The Various Mes.

The other me turned off the alarm, even though the sun continued to beam out it’s own wake up call through barely veiled windows. The other me sunk into the warmth and comfort of soft sheets and blankets as cocoons. The other me rolled over and crossed an arm over my girlfriend, siphoning some of the warmth from her as well. We closed our eyes and went back to sleep. The other me woke an hour later, heavy lidded and only just sobering out of sleep, slowly and gently. The other me found my way to the kitchen for patiently waiting coffee, the automatic cycle started and stopped with the companion alarm the hours prior. The other me pushed through the rising fog enough to make a bowl of comforting oatmeal to relax the tense rope of hunger pulling at my stomach. The other me shuffled back into bed, propped the pillow against the wall and met the warmth outside the body by adding some within. The other me turned on the television, clicked through the options and settled on something funny and mindless. The other me didn’t make plans, ignored obligations and let ambitions fade with the morning cold. The other me settled for simplicity, for warmth, and for the least amount of exertion necessary, contrasting the demands of every workday prior, and every one to come.

The current me shut off the alarm, then snapped awake with urgency. The current me found muscles straining, but determined, to move my body to the kitchen not just for the warmth of coffee, but the chemical composition even moreso. The coffee steamed within the pot, as ready as the current me to begin our effort. The current me resisted the embrace of flannel pajamas and oversized sweatshirts, to strip down through cold air before pulling the armor of tights onto my legs like warrior dressings. The current me pulled on a jacket of material designed for swift movement, brighter than the sun going through it’s morning motions. The current me stepped out of the safety of our home and into the hard, exposed streets of a built urbanity. The current me felt muscles resisting movement, but willfully relenting as the city center pulled closer into sight. The current me let the adrenaline of the effort override heels pained from previous mornings of the same pounding. The current me felt the weight of heavy eyes peel, lift and then blow off behind in our wake, leaving us alert, primed, and conscious in mind as in body. The current me ran under the towering giants of buildings casting chilly shadows against the determination of the sun to warm the day. The current me was alone in a city built for floods of humanity to wash through the streets. The current me ran down the middle of empty streets, like a dried up riverbed. The current me turned to retrace my steps, the full weight of a body repeating impact upon itself, to follow the same empty riverbed back to our tributary. The current me ran into a headwind, a friend turned enemy. The current me found a certain satisfaction in winning the battle of push and pull, only mildly inconvenienced by it’s determination to stop me in my tracks. The current me laughed at it’s childish stubborness. The current me was enjoying the adversity. The current me owned the streets of a city that is no one’s. The current me took up four lanes of dull red brick, now reflecting the sun into our eyes like individual mirrors. The current me ran through the wall of light. The current me split the middle, threaded the needle. The current me escaped from the city and began climbing back home. The current me felt the cold air wrapping around numbing fingers, hardening cheeks, attempting to turn the angles of legs into stumbling follies. The current me found strength in a mounting fatigue, refocusing determination, and cut footholds into the inclining road. The current me could taste the relief of completion. The current me moved past others slow to wake, trudging through the weight of early morning. The current me moved swiftly, confidently, exuberantly. The current me found the footsteps imprinted in the snow when the current me left the house one hour ago, evidence of an effort completed and recorded. The current me relaxed, satisfied, accomplished.

The current me walked into the house, to the bedroom, and found the other me lying in bed, staring into the TV. The current me yelled out to the other me, “Hah! Get up you lazy bastard!” The other me rolled his eyes, sipped his coffee, and debated falling back asleep.

The only question poses, What me will wake up tomorrow?

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Ease and Effort

If you permit me a blatant tooting of my horn here, in contrast to a more typical muffled tooting of the horn, I am fascinated by what I can do with my body. Not to downplay the conscious act of willing myself to run as I do, but as the body sets the boundaries to the mind, I’m continually amazed that I can run the distances I do, without breakdown (often anyways), without a measured slowing, without interruption. I’m amazed, in part, because I live in a culture that leans on the crutch of excuses to do anything with the body that borders effort. We’ve all heard (or delivered) the lines about running only when chased, or sore knees, or any other myriad of justifications for not doing, well, anything. For it’s not just running that is avoided by most of those who find excuses easier than effort, but it’s any degree of physical activity. Admittedly, this odd fascination with a physically sentient lifestyle shouldn’t leave the physically active feeling like such anomolies, for we are blood and bone and muscle and mind more than anything else. We, as animals, exist to move. But on the other hand, we as animals, exist to survive and survival compels odd behavior indeed.

Although I feel no shame of arrogance in finding fascination with the body to complete amazing tasks, strenuously and unceasingly, I also recognize in an environment that facilitates paths of convenience, those paths will always be the ones taken. Animals are wired for energy conservation, for leisure, for avoiding obstacles to their survival, so should a path be forged that offers us the ability to rest, we don’t just find it enticing, we find it unavoidable. Maybe in a less domesticated context, this degree of rest and ease and convenience plays a crucial role in our survival, whether that was for nomadic travel, foraging, hunting, warfare, etc., but in the exaggeration that is modern civilization, such hard wiring for convenience and ease can turn against us. I will refrain from detailing the laundry list of problems associated with TOO MUCH ease and TOO MUCH convenience, but suffice to say modern life provides plenty of examples.

Not to say athletes have found any secret to a balanced life of activity versus rest, not by any stretch, but I think we can attest to the undeniable values, to both body and mind, for not always remaining so sedentary. Unfortunately, the compulsions of our animal nature, mired in the context of such great ease and comfort, create a normative sense that physical strain is actually UNDESIRABLE, and so even the best intentions and cultural expressions to “be active” fall into a realm of unprecedented LACK of activity. Get 30 minutes of activity a day. THIRTY MINUTES! When in human history and human biology could we have ever gotten by, ever survived, by moving for only 30 minutes a day. The effect is such that even an accumulated one hour of movement a day is seen as excessive, rather than just a starting point for activity whose value is measured in body and mind.

For those of us who have broken through this civilized veil, the values and joys of physical activity are not just understandable and a FELT experience, they are visualized all around us. Our coworkers succumb to common sickness on an almost predictable rotation. A generalized lack of motivation hinders ambitions of all sorts. Pent up psychological frustration spills into the complications of relationships. The distractions and false enemies of others take precedence over a zen like calm and inward confidence. The world is just, ugly. Mid-stride, with lungs taxed, muscles tense, and mind focused, there is nothing but a beautiful moment, over and over, with every push forward.

The psychological break from a sedentary mindset into a physical strain is, admittedly, not easy, not because it can’t be done. Not because it shouldn’t be done. Not because it involves some great task or developed perspective, but rather because our cultural environment prevents us from making physical activity a necessity. With all our animalistic survival needs provided for, our innate drives are redirected into a state of excess, where technologies flourish, leisure is expanded, and the corresponding sedentary and relaxing components of our existence feed into the built environment that feeds back into those components. We are in a feedback loop of leisure, of convenience, of ease, which will likely continue to feedback until unseen interruption. For our sake, it can’t come soon enough.

It is absurd and short sighted to place fault upon culture or individuals (who make up culture) for a primarily sedentary existence. As all animals respond to their environments, we do the same. The only difference now in comparison to the majority of our Sapien existence on the planet is the new development of carving ease out of hardship and the various built environments that followed. As we are born into this environment, still harboring a biological genetic inheritance, we are something at odds with our place in the world. We have so few options for alternative survival that we can only find our way in modern life, even if at the expense of our physical and psychological selves.

I paint a darkened picture it seems, but this obviously isn’t a necessity, for there ARE ways out, hence this blog about running. Through conscious and unconscious ways, I’ve found my way into a life of physical activity and all the benefits it affords my days. Begun at an early age through exploration and neighborhoods populated by so many kids and their boundless energies, we were always moving. Whether finding our ways through woods, two hand touch, imagination filled bike rides, structured games, etc., we were like molecules in a petri dish smashing into each other and bouncing off walls without stopping. Finding my way through the sedentary nature of schooling with it’s desks, passive information reception (“learning”), abstractions of the world, and training for the same in adulthood, I maintained some sense of physical activity through skateboarding. More tellingly though, it was the poverty (of a privileged sort) I found myself inhabiting that dictated my cycling necessity and then enthusiasm. The bike became both my economic and physical freedom, of which has returned rewards again and again to this day.

At one brief moment of our modern life bikes were the mechanisms of ease and convenience, but quickly surpassed by the automobile. Too bad. For those of us finding creative ways of navigating a privileged poverty, bikes still offer the benefits of debt avoidance, job access, and, most under appreciated, physical and psychological momentum. To rely upon a bike instead of a car to get to work, to acquire the necessities of daily living, establishes an environment and the mechanisms thereof that INHERENTLY lend towards physical activity and physical health. One part of an entire picture gets painted a little brighter.

Of course, this is just one small example suitable to my life, while others may have found environmental obstacles that necessitate other ways of finding physical and psychological health, in contrast to a culture that necessitates ease and convenience. For my own purposes, the combinations are what paint the most whole picture. Some days I ride to work, spend all day on my feet serving customers at a vegan restaurant, then ride home, only to immediately change into running clothes and stride through 10 miles of powerful efforts. On these days, when my entire schedule is comprised of physical activity, I feel most fulfilled, most alive, most primed for what comes next.

The sad state of modern life, however, is that the compulsions of our culture will lead others to see these days as excessive, bordering on absurd. They look at such a schedule as ridiculous, unachievable, even dangerous, when in actuality this is a normative way to move through the day, and an ACHIEVABLE way to move through the day, and our physical bodies inhabit the potential to do it all with both ease and fulfillment.

Despite the conditions of our current bodies (notable exceptions acknowledged), we are all animals with the capabilities to live in and through environments of wildness, of difficulty, of adversity. We will, again, always seek the easy way to find survival in these environments, but we should not lose perspective that the easiEST way comes with it’s own problems, it’s own adversity, it’s own dangers. I don’t expect any significant shift in perspective or behavior in an environment built around ultimate ease and comfort, but for those of us who have found the reward of momentum and velocity in a world of stagnation, I see you and extend a knowing nod and wink. Keep keeping on, quite literally.

Run Full Circle

There is sound advice that goes, “Run like clockwork”, which is to say, set a time to run each and every day, keep it consistent, never waver, and translate the act into a part of your day, part of your being, like breathing air, drinking water.

It is legitimate advice for the athlete so privileged to have enough leisure time in the day to set their biological metronome at will, to be free of the inconveniences and burdens of responsibility that get in the way for the rest of us. We have to simply make do with the fluctuations, dodging and ducking, bobbing and weaving, finding the moments more than making the moments to run. But this is ok, like I said, we make do. Maybe the primary difference between those of us that make do is our dedication to just that, making do, making time.

When I first started running again, making time took precedence, but it was also facilitated by the nap time of my son, allowing for a good 90 minutes of afternoon running. This setting of the biological clock, however, only lasted as long as he was lulled into this fragile scheduled sleep, which any parent will tell you is so fragile as to be almost non-existent. Still, the routine held. Until certain changes took place in the cooperation with his mother and the only time I could make to run was after work, when I got home from a 45 minute drive…at 1 am. It sounds absurd, but being primed to run in the country, under an open, dark sky, with no cars or people around is a running environment most never experience. I made do with the 1 am running experience for a month or so, but with a change in work schedule, I made new time with afternoon runs yet again, back on the nap schedule of my boy, who took to the rhythmic pace of running as gently as he could, falling asleep for the entire 90 minute run.

These afternoon runs became our thing, after a morning of hard playing and increasing restlessness, we took to the streets for some needed rest for him and an expenditure of energy for me. With a bit of wavering of the schedule, even through a change in residence, we kept to our schedule, until…fast forward…he was gone elsewhere (a tangent of this story too long and complicated to summarize). The rhythm of our routine, however, had become engrained and every day, at the same afternoon time, I went out for my run, unsure what else to do in my solitary state. The clock was set.

More life and job changes came and went, but the afternoon run time was as necessary and intuitive as breath and water.

Until suddenly it wasn’t. A new relationship. A new job. A new residence. With these changes came a forced adjustment to my running schedule and my afternoon runs got pushed to later evening, which turned out to be a prime time for exertion. My body was loose, my mind set to explode with a releasing of stress, and a strong 10 miler or exhausting workout was exactly what I needed after getting home. I had found the optimal time of day to run for the needs of my mind and body, and so for years I stuck to this schedule. Like clockwork, every day, my routines revolved around priming myself for the late after noon / early evening run. My days were full and fulfilling and perfectly exhausting. I set PRs. I felt grounded and in control.

Then I wasn’t. The obligations of a relationship that I didn’t forecast as a failing endeavor took precedent, and in an effort to save what I thought worth saving, I switched my running efforts to a pre-work alarm. To keep my running from cutting into time with my family, I set my alarm for absurd times, getting in 10, 12, or 15 miles before I had to be at work…at 7 am. I forced through dark mornings, passing mile markers in a state of pseudo-sleep, waiting for the pumping of blood or rising of sun to wake me enough to keep going. It was hard, but I believed it was worth it. On and on, every day, early, so early, I would wake to run and get it in before the day really began. Admittedly, this was nice, as if my suffering proved my dedication and commitment to doing what was necessary for new PR’s and goals seemingly out of reach. I was a martyr to myself. The post-run feeling of getting 15 miles in before people even woke, and having the rest of the day and night to just relax also turned out to be somewhat addictive. Morning runs reset the running clock, so that even when I didn’t have to get up and run, the compulsion to get the run out of the way, to build the fitness first thing, became compulsive. I couldn’t stop, running as early as I possibly could. I’m not alone in this slippery slope. A friend often gets up at 3 am, runs, then goes back to sleep, so he can work the next day without the obligation of a workout burdening his mind. The running compulsion is a powerful force and I am certainly not exempt.

Of course, then came disease, and the clock hands spun out of control. I didn’t know if I could ever run day to day, depending upon how my feet felt or how strong my mind seemed. I gave up keeping time and the truism about running like clockwork solidified into something like scripture. Without a routine, a goal, a compulsion to keep going at the same hour, I felt like I’d never find the rhythm again. Fortunately, this didn’t bear out and over time I was able to set the alarms, make time in the day, and find routine again, even if the concept of clockwork became a little more relaxed. The exact hour didn’t matter so much as just the day now.

With each passing month, however, the attempt to make do settled back into my familiar routine of early morning running and the comforts of getting done first thing what most couldn’t imagine doing in a full month. Over time, however, with a body compromised from so many surgeries and a refocus on the self-interested values I get from running, I wavered with my clockwork, letting the hands swing loosely, or just hitting the snooze button until calling it a day again and again. I had lost the drive to get up and get at it. Like, truly lost it. There was no more clockwork. There was barely a clock.

A new job came again, this time one I don’t want to see go, and a solid routine was set, but I still couldn’t bring myself to wake and run before beginning the day. The compulsion to get the run in before work burdened the effort with a sense of urgency, so much that I couldn’t run mentally freely, always pushing to get home as soon as possible, thinking through all the tasks I had to complete before getting to work on time. Running was like clockwork, yes, but more a bomb ticking down rather than a starting gun. The clock simply made running a chore, until I felt most compelled to put it all aside.

It was like the clock ticked down from three to one to zero, and if didn’t blow up, then simply shut off. I was done. And I didn’t care.

Sort of.

Cause that’s not true. That’s never true. What happened was probably a combination of missing running and seeing the distinct changes in the air that signal a transition from winter to spring. The visions of warm runs and opened skies triggered something in me and I was willing to try anything to get back into a groove, which is when I realized just how unhindered I was to run after work…again…like I used to, during the late afternoon / early evening. I’m not sure why this didn’t come to me earlier, but what I understand to be the optimal time to run for my mind and body was wide open to me, but the compulsion to get the run in first thing for so long veiled my vision. Whatever the impetus, it became clear I could after work, without restriction, without undue obligation. I could run as release, as lightened, as childlike. I could do it like clockwork.

Just four days in and I’m clocking 10 milers, not rushed to stop, not rushed to get anywhere else, but rather rushed to start! The excitement of getting home, jumping into my running clothes, and getting back out and down the street is consuming. I keep kicking myself for not coming to this conclusion earlier, as if the clockwork became robotic instead of a helpful guide.

It’s not just the rediscovery of running like clockwork of course, but rather the rediscovery of running for the unburdened joy it once embodied. Sometimes going back to the beginning is impossible, but in other ways it just takes some adjustment of time. I’m just thrilled to be back here again, full circle, like clockwork.

Never Alone

During a conversation regarding places lived and loved a co-worker posed the question, “If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?” I went through the list of places I lived for months at a time, the cities I’ve visited on vacation, and the assumed utopias of places I’ve never been but know to be of good culture and better weather…but nothing resonated. Maybe it is a sign of aging, or resignation, but the usual allures that greener grass held as a younger individual offered no degree of persuasion. No considered locale stirred my interests. They all just seemed like…places. Places with buildings and restaurants and people and, well, just about everything that exists where I currently reside. There are differences, yes, but only by degree and not concept. Everyplace is every place, to simplify.

What absolutely can’t be found in these other places are people, as in the people that reside where I currently live. There are people everywhere, of course, too many if you ask me, but these are different people than the ones I know. And yes, of course I could get to know these people and they would likely be great all the same, but it is that GETTING to know that seems an obstacle that I’m just too tired to overcome. The people I know now are fantastic, and many, so to imagine living somewhere else wouldn’t just entail experiencing a new environment, but rather starting over, completely, in getting to know a whole new set of people. And it is people, ultimately, that make a place.

I don’t pretend to claim a community, but maybe only a SENSE of community. My parameters of community are defined by a genuine dependence, not the ability to come and go as one pleases as comprises our worlds today. Still, the associations I have made where I currently live have been crafted with the tools of time and hardened into a solid edifice of relationships that is seemingly unbreakable. It is the associations and the ability of call and response that makes where I live so fantastic, so known, so comfortable.

To answer the question, if I could live anywhere in the world, where would it be….it would be right here. Truly. But not “here” as in a geographical boundary, or a State association, or a political climate, or a cultural association, but here, as in the area that surrounds my body, that moves through a space in concert with friends, associates, and individuals of varying familiarity, crafted and joined over the time necessary to overlap our movements, to facilitate conversations, to become known to each other. It is the associations with others that fulfill us as individuals, and it is the time spent that allows for the associations.

I run, in part, to be alone. For at least an hour a day I go inward, to feel the meditative experience of a body firing all systems in an attempt to keep going and nothing more. The concentration involved allows for little intrusion to break the space. And yet, while I run in a state of solitary effort, people surround me, in cars, on foot, on bikes, in chairs. In a capital city of over a million people, pressed into a density that borders unavoidable, wherever I run will involve people, passing or being passed, but our inescapable and continuous overlapping necessitates a sense of strangeness, unable and unwilling to know each other. To run into the center city, where density reaches a “crush of humanity”, I somehow manage to remain alone in the act, moving quickly in and out of the space of others. I am alone and yet not lonely.

And yet, there is an incredible familiarity with being familiar, with being a creature of habit, with being a creature of dedication, even among so many strangers. Reaching over large swaths of sidewalk as I bound down the incline that is 10th street, the faces of prostitutes, drug addicts, and the creatives who have found a loophole in the dictates of capitalism break the sense of strangeness of so many others. We often move past each other in silence, but eye contact speaks an unspoken contract of truce and recognition. Into the city I run, through intersections consumed by cars, and sidewalks now slaloms. Among so much strangeness distinct honks aim at my fluid motion through the corridors, friendly calls for response. From across the street my names is bellowed above the hum of city noise, a friend calling for a recognition in return. I point and wave without breaking stride. A friend unseen yells from behind and I lift a hand instinctually. Just a block later I catch eyes with another friend in a car, as they point and wave directly at me, which I mimic…and suddenly no one is a stranger. The center city is mine and familiarity is everywhere. Even with so much strangeness moving by like ghosts, bodies but empty to me, the few streets of associations compresses the city into a village, where we all know each other and are happy to find each other again.

I run alone, but it often feels like we planned to run together, me and the various others I encounter along the way.

I can’t imagine living anywhere else, running alone without even the potential for moments of familiarity, no matter how fleeting. The human animal is a social being, so our perfect place to live is not in space, it’s the space where our familiar others also live. The greatest cultures and idyllic weathers could never replace the fulfillment of building associations over time. To run alone in a space of utopia is to still run alone. Running with others makes every space a utopia.

Love and Running

I love running. Like, I fuckin love running. I know it’s absurd to say this to, first, an audience of one, myself, and then to an audience of primarily running readers (whoever is still out there), but those audiences likely understand what I mean when I say I FUCKING LOVE running. It’s not just the expression and all the presumed and understood emotional associations that go along with it, but rather the context in which this is said. All enthusiastic runners have these repeated moments where the joy of running transcends mere typical happiness, and definitely transcends the assumed difficulties and frustrations of running by non-runners (or obligated runners), and instead comes pouring out of the chemical concoctions of dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline, etc, into this uninhibited love of running, this feeling of absolute perfection, this FUCKING LOVE of running. The outpouring comes as some sort of feedback loop where the act of running builds to a point where one feels comfortable, strong, in control…unstoppable, and the chemical mixture feeds into the bloodstream, that maybe finds it’s way to the brain or wherever expressions find their release, and this release seems to reinvigorate the chemical reaction that feeds the expression that feeds the reaction…and so on. The end result is an unbridled FUCKING LOVE OF RUNNING. I honestly can’t say if this makes sense to anyone else, but I feel like everyone that engages in the efforts of distance running long enough knows what I’m talking about. I don’t necessarily think it’s the often cited “runners high” that many new runners hope to experience, but rather something that shows itself over time, that comes with a more dedicated effort to running, that isn’t a season of training to mark the marathon off the bucket list, but something deeper, something inescapable. It comes with the accomplishment of racing, tempered by the failure of missing one’s goals. It comes with the easy striding long runs under beautiful skies and comfortably chilled air, against the dead legged efforts into icy headwinds or under suffocating humidity. It comes through years of ceaseless workouts, no days off, and the crippling fear of losing ability during two sick days or weeks of injury, in contrast to months of depression, a bottomless pit of unmotivation, and a priority shift that seeks balance for a life of sustainable interests. The feeling of I FUCKING LOVE RUNNING comes not just in the moment, but through the experiences of all those ups and downs, the accumulation of every high and low, the emotional spectrum embodied in continuing through it all. It is the ultimate reassurance, felt only in the act, that running is what one does, what one understands, what one can come back to again and again for an experience that is as personal as it is unstoppable. I FUCKING LOVE RUNNING and every genuine attempt to quit is literally a struggle, not to start again, but to keep quitting. Every time I try, all it takes is a conversation, a day of good weather, a glimpse of a beautiful stride, and I’m back in my shoes, on the road, and throwing down, in the flow, sliding down the slippery slope yet again.

AND I FUCKING LOVE IT.

Carmel Marathon – Race Report

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.

Now…watch this.

Sort of Secret

I wasn’t even going to tell Laura I signed up for the marathon, and for a few days I didn’t, but she caught me looking at the website and teased me about considering the idea. Little did she know that consideration came and went, when a certain espresso fueled night of inspiration had me clicking the “submit registration” button…eleven days before the actual race.

Commence swarm of butterflies.

I haven’t told anyone else I did this either, save three other people, mostly strangers (and now anyone that reads this). I’m not trying anything big with this race, but just trying to get my feet wet with the training I stumbled into the past few months, and with as little anxiety as possible, which is no small feat. I should mention, I actually signed up for ANOTHER marathon previous to this one, which takes place in May. Even more absurd, it’s a trail marathon with ridiculous elevation changes, scrambling and a course that makes the effort more about finishing than displaying fitness. That seemed the perfect sort of race to enter where I could simply enjoy the absurdity instead of getting mired in anxiety and feeling “on display”. I don’t really want a lot of that right now…I just wanna see what I can do in a race setting.

Once I signed up for that first marathon though, the compulsion to REALLY see what my body can do had me signing up for the next one. It’s a local marathon of which I have yet to run, so I can’t measure expectations against past performances, which is what I really need right now. I continue to struggle with suppressing my past running self in an attempt to create a new set of aspirations and expectations, but that’s not easy. For now, I’m just seeing where this stretch of training has taken me, and what I can do with it, while keeping anxieties as low as possible.

I do have expectations though, sort of. I’ve been knocking out 20 milers around 6:30 pace through the past couple of months, so if I have any measurement to consider, it’s that. I would be plenty happy to continue that last 10k at that pace and come in at 2:50, which is actually what I put down for my “expected finishing time” during registration. Even if that meant not throwing down and not redlining any significant portion of the course, I’d be happy. I respect the hell out of the marathon distance, so to just finish consistent would be a victory and push towards the next level with current fitness. My mind, of course, wanders to other “what if’s”, of faster finish times, and even disasterous finishes, as tends to happen, but I’m trying to remain level and stable and keep anxieties low…as I keep repeating as a mantra to myself.

There might be more to this. I say might because I’m not sure if this was a subconscious act, of running this marathon, or if the idea was more front and center and I’m only absorbing it after the fact, but this marathon essentially marks 4 years to the day of surgery. I remember standing on the sidelines cheering on my teammates in 2013, an abdomen full of cancer (apparently ridiculously close to death), and waiting out the last day until I checked into the hospital for the first of three surgeries. It was my last pre-surgery, pre-chemo, pre-everything running event to participate in through some small gesture, as a spectator.

I’m not trying to make a bigger deal out of this than I genuinely feel, but maybe this is some sort of personal celebration of being where I am at this point, not only living through the past four years, but also remaining dedicated to staying functional, to actually living, and to do so primarily through running. Maybe this is some sort of anniversary affirmation. It seems fitting to, in a way, start, where I last finished.

It also seems fitting to, personally, acknowledge the friends I’ve lost to cancer over the past four years. Specifically, I’m acknowledging my friend Denver who succumbed to her cancer a bit over a year ago, by wearing the shirt she created for a benefit in her name. Unfortunately, I’m also running with the thoughts of another good friend newly diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma last week.

These thoughts and gestures will be positive affirmations for me, and I’m fortunate to add to that positivity with another 9 months of non-treatment as relayed to me by my oncologist this week. My most recent scan showed “areas of calcification (tumors)” and “what might be mucin…it’s hard to tell”, but no tumor growth or metastasizing from the previous scan, which means we’ll continue another 9 months of doing nothing until the next scan. No surgery, no chemo, no nothing but engaging in that continued human pursuit of chance existence and emotional depth.

For me, that means opening up the potential to take this marathon affirmation tomorrow and capitalize upon it, to create a new baseline of performance and experience, determine how to proceed from there and then go for it. I can’t commit to what sort of shape that will take as I tend to be somewhat fickle and fragile in my motivation as of late, but with the right amount of espresso, the best expression seems to formulate into deep run training. Of course, I’m not trying to get ahead of myself here. I’ve still got 26.2 miles to complete before I go any further. Let’s get past those first and see where we end up.

See you on the start line.