It’s not easy watching my body wither away.

I am so grateful to have had a photo taken on the last “real” run I did, when a friend and I ran 30 miles on the trails of Southern Indiana. It was another “epic experience” notch on my belt, not to mention the first day of the year we could run shirtless….so we did. And when the run was over, we documented the day by taking a photo of the two of us, myself wearing nothing more than shorts, shoes and thin gloves. I look fit, strong, and relatively trim (oddly enough, the cancer in my belly had become such a problem at this point that I can now tell in the photo that I’m not as slim as I should have been).

As a high-performing distance runner, I’ve not only become fascinated by the transformation of my body through various training cycles, but have even learned to take pride in my physical condition. I’ve become appreciative of the efforts made that built my muscles, slimmed my body and toned my physique into an incredibly efficient machine built for running long distances at considerable speed. There was very little dead weight, extra muscle, or any other performance sapping excesses. As a stupidly skinny kid who grew up rather ashamed of his body, being frequently ridiculed for my weak stature and spindly legs, it was a personal victory as an adult to have sculpted my body to the state it becomes during peak training. Running gave me the ability to see my physical self as not just effective, but attractive.

And now that is gone, ravaged by the process of degeneration.

There is a common phrase in the running community, “Use it or lose it”, which explains the need for a runner to keep their fitness by continuing to use it. Stop running and all that fitness you built, all that strength and endurance, will quickly begin to fade away. You can’t stop running for two to three weeks and then expect to pick up where you left off. No, it doesn’t work that way. You use it, and continue to use it, or lose it. And that is exactly what happened to me post-surgery, but to a much more extreme extent, of course.

Now, I’ve “lost fitness” during periods of injury, but never to the degree that I’m experiencing right now. I’ve lost fitness after being unable to run for a month or two during injury, but during that period of non-running I was able to do other activities. I could still ride a bike, still work, still lift weights, and stay generally active during the day. Now, however, those options aren’t so practical. Right now, I’m having trouble doing more than just getting to the coffee shop to sit and knock out a blog post, and in that my body continues to wither away.

It’s not that I didn’t expect this, but realizing it and seeing it are quite different. I first noticed my physical degeneration in the hospital when I went to wash myself for the first time. I stood in the bathroom under the harsh mirror light and the shadows cast accentuated the dips in my face, my sunken eyes, and protruding bone structure. I looked, definitely sickly. I began washing my arms with a wet washcloth, and although those also seemed skinnier, it was hard to tell any marked difference, but once I got to my quads I was quite surprised. The muscles that once pushed my body forward, bounding up hills and bracing back down, had shrunk to a visibly weakened state. The strength and form had both been smoothed over with passivity. I then started taking visual stock of the rest of my body and noticed that everything had weakened, shrunken or almost disappeared. Bones stuck out where bones didn’t use to stick out. Glutes lost their powerful shape. Toned muscles now melded into other ares of the body without any noticeable demarcation. I’ve withered away.

Of course, I was also just cut wide open, my insides shoveled out, and had been confined to a bed and the perceived weight of morphine for 6 days in the intensive care unit. Add to that passivity, a dripping liquid diet coupled with the metabolism and caloric needs of a distance runner and it only makes sense that until I was normal again, I would continue to shrink towards a state of nothingness. Fortunately, after another week in the hospital, I started to regain my bodily functions and could start eating solid foods again, focusing on the muscle building properties of protein and indulging in high-caloric foods without reservation.

Still, I have a ways to go. It has been exactly one month since my surgery and forced state of passivity, so to think I would have regained my strength or bodily form at this point is laughable. Just like in running, I haven’t used it, so I’ve lost it, and all the same, it’s going to take some time to get it all back. And that’s what I’m concentrating on right now, eating healthy, protein-dense, high-caloric foods to rebuild what I can while I wait for more strength to build. The other component to building my body back up involves physical activity, but that has been quite difficult as well, trying to find both the emotional and physical drive to get active amongst all the discomfort that racks my body, whether that is internal morning pain, fatigue in the afternoon, or skin sensitivity when my pain pills are wearing off. It’s simply not easy.

There is a hopeful element to this process of physical degeneration, however. In training, I was constantly working through a pattern of building and destroying the body. We ran hard to break down the muscles, then rested to build them up even stronger, only to run hard and break them back down, to then rest and let them build even stronger. That is the process, but sometimes we would develop injuries along the way, injuries that our unrelenting drive would not let us tend to appropriately, letting them linger or build until they became permanently problematic. I struggled with this often. The appropriate way of dealing with injury, of course, is to let the body rest, let the injury heal…but that means no running…and who wants to do that?

Well, now I CAN’T run. It’s just not an option, which DOES suck, but on the other hand, this forced passivity is like hitting the reset button on my body. It’s taking away all my muscular strength, cardiovascular strength, and so on, but it’s also taking away all my muscular stress, overworked joints and tendons, and resetting all the “niggles” and injuries I was dealing with prior to the cancer diagnosis. I’m truly withering back to square one, back to that point in my life where I had not yet begun the physical repetition that targeted all the specific muscles and bodily systems that allowed me to perform as a runner at the level I was.

So once the reset button has been pushed, once I’ve found myself standing on square one, I’ll be able to take that first step forward and start the process of regeneration, without that previously held muscular strength, but also without weakness and injury. I’ll be an overly rested runner, ready to get back at it again, but this time with a considerable bank of knowledge on how to do it “right”, how to build slowly, how to train smart.

Right now, I’m in no hurry. I’m still very much in the throes of degeneration, knowing very well that I’ll be broken down through chemotherapy and going through this whole process again when I lay back down on the operation table, but I still hold to the awareness that SOMEWHERE down the line I’ll begin again. I’ll be able to put the process of degeneration behind me once and for all and finally begin the process of regeneration, to some day take another post-run photo where I, again, look strong, fit and fast.

3 responses to “De/Re-Generation

  1. Don’t worry too much. I know from personal experience how irritating forced inactivity can be, but once you start running again (crossing my fingers for you here) your fitness and strength will come back faster than you expect.

    After my tumor diagnosis, doctors allowed me to continue running, but only every other day, only 4 or 5 miles at a time, and without pushing the pace. That lasted for about 7 weeks, until I went back for surgery. Then I had eight more weeks of no physical activity at all. I could do some limited amount of walking, but I spent a substantial amount of my time lying in bed taking naps. About six weeks after surgery, I went to an academic conference (partly because this year’s venue happened to be a 20-minute train ride from my home, partly because I had already agreed to give a keynote presentation before my diagnosis, and mostly because I was feeling strong enough for that), but every single one of the three days I was so tired after the talks were done that I had to forgo the social activities and go straight home instead to rest.

    Then I started jogging again in late March. For the first two weeks, even short jogs were difficult. But then, just 10 days ago I did a 14-miler on trails, with rolling hills most of the way, on a warm day, and it only took me a few minutes longer than it would have taken me last year when I was peaking for some spring races. I will bet you a vegan burrito that less than two months after your first run you’ll be doing something mildly epic again.

    • Luis, I can only hope you’re right. I’ve got a long road ahead to get to the point that I can run without restriction again, but I hope the turnaround is quicker than expected. Thanks!

  2. Running follows your ups and downs through life. You’ll be running again, Scott. Give your body time to rest. Poco a poco, bit by bit, come back. Remember what your surgeon said before you were operated on: you’ll feel like you were hit by a truck after the operation. No one is ever able to come back from that easily. You’ll be back on the trails before long, though, I believe.

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