When I was on chemo, I was adamant that I would go for a walk each day regardless of how I felt. During the summer I have a vivid memory of one of those walks. Jessica, Colby and Cade had left the house to play at a playground that is very close to our house. The plan was for me to go for my walk and then meet them at the park. The chosen playground is one that sits at the Community Park, which is basically across the street from my house. However they were going to go to the area that sits on the top of a small hill. OK correct that, It’s not really a hill, but a knoll.
During chemo, I had a standard loop I did each day – part of the goal was I didn’t want to have to think about where to go. I did my normal loop, then headed for the park, but as I got halfway up the knoll, I realized that I was struggling. This hill was hard. I had to stop about halfway up the knoll and catch my breath, I felt weak and unsure if I could even make it up the maybe 50 ft of gain to the top. It was a surreal moment, to go from climbing mountains and running ultra-marathons, to not being able to easily climb a 50 foot hill – I mean knoll. It was the ultimate reminder of just how far down my health had gone.
I wrote a blog post several months ago called the Gauntlet. (Yes I do now realize I spelled the title wrong the first time!) It was about how I was going to run a 50K ultra marathon (post Goliath)- The Orcas Island 50K to be exact. During my training there were times when I wondered what the heck was I thinking. I wondered why I was doing this, was it my ego, just why on earth would I want to go out and just suffer and push myself to exhaustion? What do I really have to prove to anyone or even to myself?
The truth is the hardest part of my journey with Goliath has been mental. It was never the physical recovery. It wasn’t trying to get my left hand to work properly after surgery. It wasn’t dealing with the challenges of chemo – always being tired, the constant nausea and a complete deterioration of my fitness. It has always been the mental challenge. Dealing with the new reality of living with brain cancer. Dealing with the lows, the frustration. I would consider myself pretty mental tough, but yet the mental battle has pushed me to my mental breaking point.
Truthfully it’s hard to but into words some of the mental struggles. Probably the best way to describe it would be the fear of forever feeling compromised. That my life will consist of two parts, the part before cancer and the part after cancer. I picture myself telling stories to my boys about how I was like before cancer and how since cancer, I just can’t do that anymore. Which gets harder to think about when I know that there is not a cure, baring a miracle from God, I will never be cancer free. I will never be in remission. That piece is hard for me to except. The concept that no matter how hard I work, how hard I push, I will never be free of Goliath. It’s my forever battle. A battle that someday I will lose.
The mental challenge is breaking those chains that connect me to the forever battle. It’s the challenge to not let brain cancer feel like its pulling me down and not allowing me to dream, not allowing me to feel confident. It’s a big anchor that’s holding me down, it’s holding me back from reaching my goals, my dreams. The challenge of running the Gauntlet is to remove those chains and feel free once again. To know that I can do anything. It’s allowing myself to live with confidence again. To live to my full potential. This 50K gave me purpose and a goal. It required hard training and commitment. The last ultra-marathon that I ran was back in 2008. Back then I was in much better shape as well. It had been a while to say the least.
For this race, I was fortunate to have a friend – Jason Boyle – who was going to run it with me. Jason is an old hiking buddy of mine. When he was my neighbor, we did a lot of hikes and runs together. On several occasions I didn’t even need to talk him into doing some crazy hike, with lots of mileage and no sleep, he would always volunteer for the trips that make “normal” people think that we are crazy. He is my kind of person. So a 50K with 8,500 ft of gain over the 31 plus miles sounded like fun to both of us. This would actually be our second 50K running together.
After I had a client meeting a work on Friday the 6th, we rolled out from Kirkland and headed up to Anacortes, to catch the ferry. We had a really cool cabin booked on the Island for the night and were excited to embark on our adventure. After a nice home cooked meal and review of the maps and important details, we went to sleep to the sound of rain hitting the roof of the cabin. We woke up to that same sound. The race was to start at 8am, we arrived at the start staging area around 7am. It was still dark, we brought head lamps to walk from the car to the start area. Everyone packed into the main lodge at Moran State Park as the rain fell outside. Why get wet now, when there would be ample time once the race starts. There is always a cool vibe of nervous energy prior to a race start.
Quickly time flew by and we were off. The race opened up with a road section, to spread out the field, then it hit some singletrack. We quickly realized that it was going to be a muddy slippery course within the first few miles on the trail. We then hit the road up Mt. Constitution. The course cruised up that to the south summit. We had decided the night before that we were going to walk that section. We soon discovered that we were towards the end of the pack. However it didn’t phase us. Stick to the plan, we talked about how we would be reeling in people later on in the race. Not worth the pain later to run the big hill. Next was a steep downhill section to the first aid station – 6 miles in. I watched the guy just ahead of us take two pretty good falls on the muddy trails. At the aid station, it was time for some Oreos and gummy bears. We didn’t stop long as the longer you stop, the harder it is to get going again.
The next aid station was at mile 14 and this part of the course was to feature 2 smaller hill climbs. It was this section that we started to catch up with some folks. We got into “chase” mode and would try to run to those ahead of us. The course took us around two small lakes, here I actually slipped and ended up sliding down into the mud. No big deal, I popped up and we were away. We pasted some more people and then made it to the next aid station. Ginger Ale and of course Oreos were on the menu.
After the aid station, it was six more miles until the next one. This part of the race was challenging as we were not anywhere near the end to start thinking about the finish. The course was super muddy to the point where you were not really able to rest on any of the downhill sections for fear of falling. At around mile 17, my backpack strap broke and we had to tie it back together. There was a great waterfall during this section. Very beautiful. Finally we hit the mile 20 aid station. Progress was being made. We knew what was ahead, a grueling super step trail, back up towards the top of Mt. Constitution.
The step section is one that we had both heard about. It is part of the lore of the Orcas 50K. It is like the cable line on Tiger Mountain. Since both of us are hikers, this section really wasn’t so bad. We zoomed past a bunch of people that were feeling the steep incline. It was this part that we had our one amazing view of the water and the other Islands. From the top of the hill, the next part of the race was a small decline of several miles. Honestly for me, this was one of the most difficult parts of the race for me. I was very thankful for Jason as he had energy and so I just followed him and ran when he ran and walked when he walked. Then the course turned back uphill for the final push to the summit of Mt. Constitution and the final aid station. Jason was rocking it and helping me to complete the task at hand.
I had a nice surprise waiting for me at the top, my family was there to give me that final boost of energy to push through the final 5 miles to the finish. It was a huge lift to see their smiling faces and feel their encouragement. It’s hard to say just how awesome that felt. It was very cool. I am thankful for their support and love through training and the race. We stopped at the aid station then were on our way, after some Oreo’s and gummy bears of course. The next part of the race was basically all downhill to the finish. I really relied heavily on just following Jason at this point as I was physically beat at this point in the race. The two things I remember most about this section was there was a humongous tree at the bottom of the trail, that actually stopped us both in our tracks to admire it. The second thing was that once we got back down to the main road in the park, we had to take a side trail to avoid the road and of course it had some climbing to do! We crossed the finish line in 8 hours. My family was there again to cheer us into the finish. It was a magical feeling.
We did not set a record pace, but that was never the point of the race for us. It was about the challenge, it was about the company, it was about fighting through when you want to quit, it was about the mental toughness that suffering brings, it was about having friends and family around to support us through the long hours of training and the race, it was about the mud and the rain, it was about the bonds that happen when you push yourself to your limits with friends, it was about breaking the chains that hold us back, it was about feeling free, it was about me forgetting about cancer, it was about not having the separation of things I did before cancer and the things that I couldn’t do after cancer, it was about finishing the gauntlet.