Saturday, July 4, 2009

Mile 9 of my Cancer Marathon

Today marks my running-versary. 17 years ago today I toed the line at my first race…

The town I grew up in had an annual 4th of July 5 mile race. It was a tiny race, probably no more than 100 runners. The summer before 8th grade my mom challenged me to run it. Being a normal 13 year old girl with a compelling need to defy my mother, I decided to do it just to prove her wrong.

I’d been an athlete pretty much all of my short life to that point, dabbling in soccer, softball, basketball, tennis and golf. However, I had never actually run just to run.

I showed up to the race sporting scratchy wool/cotton blend soccer shorts and those K-swiss boat shoes that were all the rage back them. Probably not the best footwear choice but at least I looked fashionable.

I had no idea about pacing or race strategy and probably had no clue how far 5 miles actually was. So like Forrest Gump, I just ran and ran and when I felt tired I just kept running. Somehow I eventually made it to the finish line.

I have no recollection of my time or place but it must have been ok because the high school cross-country coach approached me after the race and encouraged me to go out for the middle school team in the fall.

My very first cross-country race was the Licking Heights Invitational. The two mile race wound through a cornfield and finished on a cinder track. (Seriously, can you get more stereotypical small town cross-country than that?)

I was just as clueless at this race as I was at the 4th of July run. When the gun went off I once again just ran and ran and ran, trying to pick off people as I went. It was a combined boys and girls race so I had no idea how I was doing. I just focused on passing as many kids as I could. After what seemed like an eternity, I emerged from the cornfield and looped around the track to the finish.

To the amazement of my coach, my parents and myself, I was the first girl to finish. I was so excited when race officials placed in my hand a tiny medal adorned with a picture of a runner. In fact I still have it – it sits in a place or prominence near my treadmill.

While having an aptitude for the sport certainly helped, it wasn’t the main reason why I quickly became smitten. In fact it wasn’t running at all – it was the people I met and the person I became because of it.

As mentioned already, I grew up in a small town. There are a lot of great things about small towns – knowing your neighbors, family values, etc. However, there are drawbacks to the lifestyle. For instance, once you become typecast as a “jock” or “prep” or “nerd” or “goth” there’s really no escaping until you leave town.

At 13 I’m not sure what my label was, but I knew whatever it was didn’t land me at the popular kids table in the cafeteria. I was a shy girl who got good grades and preferred playing sports with boys to dating them. I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere and my self confidence reflected that.

I had played on the school basketball team the previous winter. Apparently all you need to make the cut on a 7th grade basketball team, is general athleticism as I lacked fundamental skills such as being able to throw a ball in a straight line and shoot a basket.

Basketball was a “cool” sport at our school and my teammates included some of the popular kids. I was hoping that the team setting would be my opportunity to finally fit in. However, I struggled to overcome my shyness and lack of self confidence to bond with them. I never was successful and spent the whole season frustrated and disillusioned.

The greatest disappointment came when I invited the entire team over for a slumber party. Only two girls showed up. I knew then that basketball wasn’t going to give me the sense of belonging I seeked so desperately.

But cross-country was different. Everyone there was an outsider – not quite a misfit but not quite a cool kid either. Our uncertainty of who we were attracted us and glued us together. It was assuring to know that in the scary world of junior high politics we had allies.

All of us, both boys and girls, became fast friends and had a lot of fun. We had a young coach, Mr. Ballmer, who contributed to the nurturing, reassuring atmosphere. For the first time in my formative years I had true friends. I remember wishing my mom would be late picking me up from practice so I could hang out just a little longer with my teammates. (Unfortunately, my mother with her constant punctuality thwarted my efforts. Why must she always be on time?!!)

It was during cross-country practice and meets, I started to develop self-confidence and overcome my shyness. I was a totally different person by the end of the season. I was even elected Team Captain, something I could never have dreamed of on the basketball team.

It was a great period of my life, one of which I only look back with fond memories. At the end of the season, I hosted a party for my new teammates/friends. The entire team showed up.

I played one more frustrating season of basketball where I scored a whopping total of 7 points and gained zero new friends. And then I traded my high-tops for cross-country spikes for good.

Everyone from my middle school team graduated with me to high school cross-country and our bond just grew stronger.

We had new coaches, Mr. Dahlman and Ms. Heffelfinger. There’s a special place in heaven for high school cross-county coaches. The thought of trying to instill discipline in two dozen loud-mouth teenagers, full of raging hormones and defiance for any authority, makes me want to break out in hives and run for cover.

As a whole we were a challenging crew, constantly pushing the boundaries with our coaches. The hard thing about coaching cross-country is that you are limited in you punishment for bad behavior. Football coaches make their athletes run bleachers and basketball coaches make their athletes run line drills. But if you’re already running 8 miles a day, a couple more minutes of running punishment isn’t going to discourage you from depants-ing your teammate during the group stretch.

Nevertheless, they were able to keep us in control (mostly) and we trained hard. We even realized some success including league championships and trips to the State meet.

Those successes, although, are fuzzy in my memory. In contrast, the fun we had remains pretty vivid to this day.

Every year we did an overnight trip to the Lexington Catholic Cross-country Invitational. We would all pile in a van and spend the long drive gossiping and being generally silly. We stayed 4 or 5 to a room in some dive motel, stayed up way too late and gorged ourselves on cookies and candy and then wondered why we didn’t run well the next day :)

Or there was he times we would tell our coaches we were going on a 4 mile run in the neighborhood across the street. Instead we went to a friend’s house and sat by the pool and sipped lemonade. After the equivalent of 4 miles of time had passed, we would trot back to school huffing and puffing about our “exhausting” run.

I haven’t kept in touch with my high school teammates like I should, but I still feel an intimate bond with them. They were my fellow outsiders, just trying to stick together as we navigated the turbulence of the teenage years.

When I went to college I was overwhelmed by everything – living in a city, the academic load, being away from home. My new cross-country teammates became a source of comfort and helped me overcome my home sickness. There’s a whole lot more to say about my running circa the college years but I’ll leave that for another mile. For now, I’ll just say that my college teammates remain some of my dearest friends.

Right before I got cancer, I joined a local running group for moms. Other than my immediate neighbors, I really didn’t know many people in my new adopted hometown and I thought this would be a good opportunity to meet people. Even though I barely knew these women but they immediately rallied around me when I was diagnosed and showered me with meals, notes and general encouragement. I can now count two dozen more members of my “running friend posse”.

From middle school to high school to college to adulthood, my running friends have always been a source of comfort and true friendship for me.

The general population doesn’t understand why runners think a 10 miler in the rain is fun. They don’t understand why we get up at the crack of dawn just so we can get a few miles in. And they don’t understand why we subject our bodies to the cruel punishment of 26.2 miles.

Whether a pimply pre-teen or harried 30-something mother, runners are always the outsiders and that’s what draws us together and creates such amazing friendships.

I finished radiation on this past Monday, June 29. It was pretty anticlimactic. I showed up, got my treatment and went home. Apparently, the radiation department wanted me to have a memorable last day so they had me wait an hour in the lobby (Grrr….)

I thought I might have a huge sense of joy or at least relief, at the completion of treatment. But I really didn’t. The only real emotion I had was happiness that I didn’t have to navigate downtown traffic anymore on a daily basis for my appointments.

I’m just hesitant to get excited until I have verification that the cancer is truly gone. I won’t have another scan until the beginning of September and there’s a still a chance that it will still show activity since bone growth appears similar as cancer activity. In that case I’ll have to wait a little while longer and have another scan. So right now, it’s just a waiting game.

I am excited that I have another orthopedic appointment in a few weeks. I am making a mental list of things I can bribe my doctor with (Fine wine? Swiss chocolates? Hooters waitresses? Although given his age and girth, he probably would prefer actual candy to bleached blondes named Candy.)

My plan is to use the bribery to weasel out a “Yes” to being able to ride a bike (that’s not stationary) again. And perhaps if the chocolates are extra delicious maybe he will even green light running again.

Let’s hope for a “go” on the running – I have a lot of friends I’d love to join on a run soon!


jd said...

Were you on my jr. high cross country team? I grew up in a small town also, finishing races on cinder tracks, and bonding with some wonderful people I'm missing quite a bit after reading your latest "mile." Thank you for sharing and making me remember those days. Janeen Daugherty

E-Speed said...

Wonderful story. Sending you "yes" to biking and running vibes. Very nice to meet you Saturday!