home to my past self, but acknowledging the long climbs, I also recognize I was running well into the 5:30s, maybe faster, on the descents, without tiring to the finish.

And that run alone, among all the wonderful, exciting moments of the Ragnar weekend, made the entire experience worth it.

sleep

Truth

Spitz back

The Strong Hearts Vegan Power team, as a whole, is somewhat unique to a Ragnar Relay. More a compilation of pun-enabled themed teams in a roving, rolling, running party, team SHVP and our political base and promotion are a little out of place, which admittedly, suits us just fine. The first year we formed SHVP at the Adirondacks Ragnar, I distinctly remember feeling on edge, on the defensive, as we were boldly claiming our ethical veganism to the other teams…sort of. I mean, we were, but I also know we were more interested running AS vegans, together, than trying to be evangelical. Still, we’ve come to accept a certain sort of reaction, rarely positive, when it comes to airing our veganism to the public. Ragnar, surely, would be no different.

But then, it was. As the day (and night) (and day) wore on, more teams interacted with us, were supportive, asked us questions, sent fellow vegan runners our way for food, etc. Our defensive wall began to come down and I’m not afraid to admit I felt a little bad for putting it up in the first place, potentially showing our team as unfun, unengaging, angry vegans. Fortunately, we salvaged ourselves from that stereotype and had an amazing time and really great impact when all was said and done.

The next year, feeling less defensive, was all the same. We had come to realize that people actually LIKED US (I know right?), for what I believe are specific reasons, which I’ll detail below. Despite a few snarky or joking comments, our overall impact on the Ragnar environment was noticeable and positive, so this year we took it upon ourselves to maximize that impact, and not just for ourselves. Instead of running AS ethical vegans and FOR ethical veganism, we also decided to run as an act of support for the animals we seek to liberate through a fundamental shift in cultural consciousness. We decided to use our team as a fundraiser for Tamerlaine Farm (a sanctuary for rescued animals started by our teammate Peter Nussbaum and his wife Gabby) by having sponsors contribute to the farm and raise money through supporters on a Tamerlaine fundraising site. In the end, I believe we raised over $2000 for the care of their animals.

About our impact during Ragnar though…

I’ve thought about this a bit and I think we experience a different reaction from our fellow Ragnar teams than we do from “normal society” for a few explicit reasons.

First, our aesthetics. Ragnar is comprised of literally hundreds of teams with varying organization. Some of them show up in coordinated outfits, often costumes, while others show up in matching t-shirts or tech t’s, and still others in whatever they usually run. We, however, make an effort to print racing jerseys and hooded sweatshirts for each Ragnar, in unmistakeable black apparel with bold white print. When we step out of our vans, we are all always wearing the gear, and we make an impression, undoubtedly. We look cohesive. We look organized. We look professional. And we look serious. Imagine that visual if you will, 36 to 42 people walking into a crowd of runners, while all wearing black hoodies boldly printed with the words VEGAN POWER in white on the front. Then the back printed with an image stating “VEGAN FOR THE ANIMALS”. Again…we were less a running team and more an army.

And that sort of aesthetic statement isn’t accidental. Many of us have been vegan for 10 to 20+ years and we know what it is to represent ourselves in a way that garners some manner of respect, in an attempt to garner the same respect for the animals we want to represent. If we showed up as a stereotype of ourselves, wearing hippy sundresses and rose-tinted glasses…we would be a joke. Our veganism is not a joke and we wanted to make that quite clear.

We are ethical vegans running for the animals, and where years ago, that would be inherent…now things have gotten muddled. The new trend of “plant-based diets” that ignore the physical and emotional lives of animals for personal health and performance has begun to overtake the stereotype of vegans, leading people to believe we are “health nuts” or whatever. And yeah, most of us do value our health (we ARE runners), and it could be argued that is part of our team’s promotion, but fundamentally we do this for the animals and want that to be very clear, hence the “FOR THE ANIMALS” statement on the backs of the shirts. Couple that statement with our aesthetic approach, and our seriousness can’t be denied, which I think informs the reaction we get from the other teams.

Personally, however, I’ve often worried about being perceived as “evangelists”, sort of taking advantage of the Ragnar culture to “spread our message”. As an individual who has a strong distaste for the Christian faction of evangelism, I feared being side-eyed with the same distaste. There was talk at the first Ragnar of handing out Why Vegan pamphlets during the exchanges, and although I think leafletting has it’s appropriate time and place, I also think the Ragnar is not it. The fundamental reason to sign up for Ragnar is to 1. Run. & 2. Have fun. Political flyering would probably not go over well, rightfully so, but running under the banner of our ethics isn’t so frowned upon…for a couple reasons that follow.

1. We have fun. Yeah, we’re committed ethical vegans, but we’re also awesome, hilarious individuals. The other teams love us (as we love most of them…even the bacon themed teams), probably in part, because we have Martin Rowe on our squad. And a speedo wearing Jeremy Ritz-Totten. And the most foul-mouthed, but lovable, neck-tattooed human you’d ever find in Jonny Hero. I could go on…but suffice to say, I dare you not to enjoy our team when we’re out on the course.

Then..

2. We’re fast. No, seriously. This year, with enough runners to build three teams out of the mayhem, we decided to compile one team of our fastest runners to be competitive. We discussed the possibility of winning the whole thing…and we almost did! We finished in THIRD overall (out of 540+ teams) and FIRST in our Mixed-Open Division (The most populated division). Yes. First. Trust me, in running, there is a certain respect that comes with being fast, so to step to the line against other runners, while we’re looked up and down with a certain stare that either borders on disdain or annoyance, it speaks volumes when we suddenly run away from those stares without looking back. Quickly, that annoyance turns to something like admiration. From the very first Ragnar is wasn’t uncommon to hear, “Dang! You guys are fast!”, “What was your pace?!”, “The vegans are fast!” It was AWESOME.

So, let’s put all these dynamics together.

We show up in force.
We are aesthetically intimidating.
We are organized.
We are deliberate in our message.
We are HILARIOUS.
And we are FAST.

And it’s not to say we are BETTER than other teams, but just that because we are coming to Ragnar with a different approach, we could be perceived as “not playing along”, or subjecting ourselves to ridicule with our non-pun-themed team, but that’s not what happens. We set ourselves up to be seen, respected….and enjoyed. And if you think I’m romanticizing the reaction we get from the other teams…I think the statement from the announcer as all three teams crossed the finish line sums it up quite well. He said,

“And here come all the vegans!…surrounded by butterflies!…EVERYBODY LOVES THE VEGANS!”

If that’s not a positive impact for the perception of veganism, for the promotion of animal liberation, for our teams in general…I don’t know what is. And we’re not done yet. See you at the Adirondacks Ragnar

Sponsors

We could not have pulled off the potential logistical mayhem with such ease and success without the help from our sponsors. They supplied us with energy, funds for the team and Tamerlaine, and even some of our runners! We are so grateful for their contributions and we strongly suggest you check them out and offer the same support in return. They are all truly fantastic companies and people doing wonderful work.

our hen house

Our Hen House (next year’s beneficiary)
UGO Bars
Herbivore Clothing
Chicago Vegan Foods
Terri NYC
Magic Vegan Bacon Grease
Vegan Cuts
Tofurky

vest

Life Report

I was going to write up a race report from last week’s trail 15k, because it went pretty well and I experienced some noticeable progressions in my fitness during that race, but more important perspective has been strung together for me in the recent weeks and all that needs addressed.

Two weeks ago I went in for another CT scan to determine if my tumors had shrunk, grown, spread, or remained stable. The follow up was this past Wednesday, where I went through the now oddly casual routine of meeting my surgical oncologist to receive what could be triumphant or disastrous news. Admittedly, the first time I had a follow up last year, after my first surgery, I was an emotional wreck as is to be expected. This time, however, it was like a routine check up. I know that’s a dangerous place to be, emotionally, just expecting everything to be business as usual, or maybe it’s just a recognition that I have no control over my body’s cancering and all I can do is respond to the results. Regardless, I drove myself to the follow up with very little apprehension.

While sitting in the waiting room a couple came out through the doors where the exam rooms are lined up, probably in their 50’s, and the woman visibly shaken. I didn’t linger my gaze, but it was obvious the woman was holding back more tears. They sat across from me, saying little, and with distant stares that I could read very well. Things were not well and they were faced with a great trouble of which I couldn’t assume, but could probably guess. After minutes of tense silence she couldn’t hold back her thoughts,

“I just don’t understand why we’re told one thing and then we come here and they tell us something different.”

No sooner than the man tried to respond, who I now understood was the one with cancer, the scheduler popped out of another door and called them back. It’s an odd thing, this other door. It’s not the one you enter for the exam rooms, but is it’s own separate space where you go after your exams. There is another door in that room where the scheduler enters, as if she is some “woman behind the curtain” type figure that just appears magically. But you aren’t happy about it. This room feels almost like punishment, or a test. Patients sit in the waiting room and take note of everyone that comes out. If you exit the exam rooms door and head straight out, it’s like you won. You’re free to go about your days and maybe check back in the future for another scan, another test. If, however, you exit the exam rooms and sit back in the waiting room chairs, it means, in a way, you lost. You’re anticipating the dreaded call back into the other room with the scheduler.

The scheduler is the staff member that sets up your surgery. This is why you don’t want to be in this room. Or maybe you do, it depends. She goes through some formalities with you and then asks quite directly, “So when do you want to do this?” As if it’s nothing more than taking your temperature. It’s an odd thing to shift from this moment where you are waiting potentially life changing news to having to just spit out a date for surgery, as if you’ve processed the emotional burden in the five minutes you were sitting in the waiting room. There are, of course, so many dynamics to consider.

What does this mean for my job? (if you are able to work)
Do I have enough money to get by during recovery?
Who do I need to see and what do I need to finish before surgery?
Will everyone be taken care of?
What am I not thinking about?

Some people who have to make these considerations are in a better place than others. I am one of the lucky ones. My cancer grows so slowly that I have time to wait. I can put off surgery until after I’ve spent the summer with my son, completed my fundraiser, or simply organized my life to make this as unproblematic as possible. Others, well, aren’t so lucky. Their cancer is fast growing, life-threatening, and it doesn’t matter what you need to make happen, surgery needs to happen right away. So I felt for that couple called back to the scheduler’s room, because I remember being in that emotional place, frustrated at the changing information, having to make quick life decisions for surgery, and knowing that meant things were really really serious.

I don’t like to get too close to cancer unless I have to, or choose to, but it was good for me to see this couple, to remember how fortunate I am to be in this current moment where I’m doing so well, not so burdened by the what ifs and can still plan my life out when cancer forces its way back into my consciousness. And that’s when I was called through the first set of doors.

The process remained the same as the nurse took my vitals, chatted me up about the weather, and then sent the Fellow in to practice some patient/doctor relationships. As I’ve continued to reiterate in the past, cancer patients should listen to their Oncologist’s Fellow, but take what they say with a grain of salt. They aren’t always up to date on your situation and are really just practicing for their sake rather than yours. That’s fine…just know that’s what’s happening in case they tell you something totally wrong, which I’ve received in the past.

Admittedly, this Fellow was very nice and personable, actually telling me he was excited to meet me as my oncologist had been talking me up to everyone (which is great to hear). Apparently, since my situation is so unique and positive, I’ve become something of a reference point for other patients, an example of a success story. I told him, for selfish reasons, I appreciate being that example…but I’m also glad to offer something of hope for others as I really enjoy hearing other people’s cancer success stories all the same. No matter how brief a moment it can be in someone’s life, just knowing cancering CAN be overcome is very important. He then went on to say that I’m doing so well and since I’m getting so far with this, that they “have to throw out all the books…there is nothing to reference anymore”, which I think was in relation to surgery. I’m not sure how true that statement is, but I can say it was as exciting and encouraging as it was quite frightening. I don’t really want to be the one in “uncharted territory”, where changes and adaptations in my cancering process have left no previous guidance to follow. But hey, here I am, and I can’t really complain about that. A few more formalities and the Fellow left to send in my oncologist.

Since the Runner’s World cover experience, the connection I’ve had with my oncologist seems to have grown to a more personal level. I know he really enjoyed the article, was a previous runner himself, and appreciated my gratitude towards his work…how couldn’t I? He reiterated that I’m talked up to a lot of patients he works with, complimented me on “bulking up”, and went on to explain that my scans were as stable as they had always been. The tumors have simply not grown since the first scan last year after the initial surgery. He might have mentioned nominal growth, but nothing of concern. They had not spread and they had not caused further complications physically. On the contrary, since not being on chemo, I’m back to 80+ miles a week of running with a full set of workouts and am slowly feeling the fitness progressions, leading to his observation of my “bulking up”, which admittedly is a pretty fun term to ascribe to my body type. Then again, surgery is such an incredibly wasting process that since he last saw me, I probably did look noticeably more muscular in my body.

Then he dropped the relative bomb. “So…when do you want to do this?”

Just like that. The third surgery. I knew this was coming and in a way I HOPED this was coming, but, I don’t know, it just didn’t resonate as positively as it did the last time. When I went in to meet with my oncologist before my surgery last August, I honestly didn’t know if surgery was an option. I was neck deep in chemo and for all I knew that was going to be my life until…forever. It sure seemed that way. It was awful, so when he excitedly said we were going back in a second time, I was damn near ecstatic, which is a funny thing to feel about having your body split in two and wasted away to nothing. But then it meant that I was off chemo and might have another chance of being past cancer and could get back to running. Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess.

So this time, I consented to the surgery plan again, because I know it’s my only hope to be past cancer, but consented without as much enthusiasm. Actually, there was a bit of dread. And it’s all related to the life and strength I’ve been able to build back up since last August, not even a year ago.

Last September I was recovering from the second surgery at an astonishing rate and just started getting back to running. Since then I’ve gone from run walks, to consistent efforts, to full weeks of running, to 30 miles a week, to 50, to 80+. I’ve gone from 5 mile runs to 20 miles runs. I’ve gone from 9:30 minute miles to 6:45 minute miles for long runs. I’ve run strong workouts, throwing down 5:40 miles and running quarters like I never had to stop. And I’m not even close to done. I’m still struggling, yes, but the wall of progression that seemed so definitive during my training continues to crumble bit by bit. I’m can look ahead and see myself getting faster and faster. I can push my boundaries and see better workouts, faster mile times, quicker intervals, more and more. I’m not done.

As a matter of fact, next week I’m doing the Cape Cod Ragnar and my first leg is 12.8 miles, a damn near half marathon that I would love to test myself in…though I’m going to end up just short. I feel like I’m very close to putting in an effort that doesn’t feel demoralizing, and although isn’t where I want to be, is honorable enough for my standards. Then the week after I’m pacing my friend, Andrew Peterson (RW cover contest finalist and Special Olympian), through the Region 8 Spring Olympics Opening where we are going to attempt to run under 10:00 for the 3000. 10:00. Yes, that scares me. That’s a 5:21 / mile pace. I have SERIOUS doubts that I’m there yet…but we’re going to try, and I’ve been gearing my training towards this incredible goal for both of us. And, of course, there is the Because We Can benefit run in August, where all my training will be headed towards after the Special Olympics opening. I have a lot of running and progression to look forward to.

But there is a third surgery. And where it was an idea leading up to this last scan, it’s now a reality. And that window of opportunity was given a tentative shut date in late September, after I’ve spent July with my son and after I’ve completed the Because We Can benefit run down the State.

I wasn’t really prepared for the emotional frustration that would put on me, but I’ve been feeling it this past week since the follow up, swinging back and forth between the excitement of my training and the almost depression of realizing it’s all going to come to an abrupt halt. In the moment I can’t help think, “Why bother?” Why am I pushing myself so hard when I’m going to be knocked back to zero after simply laying down on the hospital bed. There are, of course, so many reasons why, but in the moment it’s hard to reconcile them.

I left the exam room and headed out into the waiting room where a few new patients were sitting. I wondered if they had been there enough to know about “the other room”, and I wondered if they were anticipating having to enter it after their appointment, or if they were waiting to see if I was as well. And I was. I sat down and distracted myself flipping through my phone.

The door opened and my name was called.

I tried to respond to the scheduler’s questions with some level of positivity and enthusiasm, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this surgery wasn’t being met with as much hope as my previous appointment. We discussed my life obligations in the coming months and decided September might be best. Going through the Tuesday dates (Tuesday is surgery day), she started rattling them off.

“We’ve got the 8th, the 15th, the 22nd, the 28th.”

I thought about it momentarily and debated the 22nd. But then it hit me.

Wait…that’s Laura’s birthday. And the day my sister died from her cancer. I wondered if that was a somewhat momentous day and the surgery on that date was fitting, or if it was too emotionally loaded to add to my loved one’s burden. I opted for the 28th. Then with little more formality, I left the room, past the waiting patients and back into my life with little change except a new perspective on the coming shut date of my window of opportunity.

And I can’t shake it.

Since that appointment I continue to have incredibly encouraging runs, showing me that my fitness will continue to return. To what extent? I don’t know, but I’m being shown time and again that I am building endurance and gaining speed…slowly, but surely. Then today I ran down to the Mini Marathon to cheer in some teammates and watch one of the runners I coach go for another Half PR (he got it!). I knew it might be difficult being in that exciting race environment, debating all the what if’s and could I’s and all that, but I needed to be there for others. I’m glad I went. I ran into my old coach at one point and he said what I was thinking, of course, “Do you wish you were out there?”

“Of course…I’ll always wish I was out there.” But I still need more time to know that being out there means I’m running as strong as I can and, more importantly, FEELING as strong as I can. I could have run today, and run fairly well, but I would have suffered and suffered hard. Not just physically, but emotionally, and that’s not why I run. So as much as I wanted to be out there today and as close as I’m getting to be there again, I just wasn’t ready today.

But it did light another fire in me. It did reaffirm that I NEED to test myself, that I’ve put in so much work and it’s not ok to keep pushing without really testing my abilities, honestly. Not in a Ragnar. Not in a pacing situation. Not in an ultra run. But in a race, where I’m not racing against others, but figuring out what I’ve been able to accomplish in that environment. And yet…there is that window, now getting ready to shut.

I walked out of the appointment room with a tentative date set for September, but watching the runners today and on my way back home, I started to think of alternatives. I started to look ahead and see if there was just one moment, one race, where I could put this mind and body on the line before that surgery wipes me out again. I don’t want to fully admit this would be “one last time” at these abilities, but I’m not sure what will happen after this third surgery. What I have is what I’ve built right now, past the ravages of surgery and chemo, and it would be disrespectful to myself to not test it.

Of course I mentioned this to Laura when I returned home and before I knew it we were considering what races might lay out ahead near my surgery date. There was talk of the Chicago Marathon and some local Halfs, but when we figured out what would be best for seeing my son and not pushing the surgery out too far, it seems the Runner’s World Half on October 18th will work. Granted, I need to have this confirmed with my oncologist, but I don’t foresee any issues there. That means surgery might get pushed to October 27th. Admittedly, this all needs to be confirmed with my oncologist, but for now, this is a pretty solid plan for us, and will enable me to prepare emotionally, physically, and financially, and to go for it one last time before surgery…to see what I’m capable of, to see how strong I can get, and to finish one more honest race before that window firmly shuts again.

Then we start all over.