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.
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.