Runners are in tune with their bodies. Almost inherently, but probably more out of necessity than anything else. The repetition of our actions and the extensive nature of our activities not only demands an attention to the physical body, but makes it unavoidable. In our pursuit of progress, pushing against the perceived walls of our own limitations, we look for every advantage, monitor every ache and pain, doubt the failures and trust the successes. Day in and day out we repeat the same physical act, so when something is “off”, we know it. Immediately.
Our foot strikes the ground with a subtle difference. A small pain rises in the hip. We seem out of breath sooner than before. Our legs feel like a wet sweater.
Every little abnormality registers…and then we wait it out. We run through it. We hope the next day everything feels differently. We monitor the small pains increase or decrease. We check our watch and read the time next to last week’s effort. In an attempt to chase down those elusive PR’s, we become hyper-attuned to our physical bodies, knowing intimately when we are progressing and when things aren’t going as planned. For the former, we congratulate ourselves and push forward, but for the latter, we ride it out until the signal becomes too loud to bear.
As I pushed through my training this past winter, I was constantly in tune with my body, reading subtle signs, physical whispers, and a general confusion I had never experienced up until this point. Something was “off”. It was “off”, but it also wasn’t screaming loud enough to make me take notice, to make any definitive changes to my running, to seek the help of a physical therapist. There was nothing I felt concerning going on, but in hindsight, something much deeper had taken place…or was taking place…literally growing.
My running schedule was pretty consistent to what it had been for most of my career. I would wake at 6 (sometimes earlier) and be running by 6:30 or 7:00, putting in no less than 10 miles, sometimes as preparation runs and sometimes as speed workouts. Weekends were no different aside from mileage. My body was a machine, ticking off the miles like clockwork.
But I was struggling. And in effect, running wasn’t as enjoyable as it had once been. I marked it up to the weather, the cold dark mornings, the extra effort involved with running comfortably. Again, something deeper was at fault here.
It started with bowel movements. I was suddenly going to the bathroom during every single morning run, despite going before I left the house. It became so consistent that I started preparing for it as I left the house. It was like my abdomen had given up being strong and holding everything together (literally?).
Then I noticed consistent gas in my stomach that remained internal, causing incredible discomfort that would have me slowing to a near walk before disapating and allowing me to run freely again. This had never happened before.
Then there was my stomach, mildly distended when I woke in the morning and remaining that way no matter how hard or how long I ran. In the past, I always woke up empty, lean, and light, but not anymore. I was seemingly heavy, as if my stomach was filled with food, though my scale readings always hovered at 140 pounds. It didn’t add up, but I had no idea what could be causing it.
I tried everything. I stopped eating at 7:00 pm every night. I cut my pre-run coffee in half. I monitored my eating to make sure I wasn’t getting excessive fats.
But nothing changed. I felt heavy. I finished 20 mile hard runs without eating or drinking a thing and still couldn’t see my abs even if I flexed to try. I continued to have consistent bowel movements on every single run. And above all, I simply wasn’t enjoying my runs. I struggled to keep positive. I continued to push hard through my speed workouts, despite the results not being where I hoped they would be. I continued to wait for the weather to break, thinking that would somehow flip a switch and turn everything around.
Little did I know the switch would definitely flip, but not in the way I had hoped.
At the end of my rope I went south with a friend to run through the trails of Brown County, my second home, my personal utopia, going off my coach’s program in hopes that having an “epic experience” might help flip that switch. And it was awesome. We blasted through the trails, danced over the rocks and roots, attacked the climbs and pounded down the descents, myself getting dropped in the last three miles. It was our first shirtless run of the season and when we finished I felt on top of the world.
Then we went out to eat, where I expected an overwhelming hunger to consume me like it normally does, but just halfway into my sandwich I felt full. I just didn’t feel like eating much more. After 30 miles of running, there couldn’t be something more odd than not completing a meal.
Again, in hindsight, something was VERY VERY off.
Then two days later, the switch flipped. From some mid-point to completely off. The pain consumed my abdomen and after a few days I cycled through the experience of an umbilical hernia misdiagnosis, to a CT scan, to cancer. And when I learned the specifics of this cancer, what kind and how it works, EVERYTHING made sense.
The bowel movements. The painful gas. The mental struggle. The ever-present stomach and missing abs. Even this acne that has been oddly growing for a couple years now. It was CANCER!
This has now become a joke between understanding friends. “Oh, all these issues I’ve been having with my running, generally not feeling strong or fast or light, all along I thought I was just starting to fail at running, unable to get a rhythm, getting *gasp* “old”….nope….it was JUST CANCER! Well THAT’S a relief!!”
And, not to be calloused, but it IS a relief, because all these issues can be hopefully remedied after the operation, when they vacuum the cancer from my abdomen, toss out any damaged and unnecessary organs (spleens are just misplaced paper weights!), and basically get me to race weight without even cranking up my weekly mileage!
In seriousness, I’m looking past that post-operation void to the point when I’m able to run again, and although it might be overly-wishful thinking (it’s ok…seriously…don’t make me pull my cancer card), I envision a slow progression with a body that is recovered, building, and as strong and free as it was when I built up to my 2009 marathon PR – which is still the mocking goal sitting dead center of my sights.
When I’m on the other side, there will be nothing “off” anymore…and that’s when I’m going to turn it ON.