Every runner carries a story. For some it may be as simple as the competition of the race, against others or themselves. For others, it may be something deeper, like disease, death, loss, or even more positive expressions of celebration, redemption, thrilled excitement. The stories are as varied as the participants in any given race, but first, it takes actually completing the distance to see the stories come out in their many expressions.
Race morning brought a drop in temperatures that had every experienced marathon runner sighing with relief, knowing the uncontrollable circumstances of heat and humidity would be absent and all efforts would be determined by the physical preparation and mental strength of the runners alone. This would be an honest race. Running best in colder temps, I was thrilled to see grey skies hovering over a 45 degree atmosphere all morning. Anxiety levels were, well, typically pretty high despite my best attempts to remain calm and pretend this run was just a physical litmus test. I TOLD myself I was just seeing what sort of shape I was in. I TOLD myself this wasn’t a big deal. I TOLD myself I was just going to have fun with the distance. I TOLD myself all this, probably because I was avoiding potential disappointment, while also trying not to burden myself with the emotional weight of what this race meant to me deep down.
Admittedly, I had signed up to run the race about 12 days prior, but I did so because I had knocked out a handful of 20 milers at 6:30 pace and I wanted to see if I could hold that through the full 26.2. Oh, and there was that whole thing about the race being held on the four year anniversary of my diagnosis and first surgery. It felt right, and important, to celebrate where I seemed to be at this point, considering all that had happened in the past four years, to me and to my friends. It also fit in well with my routine of doing something somewhat challenging soon after my periodic scans, one of which I had just completed. A few days prior, my oncologist assured me that tumors were still present and mucin was likely also present, but that we were still holding stable and it was advisable to hold off another 9 months for a scan and determine then if we should take more drastic measures for treatment. Coming to terms with the realization that I will likely never have a “You are cancer free” moment, these 9 month breaks between surgeries are the closest I get to living outside the stresses of cancer. That’s reason to celebrate.
One more thing. I had kept this marathon secret from most people, but I had run into my old coach (now new coach again) prior to the race and word spread through my running friends. We began some texting back and forth about race goals and I had learned that a group was being unofficially paced to a 2:50:00 finish, which was my exact goal. This initially gave me a dose of relief as the work I would have to do would be carried by others for a portion of the race and I could just sit in for the ride until I needed to take over. I also heard word about 15 to 20 mile per hour winds, which although wasn’t encouraging, was going to be less of a big deal if I could tuck in with a group of runners. The greater concern arose when my friend said the following,
“This is going to be a race for second.”
“What do you mean?” I inquired.
“Jesse (teammate who wins the race every year) signed up and so the pack is going to be racing for second.”
“Surely there are other 2:30 / 2:40 guys in the mix right?”
“Dude, I put my finishing time as 2:50 and I got number FOUR on my bib.”
Well shit, cue anxiety skyrocketing. We joked about race strategy a little more and I envisioned all the scenarios that could go down if that prediction of a pack of 2:50 guys racing the last four miles came true. It was mildly exciting and I tried to find the fun in it, but I also know how marathons tend to break everyone down over the miles and couldn’t imagine everything being so cut and dry. Well, come race morning, as we warmed up around the start area, I found the unofficial pacer and confirmed that he was leading us through 2:50, and he hesitated and explained that because of the winds we would probably be going 2:52 to 2:55. Right then I bailed on the plan. Wind or no wind, I knew there was a very strong chance I could hold 6:30 pace through the finish and I didn’t want to compromise that 2:50 goal. I was feeling good and decided to go it alone. Ultimately, I had nothing to lose.
The countdown began as I lined up next to my old teammates and toed, literally, the start line, though this time I was back at the front and I felt legitimate being there. Even though I hadn’t dedicated training to this race and wasn’t planning for full on race mentality, I knew I had enough fitness in me to warrant being on the line with everyone else, even if they all ran away from me when the gun went off.
At the sound of the air horn we leaned forward into the course and pushed directly into a wind that wasn’t overbearing, but definitely noticeable. With fresh legs and open lungs we moved through the first mile to settle into a groove that, if all went well, wouldn’t fluctuate too much throughout the distance. Jesse and some half marathon runners moved out ahead immediately and the 2:50 pack was forming somewhere behind me. I knew I would likely be just ahead of that group, but decided to go by feel before really settling into either a pace or using other runners. As we strung out into the first mile I hovered around two others runners that put me in 8th place to begin the effort. Flying blind into this course, I didn’t even know if there were going to be mile markers at each mile and relied only on feel. At this point I was very, very comfortable and seemed to be cruising at a solid 6:30 pace, which is when I heard one of the other runner’s garmin beep out the first mile location. I looked at my watch and it flashed back, “6:10”. Welp, that was fast, but I notched it up to race start anxiety and freshness and decided to let the pace settle as we moved ahead.
As more distance fell behind us I remained tucked in with two other runners following the string of leaders out ahead. I didn’t know the status of things behind us, but that wasn’t a concern really. I was more concerned that pacing was suited to fitness and that I wasn’t being too ambitious so early on. I always tell my marathon runners, run not how you feel the first five miles but how you WILL feel the last five miles. This distance is about patience, a slow burn, and managing all way to twenty miles when the effort really starts. I FELT like I was running at a pace that I could hold past twenty, but I wasn’t yet convinced that I had settled back into 6:30’s. Not having mile markers didn’t help.
After the initial long stretch of the race and a few turns I got a sense of which directions the wind would be an issue and which ones it would help. It was definitely a noticeable factor during the race, but I didn’t figure it would really kill an effort that day, and overall things would eventually even out with tailwinds. I considered using the headwinds to my advantage if necessary even. Moving into one of those headwinds I saw the signs for the first half marathon split where the shorter distance runners would peel off and the marathoners would continue ahead. I was interested to see if the two runners I was keeping pace with would continue on and we could keep working together. As we neared the split the leaders came our way, one of which was a teammate I gave encouragement to, and as we passed the split only three had cut from the line. That left 5 of us taking the marathon out. I got a little excited about the prospect of making top ten for this race, but wasn’t about to get comfortable only a handful of miles in.
We continued on at this rather pedestrian pace until we finally passed the first time clock of the race, which flashed back 30:00 flat…at 5 miles. My math isn’t always so good during races, but this calculation was easy. That average had us at 6 minute miles, a considerable cut from the 6:30s I was hoping to maintain. Here’s the thing though, I didn’t panic. I felt so calm and in control that internally I was just like, “Well, ok, this feels good, let’s just see how thing go at 10 miles then.”
Somewhere ahead Jesse and another runner had run out of sight leaving the three of us to follow in their wake, with who knows what playing out behind us. I didn’t hear anyone off our back, but I had no inclination to check either. Continuing ahead, one of our three started to back off, or maybe maintained as the other runner picked up pace. I’m not sure how it played out, but I moved past the runner in our triad and picked up fourth place as he slowly dropped off the back of us. That left the two of us to keep eating up the distance as the course weaved through neighborhoods and down long stretches of two lane roads. I still felt completely in control, but did notice the runner in third was pulling away from me ever so slightly, though I could tell it was because he was picking up pace and not because I was falling off. Periodically I found consecutive mile markers and hit my watch, surprised to see the averages hitting at 5:59, 5:57, and still hovering around the 6:00 mark. Sometimes as we ran into a long stretch of wind or up an incline, the pace would drop to 6:05 or 6:07, which boosted my confidence as I could still feel comfortable moving at a pace significantly faster than my expected estimate as the miles piled on top of each other. The other comfort gauge was my ability to move through aid stations without issue. I was pulling fuel packets pinned to my shorts with ease, ripping the tops off between my teeth and grabbing water without faltering. The surprise at how I was moving through this distance increased my positive thoughts and resolve to maintain this pace and…OH FUCK IT…LET’S SEE WHAT HAPPENS!
The course turned off the road and onto a winding, curving rail trail through an isolated park and although the runner ahead was putting space between us, I was holding around 6:00 to 6:05 pace and still had him in sight. As we made a sharp 180 I was able to catch the first visual of runners behind me, of which I couldn’t make a good estimate of just how far behind they were, but I was not interested in keeping ahead of them as a goal. Just maintaining this pace, well below my 2:50 finishing time, was significant enough victory for my preference. I could get passed by 10 runners and if I maintained this I would be ecstatic.
We came out of the winding path of the park and into a less turn heavy, muscle taxing portion of a neighborhood, nearing the 12 mile mark. It was then I had a small moment of panic. The Wednesday before the race I had put in my last preparation run, of which could have been a simple 6 to 8 miles of easy running, but I decided to do a speed work tuneup by throwing in a handful of 2:00 on / 1:00 off efforts, which left a muscle (tendon?) behind my leg overworked and worryingly sore. The last thing I needed was a potential muscular grenade waiting to go off in my body late into this race as the stresses built. I felt it’s subtle presence even during race warmups, but hoped it would loosen up and not become an issue at all. However, nearing 12 miles I felt it and not in any small way. It was really becoming apparent and a sort of embarrassing dread increased all the same, as if I had made a huge mistake and I was going to have to actually DNF, hang my head, and explain away why I actually thought I was capable of running / racing a marathon again. And then…it went away. I don’t know what else to say about that, but damn was I relieved.
I reset my focus as I looked ahead and saw a mass of runners coming out of a neighborhood and realized that we were about to merge with the half-marathoners again. I was somewhat invigorated by this as I would have something to break the mental monotony of the effort by moving through these other participants. I quickly started flowing past the back of the packers and picking the lines that didn’t have me dodging and weaving excessively, but trying to maintain a straight line and expend as little effort as is necessary. We all turned into another neighborhood and as I looked ahead I realized I had lost sight of the third place runner in front of me. I had another short moment of panic, wondering if I had missed a turn for the marathon course and had inadvertently jumped in with the half marathoners, but with longer stretches ahead I would momentarily see the jersey of third place moving faster than everyone around him. He had now made considerable distance between us. I figured he was either motivated by the dynamic of being around other runners or was playing out a move he had figured into a race strategy. Either way, he was totally running away from me.
I stayed patient as I worked up some undulations in the neighborhoods, working against the wind as much as I was using it when possible, while trying not to put too much of a burden on my legs, knowing the effort still lay far ahead into the course. The efforts at this point still felt completely in control and when I crested one rise or another I let my breathing settle and checked myself by taking one deep breath, affirmation that I wasn’t putting myself into an oxygen debt I couldn’t climb out of. Passing aid stations, I was still able to grab cups of water and still keep enough fluid in to aid hydration. The accumulated efforts brought me through the halfway point where I looked at my watch to gauge overall pace, which read out 1:18 and changed. Feeling somewhat incredulous at what was happening, I laughed at myself, realizing I had just beaten my post-diagnosis half PR (previously 1:20:02) that I had run at the Runner’s World half before my most recent surgery. Something crazy was happening this day, but I wasn’t about to back off at this point just because I hadn’t determined if these were warning signs or positive affirmations. I was banking on the latter.
I settled into the second half, breaking up the distance into 5 mile increments and resetting at each one, finding my way to 15 miles and looking forward to the race at 20. I was warned about a twisting rail trail section further into the race, and when I got there I understood why it was a less desirable section of the course. Not only did the twisting and turning of the course build more effort and strain on the legs, but the limited trail space had to be shared with the half-marathoners, making even more bobbing and weaving unavoidable. I did my best to keep a straight line, while trying to run the tangents, but it wasn’t easy, and I sighed relief when we exited the trail and were able to pick a more unbroken line of effort.
As is usual in a marathon, the effort was taking it’s toll silently and it was only in small moments did I realize the trajectory was evening out and about to arc downward against which I would need to start fighting. The first moment came as the course took us straight down the Monon trail and I caught sight of an aid station ahead, somewhat congested with runners and volunteers. I was trying to keep a straight line through the other competitors while running a solid 2 minutes faster per mile than most of them and also preparing to grab some water. As I snagged a cup from someone’s outstretched hand I looked up to see a wall of people yelling and pointing up the road, 90 degrees to my right. I was almost running straight past the course and had to pull up quick, skid as I turned and regain pace as the other thousands of runners stretched out ahead. I let out a “Oh shit!” as I heard spectators chuckle at my mishap and correction. Fortunately, the momentum wasn’t completely lost and I wasn’t shaken too much, able to get back in line and begin passing runners as we moved up a long, inclining piece of road.
Somewhere during this relative mayhem with the half-marathoners we had moved through 17 and 18 miles, at which many less prepared people will start to feel the building effects of the distance. I was hoping to make it to 20 or even further before I started to feel those distinct pains and struggles, and so far I was still holding on. It was encouraging to have the cheers of other runners (and sometimes shocked expressions) as I passed them along the way, helping occupy my mind moving into the real effort of the course. At the top of that long incline nearing 20 miles we turned and the runners thinned out, giving me a longer line of sight, at which point I was somewhat surprised to see third place in view yet again. And although I could sense small moments of failings in myself – spilling water at aid stations, more difficulty taking down fuel – it was also apparent to me that third place was in “striking distance”, that is to say that if I maintained this pace and he started to falter in the last five miles, I would likely overtake him. He was far enough ahead, however, and this was more a mental consideration than an aspiration or strategy, that I didn’t give it much more thought. I had my own battle to keep winning at that moment and that was really all that mattered to me.
We then broke away from the half marathon course yet again, and it’s at this point that a lot of the memories start to get a little lost in the effort. It was also this point that we passed the 20 mile clock, which read out 2:00:47…or something. I don’t know…I just know it gave me that 6:00 average again, I was feeling in control, and the “halfway” point was about to begin. This is the point that the human body has expended all it’s stores of energy and everything is an increasing struggle to endure through oxygen depletion, but primarily, muscular degeneration. This is where the pain builds. This is where the marathon becomes the marathon. This is where races are won and lost.
This is also where I saw the runner in front of me and…damnit…I think he was coming back. We moved up the road, alone in our efforts, but into a headwind and small, but noticeable incline. I told myself that each stable push into the wind will be an advantage against anyone letting it wear them down. I figured if I could keep tension and intensity into the wind that I’ll have the best chance of maintaining pace and making distance on the runner in front of me. We pushed into another portion of the course consisting of a curving trail and sharp turns that tested our muscular stability, bringing our crossing paths close enough to give us a more exact gauge of how far apart we were.
Still not sure of what mile marker we might be near I concentrated more on keeping the runner ahead of me in sight and visually measuring whether he was actually coming back or not. He was still in striking distance, but was also far enough out that he could hold on to the finish if he was keeping a measured pace. At that point, however, probably 22 or 23 miles, we turned directly into the consistent headwind and down a long stretch of road. He had nothing but road to chase and I had him, which can make a significant difference in effort that deep into the distance. With each short stretch I watched his back get closer and closer and realized I was going to run him down, and likely overtake him. I’m not sure if just thinking about it helped me tighten the screws or the distance was really showing itself in my legs, but I started to feel focused points of pain in my quads, first in my left, then my right, then my calves…but then I was right on him.
I moved up behind him, started to pass, and tried to offer a helping hand…or pair of legs, “Let’s go buddy!” I hoped to bring him along, help him help me, or whatever. The end of the marathon is horrible and all help is appreciated. He had fallen off though, likely going out past his comfort level early on and paying for it now, which is the greatest learning experience of the marathon distance. Patience.
I ran past him and had only road to run with ahead, which carries it’s own sets of challenges, because the worst thing I could do now was relax. I now had to go inward again to keep pushing, to run through the increasing pain, to hold pace and find my way to the finish, because believe me, the marathon isn’t in the bag until you cross that line.
With that said, the mental encouragement of moving into podium position was no small thing and a new realization started to come over me. “Is this happening?! Am I running 6:00 miles when I wanted to go 6:30? Did I just overtake a runner in the final miles? Did I just run into podium position?!” Truly, I did not expect any of this and I was caught off guard by just how perfect everything was going. I let that excitement build, but didn’t let it get the best of me, as I looked ahead to see the half-marathoners stretched at where we merged again for the last time, and realized it was into a headwind and up a long stretch of road. This was no small final effort. By now the pain was full body and everything hurt. I had been here before and it was no less shocking or easy as I noticed my legs on auto-pilot, pushing off the ground, but almost as if on their own volition and not by my effort. I felt my face tighten and grimace and I had no idea what mile I was on.
I felt slow, like crawling, even though I was still passing the half-marathon runners, and all I could do was repeat to myself “PERCEIVED exhaustion. PERCEIVED exhaustion.” This is the state where you FEEL horrible and you FEEL slow, but in reality you are likely running close to the same pace you have been all race. Like a prayer I decided to believe in this unprovable fiction, just to get me through the inclining road, into the headwind, with these stabbing pains in my lower body. I had now broken the race down into individual miles, desperately looking for mile markers to work towards. I think I remember seeing 24 miles and hitting my watch, hoping so much for 25 as soon as possible. I tried to keep my mind occupied, unwilling and unable to look behind me for coming competitors, as the pain continued to consume me. The course finally turned, still into the wind, but downward before slightly rising and turning again towards a finishing stretch. I gave myself the permission to look at my watch and it read 8:46, which was a massive relief because it meant we had passed 25! LESS than one mile to go.
We made another turn away from the wind and I started to feel the finish excitement build. Despite the consuming pain in my legs and the grimace on my face, the thrill of holding on, of running this distance, of pulling this motherfucker off started to take over. I craved that finishing effort and started to let myself go. I looked up to run past an “800 meters to go” timing mat and knew it was over. Maintaining the pace was all I could do to hold on and that was all I needed. Cresting the final small incline I made the final turn and with the wind at my back ran past the chute of spectators hearing my name yelled out by friends along the way. Somehow, despite the all encompassing pain I was able to open up a bit, aided by the downhill finish and push all the way in. I heard the announcer yell out my name over the PA system, something I hadn’t heard in so long, and ran past the finish line throwing a punch in the air to myself, unable to contain the intensity that got me to that point. I caught a final glimpse of the clock as I came in, 2:40: and some seconds I couldn’t register.
As I put on the brakes and struggled to stay upright against my momentum something else began to take over. As if being chased by an emotion all the way in, I became consumed. I stopped completely, putting my hands on my knees as a volunteer wrapped a heat blanket over my back. I lifted my head up in disbelief, put my hands over my face and then fell to my knees. Huddled under the heat blanket my head fell to my forearms and something came over me like I’ve never experienced before.
I’ve never understood “tears of joy”. I’ve heard about it and watched professional athletes cry after championship games, but honestly, I always thought it kind of ridiculous. Like, what are you crying about? I tried to empathize and tried to understand what crying out of happiness would feel like, but it just never made sense. I realized something though, the term “tears of joy” isn’t correct, because that’s exactly what happened to me and they aren’t tears of joy. They are tears of EVERYTHING.
I began sobbing, uncontrollably. My whole body was shaking under the heat blanket and no one could really see what was happening. But I was crying, and I wasn’t crying out of some sort of sadness or desperation, but also in a way I was. I was crying out of everything. At first I tried to stop. I heard voices around me.
“Oh dude, you don’t want to do that. Laying down is the last thing you want to do right now.”
“Hey man, you’re going to want to keep moving.”
I knew this. But I couldn’t. I sat up on my knees and came out from under the heat blanket, my face now covered with tears and saw the volunteers kind of stop. I got to my feet and walked a bit, but crumbled back down right away and started sobbing again.
Honestly, it felt good. It felt great. It felt fucking amazing. Because they weren’t just tears of joy, they were tears of everything. What everyone probably sees are the tears, but underneath all that is so much more. There are also smiles, eyes bright with excitement, a heavy sadness, and a calm relief too, but maybe everyone only sees the tears. Really though, it’s a full emotional experience that can’t be contained, that was building and building and just comes spilling out without control…at least, that’s what was happening to me.
And this is my story. This is what everyone around me in that finish chute couldn’t understand. What they saw was a grown ass man sobbing like a little boy who just watched his puppy get hit by a car, and it was probably a bit uncomfortable for them. But for me, it was everything. It was a redemption. It was an overcoming of everything I had experienced over the past four years. It was, in some way, having that “you are cancer free” moment, because it was winning in a very physical, measurable, emotional way. It was an affirmation that I have come through so much. There are so many who have gone through so much more than me, but I can admit that, by most people’s standards, I’ve definitely been through a lot the past four years. This moment was my redemption over all that. It was coming back to this same spot four years later and saying, “Fuck no, chance and circumstance, I’m not beaten.” This was recognizing my friends and family, for losing Denver, for losing Chelsea, for losing Cari, for losing John, and for my friend, Shane, recently diagnosed. This was knowing that the worst of three surgeries, of losing all muscle, of all oxygen, of all will…comes back. This was feeling the permanent damage of chemotherapy and saying, that’s cute…watch this. This was saying to every person who offered support, donated money, gave encouragement, and was there for me the past four years…thank you. This was a moment for myself, to prove, against all the deepest perceptions I had of myself…you’re not done.
So many cancer patients have such little hope, understandably. It seems they are most caught off guard when the scans come back blank. When the followup with their doctor is met with a “You are cancer free” instead of a “Ok, this is what we are going to try next” or “It’s back” assessment. Those are the scenarios we most crave, of course, but are often such distant hopes, and I’ve resigned to the stable comfort of knowing this isn’t my future, so in the finish chute of the marathon last weekend, I was caught off guard, and this feels like my “you are cancer free” moment, or the closest I’ll get to it. So, I think, the accumulated emotional baggage of the past four years – the fear, the frustration, the excitement, the struggle, the sadness, the hope, the everything…spilled out of me in that one final moment. With no hint of romanticization, I won. And the moment was bigger than me as everything spilled out.
I got back to my feet, trying to walk through the finish area, looking for Laura, but I had to keep stopping, leaning on the barricades and feeling the emotions pour out over and over again as my body shook with sobs. I heard my name and turned to see laura squeezing through through barricades and I walked over and fell into her arms, letting it all come out again in her comfort. I was consumed, yes, but it was with the most thrilling relief I’ve ever experienced in my life. When I toed the start line that morning I had no idea what was about to happen. I had no illusions of running outside myself like that again, of reaching that level of ability, of getting that close to where I was pre-diagnosis, of…in a way…a comeback. I don’t pretend to know what’s coming either, but even though that race has finished, and even though in my own personal race it feels like I’ve already won, in another very real way it feels like a brand new start.