Monthly Archives: June 2016

Seeking Exhaustion. Finding Fulfillment.

I needed to go south. Where the corn fields that allow the wind to move unfettered give way to the land piled up on itself by a halted glacier. In these hills it is harder to farm, harder to develop and so we are afforded a more free, more wild terrain, where animals have habitat and the diversity of life can explode. I needed to be within all that. It had been too long, for either Laura or I to remember last when.

And the moment I stepped off the parking lot asphalt and into the concealed entrance of green, it was like stepping through an invisible window, into an entirely different world where the temperature cools and the flora surrounds you, envelopes you, like a blanket of protection. In here is safety. In here is calm. In here is a different relationship. In here is where, even you, become different, away from the complexities of modern life, away from the low level stress and conflict of other humans, away from the insecurities and consciousness and intentions of the thousands of nameless beings we navigate around without reprieve. In here you are your physical self, moving through an environment with a certain grace and fluidity, part by your own volition and part by the flow of the trail. In here you are less you and more everything.

I needed to get away from myself, and everything else. I needed to just move, but I really needed feel the life of everything that exists and grows and dies with little intentional help, to give me that reaffirmation that everything goes on, that humans don’t control the world, that what we destroy is never completely dead.

I feel that when I move through the woods, not as an intruder or an alien, but as a seamless inhale and exhale of it’s breathing. I feel it as my feet hit the ground and send small clouds of dust into the air, the ground pushing back on my impact with a gentle, cradling support. I feel it in the undulating air that cools like an open window, like the wind of a coming storm, like a drink, then heats like the embrace of a parent to child, like a pile of clothes from the dryer, like your favorite sweater. I feel it in the deep scents of ground that has thawed and cooked in the space of light broken through the ceiling of outstretched green. It surrounds me in moments of movement, entering my nostrils in an accumulated musk of wet dirt, bark, dying leaves and a moist heat that alludes more to the process of growth than decomposition. It pulls me from my thoughts in carnival like bursts of flower scent, reminiscent of cotton candy and cooked sugar and a sweetness that surpasses romantic gestures of rose bouquets to express true love and need and want in it’s signaling to the forest, to follow the map it has drawn to itself. But I run through.

I follow the softened floor as it undulates through the terrain like a dropped ribbon, laying where gravity decides it must, coordinating with my legs to make the smallest of adjustments left and right, forward and forward and forward, to move atop the ribbon, to use the momentum of it’s curves, to keep seeking the solitary life of the forest in it’s moments of expressions. I seek it and feel it over the rocks that protrude from the ground, pushed upwards in the continued, slow exhale of the earth, bringing new terrain to the surface, as if to renew the tired, worn ground again. I feel it in the snaking roots exposed from the ravages of growing close to the surface where feet and hooves and bellies pass. I feel it in the danger of their grasp, threatening revenge to distracted eyes and tired legs.

I feel it in the sounds of fellow animals, responding to the fight or flight of my presence as I dart around turns and up and over rises. I hear it in their loud swimming under the blanket of leaves as squirrels sprint to the nearest tree. I hear it in the lightning fast streaks of brown and black that leave lines in the dust as chipmunks pass mere feet in front of me. I hear it in the torrential symphony of birdsong, when I allow my sense to spread out as far as it can, the ceiling of sound signaling to each other when not in the silence of alarm. I run beneath it all either undetected or unthreatening. I hear it in the crash of the woods, as deer that tower above me bound and disappear through a shield of green, almost before I can even turn my eyes in their direction to catch inspiration in their effortless flight. I feel it deeply, personally, when the buck that disappeared stands atop the hillside, looking down upon me, quizzically, but calmly, measuring my presence, and making no gesture to flee. He looks at me, his antlers displaying a dominance and strength that can only induce respect, and I look back, slowing my pace to connect as long as possible. I turn out of sight to begin the next climb, and when I turn back he has silently vanished into the protection of the forest, proving the presence here is intuitive to his nature, a contrast to mine as a sorry attempt.

I find it as I crest the hill and begin unwinding the ribbon down the opposite side, feeling the change in by the direction of the sun, the forest floor opened up and allowing the growth of entirely different plants. The trees space out further, bigger, blocking out the sun and breaking it into scattered spotlights with longer, supportive branches and higher reaching hands. Responding to the power of the light, the ground cover is thinner, but more efficient and the leaves grow larger. Even the air feels thinner. I feel it as my pace opens up with my lungs and my momentum is carried down the hillside, twisting on switchbacks and flooding with speed on quickened drops that demand an intense control and quick footed dancing over strewn out rocks that lie without rhythm. Terra two step I like to call it.

I find it again and again through this strengthened effort of running, invigorated by the relationships of the forest, and carried away by it’s inspiration, until I must turn around and find my way back, out of necessity rather than desire.

The effort in finding the life of the forest shows itself as the fatigue overcomes my body, demanding a new concentration that must turn inward. I am aware of the failing form of my body, the erratic rhythms of my breathing as they struggle to keep pace with the flow of the trail, the shifting weight from compromised muscles to those prepared to handle the increasing stress. I seek the self-actuated life of the forest, but equally the self-actuated fatigue and exhaustion only the trails can bring to my body. This is my other objective.

It is a unique fatigue, brought on by a certain momentum. At first this momentum follows behind the body in a wake of inspired and graceful effort, in running with the gravity of the trail and bounding up the hills in abandon, but as the stresses accumulate, the momentum begins to catch up from behind like a predator overcoming its prey. It runs close enough to never be dropped, until it begins to consume the body, entering completely before effort and momentum are one and the same. This momentum becomes the body until it seems to disappear into the struggle of the effort, of lungs grasping for air and muscles digging for strength. They work together as one, before the momentum finds it’s way through the body and begins to extend itself ahead of the effort, urging or daring me to catch up and grab onto a bit more of it’s assist if possible. But at some point, it’s out of reach, apart from the body now weakened beyond repair, and only a dangling hope, a tempting illusion to hold onto in the striving to finish out the distance intact.

In losing this momentum is where the exhaustion I seek finds me, as a growing desperation that fills the space where the energy once boiled, consuming the muscles and darkening the mind. It’s presence is subtle at first. An ungraceful dance through the rocks, a turn swung too wide, or a heel scuffed along the ground. And then another. And another. I told myself to listen to the warning signs, of the deception of momentum that came from the trail and not my body, as I rolled over the ribbon while hitting my heel on small rocks and imperceptible undulations. I told myself to run smart and lift my legs, but as I let my concentration wander away from my internal warning signs, the trail humbled me.

Humbled the shit out of me.

Humbled me to the ground. This is an exhaustion I try not to seek, but respect all the same. The weaving of roots lay strewn across the trail as I rolled with the momentum on a slight decline, my legs swinging out in front of me with a gentle braking form rather than the concerted push forward, and where my heel scuffed the roots before, the weakness brought my leg close enough to the ground that my toe slammed into a root, the momentum just far enough ahead that I couldn’t grab on to roll forward and my body lifted into the air before slamming into the ground without bracing. In the split moment I fell I registered the ground, peppered with scattered rocks, roots, and a sapling stump that lay directly in the path of my downward swinging face. My body tensed and I crashed into the dirt, forgiving, but barely. Instantly a shock surged through my body, radiating through my entire left side, though I felt it in all the direct points of contact. My knee split open on a rock. My hip bone bashed into a root. My shoulder, miraculously taking the brunt of my top heavy fall as my neck bent upward to avoid a solid hit of my temple into the sapling stump. I paused, leaned back and saw two dots of sweat from my shoulder resting gently on the stump, as if to say, so close. So close.

I took the humbling, stood up and started running down the trail….for two steps. As I realized the humbling was much greater than the adrenaline was trying to convey. My knee throbbed, my hip piercing in pain, and I reached to my knees to collect myself. But I didn’t dare brush the dirt from my body. Never brush the dirt and blood from your falls. It is penance for not paying attention. When I realized I could move, if only a bit, I took lesson in the survival mantra, “Stagnation is death. Always keep moving.” Trusting the adrenaline to take control of my body, in spite of the pain, until I could regain effort, I started run / limping down the trail, slower, gently. The blood pumped through, the trail relented, and I got back to the work of building the exhaustion past the humbling, with the deep physical understanding of just who is in charge, or at the very least, of who is NOT in charge.

The momentum lay much further ahead as I reestablished my relationship with the trail, trying to find the flow again, running away from the pain on the left side of my body until the processes of the effort were greater than the faults of the effort. I found the forest floor and it’s kind, cool air, offering an invigorating stretch of rejuvenation that wound over dry creek beds and past a personal spot for me, where, if I find myself facing mortality again, my ashes will be scattered. With a quick glance at that spot and and acknowledgement of my existence, I ran on, any further reflection on that reality now relegated to a further, distant future. I had a hill to climb. I had an exhaustion to find.

Further towards the depletion I ran, retracing steps in the opposite direction, as if on an entirely different trail, as an entirely different runner. I had lost control of my body, using the escaping momentum of the trail to pull me ahead, reserving any strength I had to focus on the humbling terrain and the necessity of effort needed to stay upright. The grace all but pulled from my body I could barely manage sharp turns, my lungs threatening to fold my body to the ground on the slightest inclines, my legs buckling with the pressures of holding my torso on the descents. The only relief coming with the rolling undulations that hung my limbs like a puppet, working in concert as nature and body, runner and trail no longer individual entities. The exhaustion had set in and I was brought towards completion under that mysterious force few of us can describe, but know distinctly, where we are not in control, but move forward no less, with speed, with control, with no will except the ability to see ahead, or see from above, as our bodies move without us.

Until we reach beyond the realms of possibility and the ground falls beneath us, or we find our way to the end, spent, exhausted, depleted…and fulfilled.

The gates of green that welcomed me in opened into a brutal, bright sun that exposed me completely, as if my skin was torn away. I emerged with the momentum of the trail, spit out into the world, a different person. Broken, but stronger. Depleted, but fulfilled. Bloodied, but intact. Exhausted, but enduring.

This is why I enter the trails, to seek a world that is as beautiful and bountiful and outside of myself as much as it is humbling, and threatening, and depleting. To find another me, an absence of me, to create something different, something greater, something that will always fail in words and can only be experienced in seeking and finding.

Transitions

Ethan Runnels Stay Wild Scholarship

It was months ago when I saw my oncologist last, when I came to his office for a followup appointment regarding my latest surgery. It couldn’t have been but only 2 months after January when he went in to try and get the cancer again. After so many years of treatment, surgeries and appointments, the apprehension I have with these appointments is almost entirely gone, the expectations of any specific outcome as well. Still, I had come back from the last surgery so quickly, and that being after a year and a half of no chemo and only continuous running progression, that the surgery seemed a mere annoying interruption, which I can probably only safely say from this distance now. It’s never simply an annoyance or basic interruption. It’s a whole lot of hell really. And yet, it’s always the surgeries that hit me the hardest, not the cancer. I still have cancer, of course, but it’s weird. It seems I only have the actual definition to reference and not some sort of physical hindrance caused by the tumors or growth. Any physical destruction or obstacle at this point is, I believe, a leftover from the year and a half of chemotherapy and the three surgeries I needed to have performed. The effects are very real and are with me daily, but they are now almost bodily aberrations that I relate to as if I’ve had them since birth. Cancer is something more distant, if a concern at all. It’s something that may or may not become more immediate down the line, or maybe that’s my naiveté speaking. But I still have the surgeries and I still have the followups.

So when I had the appointment with my oncologist, in the back of my mind I was thinking, “Maybe he’ll say I’m good for as long as I can be good now. Maybe he’ll say chemotherapy and surgery won’t ever be an issue unless they have to be an issue and I can get back to my life again.” Against all the lessons I’ve taught myself about expectations over the past three years, I found myself daydreaming again.

The appointment was the usual. He checked the incision scar that runs from the point where my rib cages come together down to the middle of my pubic bone (any further and I’d be cut in two). He felt around my abdomen, cupped his hand on the areas where he did the most extraction and tapped on the back to listen to the sound, whether it reverberated hollow or solid. I had difficulty sitting upright again, but when I did, we got to talking about the future. I tried to fight the smallness that starts to overcome me in the exam room.

At this point I don’t remember all the specifics of our conversation, but I believe they were about the growth of the cancer, the details of the procedure, and other logistics. What I wanted to know, however, was our plan from here on out. With the same pleasant and casual tone he always delivers my diagnosis he told me we will have another scan in a few months and then look into going back into a surgery for the 4th time in about a year and a half or two.

My heart sunk a bit, but I managed to gather some courage at the proclamation of “..or two”.

I found my way past the smallness and responded, “You know, I was coming into this with the best case scenario being 3 to 5 years of no surgery. Not that this consideration is the most important, but it’s so hard to plan my life and live normally with these surgeries. I need to get back to work and take care of my son and just try to get some routine together.”

And before I could vaguely plead my case further he cut me off.

“Ok, let’s make it three years. As we’ve said in the past, you keep breaking the rules. So let’s make a plan for three years and I really think you should live your life as normal as possible. Get back to work and just live as if you don’t have cancer.”

I followed, “And so I have another scan in 3 months then?”

“Let’s make it 9. We’ll do a scan in 9 months, see where you’re at, and then plan from there, but we’ll make 3 years our next goal date.”

And with a few more specifics worked out, that’s where we left it. The plan as such being, a scan in 9 months, a goal date of 3 years for the next surgery, and any necessary adjustments made along the way. If we’re nearing three years and I start having complications, we’ll move the surgery up. If we get to three years and everything is as stable as always, we’ll push it back even further.

I drove home and found myself in the emotional space I did when I was first diagnosed, driving down the highway surrounded by all the other cars, but registering very little except the calm in my mind. Something of a weight had been lifted, but I wasn’t sure how to process it just yet. It’s a tenuous lifting, but I felt lighter no less. I was given the permission to live my life, to get back to work, to think of the future without surgeries, as far as I dared. And with that lightness and, almost positivity, almost hope, consuming me, I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt like I needed to tell someone, to go somewhere public, to just sit and feel that for awhile…but I drove home.

I drove home because it felt wrong to celebrate. It felt dangerous to celebrate, with all I’ve come to know over the past three years about plans and expectations crushed. I wanted to acknowledge this change, but I didn’t want to flaunt it. That felt too dangerous, to arrogant.

I just needed to get back to living…but what did that mean anymore?

Three years is not a long time, unless you have cancer. Three years, to me, seems so incredibly long ago, but I hear about people dying from cancer after battling it for 5 or 8 or 10 years. And to me, those timelines seem so short. I think about how I just heard about them getting cancer and then suddenly they were gone…and I’m only three years in. And yet, in that three years, so much has changed. I lost so much and also gained so much. I was forced to stop working for others and expand my design skills in so far as I could just  make ends meet for myself. The routine of my days changed. I became financially ruined and had to rely more and more on government support. The only thing that didn’t change was my running really.

So what exactly do I do with the same timeline stretched out before me that mirrored the timeline I spent battling cancer directly?

Transitions are hard and most often we seek comfort and security in the familiar. It takes a certain personality to embrace the terror of change openly and with positivity, and not resort to the compromises made in similarity. I like to believe I’m in the former category.

And yet, the last three years are being solidified as some sort of pause in my pre-diagnosis life. The first thing I did after being given the go ahead to live my life was to start looking for a job, and with some small delay, I ended up back at the job I had to quit upon diagnosis. It was like picking up right where I left off. That job even dictates my daily routine, as it was. Get up and run, prepare for work, ride my bike to work, ride my bike home, relax with TV, and do it all again the next day. The way I eat is the same, the bags I carry, the work I do, the radio programs I listen to, and so on. The last three years have been a pause. I mean, a painful, scary, exciting, physically destructive pause. And really, not a pause at all, but it’s fun to think that way.

Not everything is the same, of course. My running abilities will never find their way back to pre-diagnosis standards, but that’s ok. And I’ve found love with a wonderful woman who supports me through all my difficulties (and puts up with the worst of my traits) and I get to reciprocate as much as I can muster. And I started gardening, like heavily. Some parts of the free time I found within the last three years allowed me to open up new interests for myself, so it has been great to keep expanding on those within the restrictions I have in my new routines.

But those are all very simplified examples. It’s really quite an experience to walk the line of great fear in the face of your mortality and yet also be afforded the privilege of living a life free of some of the daily restriction we find in the normal day to day. I’ve talked in the past of feeling a sense of liberation after diagnosis, of being able to shed all the excess burdens and responsibilities we often have forced upon us, and of those I foisted upon myself. The running and training expectations, the budgets, the time restrictions, and so on. It’s all so much to handle sometimes, especially for those in poverty, so it wasn’t lost on me that I was living something of a delusion and high privilege the past three years, by being supported through fundraisers, government assistance, and cobbling together design work. I had the privilege of self-directed days, time with my son that wasn’t hampered by work schedules, and the luxury of taking it easy when I just couldn’t muster the drive to keep pushing through all the burdens.

And that is, with a tense mix of difficulty and satisfaction, gone now. That privilege is removed as I enter the work world again, lose more and more of my government assistance (partial disclosure, not all of it, of course), and must now juggle again the responsibilities of providing for everything economically, re-contributing child support (truly, my greatest relief in this matter), parenting my son with new time restrictions, and figure out the best life to live in the midst of all of this.

Transitioning out of three years of living against cancer into three years of ignoring cancer isn’t as hopeful and liberating as some might imagine. There is still a distinct tension that marks my days, of not completely emotionally letting go. The oncologist didn’t say, “You no longer have cancer! Go forth!” He said, “We’ll try for another three years.” There is a massive gap between those two statements, so transitioning so abruptly into living from surgery to surgery into a normative routine is proving to have it’s own gap. I’m trying, with difficulty, to plan further ahead, to imagine the best life for myself and Laura and August, but while also determining what is most important in the now. It’s so easy to become self-absorbed in the face of cancer (more so than I already was) and so I’m trying to move away from a deep selfishness and put more focus upon others, upon the issues that truly matter in our day and age, to reconsider radical politics with the newfound perspective of the last three years, and to find the most valuable place to put my own action. Admittedly, I have no idea what to do at this point, and that seems to be another point of tension in my transition.

Maybe it’s just too early to make any specific plans for myself right now. Maybe it takes getting used to the new old routine, with the new perspective, to really find my way. It’s hard when you’ve spent three years really wrestling with the deepest, individual attempts at living the good life. It almost makes everything else pale in comparison and the excitement and value I once found in projects pre-diagnosis have lost a bit of their shine. I can’t tell if I was naive back then or am more broken now. I don’t want to imagine it’s either.

We often want to believe we can make our own decisions, calculate the risks and rewards and ease the transitions of our lives to our greatest benefit, but sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes life transitions for you, and when you get used to that new routine, it transitions again. I guess the success is in managing the transitions in the moment, finding your comfort within them, and being prepared to find that comfort again should another transition find you again. And maybe it just takes time to readjust…that’s what I keep telling myself.


With that said, running has been my constant, as much as I may try to shake it’s obsessive burden from time to time. The transitions for my running will have to be detailed in another post, but I do need to give time to my latest running project.

This August I will be running a route that a friend has titled Circle Takes The Square. That is a 50+ mile route from the circle of downtown Indianapolis to the square of downtown Bloomington. When I was planning my run down the state last year, this portion was my most anticipated as I have ridden the distance many times, but always wanted to run it, though never did. Initially, I committed to just doing this route, myself, without fanfare and without obligation, but I’ve found it harder and harder to do anything for my own needs without using it in some way to benefit others, so with that in mind some friends and I created the Ethan Runnels Stay Wild scholarship.

Ethan was a friend of mine who lost his life to the White River in 2009 and who was the vision for the White Pine Wilderness Academy, of which I am a part. The camps we host for children (and adults) are nothing short of transformative and we want to make them available to everyone, despite financial restrictions. In that recognition we have set up a scholarship to help pay for kids to attend our camps, free of charge. The Circle Takes The Square run is being conducted in this spirit and to help promote the scholarship. If you can afford the contribution, please consider donating to our fund of which we are seeking a $5000 goal, which will secure camp registration for over 22 kids. The details of the scholarship can be found on our gofundme page here –

www.gofundme.com/staywildethan

In the meantime, a handful of us are training ourselves to run the 50 mile distance on Sunday, August 21st. If you would like more information about the scholarship, academy, or the run, please get in touch. Thanks for being awesome.