Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Perspective of a Mile

Running has always been a reliable gauge for me. The ability to measure physical progress (or digression) is a relatively exact science and running affords us that yardstick, the way to continuously check if we’re heading where we want to be physically or if we’re stuck, or backsliding. During high mileage training, this constant measurement can become downright obsessive, always checking splits, assessing fatigue and weakness, tallying weekly mileage, but sometimes the changes are so subtle as to be barely noticed. It’s only after a long period of efforts, whether a couple months or a complete training cycle, that one can say, “Yes. I’m definitively a better runner than I was before.” One hopes.

After surgery, however, there was nothing subtle about the changes happening to my body. The total deterioration of staying sedentary for a complete month, compounded by getting sliced in two then filled with a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, is a manner of hitting reset on the body that i’ve never before experienced. I hope no one should have to know what that feels. What it did afford me though, was the ability to really know physical change in my body, so that I wasn’t just reading into subtle clues, but experiencing massive change. When, at first, you can barely sit up straight in bed, just walking down the hall feels like a massive victory. That change is impossible to overlook.

Somewhere down the line, though, the changes become more and more subtle. The body rebounds, gets stronger and stronger, and a point comes where we have to actually push against our boundaries to create physical changes, find new strength. For me, fortunately, I still retained running in my life, and the measurements it afforded me never went away, so that I could always assess if I was getting stronger…and faster. It’s a little disheartening to think about, but some people don’t have such a reliable way to measure their progression. Some patients leave the hospital, get to a baseline of comfort that is entirely manageable, but fail to reach previous levels of health and strength because they don’t push themselves. The effects of surgery get suppressed far below their blanket of comfort…and that’s too bad. It’s too bad because not only can they be stronger and experience a greater sense of complete health, but they might also not BELIEVE they can rebound from surgery to create an even better body and sense of self.

Running is one way to not only measure that change, but compel you to believe in the possibility.

Progression through running is an undeniable way to measure yourself, but it can also be limiting if one doesn’t hold onto a sense of perspective. And in that I struggle. No matter how many people assure me that what I’m capable of doing right now is quite astounding, I still struggle with keeping perspective in relation to my abilities. In part, because my perspective is stuck in the past. My perspective remains rooted to the person I used to be before cancer, when I could peel off mile repeats at sub 5 minute pace, where I could run for hours and only get stronger the further I went. Where…well…where I was just a different runner. My perspective hasn’t forgotten what that was like, which I feel is important to retain, but it also hasn’t fully accepted my present circumstance. Maybe I’m intentionally looking back, because the future is far too uncertain to expect the most from myself, no matter how hard I’ll try to find the future runner that can challenge the past runner.

I am trying to find out who that future runner might be, how fast he will be able to go, how far he will be able to run, but I’m stuck looking too far ahead into an image of potential possibilities and not looking back 5 months ago…when I couldn’t even sit up in bed by myself.

I’m running again, but not just running…training. For three months now I’ve been in full on 1/2 marathon training mode, gearing up for the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon on May 2nd, working with my coach again. I’m up to 60 mile weeks, putting down various intervals, attacking hills, pushing against steady state pacing…and struggling. Struggling hard. I’m not the same runner I used to be and although I’m not limited by chemo at this point, I’m undeniably limited. I know this because running is a definitive gauge of measurement and the clock doesn’t lie. Effort doesn’t lie either and I’m struggling to find the efforts that are sustainable for me, while both remembering and forgetting the past runner in me. My coach has given me a few 4 to 5 mile efforts that I embarrassingly couldn’t finish, because what I thought was easy quickly turned south and became unsustainable. My range is getting bigger…but not big enough. I just don’t know what I’m capable of in relation to endurance at this point, which necessitated a new measurement. A definitive measurement. The Mile.

I felt like I really needed to reset my running, to figure out just how fast I can run for a mile and then make adjustments to every distance that followed. I emailed my coach about it and we set up a plan to run a point to point mile on relatively rested legs, to see what I could do. Not having run this trial in about 2 years, he sent me some remedial, and amusing, instructions for effort.

2-3M WU gradually increasing effort
Short break to change shoes, lose some clothes, stretch
4 x 100m striders
First 400 relax and getting into rhythmical breathing (get around hyperventilation)
Second 400 maintain or gradual adjustment (unless out way to fast then dial it down now)
Third 400 turn the screws ever tighter
Fourth 400 Exorcism!

Oh, and have fun!

I made my way to the stretch of rail-trail broken up by only one road crossing and began going through the motions, heading out for a slow 2 mile warmup, getting focused, envisioning the act of running fast and suffering through the effort. I felt an intensity gather in me I haven’t tapped into for so long, a combination of excitement and considerable nervousness. My mind and body were going race-ready, switching auto-pilot and taking over. I slowed to a stop at the self-created start line, shed my mittens, went emotionally inward and started going through warm up drills. The intensity increased as I laid into the quickened 400s, my legs feeling powerful and in control as I turned over my stride at a pace that caught me off guard, not having done this in so long. It felt good.

The routine completed, I looked up the trail, listened for the silence that assured me no cars would block the first road I crossed and poised myself to lay into the mile…to come out at the end, no matter what the watch read. I looked up, frozen as if waiting the starting gun, then hit my watch and started in.

The first 200 felt instinctual, the sensation of being driven by something outside myself, not consciously pushing and yet being pulled into the stretch all the same. I worried I was going to hard and tried to stay relaxed, remembering coach’s instructions to get into rhythmic breathing, which is what I did. With quickened breaths that exhaled a pattern of considerable effort, I let my lungs fill and release without overskipping beats.

Letting my mind relax into the motions, I tried to remain distracted from the distance that reached too far out ahead for comfort. My legs remained powerful as the effort of my breaths slowly increased, letting me know I was pushing against my threshold. A twinge of panic filled me as I doubted my ability to hold on to the finish, not even hitting the halfway point. But halfway did come and although I tried to get a read on my pace, I couldn’t focus on the watch face long enough without breaking my overall rhythm. I decided to go by feel.

Pushing into the third quarter I made a decision whether to hold back, to adjust pacing according to how I felt in the moment. I was pushing hard, I know, and although I didn’t want to back off, I did try to consciously run more comfortable, smoother…to no avail. I had hit the point of the mile where the real battle begins.

That distinct increase of pain, tightness, and perceived weight began to fill my quads, threatening to drag my legs into the ground and grind me to a halt. But somehow, I kept moving forward. A runner passed me in the other direction and waved in greeting, but I was redlined and couldn’t summon the ability to respond. I was on the tightrope of effort. Any attempt to break rhythm felt like it could knock me to the ground, my legs spinning out of balance and tangling in on themselves like a knot of yarn. My breathing fell out of sync and I made conscious efforts to bring it back in line with my arms and legs moving back and forth under my torso, but with each consumed patch of asphalt the rhythm broke again, sooner and sooner than the last. I was going chaotic.

At some point during all this mess I had entered the final quarter and quick glimpses ahead brought the undefined finish line into sight, turning effort from the body to the mind, knowing that if I could just hold on emotionally, I would make it to the finish. Everything in my lower body was burning as my quads were now inflamed with the effort, seemingly dragging my body into the ground as if bags of sand were hoisted onto my waist…and then slowly drenched with water. Each step threatened to pull me down to the pavement and my patterned breathing was completely gone, inhaling and exhaling wildly. The suffer face took over and my eyes cinched up like knots pulled tight, the corners of my mouth spreading out to bear my teeth, revealing an anger needed to swallow up the last 50 meters of the effort with legs still spinning over madly, the entire body somehow remaining upright despite it all.

With one last act of resistance to ease up and let gravity take over just a few feet from the finish, I pushed through and quickly glanced at my watch.

5:45.

And like getting overtaken by a tidal wave of relief, the precious comfort I managed to outrun down the stretch of pavement swallowed and engulfed my body, extinguishing the fires I had set in my quads. The gulps of oxygen came fully and erratically before settling down and staying within the capabilities of lungs pushed beyond their limits. I had completed the mile. I had survived. And I had measured myself.

5:45. And I still struggle to retain perspective, because a part of me cringes at those numbers. The runner that consumed me before surgery could run a mile in 4:30. And 5:45 is not 4:30. The runner in me before surgery ran 26.2 miles straight at 5:34 pace…and the current runner in me was going ALL OUT for a 5:45.

But perspective…I told myself…keep perspective. I started in on my comfortable miles after the time trial, assessing what just happened down that stretch and finding the positive in the effort. That, of course, involved perspective. First off, I told myself, “you ran that well!” Coach told me how to run each portion of the mile and I managed to do just that. I didn’t go out to hard. I adjusted when it seemed pertinent. I suffered when I should have suffered. And I pushed hard when that suffering seemed insurmountable. That’s how a mile is run…and I ran it correct. That 5:45 was honest. I offer no excuses.

And then, well…there is that whole surgery thing. I mean, yes, I have cancer, but whatever. I don’t really even consider that a limiting factor anymore. That’s a consideration and perspective to hold for much further down the line, because right now, cancer is just there, sort of like an odd, unobtrusive bump that no one can figure out is just there. Almost benign. An anomaly. A blemish. Surgery, however, is something else, and very, VERY recent. I forget that sometimes. I really do, becuase I’m running and training again, and if I’m able to train, then I’m doing VERY well physically. And people that are doing VERY WELL physically probably haven’t had extensive surgery 5 months prior. They might have had it a year or two ago, or at least, that’s what it feels like. But I do the math.

August 23rd to today. September, October, November, December, January. That’s essentially 5 months ago. 5 months. Which means 4 months ago I started running. And “running” 4 months ago meant going out for 1 mile at 9:30 pace and then having to stop because I couldn’t breathe. I barely made it home with another mile of intermittent walking and jogging. But I added more and more each day, pushing myself just a little bit each time, with no future goal or expectation ahead…just running to enjoy it, to get stronger, to measure my progress. And then everything started to change, relatively drastically, till come November when I emailed my coach and paid for his services again. That was 3 months ago. Which brings us to today. 4 months of running. 3 months of dedicated training, and I’m suddenly doing a mile time trial in 5:45. Nevermind what I said about being mildly embarrassed. I’m actually pretty fucking ecstatic.

My perspective continues to shift, narrowing the window of perception from 3 years ago to 3 months ago, when I remember what it felt like to go for a 6 mile run and wonder if I was going to be able to finish. I remember how redlined an 8:00 mile felt like and how even the slightest incline or sudden rise in the trail left me completely winded and muscularly wasted. And yesterday my coach had me run up and down a hill for 24:00 minutes straight, culminating in over 3 miles of non-stop hill running. Perspective indeed.

And I imagine if I didn’t have running to gauge my abilities, to test myself, to see just how far I have actually come away from surgery and what I might be able to do three more months from now…when I run the mini-marathon. I don’t know what’s going to happen then, but I do know that running is going to progress me physically toward that moment, and along the way I’ll be able to test myself, to gauge my abilities, to remind me of just how far I’ve moved away from that time after surgery when I couldn’t sit up bed, and to give me one more significant expanse of perspective.

And this is always our challenge…to remember the capabilities within us by looking to the past, to what we were before adulthood, criticism, and self-doubt (and sometimes unavoidable circumstances like extensive surgeries and disease) slowly crept in, crippling our desires and efforts, and to see past that, to look to a future self that is unhindered, unrestricted, and capable of so much more than what we’re told and what we believe. Then in the process, continuing to push ourselves physically and emotionally, using whatever gauges we have at our disposal to find the other person, the other runner, within us…to determine if we are headed in the direction we really want to go.

Running pushed me 5 months away from surgery to a 5:45 mile and I plan on using it to push me towards a new measurement on May 2nd. This time for 13.1 miles.

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“Chapter Two” – Don’t Get Comfortable

CHAPTER TWO – Don’t Get Comfortable

The asphalt beneath my body lay like a gently placed ribbon, stretched far out ahead into the distance and just as far behind, giving only an unforgiving width of stability to run upon. Just a few feet wide and a red line bisecting the stretch like an artery, pulsing with blood, the firm ground gave way to a slight drop of dirt and ping pong ball sized rocks on either side. Trees towered up on the perimeters forming an incomplete tunnel. Cement pylons stood like watch guards, with half mile increments embedded into their stone faces, easing us of the need to do the distance calculations for ourselves. This stretch of converted rail line had become something of a proving ground for myself and my teammates, an isolated, relatively car-free expanse of ground to train our bodies into distance running machines and test our abilities along the way. This time out, I was alone, throwing myself into a ten mile tempo run at marathon goal pace, somewhere around 5 minutes and 30 seconds per mile.

After the initial warmup, I stood at the first stone-faced mile marker, quickly prepping my mind to match the intensity of my body, to test myself yet again. I swung my arms back and forth against my body, twisting my torso the same. Touching the top of a mile marker for stability, I swung one leg back and forth to loosen up anything left wound tight, or maybe just out of habit. I did the same with the other. The empty expanse ahead stared back at me, with eyes as thin as Eastwood’s, as a challenge or a dare. I took in a deep breath and let it out, as if to say without words, “Ok. Let’s do it.” With no more fanfare I hit the triangular button on my watch, leaned my body forward, and pushed off down the trail, but quickly reeled in my pace after the initial adrenaline fueled surge screamed at me out of my watch. “2:10! 2:10! Too fast!” it seemed to flash as we ran by the 800 meter mark. “Calm down. Settle in.” I thought to myself. Easier said than done when the full strength of rested legs and lungs sits in your body. Running up the long, but very mild incline, I felt my heart rate level out into a relaxed rhythm, signaling solid cardiovascular fitness. I wasn’t breathing rapidly. I could take deep, almost yawning, breaths, and still keep pace and rhythm. My legs spun on auto-pilot. The first mile marker flicked by and I hit the split on my watch. 5:23. Too fast, but not TOO fast.

The pavement stretched out ahead even further, swallowed by the trees and only dotted with other runners and cyclists making their way from point to point in the bright afternoon sun. Moving into the second mile my body instinctually relaxed, now recognizing and accepting the fate of a hard, drawn out effort. The relaxation felt familiar, almost boring, in it’s routine. My arms swung easily and my legs weren’t trying. I ran with a calm that undermined the perception of pace, as each muscle worked in concert with the next, creating a symphony of strength that pushed my body off the ground and across the pavement like intermittent flying, but more like a magic trick, like an illusion. I looked at ease, because I was, but the second mile marker ticked by even quicker than the first. 5:19. “Shit”, I thought, or might have even said out loud. This was definitely too fast, my body succumbing to the inadvertent power of the second mile, after the shock of the first wears off and the body relents, where the mind perceives the movement as controlled and effortless, but the full capacities of the body expend themselves too eagerly. In the moment, this feels amazing, but in a long effort, this can be disastrous as the energy and strength reserves needed much deeper into the run get drained away too quickly, like a young child overeating their halloween haul with pent up excitement. The after effect is never pretty.

Running further down the laid out ribbon, I consciously backed off to get on pace, but feeling the subtle twinges of guilt enter my consciousness, of giving up, of taking it easy, of running too comfortably instead of staying at that threshold of equal parts suffering and accomplishment. It’s a struggle competitive runners often face, that dichotomy of running towards an ultimate reward on race day, while not racing during each run that is afforded to us. It is a conscious reservation. A temporary admission of taking it easy. A recognition that we can run faster, but choose not to. It is running between trees instead of through the forest. But it is necessary. So with this new ease I hit the next half-mile mark watchman and made an abrupt 180 degree turn to head back the direction I came, now aided by a long and subtle decline. Adjusting to the minuscule, but appreciated, drop in elevation, my legs spun under me as if my joints has been greased or a weight had been dropped. I felt light and swift, but needed to stay in control of my consciously reduced effort as I neared the third mile marker. I ran by and hit the button on my watch, looking down to catch the next split. 5:29. “Ok, close enough,” I told myself, “Now hold this.” And I did…for a while.

The repetition of running a straight line began blurring each conscious step, each calculated arm swing, into one fluid motion. I was less a runner making deliberate attempts to keep moving forward as I was a pilot only making small adjustments to a vehicle that couldn’t find itself to stop. I was just going. I ran past each mile marker, coming up on other runners moving at a relaxed, conversation pace, and blowing by them without a breath to spare. I ticked off each mile at a consistent pace, hovering only a few seconds either side of 5:30, my body now firmly stuck in the mode of marathon goal pace, naturally tuning into an effort that not only felt somewhat comfortable, but right. It was as if I found my running morality, my physical birthright, my place in the world. 5:30 pace. That was my identity. That was how I separated myself from those that sat in recliners, choosing the sedentary life over the active one. That was the measurement that proved my genetic advantage. I could have run faster, yes, but as a marathon pace, a relatively easy effort at this point, 5:30 was my warm blanket. Until it wasn’t.

Halfway into the run I started to notice a change in my body, subtle, but unceasing. A tension began to build in my legs, a tightness that wasn’t muscular, but more as if the bolts on a swinging arm started to seize as the oil dried up. The effort to push forward on pace became a bit more conscious, instead of getting pulled by a natural rhythm and an inherent strength. The unforgiving ground met each footfall with a more pronounced response, grabbing onto the soles of my shoes as if it had gained a tackiness or increased it’s gravitational pull ever so slightly. The invisible cradle that supported my abdomen had disappeared all together and I felt a shift in strength drift from my core down into my quads, adding yet more burden to my legs instead of sharing the effort. And yet, I passed the next mile marker and then the next, both at 5:30 pace, still maintaining speed while the effort rose. Then came mile 8, where physical effort concretely transitions to a mental effort, and while the body continues to deteriorate at a rapid pace, the mind must take over.

The weight of my body seemed to increase again, pulling me into the pavement despite my efforts to move outward and not downward. My arms swung with a little less grace and my legs were not so much like the wings of a bird as they were the flippers of a penguin. At this point, deep into the run, I was beginning a drift, in the wrong direction. I was not going to get stronger or even faster. My goal now, was to hold on, to keep the 5:30 pace while the expected deterioration of my physical strength tried to drag me away from that speed and into an effort that would crush my confidence. With the effort required to keep moving forward, my lungs inflated and fell again and again, in rhythm with a heart rate that was beating out an emergency signal, faster and faster, louder and louder, until I lost the ability to concentrate on any one failing system. My core was gone. My quads were going. My arms were going. My lungs were going. Everything was going. All I had now was my mind…and even that was threatening to change it’s mantra. Against all hopes and expectations leading into the effort, my running systems were telling me one thing, “Back off. Take it easy. Relax….Stop.”

In the normal world, this sort of advice is called common sense. In the runner’s world, this is a death knell.

This siren call emanating from my mind, to ease up, to back off, is the first and last moment of an inherently hard run. It is the breaking point between those that go on to succeed and those that fall short. It is, above all other struggles and obstacles in the moment of red-lined effort, the true barrier to overcome. To run past the mind’s warning, the final line in the sand, is to truly discover what you are made of. Easier said than done. First, however, the runner must find “the other” inside, the other voice, the other message that counters the crying, desperate pleas to slow down. And it was in that final moment, where I wasn’t sure I could take another push towards the completion of the run, the voice came to me, with the exact words I needed to hear. “Don’t get comfortable.”

To get comfortable is to quit. To get comfortable is to not prepare yourself for a greater and greater adversity, an increasing difficulty. To get comfortable is to go soft. To get comfortable is to not only give up on the run, but on everything else as well, to not even try to run faster, to not even start the run, to drive to the coffee shop and not the trailhead, to make breakfast instead of putting on your racing flats, to leave the covers on, to turn off the alarm, to hit snooze, to not even set the alarm. To get comfortable is to quit. Ultimately, it is to not only battle the adversity in the moment, but to remain unprepared for anymore to come.

I repeated the mantra as I pushed down the ribbon of pavement, “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” Forcing myself into an increasingly wild state of running, with arms swinging out of balance and legs following suit. “Don’t get comfortable.” as my lungs increasingly lost their ability to hold a reserved rhythm, beating out of control as I tried to reel them back in. “Don’t get comfortable” as the strength in my calves and quads gave way to the mere repetition of running, cycling themselves over and over only because they didn’t know what else to do, not as a deliberate effort. “Don’t get comfortable” as the other voice in my head cried louder, “How can we keep going? We have to stop.”

The voice pushed us forward, blocking out all other warnings, physical and mental, with a repeating of the mantra like a stubborn toddler ignoring parental demands to clean their room, eat their brussel sprouts, go to school, “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” It was an appeasement and a demand.

The body got in line. My quads tensioned with each pounding footfall into the ground. Arms swung out, but with enough forward momentum to keep going ahead. Lungs beat quicker and quicker, but continued to beat no less. The final mile marker passed by and I looked ahead towards the next, the mantra repeating in my head as if spoken by someone in a trance, “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” Runners and cyclists passed by barely noticed, my eyes affixed ahead in complete concentration, unable to spare even the slightest extra movement as I neared the finish. A 1/2 mile marker flicked by. “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” The pain consumed my legs. The chaos directed my arms. The suffering swallowed my thoughts. But the mantra pushed me on, “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” And as if I found a wormhole, a moment of forgetting, a conscious blackout, the distance disappeared behind me and I could see the final mile marker as my arbitrary finish line, but the completion didn’t offer solace so much as another attempt to convince me to quit. Even if just 5 or 10 feet ahead. What would it matter? The voice screamed out with each step. “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable!”

The final marker disappeared behind me as one last pounding footfall hit the ground and carried the weight of my body forward. I hit the button on my watch one final time and let the wave of relief consume me as my lungs deflated, desperately reaching for any available oxygen. My arms fell to my side, then to my knees as I hunched over to brace my body, feeling the warmth of relaxation blanket my legs and, finally, now finally, allowed the comfort to take over. With considerable effort I made the calculation in my head, hoping the sustained suffering ended in a successful run. And it was. 10 miles, at 5:30 pace average, despite the attempt of gravity to pull my body into the ground against my greatest efforts. With energy and strength, and then finally a devotion, a trance, and a mantra, I managed to keep going, to finish strong, to not get comfortable. And in the moment, that’s what I was going for, but only for the confidence and reward to know that not giving in this time, not getting comfortable, meant I was ready to take on whatever was to come next, whatever longer distance, increased speed, new expectation, unforeseen obstacles. Come what may, I was ready and hardened to take on any challenge, to embrace the suffering, and to not get comfortable.

I just had no idea how important this was going to be…even when I stopped running.

I came out of a sleep of sorts, or a deep subconscious relaxation, though truthfully, it was physical exhaustion coupled with the unparalleled soothing power of morphine. Still under it’s blanketing control, I managed to make out the presence of my surgeon, seeing him for the first time since getting ready for surgery a few days prior. I was drowsy, groggy, and couldn’t focus my eyes. I didn’t have the strength to even open them really, but I heard his voice summarizing the surgery for me. He was smiling and placed his hand on my motionless arm invaded by so many tubes and wires.

I remember broken sentences, morse code explanations. “We couldn’t get it all…worse than we thought…tried our hardest…didn’t want to do damage…put you on chemo…we’ll try again…hang in there.”

Sedated by the morphine I held my composure, absorbed as much as I could and waited for him to leave the room, where I would remain with nothing but the silence and my thoughts.

Sitting in the exam room weeks before surgery, my surgeon explained my cancer and surgery with a casual nature that belied the seriousness of the matter. With clinical precision and a comfortable smile pairing with his brightly colored bow tie that was his signature flair, he explained that my cancer was different. It usually didn’t spread to other areas of the body, but remained in the abdominal cavity. Although it posed it’s own challenges by secreting free-floating cancer cells coated in a protective mucin, the procedure for removing the cancer was reliable and effective. The survival rates are pretty good, meaning longer-term, and with my age and health, he was confident everything would go well. Painting a best-case scenario picture, I was to undergo surgery in a few weeks, recover for around 6 months, and then get back to running at the same level as I was before all this went down. Just like that. Piece of cake, I thought. My cancer is a different kind of cancer, I thought. We’ll get rid of it and forget this ever happened, I thought.

But when I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit, my surgeon who was so confident about the process before, had to backpedal and change tune, explaining with as much positivity as he could muster that, in fact, everything didnt’ go as planned, that they couldn’t get it all, that I wasn’t going to just recover and then forget all about it. Cancer was now my life. It was now THAT kind of cancer. It was the kind of cancer that killed my sister. It’s the kind of cancer for which charity runs are organized. It’s the kind of cancer that necessitates chemotherapy and all that comes with it. It’s the kind of cancer that kills.

I was left alone to internalize all this. I remember a feeling of dread washing over me, a darkness filling by body, and ultimately, a fear. I remember being scared, before the morphine took hold and pulled me back into the comfort of sleep. For days I suppressed my new reality, keeping the new emotional dread pushed well below the surface of my emotional expressions. I lay in the bed motionless, my various bodily needs being tended to, and focusing on the world of discomfort and pain I had suddenly woken in to. Slowly, however, the reality of my cancer made itself more and more known as the morphine periodically wore off and I could retain my memories for longer periods of time. Suddenly, it hit me. I HAVE cancer. I’m a cancer patient. And I felt stupid…I had ignored my own advice. I had gotten comfortable. I had trusted that everything would go as planned and expected, just like the surgeon said. I trusted him, rightfully so, but I shouldn’t have gotten comfortable. I knew better. Later that afternoon I broke down into an uncontrollable mess of crying and depression, maybe a cathartic release of pent up emotion, a cascade of tears the attending nurse was left to mop off the hospital floor.

The moment passed as all moments, no matter how dark, always do, and I had a new plan to work from, a new reality to internalize and begin to navigate. I was now on a chemotherapy regimen. Over the next 2 months I recovered from the surgery, made it home to adjust and continued to build strength in preparation for the first of 12 scheduled chemotherapy infusions. The new plan. The new expectation. As much as I dreaded the coming storm of toxicity that was to slowly erode my body, I was relieved to have yet another plan in order to eliminate my cancer. My type A personality thrives on routine and expectations, so to have a schedule to follow was, oddly, comforting. I would have a chemotherapy infusion every 3 weeks while taking chemo in pill form every day for two weeks on and one week off. It was just like running. Everyday, follow the plan. Never stop. But, also, never get comfortable. For a succession of months, this was the plan I followed, and with each passing infusion I marked the number on my calendar. 1 of 12. 2 of 12. 3 of 12. The days piled up along with the empty bottles of chemo pills. The accumulation also built in my body, the side effects of the drugs making themselves known more and more with each infusion. My fingers dried, cracked and bled. My feet became more sensitive and filled with increasing pain. The nausea wouldn’t subside and the cold air shocked my fingers. Headaches had to be slept away and every morning I woke with a nosebleed. Blisters replaced the skin on the bottom of my feet and nestled in between each toe. But with each added level of discomfort, another slash mark when through the days on my calendar marking each infusion. 10 of 12. 11 of 12. Then 12 of 12.

I sat in the exam room before my final infusion, waiting for my oncologist to come in and discuss the results of my latest scan and prep me for my final infusion. I couldn’t shake the usual feeling of a bad student waiting to hear from the principal, but this time my spirits were buoyed a little higher, knowing I was probably not coming back in anytime soon. The nurse routinely took my vitals then left my dad and I to sit and wait. After a period of time that always feels longer than it should, the oncologist came in and went through his normal small talk routine.

“Hello Superman, how are you? Staying out of trouble?” he asked, as if I was 12 years old and not 37. I went along with the game in order to get the visit over with.

But as we talked, there was no fanfare about the proceedings, no congratulations, and no temporary goodbyes. There was actually the same routine as always, a discussion of my latest CT scan which read the same results as every time before. The cancer had not grown, but it had also not shrunk. It was “stable”, which in the medical field is seen as a positive, but the nurses admit the patients might think otherwise. And then, with no acknowledgement of how I might take the blow, he simply scheduled me for another infusion three weeks later. I balked, a little frozen and confused, and asked for clarification.

“So, I need to keep getting infusions then? Like, what is the plan…we just wait for something to change…or to determine if surgery is an option again? How many more infusions do I get?” I grasped for answers.

Quite matter of factly, and with less compassion than is always needed, he replied, “Yes, we just keep doing this.”

And with little more discussion, my dad and I walked into the clinic where I sat in the over padded recliners and stared off into the distance, part holding back tears, and mainly absorbing the dread that filled my body and weighed me down like a bag of sand. I worried my dad might break the tension with conversation, causing my emotions to spill out all over the clinic floor, left for someone else to mop up yet again. I took a deep breath and thought about what lay ahead, what this would mean for my running, what life would be like with continuous chemo…what an idiot I was, again, for following the plan and getting comfortable. I felt an idiot. I deserved this. I got comfortable.

Weeks later I met up with a friend who was also diagnosed with a cancer about the same time I was, to talk about our experiences up to that point. Our relatively young age (we’re babies in the cancer world) and similar ambitions have given us the joy of shared perspectives in relation to cancer, living and the future, but where we find commonality, we also differ greatly in other ways. I opened up to her and lamented about my new timeline of chemotherapy and subsequent frustration that I had no idea what to expect, that what the doctor’s continued to say would happen just didn’t, and how I’m so confused about the process of treating my cancer, as if no one is really telling me what is going on and what’s about to happen. With a tone more direct and blunt than I was prepared for, she somewhat scolded me for my naiveté.

“Really? I NEVER took the doctor’s for their word. The only thing I planned on was assuming nothing would go as planned. I always assumed chemo wouldn’t work and that we would have to continuously change as we go.”

I felt a little absurd when she put it so pointedly, because she was simply saying, in other words, “Don’t get comfortable.” It was a wakeup call for me.

In relation to everything that happened with cancer from that point on, I never internalized the plans or expected anything from the treatments. I, instead, put on blinders and tried my best to stay in the moment. On my calendar I marked off each infusion not as a progression towards an end of treatments, but to simply document the experience. 13 of ?. 14 of ?. 15 of? The infusions and empty pill bottles continued to accumulate on top of themselves, as my side effects did the same, sometimes leaving me unable to walk around my house let alone go for a short run. I don’t want to say I went into a state of perpetual pessimism, but I certainly didn’t try to embody hope or positivity about what lay ahead, in fear of having that expectation torn in half. It was safer to not get comfortable, to not expect the treatments to end or the pain to subside, but to feel the pain and discomfort and concern consume me, then put my head down and keep pushing through. I had, comparatively, entered miles 8 and 9 of a 10 mile tempo run, except this time I didn’t know where the finish line was. I could only keep running, absorbing the increasing pain and hope relief would show itself one way or another. But I stopped expecting it.

Time passed and another CT scan was scheduled. I thought little about the outcome, no longer expecting things to have changed one way or another. Chemotherapy infusions, pills, side effects, and living amongst, or against, it all was now my life. I even stopped caring about the results. Where the first scan had me crippled in anxiety and fear, this one was more of an annoyance, an intrusion in the daily routine I had built for myself. A followup was scheduled with my surgical oncologist who was given the results of the latest scan to consider his options. In a previous meeting he expressed unreserved excitement for how well I was doing with chemotherapy, even inadvertently admitting that chemotherapy doesn’t help patients with my type of cancer. It’s more of a desperate gesture, of following the protocol, of taking a shot in the dark. Still, my cancer had not shrunk, so I put my blinders on and expected nothing from this appointment. I wasn’t going to get comfortable.

I sat on the exam table, the paper crinkling beneath my legs, and my surgeon walked in sporting a smile and his signature bow tie. We quickly discussed my current physical state, talked running a bit, and then he got to work examining my abdominal area. I believe this was more formality than a deep examination to determine a future course of action, because we suddenly shifted to talking about the scan and future plan. I kept my focus on the present, but the surgeon broke my concentration by alluding to a second surgery, excitedly talking about my prognosis, and letting slip that he didn’t think I’d be alive today, that “I didn’t think it would be worth going back in.” I was, despite my poker face, quite shocked at this reveal. Up to this point, he had never alluded to any dire future for me, any shortened timeline, but stuck to his positive perspective and hope for the future. I learned this was called, “the truth in small doses”. It was a manner of protecting the patient, not giving them the benefit of the doubt to handle the news, keeping them from freaking the hell out. My surgeon, however, let slip this small dose of truth out of excitement for my current physical state and the results of my scan, which showed that the cancer had not grown anymore since the first surgery. What this meant was that we could actually have a second surgery and another attempt to get rid of my cancer, once and for all, again.

It would be an understatement to say I was ecstatic about this sudden change in plans as I left the office that day. In part, it was because I had finally followed my advice. I didn’t get comfortable. I didn’t assume the best, or even the worst, for my situation. I just took my medicine, literally, as I was told and got on with my life. I could only assume this was all there was going to be until told otherwise, which is exactly what happened in the office that day. Where the plan had continuously caught me off guard by deviating in wild directions, I could find relative comfort only in taking my friends advice, which was to assume nothing would ever go as planned. She was right. The plan had changed again, but at least this time it was in my favor. I was going to be scheduled for a second surgery, taken off chemo for a month to prepare, and then not put back on while we waited to see what direction the cancer would take after I left the hospital again. At least, that was the plan. I had to remind myself…Don’t get comfortable.

“Chapter One” – Starting Lines

I have no idea if I’ll actually summon the motivation and time to complete this book idea I’m working on…so I’m putting this beginning chapter of sorts up for the time being, maybe as a motivator, maybe as a self-imposed public shaming. I’ll shame myself with chapter two soon.

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A start line is unmistakeable. No matter how we define it in physical form, we know what it looks like and what it signifies. It can be a strip of white paint, stretched taut across the pavement. It can be blue plastic mats, reading timing chips and beeping out approval as each runner relays their presence to the nearby computers. It can be as simple as two pylons, suggesting an unbreakable impasse, or it can be elaborate as a triumphant arch erected like an inflatable bounce house, banners hung from it’s peak, exclamations written in bold-faced font to celebrate the, well, start of something great. It can even be non-existent, just an assumption by all participants that where the line of leaders stands, the race begins.

The start line doesn’t even have to be so formalized, confined by the expectation of a competition, a measured course, a race, but rather the understanding that when one’s feet start running, the start line has been passed. The front door is a start line. The trailhead is a start line. The gently curving line on the local high school track is a start line. The parking lot where fellow runners meet to begin a casual, conversation paced run is a start line. Each point where an interval of varying pace ends and then begins for another go is a start line. Where a start line is one importance, but what a start line signifies is something entirely different, something of much greater value.

It is the first moment of truth. It is an agreement. It is unmovable integrity. It defines exactly what makes running so valuable, because it is, above all else, honesty. The start line creates an established agreement among every runner who crosses it’s boundary, that THIS is where we start, that no matter what distance we profess to run, despite how fast each of us will run the distance, recognizing that we will all differ in our abilities in getting to the finish, we all agree the start line will be our equalizer. The start line will put all of us, from 2:10 elites to 5:00+ back of the packers, on, if only for a brief moment, the same level. It states that no one gets special privileges, a handicap, an unfair advantage. It is our statement of honesty. Even those runners who are afforded the privilege to start early, or those unfortunate souls that get there late, don’t get a special pass to run with their expected pace group. They must all start at the same point. They must all cross that line.

It is a necessary requirement, of course, to have a measured distance that doesn’t waver in difficulty or ease, that allows each runner to traverse the same path, to climb the same hills, to fly with the same tailwinds. It is necessary that each runner cross this start line and continue on the same trajectory towards the finish, where we can measure ability, strategy, and effort, whether against each other or against ourselves. Although the course itself, leading to the finish, are all part of this greater honesty, the first important moment is the start line, when the push towards an honest race must begin. It is this beginning to end that gives us runners comfort, a definable set of standards and expectations to exist within, a generally knowable perception of perceived effort, controlled struggle, and ultimate relief that marks a point in time and a point to point span. It is our human need for order, control, measurement, and an honest framework to do so.

Imagine the concept of running without a start line, but rather an odd, shifting, undefinable series of physical efforts where one begins to move quickly, as if running, but then slows and starts and slows again and starts again, seemingly endlessly. There would be no discernible measurement, no comparison to either other runners or individual efforts, no expectation of performance or final relief. It would be nothing short of chaos and confusion, a wandering more than a running. And to some, that might be ok. It might be the type of freeform existence in which they thrive, but for the standard purposes of how we define running, it’s disconcerting. Without a start line, it doesn’t work.

I’ve stood on many start lines myself, whether they are highly defined demarcations or assumed beginnings, I can almost recall them all. I can envision the beginning of every race I’ve run, the quiet anticipation, the intense focus as I looked down the course, the nervousness that threatened to buckle the otherwise immovably strong legs beneath my body, the competition standing stoic or shivering with adrenaline next to me.

I remember Chicago 2009, how impossibly quiet the last 10 seconds to the beginning of the marathon sounded in a city usually consumed by noise. The sun shone bright amidst an air chilled to winter temperatures, casting shadows as imposing as the skyscrapers standing before us, like gates to hell, daring us to run towards them as a hungry hoard. I cautiously extended my leg just a small distance in front of me, between two other runners, to simply touch the start line with my shoe. I wanted to experience the race at it’s most definable distance, ending the 26.2 miles from the very beginning, on the start line. Not one step further back. I wanted that perfect, undeniable honesty.

I remember the start of the very first race I ever ran, as a very young boy, bandit, when my mother and the grouping of registered runners were sent down the rural town street with a gunshot. As if compelled by an unseen force, my legs followed in excitement, like an excited puppy dog that knows no better. The small details remain embedded in that moment. I had worn out tennis shoes, more scuffed and browned than their original white. I had on jeans, of which I regretted when I realized I was going to be finishing all 3.1 miles. I passed initial runners along the side of the road before I began a walk/run cycle in an effort to catch up to my mom who was working her way down cornfield splicing roads. I remember finishing too, but mostly I remember the start, even if I didn’t see a line. I knew where it began.

I remember so many start lines, at the races and the trailheads. I envision myself at the entrance to North Gate in Brown County State Park, each moment on a visual loop, starting again and again and again. Sometimes I run for an hour, sometimes four, but each time I start with one foot in front of the other, picking my way down the tiny, bicycle tire rutted singletrack and into the canopy of leaves and twigs that shelter each run. I’ve started here so many times that it begins to look obsessive, insane even, but this is certainly not the case. It is, to me, necessary, to have this defined start line to each run, though subject to wherever I may choose to move it’s arbitrary nature, I choose to start at the same point, where the dirt abruptly stops and the parking lot asphalt begins. I do this because it defines my runs, works in concert with the time ticking away on my watch, gauges the fitness in which I seek to fill my body. And because it is honest. It gives me comfort, measurement, and an expectation to finish.

It is the exact opposite of cancer. Cancer does not have a start line.

At least, cancer doesn’t have a definable start line. It leaves us, from the beginning, wandering. I don’t know where cancer starts. Does it start when the doctor gently gives you the first diagnosis, when he calmly and apprehensively says, “You have cancer.”? Does it start when, at some point after the appointment, you acknowledge and accept the diagnosis, taking on the identity of a Cancer Patient? Does it start when you call your parents from the parking lot and sheepishly tell them, “It’s cancer.”? Does it start when you get your first infusion of chemotherapy, when the ravages of treatment begin to take hold of your capabilities? Or does it start much sooner? Does it start when the first cancer cell in your body reproduces, circumvents the initial failsafe, then avoids the next and the next and the next, until it spirals out of control and continues to consume your body’s resources? Does it start when your parents combined genetic material to form the embryo that grew to be your physical blueprint? Does it start years, decades, centuries ago when the genetic code that manages to avoid every evolutionary failsafe within our bodies gets passed from person to person to person, until it ends up as part of your being, your existence, your potentially abbreviated timeline? Or does it start even sooner, when the mysterious forces of existence expanded in complexity, transitioning and shifting over and over again, through the evolutionary process, to come to this imperfect system of survival, where an individual’s ego and desires for immortality are rendered mute, where human survival has no intrinsic worth over cellular survival? More practically, did it start when we made an inadvertent lifestyle change that triggered the reproduction process, consuming too much of one thing, too little of another? Did it start when we compiled stressor upon stressor, work regimen on top of unhappy marriage on top of sleep deprivation on top of self-destructive drinking on top of…until the physical and spiritual damage enabled cancer to take hold? Did it start when we moved too close to an industrial wasteland where the chemicals and the air compromised our immune systems, creating an internal cascading effect that culminated in a ceaselessly growing nodule in our chest?

Or did it not have a start line at all? Maybe cancer just always was. Maybe it has always been here, just a part of our physical human story, a bouncing ball on the roulette wheel of existence, an unavoidable risk in our genetic lottery.

It is the arbitrary birthplace of cancer, the wandering, the lack of a start line, that creates such a problem for us. It runs counter to our human need for measurement, for definition, for expectation, for a start line and a finish line. It is not what the start line is for runners, for it is not honest. Cancer is, to be anthropomorphic, deceitful, underhanded, dishonest. It doesn’t tell you where it begins, so you are left not knowing how far behind in the race you may be. When I was diagnosed, the cancer had cheated to it’s utmost abilities. It had started the race without me knowing. It had stuck it’s toe in the dirt when I wasn’t looking, drug it across it’s body and then whispered, “Go.” Cancer knows where the race started, but I didn’t, and so it’s dishonest nature gave it the advantage, allowing it to almost finish the race and defeat the competition, which happened to be me. It was only at the last second I realized the race had started, that somewhere in the past a gun went off and cancer went running down the course to it’s finish, leaving me still warming up, distracted by my pre-race rituals. From that moment, I could only try to catch up.

Even worse, when there is no start line, the expectation of a finish is just as elusive. The race with cancer is not defined, despite survival rates and percentages, aside from oncologists predicting your future, no matter what hopes for a full life you may have. Without a start, it seems we can never finish, as if you can’t determine where you are in the race. Without knowing Cancer’s start line, how can we tell what distance it will run? Is it doing a 5k, a marathon, an ultra? Cancer doesn’t tell you, it’s dishonesty carrying from the elusive start into the race itself, forcing you to run and not think about the finish or the distance. For the runner, this is maddening. We crave the measurement, the assessment of our strength throughout the race, so we know when to push and when to hold back, but without a start, without a finish, and without an expected distance…we just run. Our only option is to go after Cancer, to catch it, and if not kill it, then to simply outlast it. We can only hope to remain stronger than cancer, to assume it also expects no finish, but will weaken with the effort as it continues on.

I wish I knew my cancer’s start line. I wish I knew where it decided to challenge me to a race, so I could meet it on honest terms, with a line in the sand we both crossed at the same time, fighting each other to an equally honest finish, may the best organism win. This, however, was not the case, is never the case, but that does not mean the race is lost. I am a strong runner and the countless start lines I have crossed, as demarcations of honesty, integrity, and truth, have prepared me to enter this race, to chase down my competition, and give it my best effort, to outlast this opponent, this cheat. Each start line taught me how to run, how to pace myself, how to battle changing adversities, how to surge and how to relax. I just never thought these start line lessons, these defining moments of honest effort, would prepare me to race for my life, to run down the strongest competition to date, an opponent with eons of evolution on it’s side, with the advantage of a non-moral existence, with dishonesty as an asset.

Only cancer knows where it’s start line was, and though my own beginning is also elusive, the most important dynamic is to recognize the race has begun, and to keep running. One way or another, the finish line will come, but the start line, for both of us, is what has made this a race.

Breaking Rules

There was that time at X-Cross Country camp where we got sent home early for tossing water balloons out the third floor window of the room we were assigned for the week. We made it to Wednesday. Admittedly, we were told at the beginning of the week that no horseplay would be tolerated this year, due primarily to our actions last year, when we threw water balloons out the window of our third floor room onto the other campers leaving the building, unfortunately for them, on the sidewalk that ran below our rooms. We broke the rules, because it was fun. And we felt the risk of getting in trouble was worth the moments that had us doubled over in laughter, trying to catch our breath as groups of other runners squealed and screamed as the liquid bombs smacked in front of them, or unluckily, on them. We gambled the second year, and lost. But I won’t say it still wasn’t fun. And hey, we were in high school…it could have been worse, I suppose. We did, however, understand that rules were set and we were breaking them.

There was also that time we cut the fences that bordered the darkened sheds, housing, to use the term loosely, thousands of sentient creatures living out abbreviated lives in pain, misery and madness. There were rules in place then too, and we openly broke them, the same as we broke the locks that kept these creatures confined to a mere foot of travel space on top of wires that cut into the tender flesh on their feet. We broke the locks and let them run free, because the rules in place protected injustice. We broke the rules, consciously, and the natural world is all the better for it.

These incidents, of many, were conscious rule breaking, but sometimes it seems like I was destined to break rules, for better or worse. Whether laws with physical consequences or just social contracts of expected human behavior that exist as more abstract guidelines than actual laws, I’ve found great value in breaking them, not mindlessly, but with understanding and intent. The attempts to restrain the animal within us, for the benefit of the “refined human” ideal, just never appealed to me, and so that sort of rule breaking, against these laws and guidelines came to be almost a default of my existence. The rule breaking became so normative to me, that sometimes it almost seemed to leave the boundaries of conscious rule breaking into the unconscious, almost pre-destined forms. I have trouble following the herd even when I’m not even trying.

The pattern continued this past New Year’s Eve.

I had my follow up appointment with my surgical oncologist, two weeks after my first post-surgery CT scan, where I would learn what may or may not be going on in my body and how we would proceed with this information. This was the first 4 month scan of our plan, and although I would like to say I’m past the emotional weight of these follow-ups, that would be a lie. That would especially be a lie with this follow-up, because the potential that my “window of opportunity” to keep running and training towards a definitive competitive goal might abruptly close should I have to go back on chemo was a very real possibility. I didn’t care of the tumors remained. And I didn’t expect them to have disappeared. I just didn’t want them to have grown and the oncologist advise me to go back on chemo. I REALLY didn’t want that. So there was some apprehension, for sure, while waiting for this follow up.

Sitting on the exam table and it’s crinkly paper, I fought back the emotional regression into a scared little boy fearing a potential, painful shot, as I waited for the oncologist to enter. After a significantly long wait, he pushed through the door and beamed a smile at me in greeting. He was in good spirits and quickly started in on the summary of my situation after a bit of small talk related to the Runner’s World cover contest.

I could quickly deduce from his demeanor and brief explanations that my cancer was not concerning. He hadn’t yet said it, but the tumors hadn’t grown, nor was there any great unforeseen concern. We were probably moving ahead as planned. But first. He talked about breaking rules.

In past exams, when his surprise at my circumstance gave him great enthusiasm, he let spill a few details about my cancer situation that I had not understood to that point. I distinctly remember him saying that he didn’t think it would be worth it to “go back in” (a second surgery) after the first, because there was so many tumors and he was convinced everything would continue to spiral out of control, but I was doing so well and everything remained stable, giving him great hope for the future. The enthusiasm continued at the next followup when we scheduled the second surgery. I won’t lie, that news was a little shocking, but more just fascinating. I had been doing well for quite some time, so any sense of dread for my future had never materialized. This information was just another unexpected twist in my story and another hurdle of adversity I had unwittingly overcome. I had, in that sense, unconsciously broke a rule he had established for me. I had kept living.

This time though, he delivered a new bit of information about my narrative I had never understood, that not only gave me pause, but caused my stomach to drop for a moment. Not only did he let on in the past that he was surprised I was still alive for the second surgery, he this time he informed me that HE broke the rules before the first…in that he actually conducted the surgery at all.

“You know, most surgeons would not have operated on you. Your cancer index was too high. You had too many tumors…but I took a chance. I broke the rules. I had luck in the past and I figured your youth and health was on your side, so I broke the rules and operated on you. Most surgeons would not have.”

Yes, my stomach dropped. If he hadn’t broken the rules, I would be dead right now. He went on..

“I broke the rules. And now you’re breaking the rules. You’re defying the odds.”

This time, admittedly, breaking the rules is an unconscious act. I’m not doing anything to break the rules, I’m just doing it by existing, by remaining an outlier, a stray dot on a graph of life expectancy and cancer statistics. HE’s the one that consciously, deliberately broke the rules, and operated on me despite the “rules” and protocols that would have suggested that I wasn’t worth it, that I was too far gone. I can’t begin to describe the sense of gratitude that consumed me in the moment he told me this new information, that he saved my life only because he broke the rules.

And if there has ever been a greater validation in my life that breaking the rules often reaps the most rewards, creates the greatest life and affords one the most unexpected, deeply valued experiences…I have yet to know it. I could dwell on the what if’s of his decision, if he wavered, if for whatever reason he made a choice to follow the rules and stick to protocol, but really, there isn’t much to dwell upon. There is only the obvious, that I wouldn’t be here to dwell.

But for now, I am here, and it’s due, in part, to a breaking of rules, of following a trajectory that is brave, unknown, and risky. I’ve always felt kinship with the daredevils, the revolutionaries, the outcasts, and everyone that embraced their youthful energy and skepticism to create life on their terms, but didn’t let it all go when sensibility and adulthood crept in. It is those rule breakers that shape our world, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, but shape it no less. It is those rule breakers that find a reward for themselves if no one else. And it is those rule breakers to whom I feel the greatest connection, but even if breaking rules consistently is not the normative path, I’m grateful for those that, in the face of certain moments, opt to break rules for even a momentary risk, an attempt at a distant reward.

I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for that one broken rule.