Forever Falling

I knew a year and a half without chemotherapy between surgeries was going to be a completely different life than the one I experienced previously. The day to day relief would bring me to a new emotional baseline and the physical gains made from running without restriction couldn’t be ignored either. My considerations were just how much running progress I could make in this window of opportunity, to start, but then how would it feel to lose it all yet again.

Initially, being able to run, to progress, far outweighed my disappointment in losing it all, knowing the inevitability that was to come, but as the surgery neared and my fitness seemed to reach new levels, almost exponentially, as if I had flipped the switch inside me, the realization that it was all going to disappear the moment I laid down on the hospital bed began to wear on me.

I certainly didn’t think I was going to get back to sub-1:20 half shape. I didn’t think I would be strong enough to make a go for a relatively fast marathon if I decided to race one. And I didn’t think this progress was going to offer the promise of even greater competitive running fitness. But that’s where I am, looking forward like I have so many times in the past, recognizing that staying consistent with my running and training would only bring my times lower and lower and lower. How low? Well, that’s what I’m trying to find out.

But…January 5th.

The inevitable and total regression back to square zero, losing every bit of fitness and strength I’ve worked so hard to gain, will be lost and it’s putting me into a state of dejection I thought might come sooner or later. It would have been one thing if I had stayed in that place where my running and strength training was only to prepare myself for the upcoming surgery, but at some point I crossed a line, and running became about striving for more competitive goals than anything else. Running became about running itself again.

The fact that I was able to get to this place is not lost on me. I’m ecstatic that I’m strong enough to step to the line as a competitor, not an imposter trying to hold onto dreams passed, but at the same time, this excitement of this reality only heightens the dejection of losing every bit of progress for which I’ve fought.

It’s not to say I’m not prepared though. The cancer experience, from day one, has taught me that everything gets taken away. If not your life, then any expectation you might have had. Nothing is stable. Nothing is permanent. Your ability to work, your expectations of relationships, your self-reliance, your physical state. Everything gets yanked from beneath you without warning, and the fear it seeds deep within isn’t shaken so easily. I’ve lost that naive sense of expectation and and an understanding of what the future will hold. I’ve come to live more in the day to day and month to month when I allow myself the privilege.

I’d like to say I live in the year to year, but that’s where everything goes hazy, gets risky. It’s also probably the emotional saving grace of this surgery, because I’m so tired of not being able to plan ahead, to figure out how I’m going to provide for my son’s expenses, for how I’m going to provide for my own expenses, and this surgery is my hope, as dangerous as that is, for opening my life back up again.

I’ve found myself responding to so many friends lately, asking me how everything is going, with the repeated story of an upcoming surgery and my hopes going ahead. Sometimes I get lost in the excitement of the conversation, thinking about a future through rose colored glasses, where I can get a job with reliable income, have a predictable routine, forget about cancer that much more, and plan. Plan for more than 2 months out, and just feel stable again. Hovering in this in between surgery realm is kinda like perpetually falling, wondering when you’re going to hit bottom, and so not getting too comfortable in your relatively intact state, always managing a low level stress and anxiety, anticipating impact.

And I’m just done with it. I want to be past it. I want to look at my life the same way I want to look at my running, with limitless potential, only the most unavoidable restrictions lying ahead. But in the same way I know all this work towards competitive running is coming to a halt, so will my life again, just before I get to rebuild yet again.

I can’t help but daydream. I can’t help but want my state of being an anomaly in this cancer experience be that much greater of an anomaly. I have another MRI before my next surgery, so my surgical oncologist can see what he’s up against again. I can’t help but imagine the scan coming back with severe tumor regression, or NEC when I’m feeling especially hopeful, and he sits with me in the follow up, outlining a plan of indefinitely delaying the surgery and only checking back in with scans…letting me get back to my life as if cancer is gone.

But those are daydreams, and risky ones at that.

And yet, I still have just under two months before I start over, and there are things to do. I get my son for both Thanksgiving and Xmas, and I find it hard to think anywhere past our time together, not to miss a moment of it. There are friends to see, strength to build, and running to do…which is funny, because I thought the Runner’s World half I ran was going to be my last temporary hurrah of running, putting it all on the line, literally, and then my schedule opened up again (there’s that inability to plan) and I was able to pace the Monumental Full, and now I have two more months with nothing scheduled.

Honestly, I’ve been a little reluctant to look at any races within this time as I’m not sure I’m prepared to gear up for them with such little time, but there are opportunities to be had. One of the runner’s I coach is going at a 50 miler and then a 50k just a couple weeks later. The pacing duties at Monumental lit a fire under me to help others as best I can if I can’t do that much more for myself, so I’ll be crewing / pacing him in his attempt for a 50 mile PR. I’m also looking to make the most of our Winter Run Groups and the White Pine Distance Training group before surgery, in hopes that the momentum will carry on past surgery and into the new life that waits ahead.

And really, there is something ahead, so I’m hopeful for that, whatever it is. I can’t really see past the haze of surgery as to what that looks like, what my abilities will be, what my treatment plan will look like, what is to be expected, but there is something there and I just have to wait out these next two months before I can determine if future plans are possible or not. For the time being, I can daydream what that might be like, whether that’s financial stability, life plans with Laura, more time with my son, and a wide open window of running progression where I can finally hit the ceiling of my abilities once again.

Here’s to hoping. But first, there are people to see and runs to complete. I may not be able to plan for a future, but I can plan for tomorrow’s run, and that’s something.

Indianapolis Monumental Marathon – Pace Report

Indianapolis Monumental Marathon – Pace Report


Just a month before the race, I hadn’t even planned on running it. It was a marathon, for one, and I had not trained to race a marathon, but more restrictively, I had my surgery coming up at the end of October and so running a marathon wasn’t just out of the question, it wasn’t even a consideration for a question. Best case scenario post-surgery, I may have been able to take enough pain medications to see the runners I coach finish that morning. When my surgery was delayed, however, my schedule opened and I felt that drive to fill my days with as much excitement as I could while waiting, and it just so happened that my old coach was the pace organizer for the marathon. He was struggling to fill the quicker pacing duties and the seed was planted. I wasn’t sure I could commit to the task initially, but as race day got closer, and my long runs proved encouraging, I sent him an email and told him I’d run the 3:10 group in, confident I could overcome the obstacles of the marathon distance at 7:14 pace. But as I continued training, gauging the feel of 7:14 pace, I quickly discovered that running at this tempo felt overly restrictive and my body wanted to let loose with every step. And hey, if I’m going to run a marathon, I should just go ahead and push the envelope. I quickly emailed my old coach again and told him I was confident enough in my abilities to roll the 3:00 flat group in, but it turned out that both his 3:05 pacers dropped, leaving the 18 to 34 year old age group going for Boston Qualifiers unfulfilled. After a bit of arm twisting, I convinced him to give me the 3:05 position, leaving the 3:10 for someone else and deleting the 3:00 pace group, which was fine for the race. I didn’t fully grasp it at first, but a 3:05 finish is really crucial for a lot of runners as it is the biggest age group trying to qualify for the Boston marathon, which put a significant amount of pressure on me to fulfill the pacing role as best I could. Seeing as I had never paced a group before and, technically, had not run a road marathon in a race setting since 2010, there were a lot of unknowns I needed to psychologically prepare for before race day. But hey, YOLO, right?

I entered the start corral holding the red 3:05 flag at the top of a long wooden dowel, hoisted well above all the gathering runners as a signal to those trying to finish anywhere around this time. Some runners use the flag as a target, others as an anchor, and still others as a warning to get moving and stay ahead of the group. Immediately a handful of runners found their way around my spot in the first corral, introducing themselves, asking pace questions, or just calming nerves with friendly discussion. I assured them we would keep a steady pace and to allow me just a few miles to get in the rhythm of a 7:03 cadence. Admittedly, as this was my first pacing duty, I wasn’t sure what anyone expected of me beyond an expectation of consistent running pace. I knew my ultimate role was to metronome us to the finish and nothing more, but I also know some runners want or need discussion, distractions, encouragement, and other forms of support, and yet other runners want nothing but silence and the room to go inward and focus on their efforts. I decided I’d let the runners convey their comfort levels during the race and respond to each individually. The minutes ticked away, the standard pre-race rituals commenced, and we were ready to go. I took a few quick glances around and estimated about 10 to 15 runners were hanging around my hoisted flag as the race countdown began.

With an abrupt beginning that caught many elites off guard, we slowly moved towards the start banner and crossed the first timing mat at pace, myself hitting the start on the Garmin I borrowed from my girlfriend wrapping my left wrist for moment to moment pacing, and then the start on the timex wrapping my right wrist to calculate overall pacing at each mile. I was prepared.

We moved easily into the course and I tried to measure the freshness I always feel at the beginning of a goal race – reminding myself to run not how I feel at the start, but how I WILL FEEL at the end – against the runners passing me on the left and right as they pushed into the course, settling into their own paces and testing their training against the distance that would slowly wear them down. I let them go despite the competitive urge to match strides or second guess the incredibly slow effort we were rolling. If there is anything I’ve learned from my years of running, however, is the undeniable value of energy conservation and reigning in the fire that consumes one at the start of a race for saving it to burn to the finish. I kept this in mind as we ran towards the first mile marker.

We hit the first mile clock and where a wave of embarrassment and concern initially hit me when I saw how much slower we ran than the necessary 7:03 pace, I recalculated the 15 seconds it took us to to actually cross the start mat and realized we were dead on. 1 down. 25.2 to go.

I reminded the runners around me that we would still settle into a rhythm over the next two miles as we maneuvered through the downtown area in perfectly chilly air temperatures and under the shadowed gaze of our city’s humble skyscrapers, which annoyingly started playing games with the GPS signal to my Garmin, bouncing the pace readings between 6:40 and 7:30, neither of which were accurate. I ignored the watch and fought back the anxiety until I knew we would be out of the downtown area and the satellite signal would become more reliable. Our group was sizable and comfortable as we ran past the second mile clock, hanging just under pace by about 5 seconds. As is hoped for at this point, everything was very relaxed, so much so that conversation started between runners and myself. I tend to be a silent runner, not wanting to expend even the slightest bit of wasted energy, but I was confident in my abilities for the day and was wearing a new hat so to speak. One runner in particular asked me a number of questions and I shared some stories about races or little bits about the parts of downtown we were running through, but this proved too difficult for my liking as the runner was two stepping me, staying just a couple strides ahead, testing my resolve to stay on pace while trying to get closer for comfortable conversation. At some point I had to trail off the conversation and let him go at his own pace so I could keep everyone else on task.

We passed the 3 mile clock, then 4, and each time we sat just 5 to 10 seconds under the overall pace, a completely acceptable time for staying within a range that was not too fast or slow for anyone going for a 3:05 finish goal. Each clock we ran by gave me a boost of confidence that I was able to maintain this pace without getting out of control, that I could confine my intensity and competitive urges, or just not let the distractions around me pull from my task of bringing these runners home. I had a job to do and I was taking it very seriously. It seemed everyone else in the group was running relaxed and calm, but I distinctly remember the quickened footfalls and even quicker breathing of one runner in particular running clearly out of their comfort range, whether for a full marathon or half. I wanted to offer some helpful suggestions in backing off, but left that battle to fight themselves. Expectedly, that labored breathing dissipated soon thereafter.

We continued on through the miles leaving the city, rolling past 10k, then 7 miles, after which each I called out our overall time pacing, still holding around 10 seconds under goal. I was surprised how exciting this was becoming despite running a pace that had never threatened my past fitness, checking my watch against each mile clock we passed, my confidence surging with each readout that barely fluctuated more than a few seconds in either direction.

As a group we were like one body of runner, precise in our movements. There was an odd sense of power to all this, knowing I was controlling the efforts of these runners around me, with the potential to increase or decrease their cadence on command, effectively ruining their race with the slightest change in effort, and yet my job was to do neither, but simply run a concrete pace and never waiver from it, to be a visual and carry each one as far as they could possibly go at this effort, without thinking about their own abilities past the moment they were currently in. I’m not sure what a proper comparison would be for how I felt, but Laura likes to say I was a mama duck and all my baby ducks were following my lead. It’s an amusing analogy, but doesn’t exactly fit the intensity of the experience or the individual drives of each athlete.

Somewhere around 7 1/2 miles the half marathon course did an abrupt about face from the full and a few from our group separated, one of the runners thanking me for bringing him to that point. I exchanged a compliment and ran on, satisfied to have at least accomplished one successful pacing portion for the day, though this race had yet to even start, the inevitable fatigue of the marathon distance waiting much deeper in. I still didn’t know what was to come, but remained hovering between a necessary calm and focused intensity, like pulling a rope taught, but not too much, only enough to keep the necessary tension, as if I held it for myself to walk above. Or for the runners all around me to walk, knowing that if I let it go or pulled too tight, they would tumble off the side into disaster.

Our group moved ahead and I remained feeling strong in every way. I could carry on conversation if needed, but refrained from excess unless calling out our pacing at the mile clocks. We passed the eighth and ninth mile, now getting encouragement from the spectators lining aid stations and neighborhoods, families and kids still waking from their slumber, trying to find an excitement that would match the efforts of the runners. It was our fortune to be in the 3:05 group, essentially the first group to go by the spectators with a visual reference for our speed and mass. We became “The 3:05 group”.

“Go 3:05!”

“Yeah 3:05 pace! Good work!”

“Boston Qualifiers! Go 3:05!”

Our individual goals – mine to pace us in, and the runners around me to hit PR’s, qualify for Boston, or just run a successful race strategy – had become a little less individual and more a group identity. We weren’t just runners, we were THE 3:05. We were a team. And we received personalized encouragement from the people lining the course. It feels good to have a name, especially when the distance and effort conspire to take everything else away from you. There was a compulsion to stay with the 3:05 group once you had been identified, lest you fall away and lose the privilege and support of being “one of us”. The crowds continued to reaffirm the identity of our effort.

Up to this point our group was finding it’s comfort level, not just in our pacing, but placement and routine. We adjusted to the scattering at aid stations, to grabbing cups of water that splashed over the top and down our legs, to the fluctuation in pace that inevitably takes place when we break apart in those moments before regathering and falling back into rhythm. Personally, I had to make my own adjustments, whether letting runners get in front of me for the liquids, or holding back when I surged ahead to give them room. Pacing so many other runners also held other challenges I needed to assess and from which to adapt. I like to race alone, with enough space around me to feel uninhibited and free to adjust. Pacing, however, involves not only staying with other runners, but adapting to their need to be with you. What I learned during this experience is that some don’t just want to be WITH pacers, they want to be ON pacers. I quickly understood that although this finishing time might be expectedly unproblematic for myself, others would be holding on by a thread and feared the inevitable backsliding that can come with losing those around you. Admittedly, this threw me out of my comfort level. There were times I had one runner on either side of me, moving in perfect sandwiched syncopation at 7:03 pace, sometimes and continuously bumping my arm with the slightest tip of their torso, and despite our movement towards slower runners directly in front of us, I had nowhere in which to maneuver around the human obstacle. As you can imagine, this causes problems for staying on pace. As this congestion continued to threaten our pacing when moving towards fatiguing runners, I made the decision to give the course to the runners, literally jumping over the strides of a runner just in front of me and another just to the back in order to make it to the side of the course, right along the cones, sometimes completely outside the cones. I kept the 3:05 flag held high and let them take the course so that no one was inadvertently tripped up. This didn’t actually prevent some of the runners from latching onto my new placement like loosely applied velcro, but it was enough to give me the breathing room to avoid race ruining collisions and allow me to psychologically relax through the effort. After all, we were just passing halfway.

We ticked by the 13.1 mile clock, 20 seconds under overall pacing, feeling completely fluid and composed, just where you want to be in a marathon. Our group was still sizable, though I didn’t turn around to assess the actual number of runners following my lead. Some runners positioned ahead started to come back to us at mile 14 and 15, the effort beginning to erode their sense of pace and strength. More than a few caught sight of our red pacing flag hanging above them, calling out our 3:05 finishing time, and snapped them back into consciousness like visual smelling salts, their pace immediately quickening as they tried to put space between us. Others fell into our group and used our efforts to ease their own. The more the merrier.

At this point I noticed the casual atmosphere during the first half had shifted, the conversation cut short, almost to a halt, the breathing of those around me just a little more labored, footfalls repeating over themselves at a heightened cadence to remain in our seeming gravitational pull. I felt less a naive confidence from those around me and more a sense of composure and strength, whether fighting off the mounting fatigue or preparing for what the more experienced knew was coming.

Pushing into a portion of the course that was marked by short, but noticeable rises and descents in elevation, I concentrated in estimating my efforts to keep pace. The Garmin reading wavered in 5 second increments, intermittently slowing into 7:15 pace and confusingly dropping towards 6:45 too. I doubted the accuracy and held to the median, trying my best to keep the readings between 7:05 and 7:00 and despite each incline, the mile clocks read a flat line of tempo, our overall finishing pace holding at 30 seconds under 3:05. We were on. So on.

The race, however, had yet to start. Every experienced marathoner will only partially joke, “The first 20 miles is a warmup. The race starts with 10k to go.” Our group had seemed to have thinned out leading into the Butler College campus, the conversation now drifting to inadvertent bumping apologies and other quickened small talk or “thank you’s” to volunteers and cheering spectators. And then the first signs of faltering began.

I stayed just inside or outside the cones running the middle of the street, keeping the group congestion to a minimum, but a crash became inevitable. I didn’t see how it went down, but a break in the relative silence caught everyone off guard, a cone flipping to the side as a runner stepped right into it, tripping forward and catching himself in a forward roll as the runners around him darted left and right. I turned around to see him rolling back up to his feet and starting forward again, calling back, “Are you all right?!” but he was already composing himself and falling back in with the group. The other runners checked on him verbally and he confirmed all was good, staying right with the group, taking stock physically, and narrowly avoiding a race ending crash. A couple runners joked back and forth with him about adrenaline boosts and keeping things interesting, but we were all good and still rolling forward right on pace.

Everything, despite the trip up, still seemed stable, but looks are deceiving. The marathon distance does not forgive. If you have issues, whether physical or mental, weaknesses, also physical or mental, the marathon distance will bring them out of you. And it is at this point, around mile 18, most start to feel these said weaknesses. I wish I could say I was stronger than the marathon, but right then I noticed a dull pain on the outside of my right knee, which was a familiar, worrisome pain. It was the dull sensation that built into a run stopping “injury” during my benefit ultra run months back. It wasn’t the IT band issue I could manage in my left knee. No, that issue never even developed…this one was worse. I don’t belabor the difficulties I’ve had to manage from the effects of surgery and chemotherapy, but one of the worst for running might have been causing this concern deep into the distance. The neuropathy induced effects of my chemotherapy treatments have left the fronts of my feet relatively numb, causing me to instinctually search for proprioception and altering the way my feet land, putting stresses on my legs in ways I’m not used to. If there’s any injustice or unfairness in my cancer treatment as a runner (spoiler alert: there’s not), it’s the permanent damage to the area of my body I use most when running…my feet. Aware of this mechanical issue, I try to consciously run off my toes despite the lack of feeling, but longer distances wear on my resolve to do so, and in this is my own sort of personalized marathon obstacle. Refocusing again, I adjusted to the dull worrisome pain and tried correcting my feet to land flat and roll towards the big toes and not flex off the side, hoping to take the unnatural stress off the side of my leg. I went through a little bit of anxiety in the effort, formulating contingency plans if it grew out of control, hoped for the best, but ultimately calmed down and just let the pain sit there, convincing myself that our controlled pace would keep the pain growth neutral or slow enough to not become an issue before the finish. Whatever was to come, in the moment I needed to just keep running us on pace.

This deep into the run we had become completely separated from any runners lingering around us organically. If you were with our group at this point, you were solidly trying to run 3:05. Primarily men, I caught notice of a few women running with us, the shadow of a pony tail bouncing right next to me. I knew a 3:05 finish for them was possibly relatively more impressive than some of the others in our group and hoped they would stay with us as we continued through the 18 mile marker, 30 seconds ahead of overall pace yet again.

I was doing my job and feeling confident about it, while also preparing for the effort to come as the tension in the group continued to rise, like a tightening screw, ever so slowly. Just then a runner in the pack asked for our pacing. I repeated our 30 second margin and He called back,

“You’re doing great man. This is textbook pacing.”

Having never attempted this before, and for such an important effort for all the runners, I was bolstered in his confidence. In a moment of poor wording, I tried to respond with encouragement of my own.

“Thanks. We’re almost there.”

I tried to say this with a seriousness, not meaning “almost to the finish”, but actually, “almost to 20 miles, almost to the start of our race.”

As an experienced runner, I assure you, there is little we like hearing less than “You’re almost there”, when we absolutely aren’t almost there. If we’re 800 meters from the finish, THEN you can say “you’re almost there”. Until then, find something more appropriately encouraging. I had made an embarrassing amateur mistake and only hoped they knew what I meant or notched it up to marathon induced glycogen depletion. Whatever I meant, they knew what the score was.

We ran into the grounds of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, rounding a wide turn into a screaming group of spectators we had yet to visualize. The excitement and intensity filled me with an enthusiasm I was really enjoying, anticipating a Wellsely College like reception to propel our 3:05 group forward, only to be met with approximately 8 teenage girls in superhero costumes, somehow amplifying their voices to sound like a wall of noise. I caught myself verbalizing aloud, “Wow!”, in their excitement and volume as other runners drifted in their direction to exchange a line of appreciative high fives. I don’t know who those girls were, but they were doing cheering RIGHT. Someone give them an award.

That excitement couldn’t have come at a better time as we ran out of the IMA grounds, down an extended decline that wrapped around an off-ramp and into a stretch of isolated, slowly curving road that harbored not a single spectator. We were left to our own devices and the warning signs beating into us through our weighted footfalls and the sounds of our now audible breathing, heading right into the start of the true marathon effort at 20 miles. It was on this stretch we passed the first casualty of the day, an elite woman runner, who either blew up in the effort or was cut short by an unexpected injury, being tended to by a few cyclists. She was the first, but not the last victim of the day we would pass.

We ran by mile 20, now 45 seconds under overall pacing, still right on for the full 26.2 miles, the gain probably enabled by the ease of the last downhill cruise. I tried not to make an abrupt change in effort, but let my mind relax in hopes of an intuitive adjustment back to a subtly less tense stride. We continued on the long stretch of isolated course, the heat of the sun coming down on us without a break of shade. I began to feel the small tensions mounting, compelling me to strip off my thin glove liners in the heat and tuck them into the back of my shorts, instantly feeling a sense of relief and lightness as the air cooled my fingers. I had taken a few cups of liquid through the aid stations, a couple with gatorade instead of just water, but had yet to consume the concentrated sugars I brought for the ride. Taking a precautionary measure, I slowly pulled a GU packet from my waist pocket, hoping the caffeine would keep me mentally alert if the glucose had no noticeable effect, but the struggle of getting the thick sugars down without water proved too annoying for the effort we were exerting at the time and I abandoned the effort soon thereafter.

At this point it wasn’t that anyone was fighting a heart rate too high for comfort or form was crumbling under repeated impact, but the rope was now pulled tight enough from just the time spent moving forward that any extra effort or break in rhythm did not go unnoticed. These were the beginnings of the “tractor pull” effort of the marathon distance, where the closer you get to the finish, the effort seems to grow exponentially, threatening to kill your engine with the final line to cross still in sight. This is where the struggle truly begins.

We turned past mile 21, a full 45 seconds under finishing pace and pointed ourselves back towards the downtown push, now running through tree lined streets with spectators helping us eat up the distance with more 3:05 specific encouragement. Our group remained a sizable 8 to 10 runners, and the further we pushed on en masse, the more runners we found coming back to us, unable to sustain their expectations or overshooting their pace too early. We, however, felt like a machine without speed controls. When turned on, our gears rolled into each other without speeding up or slowing down, just stuck in perpetual motion. At times I would hear the sound of our footfalls all coming down in unison, despite our variations in stride length, like troops caught in lockstep, before those variations broke our rhythm back into the sound of a herd of pounding horses. We stayed together, a couple runners sticking to my side in what I perceived to be a gesture of desperate anxiety, while others stayed just off to the side in their comfort zones.

Running through mile 22, the recognition of “just 4 miles left” filled that emptying well of effort with a flood of encouragement and anticipation, and yet, also a significant portion of worry. This is where the race can come to a screeching halt, the wheels falling off, the fear of losing every gain made in the previous 22 miles so close to the finish. The weight of the marathon was upon us and the struggle was building. I sensed our group was thinning and the threat of race ruining fatigue was written on the backs of every solitary runner we moved towards and swallowed in our consistency, spitting out the back of machine of perpetual motion. The strength and intelligence of our pacing, however, became apparent with each of these runners we passed. The necessity of the controlled, measured effort was obvious, compelling everyone to stay together as we came up on mile 23, a mere 5k from the finish, and yet an incredibly, seemingly impossibly far 5k from the finish. Some clung desperately to our group, slowing drifting off the back, and yet, no one dared make a push ahead.

The course neared a turn into the long, drawn out stretch into downtown and towards the final turns to the finish, where the carnage of the distance was strewing out ahead of us. I called out to the group,

“One small incline over this bridge and then we roll all the way in!”, a seriousness and command in my voice I hoped would serve as a motivation to keep at it.

All conversation was over. Every breath was saved. Every stride measured.

Pushing down the straight away of Meridian street we could see the skyscrapers of the city center off in the distance, imperceptibly growing bigger with each step. The half marathoners intersected with us on the left side of the road and we passed by their back of the pack pace on the right, receiving encouragement when they saw us coming,

“Wow! 3:05 pace! Amazing!”

The same cheers from the spectators on the sidewalk compelled us closer with each step, the hardness of the asphalt reverberating through the cushions protecting our feet and jarring into quads talking back louder and louder. Runners were strung out ahead of us in broken lines of code, fighting their solitary battles to keep moving forward as we steadily and measuredly moved past them in unison. I looked back to see our group had broken into about 6 runners and I knew the pain was building, because I was feeling it myself.

I called out to anyone who could hear me, “Dig deep if you’re feeling the pain! Find someone close and stick with them!” trying to keep our group together into the last two miles.

Runners in front of us struggling to keep the pace they held this far were jolted into effort as they saw our small pack and the bright red 3:05 flag moving up on them. Some found the drive to push ahead while others were swallowed by our consistency and dropped off the back. The tension was now palatable, our group held on thinner and thinner threads, runners dropping all around us. We came up behind a woman, who pulled back abruptly, limping to the side and crying out about a lack of salt and a run stopping cramp. Her cry of disappointment was painful to hear, but we were on auto-pilot, unable to offer even the smallest gesture of sympathy in our concentration.

With each step I felt the wear on the soles of my feet, the building pain around the deadened nerves, and the almost screaming in my quads compel me to launch into a finish push, but had to remain reserved, turning over without a response to the call of intensity growing in my mind. My competitive drive wanted to let loose to the finish, but my responsibility to my pacing role kept me turning over steadily, swallowing up runner after runner after runner.

Looking just ahead I noticed a familiar singlet of my old team, the runner unmistakably struggling to make it in, having given in to the cascading of pace. We were moving smooth and knew this wasn’t going to change.

I yelled ahead, “PBT! Come with us! PBT! We’re going 3:05! Come with us!”, and saw him step into rhythm to be carried further towards the finish, wherever that may lie.

I checked my watch one last time at the 25 mile marker and hazily calculated a 30 second margin, encouraging the 5 or 6 runners still holding steady as we made the remaining turns to the finish. This was our final stretch. I could tell they were itching to let go as they started making small gaps on me as I tried to remain within pace. I debated going with them if I could be of final assistance, but decided to keep it on pace lest someone make a final move to get back with me if they had fallen off in the last two miles. It was hard not to go with their desperate, adrenaline fueled surge, but I kept it steady as best I could. As Laura put it, I let my ducks leave the nest and fly away!

We ran towards a line of spectators growing louder and increasingly populated with each turn towards the finish, when I suddenly caught cheers not only for the 3:05 group, but for me specifically. I did my best to acknowledge the support, while holding concentration to the finish, knowing I had executed my responsibility to it’s fullest. I heard my name called out again towards the last turn, rounded the corner and saw marathon president, good friend, and old teammate, Jon Little, leaning over the barrier,

“Yeah Spitz! That’s what I’m talking about! Are you on pace?!”

I yelled back through the turn. “I got ‘em!”

I won’t lie, the pain in my legs caught me off guard. I knew I could run the marathon distance and I knew I could maintain this pace, though I kept a reserved concern and respect for the ravages of the distance, but I honestly didn’t expect to feel this degree of wear fatigue in my muscles. And you know what, it kinda felt great. I hadn’t run an honest road marathon race since 2010, the potentials abbreviated by the cancer diagnosis during training for another go at the Olympic Trials in 2013, and so this pain was an acknowledgement of both my abilities and efforts. I was feeling not so much a pain as I was feeling accomplishment, effort, new boundaries, passion…my life.

I kept my eyes on the clock as I neared the finish line, runners just behind me making a surge to get under the 3:05 cut off time, and the group I had helped carry for 26.2 miles stretched out in front me, crossing the line in Boston Qualifiers, PR’s, and other individual successes. I got closer and closer, heard the announcer call out my 3:05 pacing, pulled the sign down close to my chest, and lifted a quick fist into the air as I stepped on the final timing mat, signaling to myself pride in holding 7:03 pace all the way to the finish without falter, completing the honor of assisting the ambitions of the runners I was assigned to serve.

Crossing the line and letting the wave of relief and success fill my body, I looked up to see race founder and director, Carlton Ray, greeting me with a huge smile, a strong embrace and compassionate kiss on the cheek. I met Carlton when I won the inaugural half marathon in 2008, and just after my diagnosis when I was the honorary race starter. He has always been an enthusiastic and compassionate supporter through my cancer experience and I have been so grateful for his inclusion of my presence at this race. Meeting him at the finish was an ending to the effort that carried an impact and importance I didn’t quite internalize in the moment.

I looked around and started catching eyes with the runners I had just run with to this finish, all of us pulling each other together as much as forward. We shook hands, gave hugs, thanked each other for the effort, and let the relief of accomplishment rival the smiles on our faces before going our separate ways since 26.2 miles ago. We had shared something genuinely special.

I began making my way through the finish chute, meeting Laura immediately off to the side to grab supplies, then getting my finish medal and seeing more friends working the chute. The people I started encountering around the finish area are too many to name individually without leaving someone out, but each one left me feeling increasingly grateful and humbled. I had yet to pause and gather my thoughts, understanding how important this experience had become.

I left the finish chute, composed myself with Laura, trying to get in fluids and putting on warmer clothing, then struggling to find my way back to the finish area to watch friends come in and look for the two runners, Marc McAleavey and Joseph Burns, I had coached to their first marathon, complete their own struggles and accomplishments.

And that’s when it all started to hit me, like I had outrun the impact during the race and it was just catching up, slamming into me from behind, catching me completely off guard. The enthusiasm, excitement and obvious difficulty of the runners coming into the finish was impossible to overlook. It was written on the smiles or grimaces spreading across their face, the form or falter in their stride, the cheers or struggles of effort they let escape without conscious intent. The marathon distance is no joke, no matter how you try to run it, and I had completed that, but I hadn’t just run a marathon. I had run the marathon in a race setting…despite cancer, despite the effects of chemotherapy, despite the effects of surgery, and despite the physical struggles of the marathon itself. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t RACING the marathon, it only mattered that I was a part of it, and in what is still a respectable time no matter one’s ability or current capabilities.

But even that wasn’t the impact that threatened to have me sobbing with emotion. It was the appreciation of those around me. I don’t pretend to assume people enjoyed seeing me run the race, but standing alone and remembering the cheers, excited faces and enthusiasm in their voices, I couldn’t help but recognize that people weren’t just happy to see me, they were happy FOR me…they were happy that I was running this marathon, that I was finishing, that I was completing my stated goal, that I was back in this race in one way or another. They were glad to see me out there as much as I was ecstatic to be out there. So many people, friends and strangers alike, have rooted for me ever since diagnosis and though I don’t like to make a show of my efforts or presume any sense of importance, I’ve graciously, if internally, appreciated the support from everyone beyond explanation. I can’t put words to how important it is to have everyone supporting me through the cancer experience, to hope for the best, and to then give an expression to the best outcome I can manage at this point by being out there running, for others as much as for myself.

I don’t know, maybe I’m reading into others sentiments, but watching those runners struggle to finish and the pride I was feeling for their efforts, despite knowing nothing about them individually, their struggles, their successes, I couldn’t help but feel as if others felt the same for me. I stood alone, looking down the road in anticipation of the runners I coached, feeling a mix of excitement, accomplishment, service and humility…and fought back tears of gratitude, for others, for myself, for everything.

Damn it felt good to be back, if only for these 26.2 miles, if only at this measured pacing, if only for these other runners. To experience the full depth of the marathon experience one more time…it felt so damn good.



There was a time when my identity was organically created by my interests and perspectives, but subtly and incrementally I noticed my identity beginning to inform my perspectives, which is dangerous. Specifically, I started to sway towards the influences of foodies, individuals who flippantly use the term “natural” in place of “moral”, and new age crowds who rely on “sounds good” philosophy instead of facts. Embarrassing, I know. At some point, however, I started popping the bubbles of influence I had found myself residing inside and opened myself to more fluid considerations, looking at issues from the outside in rather than the other way around, and evaluating facts and data instead of creating arguments that fed my premise.

And it was a good thing I broke from those previous influences when I did, lest I found myself siding with those that say vegans don’t get cancer, opposing vaccinations, and outright rejecting the value of scientific discovery due to some idyllic, magical and moralist perception of the natural world. It was a good thing I broke from those influences, because, well, I got cancer, and that opened me up to a whole different world of medicine and considerations of what it means to be “healthy”, “sick”, “fixed” and “broken”, that I had the privilege of ignoring for so long.

If I hadn’t adjusted my perspectives, I’d like to believe I would have adjusted quickly, taking that scientific and medicinal slap in the face in humble stride, but I don’t know, I’m just glad I didn’t have to wrestle with it at all. Because when they said, “You have cancer”, I basically said, “Show me the operating table so I can lie down for you to cut me open!”

I know that doesn’t come so easy for others. For many, there is a distrust of the institutions of medicine and healthcare, a rejection of “Western” treatment, and probably a healthy dose of fear that goes into what is necessary for dealing with such a complex and pervasive disease. I won’t say I was deeply comfortable with all that was proposed to me by way of treatment, but I also had enough trust in the experts to know their experience and knowledge far surpassed my own, so what choice does one have really?

Ultimately, it wasn’t the surgery that bothered me, as seemingly medieval and insane as it presented itself. What I had more reservations about, initially, were the chemotherapy infusions and pills I took on a consistent basis for a full year and a half. The infusions I was relatively familiar with, being exposed to bags of clear liquid hanging above as a standard visual for cancer patients. It was the pills that caught me off guard. I didn’t even know chemotherapy came in pill form, so when the oncologist casually explained I would be on a chemo pill regimen twice a day for 2 weeks on and 1 week off, I honestly didn’t understand what he meant. The idea that one could take pills for their cancer seemed, well, too normal. It seemed like I was just taking tylenol for a life threatening disease. Like, “Just like that? Pop a pill and the cancer goes away?” Obviously, it’s not THAT simple, but the process is.

For a full year and a half I started taking three pills in the morning and two in the evening, both setting off a wave of low level nausea that were only the beginning of symptoms that told me I was balancing on a tightrope of keeping myself alive while at the same time engaging in a slow suicide. As the symptoms mounted, the fear and frustration of taking these pills heightened, but at the same time, they became incredibly normalized.

Taking pills was just something I did.

I even got so used to it that I became fascinated with timing my side effects, knowing when they would be at their apex, and planning my runs and general life schedule around the times they would be manageable and when they would be impossible. It was so very normal, that I even caught myself almost forgetting to take them. Yes, my Type A obsessiveness was no match for the ceaseless repetition of taking pills every morning and night, sometimes causing me to think long and hard whether I had taken them or accidentally doubled up. I was a pill popper.

Because I was broken…I thought.

That’s where my pre-diagnosis change in perspective really helped me deal with what was happening. It’s hard to be faced with a life threatening disease and not see yourself as broken, imperfect, flawed, or “not right” in some way. And yeah, I definitely wrestled with this consideration, having to reconcile my significant running abilities and stable health against a process of my body spiraling out of control and threatening to take away all that perspective.

I suppose I could point fingers. I think about the humanist, ignorant (as a lack of knowledge) and delusional idea of a god compelling people to embrace an idea of “perfection” and “being formed in his image”, leaving so many grasping for an understanding of a greater plan when their physical selves go awry. I think of, again, an ignorant idea of an “eden” or an original perfect natural world, compelled by a thinking rooted in our history that has been wholly devoid of understanding evolution, the cosmos, and our place within it. I think of the selfish separation of humans from a connected animal nature, unable to view our place in the world as undirected and insignificant as the value we place upon non-human animals. I think of all the fingers I could point, but then run out of fingers.

At the end of all this blame, I simply stop to refocus on myself and come to terms with what is happening to my body, why it is happening, and how to deal with it. And for me, I came to the understanding of evolution. I came to understand evolution as a process, not as THE process of life, but as A process, of so many dynamics acting upon each other, all with the compulsion towards survival. I came to understand this process as a physical reality, as a part of the world that is part of the universe as humans are part of the air that is part of the water that is part of anything and everything. And in that, this process of evolution is predicated on survival, it is therefore not directed, and then ultimately, it is PERFECTLY IMPERFECT.

That is, evolution works, it functions, and no part of that functioning demands for perfect bodies, for being “part of his image”, for an “eden”, for one right way to live, eat, relate, die, and survive. Evolution is a perfectly imperfect process, and the quicker we come to terms with this understanding, the easier it will be to accept when our bodies do things we didn’t expect. And we can accept them without ultimate blame and, most importantly, without guilt.

From there, we then have to do something about our afflictions…about whatever is happening, devoid of the confines of the previously stated perspectives of poverty.

So I was a pill popper, and I was killing myself while saving myself, and I was ok with that. I was ok with it because science has found it’s way deep into the recesses of our bodies, on a microscopic, cellular scale, to actually figure out what is happening, to some extent, when our bodies start cancering. THAT IS AMAZING. I mean, for all we don’t know, it’s mind boggling to me that I’m living in a period of time where we DO have this knowledge, that we have come to these discoveries, and that I can benefit from them.

And I benefit from these discoveries by taking medicine, by popping pills, by taking drugs in a way that many people have strong reservations against. And I get it. I understand that people don’t WANT to take drugs, because in a way, it’s an admission of “brokeneness”, of something being “wrong”…and that’s tragic. Taking medicine, now, to me, is not about acknowledging a moralist approach to our physical bodies as being “wrong” and “broken”, and therefore something to be ashamed of, but rather an acknowledgement of human knowledge, of curiosity, of using our conscious ability to maximize the process of evolution to it’s greatest extent, allowing ourselves to SURVIVE despite the physical world’s best conflicting approach to do the opposite.

Taking medicine, having surgery, and allowing my body to be poisoned isn’t something I’m necessarily PROUD of, but I will do so with the least amount of reservation I can muster because it’s an acknowledgement of incredible scientific discovery and a process of affording me the best life I can possibly live while I work through my insignificant existence. The last thing I’m going to do is be ashamed for staying alive and enjoying my life.

I want the same for everyone else.

I’ve been exposed to others who wrestle with this same conflict, of coming to an understanding of a physical process in their bodies they want to adjust. I deliberately avoid using the term “fix” or “correct”. In my case it was life threatening, while for others it’s a matter of quality of life. For some, they are dealing with depression and anxiety, which absolutely can be life-threatening, but for the sake of this argument, we’ll assume they are just problematic to the individual.

I have not dealt with these dynamics, but I can imagine how troubling they are to the individual. There are those that never even come to an understanding of their depression or emotional difficulty, going through life having to face obstacle after obstacle because they couldn’t see through the perspective block or weren’t offered the assistance. For those lucky enough to accept that something not of their doing is causing great anxiety and depression, they are afforded the potential of managing these emotional swings with medication.

Before our species understood mental “illness” (that term doesn’t sound appropriate) and before we had the medication for them to manage their emotional difficulty, they were, at best, regarded as seers and prophets of a sort, and at worst, subjects for absolute exploitation. Today, however, we are enabled with the knowledge to not only understand their obstacles, but to overcome them with medication. And yet, there are those that have decided to view taking medicine as a pacification of one’s “natural” (there’s that term again) self, as a suppression of one’s authenticity, as, to put it simplistically, “wrong”.

What’s wrong is denying the knowledge we have uncovered to develop medicines that allow individuals to experience the best life they possibly can in a way that the drawbacks are outweighed by the positives. There are those in my life who suffer from anxiety and depression and are taking medicines every day to manage those difficulties, allowing them to function in a world of rigid expectations. There are those in my life that I WISH would take medications to help their anxieties, against the idea that “drugs are unnatural” or “drugs are for broken people” or “medicine is for the sick”.

People aren’t broken. People aren’t sick. People aren’t unnatural. People are physical beings, elements of the physical world arranged in both a random and specific way to develop the human species, waiting to become rearranged into other random and specific forms, all a part of the evolutionary process of survival, death and regeneration. In that process, nothing is broken, nothing is sick, nothing is unnatural, nothing is imperfect. It just is. It is a continuous fluctuation of inconceivably complex dynamics that will develop obstacles of all types and degrees, and any way we discover to overcome those obstacles should be considered and embraced.

There was a time when I might have looked at my body’s cancering as “broken” and even “wrong”, but I fortunately shed that old world idea of moral absolutism, applied to the physical world, and embraced my place as a conscious being in an inconceivable, indescribably amazing process of chance and circumstance. So, although I would prefer to not have relied on a schedule of taking medicine for my cancering, just as I would rather avoid doing a number of unavoidable routines to keep myself surviving and thriving, I accepted that daily regimen without guilt or undue stress.

I write this because I am currently not taking medicine and it feels good to look back on that time without regret or frustration, but I know others struggle with this process daily. There may come a time when I have to start taking medicine to stay alive again, and I will do so with the same awe and amazement that we have the knowledge and means to keep me alive through the process. I only hope others harbor this same awareness and approach to their acts of survival.

We are not broken. We are not sick. We are merely capable of being alive and staying alive, and in that there is no shame.

Look Ahead. Look Back.

A conversation about perspective has come up with two runners I’m currently coaching. One admitted trouble in feeling the progress they’ve made until they looked back to where they started. The other is just beginning their plan and I conveyed similar advice, reminding them to compare abilities at the end of their training block to those at the beginning. The differences are astounding.

I’ve experienced this same revelation of comparison countless times over my years of running, looking back to see what advancements I’ve made in ability from the start of one training block to the end. Admittedly, it was sometimes difficult to see significant progressions when I felt like I was constantly pushing against the ceiling of my abilities at the get go, instead of starting from square one and building. The progressions, however, were there.

But now, with treatments and surgeries, the difference from starting a period of training until the point where the slate gets wiped clean yet again, are almost impossible to miss. Even so, my drive for progression and comparison with my “old running self” tends to cloud my vision, keeping perspective a little more elusive than it should be. The past few weeks, though, brought a clarity that has been as encouraging as it has been stark.

I stood in the locker room of the Y after my run, combing my hair in the mirror, when just behind me I heard the commentator on the TV say, “…Runner’s World Cover Contest.”

I whipped around to see they were unveiling this year’s winners on the Today show, and it was my fortune to be in front of a TV when this was happening. I watched the unveiling, the winner’s expressions, and compared their contest experiences to my own, which instantly brought me back to the time when my own cover was unveiled on HuffPro exactly one year ago.

One year? Has it really only been one year? Thinking about this after my run today, it seemed that it has been much longer than a year. So much has happened since this time last year that I’ve surely forgotten some of it, and yet, it also seems so close, like only a handful of months have passed since that crazy experience took place. One thing, however, was not forgotten amidst all the crazy that has gone down, which is where I was physically one year ago. Just one short year.

I could run…slowly, and not very far. A handful of miles necessitated walk breaks in order to get my heart rate down into safe territory. My body was still thin and frail from the ravages of surgery, my face showing more structure than is deemed sufficient and healthy. I was generally pretty weak, still battling my compromised lungs and needing to take deep breaths every time I bent over or kneeled down for some basic task. Just one year ago I was still completely wasted from the effects of surgery and chemotherapy…but I was getting stronger.

Little by little, I gained back strength, built capacity into my lungs, and pushed against the wall of my abilities as consistently as I could manage. Day after day, week after week, month after month…

Until two weeks ago when I put all that effort on the line at the Runner’s World Half and crossed the line in 1:20:02, validating all the effort, solidifying my strength, and proving the possibility for myself once again. I was able to confidently look back a year ago and say, “I’ve progressed. I’m better than I once was.”

Today I finished a 20 mile run in 2:16, my last long run before I complete a taper to the Monumental Marathon where I will be pacing either the 3:10, 3:05 or 3:00 runners to an ambitious finish. I stood at the end of my effort, worn, but strong, confident, and filled with the pride of accomplishment, not just for the ease in which I completed my long run, but for the efforts of the entire year prior that brought me from a weak, frail, post-surgery runner to the athlete I am today. This time, the perspective of where I was compared to where I am, is impossible to miss.

I don’t have to look ahead right now, to see the accomplishments I want to achieve, but can rest in the satisfaction of looking back, to see where I once was. It can be hard to remember to do just that, but no matter what may come, for any of us, the victory is in that effort, of reaching a new state of ability and remembering where you were in order to get where you are.

I try to never forget this lesson for myself and constantly remind my own runners, because sometimes you don’t FEEL stronger, especially deep into your training and when you’re always inching forward the boundary of your abilities, but to KNOW you’re stronger, can’t be undervalued.

At this point I still have 2 months to progress to some unrecognized degree of ability before my slate is wiped clean again (smashed to the ground is probably more accurate), but I plan to put the pieces back together and build and build until I can, once again, look back to see just how far I’ve come.

Then I’ll turn around and keep going.

Runner’s World Half Marathon – Race Report – Part 3 / 3

————Part 3———

The bicycle pacer rolled in front of the lead woman who was looking strong and in control, while the other male runner beat out a rhythm with his footfalls that would lead me to believe he was struggling. They were loud, quick, and seemingly frantic, yet he wasn’t struggling, and I found it difficult to remain calm at that pace and stride. I’d like to say I pulled ahead to put the sound of his feet smacking the pavement back behind me, but really, the opposite occurred. As the lead woman made ground, he was able to hang on her back and follow while I waited out the distance in an effort to recover from that last hill climb. Ever so slowly, they put space between themselves and me, just when the course began it’s undulating drops back into town and towards the finish.

Admittedly, I’d love to say that when we left that cemetery, at the high point of the course, I dug into the well of strength I was reserving and launched into a quickened pace, eating up the other runners and miles in front of me, seemingly getting stronger as the race drew on. But…that didn’t happen. Fortunately, I didn’t crash and burn either. I held steady…and this was good.

The three of us exited the cemetery and started into the streets lined by houses and businesses, the road dropping just before rising again, then dropping, then rising again. The course description read “It’s all downhill from here”, but I knew that wouldn’t be true. If you tell a runner it’s “all” downhill, we’re going to assume it’s ALL downhill, but it wasn’t. The drops fell into the start of another block long climb, before dropping and then climbing, like a gentle roller coaster, which can significantly drain the body of strength as you adjust to the varied efforts. And yet, those downhills filled my legs with the rhythm of quick running again and again, letting me push at every opportunity, and it was a victory that I could.

The small inclines would pull my efforts back, but at each subsequent decline I was able to get back into race pace and push ahead, despite the runners just ahead making slight ground in getting away. Still, I stayed in 9th place and heard no cheering off my back, leading me to believe no one was making a concerted effort to run me down. I repeated the phrase that tends to enter my mind at this point in the race. “If you’re hurting, they’re going to have to hurt even worse to catch you.” And so I kept laying into each moment I could free my body from the forces of gravity, and it was encouraging to feel I had enough in me to keep doing just that.

The undulations were wearing on me, however, but the encouragement of the spectators in this more crowded part of the course pushed me forward. We passed the 10 mile mark and the relief of “only a 5k” compelled me onward into a slight drop towards another left hand turn. As the downward force was pounding into my legs and sapping my resolve, I neared the turn and heard a spectator excitedly yell out in my direction.

“Ratt! Yeah! Ratt! Round and round! Round and round! Yeah, I love your shirt!”

His excitement was genuine and unbridled, igniting a surge of adrenaline within me that had me take the turn with a renewed sense of determination. I mean, with that sort of encouragement, how could I disappoint? And his enthusiasm came at just the right moment, as the course turned somewhat sharply upward – at least, it felt that way – for a block or two, but I took the turn without losing speed and pushed harder up the hill. Behind me, the spectator’s enthusiasm continued on,

“Did you see that?! He had a Ratt shirt on! Round and Round! Yeah, Round and Round!”

Invigorated by this quick surge, I looked ahead to see the 8th place runner and the course turn yet again, sending us back down towards the bridge we crossed after the 1st mile. I crested the rise, made the turn and managed to hold onto my pace as I sense my heart rate increasing with the distance. Fortunately, the course seemed to continue dropping as we ran forward, then with little warning dropped further and further, sending us into “hill bombing” mode, forcing me to gain control of my form and not resist the muscle shredding impact of each footfall. The final downward hill turned back into the bridge we first crossed and I could feel the psychological release of the race almost complete. Almost.

I got to the bridge, the runner ahead just out of striking distance, and felt the pointed pain on the side of my knee spike abruptly, the IT band worked too hard on the previous downhill. I stopped cold, bent my leg, and then pushed back onto the bridge pain-free, hoping that would be the last interruption of pace before the finish line.

Crossing over the bridge, I tried to measure my pace towards something strong but still reserved enough to keep from a pre-finish blow up, then took a turn that brought us near the finish line, but then right past it. I ran by the 12 mile time clock and did some quick, amateur math, realizing I was probably a full minute behind the 1:20 breaking point. I was ok with that, knowing that, at this point, I had beat the course and not the other way around. I hit my goal, but the race wasn’t over.

I ran through a crowd of spectators and heard a volunteer call out, “Just one more quick rise and then you’re done.” Admittedly, I started to FEEL done, but knew I needed to hang on just a bit longer. I ran up the hill, but couldn’t find the drive to push hard, hoping I could make up for the digression on the final finish stretch. Making it over the hill I saw the runner in front of me make the turn at the bottom of the next descent, quite possibly in striking distance now. Maybe I had made up some ground. Maybe he had lost some. Either way, I let gravity pull my body down the hill more than anything else, took the turn, and ran smack into a consistent blow of head on wind. A sidelining monsoon by no means, the wind coupled with end of race fatigue was enough to hold off my final push a little further.

Another short turn kept the finish line out of sight and as I tried to bound off the ground hard, each marker I ran towards seemed to lie a few seconds further away as I closed in. Time was slowing the closer I got, like those dreams where you run as hard as you can, but seem stuck in thick mud.

And then..the course straightened out, and the 13 mile clock ticked away. 1:19:30 when I passed by, and it hit me that I had 30 seconds to finish out the final 100 meters or so. That seemed ridiculous, but the distance marker fully confirmed that it was time to go and I instantly picked up pace into a finish push, the act somehow finding a reserve deeper within me, and where I figured I would only be able to get across the line so quick, I was able to find another gear and then another, letting loose into a full on effort. I was running as strong and fluid as if I was completing my run outs at the start. I peeked at the clock as the finish mats came towards me.

1:20:00. 1:20:01. 1:20:02.

I leaned across the mat, felt the weight of my pace push my body forward, and abruptly caught my momentum, pressing palms into the tops of my knees and letting that indescribably sweet sense of relief and breath fill my body. Standing up to walk ahead a few paces, I felt the urge to lean back over, my body drained of everything I built into it up to that race. A volunteer ran over and wrapped my torso in a reflective space blanket, protecting me against the cold wind that kept blowing across the finish area.

Catching a more sustained relief, I stood up to walk ahead and caught sight of Laura on the other side of the barricades. I looked at her between two fingers squeezed just together, as to say, “This close. I was this close.” And the fatigue hit again. I leaned on the barricades, waiting out the exhaustion and sought a more sustained relief. And when it came, so did the exhilaration, of completing what I set out to do, on so many levels.

The race was over, and I could walk off the course, and back into my life where another battle waits.

Runner’s World Half Marathon
9th Place
New Cancer PR








Runner’s World Half Marathon – Race Report – Part 2

———Part 2——–

start area

start nervousness

I took a few nervous glances around the start area, sleek bodies peppered up front, self-consciously staying away from the actual start line. The usual cast of runners owned their places, dressed in shorts at near illegal length, college names emblazoned on singlets, the most minimal of brightly colored shoes adorning their feet. I wasn’t much different, except, and it’s worth mentioning, I was wearing my circa 1987 RATT Dancing Dangerously tour t-shirt. I mention this, because more than just a deliberate, antagonistic break from elite runner attire, this shirt represents something to me. Again, going back to my days of more care-free running and racing, this was the shirt I often wore at trail races. Honestly, I don’t remember why I chose it to race in, but it ended up becoming my “thing”. Ultimately, this is how people remembered who I was. For me, however, this shirt is more a representation of just running, of not worrying about exact splits, perfect fueling, practiced form, and all those details that can really get in your head. This shirt represented putting on some shoes and just running. It felt good to put it back on the race course.

Minutes before the start I began my routine of light jogging, warm up drills, and quick, strong run outs. The race hadn’t even started, but I felt great, if only because I was back in my element, not as an imposter wishing I could hang up front despite all the evidence to the contrary, but because I really could hang up front this time. It has been almost 3 years since feeling this, and damn, it felt good. It felt exciting. My run outs surprisingly felt the same. A few quick bursts and my heart rate never spiked, my legs filled with a strength and fluidity that signaled I was more than ready to race. A few more minutes ticked by, the swell of runners inched closer to the start line, and we were ready to go.

With a short countdown and an air horn blasting skyward, we bounded forward into the course to eat up the first declining mile. A group of us scattered out front to settle into our respective paces and determine where we would line up around the rest. Instantly a group of four runners gathered up front, two more coupled a few paces behind, and then myself. I sensed and heard runners behind me, but dared not look back to see what might be coming. The declining mile convinced me I would be tucked back among many runners that went out too hard with the aided elevation loss, but that never happened, and not because I was pushing to hard either. I was reserved, as I had consistently reminded myself, and very reserved. I was cruising as if starting a long run warm up, but still up front and losing the footfalls of other runners behind me. Looking ahead, I saw one of the coupled runners made a comfortable surge to run with the front pack, leaving the 6th runner on his own, giving me a bright orange singlet to keep in sight like an elusive carrot to horse.

We rolled past the first mile marker, but I didn’t see it or a clock, fortunately, as I dared not get the concern of pacing in my head, compelling me to compensate one way or the other. My goal was to beat the course and leave it at that, so when we rolled up onto the bridge that spit us out down a short downhill and towards the base of the first extended climb, I was glad to be feeling completely in control and breathing calmly. The runner ahead was still in sight and not gaining or losing much ground in our efforts.

The first climb extended from about 2 miles to 3 and a quarter, but offered moments of relief when the course would turn then slightly dip before rising again. At one point of the climb, however, it wouldn’t relent until we peaked and dropped again. I worked my way up the hill, trying to maintain a decent pace and solid form, but not going for an all out attack and expending the strength I would need later in the race. Reaching the top of the drawn out climb, I was glad to find a quickened recovery within me and the ability to push back to pace and then some as the course began a drop back downwards. We ran through neighborhood streets with a spattering of spectators offering words of encouragement quieted by the early morning, or more excitable children ringing cowbells and taking advantage of the permission to yell without reservation.

I stayed secure in my 7th place position as the course dropped abruptly, like really abruptly, forcing the decision to bomb the hill and risk banging up the quads and aggravating my IT band issue, or braking slightly, also a risk of banging the quads and aggravating my IT band. With little difference in effect between the two, I decided to go for broke and let gravity take me where it may. Trying my best to bound lightly into and off the ground, using the momentum of the downward pull to lessen the blow, the course quickly bottomed out, but only briefly before pushing us back up a significantly steep and pace sucking hill for nearly a quarter of a mile.

The change from downward speed to an uphill battle was immediately felt and I tried to switch from lungs beating out of control to legs that could carry me to the top as quick as possible. Again, I didn’t try to fight the hill, but stay stable and keep form up and over, hoping the peak didn’t involve a slumping body and legs emptied of strength that would barely swing forward. I felt the weight of the climb wearing on me as the top of the hill and a cheering section waited, but I was excited to find I could pick up speed at the top, rolling me through the crowds quickly and back towards the next turn that lay on undulations in decline, the bright orange runner still in sight ahead of me and only distant cheers for the next runners following up from behind.

Speaking of cheers, among the “looking good!”, and “nice work!”, I started to hear a bit of, “Hey! Nice shirt!” and “Ratt! I like your shirt!” I was pleasantly amused, but far too focused to respond…more on that to come.

After rolling the second hill, the course found it’s way onto an isolated back road that offered some flat terrain for recovery and gauge of pacing. It was here we passed the 5 mile clock and I caught my first sense of how the race was going, time-wise, kinda. I took a quick glance, still running comfortable and in control, to see the clock ticking out 29 minutes and change. I quickly did the most poor of math and thought to myself, “Shit…7 minute pace? I figured I was running harder than that. Those hills must be more problematic than I thou…wait…5 times, wait, 6, that’s 30:00. Oh! Shit! I’m at sub-6:00 pace. Nevermind! I can work with this!”

And I was still feeling strong and in control.

The bright orange runner still lay in sight, just ahead, and the cheers resounded relatively distant behind, just as the course took a turn that began a long, significantly fatiguing, uphill climb from mile 5.5 to 6. This was the type of climb that seemed to only get steeper as it extended around each turn and when you thought the end was in sight, it grew away from you, testing your resolve to keep pushing against your resisting legs and quickening lungs. A water station at the top of the crowd was the only impetus for me to keep pushing, compelling me to salvage a bit of my broken ego, pretending I wasn’t desperately seeking the end of the climb and ready to keep pushing strong. Somehow, in the midst of all that, I dropped my hand to give a quick high-five to one of the little kids on the sidelines, maybe a more true testament to my resolve at this point. The climbs, however, weren’t over just yet. I was beating the course, but hadn’t beat it just yet.

The course turned along side a golf course and stretched far off into the distance, the only relief being a slight decline that helped me get my legs back under me, recover my lungs just enough to fall back into rhythm, and start pushing again. The bright orange runner, however, had started to get away at this point, and the cheers for me were soon followed by more close behind. Someone…or someones…was gaining. Still, I dare not look back, for they weren’t my competition. The course and my resolve was.

I fell back into rhythm down the long stretch and made my way to an abrupt downhill that would meet the final potential race ruining climb that peaked just past halfway in an isolated neighborhood that brought out a sizable crowd of spectators to cheer us in and out. Bombing that short, but steep, hill just before the climb I suddenly felt that worrisome and pointed pain to the side of my knee, signaling a tightening IT band. I adjusted form and tried to run through it at the bottom, but the pain quickly increased, forcing me to stop for the first time, make my brief outward leg bend before starting back up again and barely stopping in the process, probably only losing a second or two. The pain dissipated as I knew it would, and I was pain-free for another few miles. But I still had the hill to conquer.

I started picking my way up the steep climb, a group of spectators cheering us as the course turned left…into another steep upward climb towards the top of the hill where the crowds waited. The incline was taking its toll and I struggled to bound my body up the hill with strength, feeling my torso bending over instead of pushing straight and tall to the top. My lungs beat hard and fast and I craved the relief that would come in the rolling neighborhood, but in the moment I was feeling the burn. The gathered crowd cheered hard, but I couldn’t help but internalize pity in their voices as my face surely looked strained. Then, when the doubt mounted with the elevation, the road curved over and finally let the recovery flood my body as I ran away from the spectators, however, the cheers behind came almost as soon as I passed, alerting me to other runners just behind. I said the battle was against the course, but I can’t leave all the competitiveness behind, and I started telling myself, “Ok, 8th or 9th place is totally fine, even 10th. Top 10 would be great. What about 13th? Damn. I don’t wanna get rolled into 13th this late in the race. I just hope I can hang onto the top 10.”

All this conversation was enabled by the course relatively leveling out, though the recovery I hoped for remained elusive. I waited out the spiked heart rate and tried to find my legs beneath me, which happened, surprisingly, as the course wrapped around the neighborhood and ever so slightly inclined back up. Suddenly my arms were swinging straight and I felt the consistent control I had earlier in the race. The hills had certainly taken their toll, but I wasn’t in a suffer to the finish mode just yet. I didn’t claim victory over the course prematurely, but I knew this was my turning point, where I could start to let go and really push without reservation. I ran past the spectators again, catching sight of the other runners coming into the neighborhood, and turned back towards the downtown, and then turned again…the wrong way.

Somehow, still a bit out of my head from the effort, I turned left when the course went right, inside a couple cones and RIGHT BY A COURSE VOLUNTEER. I saw the course volunteer stick his arm out to signal to the runners behind me to go right, looked up to see cars off in the distance, which gave me pause and made me question my sense of direction, only to hear a powerful voice yell out behind me,

“Hey! No! This way!”

I turned, saw the first woman lead by a bicycle rider, who was the one redirecting me to the course, pass right by, followed by another runner.

“Shit.” I verbalized to myself as I ran back on the course, losing a few seconds in the mistake.

Fortunately, they were the only ones in striking distance at that point, and so I remained in 9th place, comfortably in that top 10 placing I was hoping to retain. I rolled up a few paces behind the lead woman, passed the other male runner who was hanging on to her pace, and tried to fall back into a groove where my internal fight was to begin. And I still had about 5 more miles to see how that would all play out…

——–Part 3 to come——–

Runner’s World Half Marathon – Race Report – Part 1 – The Pressure Builds


Runner’s World Half Marathon
Race Report
Part 1
The Pressure Builds

The Runner’s World Half Marathon was supposed to be something of a last hurrah, a final celebration of my life in between surgeries, because I’ve come to find that my life is now dictated by the space in between each. It’s just impossible to predict what happens after each operation, so the only time to make is the space of ability between the end of one and the beginning of the other. When I woke the first time, into a world of pain, I thought I was going to be cancer-free, only to find that certainly wasn’t the case. I woke the second time expecting a period of recovery that would stretch for months, again, only to find that wasn’t the case, fortunately. So where I would like to hold to some expectation of what is to come, I simply don’t anymore, and am left to just make the most of the time I have in the present…which brings me to this race.

As my running abilities progressed over the last year plus since my last surgery, I found the potential to run faster and faster, even forcing my pace into legitimate competitive racing territory, if against myself and no one else. Motivated by this realization of experiencing, if only fleetingly, this past self lost to the cancer experience, I set my training and my eyes on a fast half-marathon, maximizing the potential within by running it as close to my next surgery as possible. That was supposed to be this coming Tuesday (the 27th), but as mentioned elsewhere, an insurance change has delayed the operation until January. Although that does afford me some more time to squeeze in a few more focused runs, this half might still be my last competitive go, to see what I could do with my body despite cancer. I penciled in the Runner’s World Half on my calendar and set to dedicated training.

As exciting as this was, I won’t deny it was also stressful as the days cut down to the race and the pressure of performing began to mount. I had been training for both the ultra run benefit and this half at the same time, and when the ultra was cut short due to “injury”, that put this entire half into jeopardy. I actually committed to NOT running this half when three weeks after my ultra I still couldn’t run more than 30 minutes at a time.

And then, well, I’m not sure what happened. I kept working on my strength training and periodically tested my legs when it all started to come together and I could run for extended periods…and quickly. But I still only had a month and a half to prepare for this half, with no idea of what abilities lay deeper within me. If I was going to run this race, I needed to maximize every day of running I had, and that’s when something really changed. I went back to my roots.

Prior to my first marathon, I ran differently. Or I should say, I trained differently. Before appropriate mileage, dedicated pacing, and sufficient recovery times had rigidly entered my headspace, I ran more free. I ran my workouts on a schedule similar to now – Tuesday / Thursday workouts and Saturday long runs – but all my other efforts were run without concerns about “slow recovery” or within a certain range…I just ran. If I felt tired, I ran slower. If I felt good, I laid into it, sometimes bounding through 6:00 per mile easy runs with little effort. I just enjoyed myself. This was also the mentality I took to my races. I didn’t really go by per mile pacing, hell, I didn’t even wear a watch. I just stepped to the line and ran how I felt. Admittedly, this didn’t always work out. Sometimes my workouts failed because I couldn’t sustain the effort and sometimes my races were compromised when I blazed through the first two miles at 5:00 pace. But overall, I was enjoying myself…and I wanted to get back to that.

Effectively meshing the lessons I learned about reservation with the more joyful efforts of running without worry, I started training for this half with a new excitement and a satisfaction that extended far into the day when the runs were complete. Somewhere in the midst of all that training I also started to realize that a sub 1:20 half might be in my abilities. I began training around 6:00 pace when necessary and continued to assess how that might feel over 13.1 miles and with the appropriate recovery and adrenaline that comprises the body on race day. I never knew if that was an attainable goal during all my efforts, but it was exactly how I like my goals, enticingly difficult and potentially just out of reach. Each day I would put in workouts that touched at the pacing, and make sure to throw in sufficient paces into my easy runs as well, slowly picking up pace until I dipped below 6:00 for a bit, just to build the effect into my body and train me to gauge how it felt in the moment.

Bit by bit, day by day, week by week, race day neared and the pressure began to build. Like, really began to build. Like, began to build so much that it surpassed normal nervousness and became near crippling. Mind you, I’m used to worry and fear and tension before a race, but this one seemed to hold a little more significance than all the others in the past, as it was my last chance, so to speak. Every race prior was just a stepping stone to another, while this, for all that may happen post-surgery, could be my last. I wanted to make the most of it, and so the potential for failure was weighing on me to a degree I had not really felt before. And with the ultra run cut short still gnawing at my ego, the last thing I wanted prior to surgery was another failure. I NEEDED this to go well. But needing and doing are worlds apart.

At some point, this self-imposed pressure built so much that, for my own emotional stability, I needed to release some of it. I had taken myself from a valuable nervousness to an unhealthy tension. So, in an attempt to release some of this pressure, I changed my finish time expectations. Actually, I erased them. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to dip under 1:20 anymore because even though my workouts were going well and I was feeling great about running the entire distance with strength, that didn’t mean I was going to make it count on race day. Maybe the distance would break me down. Maybe my IT band issue would flair up again and cause me to DNF. Maybe…who knows…I just wasn’t ready to say, “Yeah, I can run sub 1:20, no problem.” because I didn’t want to go into surgery with my last hurrah being a last “meh.” With that consideration, I relied on the elusive well of ability that lay deep within my body to dictate my finish time…and I decided to go back to my roots again, getting rid of my watch on race day. I wouldn’t look at it through any splits, any per mile pace, for whatever was in my body was going to get me to the finish, not what my watch would say.

I do feel compelled to clarify that, at the very least, I had myself grounded enough to keep perspective, to recognize that, “Hey, dude, you have cancer. And hey, you are just over a year out of surgery. And hey..dude…you have cancer.” because there was a point that a 1:20 half wouldn’t have been a reason to celebrate. It would have been a reason to determine what went seriously wrong. Pre-diagnosis I was running 1:12 half’s and then trying to figure out what went wrong in my training as I should have been in the 1:10’s, so at the very least, coming to terms with running a 1:20 half was a victory in itself.

But hey, I’m a competitive runner, so I’m not going to pretend that I would be happy with anything, come what may. I had verbalized a 1:20 to myself and it was hard to get away from that, even if I later said, “anything under 1:30”, etc. To myself, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, I kept repeating…”1:20. 1:20. 1:20”.

Which might help explain why all of a sudden my stomach was a flurry of knots and folding in on itself as race day neared.

I prepared, but wasn’t sure I was prepared…if that makes sense. I wanted to perform, but first I had to make it to the start.

The days leading up to the race involved a great deal of driving out East as we bounced to a wedding and a couple other locations before finding our way to Bethlehem PA where the race would be run. I’m sorry to admit, but the nervousness was so intense that I had trouble concentrating on the moments at hand, whether it was the wedding or celebrations. Until I found my way to the finish line, I was going to be a distracted mess. The endless miles of driving out East were an effort in distraction, trying to think about anything but the race as every time I did my stomach would twist and turn with butterflies. And each day closer meant more and more moments of near crippling worry.

And that’s when we found ourselves driving the actual course to more closely determine how this race might go, and whatever worries I had about going 1:20 were heightened out of control. The course was hilly. But not just hilly as most courses rise and fall, but the hills were abrupt, steep, and the primary efforts would take place in the first half of the race, meaning that a solid time and a strong effort would rely on a very focused reservation…something I’ve struggled with since I stepped to my first start line. Suffice to say, when we completed driving the course, any idea of running 1:20 was out the window. A successful race the next day would hinge on one thing, running a SMART race. I don’t exaggerate when I say running a smart race, for me, is probably more difficult than running at my abilities. To run in a way that beats the course instead of your time takes strategy, reservation, pointed surges, and a conservation of energy that is let go at just the right time. It’s no small thing to pull off.

After we finished driving the course, my mental state had completely changed. Instead of repeating the image in my head of what a 6:00 pace felt like, I had to continuously imagine running reservedly, making adjustments as each hill dictated recovery, and digging deep to throw down in the second half. I stopped thinking about redlining it and started thinking about how I was going to push hard after the hills had been passed and the course let me open up. The race suddenly felt less like a fight and more like an art. I went to bed memorizing my strategy and woke repeating the same.

Laura and I found our way to the start line under a dark sky just beginning to lighten, my type A personality getting us there so early I wondered if anyone else planned on running with me. The temperature was a solid 35 degrees, the absolute perfect air temperature for running, allowing the body to concentrate entirely on transporting oxygen to the legs and lungs and not to cool the internal core. Any effort today would be determined by our maximum abilities and not compromised by external excuses. I nervously sat with Laura at the start staging area, my warm sweatshirt creating a place for me to hide my worry along with my face. I popped my ear buds in and went into a different mental and emotional space, building adrenaline at the rate of my concern, trying to prepare for a smart fight as much as a reserved start.

As each minute ticked away like an hour, I found myself in my own head again, the tension mounting to an apex.

“Why do you do this to yourself? This is crazy! I mean…look at you…you’re a basket case. Dude, this is just a run and nothing more. Seriously, this is it. This is the last time. This just isn’t worth it. This sort of worry isn’t what life is for.”

But…yeah…that’s not true. I don’t always have the words to explain it, but i know many of my distance running friends feel it. This IS what life is for. This incredible worry and concern means something. It feels out of control sometimes, and for such a simple, momentary physical effort, and nothing else, but for some reason it means the world. It’s SO HARD to let go. Hence, having cancer, having surgeries, and being here at the start. I don’t know, in that moment I felt crushed. I felt obsessive, ridiculous, completely ungrounded…but I knew that’s EXACTLY WHERE I NEEDED TO BE. Less than 30 minutes away I knew all that insane, crippling fear would subside into a physical effort that is all mine, that is only mine, that is the culmination of months and months and months of dedicated training…and recovery from a crazy surgical procedure.

I wanted to perform to my best, because this was it. This was my last chance to make something of the time between surgeries, to put all that training into a moment that would define what I can be capable of despite everything that says I shouldn’t be. If it wasn’t even about not failing, it was more about succeeding to my greatest potential in this moment. All that stood between that final moment was about 30 minutes and 13.1 miles of race course.

—————— Part 2 to come ————