If there is one constant in the world of the diseased, it’s that nothing is constant. Nothing is predictable, for better or worse.
Leading up to this race I was tentatively excited about my running progress, being able to put in a couple weeks of pretty consistent running with only minimal issues from chemo side effects. My legs felt stronger, my lungs expanding, and although I continued to hit a wall at about mile 3 during all my runs, I could still get through the varied 6 to 8 miles. I even put in a full hour on the trails of Brown County, a running duration I had not achieved in quite some time. Still, I say everything was “tentative”, because I’m never sure what is going to happen each morning I wake up and put my feet to the cold, wood floor. Sometimes I have to stabilize myself against the wall from the pain. Other times, the blisters on my feet shoot warning shots across my path. For the past couple of weeks though, I’ve been able to hold the problems at bay…tentatively.
This time, a couple consistent weeks of running created the expected blistering I’ve come to accept as an unfortunate trade off. The two days before race morning I babied my toes with opened sandals, zero running and a building nervousness that this race might have to be endured more than enjoyed. I only hoped the pre-race adrenaline might quell the pain far into the run…so imagine my surprise when I put on my trail racing shoes at the last second, went for a precarious jog up the road and found almost no pain at the end of my feet. The blisters were there, but the rubbing was not. In concert with the ability to run freely in the moment were refreshed legs, filled with a strength and responsiveness I had not felt in some time, no doubt aided by the two days off prior. To put it succinctly, I felt far better than I ever expected.
Still…I was not out to compete. I was out to simply run the course with the hopes that building foot pain would stay manageable and I could finish with enjoyment instead of relief.
We gathered around the starting line after pre-race instructions and I tucked myself in a few rows back, admittedly, in a position I’ve never allowed myself to be. It felt awkward, but safe, and respectful to those going out to kill it. We pinched the watches on our wrists, the countdown dissipated, and with a chorus of small beeps we all pushed forward up a short rocky section of fire road that would bring us into the singletrack snaking through the forest. The top of the hill leveled out and I stayed tucked in with a larger group of runners while I watched the faster runners try to move ahead and begin stringing out into place. I wasn’t breathing hard and felt my gait restricted in a lack of effort.
“Nope…this isn’t going to work.” I thought to myself.
I immediately ran to the outside of the group and simultaneously passed about 10 bunched together runners, at the tail end of the faster runners stringing out ahead, just as we turned down a steep decline with sketchy, rutted footing. The line ahead moved into the forest like ants following the path of those in front of them while I played it safe, still unsure of my strength and fitness for this distance, securely sitting behind a couple runners with greater speed than those behind me, just as we started hitting the climbs that defined this area of the forest. It was these climbs that compelled me to play it safe.
Unlike the trail hills I’m used to running, these go quite vertical, marked only by switchbacks so steep that squared posts are burrowed into the trail as natural, makeshift steps. One doesn’t so much run these as merely pick your way up and over each, trying not to catch a toe and smash a shin into the sharp angles of the wood. The inclines quickly pulling away any quad strength and stored breath you withheld up to this point.
I worked my way up these steps, letting my lungs go and trying not to overexert my quads, pushed up against the back of a runner directly in front of me doing the same. I probably could have passed him on the climb, but wanting to rein in my ambition, I stayed at his back. We crested the incline, rolled through the woods some more, and then down a hill where he started to get away and a couple runners behind me started moving up behind. I instantly realized I was taking it very easy on the downhills in an attempt to keep from pounding the sensitive soles of my feet, in hopes that I wasn’t building increasing pain for later in the run. I simply wasn’t descending with the abandon I’m accustomed to…but that was ok. Still, when we hit the forest floor and started the next climb, I was immediately back on the runner in front of me and getting away from those behind. They were naturally faster on the descents, but as I’ve come to realize over my years of racing, I’m strong when unrestricted or faced with obstacles and adversity…such as hills. And I didn’t so much take advantage of that, as I had no other choice.
At the second portion of snaking singletrack on the forest floor I was breathing down the back of the runner in front of me…almost literally. I worried about annoying him being so close, but more just felt restricted in my gait, so although I wasn’t out to compete and trying to play it safe, I called out,
“Passing on your right.”
I made the move, got out in front of him, and with little more effort suddenly found his footfalls fading and the conversation between the runners behind me slowly drifting further and further back. I was now simply running my own race….and it was going to stay that way. Now it was just me, the course, and the distance…competing against who was going to break down first.
I continued alone through the woods, feeling relatively strong, pushing through the abbreviated breaths on the inclines and saving my legs on the descents, but taking every opportunity of relatively level trail to push ahead and keep pace and rhythm as I felt most natural, always assessing my strength and potentially increasing pain burrowed into my shoes. The pain was holding off, however, and I was bolstered by the realization.
I wasn’t in the clear though. For the first half of the course, the inclines were still marked by the strength sapping steps that forced me to pick my legs up higher than I would have liked, exerting more effort and less speed than can be defined as trail “running”. At some point, I made the decision to utilize “power hiking” as it is called. The thoughts of Anton Krupicka came to me when he described the crucial strength he saved in scaling back in effort and resorting to the seemingly unnatural tactic of bending over, putting your hands at the top of your knees and striding out up the hills. Doing so immediately puts the breath back into your lungs and saves your quads from excessive damage with little gain.
So yeah, I thought I’d try that…and it worked!
When I pushed up an incline until my breaking point, in lungs or legs, I scaled back to power hiking until I conserved enough effort to get to running again. I didn’t have to do this on every climb, but when it became a necessity, I went to it without reservation, finding an incredible relief and moving up on a string of 5k / 10k runners our course had merged into.
And with this new tactic that I have never felt compelled to utilize in the past, I was still able to keep a controlled, but relatively fast, pace through the forest, enabling me to actually enjoy the run instead of forcibly endure it. I felt the same sort of euphoria that keeps bringing me back to the woods over and over – this sort of strength, speed and emotional depth that is unparalleled anywhere else. I was, as I’ve humorously been calling it lately, “Legolas-ing” that sucker. You know, imagining flying through the forest with a swiftness and grace, maybe carrying a bow, shooting down Orcs without breaking stride…you know…LEGOLASING IT!
Anyways, I was enjoying the race, and with my strength remaining intact as I continued to move deeper into the woods, eating up distance, passing aid stations and short course runners, the thought hit me….
“Wait. There weren’t many runners in front of me when I made my moves early in the race. And there’s a good chance they are probably doing the half. So…am I WINNING the 10 miler? That would be pretty neat.”
I gave it little thought more, however, as I still wasn’t trying to compete. I wasn’t trying to stay ahead of anyone or pick off the runners ahead. I was only concerned with eating up the miles and trying to finish before the pain set in.
And it did start to set in. But not how I expected.
My feet remained solid, not building the abrasion I’m accustomed to after the repeated friction during twists and turns throughout the trail. Instead, I felt a weakening throughout my muscles. I had not run trails this hard in a long time, and although I could get away with doing so for a shortened duration, I was also trying to complete 10 miles, which I also can’t remember the last time I finished in one continuous stretch. The effort was going to take it’s toll. At first I felt my lower legs giving out as my ankles began to roll on less stable portions of trail, forcing me to concentrate more on footing and catching my form before injuring myself. Doing so brought the effort to my quads, where enough strength still remained to move me through the woods, but the succession of downhills and inclines began doing their damage as well, ever so slowly building a weakness…leaving me with little except the relief of a finish line.
Without mile markers along the course, I had no idea if I was outrunning the building weakness, still unsure if I was going to beat the course or the course and distance was going to beat me. Then I heard sounds on the trail, like talking…or singing, only to come running by a discretely placed speaker yelling out the lyrics to “What does the fox say?”, but not in earshot of the finish line PA system. I still didn’t know how close I was to the finish, but estimated I had about 3 miles to go.
Just then I popped up to an aid station where my running friends Scott Breeden and Becky Boyle stood, cheering on friends. Breeden yelled out as I ran by, “1 mile left!”, and I was stunned. So much that I yelled back,
“Shit! Really? Hell yeah! Thanks!” and continued on with equal parts relief and excitement, allowing myself the satisfaction of extra effort to the finish despite my fully weakened lower half. I knew then I was going to win this race…not in placement…but in effort, in overcoming my compromised strength and getting through a distance I wasn’t sure my body was going to endure. I passed the final group of onlookers standing at the junction for the 10 milers and the half-marathoners, pounded down an unforgiving asphalt road and up into the makeshift finishing chute, pinching my watch one last time to complete the run. 1:18:00 flat.
Ultimately, I discovered I DID win the 10 miler, which, I won’t lie, was an encouraging realization…a little icing on the cake, but didn’t mean a whole lot to me really. I was there to test myself, to see what has happened to my body since feeling a little more consistent in my running, and to push against the always prevalent side effects I continue to endure. So, the real accomplishment and satisfaction for me wasn’t that I finished the race, but that I finished it with enthusiasm, with a relief from the effort, not the pain…that I regained another moment of my previous life by running with an effort (seemingly) almost devoid of cancer and chemo. I don’t know, it’s hard to describe. I just felt more myself again. Less like a charity case, a pity party, an “inspiration”…but just a strong, swift runner. In that moment, I won.
I need to give special mention to Robert Gee who, out of the blue, offered to pay for my entry into this race. I didn’t even give it thought to run until he made his generous offer, and in doing so gave me this opportunity to prove myself…to myself. I’m incredibly grateful for his gesture.
I’m equally grateful for the friendship of everyone in the community I got to share the trails and morning with, whether it was words of encouragement on the course, short discussions and new introductions after, or extended time spent when it was all over…the whole experience always means more than I probably let on at the time. So thanks friends. I hope to do it again soon.