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.