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.