I want to share this email with you and then elaborate a bit. Trust me that in sharing this story I’m not self-advertising for egotistical purposes, but setting up some thoughts I’ve been considering regarding the idea of “inspiration”. Regardless, this story hit me deep and my spirits were lifted tremendously. Thanks for sharing Mike.
I had an olympic distance triathlon yesterday. At each event, I write someone’s name on my arm for motivation. Somehow, I feel like if I can make myself hurt a little bit more I can take away some of the hurt they’re feeling. I don’t know if it works or not, but it’s something I do anyway. Yesterday, I was writing your name on my arm, and the guy next to me noticed what I was doing.
“Extra motivation?” he asked.
“Something like that,” is how I replied.
We started chatting and it turned out that he moved here from Indy last September. I mentioned you, and he said that while he didn’t know you personally he was aware of your diagnosis. He still keeps in touch with the Indy endurance crowd. When he figured out that he knew the guy who’s name was written on my arm, he asked for my marker. He had never done anything like it before, but he wrote your name on his arm too.
I don’t know how you felt yesterday, but I finished 33rd overall and 4th in my group. The guy from Indy scored his first top 10 age group finish ever.
Your influence is reaching across the country. We’re thinking about you out west.
So much lately I’ve been told how inspiring I have been to others, how “inspired” I am and how I’ve been in others thoughts as they’ve been forced to face down and push through adversity of their own. From close friends to complete strangers on the other side of the world, my experience has touched those outside of me in positive ways, and although I am privileged to receive these statements, and although I accept them with great humility and gratitude….I won’t deny that I feel a twinge of awkwardness with each expression. Let me explain.
I feel awkward, in part, because the inspiration others have received from me seems to be little of my own doing. Simply, my existence through this ordeal has inspired others to push on through their own obstacles. And this is great, but meanwhile, I do nothing but lay in bed, watch crappy television, manage my pain with pills, and wait out the cancer killing process. I’m reminded of a quote by Christopher Hitchens,
“Courage? Show me a fight I can walk away from.”
I just don’t feel like I’m consciously offering anything of inspiration to others. If others are deriving inspiration from my experience, then again, absolutely great. I would never think less of anyone finding the drive to push on, whether I have actively contributed to it or not, but there is more to my awkward response.
When others express being inspired by either me directly or simply my experience, I can’t help but internalize a sense of obligation…to BE INSPIRING. And that poses problems, because I don’t always feel that way. I don’t always feel I CAN be inspiring and I can’t promise that I’ll always be able to offer that inspiration. I know the tone of my blog writings can take a dark turn, that sometimes I’m physically destroyed from the process, that I tire of having to deal with the whole experience, that sometimes I consider the relief that would come through death, that I just want to disappear and hope this all goes away as soon as possible. Ultimately though, I just don’t want to let anyone down. When I internalize this idea of “being inspiring”, I set myself up for failure in that I won’t always be able to perform, to offer that sort of inspiration.
So if you’ve ever said to me, “You are so inspiring”, please don’t take offense if I’ve looked away and unenthusiastically replied, “Thank you”, and then changed the subject.
But on the other hand….I WANT to be inspiring. And if this cancer is an opportunity to capitalize on that, then I’m going to do everything I can to make it happen.
As a runner, I’m constantly driven to pull inspiration from outside sources when I can’t find it in myself to keep pushing on. I pull from my music, my internal stories, the accomplishments of others, and anything I can sink my desperate, struggling claws into until I can overcome. It wouldn’t be fair if I selfishly harvested inspiration from others to achieve my goals, to run like I never thought possible, and then not try to actively reciprocate. So it was a cruel coincidence that at the very point I started to do just that, to actively return the inspirational favor, cancer hit.
I had taken an inspiring meme that began turning over in my head one trail run, “Legs and Lungs. Legs and Lungs. Legs and Lungs”, into an Instagram hashtag, then expanded it into a wider culture of inspiration, followed by a building clothing line and, most importantly, a series of videos where I interviewed individuals who I felt had inspiring stories or accomplishments to offer to others. I wanted to build and add to the idea that we can do and be so much more than we think, using the inspiration of others to help get us there as individuals and a culture. I just wanted to reciprocate that inspiration. Unfortunately, cancer brought those concerted efforts to a screeching halt (for the time being).
You can see the Legs and Lungs interview videos here.
But it wouldn’t be fair to say that cancer killed the inspiration I was trying to build, because the experience I’m now facing has brought me into contact with so many people across the world and whether they have taken inspiration from something I’ve been active in creating or simply pulled from the experience itself, the inspiration is there. Honestly, I don’t know what part I’ve had in creating this, aside from a hopeful blog post here and there, but I’m glad to have had some part in it regardless.
I accept that others have gained inspiration from my experience, but if I haven’t made it entirely clear previously….I’m getting the greater inspiration from all of YOU. You have no idea how important that inspiration is in this compromised emotional and physical circumstance. Every encouraging word, every trail run photo, every summit photo, every winding road, every expression of accomplishment….they drive me to reject what could be a self-imposed confinement, an acceptance of the shitty hand I was given, a depressing physical state that compels me to sit and whither away instead of continuing to live my life. On a daily basis I am inspired by the accomplishments of others, those facing avoidable and unavoidable adversity alike, to get out of bed and, no matter how frustrated or uncomfortable I feel in the moment, to work through the adversity and live against cancer.
Some of you make a concerted effort to offer me that inspiration, contacting me directly, and yet some of you have no idea that you effect me all the same, whether it’s by simply posting a photo or expressing the excitement of getting out there and living your life. The value I receive, the inspiration I get, is immeasurable. And I try to make the most of it.
Take yesterday. I had not run the trails of Brown County, my second home, my second heart even, since before diagnosis and I felt a strong emotional pull to get back down there and get on the trails, no matter how hard the effort was going to be. I just wanted to be IN the woods, to feel that comfort, that familiarity, that life I lived before it became consumed by this stupid cancer. I was excited, no doubt, but I was also greatly concerned. I had only run once outdoors since my surgery…and it was hard as hell. 4 miles at 9:00 minute miles and I was destroyed when it was over, so to think of running on trails, with significant inclines, had me a little more than concerned, so despite being very excited to get down there and experience those trails again, I still held great reservation as to what it might be like and what might happen once I entered the woods.
Then a package came in the mail with some clothing and a note that not only expressed being inspired by my experience, but equally gave me the inspiration to continue on. Then my instagram was flooded with images of trails around the country. Then I received the email I copied above. Suddenly the reserved excitement turned into a determined inspiration, and any reluctance I had about what running those hills was going to feel like dissipated in the powerful gestures of friends and strangers. I was unreservedly inspired.
I entered the woods, absorbed by the familiarity of every turn, every tree, every rock, and began pushing forward at a pace that, no matter how slow, had my heart rate pounding at its maximum. The very act of simply making an effort, what would normally have been my incredibly slow recovery pace, was redlining my systems as if I was doing hill sprints. It was hard, but I kept going. I let the familiar rhythm of labored breathing take over despite the flattened terrain and concentrated on hitting solid footing under noticeably weakened legs. The trail twisted and turned and I kept focus on moving forward, not letting up in pace, but not trying to be a hero either. The trail began turning upward and I felt my redlined heart rate try and revolt against the new strain, but I managed to keep it in control and focus on picking up my weakened legs over precarious rocks and roots. In what would have been a laughable warm up just two months ago was now like pushing through the last 5 miles of a marathon. It was hard..real hard.
But I was inspired. I thought about those who thought of ME when they hit a rough spot in their training. I thought about those who thought of ME when they wanted to cut their run short. And I knew I had to keep going, not only because I was inspired by their efforts and wanted to do them justice, but because I wanted to reciprocate. I wanted to actively offer the inspiration this time…so I kept going…and I topped out that hill, giving my suffering heart rate a brief respite before starting back into a downhill section of the trail. Mind you, it was still hard and I didn’t expect it to get any easier, but the inspiration I carried was much greater than the beating my systems were taking. I carried that inspiration through the rest of the run, hitting my turn around point and following the trail back to the trail head where I could finally let the wave of relief wash over me. The inspiration that carried me through the trail, however, might have been a little more powerful than I hard realized though, as I stopped at the back of my car and suddenly had to bend over and hold onto my knees for stability. My legs were wet noodles, threatening to buckle under the weight of everything above them. My head swam a little in a fog of imbalance and the all too familiar nausea crept into my abdomen. Maybe I had overdone it a little.
I took the time to recover, had a couple mountain bikers take some trail head photos so I could reciprocate the visual inspiration for others, and made it into town for a celebratory lunch. The day, despite the discomfort that would come later, was an undeniable victory that I might not have achieved without the inspiration I was able to gain from others gestures and experiences.
I don’t have any great realizations with these considerations, nothing that hasn’t been said before, but I can offer you this, if my cancer experience affords me the opportunities to consciously and actively inspire others….I will capitalize on those opportunities. However, I could never do this alone. It takes that same inspiration of others to give me that strength, to create something of an inspirational feedback loop, where you and I work together to create the lives we want to live. Let’s make a pact…You continue to offer me inspiration when I’m beaten down, when I need it the most, to keep me living against cancer….and I’ll do my best to reciprocate every chance I get. We can take the value of passive inspiration and increase it exponentially by making it active.