Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Devil in the Church

Humor will probably never start being a coping mechanism as long as hope is alive in me. I'll wear bowties to events just so I could undo it and look like someone from the ratpack at the end of it. And the flowers that they give survivors at the end of an event always goes to a cute girl. Having lunch today with a couple of friends made from cancer's journey, we were trading awkward gallows humor. There was a laughter of when someone who walked into a funeral and when someone thanked them for being there, they responded with "it was my pleasure." While they immediately apologized, I believe that would cause some awkwardness for both the hearer and the speaker.

Cancer in any of it's forms is less than pleasant but somehow there are times where we bond the more specific items in life, like getting beyond the same college and major to that one professor whose comb over was horrible. It's been an awkward few days for me for a variety of reasons... enough to where someone pointed out that though they've known me for a while, this was the first time they saw my serious side in person, somewhere outside of this blog. As I shared in my last entry, I went to a memorial service for someone who died of brain cancer in their early 20's and that shook me up some of course. Both that a life was robbed so early and that his parents were the ones dealing with it is tough because we're supposed to bury our parents not the other way around.

I walked out of this memorial service to a tough email to read. Back when this all started, as I found out how rare diffuse astrocytoma was in the left temporal lobe, I asked Imerman Angels if they had anyone else in their network with it. There were zero other people with it but someone would sign up soon and we are still in touch to this day. She's a couple of years younger than me but a couple of years ahead of me in the cancer journey. In one of the sweetest romantic stories I've ever heard, her boyfriend propose not too long after her grand mal seizure in the snow while all the cancer things were pending. He showed up at her parents house to bring a few things since she was staying there. They've been married 5 years now and were looking into fertility treatments if everything went well at their bi-annual MRI... this was just a few days ago and unfortunately something showed up for the first time. While it could be a variety of things and she's incredibly optimistic (100% confident!), even citing the new evidence and some genes that she has that give her more specific fighting tools, they've decided that probably having kids may not be the right thing for them. Still as we spoke on the phone, she said some kind things about how it would have been nice to have a kid to have one more reason to fight for but hey she had her dog and her husband someone to fight alongside with her. She stole one from my playbook of putting off treatment for a weeks but showing her brain is better healed than mine, she didn't postpone dealing with cancer to run a marathon but to make sure she wouldn't miss a friend's wedding. Because she lives in another town, I've only once gotten to meet her once in person but she still feels incredibly close. It tells you something about her kindness of character that she would say to me that she hesitated in letting me know because she didn't want to cause any anxiety to me about the fact my tumor could grow.

Someone from New York who had seen some of the media thing and we've been in contact for over a year has had unexpected growth with her doctor telling her it may be time to get her affairs in order. Her primary concern has always been how this will affect her child and her boyfriend's children which are a joint part of their lives. I've tried to tell her some of my experience knowing there's no real way to put that at ease for anyone... But today as we talked on the phone with her and her fiancee as they headed home from an extended hospital stay, she was telling me about he's putting all types of pressure on her to move up the date and make it happen very soon. If anyone can't figure out the reason for that, well I clued her in on it, he was obviously nervous but also excited about losing his virginity finally. We had a few good laughs and hope to get together when I head to New York next week.

Being this open about cancer continues to make some heart breaking connections, some that really have left me feeling completely broken some days. The brain cancer ones are tougher on me not just because I have it but because your brain at the end of the day ends up really being your mind, heart and soul, you even if we theoretically try to encapsulate those elsewhere. I've experienced and watched people who aren't quite there and wish with some other people that we could trade head space for 48 hours just to understand each other better and I imagine that with most people if you did, you'd love each other more. Still, I stay open to them like a friend from college whose coworker just came down with a brain cancer and asked me to reach out to them. I see stories of a couple who had a kid together and had lived together and finally not too long before he passed away from a quick fight with brain cancer finally tied the knot.


I finally watched Fault in Our Stars, in simple honesty a great movie that at some level I struggle with because of the fiction of using cancer as entertainment comes close to home. Still, there are some great lines in there that I can relate to, one which I've certainly tried to rationally explain to myself as a reason/excuse to stay so committed to being single.

“I'm a grenade and at some point I'm going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?” While I've stopped calling it the George Clooney lifestyle since he finally got married, the girls who have all been even shorter lived than his weren't just a fault of a bad break up. For the guy known for TMI, there was a vasectomy scheduled for a few weeks after the surgery as a way to minimize the casualties. While some people have interpreted and judged my actions differently and I'm certainly not pretending that there was entirely one motivation, one of them is seeing myself as a grenade. In fact Grenade (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SR6iYWJxHqs) is one of the songs on the NYC marathon playlist.

There are some incredibly romantic lines in there... for the guy who loves the number 8 and who knows on its side it's an infinite symbol: "I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn't trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I'm grateful."

And I'm a guy afraid of commitment because when I make a commitment, I keep it. Not out of some sense of obligation but because if there's anything I believe from a sacred book, it's that love can conquer all or as the writer of that movie script said “Some people don't understand the promises they're making when they make them but you keep the promise anyway. That's what love is. Love is keeping the promise anyway.” 

And for the guy who knows that there was almost one girl who could have broken the George Clooney pattern or at least the not having had a girlfriend since high school pattern, there's the unforgettable line "It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you." 

I try to blow off these lines, these ideas with the fact that these are two young fictional cancer patients. They are just young kids with not much dating experience and so it's just puppy love which always feels so real to the puppies. And yes (spoiler alert), oddly enough the one who is more ready to have his heart broken by the fact that she's got the worst prognosis, is the one who dies first. And then I'm like yeah, I don't wanna be that guy. I could be the guy who proposes to my friends no matter what their conditions were but I come as a hispanic male who is proud to be protecting his little girl and how could I ask anyone for anything too serious? Still at brain cancer events, at cancer events, I've  heard parents, spouses, kids, friends who said it more eloquently as they added the details of how it was their privilege to have their heart broken.

So when I hear these stories, it's when I go out and do another workout so that hopefully less people and perhaps no one ever has to have those type of decisions. Even on days where I'm not sure where to find the fire, I'm still looking. Realizing yesterday that I'd gotten bib 8 in 8 different distances from the mile to the 100 mile ride, I went and did 800's and dedicated it those who had donated to Voices Against Brain Cancer (http://www.voicesinmotion.org/site/TR/VoicesinMotionEvents/VoicesinMotionTeams?px=1118485&pg=personal&fr_id=1181).  I put together the playlist to find a way to keep going, knowing that while I wish it was all fun and games that there may be better ways to find inspiration to run but sometimes you just channel the frustration and anger and let it out on the road. 

If you're wondering where the title of this blog comes from, it comes from a song, this is gonna hurt (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2NjGrR5uqg).  


You say it's all a crisis 
You say it's all a blur 
There comes a time you've gotta face it face it 
Hey hey hell is what you make
Rise against your fate 
Nothing's gonna keep you down 
Even if it's killing you 
Because you know the truth

Listen up listen up 
There's a devil in the church 
Got a bullet in the chamber 
And this is gonna hurt 

I added it recently not primarily because marathons hurt and the song has a good beat. Someone said they heard me as they passed the opposite way doing what I probably thought was singing but what they thought was screaming.  But as these couples headed and will head to wedding chapels with painful awareness of realities that the promise of till death to us part was a lot closer than it is for most people, they signed up anyway. If a cancer that's destroying your brain isn't a devil in the church, I'm not sure what it is. But still, those people rose against their fate even if it was killing them. And so that's why I'm heading to New York with Voices Against brain cancer because at least here on earth hell is what you make of it and so I head out there to face it with the best that I've got right now. I started this with the gallows of how someone said it was their pleasure to be at a funeral... well here's hoping that race, those donations against brain cancer, make people wait for that pleasure a lot longer.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Don't Stop Us Now

There are many reasons I love Livestrong and have done many events with them. But as I was getting dressed in that much too tight fitting bike clothes Sunday for my 4th 100 mile ride with them, looking once again to ride a "century," I put on some pump up music. It was a cover of Queen's Don't Stop Me Now (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-OTYT02W7E) the lyrics of which surely encapsulate part of the Livestrong mantra, attitude is everything.

Tonight I'm gonna have myself a real good time
I feel alive and the world it's turning inside out Yeah!
I'm floating around in ecstasy
So don't stop me now 

don't stop me
'Cause I'm having a good time having a good time

I don't want to stop at all.

I suppose I should step back a second and realize that like all Livestrong event was so much more than just the athletic part. While officially it started with a special event Friday night, for me it started by picking up one of the Livestrong leaders, Scott at the airport and meeting with another Steve for lunch. I had not seen either of them in a few months or so but we'd traded messages, emails and they had both donated to my fundraising causes. I was amused Scott thought it was too much hassle to ask to be picked up by me, the guy who'd taken rides for most of the last four years due to my driving restriction. Scott and Steve had gotten together and taken a trip to the Grand Canyon this summer, and while cancer had done us all harm personally and by losing parts of our selves, deeper parts of home because of the death of friends and family along the way, including Scott's wife. Some losses like that and that this is the way guys immediately fight back is nothing short of ridiculously impressive. Still, it's lunches like that where the other part of the mantra came through, unity is strength and a few laughs and stories reinforced the fact that while living and perhaps after, we are brothers in arms. The connection of how we grieve, how we love, to me is incredibly special and even if everyone does similar things, I am grateful to not have missed awareness that connections are incredibly special.


The "official" beginning to the Livestrong weekend was the Grand Finale of the Big C competition (http://bigc.livestrong.org). This has a contest that has been going for a while where over 700 entries had been submitted and we were down to the 5 semi finalists and going to see their presentation. Livestrong knows that cancer research for a cure has made some progress in some areas and less in others (the brain cancer survival rates for example have barely budged in over a decade) and so the beauty to their approach is that there are aspects of cancer that have daily cures.  And so here the third part of the equation, knowledge is power showed its evidence. The five finalists were somehow both big and small... There was one literally from the other side of the world, in India where despite the fact that 1 million people are diagnosed every year there is nothing near a nationwide network connecting them. There was TeVido using a new 3D bio printing of a woman's own cells for reconstructive breast surgery. There was Adhere Tech patented smart pill bottle dispenser to help remind people to take pills correctly and if they've done so. Having my own nowhere near that smart dispenser due to my memory issues and haven given one away to someone who struggles with chemo brain so that was one I relate to. Restwise was an app about managing fatigue in order to rehabilitate faster; both as an athlete and as a patient whose had to take breaks and never wants to I was impressed by the simplicity and the beauty. The 5th was decisive health which helps patients understand different treatment options and how to make decisions. My doctors couldn't agree whether or not the brain cancer surgery was worth it once upon a time and left the decision up to me. Some doctors thought yes and others no; that medical disagreement got me to have friends come over for a poker game what I asked what they would do and there they also couldn't agree. Perhaps my decision would have been the same with this app but I think it would have been easier to get there with this. In the end the people's choice winner was and the grand prize winner were the same, Decisive Health. Each were great ideas but it may well be fitting that when given a diagnosis or a situation that feels out of control, the fact that we have some say in the matter very much matters. We don't get a choice in being hurt in life but we have some say in how we deal with it. 


While having a 7 year old daughter often reminds me that curiosity is brilliant in its own way and whether from her or with dealing with cancer, I've come to understand the old idiom that there's no such thing as dumb questions, but there is such a thing as better answers. To be both giving platform and competition for those ideas was a great venue to launch intelligence to more practical levels.


Still, without exception, the human connections are my favorite part of Livestrong, always amazed by the people who stay as active members of the community, trying to share forward how we can make the world a better place while dealing with cancer. So, the evening was not just about the ideas but served as a reminder that they mattered because you wanted to share life with good company. There were some moments of joy where I found a couple of lady friends that we are part of an online dare to move group where we "virtually" exercise together and that night we did it in person by doing some push ups together in dress clothes. There was a friend there, Mr. Wright (no wonder he's not single with that kind of last name) who jokingly pointed out that with the Livestrong bowtie I was wearing I'd dressed well enough to meet my next ex. He and I had met when he was trying some experimental drugs and I had just had my driving privileges taken away for the second time; I'm glad we are both still standing and super manly. That room definitely felt where there was a balance of people who knew that by being in each other's lives they both made their own life, the person they shared it with, and other people's live better. That hope that there was a hand and a heart to hold made days and nights easier even if you didn't know or perhaps exactly because you didn't know where everything was always going to stand. All the dancing to 80's music after the presentation also helped.

The next morning was a memorial service for someone I had met at my first Livestrong ride in California, Jimmy Fowkes. Just barely an adult in his young 20's, he had started us off in the 2013 ride and only a few months later would pass away from brain cancer. There had been a memorial in Portland but the fowkes had been such an active part of the Livestrong community that they had to have another one here in Austin. And yet even in grieving, they had chosen to keep raising money to show what Jimmy, a Stanford religious studies student, always had fight (http://www.stanforddaily.com/2014/02/18/outpouring-of-condolences-for-jimmy-fowkes-14/). Their daughter, Jimmy's sister, had been the lead fundraiser for the entire event. A group of survivors who had climbed up to the top of mount Kilimijaro would give her a flag that had gone up there. The affection and attention they had shown both their son and their daughter... let's just say that if I show a fraction of that in the way I raise Kiana the way they always have, I'll be proud of my parenting.

The celebration of life even in the acknowledgement of death and hardship continued. There was a dinner for the fundraisers Saturday night. I was proud to be part of the team that had raised the most money over $100k (I had only raised a few hundred dollars of that.) There would be moments in honor of, in memory of, moments where as people shared the stories somewhere it was clear that the shift in your face and voice was from laughter, others from tears. I got to see once again friends like Linda Santos, the lady who gave me the ring of hope I'm supposed to propose with smiled wondering when a wedding invitation is coming. Speeches were made with some using the more sensitive terms like touched by or affected by cancer. Yet there would be others who would use stronger language to describe why they fight people who on their reoccurred described it "being invaded, violated by cancer," others who share affection about family with the strong conviction that "my father did not die of cancer, he was murdered by it." And yet still in grieving and anger and frustration they smiled at the privilege of having gotten to share life with them and to have those in the audience who understood. There were other cracks in people's voices whether if it was from humor or sadness wasn't as obvious to the audience and perhaps not to the speaker either. But the connection was absolutely genuine. The people in there are intelligent and like all smart doctors and patient, everyone in there knows that everyone eventually dies whether of cancer or from just having been born. But if people like that ever just accept death easily, perhaps all the stars in the universe might just go dark.

The Livestrong ride still continues to be the longest ride I've ever done. I thought it had only been 2.5 years since I started riding but apparently, it had been three centuries and I was ready for my 4th 100 miles. This year, I've gotten a little bolder (reckless?) and it would be the first time I'd let myself go enough faster downhills getting to speeds I've only done on a bike a few times and the longest I've ever let it last. Maybe because of the blazing speed or because it was warming up on the second half of the ride, the song was definitely playing through my head again: I got to ride part of it next to various people, some old friends who were friends and cyclists long before, some friends from recently. Some I'd ride for only a few minutes, some for a few miles..

I'm burning through the sky yeah!
Two hundred degrees
That's why they call me Mister Fahrenheit
I'm trav'ling at the speed of light


When the 100 miles were done, I was tired but smiling. That why it was my kind of weekend, where everyone from volunteers who handed out water or flowers at the end were acknowledged. Those who had the best ideas were appropriately rewarded, those who had raised any money were thanked while the most money were acknowledged for being great achievers. This was only a ride so there was no race but they kept track of your time if you wanted to have some concept. There were those who pushed themselves to ride at all for the first time since treatment, those who celebrated by riding every inch next to friends, those who wanted to be on the ride as long as possible, one friend who even did part of the course twice just to be out there longer. 


I guess life on this planet will end for us all sometime, cancer has done that to too many of us much too soon. There are romantic tales told in books or movies where people try to encapsulate cancer in imaginary characters. In my journey, fact is better than fiction. The people I've met in my own cancer journey, like the ones on this Livestrong weekend, are better than any script I've ever seen from those who are trying to find a way back to work, to college, back to home, to a normalcy with a new level of relevancy about what it means to live. Sometimes they get back their old life, sometimes they have to take a brand new one. There are those who step it up a notch or four and become a force to defy, the best among them perhaps most aptly described as a living poem, who are better than all the literature I've ever read combined. It has and can be hard having met friends along this journey who have passed and others who will almost certainly do so relatively soon and far too early in life by any measurement. But the best relationships, the ones you know there's nothing better than to have and keep them even if they seem to only be a wink in time because of cancer, as much as they hurt when they are open, I'd never take them back to protect myself because they made life more meaningful. Even if we have to be stopped someday, even if we never want it to be at all, for at least one weekend with a few meals and a heck of a ride, I was grateful for them and for all those that haven't been stopped. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

How Do You Like Them Apples?

(This is one of those blog entries that like all of them I write primarily to remember the way things happened, not a cleaned up retrospective version but just a journal since I write this to read it to me someday. Good one to skip but then again I don't understand why people read most of them)

I have had a privileged life...perhaps a rough start, perhaps a rough end's coming and it's definitely had some rough middle points but there are very few days I'd exchange no matter what anyone offered to trade in for them, certainly the ones where I've damaged people in any way but I can't think of any others.

But no matter how bad any day has gone, there hasn't been a day without privileges. Oddly enough walking around a store I realized Christmas decorations were already up (are you kidding me?!? we hadn't even gotten past Columbus day or as Seattle calls it indigenous people day). Nonetheless, I started thinking about my Christmas ornament for the year since I always hang one up on Christmas Eve representing the most important event of the year. It was the first year in my life where I had to have an argument over the many choices 2014 has presented. (I think I figured it out but we'll leave possibilities open for a December blog).

But yesterday was 6 months since I started driving again and the first time I went a full year without a seizure since 2010. (How does a guy with my memory issues remember that? While I do have an app on my phone that keeps track of how many days since one particular event and how many days till some very important events, and I even have events in there as far forward right now as March 4th, I must confess that this particular one I knew was close but I was reminded of it by one thing, and one thing alone: as soon as I got cleared to drive I got insurance for my car by the next day so it was because of an auto draft from every six months). With it having been reminded that way, there could not have been a way to celebrate that had any planning to it plus they'd taken a few hundred dollars out of my bank account.

Still while there are ceremonial things I've gotten to be part of from podiums to gigantic checks to graduations... well those are more appropriate because they represent significant accomplishments that culminate in a reward. This seizure free time really is just marking the passage of time from when we maximized the anti seizure meds in December 2013 and them having worked entirely since then. This wasn't anything I worked towards really; it was just medication being effective so how often do you really celebrate the changing of a calendar month on your kitchen wall besides turning the page? Fall may be the year's last significant smile but...

Luckily, the day celebrated itself for me. It was a holiday and so Kiana and I got to spend all of it together, creating a heart shaped frame, writing some thank you notes, watching a Doctor Who episode. We have been riding together since I taught her how to ride a bicycle when I had learned to do so getting ready for the first Livestrong Century (it takes a sweetheart to notice that maybe part of the reason I like this parenting thing so much is because we might just be doing childhood together). While Kiana has gotten bigger, the stroller for her to ride in comes out less and less. We started doing it earlier this year where she would ride next to me while I trained but the simple truth is that it was more about jogging with her because between dodging bushes that go around sidewalks and crossing streets, we weren't going very fast. But on that one year anniversary, well, I took her to a park that has a one mile loop around it and let's just say that the days of me slowing down running while Kiana is on the bike are over... (She ran a mile loop afterwards on her feet and I still got her beat on that!)

This was followed by a parent teacher conference. I've said over and over that my parenting philosophy is first you gotta give kids roots then you gotta give them wings... Kiana's learning to fly at a heartbreaking speed. There are those heartfelt moments where she shows both her independence and her attachment saying she wants to live at this house forever which I responded with saying that eventually she'll want to have her own place as an adult so she can make her own rules. She said she'd eventually just buy this house and ignore my rules... I smiled internally and externally when she said that.

But at the parent teacher conference moment I was (mostly) proud. The teacher showed me some work she had done including one piece that Kiana was apparently the only one in the entire class to solve. We talked about how she likes to help kids and how her teacher can even tell when she's willing to help people that "she's not really friends with." She's certainly not a perfect kid and sometimes there are times where the fact that she's an only child shows as she's not using to having to share some time and attention as regularly as I and kids with more siblings do. Perhaps the heart breaking moment was the one part of her work that I didn't get to keep, a story she's been working on. she wrote it like a fairy tale where she was a princess with a prince named Adam who was afraid of everything (and once he knows I know about the story, he'll be afraid of more; just kidding). When she started writing that story, I brought out the contract she signed last year and reminded her that this was the only thing stopping me from converting to Catholocism and making her become a nun. But her teacher thought her story was well written. (Her teacher might have also mentioned where Adam sat, that he was also one of the gifted and talented kids, a handsome polite young boy who was also one of the top sellers in her class since Kiana was the highest sell. He sits next to her. I think most men end up with girls who are better than them since they're the superior gender but if Kiana doesn't become a nun that will be true  no matter who she decides to settle for. I called my contacts at the NSA and he is on a watchlist now of kids to not let near Kiana. Again, just kidding).


And while there have been some people trying to pay some nice compliments about Kiana and her various achievements by using a phrase that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Some of her artistic pursuits would show you none of that comes from me. Let me be clear while I hope that Kiana always pursues and thinks of things that are noble, lovely and excellent, I am not trying to get her to be like me; I am hoping she grows and finds a way to be her own person that knows how to balance sharing and helping life in a humble way (humble being defined not by thinking less of her self but by think of her self less).

If you want to make Freud turn in his grave about his Oedipus complex (or what is it that you do in your grave when you're happy), a couple of people have suggested that hopefully she ends up with someone like me. Let me be clear: I would be more disappointed than that (yes Adam, you win one here). I mean for crying out loud if there's any where that the thinking should win over the feelings ,if there's any logic in my George Clooney ways, is what would any parent say, myself included, if their daughter came and said, hey dad I've fallen for a single unemployed dad with brain cancer... yeah there may be some romantic movies in life but it would take one hell of a communicator to write a happy story to that film. Somewhere with both the moments of how "independent" she'll try to be when she reaches adolescence and with the fact that there's danger out there like kids named Adam, I couldn't resist making the joke to my friend that well if I die young, there will be some stress I avoid from being a father to watching a little girl growing up.

We'll worry about those days if and when they arrive. I just still want to take each day as a special invitation of its own. There will still be big days with medals and ceremonies, I get the privilege of being at various events with the Livestrong challenge this weekend. I get to run the New York marathon in less than 3 weeks and return to Beaumont the weekend after that to run the 10k and hand out medals to the half marathon participants. But with the passage of a few months of driving, a year without seizures, a quarter of the school year with parent teacher conference, the only way I got here was one day at a time, one step at a time, I am thankful I celebrated life returning to being more normal by letting life be more normal.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Done Living


With this picture up on my desktop, I received a quote from a church friend: “I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.” ― Chris Cleave, Little Bee

I echo that when reflecting on both by emotional and physical scars. Recently, as I was organizing some old pictures and music and writing... reflecting on the times I wrote more and took more pictures and downloaded more music and ran better are when emotions are heaviest both positively and negatively... trying to hold onto hope that what messed with me the most emotionally were the positive ones. It was when people, moments where perhaps productively, perhaps futilely since in some of those scenarios, it all went wrong but still places where I felt fondly at home. Those have all been ways I try to live with the scars, to overcome them to accept them to realize that they are bigger than me and that I am bigger than them simultaneously. Just for memories sake, I even found old pictures of me with long hair and another completely bald long before cancer or scars were present... There's probably no one who would stick around and love me for too long with either of those and maybe that's why I've learned to keep my hair at its current style (I grew it out shortly after the surgery trying to hide the scar and actually considered having it removed not just digitally but covered up with cosmetic surgery. I am grateful I didn't. )

For a good part, the majority of this journey I've felt homeless, wondering if me with the scar will ever find a place or person that while yes, there's cancer but where I don't feel like an alien. A place where when I'm there I don't feel isolated and alone, where I feel... I don't quite know what the right words are, maybe comfort, relief, happiness, hope, home...where it's a good place to be. That's not the constant feeling... if you read this blog you'd probably find the phrase "one day" used a lot and it's probably written the most on those days I feel the closest or the furthest from feeling home again. 

There's been a lady who has been featured a lot recently. People have sent it directly to me and it's popped up on various social media. She's easy to google so I'll let you do so if you want. But she's 29 and got diagnosed with the exact same cancer I have but it progressed faster than mine has and she moved to Oregon to utilize/take advantage/whatever you believe is the correct verbiage of the "death with dignity act". She's going to legally take her life there and has even chosen a date based on a few things including her significant other's birthday of when she will go out, surrounded by him and other family members with as they describe dignity and peace. Euthanasia some call it; breaking down the Greek translates it to "good death." I imagine there's a few individuals in history that I would say had a good death that but in my book they are the minority. But there are so many more I could point to had a good, a great life.  


Whether or not that should be legal or is moral under God's eyes I'll let better minds than mine debate. I've announced exactly the way I'm going out to the Grand Canyon in various places. There is a box I've prepared for that if and when statistics play their role and the box is updated when appropriate. There has only been one time I've second guessed it or felt that I would defy the odds, this despite multiple friends having tried to talk me out of that Grand Canyon trip. Even with my damaged mind, it's tough for me to choose whether to trust the instinct to follow thoughts or feelings if they don't quite line up. The lady making news has made it clear that she is just trying to avoid pain and wants to go surrounded by people she loves. I'm not afraid of pain, mine is motivated by having watched people whose brain is gone be dying in a room where they are a stranger in a room where everyone is a stranger to them. (It's also because end of life care tends to be pricey and well I'm not leaving my daughter with less money to be a living ghost). There have been comments and criticisms and defenses of her choices in regards to what God would think, whether or not it should be legal, whether or not it's suicide. I'll avoid those topics and leave that for someone with a better frame of mind than I have about it all. But the one thought I've had in comparing my plans and hers of doing it in her own bed surrounded by people and my plan of going to the Grand Canyon to die... I think it's plenty debatable which of the two is more self centered and less caring to the people who you loved while you lived. Is dying in front of them or away from them more wrapped up in one's self? 


But throughout this often homeless feeling journey, I've tried to focus much more on the moments of now rather than when the leaving will occur. While it was a horrible song in my  book , there was a break up song I heard on the radio of someone who left their significant other. The line that caught my ear was, "I'm leaving you for the moment;" the cleverness of the lyrics being not that she was leaving him for a moment but just walking out of the relationship to get to experience more moments on her own terms period.


But after last week when I'd had the worst run in over two year, I did something I've never done before. I created a playlist for a training run. It was mostly songs to remind me of the places, the people that had felt like home. It was an out and back course so my teammates had to put up with a lot of singing. The song I played the most on that run was what my hope is for me and for anyone dying which is all of us are, whenever or however our time comes... it's called done living (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kl7gAq3CiiM). These lyrics have messed with me quite a bit:


Well, I spent the whole night fighting
Fighting with some ghost
And when the break of morning found me
I'd both won and lost


You see the question isn't are you going to suffer any more
But what will it have meant when you are through?
The question isn't are you going to die, you're going to die
But will you be done living when you do?


Yes, I spent the whole day running
Trying to catch the sun
But when the darkness overtook me
All my running had made me strong


So run till you cannot take a single step in strength
Then crawl on your hands and knees, till your hands and knees they ache
And when you cannot crawl

It will be me you call to carry you back home again.

You see the question isn't are you going to suffer any more
But what will it have meant when you are through?
The question isn't are you going to die, you're going to die
But will you be done living when you do?


As I prepare for various races I know that running has made me strong. Still, I hope when the time comes that I have ran and cannot crawl that it will be clear in my phone who I could call to carry me home. I hope I keep appreciating the scar and keeping it in perspective. And I hope that when it comes time for me to die, that I'll be done living when I do. 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The End of Time and Space

There's an old riddle I loved when I was only a few years older than Kiana:

What's the beginning of eternity,
The end of time and space,
The beginning of every end
And the end of every race?

While someone once pointed out to me that reading this blog I come across a lot deeper than I actually am, I was nowhere near thinking deeply at a young age, look at the riddle closely . While there are simple questions with complicated answers but this one is the opposite, it's a simple answer, the letter E.

As I got and get into adulthood, it turns out the world is not quite as simple as the letter E (though perhaps the solution to many my problems is nothing more than finding a special someone whose name begins and ends with the letter E.) I get notices about the various different awareness months October is from domestic violence to Hispanic awareness to breast cancer awareness to brain cancer awareness. Some of those things are more complex than we like to admit but my brain isn't capable of all of that.

So on the days when I get it right, I've tried to focus on the simple solutions and it turns out that they are easy to comprehend for me and Kiana and even my dog puppy. That doesn't mean that every time I exercise them is executed well. But I did find some comfort in some pieces of today. It was not the best day in some ways; I had the worst training run I'd had in a couple of years. While it would take someone to get me to be better at trying to get any good at being big spoon getting into a car accident was not a fun way to be rear ended.


But I am relieved and excited for a good lady is getting her final chemo injection and I wonder if the reality of all has quite sunk in yet. At the same time, there's a friend who spend all day in treatment and likely has a few months left whose enjoying what can probably be best described as a life of sin. There's another cancer friend who it recently metastasized into a stage 4 but while she shared it with her online friends, she quickly and intelligently pointed out to everyone who was suddenly offering to visit her to be with her well past October and initial treatment and that she was always going to be more than cancer.

Perhaps my favorite and least favorite moment of it all though was with someone who while we first knew each other professionally has become a friend. My friend, Pam Leblanc, whose father is dying has been sitting with him regularly in his hospice.  She's a reporter who wrote two stories about me, one about the marathon I won with Kiana, the other about the first time I skipped the Austin marathon to run the Paramount 5k with Kiana, her first 5k. We've traded a few messages as they did various treatments to try to buy time but now it's just two to three weeks top; these things are never quiet exact. I have no good role model of what to do with when friends are in these situations. On my tough days with cancer or with anything, sometimes I've had friends who were there with an ear, others who were there with a beer, and others who provided the shoulder on which to shed a tear. There's days that are so full of frustration that even I, an extreme extrovert, know that there's no solution other than taking some time and space and that the only good company really is a muffin. Sometimes I hide in a song or a run or writing here.

But the right moments in my life are every once in a while confirmed even if it's in heartbreaking fashion.  Both Pamela and her father have led exciting lives of their own separately as adults but she said that while it was shitty to be dealing with this with her father, she was glad to be reminiscing with him. And in that reminiscing, Pamelas realized, remember, was grateful for the amazing times, and how awesome it was to be part of them. I've seen her posts of the adventures she's had all over doing sports things and see her fit city article is always a happy motivating piece. But it was interesting to hear her say that he's probably the reason why she's a fitness reporter because they would do trips to dinosaur tracks or canoeing he built her curiosity. In due time, she would be the one dragging him to write stories about boats or parks.Who that woman is and that they are reminiscing here I think shows parenting at its best because they were building each other's character, interests and relationship. I can only imagine that the reason she caught the picture of Kiana and I so well is because she'd had a father who'd tried to be there for her as I hope I'm doing. Not all people get the luxury of reminiscing and having that much announcement of an exit but  with that said, we all get the chance to make some memories together.

This is my hope, my dream for my best relationships. I've certainly tried to do that as a dad; don't get me wrong I am trying to give Kiana time and space to grow her own wings even at 7 years of age. I loved the 5k races we've done together but I've also loved watching her do her own Spartan races. But those are like my marathons race and special occasions. I've taken time to watch her do her homework and her reading. In the last few days alone, I've gotten to watch some of her progress. Some of it was certainly helped by the right adults in her life but she was the lead fundraiser for her 2nd grade class which led her to be a dinosaur ambassador at a much cooler exhibit than I ever saw in school (is that because the dinosaurs were still alive when I was a kid?). Last year before we started running together as disciplined, she went to the school how much can you run in 40 minutes and did 2.25 miles. This year she did three and a half and earned a pedometer for it (I only ran 1 lap with her, the rest were with her friends while I cheered). Today she had a small solo as part of a school musical that was all about standardized testing (somehow I think the lion king's audience is safe for now) but she was beaming through the entire half hour of it enough to where I said to her music teacher that if Kiana goes into Broadway, I'll blame, I mean thank her for it. And I am incredibly grateful not just that she's doing it or that I get to hear her describe it but that I've gotten to be there for so much of it.

Anyone who knows me well, knows that whether my time to go is tomorrow or at age 84, if there is an after life I'll be sticking my tongue out at anyone who does things in memory or in honor of me. Everyone has to deal with death or loss in their own way and I'm not criticizing how anyone else copes with that. But anyone who wants to do right by  me when my death comes, don't do anything in memory of me, do something in memory with me at the next possible opportunity and then forget about me when I die.

The psychology major could quote some studies that have confirmed over and over that those who are happiest in life are those who focus their money and time on experiences not on things. Those are my favorite people, the one you get smart enough to realize that every once in a while you shut down too much thinking, conversation and just go feel good about getting some follies together. Some of those will be events where you see why we invented fancy clothes by people who are dressed in whatever the new black is or are impressed by people who do it just by walking in the room in jeans and a t-shirt.

It's why while I've made friends at every single trip, I also try to take someone with with me each time (when you have a not fully functioning brain it helps one who has a working brain to help get it all together). And it's why when I try to bring something back, I try to make it something that's more like an experience, a "bear" of soap. Or like Vermont maple syrup that you can share waffles with together because even if they couldn't come up on the trip, you get to bring back an experience of the trip with them, to find a way to bring back the time and space you had apart and find a way to make it together.

There is no one who has all of their experienced shared with one person. Even if someone were to be next to you or right behind or in front of you every day of your life (and would that be creepy), the path can never be exactly the same. Still I think stories don't mean a thing if you've got no one to tell them to. And to me, they are usually better when you're reminiscing together about the magic and music and laughter that you absorbed side by side. I think part of the reason that the woman in Idaho who won the marathon and broke the course record and part of the reason I got a PR out there was because we ran side by side for most of the race. There's actually a paragraph I added at that speech in Idaho

"There are people who think running, running is a solitary sport and maybe it is. But for me, it’s like some of the best and worst realities in life where I realize as I step into a machine or onto a course that some of life can only be done alone. And some of those medical tests or those training runs where you’re on your own can be incredibly lonely. But the training is often the work but races to me are always a reward. On the course it’s only so much time before someone’s running next to you, or when there’s someone cheering, when someone’s handing you water along the course, when you get a medal saying way to not quit, to keep going till the finish. My journey is one that often feels so alone but those connections during races help part of life be a shared experienced where somehow, like in life, even if you are alone, and I am alone, at least for those shared moments we can be alone together."

So this is where I hope to start my everything and what my hope, my every choice and love will end with (see what I did there with the letter E?). That yes of course you sometimes have to take time and space to figure out your thoughts and feelings but that in the scheme of it all, I hope that I will choose to always also do conscious time and space alone together.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Only Hurts When I Breathe

(I am not sure why I always throw in this warning on these types of entries but this is one of those
stream of consciousness entry and boy will this one wander.)

There are rare days where I am not both reminded and grateful that my cancer hasn't grown... I still work off the statistical probability that it will, from reminders of people I've met that drop me a line when things go good and bad perhaps because I take pills semi related to it everyday, perhaps because I've chosen to be active in this community, perhaps because I wear a Livestrong bracelet and an emergency contact one. But on those days, I try to believe that some of the good things like heart, mind and character are growing, that the good parts of it like love are shooting through and that hope floats.

I stopped by Livestrong recently to drop off the charity challenge check from Spartan (can I say I was a little disappointed that they asked to keep it cause I mean who doesn't want a giant check at their house to say hey sweetheart, don't you like the size of my giant 4k check?). I also brought some donuts to the staff because then I'm more likely to keep being faster than them at races, I mean because they are really good people and I wanted them to appreciate that in their day to day work which is somehow also big picture work. (I've been asked a few times why I support Livestrong and I could go into more length about it here but there's a speech I gave that you can watch or read here  http://pickingupahitchhiker.blogspot.com/2014/04/holding-hands.html)

I guess maybe I had too many donuts there because somehow Saturday night I had a serious fever and despite Kiana ringing hers, it turned out more cowbell was not the cure. I am apparently pretty off when I have a fever though I have no memory of any of the times I have. I am supposed to be relatively careful when I do because an increased temperature puts me at a higher risk for seizures than normal. But my thoughts and emotions are wacky then and if drinking and texting is bad than fevers and phones should be reconsidered as well. 

But as I thought through it all on little sleep and much exhaustion, I was getting ready for a training run for the true captain of team Choose Joy for the Austin marathon (https://www.facebook.com/groups/teamchoosejoy/), Sean Maguire. Bart Yasso and I are the theoretical captains and lots of people from Livestrong are  helping out but if we're honest  he's doing more than the lion's share of the work. He has just finished treatment and is now getting the stint in his chest removed and was working off getting off his painkillers (all this while putting together a team of marathoners and half marathoners). I am doing what I can and making him do some of the toughest hill repeats in Austin. 
But we sat and talked after about how we have very different approaches to life, love, cancer. I come with more edge and aggressive willingness to compete... maybe this comes from growing up poor in a rough neighborhood, or being the son of a boxer, maybe it's being one of literally a few dozen grandchildren (I like to think I'm the favorite since at the 50th wedding anniversary I was the one that got to walk grandma down the aisle), maybe it's just innate personality (though if you're reading a wandering entry may I point out that we're all at some level competitive because the only reason you're alive is because there was a race with a few million sperm and if you're alive, YOU WON). It is this approach why I wear things like the grim reaper shirt that says make him work for it, it's why I sign up for things like Spartan that will whoop me out of my comfort zone.

But Sean also signs up for hard things and kept working on marathons till he qualified for Boston. Now that cancer treatment is done he wants to qualify again (I can't relate to that desire at all). But while he's also made some inappropriate jokes to deal with it all (he calls dealing with colon cancer dealing with the bug up his ass), the team we're trying to raise 100k for is team Choose Joy. We all have some edge to us and different ways to release it but he is definitely one of those people who by far his ideas and facebook entries etc are on the up and positive. He has both the wherewithal and the sophistication to notice the cameras during races and smile at the cameras (and he does so during the runs I've trained with him for too).

But Sean has worked off the assumption that he will beat cancer and be fine while I've worked off the assumption that I'm working off borrowed time (some of that is statistically more likely, some is just hope). He believes that the things that have gone right and wrong in his life are closer to meaningful while I try to write them off as coincidence because that way that's less pressure than calling it fate? He met a girl and married her quickly much like George Clooney finally did (yes I had to hear a lot about George Clooney's wedding Saturday. May I point out that he took a couple of decades to do it. I have bets riding out there on if I ever get married again, one of which is a friend who has to run a marathon if I do, others that will cost me money, so different people have different directions they'd like me to take. I still haven't even been lucky enough to have a girlfriend since I was in high school so I'm sure one of us would have to have clear enough thinking to realize that anyone I'd be compatible with is probably out of my league under the current circumstances. But maybe Keith Urban's song will come true of finding someone I run to). But even as we realized we have different approached we've often ended up at the same place... which one of us got there faster or better is definitely debatable. 

A simple big picture keeps showing that I'm still getting some good times as far as running is concerned. But as I've said this summer was the best one of my life including my running times and lumosity score. I don't know if fall will continue that way but it was because it was a summer where I trained with joy in my head, with love framing my heart, with a thinking that had changed to take some high risk high reward scenarios. I still have a burning pain about the things cancer and its side effects has done to some people. It is both joy and pain that has fueled me; this summer I've just let joy take a bigger part of the stage. Yesterday I broke a five minute mile for the second time this year with the ship of fools (it was a challenge from a friend in order to win some concert tickets and it helped to be finishing in between two young twenty year old fast guys). I don't run track with music but I still sing in my head (yes I know that's weird). And the two songs that I played in my head were my two latest downloads period and also two songs that will make the NYC marathon playlist as I try to get into an empire state of mind. The first song going through my head was 22 by Taylor Swift (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AgFeZr5ptV8) and you better believe I'll be dancing like I'm 22 as long as I can. 

While my more recent pattern is dealing with some of the heavy emotions early and letting the happy ones take me in the latter half, on this sub 5 mile I switched to trying to get past the pain on the second half by acknowledging it and focusing on it (maybe this is why even after brain surgery I never took pain killers because somehow feeling pain was better than feeling deadened even after a medical procedure). But because yesterday was a bad day, I reverted to the form I've used more for the last few years, the running got tough on the second half of the mile, mentally I switched to Greenwheel's breathe https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZRmBPXVUl8):

But home
Is a feeling I buried in you
That I buried in you

I'm alright
I'm alright
It only hurts when I breathe

And it did hurt but it got the job done. Let me make this clear, fear, no matter how real it is, like all
negative things, can only be used so far. I often joke that part of the reason I don't work out harder is because the instinct is fight or flight and there is a very small percentage of people in the entire world who could both outrun me and whoop me so I always have the option. But in the real universe, dark can only get so dark before all photons are gone, cold can only get so cold before it's absolute zero, motion can only stop so much before you're at a dead standstill. But light, heat, motion we've never found anywhere near it's high tipping point. I changed my facebook profile picture yesterday to a time where I was just a kid, no scar, no cancer, no marathons, nowhere near this damaged or emotionally scarred either, trying to remember that guy from 7 years ago and wondering if he still existed. But they went in to my head with a knife, with an edge, I pulled up the digitized picture of me with and without the scar wondering how different life would be if it didn't hurt so much when I breathed. But I put it away and just went back to realizing we get our choice in our thinking and our feeling and we have to respect the universe sometimes, and sometimes push backwards. And acknowledge the heavy emotions but realize that the only way the universe has ever had a creative force is when light, when motion, when heat balanced correctly with the lack thereof. I am nowhere near that but I'm trying. 

As I've always said, I'm not sure whether I'm not running to or from something. But whenever, I reach my journey's end, even if I've longed stopped doing races, I am afraid I will be the man who keeps running. Never looking back. Because he dare not. Yet I dare dream, I hope I'll be the man who ran to something to someone even if it hurts when I breathe.  



Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Right Thing To Do

The beauty of Sparta, perhaps both the ancient and the obstacle course world, is that they are always trying to make things better. Yes, some of that means making things tougher but the pushing is a way to try to improve the system both personally and perhaps society at large. In fact there's a story told of ancient Sparta of an old man who went to the Olympic games, couldn't find a seat to watch. As he went from place to place, he met with insults and jeers, as nobody made room for him. But when he came to the Spartan section, all the boys and many of the men rose and yielded their places for him. Whereupon all other Greeks there applauded the action, and commended the action beyond measure; but the old man, shaking and with tears in his eyes, said, it seems all of Greece knows the right thing to do but it is only the Spartans that do anything about it. 

I think that probably applies to all of humanity; we all know in the best parts of us that we have to do something helpful for strangers, for people who aren't as capable of us to make the world a better place, to do the right thing. But in the end, even if everyone else cheers it on, it's only those who do it that do the right thing . So it was a privilege to be standing once again among those type of people as we got ready for the charity challenge. Last year at Spartan's world championship, Alexander Nicholas put together a team and invited me to it. (Both years the charity challenge has been the day after the championships when those who participated the day before are sore in that muscle, what's it called oh that muscle called everything) The man is so generously epic that he has led me and others on their first Spartan who were strangers on that first course and does so at a gym in New York. This year, we joined forces and put together the team. Last year the rules were that teams could only have 5 people and your first three finishers were what counted towards points; this year they allowed you to have unlimited teams but it was the first four who mattered with one of them having to be a woman with Spartan acknowledging the simple reality that can you really have a victory without a good lady somehow in your life? 

The ability to participate with teammates in a race designed to challenge you alone is a way to help those in need where people literally can help each other obstacles both literally and figuratively. But Spartan had done not just that but improved on last year's challenge by more than doubling the amount winnable by charities to a total of ten grand, they had still found other ways to make it better. Rather than just the best racers winning money, Spartan had set up a way for teams to raise money through donations in connection to the event. Furthermore, they were donating money not only to the top 3 racing teams but also to the top 3 fundraising teams, acknowledging that there's more than one way to be helpful and that different ways should be rewarded.


As we put together the Epic Strong team we tried to make it to where everyone was triple threat of brains, athletic talent and good looks (Though no on else was, fortunately, I was exempt from all three rules . If you look at the picture of our team before the race, you can see why I am the one who "coincidentally" is most covered up by the most loose fitting clothes.) We had Joey and Erica from New York a couple who have muscles in their abs than I have in my entire body. David, a high schooler who I had races against in the area where I won a marathon. There were the elite women of Jackie, Sue (representing like me the Lone Star Spartans out from Texas) and Jenny who I had met in the California Beast. Let's make it clear everyone of these ladies had chicked me at some Spartan or another. There was Chris whose training was tough enough to where he had won the elite heat of the Spartan Sprint that morning and was ready to start the charity challenge less than an hour later. There was Alex, an epic strong type of guy who like most of the team had done the beast the day before. And there was Alec (not pictured here) a trail runner from Atlanta who was too fast for the camera.

As we got ready for the race, knowing most of us had to be pretty exhausted from previous race. With the knowledge that based on their biceps alone, that my teammates were going to have to carry the team, I thanked them for joining the team and said try to give it as much effort as you did yesterday since it's less than a third as long. They smiled one of those contagious smiles and we got ready. I didn't know quite how to approach it but this race meant a lot to me so I gunned with conviction and since the first mile or was pretty much running uphill, I was actually in the lead for most of the first mile. Unsure whether this was a sign of things to come or whether like the cross country days of old, I was just playing the rabbit, I kept going. I would actually get passed very little for the first three miles and when I did, it was almost entirely by my teammates. The last bit was obstacle heavy and I missed two of the obstacles, my grip still exhausted from the previous day. I was comforted knowing that my teammates were somewhere in front of me and so I would help 8 people in 4 obstacles, 3 on my team and 5 who were on other challenges.

When I got to the finish line, I would learn that we'd taken most of the top male spots and the top 3 female spots (see what I mean about having the right ladies in your life?!). I'd see pictures of teammates like Alec making things like the rope climb look easy.

There were people here who'd sign up to do obstacles and take on the obstacle of raising money. The top fundraising team was a set of Canadian Mudd Queens, a team who'd raised money to combat childhood cancers; I'm not sure there's a worse kind. I'd meet a member of Team RWB a group raising funds to help Veterans to help them fight through life when they had served and fought to give us ours. I'd once again talk to people and Winter herself from Team Winter (https://teamwinter.org/) who has done more in her adolescence than most people do in a lifetime. She has helped fight men's prostate cancer because her father passed away from it when they were both much too young to deal with that. There were teams there to help people with medical bills directly, people fighting against domestic violence, and more than a few teams mine included fighting for various cancer causes. As I met people from some of the other charity teams reminded that we have too many problems in this world but we have more than a fighting chance because there were people like here who would do a lot more than stand up and give up their seat to give someone a rest.

In the end, our team Epic Strong won the athletic competition and Team Winter took second place, a repeat of last year. But as we stood there and received checks and podium stands for the top 3 teams in each category, I couldn't help but  think about some things while feeling grateful. There was a lot of high fiving, of taking in the message of the finishers shirt that Spartans fight for those in need. If you focus on just the needs, the fear, the tears can be overwhelming. But as I watched not just those podium finishers but other finishers some which literally  had carried their teammates through some of the obstacles and finish line, I couldn't help but think well of course if you focus on just the problem, it may seem impossible or improbable that the problems will ever be solved. But if you look beyond the problem and focus on the right part of the message, Spartans fight for those in need, if you focus on the fighters, you realize there is far more than hope. There may be some obstacles, some ups and downs, some heavy burden, some teamwork necessary and crucial and vital but that hope and change will prevail if you don't give up till the end, no matter how tough the obstacles get even if the finish not as clear as it jumping over a fire in a Spartan race.

Less than two years ago, my only connection to the ancient Greek world was the marathon story.
Now Sparta is also part of it but they were strangers than. That world has helped me get in the best shape of my life, literally having taught me how to handle some things better, teaching me the ropes. I've got a long way to go but I'm a lot better at dealing with Spartans than I ever have been. Our winnings will be going to Livestrong this year. This was an organization that only a couple more years before that I'd also never heard of. Since then, they have helped guide me to good doctors for second opinions, good counselors for me and Kiana. But beyond medicine, it was through them I got to meet some people who choose joy, some people who even if you got to love them forever, it wouldn't be quite long enough but that connection makes living stronger and dying, whenever it comes, weaker.

The people who stood up in that ancient Greek auditorium were strangers to the man they offered their seat for. Many of the people who donated to the various charities, including Livestrong, were passing it forward to strangers. As I headed home turning around to catch one last sunset on my best summer ever, I kept daring to dream that maybe, just maybe, autumn would let me keep falling in love with life. And that the good that this team had done that day may only ever help strangers, people who I'll never meet or have a seat to watch how it helped. But I was greatful to be part of an event, a team and some friends who had stood up to do the right thing on a Vermont Spartan Charity Challenge.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Playing the Beast

George Bernard Shaw wrote "we don't stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing." As I was getting packed to return to Vermont to do the Championship Beast, that was the thought I was having about why I keep doing these Spartans. I'd qualified for Boston and won a 5k since the last Spartan race so a couple of friends had asked me why I don't just focus solely on running, why pursue an activity I feel so inadequate for since I get passed by so many more people and get whooped so much more.

It took a small damaged brain with memory issues very little time to figure it out and remember. As Kiana and I went to the track and then after playground, she sat there and played on the monkey bars and kept trying to swing harder, till she eventually fell and cried. After a couple of minutes of calming down, she did it again successfully. As we walked to school, she walked across a wall with balance then stopped and picked a flower. This, this is why I do Spartans. Because road races are fun and running is fun but as kids, or at least when I was a kid and as I watch my daughter Kiana, we want to do so much more than just put one foot in front of the other fast. And so we build playgrounds to do it more cleanly and when I get on there and play with her... it's a nostalgic feeling I can't quite describe.

But when I get out to do Spartans, the nostalgic feeling is further back than my childhood. It's remembering the childhood of perhaps being human itself... when there was no clear path, just a mountain to climb, trees to avoid, rocks to crawl over. I suppose there were always some people who stayed at camp but the ones that took us higher, further were those who'd be the defining elements of humanity was building it's own playground, it's own path or at least pursuing the one that  most people left only to the beasts. In Spartans, they build in these obstacles which cover such a range of challenges. I am still amused that they call the running out here technical running; that to me feels like calling a plane flying and a bird technical flying. Running in nature is the way we got better at running and while driving on running in a car may be faster... flying or running through the natural way up mountains, swimming across rivers, getting in the mud, that's not technical to me, that's running in the midst of beauty, nature, reality. In those Spartan races, I have beaten people who would have come in ahead of me on road races and vice versa. But it's more than just putting one foot in front of the other, you have to land them right, watch where you're going. And if the challenges were just things that you had to deal with and then keep running and the best runners would still be usually the winners, well they wouldn't be obstacles then, they'd be merely interruptions. And so that was the attitude I went in with as I laid out my gear and got ready for the Spartan championships.

The first time I did it in 2013 I had no concept of what Vermont looked like. I had looked up at the Ski Resort mountain where we'd do this all and thought that was a beautiful mountain than when I'd heard we were going to be up and down it several times, it was the most hideous thing I'd ever seen. But going into it, I knew it was a beauty and I was hoping to be successful in taking it with it's obstacles and becoming a beast.

The first few miles on the course were different this year, a different start with a slight down hill turned into an uphill. It was very few obstacles at first, letting people spread out before jumping over walls, going under walls, going across walls, crawling in mud under barbed wire. I'd seen all of this before and I'd prepared for it all mentally. There were sandbags to carry, buckets to carry, and since the year before I had also these at home and had some concept. I am not a great swimmer and it wasn't long before we were swimming in water that was colder than any water shy of an ice bath I'd ever been in with two obstacles in the middle. I got 50% of those, missing the tarzan swing because well I guess I didn't focus on the right movie having thought about Beauty and the Beast and the Jungle Book and not enough about Tarzan and Jane. I got further than I thought I would along it and the water was colder than I remembered when I landed. Still, we proceeded where the trail got more unfamiliar and we kept going forever uphill it seemed. When we got to the very top, there was a wind and fog and cold where you couldn't see very far in front of you with a cargo net where perhaps it was just my imagination, it seemed a lot colder in just climbing those 20 feet up than it did at the bottom. The balance beams I had done before had a new twist with a log in the middle followed by more balance beams. There was a memory test (do you remember things worse or better when you're cold?).

 And suddenly on what had been described as the toughest course I'd ever done, the hardest thing I've ever signed up, I honestly started to grow over confident. I was over halfway done mileage wise and while it was a challenge, I was ready to say that the training had paid off and just to turn it on till the finish line. Not long after that, there was an interruption, no an obstacle, no a crazy ridiculous part of the course that reminded me that this was on a ski course and that in order to go up people usually take lifts and come down on ski's. The hills had been tough enough but all of a sudden there were bags to carry. The simple truth is we'd had a similar obstacle the year before but it was a long sandbag that while heavy and awkward, I'd gotten this. This year I'd worked on my upper body more (or so I thought) and it would be simpler. Boy was I wrong. They had upped the ante... it was now two bags, built not with a handle but with a way you'd grab them at the top and you'd have to take them both. I started that climb what felt like 100 times dragging it, hating gravity, wondering as I do in the middle of most races and certainly Spartans, WHY AM I DOING THIS?!? I was in the elite heat and we had two carry bags, the ladies and the open heat only  had to carry one bag and they were passing us and each of them were sharing encouragement as
they did so. It was questionable whether it was sweat or tears going down my cheeks at that point. Apparently it would become more common during the day that people would just leave a bag and walk off the course and quit there, I only saw one person do that while I was on the mountain. Definitely had the wrong griping thought up there as I kept trying to find a way to push by thinking, just reminding myself that mentally I just had to "Get a grip." Then I realized well my grip muscles are exhausted... it wasn't my arms or chest, it was my hands never having done anything like that trying to pull these things up that was wearing me out. I got it done after some breaks in the middle and I think approximately three and half years.



But after that while there were just a few miles to go... those miles felt longer than I dare describe. There was a point on the course where I made the wrong turn and realized and a volunteer lead me back and as I headed backwards, probably getting a little mileage in I was talking to the guys going forward who recognized me and asked what was wrong asking if I was walking off the course (there was zero chance of that). I just said I was trying to do the course in its entirety and I didn't know how else to do that after making a wrong turn than to go back. There were obstacles that I struggled with that I wouldn't have without those bags, a herculean hoist were you pick up weight over a rope and a beam and then let it down gently was  harder than any other times I've done it from grip strength shot. There a contraption that felt like it was from American Ninja and it whooped me, the obstacle I'd been able to prepare the most specifically for the monkey bars were no longer just bars that swang across, they had huge ups and downs, and they took me down. There were things I didn't struggle with at all in previous Spartans like the rope climb where my fingers were just hurting. I got it done but I had to hang on tight and it was a bumpy ride. Honestly several days later they still hurt, maybe why it took me so long to write this report. In Spartans some obstacles have to be completed, you have to make them a priority because they aren't an option, that was one of them. Others you get one shot at them and if you miss them it's a 30 burpee penalty before moving on... there's a great Spartan saying, there's no failure only burpees, I got to not experience failure 150 time along the course.

The end was a steep climb with a steep run down to jump over the fire. But when the finish line was visible it was easier and that was the fastest I'd climbed up terrain and ran down the slopes. The honest truth is that in Spartans I've never checked my time or my standing. I don't wear a watch because I don't know how to translate it. I knew it was about 15 miles, 7000 feet of elevation, 33 obstacles, tons of muscle, mind, heart and pain to get through it. I was exhausted but knew that day I was proud to be a beast, still believing that if you sign up for some messy things in life, it makes the ones you don't sign up for a little easier to deal with. This Spartan beast reminded me that it's good to work hard, to find something to believe in, even if I didn't know where I stand.

Like any Spartan or race, I wasn't necessarily smiling in the middle but I was smiling at the beginning and at the end. I've played many sports and taken many challenges in life, some willing and some by happenstance but there's nothing else I've ever done that pushed endurance, every muscle fiber as much as this, my heart beat. Many have mentioned I was crazy for doing this kind of stuff... fair enough, we know something's wrong with my brain. But I think it's probably good to push and play with as much of the system on occasion. And that playing in Vermont was a beauty and at the end of it I was grateful that both that the mountain and I were still standing and that I got to be a beast.