Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Survivors

(When Runner’s World cut me loose as a columnist in 2004, I wasn’t ready to stop magazine work. This year I post the continuing columns from Marathon & Beyond. Much of that material now appears in the book Miles to Go.)

2010. What do you run? That’s one of the simplest and best questions one runner can ask another. It demands an honest answer – not what you once did or dream of doing some faraway day, but what you really ran today and plan to run tomorrow.

Ask me this question, and there’s not much to tell. Yes, of course I still run, but not nearly far enough impress any marathoner. I write now about a run of mine taken in summer 2010 only because it was so far from my norm.

Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of the time I run alone. Most runs end before the sun peeks above the hills on our eastern horizon. Few runs repeat the same lap more than a handful of times.

This one run broke all those habits. It circled a high school track for dozens of laps. The black surface intensified the heat of the midday sun. I joined a crowd of hundreds, mostly walkers, many of whom drifted into the runners-only inside lane.

I left my loner comfort zone for the best of reasons. This was our town’s annual Relay for Life, which supports cancer causes, remembers the casualties, honors the survivors, praises the caregivers. I ran for all those reasons, plus to give thanks that I could still do this.

The first 24 years of these local Relays had passed me by nearly unnoticed, though relatives and friends had fought through or lost to cancer. Then I was diagnosed myself with prostate cancer. It was treated early and apparently successfully, and left me with new appreciation for how quickly good health can turn bad – and often can return to good again through the miracles of modern medicine.

In my first post-treatment summer I ran 45 laps of the Relay, one for each day I’d spent in radiation. I ran from predawn to sunrise – to symbolize passing from the darkness of diagnosis into the light of recovery, but more prosaically to minimize heat and crowding on the track.

When planning my return to the Relay, I realized that the first run had been too easy. Dealing with cancer is never ever easy, so I would raise the toughness level by starting at noon when the day was hottest and the numbers were highest.

During opening ceremonies I stood with Jerry Stromme, a graduate of my marathon training team. What he was doing was much bigger and more selfless than what I had in mind. He never had cancer himself but came here to support those who do or did have the disease that the Relay combats.

Jerry expressed surprise at seeing my here. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen you running,” he said. I joked that “it’s my kind of event. You can start anytime you want and stop whenever you like.”

But this wasn’t true for either of us. We both had our plans. His was to total 250 laps, or 100 kilometers. Mine was far less noteworthy – to run for two hours, one for each year that had come between the dark days of exam and treatment rooms and this bright summer afternoon.

My plan took its last and best twist as I was about to leave home for the track. I cut note cards into thin strips and wrote the name of someone to remember, honor or thank on each lap.

I wore shorts with pockets. As each lap began, I pulled a name card at random from the left pocket, ran around the track holding that person in my hand, then deposited the mini-card in the right pocket and drew another name for the next lap.

Later. While undergoing treatment, I had promised to become an activist in matters of prostate-cancer awareness “after taking care of personal business.” Each Fathers’ Day I help with a wonderfully named event, the Prost8K. All proceeds go toward funding a free cancer-screening event a few weeks later.

About 1000 men are tested each summer, and 100 of them have results suspicious enough to warrant further checking. Some cancers are caught when the odds of successful treatment are greatest.

I’ve seen detection work two ways. One of my grandfathers didn’t have any chance to survive once his prostate cancer revealed itself. One of his sons, my uncle, was tested early, treated and remained healthy 20 years later, in his 90s.

A urologist found my cancer early, and two years after treatment I was doing fine. I wanted the same for as many other men as possible.

I also want runners to know too that our activity doesn’t grant us immunity. Marathon legend Bill Rodgers and Olympic marathon qualifier Benji Durden know that as well as I do.

Each of the men named above was among my honorees at Relay for Life. My two hours ran out before the cards did, and I had to carry several at once on the final lap – which wasn’t truly the last. The best two laps came later, at sundown.

The first was for survivors, walked (slowly, to savor the moment) with hundreds of fellow purple-shirted cancer veterans. Looking at many of them, I saw myself as lucky to have had one of the more treatable forms. I saw too that we were all the lucky ones to have outlived our disease so far.

Immediately after this victory lap came another, where we joined our caregivers. I walked with granddaughters Paige and Shaye, ages seven and five, who had given their care without knowing it.

None of us patients had to came this far back on our own. This had been a “we” effort, not an “I.”

Notice that there’s no mention here of how far I ran in two hours or at what pace. I’m not telling because those results wouldn’t impress you and because this wasn’t a race. There are other ways besides the numbers on a GPS or stopwatch to define running well.

Walking away from the track at dusk, with a granddaughter at each hand, we saw my friend Jerry Stromme still running. He had been on the track for eight hours already and would run well into the night before finishing his 100K-for-a-cause.

His answer to the what-did-you-run question would impress any marathoner. I was more impressed by where he did it, and why.

(Photo: Joining the “brotherhood” at the Prost8K, where cancer survivors proudly wear blue.)

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, Pacesetters, Personal Records, Run Gently Run Long, Running With Class, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, The Running Revolution and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]


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