Let me first say that I’m taken back that I’m even writing a race report today. I was initially planning on cheering Laura during her first Indy race event, but as my physical abilities remained somewhat consistent, despite always compromised, we were able to get in a handful of days of outdoor running…leading me to sign up the day before the race. So no matter how things went today, it was going to be awesome regardless…and I’m psyched just to write this.
Cancer or no Cancer, competing or just running, race morning is always the same. The night prior I woke in the middle of the night, hungry and restless, followed by sleep further disturbed with anxiety dreams that involved missing the race start because I had forgot my shoes! Upon waking, however, everything continued as planned. Coffee was consumed and bathroom stops were plenty. Admittedly, the only thing missing were the prior days of stomach butterflies and race line jitters that usually have me on the edge of adrenaline overload. I was more concerned with how my heart rate would feel during the touch of effort and, more so, how my feet were going to hold up with each successive mile.
The night before the race I was doubting my decision to register and feared what the Hand & Foot syndrome would have done to my feet overnight by morning. Add to that concern some very real, albeit small, blisters, and my only goal for the race was to finish. But…of course…the fire doesn’t die. So, internally, I had given myself the HOPE that I could run the distance (5 miles) under 7:00 minute miles. That seemed fair and a little reaching considering how LITTLE running I had done prior to the race, how my feet felt on the start line, and how difficult it was to hit that time on just normal “training” runs. Still…ya gotta have a goal or two, right?
Instinctually, I started going through the pre-race motions, because I really didn’t know what else to do to pass the time. Just stand there? That’s weird. I did some warm ups, dynamic stretching, a few run outs and just hopped around until the countdown began. It felt a little weird being suited up to race after openly stating that I was just going for a little faster run than normal. But once a racer… Plus, it just FELT right. It’s been so long that I’ve had the opportunity to be a competitive runner, so at the very least, it just felt good to pretend I was my old self again.
A few minutes later the race was about to start. I gave good luck to Laura, turned toward the course and waited as the countdown began from 10. At “One!” I pushed into the course along with the line of elites and teammates standing next to me, all filing into our respective places in relation to our pacing. Surprisingly, I felt strong and relaxed into the straight and my heart rate stayed subdued as we took the first turn towards the city center.
Moving down the road I was tucked back in a line of fast, competitive runners, two of which passed me immediately, my breathing slightly labored and my feet tenderly hitting the ground sending expected bursts of discomfort through my senses. The initial adrenaline moved me forward at a pace I seriously doubted I could hold and subdued the foot pain that would inevitably grow with each passing mile. Turning up the rail-trail we stayed in formation, no one moving ahead and no one coming from behind…surprisingly. I expected to get rolled by a group of conservative starters, but was somewhat relieved when the disheartening herd never showed. Just then I looked up to see the 1 mile marker.
I hit my watch. 6:11 pace. “Oh man. That’s good…probably too good.” I thought to myself, remembering that I just wanted to stay under 7 minute pace as a general goal. This was ambitious considering my physical state and considerable LACK of training. As in no training. As in just a handful of encouraging, outdoor runs. But by then, the rhythm had been set and I had to keep in time with the metronome of my ambitions until I fell out of sync and everything fell apart. I just hoped it would happen at the end of the race and not any sooner.
Just as we turned onto another road past the 1 mile marker a familiar faced runner turned to me and said,
“You’re Scott, right?”
“Yeah.” I squeezed out in between breaths.
“Hey, great to see you out here man.”
“Thanks….I really…appreciate that.” I replied with as much genuine tone as I could muster in my winded state. I thought about making a self-debasing statement, about how it didn’t FEEL so great…but figured I should save my breath.
We moved down the road, which started to undulate a little bit, a female runner just a few seconds ahead and no one coming from behind. On the inclines I was surprised to find a little strength in my legs and made up some ground on the female runner, who inadvertently pulled me along and kept me reaching for more ground. We continued on in the course and my breathing remained labored, as if I was nearing the end of a speed workout when all systems are becoming taxed, but never got too out of control…which surprised me.
Our positions stayed the same as we ran down an on-ramp decline and onto a slowly rising three lane road. I tried to make up more ground on the female runner ahead of me, but started to really feel the weakness in my legs, as if they couldn’t be lifted much higher and were unable to bound me off the ground with each stride. I was consoled, however, when a younger, more ambitious runner who went out too fast at the start was dying hard at about the halfway point, quickly falling back as I ran by him on the off-ramp incline.
We crested the incline and turned towards the switchback that would bring us back into town down a long finishing straight. I missed the second and third mile markers, but was running on physical abilities, not per mile goal paces, anyways. Passing the third mile I really started to feel the strain of my training deficit, struggling to keep my breathing under control, fighting against the weakness in my legs, and compensating my stride for the increasing pain filling in my shoes. This sort of pain isn’t the kind that diminishes over time, but is actually aggravated and increased by friction, meaning each mile was only going to get worse. Add wafer thin racing flats to the mix and I knew I was just trying to get to the finish before the pain broke down my resolve to run as hard as I could.
By this point the female runner had moved even further away and I found myself staring down another runners back after the last switchback before mile 4. But there it was, the mile 4 banner waving a message of relief to me, knowing the next 7(?) minutes would pass rather quickly with anticipation of the finish. I was winded, struggling to control lungs filled with the pain of exertion. My feet hurt from the constant rubbing and repetitive slapping. My legs were just swinging with muscle memory by this point…but there was a runner ahead of me and I couldn’t help but wonder if I could catch him before the finish. We ate up the ground towards the finish and reached the final block surprisingly quickly, unfortunately, the draw of the finish line spurned him on as well and he moved slightly away from me the closer we got to the line. No matter, the relief of my race ending was just ahead.
I crossed the line, hit my watch and stumbled forward to the finishing chute, suddenly fighting back a surging in my throat. I couldn’t slow down my breathing quick enough and another surge came forward as I put my hands on my knees. And then another. A volunteer called over to me.
“Scott…do you…need anything?”
I sat down and waved her off, “No…I just need a second. Thanks.”
My heart rate finally dropped to a manageable degree and the near wretching subsided. I don’t know if the dry heaving came from a long ignored level of exertion or the crowding in my stomach from cancer, but at least I know I couldn’t have run any faster than I did. That was satisfying in it’s own sort of way.
After finding a moment to relax I checked my watch. 31:34 for a pace per mile of 6:21. WELL under the arbitrary 7:00 I set for myself. I was suddenly more than just pleased…I was pretty damn excited….considering, well, everything. I later found out that was good for 23rd place and 3rd in my age group. I’ll also assume that was first in the non-existent “cancer group”.
The fire grew stronger today, much stronger. And it wasn’t even just my finishing time. The opportunity and ability to put my racing singlet back on, to tie my racing flats (but not too tight!), and to go through the motions of a competitive runner again proved to be a lot more important to me than I realized in the moment. Granted, a 6:21 pace used to be my easy run pace…but as I always say, “it’s all relative” and right now everything is EXTREMELY relative in the face of cancer.
Even more, today’s race was like taking back a little moment that was lost from me when I was forced to miss these races last year. This was the first race that my cancer diagnosis forced me to watch from the sidelines, cheer on my teammates and fight back the competitive urge that consumed me all morning. It’s been just over a year since diagnosis and so to be able to be back and running (even just for this race), despite my continued treatments and unresolved “cure”, is pretty huge for me. To me, it was something of a physical expression that I haven’t just thrown out running, that I haven’t let cancer remove that part of me or remove that act from my life. That fire still burns.
Then finally, to be able to hang out with my teammates, to talk about our race performances, to joke with each other, to scream in our other teammates still on the course…to be able to share my OWN performance thoughts instead of just hanging around in solidarity was the best feeling all morning. It felt immeasurably great to give my coach a quick rundown after the race, and to just BE a part of the team again. That, above all, was my greatest reward today. And that grew my fire even more.
Everything is still so precarious at this point that I make no assumptions on what is to come…but for now, I’m going to hold onto this moment and see what lies ahead while I live through the months leading to my surgery. I hope to be able to offer at least one more race report.
More fire. Always. More fire.
(PS – this was Laura’s first attempt at the 8k distance and her first Indy race as well. She ran well under her expected abilities and it’s safe to say her own fire grew a little more today too. It was awesome being able to share our experiences together and I look forward to plenty more of those.)