Monthly Archives: October 2015

Look Ahead. Look Back.

A conversation about perspective has come up with two runners I’m currently coaching. One admitted trouble in feeling the progress they’ve made until they looked back to where they started. The other is just beginning their plan and I conveyed similar advice, reminding them to compare abilities at the end of their training block to those at the beginning. The differences are astounding.

I’ve experienced this same revelation of comparison countless times over my years of running, looking back to see what advancements I’ve made in ability from the start of one training block to the end. Admittedly, it was sometimes difficult to see significant progressions when I felt like I was constantly pushing against the ceiling of my abilities at the get go, instead of starting from square one and building. The progressions, however, were there.

But now, with treatments and surgeries, the difference from starting a period of training until the point where the slate gets wiped clean yet again, are almost impossible to miss. Even so, my drive for progression and comparison with my “old running self” tends to cloud my vision, keeping perspective a little more elusive than it should be. The past few weeks, though, brought a clarity that has been as encouraging as it has been stark.

I stood in the locker room of the Y after my run, combing my hair in the mirror, when just behind me I heard the commentator on the TV say, “…Runner’s World Cover Contest.”

I whipped around to see they were unveiling this year’s winners on the Today show, and it was my fortune to be in front of a TV when this was happening. I watched the unveiling, the winner’s expressions, and compared their contest experiences to my own, which instantly brought me back to the time when my own cover was unveiled on HuffPro exactly one year ago.

One year? Has it really only been one year? Thinking about this after my run today, it seemed that it has been much longer than a year. So much has happened since this time last year that I’ve surely forgotten some of it, and yet, it also seems so close, like only a handful of months have passed since that crazy experience took place. One thing, however, was not forgotten amidst all the crazy that has gone down, which is where I was physically one year ago. Just one short year.

I could run…slowly, and not very far. A handful of miles necessitated walk breaks in order to get my heart rate down into safe territory. My body was still thin and frail from the ravages of surgery, my face showing more structure than is deemed sufficient and healthy. I was generally pretty weak, still battling my compromised lungs and needing to take deep breaths every time I bent over or kneeled down for some basic task. Just one year ago I was still completely wasted from the effects of surgery and chemotherapy…but I was getting stronger.

Little by little, I gained back strength, built capacity into my lungs, and pushed against the wall of my abilities as consistently as I could manage. Day after day, week after week, month after month…

Until two weeks ago when I put all that effort on the line at the Runner’s World Half and crossed the line in 1:20:02, validating all the effort, solidifying my strength, and proving the possibility for myself once again. I was able to confidently look back a year ago and say, “I’ve progressed. I’m better than I once was.”

Today I finished a 20 mile run in 2:16, my last long run before I complete a taper to the Monumental Marathon where I will be pacing either the 3:10, 3:05 or 3:00 runners to an ambitious finish. I stood at the end of my effort, worn, but strong, confident, and filled with the pride of accomplishment, not just for the ease in which I completed my long run, but for the efforts of the entire year prior that brought me from a weak, frail, post-surgery runner to the athlete I am today. This time, the perspective of where I was compared to where I am, is impossible to miss.

I don’t have to look ahead right now, to see the accomplishments I want to achieve, but can rest in the satisfaction of looking back, to see where I once was. It can be hard to remember to do just that, but no matter what may come, for any of us, the victory is in that effort, of reaching a new state of ability and remembering where you were in order to get where you are.

I try to never forget this lesson for myself and constantly remind my own runners, because sometimes you don’t FEEL stronger, especially deep into your training and when you’re always inching forward the boundary of your abilities, but to KNOW you’re stronger, can’t be undervalued.

At this point I still have 2 months to progress to some unrecognized degree of ability before my slate is wiped clean again (smashed to the ground is probably more accurate), but I plan to put the pieces back together and build and build until I can, once again, look back to see just how far I’ve come.

Then I’ll turn around and keep going.

Runner’s World Half Marathon – Race Report – Part 3 / 3

————Part 3———

The bicycle pacer rolled in front of the lead woman who was looking strong and in control, while the other male runner beat out a rhythm with his footfalls that would lead me to believe he was struggling. They were loud, quick, and seemingly frantic, yet he wasn’t struggling, and I found it difficult to remain calm at that pace and stride. I’d like to say I pulled ahead to put the sound of his feet smacking the pavement back behind me, but really, the opposite occurred. As the lead woman made ground, he was able to hang on her back and follow while I waited out the distance in an effort to recover from that last hill climb. Ever so slowly, they put space between themselves and me, just when the course began it’s undulating drops back into town and towards the finish.

Admittedly, I’d love to say that when we left that cemetery, at the high point of the course, I dug into the well of strength I was reserving and launched into a quickened pace, eating up the other runners and miles in front of me, seemingly getting stronger as the race drew on. But…that didn’t happen. Fortunately, I didn’t crash and burn either. I held steady…and this was good.

The three of us exited the cemetery and started into the streets lined by houses and businesses, the road dropping just before rising again, then dropping, then rising again. The course description read “It’s all downhill from here”, but I knew that wouldn’t be true. If you tell a runner it’s “all” downhill, we’re going to assume it’s ALL downhill, but it wasn’t. The drops fell into the start of another block long climb, before dropping and then climbing, like a gentle roller coaster, which can significantly drain the body of strength as you adjust to the varied efforts. And yet, those downhills filled my legs with the rhythm of quick running again and again, letting me push at every opportunity, and it was a victory that I could.

The small inclines would pull my efforts back, but at each subsequent decline I was able to get back into race pace and push ahead, despite the runners just ahead making slight ground in getting away. Still, I stayed in 9th place and heard no cheering off my back, leading me to believe no one was making a concerted effort to run me down. I repeated the phrase that tends to enter my mind at this point in the race. “If you’re hurting, they’re going to have to hurt even worse to catch you.” And so I kept laying into each moment I could free my body from the forces of gravity, and it was encouraging to feel I had enough in me to keep doing just that.

The undulations were wearing on me, however, but the encouragement of the spectators in this more crowded part of the course pushed me forward. We passed the 10 mile mark and the relief of “only a 5k” compelled me onward into a slight drop towards another left hand turn. As the downward force was pounding into my legs and sapping my resolve, I neared the turn and heard a spectator excitedly yell out in my direction.

“Ratt! Yeah! Ratt! Round and round! Round and round! Yeah, I love your shirt!”

His excitement was genuine and unbridled, igniting a surge of adrenaline within me that had me take the turn with a renewed sense of determination. I mean, with that sort of encouragement, how could I disappoint? And his enthusiasm came at just the right moment, as the course turned somewhat sharply upward – at least, it felt that way – for a block or two, but I took the turn without losing speed and pushed harder up the hill. Behind me, the spectator’s enthusiasm continued on,

“Did you see that?! He had a Ratt shirt on! Round and Round! Yeah, Round and Round!”

Invigorated by this quick surge, I looked ahead to see the 8th place runner and the course turn yet again, sending us back down towards the bridge we crossed after the 1st mile. I crested the rise, made the turn and managed to hold onto my pace as I sense my heart rate increasing with the distance. Fortunately, the course seemed to continue dropping as we ran forward, then with little warning dropped further and further, sending us into “hill bombing” mode, forcing me to gain control of my form and not resist the muscle shredding impact of each footfall. The final downward hill turned back into the bridge we first crossed and I could feel the psychological release of the race almost complete. Almost.

I got to the bridge, the runner ahead just out of striking distance, and felt the pointed pain on the side of my knee spike abruptly, the IT band worked too hard on the previous downhill. I stopped cold, bent my leg, and then pushed back onto the bridge pain-free, hoping that would be the last interruption of pace before the finish line.

Crossing over the bridge, I tried to measure my pace towards something strong but still reserved enough to keep from a pre-finish blow up, then took a turn that brought us near the finish line, but then right past it. I ran by the 12 mile time clock and did some quick, amateur math, realizing I was probably a full minute behind the 1:20 breaking point. I was ok with that, knowing that, at this point, I had beat the course and not the other way around. I hit my goal, but the race wasn’t over.

I ran through a crowd of spectators and heard a volunteer call out, “Just one more quick rise and then you’re done.” Admittedly, I started to FEEL done, but knew I needed to hang on just a bit longer. I ran up the hill, but couldn’t find the drive to push hard, hoping I could make up for the digression on the final finish stretch. Making it over the hill I saw the runner in front of me make the turn at the bottom of the next descent, quite possibly in striking distance now. Maybe I had made up some ground. Maybe he had lost some. Either way, I let gravity pull my body down the hill more than anything else, took the turn, and ran smack into a consistent blow of head on wind. A sidelining monsoon by no means, the wind coupled with end of race fatigue was enough to hold off my final push a little further.

Another short turn kept the finish line out of sight and as I tried to bound off the ground hard, each marker I ran towards seemed to lie a few seconds further away as I closed in. Time was slowing the closer I got, like those dreams where you run as hard as you can, but seem stuck in thick mud.

And then..the course straightened out, and the 13 mile clock ticked away. 1:19:30 when I passed by, and it hit me that I had 30 seconds to finish out the final 100 meters or so. That seemed ridiculous, but the distance marker fully confirmed that it was time to go and I instantly picked up pace into a finish push, the act somehow finding a reserve deeper within me, and where I figured I would only be able to get across the line so quick, I was able to find another gear and then another, letting loose into a full on effort. I was running as strong and fluid as if I was completing my run outs at the start. I peeked at the clock as the finish mats came towards me.

1:20:00. 1:20:01. 1:20:02.

I leaned across the mat, felt the weight of my pace push my body forward, and abruptly caught my momentum, pressing palms into the tops of my knees and letting that indescribably sweet sense of relief and breath fill my body. Standing up to walk ahead a few paces, I felt the urge to lean back over, my body drained of everything I built into it up to that race. A volunteer ran over and wrapped my torso in a reflective space blanket, protecting me against the cold wind that kept blowing across the finish area.

Catching a more sustained relief, I stood up to walk ahead and caught sight of Laura on the other side of the barricades. I looked at her between two fingers squeezed just together, as to say, “This close. I was this close.” And the fatigue hit again. I leaned on the barricades, waiting out the exhaustion and sought a more sustained relief. And when it came, so did the exhilaration, of completing what I set out to do, on so many levels.

The race was over, and I could walk off the course, and back into my life where another battle waits.

Runner’s World Half Marathon
9th Place
New Cancer PR








Runner’s World Half Marathon – Race Report – Part 2

———Part 2——–

start area

start nervousness

I took a few nervous glances around the start area, sleek bodies peppered up front, self-consciously staying away from the actual start line. The usual cast of runners owned their places, dressed in shorts at near illegal length, college names emblazoned on singlets, the most minimal of brightly colored shoes adorning their feet. I wasn’t much different, except, and it’s worth mentioning, I was wearing my circa 1987 RATT Dancing Dangerously tour t-shirt. I mention this, because more than just a deliberate, antagonistic break from elite runner attire, this shirt represents something to me. Again, going back to my days of more care-free running and racing, this was the shirt I often wore at trail races. Honestly, I don’t remember why I chose it to race in, but it ended up becoming my “thing”. Ultimately, this is how people remembered who I was. For me, however, this shirt is more a representation of just running, of not worrying about exact splits, perfect fueling, practiced form, and all those details that can really get in your head. This shirt represented putting on some shoes and just running. It felt good to put it back on the race course.

Minutes before the start I began my routine of light jogging, warm up drills, and quick, strong run outs. The race hadn’t even started, but I felt great, if only because I was back in my element, not as an imposter wishing I could hang up front despite all the evidence to the contrary, but because I really could hang up front this time. It has been almost 3 years since feeling this, and damn, it felt good. It felt exciting. My run outs surprisingly felt the same. A few quick bursts and my heart rate never spiked, my legs filled with a strength and fluidity that signaled I was more than ready to race. A few more minutes ticked by, the swell of runners inched closer to the start line, and we were ready to go.

With a short countdown and an air horn blasting skyward, we bounded forward into the course to eat up the first declining mile. A group of us scattered out front to settle into our respective paces and determine where we would line up around the rest. Instantly a group of four runners gathered up front, two more coupled a few paces behind, and then myself. I sensed and heard runners behind me, but dared not look back to see what might be coming. The declining mile convinced me I would be tucked back among many runners that went out too hard with the aided elevation loss, but that never happened, and not because I was pushing to hard either. I was reserved, as I had consistently reminded myself, and very reserved. I was cruising as if starting a long run warm up, but still up front and losing the footfalls of other runners behind me. Looking ahead, I saw one of the coupled runners made a comfortable surge to run with the front pack, leaving the 6th runner on his own, giving me a bright orange singlet to keep in sight like an elusive carrot to horse.

We rolled past the first mile marker, but I didn’t see it or a clock, fortunately, as I dared not get the concern of pacing in my head, compelling me to compensate one way or the other. My goal was to beat the course and leave it at that, so when we rolled up onto the bridge that spit us out down a short downhill and towards the base of the first extended climb, I was glad to be feeling completely in control and breathing calmly. The runner ahead was still in sight and not gaining or losing much ground in our efforts.

The first climb extended from about 2 miles to 3 and a quarter, but offered moments of relief when the course would turn then slightly dip before rising again. At one point of the climb, however, it wouldn’t relent until we peaked and dropped again. I worked my way up the hill, trying to maintain a decent pace and solid form, but not going for an all out attack and expending the strength I would need later in the race. Reaching the top of the drawn out climb, I was glad to find a quickened recovery within me and the ability to push back to pace and then some as the course began a drop back downwards. We ran through neighborhood streets with a spattering of spectators offering words of encouragement quieted by the early morning, or more excitable children ringing cowbells and taking advantage of the permission to yell without reservation.

I stayed secure in my 7th place position as the course dropped abruptly, like really abruptly, forcing the decision to bomb the hill and risk banging up the quads and aggravating my IT band issue, or braking slightly, also a risk of banging the quads and aggravating my IT band. With little difference in effect between the two, I decided to go for broke and let gravity take me where it may. Trying my best to bound lightly into and off the ground, using the momentum of the downward pull to lessen the blow, the course quickly bottomed out, but only briefly before pushing us back up a significantly steep and pace sucking hill for nearly a quarter of a mile.

The change from downward speed to an uphill battle was immediately felt and I tried to switch from lungs beating out of control to legs that could carry me to the top as quick as possible. Again, I didn’t try to fight the hill, but stay stable and keep form up and over, hoping the peak didn’t involve a slumping body and legs emptied of strength that would barely swing forward. I felt the weight of the climb wearing on me as the top of the hill and a cheering section waited, but I was excited to find I could pick up speed at the top, rolling me through the crowds quickly and back towards the next turn that lay on undulations in decline, the bright orange runner still in sight ahead of me and only distant cheers for the next runners following up from behind.

Speaking of cheers, among the “looking good!”, and “nice work!”, I started to hear a bit of, “Hey! Nice shirt!” and “Ratt! I like your shirt!” I was pleasantly amused, but far too focused to respond…more on that to come.

After rolling the second hill, the course found it’s way onto an isolated back road that offered some flat terrain for recovery and gauge of pacing. It was here we passed the 5 mile clock and I caught my first sense of how the race was going, time-wise, kinda. I took a quick glance, still running comfortable and in control, to see the clock ticking out 29 minutes and change. I quickly did the most poor of math and thought to myself, “Shit…7 minute pace? I figured I was running harder than that. Those hills must be more problematic than I thou…wait…5 times, wait, 6, that’s 30:00. Oh! Shit! I’m at sub-6:00 pace. Nevermind! I can work with this!”

And I was still feeling strong and in control.

The bright orange runner still lay in sight, just ahead, and the cheers resounded relatively distant behind, just as the course took a turn that began a long, significantly fatiguing, uphill climb from mile 5.5 to 6. This was the type of climb that seemed to only get steeper as it extended around each turn and when you thought the end was in sight, it grew away from you, testing your resolve to keep pushing against your resisting legs and quickening lungs. A water station at the top of the crowd was the only impetus for me to keep pushing, compelling me to salvage a bit of my broken ego, pretending I wasn’t desperately seeking the end of the climb and ready to keep pushing strong. Somehow, in the midst of all that, I dropped my hand to give a quick high-five to one of the little kids on the sidelines, maybe a more true testament to my resolve at this point. The climbs, however, weren’t over just yet. I was beating the course, but hadn’t beat it just yet.

The course turned along side a golf course and stretched far off into the distance, the only relief being a slight decline that helped me get my legs back under me, recover my lungs just enough to fall back into rhythm, and start pushing again. The bright orange runner, however, had started to get away at this point, and the cheers for me were soon followed by more close behind. Someone…or someones…was gaining. Still, I dare not look back, for they weren’t my competition. The course and my resolve was.

I fell back into rhythm down the long stretch and made my way to an abrupt downhill that would meet the final potential race ruining climb that peaked just past halfway in an isolated neighborhood that brought out a sizable crowd of spectators to cheer us in and out. Bombing that short, but steep, hill just before the climb I suddenly felt that worrisome and pointed pain to the side of my knee, signaling a tightening IT band. I adjusted form and tried to run through it at the bottom, but the pain quickly increased, forcing me to stop for the first time, make my brief outward leg bend before starting back up again and barely stopping in the process, probably only losing a second or two. The pain dissipated as I knew it would, and I was pain-free for another few miles. But I still had the hill to conquer.

I started picking my way up the steep climb, a group of spectators cheering us as the course turned left…into another steep upward climb towards the top of the hill where the crowds waited. The incline was taking its toll and I struggled to bound my body up the hill with strength, feeling my torso bending over instead of pushing straight and tall to the top. My lungs beat hard and fast and I craved the relief that would come in the rolling neighborhood, but in the moment I was feeling the burn. The gathered crowd cheered hard, but I couldn’t help but internalize pity in their voices as my face surely looked strained. Then, when the doubt mounted with the elevation, the road curved over and finally let the recovery flood my body as I ran away from the spectators, however, the cheers behind came almost as soon as I passed, alerting me to other runners just behind. I said the battle was against the course, but I can’t leave all the competitiveness behind, and I started telling myself, “Ok, 8th or 9th place is totally fine, even 10th. Top 10 would be great. What about 13th? Damn. I don’t wanna get rolled into 13th this late in the race. I just hope I can hang onto the top 10.”

All this conversation was enabled by the course relatively leveling out, though the recovery I hoped for remained elusive. I waited out the spiked heart rate and tried to find my legs beneath me, which happened, surprisingly, as the course wrapped around the neighborhood and ever so slightly inclined back up. Suddenly my arms were swinging straight and I felt the consistent control I had earlier in the race. The hills had certainly taken their toll, but I wasn’t in a suffer to the finish mode just yet. I didn’t claim victory over the course prematurely, but I knew this was my turning point, where I could start to let go and really push without reservation. I ran past the spectators again, catching sight of the other runners coming into the neighborhood, and turned back towards the downtown, and then turned again…the wrong way.

Somehow, still a bit out of my head from the effort, I turned left when the course went right, inside a couple cones and RIGHT BY A COURSE VOLUNTEER. I saw the course volunteer stick his arm out to signal to the runners behind me to go right, looked up to see cars off in the distance, which gave me pause and made me question my sense of direction, only to hear a powerful voice yell out behind me,

“Hey! No! This way!”

I turned, saw the first woman lead by a bicycle rider, who was the one redirecting me to the course, pass right by, followed by another runner.

“Shit.” I verbalized to myself as I ran back on the course, losing a few seconds in the mistake.

Fortunately, they were the only ones in striking distance at that point, and so I remained in 9th place, comfortably in that top 10 placing I was hoping to retain. I rolled up a few paces behind the lead woman, passed the other male runner who was hanging on to her pace, and tried to fall back into a groove where my internal fight was to begin. And I still had about 5 more miles to see how that would all play out…

——–Part 3 to come——–

Runner’s World Half Marathon – Race Report – Part 1 – The Pressure Builds


Runner’s World Half Marathon
Race Report
Part 1
The Pressure Builds

The Runner’s World Half Marathon was supposed to be something of a last hurrah, a final celebration of my life in between surgeries, because I’ve come to find that my life is now dictated by the space in between each. It’s just impossible to predict what happens after each operation, so the only time to make is the space of ability between the end of one and the beginning of the other. When I woke the first time, into a world of pain, I thought I was going to be cancer-free, only to find that certainly wasn’t the case. I woke the second time expecting a period of recovery that would stretch for months, again, only to find that wasn’t the case, fortunately. So where I would like to hold to some expectation of what is to come, I simply don’t anymore, and am left to just make the most of the time I have in the present…which brings me to this race.

As my running abilities progressed over the last year plus since my last surgery, I found the potential to run faster and faster, even forcing my pace into legitimate competitive racing territory, if against myself and no one else. Motivated by this realization of experiencing, if only fleetingly, this past self lost to the cancer experience, I set my training and my eyes on a fast half-marathon, maximizing the potential within by running it as close to my next surgery as possible. That was supposed to be this coming Tuesday (the 27th), but as mentioned elsewhere, an insurance change has delayed the operation until January. Although that does afford me some more time to squeeze in a few more focused runs, this half might still be my last competitive go, to see what I could do with my body despite cancer. I penciled in the Runner’s World Half on my calendar and set to dedicated training.

As exciting as this was, I won’t deny it was also stressful as the days cut down to the race and the pressure of performing began to mount. I had been training for both the ultra run benefit and this half at the same time, and when the ultra was cut short due to “injury”, that put this entire half into jeopardy. I actually committed to NOT running this half when three weeks after my ultra I still couldn’t run more than 30 minutes at a time.

And then, well, I’m not sure what happened. I kept working on my strength training and periodically tested my legs when it all started to come together and I could run for extended periods…and quickly. But I still only had a month and a half to prepare for this half, with no idea of what abilities lay deeper within me. If I was going to run this race, I needed to maximize every day of running I had, and that’s when something really changed. I went back to my roots.

Prior to my first marathon, I ran differently. Or I should say, I trained differently. Before appropriate mileage, dedicated pacing, and sufficient recovery times had rigidly entered my headspace, I ran more free. I ran my workouts on a schedule similar to now – Tuesday / Thursday workouts and Saturday long runs – but all my other efforts were run without concerns about “slow recovery” or within a certain range…I just ran. If I felt tired, I ran slower. If I felt good, I laid into it, sometimes bounding through 6:00 per mile easy runs with little effort. I just enjoyed myself. This was also the mentality I took to my races. I didn’t really go by per mile pacing, hell, I didn’t even wear a watch. I just stepped to the line and ran how I felt. Admittedly, this didn’t always work out. Sometimes my workouts failed because I couldn’t sustain the effort and sometimes my races were compromised when I blazed through the first two miles at 5:00 pace. But overall, I was enjoying myself…and I wanted to get back to that.

Effectively meshing the lessons I learned about reservation with the more joyful efforts of running without worry, I started training for this half with a new excitement and a satisfaction that extended far into the day when the runs were complete. Somewhere in the midst of all that training I also started to realize that a sub 1:20 half might be in my abilities. I began training around 6:00 pace when necessary and continued to assess how that might feel over 13.1 miles and with the appropriate recovery and adrenaline that comprises the body on race day. I never knew if that was an attainable goal during all my efforts, but it was exactly how I like my goals, enticingly difficult and potentially just out of reach. Each day I would put in workouts that touched at the pacing, and make sure to throw in sufficient paces into my easy runs as well, slowly picking up pace until I dipped below 6:00 for a bit, just to build the effect into my body and train me to gauge how it felt in the moment.

Bit by bit, day by day, week by week, race day neared and the pressure began to build. Like, really began to build. Like, began to build so much that it surpassed normal nervousness and became near crippling. Mind you, I’m used to worry and fear and tension before a race, but this one seemed to hold a little more significance than all the others in the past, as it was my last chance, so to speak. Every race prior was just a stepping stone to another, while this, for all that may happen post-surgery, could be my last. I wanted to make the most of it, and so the potential for failure was weighing on me to a degree I had not really felt before. And with the ultra run cut short still gnawing at my ego, the last thing I wanted prior to surgery was another failure. I NEEDED this to go well. But needing and doing are worlds apart.

At some point, this self-imposed pressure built so much that, for my own emotional stability, I needed to release some of it. I had taken myself from a valuable nervousness to an unhealthy tension. So, in an attempt to release some of this pressure, I changed my finish time expectations. Actually, I erased them. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to dip under 1:20 anymore because even though my workouts were going well and I was feeling great about running the entire distance with strength, that didn’t mean I was going to make it count on race day. Maybe the distance would break me down. Maybe my IT band issue would flair up again and cause me to DNF. Maybe…who knows…I just wasn’t ready to say, “Yeah, I can run sub 1:20, no problem.” because I didn’t want to go into surgery with my last hurrah being a last “meh.” With that consideration, I relied on the elusive well of ability that lay deep within my body to dictate my finish time…and I decided to go back to my roots again, getting rid of my watch on race day. I wouldn’t look at it through any splits, any per mile pace, for whatever was in my body was going to get me to the finish, not what my watch would say.

I do feel compelled to clarify that, at the very least, I had myself grounded enough to keep perspective, to recognize that, “Hey, dude, you have cancer. And hey, you are just over a year out of surgery. And hey..dude…you have cancer.” because there was a point that a 1:20 half wouldn’t have been a reason to celebrate. It would have been a reason to determine what went seriously wrong. Pre-diagnosis I was running 1:12 half’s and then trying to figure out what went wrong in my training as I should have been in the 1:10’s, so at the very least, coming to terms with running a 1:20 half was a victory in itself.

But hey, I’m a competitive runner, so I’m not going to pretend that I would be happy with anything, come what may. I had verbalized a 1:20 to myself and it was hard to get away from that, even if I later said, “anything under 1:30”, etc. To myself, no matter how hard I tried to ignore it, I kept repeating…”1:20. 1:20. 1:20”.

Which might help explain why all of a sudden my stomach was a flurry of knots and folding in on itself as race day neared.

I prepared, but wasn’t sure I was prepared…if that makes sense. I wanted to perform, but first I had to make it to the start.

The days leading up to the race involved a great deal of driving out East as we bounced to a wedding and a couple other locations before finding our way to Bethlehem PA where the race would be run. I’m sorry to admit, but the nervousness was so intense that I had trouble concentrating on the moments at hand, whether it was the wedding or celebrations. Until I found my way to the finish line, I was going to be a distracted mess. The endless miles of driving out East were an effort in distraction, trying to think about anything but the race as every time I did my stomach would twist and turn with butterflies. And each day closer meant more and more moments of near crippling worry.

And that’s when we found ourselves driving the actual course to more closely determine how this race might go, and whatever worries I had about going 1:20 were heightened out of control. The course was hilly. But not just hilly as most courses rise and fall, but the hills were abrupt, steep, and the primary efforts would take place in the first half of the race, meaning that a solid time and a strong effort would rely on a very focused reservation…something I’ve struggled with since I stepped to my first start line. Suffice to say, when we completed driving the course, any idea of running 1:20 was out the window. A successful race the next day would hinge on one thing, running a SMART race. I don’t exaggerate when I say running a smart race, for me, is probably more difficult than running at my abilities. To run in a way that beats the course instead of your time takes strategy, reservation, pointed surges, and a conservation of energy that is let go at just the right time. It’s no small thing to pull off.

After we finished driving the course, my mental state had completely changed. Instead of repeating the image in my head of what a 6:00 pace felt like, I had to continuously imagine running reservedly, making adjustments as each hill dictated recovery, and digging deep to throw down in the second half. I stopped thinking about redlining it and started thinking about how I was going to push hard after the hills had been passed and the course let me open up. The race suddenly felt less like a fight and more like an art. I went to bed memorizing my strategy and woke repeating the same.

Laura and I found our way to the start line under a dark sky just beginning to lighten, my type A personality getting us there so early I wondered if anyone else planned on running with me. The temperature was a solid 35 degrees, the absolute perfect air temperature for running, allowing the body to concentrate entirely on transporting oxygen to the legs and lungs and not to cool the internal core. Any effort today would be determined by our maximum abilities and not compromised by external excuses. I nervously sat with Laura at the start staging area, my warm sweatshirt creating a place for me to hide my worry along with my face. I popped my ear buds in and went into a different mental and emotional space, building adrenaline at the rate of my concern, trying to prepare for a smart fight as much as a reserved start.

As each minute ticked away like an hour, I found myself in my own head again, the tension mounting to an apex.

“Why do you do this to yourself? This is crazy! I mean…look at you…you’re a basket case. Dude, this is just a run and nothing more. Seriously, this is it. This is the last time. This just isn’t worth it. This sort of worry isn’t what life is for.”

But…yeah…that’s not true. I don’t always have the words to explain it, but i know many of my distance running friends feel it. This IS what life is for. This incredible worry and concern means something. It feels out of control sometimes, and for such a simple, momentary physical effort, and nothing else, but for some reason it means the world. It’s SO HARD to let go. Hence, having cancer, having surgeries, and being here at the start. I don’t know, in that moment I felt crushed. I felt obsessive, ridiculous, completely ungrounded…but I knew that’s EXACTLY WHERE I NEEDED TO BE. Less than 30 minutes away I knew all that insane, crippling fear would subside into a physical effort that is all mine, that is only mine, that is the culmination of months and months and months of dedicated training…and recovery from a crazy surgical procedure.

I wanted to perform to my best, because this was it. This was my last chance to make something of the time between surgeries, to put all that training into a moment that would define what I can be capable of despite everything that says I shouldn’t be. If it wasn’t even about not failing, it was more about succeeding to my greatest potential in this moment. All that stood between that final moment was about 30 minutes and 13.1 miles of race course.

—————— Part 2 to come ————

Plans and Mirages

He had his head together, but I could tell he hung by his fingertips. Sometimes, as he talked about his wife and grandkids, his eyes welled up with tears, but managed to keep it together for social graces, if nothing else. Recently diagnosed, he was understandably scared, for the prognosis wasn’t good. I didn’t know exactly what to say, as an experience of cancer is as complex as the number of individuals diagnosed, but I did have enough trials over the past 2 1/2 years to at least touch on the basics. In the end, however, I could only relay the one lesson that hasn’t seemed to change for me or for anyone else I know that is facing cancer.

Nothing goes as planned.

Life expectancies change. Treatments fail and treatments succeed. Survival rates are circumvented by anomalies. An oncologist tells you one plan while your other oncologist changes it. Expectations of surgery are stated, but when you wake your world is altered beyond repair. And what you always believe will happen, within all expectation of reason…doesn’t.

It’s an awful existence within which to reside, as life plans feel forever precarious, tenuous, like walking on a tightrope stretched between certain death or pulled so taut it’s liable to break without warning. You want to plan for a future, but the ravages of treatment yet to be felt leave you unable to commit. You really, truly, deeply feel that everything will be all right and the future is as open as it was pre-diagnosis, but something about that hopeful vision feels hollow, romanticized, and dangerous. You wonder if you can take one more accumulated disappointment. You stop believing in a life of relative permanence. You give up on giving in to love and trust.

You just wait, because nothing is guaranteed, not even the small expectations, the things you CAN reasonably expect. Those just don’t exist anymore. But somehow, you must still navigate through a life that depends upon future planning, upon preparing for the good or the bad…but how?

I told this stranger, a relation that quickly faded into the unfortunate bonds of an abbreviated life through cancer, that nothing is guaranteed, in hopes that it would be received as a positive sentiment. I hoped to prepare him for the unexpected treatments and changes in treatments and outcomes of treatments that would come, but to also remember that the unexpecteds apply to the odds as well. Some people that are supposed to be dead…aren’t. I’m proving that.

I was comfortable in my position as I told him all this, but it was a reminder that couldn’t have come at a better time. I had my own plan laid out before me, culminating in a third surgery that I hoped (irresponsibly) would follow a trend of quick recovery and push me towards distant goals I sketched into the coming year. And then…nothing went as planned. The surgical oncology office called to tell me that our State health insurance abruptly switched, leaving half their patients (including me) and the office itself scrambling to adjust. I, fortunately, remained covered through medicaid, but the office needed to be approved in the State plan before we could move forward with surgery, so until then, I can’t have surgery. All my planning, my countdown to surgery, my visions for the months and year to come went up like smoke, like a mirage of hope, into that emotional space I’ve had to navigate since diagnosis when everything I thought was sensible and reasonable no longer was. Like the floor falling out from beneath me, I flailed my arms trying to grasp onto something to ground me again, to make new plans, no matter how precarious.

Unfortunately, until a new surgery date is set, I won’t have that precarious plan set in place again. Until then, I’ve decided to put my emotional expectations back into the only reliable part of my life, of which I have complete control…running. It truly is the only act I can control, manipulate, and serve to my needs. I can seek a certain emotional experience that, even if doesn’t go as planned, I at least know was of my doing. And so I’m readjusting my running to have SOMETHING I can rely on daily, as I wait for that call from my oncologist.

Specifically, my goal was to run the Runner’s World Half Marathon one week before my surgery, as a celebration, a final opportunity to close out my between surgery running with an effort as complete as I could manage. And that is still my goal, but now I have a space after the run that allows for more running, which gives me something to look forward to, silver linings amongst a lot of threatening clouds rolling in. First, though, I’ve got 13.1 miles to cover as fast as I can.

Which brings me back to guarantees and expectations.

Running is something of a formulaic equation, where one puts in the appropriate amount of work to generate a specific physical outcome. It surely isn’t as defined as 1 + 1 = 2, but there are some hard and fast rules to progressing as a competitive runner. I’ve been following this mathematical approach to my running as I gear up for the Half, but I know I can’t rely on any equation to get me to the finish line. There are too many changing variables and nothing is guaranteed.

A few encouraging runs had me quickly eyeing a sub-1:20 half, and although that is an embarrassing finish compared to my pre-diagnosis running self, it’s more than respectable at this point. And yet, I got scared. All of a sudden I had claimed an expectation, a guarantee come race day, that I’m not ready to place my emotional excitement within. Maybe it’s a holdover from the past 2 1/2 years, but where I would unreservedly state a finishing time and go for it, now the number feels like a dangerous mirage, a promise of excitement left to fade in a haze of unexpecteds. I’m just not ready to do that anymore. I can’t commit. Nothing is guaranteed and I’m tired of being let down. I’m tired of understanding what SHOULD happen, only to take a step forward and fall off a cliff. This whole past 2 1/2 years feels like I was running towards the finish line when 400 meters from breaking the tape I ran right off a cliff, and I’ve been falling ever since.

So I’ve personally redacted my expectation of a finish time. I’ve shut off the clock, thrown away my watch. I’m just going to run and see what happens.

Speaking of throwing away my watch. I am going to run this half-marathon (he says with great trepidation of everything going as planned to the start line…does he read anything he writes?), but I’m also going back to my roots with this one. With no idea of what the course looks like. No idea what the body is capable of at this point. No expectation of past performances to build upon. No watch.

The beginning of my running career consisted of a repetitive start line photo, a string of runners all leaning forward, their heads down and fingers gently resting on the start button of their watches. I stood somewhere in that line, leaning forward all the same, but arms cocked in mid-stride pose, watchless, looking down the course. I didn’t know splits, pacing, anything. I just ran. I let the chips fall where they may when I made it to the finish. As fortune would have it, I often found myself crossing the line first, despite doing it “all wrong.” But there was something satisfying, even liberating about that. I liked to just go by feel, to run within myself, and damn the watch. No knowledge of pace was going to change what my body could do within the moment. I had no expectation, no guarantee of time. What happened is what showed on the clock when I crossed the line.

So I’m going back to my early days of competitive running, when I had no expectations, no guarantees, no plan. It simply doesn’t matter what happens from here on out. I’m going forward and waiting for the gun to go off, then finding my way to the finish, however that plays out. I don’t expect it to go smoothly or easily or leave me in personal victory…but maybe it will.

And I’m going forward and waiting for the phone call, then finding my way to the other side of surgery, however that plays out. I don’t expect it to go smoothly or easily or leave me in personal victory…but maybe it will.

There are no guarantees. Nothing goes as planned…there is only finding one’s way through the course. Now, I just have to get to the start.