Monthly Archives: October 2013

Things Fall Apart

Things fall apart…some just seem to fall apart quicker than others, and if there is any truth I’ve learned in my years, it’s that it takes significantly longer to build than it does to break. Think about how long it takes to construct a skyscraper, and then how long it takes to level it.

The analogy works in running too, but we use the phrase “Use it or lose it”. We spend months, years even, building our systems to the utmost efficiency and all it takes is one little injury or a couple weeks of necessary post-marathon rest to send us all the way back down the mountain of effort. Our very first run back feels like our…well…very first run.

And now, with cancer, the same holds true. Everything is falling apart it seems.

For a while I was continuously working away from the destruction of surgery and so, physically speaking, I could only build. I was at square one…or square negative one even, and so I could really only get stronger from that point on. And that’s what I did. I worked at building my body back up. Moment by moment, day by day. It started as walks around the hospital hallways, then moving furniture around my house, then short drug-enabled runs, then drug-free runs, then conscious efforts to keep building and building.

Then we introduced chemotherapy, but even with the inherent destructive process it embodies, I was able to fight back and continue building my body. There were momentary setbacks, yes, but I kept building on a progressive trajectory, getting stronger, getting faster.

Now, however, I’m getting worried. Things are falling apart at a rate that has me increasingly concerned. It’s not that I’m a mess right now or that I’m inevitably going to crash and burn, losing everything I’ve gained so far, but after this last treatment and the accumulation of all the treatments up this point, I’m wondering just how long I can keep progressing before chemotherapy starts pushing me back down the mountain.

My dad has noticed patients on the same chemo schedule as me deteriorating throughout their treatments, barely able to walk across the room, looking closer and closer to death with each visit. There are images of patients from last Tuesday’s treatment I wish I could erase from my memory, their physical edifices quickly being blown to bits from the destructive nature of chemo. Their hair is gone, their skin pale, eyes sunken, a listless body covered in blankets to fend off the cold from hours of passive rest. And although I am seemingly worlds away from this point of deterioration, the accumulative effects have shaken my foundation.

“You look really good!”, well meaning friends often tell me. And I appreciate their comments and encouragement, because often I FEEL good, mostly when I’ve had a great streak of running. And when I look in the mirror, I do appear good. But that isn’t the whole story. Because right now, after this last treatment, things are falling apart.

When I lower my feet to the ground in the morning I begin to hobble around the house, delicately placing each step to minimize the pain and aggravation. I feel like a bone-weakened, elderly man. The skin on the bottom of my feet and toes hangs pale and dead, waiting to be cut or pulled away. The creases between my fingers have now begun to crack and separate, risking infection, painfully and constantly reminding me of my circumstance as I try to open various containers or bend my fingers into a fist. A mild headache lingers throughout the day, an effect of my chemo pills, that not even a heaping dose of caffeine can alleviate. When I brush my teeth in the morning and end up spitting blood in the sink from sensitive gums, I feel like my body is melting away. I blow my nose only to catch a reddened phlegm, generated by dried and aggravated nasal abrasions. The acne on my face comes and goes with various states of my treatment and processes related to my cancer. The shock to the back of my face catches me every time I try to eat powerfully flavored foods soon after treatment. And the nausea…it lingers and lingers and lingers, making the simple and necessary act of eating seem less desirable with each passing day. I could go on. But…

You know the scene in The Fly when Goldblum is peeling away his finger nails and facial skin as he transforms into something else? It FEELS LIKE THAT. It really feels like that.

I’m sorry for the TMI, but this is the reality a lot of people don’t see, the little deteriorations that begin to build rapidly and hang around longer with each passing treatment. These are the parts of cancer that really wear a person down.

I don’t mean to sound so pathetic about this all, painting a picture of an individual on the verge of death, but instead to continue painting the ENTIRE picture, the good and the bad…because this is important. This is important for me to express and others to know. There are encouraging moments. There are processes of building and regeneration. There are days when cancer doesn’t exist and everything, well, MOSTLY everything, feels pretty damn good. It’s just…the nature of chemotherapy demands that this won’t last. And that’s where I’m really starting to freak out.

The last CT scan showed the same lack of progress or regression as before, and what scares me is that continued accumulation of chemotherapy and the toll it’s going to inevitably take on my body. I work hard to build the physical self, to achieve everything I possibly can no matter my circumstances, and usually the only thing holding me back is my own resolve…so to hand over that restriction to forces I can’t control and that will only get stronger and stronger, well, that’s just hard to internalize. I don’t want to break down.

I don’t want to break down, because I’m afraid of how quickly it happens. And it seems these small deteriorations right now are harbingers of bigger things to come, as if chemo is just getting started, just giving me a little taste of what lies ahead.

And maybe I’m just reacting out of fear. Maybe I’m just expressing in a moment of frustration, so my concerns are unnecessarily heightened. I don’t know, but this is my current reality, and I’m also learning that how I feel in the moment is the right emotion at the time. Right now, it simply feels like the momentum I had running up cancer mountain just hit a descending boulder of chemotherapy and am now being pushed back down.

I’m not done attempting to build yet though. I’m still resolved to push back and hope that the effects of chemo relent, momentarily even, so I can make even just a little upward progress. I know how quickly things fall apart, but I know they can always be rebuilt as well.

Knobstone Trail Half-Marathon Race Report

The day prior to the race the effects of chemotherapy treatment came crashing in. I woke up that morning and the second I put my feet down on my hardwood floors I felt the distinct pain and abrasiveness of Hand & Foot Syndrome, a side effect that is most pronounced after an infusion and coupled with the Xeloda pills I take every day for two weeks straight. Moreso, I felt…just tired. Not the sleepy kind of tired that is shrugged off with a couple cups of coffee, but the real kind of tired. The fatigued kind. The sick kind. The flu kind. But this was not the flu, this was the “flu-like symptoms” I was told to expect post-treatment. The problem is, they can come days after an infusion instead of right away, potentially undermining any previously made plans when things weren’t so physically problematic.

I decided not to go for my scheduled 10 mile run that morning and instead just relax in preparation for the effort the next day.

The day sucked though. I spent it feeling fatigued, clammy, and just..well…like I had the flu. That, in turn, made me question my decision to get up and run 13.1 miles over hilly singletrack the next morning, but I decided to just hope for the best.

The alarm jolted me awake at 5am and I groggily worked my way through the morning routine, struggling to put my trail shoes on and tie the laces with hands and feet that were even more sensitive than the day before. Not a good start. I, fortunately, didn’t feel the weighted fatigue that comes with flu-like symptoms, but I did feel generally tired. I wanted to sleep and no amount of coffee or long drive to the trailhead down South was helping. More than getting psyched for the race, I secretly harbored wishes that it was sold out and they wouldn’t budge on letting in late additions. I imagined us getting lost and never making it to the start. I imagined a few other scenarios, but really just wanted to close my eyes and wake up back in bed. The best I could do was to muster some humor out of the situation.

“Boy, this is a fucking STUPID idea,” I said as soon as I got in the car with my teammates.

“Why are we doing this again?” I considered out loud as we stepped out of the car at the trailhead.

“Ok, let’s go try and kill ourselves,” I half-jokingly uttered as it was apparent that we were actually going to run this thing.

After usual pre-race rituals of putting on our layers, taking off layers, putting layers back on, openly worrying about being over or under-dressed for the weather, we gave up and went for a short warm up before heading to the start line to bounce our jitters out. I met some online friends in person for the first time, trying to express some sense of gratitude for the encouragement while wrestling with the competitive urges that pulled me inward to focus on preparing to suffer.

Then with little more instruction the voice in the bullhorn called out, “Runners set!” and the siren sent us down the road and onto the trail that began a long descent, complete with steep switchbacks, unsure footing, and leaf-covered ground that brought us to the forest floor.

Out of pure habit I ran outside my comfort zone, but stayed with the leaders and my teammates for the first full descent, doing my best to take in and enjoy this awkward position of sitting in 6th place, where normally I would be out front looking at no one’s back and pushing hard to create a gap between myself and second place. This race, however, was not really a race for me, so it was easy to settle in and let the runners fall in line ahead of me….then let them pass me.

Very quickly the fatigue and other effects of chemo started to take over my body, slowing my pace even further than it had already been subjected to. We began climbing the first hill upward, a steep sucker that switched back and forth before continuing to rise to the top and begin another descent. My core tightened for the climb, but then my bowels decided they didn’t want to cooperate and very unpleasant sensations filled my abdomen until I was forced to power hike a few sections of the climb while I waited for it to all pass.

Runners began passing me…and passing me…and passing me. I pulled off to the side and let a couple go by, jumping back on them and using them to pull me up the climbs a little more, but the efforts were just too much for my heart rate, for my stomach and then ultimately for my legs. Each climb was a tractor pull, getting more and more difficult the higher I rose, forcing me to scale back and resort to walking in spurts.

I didn’t like that.

I mean, I knew I was working this course under a brand new set of limitations, and although I was hopeful for an expected strength during the race, the unavoidable need to walk just wasn’t what I came out there for. I can enjoy a hike through the woods…but only when I plan on it. I want to RUN. I want to move quickly, with intensity…and that’s not walking. So it wasn’t that I was mad my body was forcing me to walk, but rather that walking just wasn’t exciting. I entered those trails not to race, not to podium, but to ENJOY the experience. That’s all I wanted. I wanted to run my first race back in an effort of enjoyment more than accomplishment, and walking was not enjoyable.

Fortunately, what goes up most go down, and so with each climb…and there were a lot of them…came a subsequent descent that took my emotional enjoyment along with the speed. I ran/walked each climb with a sort of dread and frustration, but as soon as the course leveled out or began to drop my legs filled with the ease and power I’ve tried to build into them, letting me take off like I had cut the cord that was dragging the bag of bricks behind me. This I could enjoy.

But then I would meet the next hill and begin the drag back to the top…then let loose back into the descent. It was like a literal emotional roller coaster. The climbs had me doubting my right to even be back on the trails and the descents had me internally squealing with excitement and intensity.

The trail, however, wore on…and on me. That sensitivity in my feet brought about by Hand and Foot syndrome grew and grew with each pounding step along the rock covered fire roads that lined the ridges and just as much with each halted step as I tried to keep my footing on the rock and root strewn descents. Further and further down the course I ran, and greater and greater the pain built in my feet as I ran towards the forest floor, losing the strength and stability that begin at my feet and move into my legs. With each step I felt the pain in my feet more than the rock and roots on the trail, causing me to roll my ankle a couple times with the lack of “feel” on the singletrack. That certainly didn’t add to my enjoyable experience.

At this point a couple things happened. I suddenly found myself entirely alone. I couldn’t see the backs of any runners in front of me, nor were any in ear shot behind me. I looked back frequently for any potential passers, but I was really in the middle ground between the leaders and the larger group a ways back, our paces probably holding us like this all the way to the finish. And I was left with my thoughts, debating the desire to run the entire half or cut the run short and take my place in the 10 mile standings.

On that emotional roller coaster that was the undulating course, I found my resolve waxing and waning with the topography, deciding on the climbs that,

“Oh yeah. I’m done at 10. This just isn’t enjoyable anymore. My feet hurt and I need to play it safe.”

Then beginning the descents and realizing,

“Oh man, this is fun! It’s just the climbs that are wearing on me. I can do 13.1! Let’s do that!”

Over and over again. “Oh hell no.” to “Oh hell yes!” and back again.

At some point though, even on the flats and descents, my mind stopped talking to me and my feet took up the dialogue.

“Dude, this doesn’t feel good. And the more you run, the more we hurt. And the more we hurt, the less stability you have, and the greater chance of you rolling your ankle…badly. Just cut it at 10.”

I did try to give a little pushback, remembering the promises I verbalized to run a full 13.1, but also remembering my promises of just enjoying the run…and as the trail continued to wind through the woods, the enjoyment continued to decrease. If there is any fundamental component to my running that I refuse to compromise on, it’s the enjoyment, even in the inevitable suffering, the exploded heart rate, the compromised efforts, the problematic weather, the drudge of routine…I always keep sight of the fundamental enjoyment of the act, so when things got so out of control that I couldn’t even enjoy the run, I decided to call it.

I was on the last mile or so of the course and ran with a new sense of intensity, knowing that I was completely ok with stopping at 10 miles and retaining as much enjoyment of the experience as I possibly could. I began passing some of the 5k runners that met up with our course and picked my way over more roots and rocks until I finally spit out onto the road that would bring me to the finish line. I was relieved, for sure, and didn’t harbor any frustration at not completing the full 13.1. I kept my consistent pace all the way to the finish line, amusingly finishing 3rd in the 10 mile and 2nd male overall…you know…if we’re keeping track.

And that was that. My first race back. Admittedly, I would have liked things to go much differently as far as my ability to push through consistently. Even if I would have had to stop at 10 or continue to let other runners pass me the entire race, I just wanted to hold onto some sense of effort and strength, which didn’t happen this time out. This time.

And “this time” brings me to my next consideration, which is, what next?

I just don’t know right now. I signed up for the Tecumseh marathon, but this “test race” really puts my resolve to run that race in jeopardy, primarily because it too is just a few days after an infusion and I can’t imagine running 26.2 trail miles with the same symptoms I experienced this time around. That fatigue was one thing, but the pain in my feet was something entirely different. I just don’t think I could sift out the needed enjoyment and emotional strength to pull through the entire course. I’d be more encouraged if it was held during an “off week” for me, but it’s not…so it sits on my race calendar very precariously right now.

It’s the day after the race and I’m STILL feeling the effects of chemo pretty pronounced, convincing me to keep to this rest day and not make any plans further out until all this passes. This is really hard right now, wanting to keep pushing myself, but having treatment push me right back, as if my body is fighting against me while I try to help it get stronger and stronger. I don’t know at which point cancer treatment becomes stronger than my attempts to overcome it. That’s a hill I just don’t want to think about climbing right now.

And for now, I’ll leave it at that. I’m glad to have run the Knobstone Mini with my teammates and experience this sort of effort so soon after treatment to at least get an understanding of what to expect….and now consider what I can do to climb over this new peak of cancer mountain.

The First Race Back aka Bad Ideas Are The Best Ideas

The email popped up in my inbox.

“Knobstone Trail Half-Marathon”, it read. My inner dialogue responded, “Yeah! Let’s do that!”.

But quickly reality chimed in, “That’s a bad idea. You know Knobstone is hard. You’re leg isn’t healthy. You’ve had a full week of not running waiting for it to heal….and it’s the Saturday after your next infusion.”

Left alone with my own thoughts, reality won out. I decided to NOT sign up.

Then another message popped up on my Facebook account, this time from a teammate. I paraphrase, “Hey man, I’m doing Knobstone. If you come along, I’ll pay your entry fee. Just let me know.” And before I could really think through the same obstacles that kept me from signing up on my own, I had non-verbally committed…because…well..it seemed like a good thing to do! Despite all the bad reasons that stood in my way, I figured it was a good short-term goal to help me overcome those obstacles in the immediate sense. Bad ideas be damned…I was going to turn this into the best idea.

After a deep tissue massage by a friend and a week off of running, I went out for 4 miles on Monday. A little tightness persisted, but the aggravation didn’t get out of control. Then came Tuesday, my 7th of 12 scheduled infusions. I woke up at 4:45 and began my new ritual of riding my bike trainer for an hour prior to the infusion, unscientifically trying to determine if it makes me feel better or worse for wear after I’m flooded with toxic chemicals. It at least invigorates me first thing in the morning and keeps me more alert for all the poking and prodding I get upon examination.

I headed to the office for the infusion and the meeting with my oncologist to get the latest news from the last CT Scan. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting good news. I’ve been having issues with my abdominal area along with weird digestive issues that are remeniscint of what I was feeling just before diagnosis. In short, I was worried the mucin had multiplied and was beginning to crowd my abdominal cavity again, making small tasks like eating increasingly problematic. But, well, the scan read pretty much the same as the last time….which I’ll try to explain to you here.

Basically, the cancer inside me is not growing…nor is it shrinking, meaning I’m remaining nuetral. To the oncologist, this is a positive sign. It means that in SOME WAY I’m responding to the chemotherapy treatments, which it was alluded to at the last meeting that most people in my situation DON’T respond to the chemo. So…that’s good. And I’m told, “You’re not normal. Just keep doing what you’re doing”, which is exactly what I was doing pre-diagnosis. Eating well, living well, running, staying active, staying intense. Just…living my life.

On the other hand, staying nuetral is only good for so long. It’s good for NOW. But what does it mean down the line, say, after the 12th treatment? If the cancer has STILL not shrunk by that time, does that mean the inevitable “curing” surgery is held off…and then what? That question still lingers.

On the other OTHER hand (I got a lot of hands), I’m responding VERY well to the chemo treatments (knock on wood), and so my oncologist is not going to “tone down” the dosage. For a lot of cancer patients, their overall quality of life begins to wane under the pressures of chemo side effects as the accumulation develops and so the dosages are scaled back, but that means the cancer then has a greater potential to GROW! Umm…no thanks. Dose me up. And that’s the good news in my situation, that because I’m having minimal problems with cancer side effects, they are able to continue supplying me with the complete dose and so the chance of shrinking the cancer remains the same. That’s an undeniable positive.

However, those concerns about side effects don’t disappear…which brings me to this upcoming race.

After getting home from the infusion I got back on my bike trainer for another hour to sweat out the discomfort and overall gross feeling that comes with a flooding of toxins. As the day wore on, I still felt pretty good and figured with the trail half on my schedule that I could stand to go to the gym for some lifting in lieu of trying to run (I never run on infusion days), and that also went well. Oddly well. I simply was not feeling as worn down and gross as I normally do the day of an infusion. Because of this encouragement, I felt going out for my scheduled run the next day was a good idea…but I was concerned. I was concerned because those side effects were going to have accumulated again, and this time I was going to be battling a severe drop in temperature, which has me more concerned about not being able to run this race (or any upcoming races) more than anything else.

One of the immediate side effects of my infusion drugs is an extreme sensitivity to cold. If my arms so much as get chilled, I have an intense feeling of “pins and needles” or electrical shocks throughout my hands. It gets to the point that I literally can’t use my hands for anything. I can’t hold onto my bike handlebars, unzip a coat, hold a pot, etc. It’s impossible until I warm back up. So that was my first concern..staying warm. This cold sensitivity, however, also affects my ability to ingest cold food or drink. I can’t so much as drink room temperature water without having a painful scraping feeling run down my mouth, or the sensation that my lips have frozen and hardened into a painful cracking sheet of ice. It’s absolutely surreal, and so for the week or two after na infusion I have to ingest only warm foods.

So in relation to running, I was concerned about breathing in the cold air. I can deal with running through pins and needles in my hands, but cold air potentially freezing the insides of my mouth and scraping down my throat is a run killer. There is no working through that and with the morning temperatures threatening in the 30s…this was going to be interesting. But there was only one way to find out how it was going to work.

I left the gym wearing tights (first of the season!), gloves, arm warmers, a long sleeve, and a windbreaker. My first steps were tentative…but then…I don’t know…it was weird.

I was running like I used to run. Before I was diagnosed. Before I had any nagging injuries. Before my legs were heavy with effort. I don’t exactly know why it was different…but it was. I was light on my feet, strong, smooth, effortless. And my hands didn’t have pins and needles in them. I have no idea what happened that morning, but everything came together….until I hit the cold wind. Then I felt the side effects.

My hands felt a little bit of electrical shock, but nothing that was worrisome. The bigger concern was my face. Suddenly it felt like I was stung on my ear, or as if someone had held an ice cube to it for a painfully long time. Then the feeling spread to my cheeks, my chin, my nose, until my whole face felt like it was freezing up into a mask of ice that might just crack off and come shattering to the ground. But it didn’t. It just felt…weird. Really weird. And I can run through weird. Even if that weird is mildly painful.

Then I felt the distinct sensation of the inside of my mouth freezing up, which gave me pause and had me considering if I should turn back, but then just as quickly it went away. The warmth of my breath seems to hold back the pain of cold sensitivity and I can apparently manage through that too.

And just like that, I had tested the boundaries once again, met them head on, and ran through them. It was that simple. I didn’t back down from the fear that these side-effects were not worth risking…but instead decided that the reward of running would be much greater should they prove to not be so, well, problematic. And from that point on the run continued absolutely stellar. My legs stay strong and smooth and I ran through those 6 miles like I was in taper mode leading up to a marathon.

This morning was much of the same. The legs were a little heavier than the day prior, and the side effects were all the same, this time the pins and needles consuming any exposed part of my face….but I was still able to keep running, all 8 miles. And tomorrow is 10. And Saturday is…well…MY FIRST RACE BACK.

Sort of. Let’s not romanticize this. There will be minimal “racing”. I’m just running this to finish. I’m just running in the race environment, to push myself, to run past the perceived obstacles of cancer and keep to the life I had before diagnosis. That’s all I want.

I could go on. I could go on about the 6 month recovery time I was told I would have to endure after surgery back in April. I could go on about how fortunate I feel to be able to do what I’m doing when others can barely get out of bed. I could go on about the example I want to set for others. I could go on….but….I’ll just leave it there. I’ll just plainly state that this Saturday I’m going to run a race, in the face of cancer treatment…and it’s going to be my first race back.

I don’t know what may lie past the finish line of Knobstone, but I do know I’m at least making it to the start….and that’s huge for me.

I’m going to do my best to turn this bad idea into the best idea.

I want to live

I want to live. I want to live. I want to live.

If I say it three times, it comes true…right? Or wait, does that only work when summoning the undead? Anyways….

I’ve had a shift in perception lately, and an accompanied almost visceral yearning. Before, I had taken the time to really consider what it is to die and coming to terms with not wanting to die, but accepting it no less. Admittedly, I had faced down this consideration a long time ago. I specifically remember going through an intense period of thought and worry as I navigated the many facets of dying and death, ultimately coming out the other side in the light of acceptance. I had become OK with the idea of death.

Of course, in light of recent events, the consideration came back to the forefront of my thought process, out of desperate necessity. This isn’t to say I’m constantly facing down my mortality, living in some state of frozen morbidity, but seeing as how the potential is much closer than it ever has been, there’s no escaping addressing it yet again in a much more tangible way.

And so I found myself revisiting my ideas on dying and death, remaining ok with the finality of it all and finding peace in the perception. But then I transitioned to LIVING.

And that hit me hard. I want to live. I WANT TO LIVE. I have SO MUCH MORE I want to do, and so it’s no longer a matter of NOT DYING, but hoping to LIVE again. I don’t know how to convey the emotional intensity that arose in me when I had this perception shift. I will say, it was probably brought forth from all the amazing experiences I’ve been having in the past couple months. Life has been pretty great and I’ve been taking advantage of every available opportunity. Believe me, there are very unique experiences of living that can really only take place as the sky lights red just as the sun breaks the horizon…and you go shooting down the trail and deep into the woods.

I don’t want it to stop.

I’m looking past cancer and hoping beyond hope that I can start living again, embracing the intense yearning to do just that, to keep building upon these experiences with greater and greater accomplishments. I’m not done chasing my marathon PR. I’m not done seeking out greater running distances. I want to watch my son experience his own brand of emotional intensity. I want to be there to comfort him in his trying times with reassurance from my own youthful struggles. I want to feel love again.

And I want to get back to that “normal” baseline. I want to never worry about chemotherapy side effects, hiding from the cold, watching the skin fall from my feet, ducking from the sun, tempering my running, fighting against compromised lungs…just…never feeling right. I don’t want this to be my “new normal”.

I want to live again. Desperately. I want to be done with cancer and get back to everything I was building upon before all this hit.

I just don’t care about dying anymore. I’ve come to terms with that….but the awareness that I might possibly not LIVE again is something else. The yearning lights a fire in me that burns at nothing and goes out as the timeline of this experience stretches on. And..it just hurts. It really does. It hurts that I even have to face this new reality, this compromised existence. That’s not how I work. I’m all or nothing.

I fight each day to make the most of it, to live as greatly as I can against a wall of treatment and precarious physical stability…and I don’t take it for granted. I feel greatly fortunate that I can do what I’m currently doing…but I’ve also tasted the other life, the greater, freer existence…and you can’t unforget that. You can’t unexperience it. Again, it hurts. I need to feel that so badly that it emotionally hurts and I can only alleviate that pain by taking in little bursts of that future life I need to get back to.

All I can do right now is keep that idea close, but not too close. I can see it, but I try not to hold it too tightly.

Fuck dying…I want to live. I want to live. I want to live.

Out Running, Cancer.

I would like to say that I’m outrunning cancer….in the physical sense. But that’s not true. There is no evidence or study to really draw from, to determine that strenuous physical activity actually helps kill cancer. On the other hand, there isn’t the converse either. But that’s not what this post is about.

I do outrun cancer, mentally.

I have had the privilege of using my parents car while they’ve been out of town for the past two weeks and I’ve taken full advantage of that privilege to get down south and run the trails that are my second home, my cathartic escape from the abstract construct of our world, my heart even. They are where I feel most content, calmed. Which is funny, since they take a great amount of effort to surmount and do no small amount of damage on my legs from all the climbing and descending. No matter, the post-run calm is unparalleled. The experience is always the same too. I can count on the trails, rely on them to give me the escape that I need, the difficulty to hone my concentration and the finish to provide the relief.

These past two weeks of trail running, it has also dawned on me that the amount of concentration it takes to battle the endless singletrack, to reach for that precious relief, gives me no time to think about my cancer. I don’t run thinking about upcoming infusions, the specter of dying that always lies beneath me, or the degenerative process that is taking place inside me…even while I’m out there running. Cancer simply doesn’t exist when I’m running.

Sure, I can will myself to think about it, but even when I do it’s awkward. People that have cancer aren’t supposed to be running as far and as fast I am in that moment. We aren’t supposed to run without feeling even a twinge of the process, a small piece of the dying. Right? I mean…right?

But there I am, fighting my way up the switchbacks of Hesitation Point, pushing me knees toward my chest as I leap over the rocks intersecting the path, laboring my breathing to a controlled exhaustion….and somewhere in me is cancer. But I don’t feel it. I don’t even acknowledge it. When I’m out running I’m thinking of two things. Running. And food.

That’s usually it.

I’m thinking of how great it feels to be running, about a race I’ve signed up for, about an imaginary competitive scenario where I break the tape triumphantly, about..just…about running. It’s like my inner dialogue is somehow fused to the trail beneath my feet and I’m no longer separated from the complete environment around me. The forest doesn’t have cancer. The deer bounding and crashing through the brush don’t have cancer. The chipmunks flashing across my path don’t have cancer. The dirt, the plants, the decaying trees, the birdsong…they don’t have cancer. So somehow, when I’m out running, neither do I. I’m just a part of that distinct world that lies deep in the forest of Brown County.

Don’t think I’m being exaggerated or hyperbolic about this. Ask any trail runner. They’ll tell you what it’s like. It’s an entirely different EXPERIENCE, so distinct, so cathartic, that every stress and strain falls away as soon as you begin concentrating on where to put your first steps, and then every step that follows. There is no room for worries about work, about relationships, about dying and disease. There is only the trail and what it takes to complete the run.

So, forgive me when I take every opportunity available to get into the woods and onto the trails, whether that is after my less than encouraging CT scan, whether it is after a few weeks of accumulating concern, whether it is a spontaneous urge conjured up just before falling asleep…because I’m going to outrun cancer. I’m entering that canopy of leaves, those towers of skyward trunks and the white noise of communicating creatures to get rid of my cancer, even if it’s only for an hour, an hour and a half, two hours. However long I’m in there, no matter how reset and relieved I feel when I’m back to the car and the world comes crashing back in, at least for the time my feet crossed each other on the trail, my lungs and heart beat back and forth….cancer didn’t exist. It didn’t exist in my head and so it didn’t exist in my body.

I can’t describe how important it is to feel that, at least temporarily. To feel life without the sword precariously dangling above, always. To just feel normal again.

Again, pardon me for my excesses and freedoms right now, because I’m going back to the trails…as often as I possibly can. I’ve got unfettered living to do and certain unmentionables to outrun. Meet me at the trailhead.

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With all this in mind…I’ve been filming Run Journals for my Legs & Lungs project. You can see the first two videos and come running with me, sort of, at the following:

https://vimeo.com/legsandlungs/videos

The Broken Pendulum

“How are you feeling?”, they ask quite often lately.

I visibly squirm while searching for the most honest answer, tip toeing on the line between encouraging positivity and the frustrating reality that is my physical deterioration. What do you MEAN by “FEELING”, goes the dialogue in my head. Are we talking about physically? Are we talking emotionally?

Either way, I could answer as positively as I could negatively, and in that I don’t know where to go…or how to best answer.

I don’t want to be a downer or seem as if I’m playing a dying card for sympathy or self-loathing, but I don’t wanna gloss over the reality of cancer with some campaign slogan about “fighting back” or “staying strong” either. In reality, everything is everything. The emotional and physical pendulum seems to have split down the middle and simultaneously swung to either side…then got stuck at their mutual crests.

To help answer that question though.

I’m awesome. Fantastically awesome. I’m running. I’m riding. I’m taking inspired trips to the trails down south and running for an hour and a half, an hour and forty minutes just as soon as the sun breaks the horizon. I’m strong and getting stronger, building callouses on my deteriorated feet where blisters once hobbled me. I’m running longer and longer, with more to keep going. I’m motivated, inspired and encouraged, relaunching my “campaign of mutual inspiration” through Legs & Lungs, on a creative tear with graphic design, video creations and ideas that are pouring out of me faster than I can keep up. I’m more and more confident in my daily responsibilities that I feel my pre-cancer abilities are back to the fullest extent. I just….I’m just awesome, excited about life…and even debating running a marathon. Yes, I’m THAT awesome.

And yet,

I’m scared all the same. I’ve added more mileage to my running routines, but wake up without the hunger that used to follow such a noted increase in exertion. In fact, I’m not hungry much at all and when I am it takes very little to fill me up, often leaving me with that distinct feeling of discomfort as the food digests and works its way through my intestines, causing me to pause and cringe as it binds up, becomes blocked and forces its way through my body. And that scares me, because after a second look at my last CT scan by some doctors up North, they confirmed the lack of cancer regression and the continued presence of the mucin pushing against my pancreas. What scares me though, is the possibility that the mucin might be accumulating again, slowly filling my abdomen again and cutting off my ability to eat normal portions of food or do so without complication and pain. Last time everything shut down within days and I was left relatively incapacitated until the surgery date was scheduled. So yeah, even not addressing all the continued issues related to chemotherapy treatments, I’m not doing awesome at all. In fact, I’m really worried. REALLY worried.

To temper my concern though, I don’t ACTUALLY know what’s going on inside me right now and I don’t mean to be unnecessarily alarmist. My next CT scan is coming up and I SHOULD know the results at my next chemo treatment, which will clarify my concern one way or another (I hope), but all these problems I’m having might still be related to chemo accumulation and as weird as it is to say…I hope it is. Cancer is, if anything, an appreciation of the lesser of two evils. “I hope it’s not THAT kind of cancer.” “I hope it’s the problems associated with chemo and not cancer.” Weird things to hope for, huh?

So yeah, I’m really worried that my body is slowly reverting back to the state it was just before diagnosis and I’m watching the pendulum viciously swing to THAT side of the median, but then I’m also in the process of building my life back to when I felt the strongest, and although I have a long way to go to still, I’m heading in the right direction…and the pendulum breaks free and swings back.

As the individual in the center of these polar opposites, I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know if I’m good. I don’t know if I’m bad. I don’t know where to place my efforts, where to concentrate my emotional energies, where to even begin. I’m just doing what comes to me day after day and waiting for more clinical checkups to help give me more information to work from, because right now the signs I’m getting are fundamentally opposed…and I’m not good working from this point. I need a LITTLE more guidance.

So yeah, I’m sorry if, when you ask me how I’m doing, I shuffle and stutter in my response. I wish I could give you a more definitive answer, but I’ve come to learn that cancer doesn’t offer much in the way of being cut and dry. There are far too many unknowns and the only thing you can be sure of is that everything will shift and change frequently, leave you confused and wavering, and ultimately just play itself out on its own terms….we’re mostly just along for the ride.

So how am I? I don’t know…you’re going to have to be more specific. Ask me after lunch and I’ll tell you one thing. Ask me on the trails and I’ll tell you another. And until I’m given more to work from….this is the best I can do.

Ragnar Recaps and Vegan Recipes

I have some topics I need to get down here…but I need to mentally/emotionally reset before I start writing.

In the meantime, check out these posts from some of my Strong Hearts teammates.

http://laurajkline.com/2013/10/08/i-couldnt-have-said-it-better/

http://laurajkline.com/2013/10/04/13-vegans-2-vans/

http://veganheartbeats.com