Sunday, April 23, 2017

Giving Leukemia the Finger

Image result for boston marathon 2017Can’t sleep, more nervous than usual.  It’s 4 AM and I’m lying in bed mentally walking through the day ahead.    I’ve been doing this for the last half hour and will continue until it’s time to get up at 4:30.     Have I got everything I need for the race?  Don’t forget your race number or the pins to put it on.  No number, no race.    Is the weather really going to be that hot?  What’s the right amount of clothes to bring and wear today to stay warm in the 4 hours before the race and cool during the race?   Do I go out at a fast pace for as long as I can and then struggle in or do I go out slow and hope I’ll feel well enough to maintain a the pace all the way?
Getting the logistics right is a challenge these days and adds to the nervousness The real issue in the back of the minds of most of the runners however….Will I feel good today or will it be a painful death march to the finish?     Any thought  that you might not make it to the finish would put a crack in your commitment that would only grow wider as the day wears on.  There’s no room for self-doubt….but it’s there anyway.

At 4:30 it’s rise and shine time (rise and stumble around in the dark is more appropriate).  The race for me won’t start till 11:15 but I have to drive into Boston, find a parking garage walking distance from the finish, and catch a bus to the starting line over an hour drive away.   Because of security and logistics of handling 40,000 or so runners and spectators the roads into the Hopkinton (a relatively small town) shut down around 7AM.     Fortunately I’m staying with my sister and brother in law Marena and Ron only a half hour drive into Boston.

After the 2013 bombing the security got tighter and there were a number of changes that make it logistically more challenging.    For example, most runners end up hanging around in the staging area near the start for several hours.  It’s outside so they need clothes, water, food, etc.  (and of course, with the current generation, their phones) while they wait.   You use to be able to bring a bag to the start with all your extra “stuff” and then just before the start you could put it on a bus that would be waiting for you at the finish.   With the changes there is no bag drop off at the start so you are pretty much limited to the clothes on your back and a small transparent bag of food/water.   It may be obvious but this means if you wear extra clothes to stay warm while waiting for the race to start you either are stuck with carrying the clothes to the finish or throwing them away before the start.   It leads to some pretty humorous and creative pre-race outfits (I was wearing  head to toe painter’s coveralls…very stylish).

So you might ask what runners do when they finish 3-6 hours later if they can’t ship their clothes back to the finish.  Turns out there is a place you can drop a bag of clothes the morning of the race about a half mile from the finish line. I love that they call this “a short distance from the finish”.    When I’m done running a marathon, my idea of a short distance is measured in inches, and it better not have any stairs.    The challenge with this set up is that it assumes you go into Boston drop your bag and then take the Boston Athletic Association cattle car school buses out to the start.  If you have another way to get to the start (like I do), then the bag drop is not helpful.

Long story short, when you leave for the start you better have everything with you that you need for the race and better be willing to dump it if you don’t want to carry it 26 miles.   Also, if you don’t want to freeze at the finish you better figure out how to have some clothes/survival gear waiting for you.    For me, I leave my clothes/phone etc.  in my car in Boston about 6 blocks from the finish line.  Even 6 blocks seems like light years after the race.   When I leave Boston I have the clothes I’m wearing (or discarding), my number, safety pins, a bottle of water and my car keys.   Whatever you do, don’t lose the car keys (at least one runner I know of dropped/lost his/her keys this year).

As I’ve mentioned in the past, the staging area for the start is outside in the fields surrounding the local high school.   With the new security measures this area is surrounded by fences, metal detectors and security personnel.    Inside the secure area are tents with food and drink,  music blasting over a site wide PA system and enough  port-a-potties  (1000 give or take a few) to service 30,000 water filled, nervous runners.    Since most runners will be discarding the outer clothes worn before the race, it has become a bit of a tradition to go into your closet and find those old outfits that you swore you would never be caught dead in and  wear them to the start.  Between the outside venue, the music and the eclectic/bizarre collection of outfits the staging area could be mistaken for a modern day Woodstock (without the drugs and naked people). 

One major difference this year was the number of runners who were wearing their phones.    While the more elite runners were taping injuries, rubbing on Vaseline, and strategically placing Band-Aids, there was a large number of you runners talking about their play list, what headphones they were wearing and whether to carry a portal battery charger for their phone.    I guess I’m just an old school purest, no phone or headphones.  This does leave me open to having one song stuck in my head for 26 miles. 

Given the volume of runners there are now 4 starts (called waves) each including approximately 7500 runners.   The waves go off about 25 minutes apart.  It’s handled pretty much like a cattle call, with announcements at the staging area for the runners from a particular wave to head down to the starting area.  Did I mention that the starting area is a half to ¾ of a mile away?     Waves are seeded by your qualifying time in the last year and since they don’t give credit for the laps I did in the hospital last year, I got put in the last wave.    As you head down to the starting line the streets are lined with volunteers collecting the discard clothes.  Imagine an entire street packed with half-dressed runners as far as the eye can see and with all sorts of discarded clothes flying through the air.  I wish I could do the picture justice.   The bags of clothes are donated to the salvation army.  The quantity is now measured in thousands of pounds.

Whew…we made it, we are finally at the start.  Or at least standing in a corral (yup… that is what they call it and it actually is a good description)  some distance from the start.  Turns out when you fill a road with 7500 runners the crowd, packed heel to toe, can extend back over a quarter mile.   So to manage the crowd they break us up into corrals.  I’m about half way back in the crowd.   When the gun goes off it takes a while to get to the start.   For me it was about 5 minutes of doing this crazy dance where you take a couple steps, start to jog and then the whole crowd just stops.   Kind of like rush hour on the highway. 

Once across the starting line it tends to open up a bit.  Just a bit.  It’s downhill at the start so the crowd tends to pick up speed but once it flattens out the pace slows down.   Everyone around you is supposed to be running at your pace but given the nature of wave 4 (a lot of first timers) and the fact that some people choose to go out faster or slower than their pace, the first couple of miles can be a tedious game of jockeying and weaving.   It was a slow first 2 miles, over a half a minute slower than the pace I was expecting to run. 

The weather was beautiful although very warm for the runners by the time my wave started.   The sun was out and the temp went up into the 70’s but with a nice tail wind.  Over the course of the day over 20 runners will have to be put in ice baths due to lower their body heat.  One runner had a temp of 108 degrees.   I ran in just a singlet and shorts and I saw a number of runners who ran topless (no woman that I was aware of).  There was a guy called the caveman who ran in a loin cloth and barefoot.   He beat me.   
As usual the crowds were awesome.  The closer you get to Boston the louder and more enthusiastic they get.  Could have something to do with the number of university students and alcoholic intake.   I was offered a couple of beers along the way but I refrained from partaking.  It’s really hard to throw up and run at the same time and it really makes a mess of your shoes.    At times, it can feel like you’re running through a food court with people offering you all kinds of food.  Oranges, bananas, hot dogs, sausage sandwiches, popsicles, juice, the aforementioned beer, chips and jelly beans to name a few.
My legs never really felt great from the start.  I felt a bit sluggish and the legs were stiff.    There are water/Gatorade  stations at every mile and my strategy given the heat was to alternate between the two every other mile.  By the time I was half way the legs were cramping off and on and I had switched to drinking both at each station hoping the electrolytes would help.    Water stations are a real joy.   Picture a 4 lane highway full of cars approaching an exit ramp and suddenly all 4 lanes of traffic swerve to get of the exit.     If you are lucky enough to find an opening without stopping the next trick is to grab the cup on the fly without spilling it.    I drink on the run which for the most part works assuming you are willing to live with spilling about half.    Works fine for water on a warm day but not so much with Gatorade.  Who knew Gatorade stings when you get it in your eyes.

About mile 16 I met my family cheering section.  Pam, my daughter Tiff and her three boys (the twins have only missed one marathon in their life), my sister Terry and two of her sons,  Marena, Ron and their son Drew, and my sister in law Candy.     I feel a bit like the pony express as I come cruising through with a few high fives, grab a water bottle and some jelly beans and move on up the hills.    Seeing them gave me a second wind.

Mile 16 marks the beginning of a series of hills.  Five miles of them to be exact.   Heartbreak Hill marks the last of the significant up hills and is aptly named.   If you crest that then you face a thigh and knee beating downhill that feels like someone is pummeling you with a baseball bat….with a nail in it.

I won’t bore you with the mental exercises you go through to keep yourself going after 18 miles.  On a good day it’s a struggle and on a bad day….it’s just that.    This year was kind of a middle of the road.   I had started out slow enough that I had the strength but my legs were stiff and clearly there was some impact from my reduced red blood cell count in trying to get enough oxygen.    But I ran a pretty consistent pace and kept the cardinal rule marathoning,  run so  the second half is faster than the first.     While I didn’t run fast enough to requalify for next year (although if I was a year older I would have)  I did finish in the top 42% of my age group.   Given where I was 8 months ago I’ll take it.

So where do we go from here?   Well it turns out the news from the last biopsy was not so good.  Two weeks before the race we found out the protein level in my cells that cause the Leukemia is increasing.   My Dr. is recommending we start planning for a Stem Cell Transplant.    We will know more on the plans after the next biopsy in May and I will post something then.

In the interim it’s party time.  All that ice cream and beer that I avoided while training is calling my name.  I would hate to disappoint them.   

Man plans and God laughs

I love proverbs.  Never use to.   I heard them all the time when I was growing up as my parents, grandmother and sometimes teachers would pass along their tidbits of wisdom in a form that was totally lost on me.  Asking simple questions like “why do I have to wash the car today” might get me a cryptic “A stitch in time saves nine”.  What’s that got to do with a car.  I don’t even sew.   Whenever my older brother and I were the target of these pearls of wisdom we would create our own translations.  “A Penny saved is a Penny earned” became “a Penny saved is Penny candy tomorrow”.     “Two wrongs don’t make a right…but three lefts do”.  “Don’t judge a book by its cover…read the cliff notes”.

As I got older I realized proverbs could be useful when communicating with my children, driving home in a few words concepts and wisdom that normally might take paragraphs.    Suddenly I was my parents, spouting my own wisdom that I’m sure was as frustrating to my them as it had been to me (getting the eye roll is a dead giveaway).    Even if it didn’t mean anything to them it certainly made me feel better.   If nothing else, I just created a new legacy that they would someday pass on to their children. 

What’s this got to do with this weekend’s Boston Marathon?   For a number of years (11 to be exact) I’ve written about what it’s like to be getting ready to run “The Marathon”.    Those of you who have followed me during that journey know that I started with the desire to make something good out of Nick’s death by raising funds for people in need.  It’s been a journey of healing, full of joy and sadness as well as ecstasy and pain (lots of pain).   Somewhere along the way I decided my goal was to complete 10 Boston Marathons in a row, a goal that assures you of getting into future Boston Marathons as long as you can meet the qualifying time.   It was a goal that at times seemed impossible.   How could a weekend warrior stay healthy and trained at a level to qualify to run Boston for 10 years in a row?  But as each year went by and I managed to finish (and my sanity slipped a little more), the goal looked more achievable.   Qualifying and being accepted to run last year turned a decade of effort from a goal to a reality.  In my arrogance, nothing would stop me from finishing my 10th in a row.     Except maybe something life threatening like, oh I don’t know, say….Leukemia?  

It was a year ago this week that I got out of the hospital from my first 5 weeks of chemo treatment.   As I stand on the starting line Monday it will be 8 months since my last chemo treatment and 1 month from my last bone marrow biopsy.     Unlike other years I’m not running to beat a qualifying time (not a prayer of that happening), and I’m not running to reach a goal of 10 in a row (my sanity hasn’t slipped that much, although there is a man this year planning to be the first to do 50 Boston Marathons in a row.  Beyond amazing).    This year in addition to raising funds to help children with cancer, I’m running to thank all the people who helped me through a difficult year.  The doctors who saved my life; the angel nurses who sat by me on the bad nights; the friends who sent words of support, visited, and donated to Help in the Nick of Time; and the friends who helped me get officially back to the starting line of the marathon.   Most of all to thank my family who were there for me every day.    Believe me, that is no small task.

Oh yeah, let’s not forget I’m running to give the finger to Leukemia.  While the battle continues, the disease hasn’t won yet.

For those of you that might find yourself curious about my progress on Monday (or maybe just plain bored), you can check it online (my number is 22239).  There will be four waves of approximately 7500 runners each.   I’m in the 4th wave which starts at 11:15 (by then the leaders who go off at 10AM will be at 16+ miles).   

I’m a man with plan for Monday…hoping God is laughing with me this time. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Courage to be Afraid

I’m not one of those people that does well watching horror movies.   It’s not so much the gore (there is a lot more in some war movies like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge than in most horror movies), as it is the suspense.  It’s the not knowing what’s next that sets my teeth on edge and gets the blood pumping.      I’m typically the guy in the theater that jumps and spills his popcorn when the unexpected happens.

You would think that after 19 Boston Marathons all the excitement and fear would be a thing of the past.  Au contraire.   Each marathon brings with it a new set of challenges and thereby a new set of concerns.   Sometimes it’s injuries, sometimes the weather, sometimes the training (lack thereof) but most of the time it’s all of the above resulting in fear of failure.   Failure in this case would be not finishing, although in most cases there is the added pressure of finishing within a predetermined time.

Last weekend I ran a race with my niece Ali, nephew Drew and sister-in-law Marena.  The race was a half marathon but Drew, Marena and I would run it as a relay while Ali would take on the whole 13.1 miles.   For all of them, running this race would be the farthest they had ever run.   They all finished and they all did awesome.  It was a thrill to be a part of their accomplishments.    On the drive home I marveled at the courage it took for each of them to commit to a challenge of doing something they had never done before knowing it would not be pain-free.  They didn’t have to, nobody made them.  

So, why do it?  For many of us I think we thrive on challenges.   For me, the bigger the challenge the more excitement about the accomplishment but also the bigger the fear of failure.   I’ve found it’s not about convincing myself I’m not afraid, it’s about having the courage to let myself be afraid and to do it anyway.   Granted, even in my daffiest moments I wouldn’t sign up to run across the Sahara Dessert (it was an actual race) or run 1000 marathons in 1000 days (monks in Japan).    Sometimes being afraid of failure is just good common sense.   BTW…if a monk starts the challenge and doesn’t quit before 101 marathons then rumor has it he has to kill himself if he doesn’t finish.    Serious motivation.

Last week I had the privilege of visiting a hospital pediatric cancer floor.    It was, uplifting, heart rending, and a lesson in true courage.    Children as young as infants and as old as high school teenagers who have had their world reduced to a single room, frequently only leaving to go for more tests and treatments.  They spend as much time plugged into intravenous bags as plugged into their iPhones.   The rooms are often decorated like they might be at home with posters, and pictures, and of course stuffed animals and video game consoles.     For many of them their fight is a multi-year process that includes multiple setbacks.   One teenager told me that the biggest fear they face is not the fear of the unknown, it the fear of a relapse.     It’s knowing what it took to get through it before and facing the knowledge that they have to go through it all again.    Having the courage to face being afraid but to keep fighting.   It certainly puts my more trivial fears of finishing a marathon in perspective.  Keeps me focused on raising donations for Help in the Nick of Time as well.

With two weeks to go I’m winding down my training.    My last 40-mile week is behind me from here on in it will be shorter runs and rest.   At this point, nothing I can do from a training perspective will help.     Runs have been almost a minute a mile slower than last year which means I’ll likely be out on the course almost a half hour longer than normal, but who cares…I’m just thankful to be healthy enough to get out there and privileged to have a number this year.    

Nervous about finishing?  Yes!  Excited about being there?  Hell yes!