I stopped marking New Year’s Day as a life reset, an arbitrary time line to think back on the past year and make plans for the future. As a person who seems to always be scheming and planning for the future, while looking to the past for mistakes and successes, I never felt the drive to make resolutions or put any degree of importance in planning my life in a haphazard last second fashion dictated by cultural pressure to do so. The experiences and lessons of my life are on a continuous timeline, a trajectory that is rarely broken by moments that demand resets or slates wiped clean.
But I had never felt the, quite literal, physical reset that takes place during my treatment surgeries. I had never had my slate wiped so clean it was as if it had never been written on in the first place. These surgeries have now come in such succession with a similar erasing effect to my life, that it actually does feel like a reset, and it gives me that odd perspective of putting all the time between them in perspective, to think back on and take perspective from, to look ahead and figure out how I’m going to write on the slate from day one. In effect, these surgeries have become my New Year’s Day.
Tonight, then, is something of my personal New Year’s Eve, as I admit myself into the hospital at 7am tomorrow morning to begin pre-surgery preparations that will officially begin Tuesday morning. And when that process is all said and done, I’ll wake up into that nightmarish world of Morphine, disorientation, a body destroyed and weakening, pain and misery…and start into something of a new life again. Literally, I’ll be starting over.
But first, I have almost a year and a half to reflect upon, which I’ve been trying to do these past few days, surprised at just how much has happened in this latest time between surgeries. So much has happened, and so significantly, that my perception of the past year has become muddied, and I regret almost forgetting or not appreciating each experience as it unfolded into the next.
There was finding myself on the cover of Runner’s World just a month after my last operation. There was the Cape Cod Ragnar with my teammates on Strong Hearts Vegan Power. There was the Ultra Benefit Run for Family Reach. There was my training towards a competitive half that hit my goal of going 1:20. There was the sudden pacing role to 3:05 in the Monumental Marathon. And those are just a small handful of the running accomplishments I managed to build during this period. This doesn’t count all the friendships created, the charity money raised, the adventures I’ve had with Laura, the exponentially growing relationship with my son, and the many projects I’ve fostered and begun leading into this next pseudo-new year. To dwell on each would take more time that I have to devote and probably lead to a continuous memory stream I’ve inadvertently suppressed. Suffice to say, I’m thoroughly satisfied with what I’ve made with my time this past year and a half.
The continuous thread of these experiences, however, is running. And of everything I’ve devoted my efforts to this past year, getting stronger from surgery and measuring that progression through my running fitness has been my proudest accomplishment. It’s worth detailing to me.
I explicitly remember the first time Laura and I went to our local trail system after surgery, so she could continue her training towards the Monumental Half Marathon and I could spend some needed time in the woods, if only just walking the trails. Of course, I ended up testing my body against the terrain and completed a tenuous jog / walk effort that felt so wonderful and left me wanting more.
From there I gently increased efforts when I felt the ability to do so, sometimes setting the incline high on the treadmill and walking until my lungs threatened to give out. It was as encouraging as it was embarrassing, but I knew it was a necessity to build myself back up.
Until finally I found my way back outdoors, when the weather had turned towards winter, and I could attempt incredibly slow and weakened runs around a 3 mile loop of our downtown canal. Each day I started with a weakness in my body that felt like I had just completed a 20 mile hard effort, but I was just beginning. I struggled to lift my legs and my torso hung over my abdomen in a slump. I shuffled through a 9:30 to 10:00 minute pace, while still feeling my heart rate push itself into rapid beating that demanded I start walking to calm back down. I could complete 3 miles with a handful of relatively demoralizing walk breaks interspersed, almost as inadvertent intervals.
Over the next month though, I continued the consistency and slowly, very slowly, I could complete the 3 miles without walking, then extended the distance to 5 miles. Even then, I approached 6 miles as if it was a new long run distance, unsure I could complete the distance without sitting down to recover my ability to keep going back to the car. With measured patience though, I pushed at the distance and week after week I could look back and see progression. I could see my strength coming back, my form becoming taller, my paces dropping. 9:30 became 9:00 became 8:00. I was getting somewhere, no matter how relatively frustrating compared to my past.
That’s when I started actually training again, looking for that moment when I could firmly say I had “Flipped the switch” and my body was cooperating with my ambitions. I pushed harder and harder, felt my body getting stronger, touched on moments that felt like my past self, and entered into the Spring as a compromised, but legitimate runner.
That’s when I let loose. Mileage crept back into my base of 10 miles a day, leading into the expected routine of speed workouts and long runs, and I knew I had found the runner I had been since before diagnosis. I knew I was strong and capable again, even if it was all going to come to an end again. But it wasn’t the time to dwell on that reality yet.
That began my ambitions towards the ultra run, that although didn’t go so well, went pretty damn amazing considering. Then came the Runner’s World Half where I hit my 1:20 goal and felt that distinct race environment that feels so much a part of my being. And finally, I found myself leading a handful of runners to Boston Qualifiers in the Monumental Marathon, pulling them into a 3:05 marathon.
As I ran towards this surgery and the opportunities to push my progressions ticked away with each day that neared, I knew I had to just focus on staying strong for the reset that was to come. Of course, there is that part of me that so much wants to see how far I can keep taking this progression, how much faster I can get, how many more new running frontiers I can find…but that’s not my reality. My reality is making the most of each period of time I have between surgeries, and I’m more than satisfied with what I built during this one.
It was amazing to feel my body go from a limp noodle to a strong, swift mechanism capable of finding it’s way into 6:45 / mile 10 milers at conversation pace, to feeling the fear and adrenaline that marks competitive racing, to experience that race distance degeneration when you’ve held your abilities all the way to the finish line with nothing left to spare, to simply finding the ability to lay into a run when you feel the energy demands it.
I know some people might still harbor that suggestive reservation for me, thinking that maybe I should take it easy, or at least back off during these times between surgery. I mean, cancer and the ravages of the operation are enough to endure, right? So why add more adversity and obstacles. I get it, but I don’t agree. I can’t do anything about surgery or cancer. Those are battles to fight for other people, my surgeons and oncologists. I just have to endure those. My battles are what come after, and the only way I know how to fight those battles and make the most of my situation is to run them out, to take the effects of surgery and reverse them to my benefit.
I never lose sight of what is about to happen, and there is a part of each run that knows what is to come and is carried out with the intent to build against the ravages just a little bit more. Because, honestly, tomorrow is when my new year starts, when my body is erased, and this is what is to come.
My muscles will atrophy as I lay in bed for weeks. I’m unable to eat appropriate foods and nutrition not supplied by an IV drip, so I slowly waste away before I can take control of my diet again. My abdominal muscles are literally cut in half and it’s unreal they manage to fuse themselves back together. The chemotherapy destroys every cell, good and bad, throughout my body. The processes of my organs must adjust and readapt as they are shut down, or completely removed, necessitating all kinds of unpleasantness. And there are the ravages of the medicines and treatments themselves. My tastebuds become hypersensitive and the only palatable foods are bland and tasteless. My eyesight periodically goes blurry and doubles over on itself for over a week. The morphine creates hallucinations and draws me into a world that flips between only nightmares while I sleep into a reality that isn’t much different then back again, over and over until I’ve lost sense of time and space. My sleep patterns completely flip so I’m up all night and sleep during the day until they slowly readjust. The pain pills only work for so long and I count down the minutes until I can take another, seeking just enough relief to not become addicted. Sitting up from a lying position in the morning to just walk 10 feet for yogurt and then back is a significant effort that leaves me motionless for most of the morning. And..
Well…on and on.
I’m a shell of my former self…but then there is running. There is something to get back to. There is the knowledge of progression, of stressing the body, of understanding and FEELING strength develop. There are markers through pacing and distance that are undeniable measures of progress. But it’s not just about that reversal of what surgery has done to me, but actually enjoying the experience of using my body and being in the world in a way I can relate, in a way I understand, in a way that defines my existence and happiness. The only difference with running post-diagnosis and pre-diagnosis is the added benefit to overcoming surgery. In the end, I still do it (against some people’s wishes) because I deeply enjoy it.
This is why the majority of the experiences that defined this last period between surgeries consisted primarily of running. There is little else to say about that.
I can only say my New Year starts the moment I wake up from surgery, in a state that is hard to imagine being worse than it is. The benefit, of course, is that it can only get better. I’ll be destroyed, undoubtedly, but I also know, and proved this last year and a half, that we can get strong again. If I have any resolution for this New Year…it’s that.
See you on the roads and trails next Spring.