Running is Important to Me.
An essay about running written by a cancer survivor.
have run this trail so many times that I know every nuance. The
trail is actually meant for horses, but the running community
seems to utilize it more than equestrians. It is packed dirt,
the perfect running surface, the perfect length, three miles out,
three miles back. I know this trail as well as I know the map
of veins on the back of my hands. It is mainly a flat and featureless
trail, but I know where each of the subtle dips and rises are
located. I know where the best views of the Rocky River are; where
you are most likely to spot a stately heron stalking for fish
or a bright snowy white egret with a bright yellow beak. I also
know where the rocks underfoot are and where it is likely to be
soft and muddy.
I love the trail; I love the soft
surface, the smell of the shale, the high ancient cliffs that
rise above it. I love how the river changes, sometimes subtly,
sometimes severely, as though it were a living thing. I find a
certain thrill when I run next to the river when it is high and
rushing like a torrent, but I also enjoy it when the water level
is low and the river moves sluggishly too. I even enjoy running
under the two bridges that span it. One bridge is old, white,
stately. The other is a highway bridge, a pale blue-green, functional
but not beautiful. I always sprint under the bridges, the sound
of traffic far overhead urging me not to dally.
I’ve had good, glorious days
on this trail. I’ve also had terrible days that I would
as soon forget. You see, this is where I not only run, this is
where I find solace, where I go when I need to escape.
One of the very worst days: the
day I was diagnosed with cancer. It was Valentine’s Day
and Cleveland was buried in a snow so significant that even the
courts were closed. I don’t remember much about that day,
that day everything changed, what and how I exactly felt, but
I do remember going out running, out on my trail that was covered
with a thick and heavy white blanket of two feet of snow. I did
not get very far (snow is very difficult to run through), but
I can remember standing about a mile out, my breath appearing
as thick clouds of white steam in the bitter air, and saying out
loud, “Why me?!?” When it snows, the world becomes
very silent and still. And so I guess I shouldn’t have been
surprised when there was no answer.
The next week was a whirlwind of
tests. PET scan, MUGA scan, pulmonary function test. There was
simply no time to run on my trail. Every day for a week there
was a test, and it all sort of blurred together. The entire diagnosis
and chemo process even now is sort of fragmentary; I remember
images and scenes, but most of it is just a hazy memory, sort
of like a bad dream that you can kind of remember only terrifying
bits and pieces of when you wake up. It is almost as though I
did not actually go through it. It was almost as if I watched
it from afar.
I didn’t know if I was going
to be able to run while doing chemo. I had asked my doctor at
the initial visit — the same visit where he pulled out a
tape measure to figure out just how large my abdominal mass was
(I was not offended, actually thought it almost absurd) —
if I could keep running and he said, sure if I felt like it. I
could tell he didn’t think I’d feel like it.
I knew, though, if I was going to
survive, I’d have to keep running. I knew it instinctively.
It was as though running was as essential as breathing. Life is
nothing without passion; I have two real, true passions, Civil
War history and running. Those two things make life worth living.
And so I decided no matter what I was going to try and run even
through chemo. The day before my first chemo, a surgeon was placing
a port — a central line device used to spare your veins
from being burned by the noxious chemicals and poisons —
in my chest. My chest masses were so immense that the surgeon
didn’t think he could manage to squeeze the port in amongst
the enlarged lymph nodes. We should put it in your leg, he said.
This would mean no running for the duration. I was staring at
the daunting prospect of eight months of chemo. Eight months with
no running? I said no way. I’d rather be burned inside out
than not be able to run. The surgeon, a triathlete himself who
I think understood why I needed to at least maintain the illusion
that I was going to run my way through this mess, found a way
to fit the little metal disk into my chest.
Chemo further depleted my blood
of hemoglobin — that little iron-based protein that carries
oxygen around your body. My counts had already been ravaged by
cancer. The first week after chemo, I was dizzy and my heart raced.
I could hear it when I tried to sleep at night, thudding in my
ears. Still, I would go out and jog around the block a few times.
Going out after chemo to run was very hard, particularly because
it was very cold and the streets were covered in snow and ice.
I stuck to my neighborhood. I was too dizzy to drive to my trail
and far too weak to even think of attempting the large hills I’d
have to run up and down to get there from my house. But eventually
the snow melted. And so, amazingly, did my masses. My blood counts
actually started to improve as the disease was knocked into submission.
I went back to the trail. I watched it slowly come alive and turn
green. I marveled at the little, delicate flowers that peppered
the ground with white, pink, purple. I was blessed a few times
to see a doe with a brand new, spindly legged fawn, still covered
in spots. The birds returned.
Spring eventually softened into
summer. The air became warmer and thicker, the days much longer.
And my trail became something like a tunnel cut through a jungle
canopy, a ribbon of dirt through a mass of thick, bright greens.
Summer was rough. The thing about
chemo is the drugs don’t just target the bad cells. No.
Unfortunately, chemo is not a smart weapon, it does not know enough
to make just a targeted attack on the bad cells that are dividing
out of control. Chemo is a poison and it kills indiscriminately,
targeting good cells and bad ones alike. Chemo therefore causes
lots of collateral damage: to your hair, to the lining of your
stomach, to your skin. It can cause so much other damage —
even occasionally other cancers, a future leukemia is a possibility
for Hodgkin’s survivors, for example — that you end
up with the equivalent of a Pyrrhic victory. Although I was lucky
to keep most of my hair (which I feared was likely as doomed as
Custer’s men at the Little Big Horn), my lungs took a real
beating from the drug Bleomycin. Bleomycin is the least effective
of the four drugs used to treat Hodgkin’s Disease. Ironically,
it also causes the most problems. My right lung filled up with
blood and pus from Bleo damage, and even after discontinuing the
drug (which is very commonly done), I struggled for a long time
to even walk up the steep stairs in my house without gasping for
I’m not sure why I kept running.
Or rather I should say kept trying to run because by this point
I was no longer really running. I suppose I desperately wanted
to cling to an essential piece of my identity. Chemo tends to
rip away your identity and leave you in tatters and pieces —
I had reached the point where I knew I could not practice law
for much longer. My hair was thinning. I was losing weight. I
had a tan from being outside so much, but my face was as white
as a sheet. And swollen. My face was constantly puffy, as though
I had just gone a few rounds in a fight. Psychologically, I was
a mess — I was by turns depressed and then very angry. I
had no business running, but I just couldn’t let go of it.
It was the one activity I had that made me feel normal and alive
and like I was still a part of the world.
(When you have cancer, you see,
it seems like the entire world seems to keep going at it’s
normal pace, while you are left behind. You cannot really live
while undergoing chemo, you just try and exist. You try to make
it from treatment to treatment. You try not to think too far ahead.)
Running requires a lot of breathing,
of course, and since I couldn’t do that essential activity
very well, it became a massive struggle. I spent a lot of time
stopped on the side of the road or on the trail, bent over, grabbing
my knees, wondering if my heart was going to leap out of my throat
onto the ground in front of me. I looked — and felt —
like a poser. I was just pretending to be a runner. I was once
a runner. I wasn’t one now. I seriously wondered if I would
ever be able to run again. All I could do now was jog at a ridiculously
slow pace for a few minutes, then gasp for breath on the side
of the trail.
For whatever reason, one morning
during this dark phase. I decided I’d run for forty minutes
— an easy amount for me. Twenty minutes out, twenty minutes
back. Four miles or so. Give or take. Easy. No pressure. I’d
done it a million times. Two minutes into the run, I was in trouble.
My chest hurt, I was breathing heavily. So I slowed down. It felt
like someone had put a very large stone on my chest. I slowed
down some more. The entire right side of my chest burned every
time I inhaled. It felt like I was sucking in volcanic air. I
stumbled to a stop. It felt as though I had a spear stuck in the
right side of my chest. I knelt on one knee, the other firmly
planted on the dirt. I coughed and drops of crimson congealed
into a black puddle in the dirt of my trail next to my left knee.
The coughing released the pressure in my chest; I felt better.
Cancer had brought me literally
to my knees.
Every time I pass that spot on the
trail, my stomach tightens a little. It is a constant reminder
of how bad things were. But it is also a reminder of how far I
I refused to give up. The next day,
stubborn as always, I was back out again on my trail, jogging
a few yards, walking a few, jogging, walking, jogging. Although
I had some pretty poor runs after that, I never coughed up blood
again. Soon after that incident, my lungs started to heal from
the Bleo assault, and I was able to start really running again.
My pace gradually improved. The number of chemo treatments dwindled
into the single digits. Then I could count them on one hand.
I finished chemo in September. Within
a few weeks of chemo ending, I noticed that I was running fast
and it felt easy. I also noticed that my trail started to change
again. Now the days were getting noticeably shorter, the angle
of the sun was changing, becoming lower in the sky. And soon my
trail blossomed into a sea of bright golds and fiery crimsons.
It was so beautiful, that it would take your breath away to see
it. No picture, no poet could do it proper justice.
The trees gallantly held onto their
brilliant leaves for a long time, but not long ago the wind knocked
most of them down. Now the trail is dull, brown and gray. It gets
dark very early. Daylight is at a premium. But although it may
not be as beautiful as it is in other seasons, I still love it.
I’m back running the volume
I was running when I was diagnosed. I feel strong as I fly down
my favorite trail. I no longer struggle to shuffle down the path,
I no longer have to stop every few yards to gasp. I run with my
head up, confident.
I say I love to run … and
I do. I guess it is funny to say you love to run. Enjoying this
sport, running. Non-runners think runners are crazy. Insane. Those
who don’t run, do not understand. They view running as punishment.
Runners know this. We take a sort of twisted pride in the joke
that our sport is every other sport’s punishment.
And at times, I admit, running seems
like punishment. Some days, even the most dedicated among our
tribe do not want to run. We usually do so anyway. Runners tend
to be committed. To running, if nothing else. We will run laps
around a parking lot if we have no other option. Or in place on
a treadmill. In the driving rain. In the ice and snow. I’ll
admit that there is a physically painful aspect to this sport:
that hot, burning sensation in your lungs as you finish a hard
5K or stagger to the crest of a big hill, that overwhelming heaviness
in your legs as the lactic acid builds up at the end of a hard
This is what non-runners think of
running as. We know better. Oh sure. We know it is sometimes painful,
that there are bad days. But then there are those glorious days,
when you feel like you could run forever …
Oh, how I do love running. I love
the feel of the wind in my hair, the steadiness of my breathing.
The dull thud of running shoes against the packed dirt, the crunch
of gravel. The occasional wildlife sightings, the ability to withdraw
into one’s self. I love how the running endorphins enhance
my senses and how I feel so alive at the end of a run. Running
And yet I know this could all change;
the cancer could come back. Every cancer survivor lives with this
fear in the back of their mind. Relapse dangles over our heads
like the Sword of Damocles. You try to drown it out with other
activities and thoughts, but it is always there. But while that
incessant whisper is part curse, it is also part blessing. I once
took running for granted as something that would always be there.
Now I know it can’t be taken for granted.
To me, I think the worst possible
fate would be to arrive at the end of your life and to realize
you have not lived. And that is why I love running: nothing makes
me feel more alive. I hope I can run forever.
Every run is a gift. Run long,