I had more than a few friends that were into running, including many cancer survivor friends that I had only just met in the past few years. I had even run a bit myself many years ago but had given it up, but now found myself incredibly inspired by all of my survivor friends’ fundraising efforts for various cancer charities, and how hard they worked. I had been walking for general exercise which helped a lot, but thought maybe I needed to push myself harder, and so I decided to give running a try again. As to be expected, I couldn’t run very far or very fast at first and just ran whatever segments on my walking route that I could. All it took is a little bit of running for something incredible to happen, though!
The next evening, the first full day after this first run, I was settling into bed for the night and about to drift off to sleep when suddenly I bolted upright, wide awake and in shock! My God, I told my wife, I hadn’t had any nerve pain that day! I hadn’t had any throughout the day, and the 20-30 minutes of thrashing nerve pain and muscle twitching that I typically had to endure my way through before falling asleep each night didn’t happen either. It hadn’t gone unnoticed by my wife, either. This was just as painful and disheartening for her to watch as it was for me to experience! When there’s so much love there’s also transference, and it’s like every stabbing shot of extreme nerve pain was hurting her also, and she felt powerless to do anything about it. We were both speechless! There was something about the intensity and impact of running that literally gave my nervous system a good workout, and that also seemed to calm it down. I had been on godawful drugs like Lyrica before, which did help reduce my nerve pain issues, but not without making me feel like I had been hit by a bus. My wife begged and pleaded with me to take it because of how painful my nerve pain episodes were for her to even watch night after night, but I had sworn pills off entirely. Every single pill I ever took always seemed to have more side-effects than the relief they provided, and just seemed to make things worse! If simply running was all it would take for me to finally live a pain free life, without any rotten pills and their nasty side-effects, then by God I was going to do it! I was instantly hooked on running.
The Many Benefits of Running
It didn’t take too much running to realize other physical benefits as well. I had also been suffering from occasional periods of low testosterone, and my hormonal levels in general just seemed to be swinging all over the place. I wasn’t a consistent person anymore in terms of mood. The stress of cancer survivorship no doubt had something to do with that, but swinging hormones did too! When I’d have a testosterone level dropout, it brought with it very depressive moods, and bouts of feeling just completely miserable, directionless, highly irritable, and asexual that could last days if not weeks. If I woke up one morning having had these symptoms the day before, or with the very obvious symptom of not even needing to shave, I would force myself to get out for a run that day no matter how awful I felt. I’d go as hard as I could, and without fail I would always feel much better the next. Just walking had never managed to perform a magic trick like this with my body or my hormones, but running could.
Around the time I started running at the tail end of 2012, I was also falling into a very bad place emotionally. A fellow cancer warrior friend had just died of his cancer, and a few others had experienced recurrences of theirs. I had a very bad recurrence scare myself where I thought for sure that my cancer had returned, and that I was going to die. I had been in a complete panic, went to sleep in tears numerous nights, and had the fear of God in me. I had a few extra tests done as a precaution when I went in for my follow-up and everything turned out fine. My body was fine, but the emotional floodgates had opened. Tons of repressed memories and unexpressed fears and emotions from my cancer treatments that I had unknowingly kept bottled up inside of me for nearly two years, suddenly started coming out. I fell into a depression and began experiencing extremely bad post-traumatic stress. I was so afraid, and didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t anymore. I was so charged up with anxiety and adrenaline almost all the time, and it would burn me up inside emotionally sitting still. Running gave me an outlet for all of this pain and energy. When you’re in such a deeply distressed state, there’s something very primal about running specifically, outside and with the wind on your face and not on some wretched treadmill, that just helps to release that energy and bring a sense of calm back.
Perhaps most importantly of all, the time I had mapped out in my day for running, typically over my lunch hour, also gave me the time that I needed to help sort out my life again. I realized the need to completely reset and rebuild my life from scratch after cancer, but when would you ever find time to sort life out again like this with a busy job and family? Running wasn’t just exercise for me anymore, pushing back against physical challenges. Running became an important appointment that I needed to keep with my mind, body, and soul. My time for running was the only time of the day where I wouldn’t be dealing with work or family or anything else. It was time just for me, and my time for running quickly became sacred time for me.
Just as Stuart Scott described his post-chemo workouts as his private ‘FU cancer’ time, my lunch time runs became my own private FU cancer time as well. All of the anxiety, the pain, and the fear that I had been experiencing, I dumped it all into my runs, pushing myself as hard as I could. I’d commonly sprint the last quarter mile muttering FU cancer under my breathe, and sometimes aloud. I didn’t know who I was nor what I needed anymore after cancer, and running was the time when I would sort all of that out. I never listened to music. I held very deep soul-searching dialogs with myself, and challenged my beliefs and assertions about everything. Slowly but surely I began to understand who and what I really was, what my needs really were as a person, the true origins of so many of my troubles and sources of pain, and also, what I could do about them. As a running mentor of mine had said, “Sometimes, running is the only thing that make sense.” I didn’t understand why or how in the beginning, but indeed, running just made sense. Running was just the release that I needed, and it was something that I could do easily every day, even if I mostly walked and just ran a little.
Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t
As beneficial as running proved to be for me, it was also incredibly frustrating. I could never run more than a few blocks at a time without it feeling like my entire body had slipped into neutral and just couldn’t go anymore, no matter how much I willed it forward. The few times I really pushed it and forced myself to run through a solid mile if not further, even after many months of trying, I suffered terrible physical breakdowns in the aftermath. My speech slurred, and I could barely walk or lift my arms, and my entire body would feel limp. One breakdown was so bad that I nearly had to call my wife to come pick me up, because I almost couldn’t coordinate walking anymore. When I finally managed to stagger back to my house, I had to have her help me up the stairs and into our bedroom, and there I crashed at 7pm, absolutely spent and completely dead in the water. I still couldn’t move when I came to the next morning, and had to have my wife bring me the bedside commode that I had last used when going through chemotherapy, because I couldn’t even get out of bed to go to the bathroom. I didn’t make it into work until nearly lunchtime that day, and for the next several days I would struggle like I never have before physically. I could barely get in and out of my car, struggled to turn the steering wheel at slower parking lot speeds, and even typing and speaking were challenging.
I didn’t know what was going on at first and nearly applied for a handicapped parking permit, but in the grand scheme of things I knew that this wouldn’t have done me very much good anyways, that I was probably pushing myself too hard, and that I needed to manage my body better. I was forced to accept that my body just couldn’t maintain a solid run if my life depended on it. I wasn’t out of breathe, my heart wasn’t beating out of my chest, and my muscles weren’t exploding. I had put my nervous system in distress, and was formally diagnosed with chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy around this time by my primary care physician. Typically, nervous system fatigue would be one of the final stages of fatigue for runners, but instead it was hitting me first and before anything else. My nervous system was clearly my weakest link. It just couldn’t keep up with the rest of me, and I had to learn to accept this and live within its limits.
I had set a goal for myself of being able to do a 5K run in 30 minutes or less, which is considered to be a very basic starter goal for runners, but for me it felt so impossible. Friends of mine picked up running and could quickly achieve blistering times well below a 30 minute 5K that I could only dream of, while I had to limit myself to a 50/50 mix of either walking or running on certain segments of the course that I had mapped out through my neighborhood. Typically, I could walk/jog a 5K in 34-36 minutes, but some days I could barely even walk one in 40. The best I could do a 5K run was in 33 minutes and change, but not without these terrible physical breakdowns. I was disheartened by how limited I was, but learned what those limits were, and to stay within them. I had to very carefully budget my amount of physical activity in a given day, balance that against the amount of rest I had gotten the night before, and just be happy that I could do anything at all. In time, I learned very well what I could and couldn’t do in a given day. My quality of life improved tremendously when I was able to find the right balance for myself, but I was still frustrated at feeling so limited, in stark contrast with the practically unlimited energy and strength I had had before cancer.
Beyond the frustration of not being able to run well at all, there was the complete misery of the cold winter months. Cold weather never used to bother me, but suddenly after cancer it would bring on tons of aches and pains that I’d never had before. I would feel so stiff, almost like I couldn’t move, and would feel completely lousy all the time. Especially around the winter solstice, it honestly felt like my body just wanted to pack up and hibernate for a few months. Chalk it up to a bit of aging, yet more neuropathy symptoms, or other strange effects from chemotherapy that nobody really understands, but the winter months had become a thoroughly miserable experience for me. Alas, running helped with all of this too! Once again, and without fail, and no matter how awful I was feeling, if I forced myself to get out for a run I would always feel so much better. My aches and pains, my mood, and everything else would improve, and I could actually feel reasonably human so long as I kept running a few times per week. Winter seemed to put sand in my gears, but running helped to keep my wheels greased and my body moving.
Not once have I ever actually looked forward to running. It’s how I knew I would feel after running that’s always kept me going, along with the time for prayer, meditation, or sorting out whatever awful thoughts have been running through my head. One doesn’t need to try too hard searching on the Internet to realize how beneficial regular exercise is for not just our bodies, but also our minds. I never stopped running, and I never stopped pushing. I was happy to be living pain free, and to have far better quality of life than I did before, and without needing any stupid pills. I was content with the incremental gains in strength and stamina I had managed to pickup, and was accepting that that’s all there might ever be. Time for running was sacred to me and far beyond achieving any particular time, but I still wanted that 30 minute 5K. In an aft corner of my mind somewhere, not being able to get anywhere close to that still frustrated me. It’s not like I was demanding that my body carry me through a half or even a full marathon at the blistering paces some of my friends were putting down. It was just a 30 minute 5K, and not being able to get close to this was a thorn in my side.
The Huge Breakthrough of 2015, After Two Years of Running
I would walk or run a total of over 300 miles per year in both 2013 and 2014, and not one of those miles were easy. I had to push myself hard and fight with my body through every single last one of them. But suddenly in 2015, everything changed. I had given myself a break from running in any real quantity from the end of 2014 and through the first few months of 2015 due to an injury, and mostly just walked. My first real run of 2015 came not because I felt my body was ready yet, but rather because of post-traumatic stress. As I rolled into work on Monday, March 16th, all of a sudden I started having terribly nervous and anxious feelings. I’d felt something building through the weekend, and couldn’t think or concentrate at all. Right as I was wondering what in the hell I was being spooked by, I started having visual flashbacks of going through chemotherapy, complete with the smells, the sounds, and the awful feelings. It turned out that that day was the day that I would have been starting chemotherapy four years ago. I hadn’t given this milestone even a single conscious thought, but here my mind was recalling it. It’s like my sub-conscious was remembering, and was spooked fearing that we might be going back. I’d been through ordeals like this more than a few times, and knew that today was just going to be one of those days where I had to run. I always hated forcing a run on an injured body. It was risky and I could re-injure myself which would set me back months, but when you’ve got post-traumatic stress knocking, you’ve just got to go take care of business.
I might have gone a little above and beyond my normal self-protective 50/50 walk/jog limit that day, but I generally stuck with my program, and then had a genuine “HOLY SxxT!” moment when I looked down at my running watched as it beeped for the 5K and I saw a 32:52. I had never gone that fast before, ever. It was a new personal best! I hadn’t done any serious running in months and wasn’t at all conditioned up for it, and even when I was before I still couldn’t do better than 33 minutes without causing a nervous system crash. I was so worried that I nearly texted my wife a “crash warning”, when I knew I had overdone it and was going to be in trouble later, but I made it through the rest of the day just fine, and managed to get up the next morning under my own power, too. I was shocked. I thought it was a fluke and that maybe it was just the adrenaline from post-traumatic stress giving me a bit more of a tailwind than I had expected, but I hadn’t been that spooked. In the grand scheme of post-traumatic stress episodes, this ranked as merely a two or three on a ten scale, just a little blip. I had had far worse episodes of post-traumatic stress and gone a lot slower, and so I knew this couldn’t be correlating directly with amount of anxiety or adrenaline present. I went running again a few days after that 32:52 to see if it was a fluke or not, and managed an even better 32:25 without any anxiety fueling the run. On top of that, I noticed that it felt different to run now, too. I didn’t feel my whole body slipping into neutral and straining after a few blocks of running as I always had in the past. There was no longer a low-grade burning or straining sensation all over my body, but rather a more strictly muscular type fatigue just in my legs as I ran, which would be the more normal order of things. Something clearly was different now.