Holding On / Letting Go

Sometimes I wish chemo would have erased any memory I had of my previous running experiences and abilities. Ok, I know that’s exaggerating to make a point, but still, I think all runners hold a certain fear of never achieving the abilities they had in the past. Whether it’s finally relenting to the unavoidable slowing that comes with age, struggling against a training plateau, or just hitting one’s head repeatedly on the ceiling of their abilities, this fear haunts us. It’s like a shadow we see behind us, too close, and we try to run away from it in so many ways. We try to run faster. We start paying attention to all the little details like flexibility and strength. We change our diet, attempt new training methods, and throw bones if all else fails. But surely, at some point, we either make the decision to burn out or fade away…from our past running selves anyways. We have to reinvent our running if we want to find the same joys and accomplishments that we did in the past. But that’s easier said than done. Runners are a stubborn lot and the decision to hold on or let go builds like lactic acid in our legs as we struggle to progress against previous expectations.

I, unfortunately, can’t shake this consideration either. Against my wishes, the measurements of my previous abilities, a multi-year list of podiums and personal bests, remain too close for comfort. I didn’t fade away…nor did I burn out…I had my abilities stripped from me like olympic medals from dopers, immediate and with heavy regret. Now I’m back running and training and making progress, but I can’t figure out if I should hold on or let go, because it’s a struggle. Training has been an incredible struggle for me, emotionally and physically, no matter the trajectory of my progress, which seems to be headed in the right direction. Still, I wonder if I’ve started out too hard, and need to scale back my expectations.

I’m training for a huge, local half-marathon in May, with an initial goal of running sub 1:30:00, which quickly adjusted to 1:20:00, and yet, now I’m debating whether I can even hold a 1:25:00. I’m trying so hard not to hold on to past expectations of my abilities, where anything slower than a 1:13:00 would have me freaking out and dejected in failure…now I can’t even consider that time as a possibility anymore. I can’t even remember how I ran that fast 2 years ago.

So I want to let go. Every failed workout. Every set of mile repeats where I struggle to even maintain a 6:30 pace is a slap in the face. It’s an insult and a bully telling me to give up and hide my face. It’s an internal voice telling me I don’t belong in competition anymore and that I should run alone, without ambition, in any way that doesn’t involve pinning a race number to my jersey. I want to let go of my past and my past expectations because they taunt me and are a measure of what I can no longer reach.

And yet…I hold on, in part, because I know I didn’t create this failure. I found myself in the grips of evolution’s cold hands, fighting against the cycle of living, with poisons in my body and surgeries that leave me completely wasted. So I didn’t burn out and I didn’t fade away by my own doing. I was just knocked the hell down and I’m trying as hard as I can to get back up. But it’s not easy and I’m struggling. I want to hold on, to what I’ve currently built in myself, but also to my past expectations, not because I believe I can reach them again, but because they give me SOMETHING to aspire to, with which to measure my progress…even if I never reach them. I take comfort in knowing that maybe I can’t reach them because the necessary damage sustained through chemo and surgery won’t let me reach them, that the lasting and permanent effects have damaged my running through damaging my body, and that it wasn’t of my own accord, that it wasn’t because I gave up, that I slowed down, that I let go.

But still, when I push and push and can’t keep my heart rate from rising out of control, when my legs seem to drain of all energy like a valve was opened, when my stomach revolts against my pace and forced me to stop, I just want to let go of it all. I want to abandon competitive running and training and figure out the next step in my running life. I want to “let go” because it’s a nicer way of saying I want to “give up”, and I don’t want to admit to giving up.

That’s the worst though, giving up, I mean. I know what that is and I NEVER want to be that person. I never want to be the runner that gave up. If I quit, it’s because forces outside of my control made me quit. And right now I don’t have that forces acting upon me. I might be permanently damaged, and may never get back to a point that I can comfortably say, “I’m ok with this…this is my limit”. But I don’t want it to be because I let go, because I quit.

I want to hold on to my past expectations and some semblance of my past ambitions, with a little bit of revising, of perspective, of recognizing that things happened to my body that are insanely out of the norm, that will cause irreparable damage in ways I haven’t been told or will be able to understand, and then make adjustments. I need to be ok with that, with letting go…a little bit…of past expectations, and yet, holding on…a little bit…to the measure of what I could once accomplish, if only to see just how close I can get again.

But I won’t lie, watching my peers and teammates run away from me hurts. How could it not? The wounds are too fresh, the races too recent. I still hold course records from a couple years ago, and I can’t imagine being able to push them lower to keep them out of reach now. It’s just a matter of time. And ultimately, I know that’s ok, but it still hurts.

With time, I’ll calm down again, throwing away my watch (metaphorically…those things are expensive!) and running only by the measure of my current abilities, rather than expectations of what I WANT to be able to run, constantly hitting the wall in workouts and “failing” repeatedly. I don’t know what those abilities will ever amount to at this point, but I still plan on finding out through repeated training, by running away from that shadow that still haunts me, through revised manners of both holding on and letting go. When that shadow finally overtakes my spinning legs and assures me that my abilities will never be what they once were…I’ll be fine. I’ll slow down, take a deep breath, and run easy knowing that it caught me because it was unavoidable, not because I gave up, not because I completely let go.

All that, however, is for another time. I’ve got more struggling to do as I desperately hold on to expectations like I hold on to goal paces. See you at the race, bib number pinned to my jersey. I look forward to finding out how fast I can make my cancer run.

A Better Toothbrush

My soundbite critique of Capitalism has always been the following..

“Within Capitalism, one can never have a good enough toothbrush.”

What I mean by that is, Capitalism is inherently a “grow or die” economy, and so it follows that the products created can never be good enough, never sufficient for our needs, and must always be adapted, bettered, or in some way changed so the consumer always has something NEW to buy and the profits will continue to flow towards the producers and corporations. Sure, you’ve got a toothbrush, and it has seemingly worked just fine for the many months you’ve had it…but this NEW toothbrush has RAISED BRISTLES specifically designed to brush parts of your teeth that have been apparently decaying and dying without you even knowing it! Or so you’re told. So you buy that toothbrush and suddenly there’s ANOTHER NEW BREAKTHROUGH TOOTHBRUSH DESIGN! This time the bristles are in a DIFFERENT raised pattern to get those OTHER teeth you’ve been missing, or it has a motor, or it has some vague ion blasting energy component that is sure to get your teeth cleaner and whiter than they ever have been! I mean, goodness, just imagine how nasty your mouth was with that first generation toothbrush you had been using the majority of your life. It’s amazing you even have teeth to chew with. Well, fear not, you’ve now got the best toothbrush and don’t need to buy another one or worry about dental hygiene anymore…well, at least until the next toothbrush adaptation comes out.

Oh Capitalism. You’re so funny.

Of course, this critique isn’t confined simply to the dental industry. This is about the premise of a grow or die economy and not one specific product, but I can’t help but address how this plays out within our own subculture of running, namely in relation to running shoes. Oh yes, the premise is very much the same.

NO SHOE IS EVER GOOD ENOUGH. SO BUY ANOTHER PAIR!!

What I find amusing about this premise in relation to running shoes is that every informed runner knows they’ll probably NEED to buy new running shoes, relatively frequently. The suggested window of overuse lies somewhere between 250 and 500 miles, necessitating a new pair of running shoes every handful of months (almost every month if you’re a high-mileage elite), so that drive for shoe companies to CREATE a need for the consumer is less pressing, however, each shoe company still needs to outsell their competition, and so the same drive to create “newness” and “betterness” with each shoe still remains.

What this means for the consumer is that you’ll always be buying a different shoe, which can be quite annoying at best and form compromising at worse. Each year, shoe companies “update” last year’s model. They make tweaks with the foam, the overlays, materials, toe box, tread, etc. until three years down the line, the same model seems like an entirely different shoe. This isn’t even addressing when they completely discontinue a shoe, no matter how much the consumers enjoyed it.

Ultimately, this isn’t that big of a problem, because the tweaks made to the shoe are usually pretty benign, and sometimes even helpful. But really, I would LOVE to see a company say,

“This is our shoe. It works. Runners really enjoy it. So here it is…why would we ever change it?”

Every year. Year after year. Just LEAVE IT ALONE. I know other runners feel the same. Some even go so far as buying multiple pairs when they find a shoe that works because they know it will be “updated” and changed in some way the next season, potentially affecting how the shoe feels or works for them. I don’t blame them. In hindsight, if I had the money, I’d have bought 20 pairs of the 2009 / 2010 model of the Adidas Adios. Boost foam be damned…the shoe worked just perfect. I’d do the same for the first version of the Saucony Peregrine. I still love that shoe to death, but no change they have made in the following 5 models have altered how the shoe feels or performs. It’s just marketing. It’s upholding the exaggerated value of “newness” and “progression”, when it’s really just about dollars. Don’t overlook that.

Those considerations really aren’t so problematic, however, sometimes the drive for “progression” and “newness” gets out of hand. Sometimes a story comes out (or is created) that EXPLAINS the newness, that draws on something beyond the abstract of “performance” and tries to draw correlations to our biology, our humanity, our history. Sometimes a book, and movie and bad science comes along to justify that story and an entire shift in shoe industry approach is created…and you end up with “silly socks”. You end up with Vibram five fingers, minimalist shoes, and a desperate hope that running with next to nothing on your feet will cure your nagging injuries, make you olympic fast, stop your child from wetting the bed, fix your failing marriage, and achieve world peace. Right? I mean, that was the story wasn’t it? Eh, seemed like it anyways.

And that story was great for awhile, convincing everyone there was a HUGE CONSPIRACY with the shoe industry, that they were trying to ruin us by putting a pad of foam between our feet and the ground, for decades! We were duped! Now burn your shoes like the women of the 70’s burned their bras! Raise your fist and revolt! Run barefoot! Get on the treadmill and stomp out 3 miles sounding like a herd of Clydesdales! Take photos of your bare feet and tell everyone how your marriage has been saved and how your child stopped wetting the bed!

Then quietly put your thick socks in the back of the closet after visiting your podiatrist for repeated stress fractures and new run stopping injuries. That story didn’t turn out to be so convincing after all. But boy did someone make a lot of money selling those minimalist shoes. And the running shoe industry was ALL OVER IT. They subtly, quietly and then more loudly made the transition to entire lines of shoes based on minimalism. They talked about running “free”, “pure”, “natural” and a lot of other buzzwords. Suddenly, without actually saying it, they were admitting that all their old shoes were founded on bad science and years of damaging support…yet still kept them in their lineup, just in case anyone wasn’t convinced of the minimalist trend.

And then the minimalist trend started to fall apart, along with the race goals of so many injured runners. The final nail in the coffin was a lawsuit brought against Five Fingers and all those injured despite pretty convincing claims that the opposite would happen.

Then before everyone could take a deep breath and go back to what has been working pretty damn well for quite some time – a general range of support and comfort – Hoka stepped in the game and did a 180 on the minimalist trend. Now, I don’t know if the creators of Hokas thought,

“You know, people will run off a cliff like lemmings to buy shoes of the minimalist trend, so why wouldn’t they do the same going the other way? They crave newness, extremes, and the next cure to their problems…so let’s get ahead of the game.”

And out came pontoons for your feet, at just the right time, when everyone was running away from minimalist shoes and, unsurprisingly, into the waiting, cushioned, wide-open arms of Hoka, welcoming everyone in a loving, supportive embrace of absurdly marshmallowy soled shoes. Interestingly, Hoka didn’t have a story to go with their “newness”, their adaptation to the standard running shoe, but they didn’t need one. Runners seemed to want to get as far away from minimalist shoes as possible, and Hoka gave them that option. Smart enough not to make claims that would afford them a potential lawsuit as Five Fingers received, Hoka relied on a different approach…celebrity status. They threw shoes at Sage Canaday, Leo Monzano, Dave Mackey, Magda Boulet, Michael Wardian, and many others. You don’t need a story when you’ve got runners at the top of their field wearing your shoes (and maybe a little desperate for support through sponsorships – that statement is entirely assumed). Still, I look at runner endorsements more from the perspective of the runner and not the product.

And here’s the thing…it worked. Ultra runners considered the feel of running 50 to 100 miles on a waterbed instead of the dirt underneath their feet, and when Leo Manzano – a 1500 TRACK RUNNER! – got on board, that really threw everyone for a loop. If hugely cushioned shoes work for Leo, then how could they not be good for everyone else?

Now, I’m not saying they DON’T work. Personally, I don’t like them. I tried them (and reviewed them on this blog) to help alleviate my chemo side effects, and they did help with that, but otherwise I didn’t feel they were any better than the standard shoes I’ve been wearing for the past 8 years. Whether they “work” or not, is irrelevant. What they do is SELL. And nothing proves that they sell more than the other shoe companies all jumping on the swinging pendulum of consumerism and adding a whole new offering of excessively padded shoes to their lineup. Every shoe company is abandoning their statements of their shoes helping you run “naturally” and now promising that you’ll run “comfortably, further”, etc.

So yeah…what is it? Minimal or maximal? If you ask me…it’s bullshit. It’s marketing. It’s just…stupid.

We all know the game, but it’s still worth pointing out. For instance, did you know the former CEO, Tony Post, of Vibram Five Fingers created the market for minimalist shoes on the premise that they would let you run naturally, how you’re supposed to, but after everything started going south, he made a NEW line of shoes, TOPO Athletic, on the premise that they would create “innate amplification”, which is to say, HELP you run naturally and get the most out of your workout. People…it’s bullshit. It’s various degrees of foam or a barrier between your foot and the ground. It’s not going to make you better, it’s not going to stop your kid from wetting the bed. It’s just going to cover your foot. But they’ll tell you anything to convince you to buy new shoes, different shoes, anything to keep the dollars flowing from your wallet into their bank accounts.

So let’s step back and take a deep breath, look at the wider image and retain some grounding here, pun intended. Although I appreciate the extremes in life, find value in trying alternatives, enjoy pushing for “betterness”, and like experimenting, sometimes it’s ok to just sit back and say, “This works. This is good enough.” These trends towards minimalist shoes and maximalist shoes will run their course. Hokas and Vibrams will both stick around, because for various reasons, people will stay with them, and that’s fine…but my guess is that the majority of us will all fall somewhere within the grey areas between them and be content with doing so. I can look at the spectrum of marketing with running shoes and say, “Yeah, I’ll just keep my middle ground trainers, simplified racing flats, and 4mm drop trail shoes”. They’ve all worked just fine for me for years and there is no reason to think we haven’t figured out the basics of running shoes over the decades. Anything new and updated to come is going to rely primarily on nothing but figuring out new ways to bring consumers to their brand, to convince consumers of their marketing strategy, to find new ways to sell bullshit.

I know this won’t change, but I also know that if everyone stops and things about it for a second, we’ll all admit that these drastic changes are just ways to get us to buy, to consume something new again and again, to keep demanding new product, new material, new resources. I only wish so many runners would stop buying into the hype and stop helping them promote and continue these fabricated stories and absurd premises. I just want us to all admit,

“They’re just shoes. They’re just a damn pair of shoes.”

For the record, in my runner consumer utopia, if anyone starts a company that makes a few models of shoes that fall within that basic grey area and says, “We made a shoe. It works. We’re not changing it.” I’ll sign on as a brand ambassador and drag all the running masses to your side.

Now let’s get back to focusing on what matters with running…running. Let’s run. Let’s train. Let’s enjoy the experience and stop pretending that our gear is what makes us better, makes us happier, makes our kids stop wetting the bed.

And manufacturers…stop messing with the shoes! That goes for toothbrushes too!

The Future of Everything

Without considering too deeply what it meant, I typed out the phrase, “Upcoming race season” in a social media post, and I couldn’t help feel an electric twinge of excitement course through my body. The three words all state one significant definition, but each one means something important in their own respect. There is the recognition of a future, an effort that signifies considerable physical improvement, and a block of time relatively unhindered by the obstacles of cancer (surgery, chemotherapy, side effects, the unknowns) that have risen in my path quite recently. I wasn’t even sure I was ever going to acknowledge an upcoming race season anymore, despite the hope I tried to maintain and the physical progression I tried to create towards such a thing. Still, everything is always so tenuous and fragile, so unwritten, so elusive of definitive statements. But now, I can firmly say that there will be an “upcoming race season”. If there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be training for one. But I am.

The specific, relatively short term, goal race is the Mini-Marathon on May 2nd, where I hope to set some personal “fastest cancer patient” PR, but in the interim there is also the Polar Bear 5-miler, the beginning of the DINO series trail runs, and maybe another effort here or there. Compile all those together and we definitively have a race season that drives me forward through all my training and keeps me excited, anticipating the changes I will continue to feel in my body and the experiences I’ll be able to immerse myself in yet again, which remained so elusive for the past 2 years. Admittedly, it’s not the same anymore, and I’m resolved in the reality that it will never be what it once was…but I’m close enough. And that’s exciting.

I’ve always been excited about the future. Even during the darkest days of cancer treatment (admitting there are still more to come) I could retain a sense of anticipation for the future, if not because I recognized that “nothing is forever” and whatever physical and emotional burdens were dragging me down would eventually diminish, then at least because I’ve always looked to become a better person and unavoidable obstacles are just opportunities to overcome. I knew that the experiences I had to endure would only serve as new perspectives, moments of difficulty, but also exciting newness, that most never get the chance to understand. I knew that the obstacle of cancer, no matter what the ultimate outcome may be, would offer an exciting, unknown, deeply felt future. I don’t mean to sound morbid about it, as if I sought out the darkness, but to simply recognize the value I pulled from the adversity, which I knew would make me a better person, by my standards.

The future has always been exciting because it offers us an opportunity to evolve, to transcend our past, to leave behind our mistakes, and to simply become better. I’ve always wanted to look back two years and say, “I’m not that person anymore. I’m better.” Or even, “Oh my goodness, that was me? How embarrassing.” And I’ve never been able to understand or relate to “adults” that didn’t navigate life with this perspective, that didn’t seek to better themselves through self-education, new experiences, continued consideration of our ever changing social context, or the myriad ways to become an emotionally and experientially deeper individual. What is individual existence if not to absorb the complexity around us and to strive for a sense of progression at every opportunity? It’s boring, at best, if you ask me. It’s tragic and suicidal, at worst. It’s also an existence blind to the future. It’s an existence that sees the moment and says, “Eh, this is enough.”

But it’s not enough for me. It never is. My process of running is an acknowledgement of the future and the chance to better oneself, both emotionally and physically. Training allows me to look two weeks ahead, then a month ahead, then three months ahead and be filled with excitement and anticipation, to say, “Who will I be then? What will I have experienced? How fast and far will will I be able to go? How much better can I get?” And at some point, when I’ve finally resolved to hitting the ceiling of my abilities, I’ll then be able to say, “What experiences can I create with my running? Where can I go? What else can I do with my body? What new levels of physical strength can I create?” In short, I’ll always have a future to anticipate.

The value of that future is more exciting than it ever has been. Trust me, that is not lost on me. I had no idea what future lay ahead in the midst of treatments, scheduled surgery and the unknowns that lay after I woke in the ICU. I also know there is the strong likelihood that I will have another surgery in the coming year, but having surgery itself is an acknowledgement of a future.

I typed out “Upcoming race season” and felt an intense, nervous excitement. I complete tempo runs and intervals and hill repeats and long runs. I schedule races and trips months ahead. I think about where I’ll be in a year. I plant a garden for the summer. I take self-defense classes. I consider what new stories my son will have to tell me. Because every so often my mind replays that conversation with my oncologist, where he said, “Your cancer index was too high. Most surgeons wouldn’t have operated on you.”

According to protocol, I was a goner. I wasn’t worth saving. I should be dead right now.

I repeat that to myself often. “I should be dead right now.”

I may not always act like that phrase informs my daily life, but it’s there all the time. When I say, “I should be dead right now”, I instantly start thinking of everything that has occurred since April 2013, from the friends I’ve made, to the projects I’ve started, to the people who have come into my life and made me a better person, to every single thing I would have not had the opportunity to experience. I think about how all that was my future, my potential, beginning April 2013, and I might have missed it. And then how everything from here on out is my future, my potential, until chance or cancer recycles me back into this physical existence.

But none of that is special. We all have that future and I had that future before cancer, which is why I always remained excited about living, about the potential adversity and successes to come, about everything available to everyone. I was excited about becoming a better person before cancer and I was excited about becoming a better person after cancer, because it’s that future of everything that lies before us. It’s the stagnant, uninspired individual that squanders the moments, that fails to see opportunities to enjoy themselves, that repeats their life over and over again, that says, “Eh, this is good enough.” It is that individual that has no future aside from just existing until they exist no more. They have made their deathbed and already laid down.

But as the future is unwritten, we then have the opportunity to write it. We have the opportunity to make training plans to become physically better. We have the opportunity to schedule trips and become experienced. We have the opportunity to plan events and gather friends, to be kind to all creatures (even the humans), to throw off the weights and excesses of our civilized life, to educate ourselves, to eschew dead moralities and create new ones, to build and destroy, and to always look ahead with anticipation and excitement.

I should be dead by now. YOU should be dead by now. Surely, you have escaped death in your past, possibly without even knowing it. Which means, you are reading this, and a continuous river of consciousness stretches out before you, a future of everything exists for you to create. Are you going to settle for passivity, frustration, submission, disappointment, stagnation…or are you going to create a life that acknowledges the future you can envision, against the naysaying of dominant culture, against the police in your head (and the ones in the street), and towards a life that throws off “ration” and “reason” for the sake of passion and fulfillment, no matter the struggles, no matter the adversity, no matter the learning curve that awaits?

I have an upcoming race season. I have a garden in process. I have a child’s accomplishments. I have a deepening relationship. I have a plan for surgery. I have physical progression. I have experiences waiting to be created. I have struggles and obstacles and adversity that lies ahead…and it all excites me. I have a future of everything, because although I should be dead right now…I’m not.

See you at the start line.

To Run (truly) Free

I have a vision for the existence I would like to live within, a utopia of sorts. I won’t bother with the details as that is a conversation for another time, but suffice to say, it looks very little like the social structure which surrounds us and dictates our behaviors and relationships today. To be honest, I don’t even know if the vision I have for this imagined social structure is even sustainable, but because I can envision it, I think it’s worth pursuing despite the obstacles, whether those are systematic difficulties between human relationships or the efforts of the current social order to prevent this new vision from taking it’s place. This vision draws upon proven relationships and social mechanisms of traditional societies which have comprised human existence for the majority of our known history along with adaptations from modern living. It is a reimagined existence founded, above all else, upon the dictates of our inherent, instinctual human behaviors of which are directed by the most basic needs for survival. This vague outline sounds a little fantastic, I know, but you’ll just have to trust me that there is considerable more thought and rational thinking behind it.

Imagining a new social structure(s) and creating one, however, is an even more fantastic endeavor. We can hypothesize about new ways of living that will be better than our current predicament, but that doesn’t mean their implementation can instantly be established. Ridding the world of old institutions and social behaviors can be quite upsetting, wreaking havoc on our precariously established safety and order, and fighting against systems that seek to preserve themselves. Some would argue chaos and destruction are imperatives for creating new relationships based on egalitarianism and sustainability…and I won’t say I’m not among them, but I also think that consideration is irrelevant to the discussion of the potential for a massive societal shift. If the current social order is going to rapidly disintegrate for one reason or another, it will come unseen by most and will be mostly unavoidable, whether it is an economic collapse or environmental backlash.

Let’s imagine, for the time being anyways, that a massive social change can take place without a complete collapse and unavoidable die-off by a significant number of human animals, non-human animals and flora. Absurd, I know…right? Still, a significant shift away from the current social order and towards a new way of existing among each other is going to involve a number of “transitions”, towards a more fundamental transition. What new ways of relating to each other will create are transitional societies, which are smaller measures of new social relationships that gently undermine the foundational structures of the current social order. This is an important distinction to understand.

Our society undergoes many social transitions over time, some temporary and some long-lasting. These are relations that become codified by law (read: threat of punishment) and compel us to act in specific ways, with little adherence to an agreed upon morality. The liberation of african americans from slavery is an act of social transition. Marriage rights granted to homosexuals is a more modern transition. The legalization of marijuana is another current social transition. But these social transitions aren’t inherently “liberal” or “progressive” (whatever those mean) as evidenced by the illegalization of marijuana in the past and the current push towards denying immigrant privileges. What is more important to recognize is that these social transitions are isolated, precarious, and do very little to undermine foundational structures of the current social order.

Foundational structures are the social dictates that inform all others, such as our economic paradigm (Capitalism), decision making paradigm (Representative Democracy), and behavioral modification paradigm (Hierarchical Authoritarianism). These are the ways in which all other social relations are confined, manipulated, and adhered to. It is these foundational structures (among select others) that dictate the ways we establish the previously mentioned social transitions. All “rights”, “freedoms”, and dictates will only be acknowledged and supported if they follow and fall within the parameters of these foundations. Slavery was abolished because it was shown that it could maintain and strengthen the capitalist structure. The current battle over immigration rights is following the same consideration. Actually MOST EVERY transitional issue is defined primarily by economic dictates. Issues that erode capitalist expansion (the environment over oil drilling or pipeline building) are vigorously fought and it’s usually only through establishing profits through environmental protection (tax breaks for carbon emission reduction, etc.) that certain battles for the natural world are won. And of course, the only legitimate and recognized manner of appealing to the capitalist paradigm is first recognizing that everyone lower on the pyramid must appeal to those higher on the pyramid (authoritarianism) and must do so in safe (for them), ordered (for them), and sustainable (for them) ways via Representational Democracy. Adhering to these structures is non-negotiable. You either do so or you are dismissed, imprisoned, or worse…depending upon how low you are on the pyramid (nationally and globally).

There are, however, other ways to relate to each other that don’t fall within the paradigms of Capitalism, Authoritarianism (read: not communism, fascism, natural capitalism, etc. either) and Representative Democracy. These manners of existing have been proven among traditional societies for the majority of our human existence and the possibilities for new forms of relations dictated by our current exploded population, habitation proximity, overlapping neo-tribes, etc. are essentially limitless. To carve a path to these new ways of existing is going to take an equally limitless number of transitions though, and these transitions will not be confined by the foundational structures of our current social order, lest they become assimilated, rendered mute, confined, or outright destroyed. Social rights are important for creating personal breathing space in a system of suffocation, but if they remain just social rights within a social system, the potential for suffocation will always remain.

What we need are transitions that can’t be co-opted. We need transitions that break us from the dominant social order, that work outside the decision making paradigm of Representational Democracy, outside the economic dictates of Capitalism, and outside the behavior compulsions of Authoritarianism. Marriage rights for homosexuals is important breathing space for the individuals, but it is also a path carved only through Representative Democracy, appealing to Authoritarianism, and straight into the economic river of Capitalist expansion via “the gay marriage market”. The same goes for veganism, creating important breathing space for the animals confined by the dictates of speceisim, but digging the claws of capitalism into our lives via the new market for faux meats, alternative everything, and all things capital V. Every social issue we address today carries the same critique and we should never exempt one from this larger consideration.

The question then is…are there ways to engage in these social issues or create other transitions that bring us toward those new ways of relating to each other (the countless numbers there are), that work outside these paradigms, that are not co-opted, that are true alternatives to the dominant social order? I think so.

But I know what you’re probably thinking…WHAT IN THE HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH RUNNING?

First off…this is my blog…deal with it. Kidding! To be honest though, I am a self-identified runner, but I’m also a lot more than that too..so I’d like to believe…and all these thoughts are a part of me, my identity and legitimately overlap and inform my running too. So…

I’ve established a daily routine, that has broken from the tightrope I used to walk where I struggled to fit in run training, full-time employment, and social relations, and now consists of running easily, working via self-employment as a designer, coach, and writer, and navigating an incredibly flexible schedule. To address the obvious, I’m quite privileged and, in part, enabled to live this life through the sacrifices of others. I NEVER forget this or take it for granted, but no matter how this has come about, it is my existence and I’m so fortunate to have carved this out for myself at this point. And it’s the enjoyment of this relatively low-stress schedule that brought me to the considerations (again) for this post.

I was running through the city during this morning’s 8 miler and I had the casual pace and headspace to take in the views, relax, and both appreciate and enjoy the moments. I was, however, doing this by myself while the majority of society scrambled through traffic, clocked in, and sat down for a long day’s work, not because this was their utmost desire, but because they have little other options to make ends meet. I know this, because for quite some time this was my life, and down the line may become it again. For now, however, I’m running casually and relaxing into my work day…and this is what I desire for the rest of society as well, in one way or another. Not EXACTLY my existence, but just the idea of a relaxed life, free to pursue our desires, to become self-sufficient within our communities, and to create life on our terms instead of the dictates of those previously mentioned foundational structures of dominant culture. I want to pull all the bricks from the top of the pyramid and lay them out next to each other, not on top of each other.

During that run I began thinking about the “What If’s”. WHAT IF instead of everyone getting up and rushing to work in the morning, we all decided that the first 2 hours of the day would be spent on physical activity? WHAT IF we made that mandatory and placed importance upon that over everything else. WHAT IF we said, “economic progression isn’t that important”? WHAT IF we decided that we got the weekends to ourselves and carved out another day in the week for ourselves as well, whether Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, ANY DAY!? WHAT IF we stopped believing that lining the pockets of corporations and bosses and all businesses just wasn’t that important, just wasn’t all that conducive to finding happiness for ourselves? WHAT IF we decided that we could find other ways to live that provided for our basic needs of food, shelter, and warmth…and let those dictate our behaviors, our relationships and our daily schedules…instead of succumbing to the idea that there is NO WAY OUT or NO BETTER WAY TO LIVE than what we’ve got right now?

WHAT IF?

Personally, I consider the “what if’s” often, but also try to incorporate them into my life at every opportunity, and I can tell you my life is significantly better for the attempts. Running, in a way, is one of these What If incorporations, as I’ve made it something of a default to my daily routine. But there is more to this, beyond just enjoying this part of my day, because looked at through this perspective of “transitioning to utopia”, running can be seen as anti-capitalist. I admit, this is somewhat romanticized, but I’ve chosen to view running in this way because I’ve accepted that it takes me out of the 40 hour work week routine. It has, in effect, “stolen” time away from capitalism. I have currently found a way to carve time out of my day away from the capitalist demand of 40+ hours of work a week to…basically do whatever I want. It’s not necessarily the running itself that is anti-capitalist, but rather the free time I’ve demanded of my schedule. Again, I know this is romanticized, as I can make up the 2 hours in the morning with 2 hours in the evening, and although I’ve carved time away from the standard work week, I’m still making the amount of money necessary to make ends meet. I’m still paying the bills, paying the mortgage, paying the corporations for their services, etc. etc. I’m not an island…I know this.

But proving the possibility, living the examples in small ways, and creating the life you want to live in the blindspots of capitalism is immeasurably important, if not because it is an example of that life, but because it is a small moment of EXPERIENCING what that feels like. It lets you know just how much more rewarding it is to be self-directed, to pursue your desires without the stresses of Capitalist dictates, and to then drive you towards creating more and more open spaces of self-liberation, of relating to your friends and family in new ways, of building lives together that transition us away from the current social order.

It is this time outside of capitalism, created without necessitating Representative Democracy, and without reproducing Authority or succumbing to Authority that makes it so powerful. It is, again, not the running so much as the time enabled to run. It just so happens that running is what compelled me to seek this time, this carving away from capitalism, to experience the rewards and seek ways to extend this time and self-reliant experience to other areas of my life…sometimes on my own, but more preferentially, with others. This can take so many forms.

It is extending this liberated space to and with others that becomes the greatest effort towards establishing truly transitional societies, that aren’t momentary, that aren’t reproducing the dominant social order’s established foundations, and that aren’t just creating temporary spaces to breathe easier, but rather allow us to take the deepest breaths without fear of suffocation.

I will continue to admit my romanticization, but I can’t help but shake how amazing it would be to at least know that we, as a mass of individuals, can take time away from capitalism for our own self-interests. I can’t help but shake the WHAT IF, of a whole society of individuals collectively saying, “Ok, this is really absurd. Today, I just want to sit and read for a couple hours before I go into work. Or maybe I’ll workout. Or maybe I’ll create some art. And maybe everything will just be fine and I can still find ways to make ends meet.” It’s, in my mind, a legitimate step towards transitioning to a life where we can make this realistic, where stepping away from capitalism isn’t a risk, isn’t worrisome, but is actually liberating and exciting and fulfills our needs even MORE than capitalism pretends too.

Here’s the obvious problem though…it would take a collective agreement to make this happen. Sure, with such a mass of individuals in society, some of us can carve out opportunities at the privilege of others to create a liberated existence, in the shadows of capitalism’s panopticon, hidden in the loopholes, feeding off the excess of a system inherently structured to grow out of control…but completely transitional societies, or even JUST creating transitional ways of relating to each other and the dominant social order will not be carried out by romantics, dreamers, idealists, radicals, and anarchists…no, it’s still going to take some level of collective agreement, for a significant number of us to say, “I’m done with this shit. I’m tired. I’m stressed. And I see another way out. I see another way to exist that is significantly more rewarding.” And we all have to act on that, whether at first slowly and building momentum, or quickly, as in taking advantage of a social rupture. I don’t know, but those of us who are reaping the rewards of privilege, of riding on the excess of a First World economy, can’t create this on our own. We may be enjoying the experience, but it’s currently selfish and always tenuous. Without the support and defense and collective agreement with everyone else, we’re always at risk of losing this privilege and having the dream of new societies suffocated to death.

Is running an act of anti-capitalist resistance? I’d love to think so…but it’s really not. It’s an EXPRESSION of anti-capitalist resistance. It’s a REWARD of anti-capitalist resistance, of anti-authoritarianism, but for me, that’s what is important, that we all find ways to experience the rewards of self-reliance, of carving time away from our dominant social order that leaves us stressed, stepping on each other to climb higher on a pyramid of ever-decreasing opportunities, to live a small piece of the utopias we all have the abilities to create and share with each other.

Short of a completely chaotic, frightening social collapse, it may seem naive or childish to seek out completely transitional societies, but I disagree, and in the meantime, we can find ways to experience small transitions, whether through running, reading, baking, gardening, resource sharing (etc. etc. etc.), then share those rewarding experiences with each other, continuously work to keep those experiences from being integrated into the dominant social order, and see how far we can get to agree, collectively, that stopping this runaway train of absurdity (global warfare, environmental destruction, emotional tragedy, etc.) is in our individual and collective best interests.

For as long as I find the loopholes and the privileges to exploit the excess of the dominant social order, I will do so in order to run as free as I can, but always with the hope that I can extend these privileges and create the alternatives so that we may all do so, that we may all run free, that we may all live free. My friends and I can’t do this alone, and all it takes is an agreement that we’ll relate with each other, not against each other. I’m down if you are.

I’ve got 10 miles tomorrow…feel free to join me.

The Perspective of a Mile

Running has always been a reliable gauge for me. The ability to measure physical progress (or digression) is a relatively exact science and running affords us that yardstick, the way to continuously check if we’re heading where we want to be physically or if we’re stuck, or backsliding. During high mileage training, this constant measurement can become downright obsessive, always checking splits, assessing fatigue and weakness, tallying weekly mileage, but sometimes the changes are so subtle as to be barely noticed. It’s only after a long period of efforts, whether a couple months or a complete training cycle, that one can say, “Yes. I’m definitively a better runner than I was before.” One hopes.

After surgery, however, there was nothing subtle about the changes happening to my body. The total deterioration of staying sedentary for a complete month, compounded by getting sliced in two then filled with a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals, is a manner of hitting reset on the body that i’ve never before experienced. I hope no one should have to know what that feels. What it did afford me though, was the ability to really know physical change in my body, so that I wasn’t just reading into subtle clues, but experiencing massive change. When, at first, you can barely sit up straight in bed, just walking down the hall feels like a massive victory. That change is impossible to overlook.

Somewhere down the line, though, the changes become more and more subtle. The body rebounds, gets stronger and stronger, and a point comes where we have to actually push against our boundaries to create physical changes, find new strength. For me, fortunately, I still retained running in my life, and the measurements it afforded me never went away, so that I could always assess if I was getting stronger…and faster. It’s a little disheartening to think about, but some people don’t have such a reliable way to measure their progression. Some patients leave the hospital, get to a baseline of comfort that is entirely manageable, but fail to reach previous levels of health and strength because they don’t push themselves. The effects of surgery get suppressed far below their blanket of comfort…and that’s too bad. It’s too bad because not only can they be stronger and experience a greater sense of complete health, but they might also not BELIEVE they can rebound from surgery to create an even better body and sense of self.

Running is one way to not only measure that change, but compel you to believe in the possibility.

Progression through running is an undeniable way to measure yourself, but it can also be limiting if one doesn’t hold onto a sense of perspective. And in that I struggle. No matter how many people assure me that what I’m capable of doing right now is quite astounding, I still struggle with keeping perspective in relation to my abilities. In part, because my perspective is stuck in the past. My perspective remains rooted to the person I used to be before cancer, when I could peel off mile repeats at sub 5 minute pace, where I could run for hours and only get stronger the further I went. Where…well…where I was just a different runner. My perspective hasn’t forgotten what that was like, which I feel is important to retain, but it also hasn’t fully accepted my present circumstance. Maybe I’m intentionally looking back, because the future is far too uncertain to expect the most from myself, no matter how hard I’ll try to find the future runner that can challenge the past runner.

I am trying to find out who that future runner might be, how fast he will be able to go, how far he will be able to run, but I’m stuck looking too far ahead into an image of potential possibilities and not looking back 5 months ago…when I couldn’t even sit up in bed by myself.

I’m running again, but not just running…training. For three months now I’ve been in full on 1/2 marathon training mode, gearing up for the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon on May 2nd, working with my coach again. I’m up to 60 mile weeks, putting down various intervals, attacking hills, pushing against steady state pacing…and struggling. Struggling hard. I’m not the same runner I used to be and although I’m not limited by chemo at this point, I’m undeniably limited. I know this because running is a definitive gauge of measurement and the clock doesn’t lie. Effort doesn’t lie either and I’m struggling to find the efforts that are sustainable for me, while both remembering and forgetting the past runner in me. My coach has given me a few 4 to 5 mile efforts that I embarrassingly couldn’t finish, because what I thought was easy quickly turned south and became unsustainable. My range is getting bigger…but not big enough. I just don’t know what I’m capable of in relation to endurance at this point, which necessitated a new measurement. A definitive measurement. The Mile.

I felt like I really needed to reset my running, to figure out just how fast I can run for a mile and then make adjustments to every distance that followed. I emailed my coach about it and we set up a plan to run a point to point mile on relatively rested legs, to see what I could do. Not having run this trial in about 2 years, he sent me some remedial, and amusing, instructions for effort.

2-3M WU gradually increasing effort
Short break to change shoes, lose some clothes, stretch
4 x 100m striders
First 400 relax and getting into rhythmical breathing (get around hyperventilation)
Second 400 maintain or gradual adjustment (unless out way to fast then dial it down now)
Third 400 turn the screws ever tighter
Fourth 400 Exorcism!

Oh, and have fun!

I made my way to the stretch of rail-trail broken up by only one road crossing and began going through the motions, heading out for a slow 2 mile warmup, getting focused, envisioning the act of running fast and suffering through the effort. I felt an intensity gather in me I haven’t tapped into for so long, a combination of excitement and considerable nervousness. My mind and body were going race-ready, switching auto-pilot and taking over. I slowed to a stop at the self-created start line, shed my mittens, went emotionally inward and started going through warm up drills. The intensity increased as I laid into the quickened 400s, my legs feeling powerful and in control as I turned over my stride at a pace that caught me off guard, not having done this in so long. It felt good.

The routine completed, I looked up the trail, listened for the silence that assured me no cars would block the first road I crossed and poised myself to lay into the mile…to come out at the end, no matter what the watch read. I looked up, frozen as if waiting the starting gun, then hit my watch and started in.

The first 200 felt instinctual, the sensation of being driven by something outside myself, not consciously pushing and yet being pulled into the stretch all the same. I worried I was going to hard and tried to stay relaxed, remembering coach’s instructions to get into rhythmic breathing, which is what I did. With quickened breaths that exhaled a pattern of considerable effort, I let my lungs fill and release without overskipping beats.

Letting my mind relax into the motions, I tried to remain distracted from the distance that reached too far out ahead for comfort. My legs remained powerful as the effort of my breaths slowly increased, letting me know I was pushing against my threshold. A twinge of panic filled me as I doubted my ability to hold on to the finish, not even hitting the halfway point. But halfway did come and although I tried to get a read on my pace, I couldn’t focus on the watch face long enough without breaking my overall rhythm. I decided to go by feel.

Pushing into the third quarter I made a decision whether to hold back, to adjust pacing according to how I felt in the moment. I was pushing hard, I know, and although I didn’t want to back off, I did try to consciously run more comfortable, smoother…to no avail. I had hit the point of the mile where the real battle begins.

That distinct increase of pain, tightness, and perceived weight began to fill my quads, threatening to drag my legs into the ground and grind me to a halt. But somehow, I kept moving forward. A runner passed me in the other direction and waved in greeting, but I was redlined and couldn’t summon the ability to respond. I was on the tightrope of effort. Any attempt to break rhythm felt like it could knock me to the ground, my legs spinning out of balance and tangling in on themselves like a knot of yarn. My breathing fell out of sync and I made conscious efforts to bring it back in line with my arms and legs moving back and forth under my torso, but with each consumed patch of asphalt the rhythm broke again, sooner and sooner than the last. I was going chaotic.

At some point during all this mess I had entered the final quarter and quick glimpses ahead brought the undefined finish line into sight, turning effort from the body to the mind, knowing that if I could just hold on emotionally, I would make it to the finish. Everything in my lower body was burning as my quads were now inflamed with the effort, seemingly dragging my body into the ground as if bags of sand were hoisted onto my waist…and then slowly drenched with water. Each step threatened to pull me down to the pavement and my patterned breathing was completely gone, inhaling and exhaling wildly. The suffer face took over and my eyes cinched up like knots pulled tight, the corners of my mouth spreading out to bear my teeth, revealing an anger needed to swallow up the last 50 meters of the effort with legs still spinning over madly, the entire body somehow remaining upright despite it all.

With one last act of resistance to ease up and let gravity take over just a few feet from the finish, I pushed through and quickly glanced at my watch.

5:45.

And like getting overtaken by a tidal wave of relief, the precious comfort I managed to outrun down the stretch of pavement swallowed and engulfed my body, extinguishing the fires I had set in my quads. The gulps of oxygen came fully and erratically before settling down and staying within the capabilities of lungs pushed beyond their limits. I had completed the mile. I had survived. And I had measured myself.

5:45. And I still struggle to retain perspective, because a part of me cringes at those numbers. The runner that consumed me before surgery could run a mile in 4:30. And 5:45 is not 4:30. The runner in me before surgery ran 26.2 miles straight at 5:34 pace…and the current runner in me was going ALL OUT for a 5:45.

But perspective…I told myself…keep perspective. I started in on my comfortable miles after the time trial, assessing what just happened down that stretch and finding the positive in the effort. That, of course, involved perspective. First off, I told myself, “you ran that well!” Coach told me how to run each portion of the mile and I managed to do just that. I didn’t go out to hard. I adjusted when it seemed pertinent. I suffered when I should have suffered. And I pushed hard when that suffering seemed insurmountable. That’s how a mile is run…and I ran it correct. That 5:45 was honest. I offer no excuses.

And then, well…there is that whole surgery thing. I mean, yes, I have cancer, but whatever. I don’t really even consider that a limiting factor anymore. That’s a consideration and perspective to hold for much further down the line, because right now, cancer is just there, sort of like an odd, unobtrusive bump that no one can figure out is just there. Almost benign. An anomaly. A blemish. Surgery, however, is something else, and very, VERY recent. I forget that sometimes. I really do, becuase I’m running and training again, and if I’m able to train, then I’m doing VERY well physically. And people that are doing VERY WELL physically probably haven’t had extensive surgery 5 months prior. They might have had it a year or two ago, or at least, that’s what it feels like. But I do the math.

August 23rd to today. September, October, November, December, January. That’s essentially 5 months ago. 5 months. Which means 4 months ago I started running. And “running” 4 months ago meant going out for 1 mile at 9:30 pace and then having to stop because I couldn’t breathe. I barely made it home with another mile of intermittent walking and jogging. But I added more and more each day, pushing myself just a little bit each time, with no future goal or expectation ahead…just running to enjoy it, to get stronger, to measure my progress. And then everything started to change, relatively drastically, till come November when I emailed my coach and paid for his services again. That was 3 months ago. Which brings us to today. 4 months of running. 3 months of dedicated training, and I’m suddenly doing a mile time trial in 5:45. Nevermind what I said about being mildly embarrassed. I’m actually pretty fucking ecstatic.

My perspective continues to shift, narrowing the window of perception from 3 years ago to 3 months ago, when I remember what it felt like to go for a 6 mile run and wonder if I was going to be able to finish. I remember how redlined an 8:00 mile felt like and how even the slightest incline or sudden rise in the trail left me completely winded and muscularly wasted. And yesterday my coach had me run up and down a hill for 24:00 minutes straight, culminating in over 3 miles of non-stop hill running. Perspective indeed.

And I imagine if I didn’t have running to gauge my abilities, to test myself, to see just how far I have actually come away from surgery and what I might be able to do three more months from now…when I run the mini-marathon. I don’t know what’s going to happen then, but I do know that running is going to progress me physically toward that moment, and along the way I’ll be able to test myself, to gauge my abilities, to remind me of just how far I’ve moved away from that time after surgery when I couldn’t sit up bed, and to give me one more significant expanse of perspective.

And this is always our challenge…to remember the capabilities within us by looking to the past, to what we were before adulthood, criticism, and self-doubt (and sometimes unavoidable circumstances like extensive surgeries and disease) slowly crept in, crippling our desires and efforts, and to see past that, to look to a future self that is unhindered, unrestricted, and capable of so much more than what we’re told and what we believe. Then in the process, continuing to push ourselves physically and emotionally, using whatever gauges we have at our disposal to find the other person, the other runner, within us…to determine if we are headed in the direction we really want to go.

Running pushed me 5 months away from surgery to a 5:45 mile and I plan on using it to push me towards a new measurement on May 2nd. This time for 13.1 miles.

“Chapter Two” – Don’t Get Comfortable

CHAPTER TWO – Don’t Get Comfortable

The asphalt beneath my body lay like a gently placed ribbon, stretched far out ahead into the distance and just as far behind, giving only an unforgiving width of stability to run upon. Just a few feet wide and a red line bisecting the stretch like an artery, pulsing with blood, the firm ground gave way to a slight drop of dirt and ping pong ball sized rocks on either side. Trees towered up on the perimeters forming an incomplete tunnel. Cement pylons stood like watch guards, with half mile increments embedded into their stone faces, easing us of the need to do the distance calculations for ourselves. This stretch of converted rail line had become something of a proving ground for myself and my teammates, an isolated, relatively car-free expanse of ground to train our bodies into distance running machines and test our abilities along the way. This time out, I was alone, throwing myself into a ten mile tempo run at marathon goal pace, somewhere around 5 minutes and 30 seconds per mile.

After the initial warmup, I stood at the first stone-faced mile marker, quickly prepping my mind to match the intensity of my body, to test myself yet again. I swung my arms back and forth against my body, twisting my torso the same. Touching the top of a mile marker for stability, I swung one leg back and forth to loosen up anything left wound tight, or maybe just out of habit. I did the same with the other. The empty expanse ahead stared back at me, with eyes as thin as Eastwood’s, as a challenge or a dare. I took in a deep breath and let it out, as if to say without words, “Ok. Let’s do it.” With no more fanfare I hit the triangular button on my watch, leaned my body forward, and pushed off down the trail, but quickly reeled in my pace after the initial adrenaline fueled surge screamed at me out of my watch. “2:10! 2:10! Too fast!” it seemed to flash as we ran by the 800 meter mark. “Calm down. Settle in.” I thought to myself. Easier said than done when the full strength of rested legs and lungs sits in your body. Running up the long, but very mild incline, I felt my heart rate level out into a relaxed rhythm, signaling solid cardiovascular fitness. I wasn’t breathing rapidly. I could take deep, almost yawning, breaths, and still keep pace and rhythm. My legs spun on auto-pilot. The first mile marker flicked by and I hit the split on my watch. 5:23. Too fast, but not TOO fast.

The pavement stretched out ahead even further, swallowed by the trees and only dotted with other runners and cyclists making their way from point to point in the bright afternoon sun. Moving into the second mile my body instinctually relaxed, now recognizing and accepting the fate of a hard, drawn out effort. The relaxation felt familiar, almost boring, in it’s routine. My arms swung easily and my legs weren’t trying. I ran with a calm that undermined the perception of pace, as each muscle worked in concert with the next, creating a symphony of strength that pushed my body off the ground and across the pavement like intermittent flying, but more like a magic trick, like an illusion. I looked at ease, because I was, but the second mile marker ticked by even quicker than the first. 5:19. “Shit”, I thought, or might have even said out loud. This was definitely too fast, my body succumbing to the inadvertent power of the second mile, after the shock of the first wears off and the body relents, where the mind perceives the movement as controlled and effortless, but the full capacities of the body expend themselves too eagerly. In the moment, this feels amazing, but in a long effort, this can be disastrous as the energy and strength reserves needed much deeper into the run get drained away too quickly, like a young child overeating their halloween haul with pent up excitement. The after effect is never pretty.

Running further down the laid out ribbon, I consciously backed off to get on pace, but feeling the subtle twinges of guilt enter my consciousness, of giving up, of taking it easy, of running too comfortably instead of staying at that threshold of equal parts suffering and accomplishment. It’s a struggle competitive runners often face, that dichotomy of running towards an ultimate reward on race day, while not racing during each run that is afforded to us. It is a conscious reservation. A temporary admission of taking it easy. A recognition that we can run faster, but choose not to. It is running between trees instead of through the forest. But it is necessary. So with this new ease I hit the next half-mile mark watchman and made an abrupt 180 degree turn to head back the direction I came, now aided by a long and subtle decline. Adjusting to the minuscule, but appreciated, drop in elevation, my legs spun under me as if my joints has been greased or a weight had been dropped. I felt light and swift, but needed to stay in control of my consciously reduced effort as I neared the third mile marker. I ran by and hit the button on my watch, looking down to catch the next split. 5:29. “Ok, close enough,” I told myself, “Now hold this.” And I did…for a while.

The repetition of running a straight line began blurring each conscious step, each calculated arm swing, into one fluid motion. I was less a runner making deliberate attempts to keep moving forward as I was a pilot only making small adjustments to a vehicle that couldn’t find itself to stop. I was just going. I ran past each mile marker, coming up on other runners moving at a relaxed, conversation pace, and blowing by them without a breath to spare. I ticked off each mile at a consistent pace, hovering only a few seconds either side of 5:30, my body now firmly stuck in the mode of marathon goal pace, naturally tuning into an effort that not only felt somewhat comfortable, but right. It was as if I found my running morality, my physical birthright, my place in the world. 5:30 pace. That was my identity. That was how I separated myself from those that sat in recliners, choosing the sedentary life over the active one. That was the measurement that proved my genetic advantage. I could have run faster, yes, but as a marathon pace, a relatively easy effort at this point, 5:30 was my warm blanket. Until it wasn’t.

Halfway into the run I started to notice a change in my body, subtle, but unceasing. A tension began to build in my legs, a tightness that wasn’t muscular, but more as if the bolts on a swinging arm started to seize as the oil dried up. The effort to push forward on pace became a bit more conscious, instead of getting pulled by a natural rhythm and an inherent strength. The unforgiving ground met each footfall with a more pronounced response, grabbing onto the soles of my shoes as if it had gained a tackiness or increased it’s gravitational pull ever so slightly. The invisible cradle that supported my abdomen had disappeared all together and I felt a shift in strength drift from my core down into my quads, adding yet more burden to my legs instead of sharing the effort. And yet, I passed the next mile marker and then the next, both at 5:30 pace, still maintaining speed while the effort rose. Then came mile 8, where physical effort concretely transitions to a mental effort, and while the body continues to deteriorate at a rapid pace, the mind must take over.

The weight of my body seemed to increase again, pulling me into the pavement despite my efforts to move outward and not downward. My arms swung with a little less grace and my legs were not so much like the wings of a bird as they were the flippers of a penguin. At this point, deep into the run, I was beginning a drift, in the wrong direction. I was not going to get stronger or even faster. My goal now, was to hold on, to keep the 5:30 pace while the expected deterioration of my physical strength tried to drag me away from that speed and into an effort that would crush my confidence. With the effort required to keep moving forward, my lungs inflated and fell again and again, in rhythm with a heart rate that was beating out an emergency signal, faster and faster, louder and louder, until I lost the ability to concentrate on any one failing system. My core was gone. My quads were going. My arms were going. My lungs were going. Everything was going. All I had now was my mind…and even that was threatening to change it’s mantra. Against all hopes and expectations leading into the effort, my running systems were telling me one thing, “Back off. Take it easy. Relax….Stop.”

In the normal world, this sort of advice is called common sense. In the runner’s world, this is a death knell.

This siren call emanating from my mind, to ease up, to back off, is the first and last moment of an inherently hard run. It is the breaking point between those that go on to succeed and those that fall short. It is, above all other struggles and obstacles in the moment of red-lined effort, the true barrier to overcome. To run past the mind’s warning, the final line in the sand, is to truly discover what you are made of. Easier said than done. First, however, the runner must find “the other” inside, the other voice, the other message that counters the crying, desperate pleas to slow down. And it was in that final moment, where I wasn’t sure I could take another push towards the completion of the run, the voice came to me, with the exact words I needed to hear. “Don’t get comfortable.”

To get comfortable is to quit. To get comfortable is to not prepare yourself for a greater and greater adversity, an increasing difficulty. To get comfortable is to go soft. To get comfortable is to not only give up on the run, but on everything else as well, to not even try to run faster, to not even start the run, to drive to the coffee shop and not the trailhead, to make breakfast instead of putting on your racing flats, to leave the covers on, to turn off the alarm, to hit snooze, to not even set the alarm. To get comfortable is to quit. Ultimately, it is to not only battle the adversity in the moment, but to remain unprepared for anymore to come.

I repeated the mantra as I pushed down the ribbon of pavement, “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” Forcing myself into an increasingly wild state of running, with arms swinging out of balance and legs following suit. “Don’t get comfortable.” as my lungs increasingly lost their ability to hold a reserved rhythm, beating out of control as I tried to reel them back in. “Don’t get comfortable” as the strength in my calves and quads gave way to the mere repetition of running, cycling themselves over and over only because they didn’t know what else to do, not as a deliberate effort. “Don’t get comfortable” as the other voice in my head cried louder, “How can we keep going? We have to stop.”

The voice pushed us forward, blocking out all other warnings, physical and mental, with a repeating of the mantra like a stubborn toddler ignoring parental demands to clean their room, eat their brussel sprouts, go to school, “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” It was an appeasement and a demand.

The body got in line. My quads tensioned with each pounding footfall into the ground. Arms swung out, but with enough forward momentum to keep going ahead. Lungs beat quicker and quicker, but continued to beat no less. The final mile marker passed by and I looked ahead towards the next, the mantra repeating in my head as if spoken by someone in a trance, “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” Runners and cyclists passed by barely noticed, my eyes affixed ahead in complete concentration, unable to spare even the slightest extra movement as I neared the finish. A 1/2 mile marker flicked by. “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” The pain consumed my legs. The chaos directed my arms. The suffering swallowed my thoughts. But the mantra pushed me on, “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable.” And as if I found a wormhole, a moment of forgetting, a conscious blackout, the distance disappeared behind me and I could see the final mile marker as my arbitrary finish line, but the completion didn’t offer solace so much as another attempt to convince me to quit. Even if just 5 or 10 feet ahead. What would it matter? The voice screamed out with each step. “Don’t get comfortable. Don’t get comfortable!”

The final marker disappeared behind me as one last pounding footfall hit the ground and carried the weight of my body forward. I hit the button on my watch one final time and let the wave of relief consume me as my lungs deflated, desperately reaching for any available oxygen. My arms fell to my side, then to my knees as I hunched over to brace my body, feeling the warmth of relaxation blanket my legs and, finally, now finally, allowed the comfort to take over. With considerable effort I made the calculation in my head, hoping the sustained suffering ended in a successful run. And it was. 10 miles, at 5:30 pace average, despite the attempt of gravity to pull my body into the ground against my greatest efforts. With energy and strength, and then finally a devotion, a trance, and a mantra, I managed to keep going, to finish strong, to not get comfortable. And in the moment, that’s what I was going for, but only for the confidence and reward to know that not giving in this time, not getting comfortable, meant I was ready to take on whatever was to come next, whatever longer distance, increased speed, new expectation, unforeseen obstacles. Come what may, I was ready and hardened to take on any challenge, to embrace the suffering, and to not get comfortable.

I just had no idea how important this was going to be…even when I stopped running.

I came out of a sleep of sorts, or a deep subconscious relaxation, though truthfully, it was physical exhaustion coupled with the unparalleled soothing power of morphine. Still under it’s blanketing control, I managed to make out the presence of my surgeon, seeing him for the first time since getting ready for surgery a few days prior. I was drowsy, groggy, and couldn’t focus my eyes. I didn’t have the strength to even open them really, but I heard his voice summarizing the surgery for me. He was smiling and placed his hand on my motionless arm invaded by so many tubes and wires.

I remember broken sentences, morse code explanations. “We couldn’t get it all…worse than we thought…tried our hardest…didn’t want to do damage…put you on chemo…we’ll try again…hang in there.”

Sedated by the morphine I held my composure, absorbed as much as I could and waited for him to leave the room, where I would remain with nothing but the silence and my thoughts.

Sitting in the exam room weeks before surgery, my surgeon explained my cancer and surgery with a casual nature that belied the seriousness of the matter. With clinical precision and a comfortable smile pairing with his brightly colored bow tie that was his signature flair, he explained that my cancer was different. It usually didn’t spread to other areas of the body, but remained in the abdominal cavity. Although it posed it’s own challenges by secreting free-floating cancer cells coated in a protective mucin, the procedure for removing the cancer was reliable and effective. The survival rates are pretty good, meaning longer-term, and with my age and health, he was confident everything would go well. Painting a best-case scenario picture, I was to undergo surgery in a few weeks, recover for around 6 months, and then get back to running at the same level as I was before all this went down. Just like that. Piece of cake, I thought. My cancer is a different kind of cancer, I thought. We’ll get rid of it and forget this ever happened, I thought.

But when I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit, my surgeon who was so confident about the process before, had to backpedal and change tune, explaining with as much positivity as he could muster that, in fact, everything didnt’ go as planned, that they couldn’t get it all, that I wasn’t going to just recover and then forget all about it. Cancer was now my life. It was now THAT kind of cancer. It was the kind of cancer that killed my sister. It’s the kind of cancer for which charity runs are organized. It’s the kind of cancer that necessitates chemotherapy and all that comes with it. It’s the kind of cancer that kills.

I was left alone to internalize all this. I remember a feeling of dread washing over me, a darkness filling by body, and ultimately, a fear. I remember being scared, before the morphine took hold and pulled me back into the comfort of sleep. For days I suppressed my new reality, keeping the new emotional dread pushed well below the surface of my emotional expressions. I lay in the bed motionless, my various bodily needs being tended to, and focusing on the world of discomfort and pain I had suddenly woken in to. Slowly, however, the reality of my cancer made itself more and more known as the morphine periodically wore off and I could retain my memories for longer periods of time. Suddenly, it hit me. I HAVE cancer. I’m a cancer patient. And I felt stupid…I had ignored my own advice. I had gotten comfortable. I had trusted that everything would go as planned and expected, just like the surgeon said. I trusted him, rightfully so, but I shouldn’t have gotten comfortable. I knew better. Later that afternoon I broke down into an uncontrollable mess of crying and depression, maybe a cathartic release of pent up emotion, a cascade of tears the attending nurse was left to mop off the hospital floor.

The moment passed as all moments, no matter how dark, always do, and I had a new plan to work from, a new reality to internalize and begin to navigate. I was now on a chemotherapy regimen. Over the next 2 months I recovered from the surgery, made it home to adjust and continued to build strength in preparation for the first of 12 scheduled chemotherapy infusions. The new plan. The new expectation. As much as I dreaded the coming storm of toxicity that was to slowly erode my body, I was relieved to have yet another plan in order to eliminate my cancer. My type A personality thrives on routine and expectations, so to have a schedule to follow was, oddly, comforting. I would have a chemotherapy infusion every 3 weeks while taking chemo in pill form every day for two weeks on and one week off. It was just like running. Everyday, follow the plan. Never stop. But, also, never get comfortable. For a succession of months, this was the plan I followed, and with each passing infusion I marked the number on my calendar. 1 of 12. 2 of 12. 3 of 12. The days piled up along with the empty bottles of chemo pills. The accumulation also built in my body, the side effects of the drugs making themselves known more and more with each infusion. My fingers dried, cracked and bled. My feet became more sensitive and filled with increasing pain. The nausea wouldn’t subside and the cold air shocked my fingers. Headaches had to be slept away and every morning I woke with a nosebleed. Blisters replaced the skin on the bottom of my feet and nestled in between each toe. But with each added level of discomfort, another slash mark when through the days on my calendar marking each infusion. 10 of 12. 11 of 12. Then 12 of 12.

I sat in the exam room before my final infusion, waiting for my oncologist to come in and discuss the results of my latest scan and prep me for my final infusion. I couldn’t shake the usual feeling of a bad student waiting to hear from the principal, but this time my spirits were buoyed a little higher, knowing I was probably not coming back in anytime soon. The nurse routinely took my vitals then left my dad and I to sit and wait. After a period of time that always feels longer than it should, the oncologist came in and went through his normal small talk routine.

“Hello Superman, how are you? Staying out of trouble?” he asked, as if I was 12 years old and not 37. I went along with the game in order to get the visit over with.

But as we talked, there was no fanfare about the proceedings, no congratulations, and no temporary goodbyes. There was actually the same routine as always, a discussion of my latest CT scan which read the same results as every time before. The cancer had not grown, but it had also not shrunk. It was “stable”, which in the medical field is seen as a positive, but the nurses admit the patients might think otherwise. And then, with no acknowledgement of how I might take the blow, he simply scheduled me for another infusion three weeks later. I balked, a little frozen and confused, and asked for clarification.

“So, I need to keep getting infusions then? Like, what is the plan…we just wait for something to change…or to determine if surgery is an option again? How many more infusions do I get?” I grasped for answers.

Quite matter of factly, and with less compassion than is always needed, he replied, “Yes, we just keep doing this.”

And with little more discussion, my dad and I walked into the clinic where I sat in the over padded recliners and stared off into the distance, part holding back tears, and mainly absorbing the dread that filled my body and weighed me down like a bag of sand. I worried my dad might break the tension with conversation, causing my emotions to spill out all over the clinic floor, left for someone else to mop up yet again. I took a deep breath and thought about what lay ahead, what this would mean for my running, what life would be like with continuous chemo…what an idiot I was, again, for following the plan and getting comfortable. I felt an idiot. I deserved this. I got comfortable.

Weeks later I met up with a friend who was also diagnosed with a cancer about the same time I was, to talk about our experiences up to that point. Our relatively young age (we’re babies in the cancer world) and similar ambitions have given us the joy of shared perspectives in relation to cancer, living and the future, but where we find commonality, we also differ greatly in other ways. I opened up to her and lamented about my new timeline of chemotherapy and subsequent frustration that I had no idea what to expect, that what the doctor’s continued to say would happen just didn’t, and how I’m so confused about the process of treating my cancer, as if no one is really telling me what is going on and what’s about to happen. With a tone more direct and blunt than I was prepared for, she somewhat scolded me for my naiveté.

“Really? I NEVER took the doctor’s for their word. The only thing I planned on was assuming nothing would go as planned. I always assumed chemo wouldn’t work and that we would have to continuously change as we go.”

I felt a little absurd when she put it so pointedly, because she was simply saying, in other words, “Don’t get comfortable.” It was a wakeup call for me.

In relation to everything that happened with cancer from that point on, I never internalized the plans or expected anything from the treatments. I, instead, put on blinders and tried my best to stay in the moment. On my calendar I marked off each infusion not as a progression towards an end of treatments, but to simply document the experience. 13 of ?. 14 of ?. 15 of? The infusions and empty pill bottles continued to accumulate on top of themselves, as my side effects did the same, sometimes leaving me unable to walk around my house let alone go for a short run. I don’t want to say I went into a state of perpetual pessimism, but I certainly didn’t try to embody hope or positivity about what lay ahead, in fear of having that expectation torn in half. It was safer to not get comfortable, to not expect the treatments to end or the pain to subside, but to feel the pain and discomfort and concern consume me, then put my head down and keep pushing through. I had, comparatively, entered miles 8 and 9 of a 10 mile tempo run, except this time I didn’t know where the finish line was. I could only keep running, absorbing the increasing pain and hope relief would show itself one way or another. But I stopped expecting it.

Time passed and another CT scan was scheduled. I thought little about the outcome, no longer expecting things to have changed one way or another. Chemotherapy infusions, pills, side effects, and living amongst, or against, it all was now my life. I even stopped caring about the results. Where the first scan had me crippled in anxiety and fear, this one was more of an annoyance, an intrusion in the daily routine I had built for myself. A followup was scheduled with my surgical oncologist who was given the results of the latest scan to consider his options. In a previous meeting he expressed unreserved excitement for how well I was doing with chemotherapy, even inadvertently admitting that chemotherapy doesn’t help patients with my type of cancer. It’s more of a desperate gesture, of following the protocol, of taking a shot in the dark. Still, my cancer had not shrunk, so I put my blinders on and expected nothing from this appointment. I wasn’t going to get comfortable.

I sat on the exam table, the paper crinkling beneath my legs, and my surgeon walked in sporting a smile and his signature bow tie. We quickly discussed my current physical state, talked running a bit, and then he got to work examining my abdominal area. I believe this was more formality than a deep examination to determine a future course of action, because we suddenly shifted to talking about the scan and future plan. I kept my focus on the present, but the surgeon broke my concentration by alluding to a second surgery, excitedly talking about my prognosis, and letting slip that he didn’t think I’d be alive today, that “I didn’t think it would be worth going back in.” I was, despite my poker face, quite shocked at this reveal. Up to this point, he had never alluded to any dire future for me, any shortened timeline, but stuck to his positive perspective and hope for the future. I learned this was called, “the truth in small doses”. It was a manner of protecting the patient, not giving them the benefit of the doubt to handle the news, keeping them from freaking the hell out. My surgeon, however, let slip this small dose of truth out of excitement for my current physical state and the results of my scan, which showed that the cancer had not grown anymore since the first surgery. What this meant was that we could actually have a second surgery and another attempt to get rid of my cancer, once and for all, again.

It would be an understatement to say I was ecstatic about this sudden change in plans as I left the office that day. In part, it was because I had finally followed my advice. I didn’t get comfortable. I didn’t assume the best, or even the worst, for my situation. I just took my medicine, literally, as I was told and got on with my life. I could only assume this was all there was going to be until told otherwise, which is exactly what happened in the office that day. Where the plan had continuously caught me off guard by deviating in wild directions, I could find relative comfort only in taking my friends advice, which was to assume nothing would ever go as planned. She was right. The plan had changed again, but at least this time it was in my favor. I was going to be scheduled for a second surgery, taken off chemo for a month to prepare, and then not put back on while we waited to see what direction the cancer would take after I left the hospital again. At least, that was the plan. I had to remind myself…Don’t get comfortable.

“Chapter One” – Starting Lines

I have no idea if I’ll actually summon the motivation and time to complete this book idea I’m working on…so I’m putting this beginning chapter of sorts up for the time being, maybe as a motivator, maybe as a self-imposed public shaming. I’ll shame myself with chapter two soon.

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A start line is unmistakeable. No matter how we define it in physical form, we know what it looks like and what it signifies. It can be a strip of white paint, stretched taut across the pavement. It can be blue plastic mats, reading timing chips and beeping out approval as each runner relays their presence to the nearby computers. It can be as simple as two pylons, suggesting an unbreakable impasse, or it can be elaborate as a triumphant arch erected like an inflatable bounce house, banners hung from it’s peak, exclamations written in bold-faced font to celebrate the, well, start of something great. It can even be non-existent, just an assumption by all participants that where the line of leaders stands, the race begins.

The start line doesn’t even have to be so formalized, confined by the expectation of a competition, a measured course, a race, but rather the understanding that when one’s feet start running, the start line has been passed. The front door is a start line. The trailhead is a start line. The gently curving line on the local high school track is a start line. The parking lot where fellow runners meet to begin a casual, conversation paced run is a start line. Each point where an interval of varying pace ends and then begins for another go is a start line. Where a start line is one importance, but what a start line signifies is something entirely different, something of much greater value.

It is the first moment of truth. It is an agreement. It is unmovable integrity. It defines exactly what makes running so valuable, because it is, above all else, honesty. The start line creates an established agreement among every runner who crosses it’s boundary, that THIS is where we start, that no matter what distance we profess to run, despite how fast each of us will run the distance, recognizing that we will all differ in our abilities in getting to the finish, we all agree the start line will be our equalizer. The start line will put all of us, from 2:10 elites to 5:00+ back of the packers, on, if only for a brief moment, the same level. It states that no one gets special privileges, a handicap, an unfair advantage. It is our statement of honesty. Even those runners who are afforded the privilege to start early, or those unfortunate souls that get there late, don’t get a special pass to run with their expected pace group. They must all start at the same point. They must all cross that line.

It is a necessary requirement, of course, to have a measured distance that doesn’t waver in difficulty or ease, that allows each runner to traverse the same path, to climb the same hills, to fly with the same tailwinds. It is necessary that each runner cross this start line and continue on the same trajectory towards the finish, where we can measure ability, strategy, and effort, whether against each other or against ourselves. Although the course itself, leading to the finish, are all part of this greater honesty, the first important moment is the start line, when the push towards an honest race must begin. It is this beginning to end that gives us runners comfort, a definable set of standards and expectations to exist within, a generally knowable perception of perceived effort, controlled struggle, and ultimate relief that marks a point in time and a point to point span. It is our human need for order, control, measurement, and an honest framework to do so.

Imagine the concept of running without a start line, but rather an odd, shifting, undefinable series of physical efforts where one begins to move quickly, as if running, but then slows and starts and slows again and starts again, seemingly endlessly. There would be no discernible measurement, no comparison to either other runners or individual efforts, no expectation of performance or final relief. It would be nothing short of chaos and confusion, a wandering more than a running. And to some, that might be ok. It might be the type of freeform existence in which they thrive, but for the standard purposes of how we define running, it’s disconcerting. Without a start line, it doesn’t work.

I’ve stood on many start lines myself, whether they are highly defined demarcations or assumed beginnings, I can almost recall them all. I can envision the beginning of every race I’ve run, the quiet anticipation, the intense focus as I looked down the course, the nervousness that threatened to buckle the otherwise immovably strong legs beneath my body, the competition standing stoic or shivering with adrenaline next to me.

I remember Chicago 2009, how impossibly quiet the last 10 seconds to the beginning of the marathon sounded in a city usually consumed by noise. The sun shone bright amidst an air chilled to winter temperatures, casting shadows as imposing as the skyscrapers standing before us, like gates to hell, daring us to run towards them as a hungry hoard. I cautiously extended my leg just a small distance in front of me, between two other runners, to simply touch the start line with my shoe. I wanted to experience the race at it’s most definable distance, ending the 26.2 miles from the very beginning, on the start line. Not one step further back. I wanted that perfect, undeniable honesty.

I remember the start of the very first race I ever ran, as a very young boy, bandit, when my mother and the grouping of registered runners were sent down the rural town street with a gunshot. As if compelled by an unseen force, my legs followed in excitement, like an excited puppy dog that knows no better. The small details remain embedded in that moment. I had worn out tennis shoes, more scuffed and browned than their original white. I had on jeans, of which I regretted when I realized I was going to be finishing all 3.1 miles. I passed initial runners along the side of the road before I began a walk/run cycle in an effort to catch up to my mom who was working her way down cornfield splicing roads. I remember finishing too, but mostly I remember the start, even if I didn’t see a line. I knew where it began.

I remember so many start lines, at the races and the trailheads. I envision myself at the entrance to North Gate in Brown County State Park, each moment on a visual loop, starting again and again and again. Sometimes I run for an hour, sometimes four, but each time I start with one foot in front of the other, picking my way down the tiny, bicycle tire rutted singletrack and into the canopy of leaves and twigs that shelter each run. I’ve started here so many times that it begins to look obsessive, insane even, but this is certainly not the case. It is, to me, necessary, to have this defined start line to each run, though subject to wherever I may choose to move it’s arbitrary nature, I choose to start at the same point, where the dirt abruptly stops and the parking lot asphalt begins. I do this because it defines my runs, works in concert with the time ticking away on my watch, gauges the fitness in which I seek to fill my body. And because it is honest. It gives me comfort, measurement, and an expectation to finish.

It is the exact opposite of cancer. Cancer does not have a start line.

At least, cancer doesn’t have a definable start line. It leaves us, from the beginning, wandering. I don’t know where cancer starts. Does it start when the doctor gently gives you the first diagnosis, when he calmly and apprehensively says, “You have cancer.”? Does it start when, at some point after the appointment, you acknowledge and accept the diagnosis, taking on the identity of a Cancer Patient? Does it start when you call your parents from the parking lot and sheepishly tell them, “It’s cancer.”? Does it start when you get your first infusion of chemotherapy, when the ravages of treatment begin to take hold of your capabilities? Or does it start much sooner? Does it start when the first cancer cell in your body reproduces, circumvents the initial failsafe, then avoids the next and the next and the next, until it spirals out of control and continues to consume your body’s resources? Does it start when your parents combined genetic material to form the embryo that grew to be your physical blueprint? Does it start years, decades, centuries ago when the genetic code that manages to avoid every evolutionary failsafe within our bodies gets passed from person to person to person, until it ends up as part of your being, your existence, your potentially abbreviated timeline? Or does it start even sooner, when the mysterious forces of existence expanded in complexity, transitioning and shifting over and over again, through the evolutionary process, to come to this imperfect system of survival, where an individual’s ego and desires for immortality are rendered mute, where human survival has no intrinsic worth over cellular survival? More practically, did it start when we made an inadvertent lifestyle change that triggered the reproduction process, consuming too much of one thing, too little of another? Did it start when we compiled stressor upon stressor, work regimen on top of unhappy marriage on top of sleep deprivation on top of self-destructive drinking on top of…until the physical and spiritual damage enabled cancer to take hold? Did it start when we moved too close to an industrial wasteland where the chemicals and the air compromised our immune systems, creating an internal cascading effect that culminated in a ceaselessly growing nodule in our chest?

Or did it not have a start line at all? Maybe cancer just always was. Maybe it has always been here, just a part of our physical human story, a bouncing ball on the roulette wheel of existence, an unavoidable risk in our genetic lottery.

It is the arbitrary birthplace of cancer, the wandering, the lack of a start line, that creates such a problem for us. It runs counter to our human need for measurement, for definition, for expectation, for a start line and a finish line. It is not what the start line is for runners, for it is not honest. Cancer is, to be anthropomorphic, deceitful, underhanded, dishonest. It doesn’t tell you where it begins, so you are left not knowing how far behind in the race you may be. When I was diagnosed, the cancer had cheated to it’s utmost abilities. It had started the race without me knowing. It had stuck it’s toe in the dirt when I wasn’t looking, drug it across it’s body and then whispered, “Go.” Cancer knows where the race started, but I didn’t, and so it’s dishonest nature gave it the advantage, allowing it to almost finish the race and defeat the competition, which happened to be me. It was only at the last second I realized the race had started, that somewhere in the past a gun went off and cancer went running down the course to it’s finish, leaving me still warming up, distracted by my pre-race rituals. From that moment, I could only try to catch up.

Even worse, when there is no start line, the expectation of a finish is just as elusive. The race with cancer is not defined, despite survival rates and percentages, aside from oncologists predicting your future, no matter what hopes for a full life you may have. Without a start, it seems we can never finish, as if you can’t determine where you are in the race. Without knowing Cancer’s start line, how can we tell what distance it will run? Is it doing a 5k, a marathon, an ultra? Cancer doesn’t tell you, it’s dishonesty carrying from the elusive start into the race itself, forcing you to run and not think about the finish or the distance. For the runner, this is maddening. We crave the measurement, the assessment of our strength throughout the race, so we know when to push and when to hold back, but without a start, without a finish, and without an expected distance…we just run. Our only option is to go after Cancer, to catch it, and if not kill it, then to simply outlast it. We can only hope to remain stronger than cancer, to assume it also expects no finish, but will weaken with the effort as it continues on.

I wish I knew my cancer’s start line. I wish I knew where it decided to challenge me to a race, so I could meet it on honest terms, with a line in the sand we both crossed at the same time, fighting each other to an equally honest finish, may the best organism win. This, however, was not the case, is never the case, but that does not mean the race is lost. I am a strong runner and the countless start lines I have crossed, as demarcations of honesty, integrity, and truth, have prepared me to enter this race, to chase down my competition, and give it my best effort, to outlast this opponent, this cheat. Each start line taught me how to run, how to pace myself, how to battle changing adversities, how to surge and how to relax. I just never thought these start line lessons, these defining moments of honest effort, would prepare me to race for my life, to run down the strongest competition to date, an opponent with eons of evolution on it’s side, with the advantage of a non-moral existence, with dishonesty as an asset.

Only cancer knows where it’s start line was, and though my own beginning is also elusive, the most important dynamic is to recognize the race has begun, and to keep running. One way or another, the finish line will come, but the start line, for both of us, is what has made this a race.