It’s been so long. Approximately a year and a half too long, which admittedly, feels like 3 years. From diagnosis to surgery to chemo treatments to the second surgery, I haven’t been able to run. I mean, I’ve been running, but I haven’t been able to REALLY run, worry-free, to let go. I’ve had to stop training, knowing any performance ambitions were going to be cut short by chemo treatments and compromised fitness. The runs I have been able to do were restricted by incredible pains in my feet, a pad of blisters on my soles. The awful feeling of chemotherapy coursing through my veins overshadowed certain joys I could pull from my efforts. Even the brief period of chemical-free running leading up to my surgery was anti-climactic, knowing I was just squeezing in small victories before complete physical failure.
But, now, I’m running. This time REALLY running. And it was almost like I had forgotten what it felt, but now that I’m back in the routine, it’s all coming back, that distinct difference between running and TRAINING, between managing and PROGRESSING, between completion and ACCOMPLISHMENT. I, for the moment, have a piece of my life back that was immediately lost that evening in April of 2013 when I felt a pain fill my abdomen. And it’s wonderful, almost indescribably wonderful…all the varied experiences that come with consistent, obstacle-free, routined running. I feel compelled to share two of these recent experiences that seemed so distant, and continuously fading, just last year.
After the unveiling of this month’s Runner’s World cover contest, involving 10 finalists, one of which also lives in Indianapolis (what are the odds?!), a friend and runner I coach connected to me to the father of the other finalist, so we could go for a run. That runner is Andrew Peterson, a 21 year old Special Olympian and motivational speaker, who manages fetal alcohol syndrome. I strongly suggest you visit the RW contest page, read his story and watch his contributed speech.
After the connection to Andrew’s father, we arranged a day and time to meet for a quick run, along one of my favorite running paths in Indy. Knowing his story, I asked his father for suggestions in communicating with Andrew, to make sure I wasn’t stepping over bounds or making it more difficult for him to answer questions. What I discovered, however, was that I could barely keep up with Andrew’s enthusiasm and really had nothing to worry about. Andrew is developmentally restricted, yes, but not in any way that hinders him from getting the most out of life, as I’ll try to explain.
We met in a parking lot by the running path where I was greeted by Craig Peterson and Andrew, a huge smile spread across his face. I congratulated him on being a finalist, checked in with Craig to make sure a 40 minute run was ok, and then immediately went jogging down the street. I asked Andrew a bit about his running, where he lived, about the cover contest and…well…then he took over.
We jogged down the path at a pace that might have stressed my conversational abilities…if I needed to talk, but Andrew was the one doing all the talking, about his family, his interests, his ambitions and impending fame. I worried he was wearing out his lungs, unable to keep the pace without a rhythmic breathing pattern, but he kept telling me about his life. He talked to me about everything that WASN’T running. And I loved it.
I learned which of his brothers was a “couch potato”.
I learned who his LEAST favorite actor is…Denzel Washington.
I learned all about a lengthy scene in the Disney movie, Tom and Huck.
I learned about the choreographed fight scenes he films and edits with his brother for their YouTube channel.
I learned about the mild jealousy his brother has for his newfound magazine exposure.
I learned about his aspirations to be a motivational speaker and maybe meet some celebrities.
I learned about the people who want to have their photo taken with him after he speaks.
What I DIDN’T learn about was his running, because when I asked him what time he ran his 5000 in at the Special Olympics, he balked,
“Oooh…I’m not sure…people always ask me that and I tell them my father knows, but I don’t know.”
See, he doesn’t pay attention to that stuff. He didn’t start a watch before we went running. He didn’t check mile splits, pay attention to form, or even discuss much running related. He wanted to talk about karate, and youtube videos, and least favorite actors…because that’s what matters to him. He’s, essentially, and I say this with much adoration, a kid. He’s wrapped up in kid things and I was instantly sucked in to his world, despite knocking out some 7+ minute miles. I remembered what it was like to run for the joy of running, without really paying attention to running. I remembered what it was like to have running as just a part of active living, while thinking about all the other fun stuff that occupied my life. It was an experience of running I had essentially forgotten about.
We finished the run and I felt light and, just…happy. I remembered us running, but I was more struck by Andrew’s enthusiasm for life, for having a good time, and seeing running as just another part of all that. It wasn’t about times, form, splits, progression, ambitions, or the weight of all our adult considerations. It wasn’t even about consciously stripping away the excess that can become weighted baggage to our running, but simply doing it, almost subconsciously, just because it’s fun. It’s a part of our unbridled enthusiasm, as part of our childhood. And he helped me feel that again.
But admittedly…I am an adult, and my relation to running has changed from my careless childlike enthusiasm to knowing the intensity of training and progression. It’s not that I want to leave behind that exuberance, but there is a different sort of joy that comes with accomplishment and hitting new physical plateaus.
And, again, I’m training. And it feels AWESOME. Like…REALLY DAMN AWESOME. For the past year and a half I’ve only been running, just to get by, just to retain some manner of my previous life, just to feel as if I’m doing more than just having cancer, but now I have a window of opportunity, a mostly chemical-free body, and the ability to not only stay strong as a runner, but actually get STRONGER. Until I either hit a physical ceiling or the cancer / chemo plan gets in my way again. I haven’t lost sight of that, of course. But for the time being…I can train again. I can get faster. I can run further. I can feel my body actually change, flow smoothly down the trail, and watch the minutes per mile drop while my heart rate does the same. I’m flipping the switch on my body again.
Last week I spent time in North Carolina, seeing my son for a brief evening visit and staying with Laura’s parents as she gave me impromptu tours around town and, most enjoyably, running the beautiful trails and paths of Raleigh. The consistency was great and I felt, for the first time again, a change in my body that came with the efforts. It was a progression, of getting faster, of feeling stronger much further into the run, and feeling as if running was a continuous part of my day instead of fleeting moments grabbed when cancer wasn’t looking. It all culminated in a final morning “longish” run our last day in town.
We met Laura’s Ultra-running friend Duran (seriously, his name is Duran..as in enDURANce), who took us into the trails at Umstead Park for an hour and fifteen minutes of easy running while he finished up a 3 hour training run. The pace was as easy as the conversation, but I didn’t mind, just wanting to have a successfully completed long run, the longest yet since surgery. The runs leading up to this one were encouraging, but not without effort as I struggled to maintain heart rate and strength towards the end of six milers or 8 milers with speed intervals displaced throughout. My goal, that day, was to simply complete the distance.
When we finished the trail running, however, it was only about 7.5 miles in and so I needed to continue on while Laura and Duran caught up back at the cars. The trailhead met a road of crushed dirt and gravel that wound directly into the state park on a gentle, but continuous uphill rise. I looked down at my watch, 1:13, and started up the trail, feeling my lungs open up a bit and my legs turnover with a quickened pace and sense of freshness, as if they were finally able to go at their natural gait.
I climbed the hill with a steady stride, enjoying the tunnel of trees towering above on either side of the road, the solitude and quiet in the crisp 35 degree air, and the sound of gravel kicking out from under my feet. I felt smooth and unrestricted. And it was then I realized that I actually hadn’t felt THAT in a long time. My heart rate wasn’t maxing out, threatening to reel back my efforts, and I could continue supplying oxygen into my legs as they kicked down the road. I pushed on, passing groups of runners heading back to their cars at the trailhead, gently rising and falling down the road that stretched deep into the forest, turning only gently before stretching out into the distance again. It beckoned me to go and keep going…until I couldn’t go anymore. But I knew I was pushing it.
I wanted to keep going…to make the most of this moment, this feeling I hadn’t experienced in so long, as if I could go comfortably, and yet swiftly, all day. But at 1:30 I knew I needed to turn around and head back to the car where Laura and Duran would be waiting, and to also prevent running myself into injury as I’m apt to do in these moments of seemingly boundless strength and energy. I made the turn and continued to run alone, seeing specks of color far ahead, the jackets of runners I had passed on the way out. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was moving fast enough to catch them. Rolling over the gentle undulations I waited for the impending threshold, the ceiling of my abilities hit again and again, the sapped oxygen and weakening legs…but I kept going. The gravel kept rhythm as it shot back beneath my feet, a metronome to my effort that shifted only when the road rose and fell.
I continued running out the distance when I realized something…the switch in my body had been flipped, even if momentarily, even if only just for this run. I was running, and the further I got, the faster I got. This is a rare moment, even for sub-elites, and one that comes only with consistent, determined training. It is a moment we wait for, an experience we seek through repetition and intense effort, to know that where we should be getting weaker…we get stronger. Admittedly, I didn’t expect this. Not this soon. Not after some of the struggles I had earlier in the week during my runs. But when it happens…you know it. It’s undeniable.
And I went with it.
A mile and a half out from the car the road took on a gentle descent, just enough to free my legs that much more, allowing me to increase speed and that sense of flying. That’s what it feels like. Flying. I kicked down the road without concern, without fearing my lungs getting out of control, picking off runners as I opened up and swung my arms in rhythmic unison, feeling my breaths exchange without stress. I threatened to completely let go and race to the car, but I decided to hold back, to continue all the way in feeling swift, in control, flying. My breaths came and went faster and faster, but not in abandon, just in response to my legs stretching out before me, bounding off the softened surface and covering ground in the air more than fighting against the gravity of the road. Further and further. Faster and faster.
And suddenly I was done, slowing to the easiest of efforts, letting the relief cover my body like a warm blanket, comforting and safe. My heart rate fell in control and my legs eased their muscular tension as I completed a short cool down feeling powerful, but freed…something like a bird…something like..like being driven by an unseen force.
I’ve felt this before, this being on top of the world, this special, unique strength…many times. But it has been so long. I hadn’t forgotten, but I hadn’t felt it either. And now, it was back, if only momentarily…but it was back.
Of course, now I want to feel it again. All of it. The child like joy and the superhuman strength. As long as this window of opportunity stays open, this chemo-free timeline, this post-surgery strength, I plan to seek it all. For the time being, I don’t have to remember what running feels like…I can just EXPERIENCE it.