Cancer or no cancer, when I’m out running in a public area the often whispered, sometimes yelled, reactions are the same. I come up behind a couple or group of runners plodding along at their respective pace and as I run by I’ll hear an abrupt break in the conversation or a quick statement followed by either a laugh or affirmation. I take them all as compliments. It’s as surprising as it is encouraging at this point considering I’m running past them at a compromised 6:30 or 7:00 pace, where I used to easily flow down the trail around 6:00 pace (much to my coach’s frustration). Still, relative is relative. In the past I let the comments come and moved on without further consideration, but now, it’s harder. There is a part inside that wants to stop, turn around and calmly say,
“Yeah…and would you believe I’ve got cancer?”
Then turn and keep going. Now…I know this comes off as arrogant and mildly confrontational, but that’s not how I mean it at all. What I want to do is take the opportunity to give voice to another way of living, to show that disease isn’t always a death sentence, that even through so much struggle and adversity we can be more than we’re told. Because the perceptions I’ve seen given to the public (and back to me) is the withering, bald, bone thin (ok…I’m probably not too far from that…but not from disease) patient with a 10 yard stare. I’m not that.
I’m the runner dying (literally?) to get back to running. I’m the guy that, unless you look really closely, can’t tell is suffering from both a disease and a cure. And I’m not the only one. Not by far.
With that said, however, I do struggle. As I run by, you might see a runner’s physique and a pace that belies any physical restriction, but what you don’t see is the increasing pain building at the bottom of my feet and the inadvertent “marathon face” spreading as I wince from the sensation. You might look past the piece of plastic protruding from my chest where they plug in the IV to drip toxic chemicals into my body every few weeks. You might not see the scar bisecting my abdomen in two…the first of at least one more. You won’t see the dry, cracking creases of my fingers or blisters on my toes. You also won’t see me lying down on the bed at home after the run, the motivation lost to put more pressure on my worn feet just to get up and brush my teeth. You won’t see me wince in pain as food and drink struggles to push past the cancer mass as they move through my intestines. There is a lot you won’t see in me…and so many others facing disease.
But you WILL see me running down the path, winding through the trail, cresting the hill with suffering lungs and strengthening legs. And that’s ok with me…because that is STILL just as much a part of my current reality as the setbacks are, and that’s cause for celebration. I’m not free to run without restraint, but I’m also not bed-ridden and holding on by a thread.
In fact, the past couple weeks have been great for running. I’ve put in a significant amount of miles after being constrained by side-effects for so long and i’ve been able to build more and more strength and endurance, so that I can still manage to illicit those broken conversation responses when I run by, and I can manage the frustrations of my circumstance through the successes of my physical abilities. At times, when I let my mind wander, I feel so close to my past self that I forget about cancer and run with the emotional freedom I once had, where I’m running for progression, and running for the sake of running.
But sometimes…it’s different. There is another motivation that pushes me on.
Laura and I drove to Brown County to do some trail running after a recovery day off, rested and ready despite this being the end of my pill week where the side effects build and I worry about walking around the house let alone putting continuous pounding on my feet. Regardless, I woke up ready to go and knew I could put in at least 30 minutes of running on the trails…hopefully more. We made it to the trailhead under overcast, but dry, skies, and I stripped down to the bare minimum (shorts, socks and shoes), hit my watch and bounded into the woods away from the trailhead. I felt smooth, strong…the word “swift” came into my consciousness, and aptly described the experience. I was swift, moving through the trails lightly, deftly avoiding the turtles as they moved onto the open, groomed dirt. My legs were not heavy, my breathing in control. THIS is the trail running I know, where I feel I can run all day, forever, my mind as excited as my body. But I knew this would change…no matter, I was holding onto this sensation for as deep into the woods and the run as I could go.
Further and further I ran until suddenly I was close to my 30 minute turnaround, tempting the fates of my increasing physical pain. I spun a 180 at 30:00 on the dot and kept pace back the way I came, when suddenly the skies gave up and started raining down on the canopy of leaves above. They let go more and more and it started raining, coming close to pouring, but the temperature was so warm that it kicked my adrenaline higher and I was running over and around puddles like a child, barely caring about the effort…just having a pure fun I haven’t felt in so long. I continued moving, dancing around puddles, leaping over slick rocks, and feeling connected to the trail as I always have in the past…but then the pain built.
I felt my face grimacing with the effort and my lungs pounding to the breaking point as I crested the inclines, and although I was still feeling the joy and empowerment of the effort, the new motivation began rising to the top….the motivation that has encompassed my other runs as the effort gets harder and harder, weakening my legs, weighing down upon my lungs, whispering me to back off…and I respond…
“Run for your life.”
I keep going. I don’t let the strain and the struggle wear me down, because the stakes are higher now…there is so much more on the line. I’m don’t feel like I’m just running for a new PR, a podium placement at a goal race, an goal and accomplishment strategically out of reach…now I feel like I’m running for my life. I have no evidence or studies showing my running is helping me keep cancer at bay (in concert with my treatments), but I have to believe it’s not hurting. And further more, with the second HIPEC surgery looming just a few months out, EVERY SINGLE RUN is an attempt to get stronger and stronger, to make sure I’m as healthy as I can possibly be when I enter into that world of hurt and am relegated to the hospital bed, immobile, filled with poison, for days…weeks…months even. When I’m out there suffering against my side effects or pushing the limits of my legs and lungs, I think about how every tiny muscles, every extra red blood cell is only going to aid me in getting past the destruction of surgery and back to running as soon as possible, always with the hope that I’m doing so cancer-free, or at least that much closer to being cancer-free. I deeply and genuinely feel that when I’m out running…I’m running for my life. The threat being real, proven, and almost immediate. It adds an intensity to my running I haven’t felt before, a new motivation bordering on desperation.
I pushed through the last 15 minutes of my trail run, still feeling amazing and “swift”, in my state of trail running euphoria, but also with the fear of surgery pushing me from behind when I wanted to back off and give my intensely pained feet a rest. That comfortable place in my emotional cocoon, running through the forest, where I simply don’t have cancer….was replaced with the physical struggle reminding me that I do, very much, still have cancer, and that I was very much running for my life.
If that is the motivation that carries me past my surgery, then so be it.
But I imagine my running life back to normal, back to the days when motivations were measurable and abilities were unrestricted, as I broke conversations when I ran past, just as I broke PR’s at the end of my races.
In a way, we all run for our lives, though I hope you are never forced to feel the immediacy of the phrase. Rather, I hope we can always run for the joy of our lives and not to simply hold onto them.