For the record, or not

About a month ago I ran a 5K PR (personal record), beating a time from 2012 – before melanoma. Ever since my melanoma diagnosis in April 2013 I had been trying to get back to pre-cancer form and I did it – for about a day.

Despite any common sense, I followed that race with a long run the next day since I was preparing for a half-marathon in a month and it was the only day in my schedule for a long run. Bad idea. So bad I paid for it for the next month, putting in question if I could even run 13.1 miles.

I bounced back and forth between strengthening and stretching, ice and heat, trying to find the combination that would quiet the pain in my right leg, knee and calf.

A week before the race, I tried to run 11 miles. It didn’t go well, I blamed it on the dog and I spent the rest of the week wondering if I should downgrade to a 5K on race day. However, I don’t give in easily, not to myself, not to pain, not to physical limitations. Maybe to my grandkids, but that’s another story.

Here’s where the grace of God comes into play.

In my online feed, a video popped up from The Run Experience on Achilles running injuries. That video was the difference between me running 13.1 miles or not. I rolled out my calf and shin (intense stuff) like the video showed and noticed a remarkable difference. Enough difference to allow me to confidently go for 13.1 and not downgrade on race day.

I credit the rhythm of “Stayin’ Alive” for keeping me loose to the end, placing me third in my age group (surprise! but there were only seven of us) and most importantly, running my third fastest half-marathon time.

Granted, everything flared up again the week after the half, but I have purposely been easing my way back to running, trying to let my body heal so it’s ready for the next half in another month.

I measure my battle against melanoma through physical successes, always aiming for pre-melanoma times, back when I ran with little thought of the precious gift of movement and health. I never take into consideration aging unless it bumps me into a slower age group. I am always measuring myself against the me I remember before melanoma pulled on the reins and yanked the bit out of my mouth.

The thing is, I am now stronger and more fit in many ways than I was before melanoma, however, it’s the time on the clock at the end of the race that matters most, because that means I’ve truly won. I’ve won against time, age, treatments, neuropathy, bulging discs, spinal stenosis, and mostly, melanoma.

I still don’t run the way I wish I could, but I am getting faster. And I’m still running.

My first return to distance racing, I ran a half marathon with my daughter, Stephanie. It was her first half and I beat her by a good chunk of time. She kept running and getting faster with each race. The last race we ran together before my diagnosis, she beat me and it was the fastest pace I’d run in years. A month later I heard the words metastatic melanoma.

She logged her tenth half marathon this month. She keeps getting better with every race and is training for a full marathon this year. We finish in the top of our prospective age groups, with hers being much faster and bigger than mine. But ever since that first race together, as she improved and surpassed me, she’s always told me that she picked up the baton and litterally ran with it when I couldn’t any more.

It’s ironic. My passion has become her fire, has melded us together and provided countless memorable moments to cherish.

Should I measure myself by the time on the clock as I cross the finish line or by each step that has provided memories and fitness to keep me active and vital for my family? Either way, I’m not going to stop running or trying.

 

 

Running through melanoma … and lots of other crap

The snow started falling when we were in the beginning miles of the half marathon on Dec. 4. It was the “Last Call” half, the last chance to PR (set a personal record), last chance to give it your all, last chance to prove yourself as a runner. My goal was simple. Run and finish with no pain.

Pain and long distance running are close friends, but in the past three years, since I was diagnosed with melanoma and went through immunotherapy treatment, pain took on a new meaning. I ran through neuropathy, torn hamstrings (both), IT band issues and most recently issues connected to age rather than cancer – a bulging disc and spinal stenosis. I recovered from a stapedectomy and ran. I wasn’t about to let back issues sideline me, even when I spent the month of June in pain that made it impossible to sit or drive. After a full spine CT (a painful, horrible thing) ruled out melanoma, I was left to deal with the effects of living and aging.

I chose the route of physical therapy. While I am an active, strong person, obviously, something was still out of line, namely, my back. Numerous strengthening exercises, coupled with muscle release, and dry needling got me to the start line with a fair amount of confidence. I didn’t wear a watch, judging my pace solely on how I felt, on how my form was holding up.

In the first half of the race, a lady came up on my shoulder and we started talking, since our paces were similar. I told her my goal was to finish with no pain and briefly gave her my story to this point.

Everyone out there was running to beat their own demons. Everyone had their own story. There was the guy who ran past me wearing pajama pants and a backpack. There was the lady who ran with a walker in front of her. She would walk fast for a period of time then run, until she had to slow down again. There was the girl running her first half marathon ever. When she finished it was the farthest she’d ever run. There was the lady who pulled up next to me and struck up a conversation. She had a heart condition and had to watch her heart rate and her breathing, yet she was running 13.1 miles.

For those who have never run long distance, it is a mental/physical game involving many miles of training, diet, rest, carbohydrate loading, and then the mental game as you hit those last miles and your legs begin to feel like lead. The last three to four miles can be a challenge. Your legs say slow down and walk, your brain says, you can’t give up. I was fighting against pain that has plagued me for the past several years, making me wonder if would ever run a half again.

By the last half of the race, snow was beginning to accumulate. Bridges became slippery, but the snow sticking to branches provided a surreal environment and the flakes clung to eyelashes, glasses and hair. Last year, the last half of this same race was a combination of running and walking because of pain. I finished, but I paid a price.

This year, as I passed the same spots where I had to walk last year, I reminded myself to relax and keep lifting my knees and the rest would happen on its own. In the final stretch, I didn’t think I had anything left to give, yet, I managed to increase my speed, pushing to a strong finish. A finish nine minutes faster than last year. A finish faster than I’d run since the fall I was diagnosed with melanoma and started treatment. The third fastest finish since I’d started running half marathons in 2012. And with no pain, or at least very little. As I said, pain and distance running are companions on the journey.

It was the breakthrough I’d been hoping for since melanoma treatment took me down a different road and other injuries added to the detours. It was the breakthrough I’d hoped for to prove that cancer can’t win. That age doesn’t matter if you keep trying and stay strong. That the race will always go to the one who keeps running.

I know I couldn’t have gotten to this point without my physical therapists, Colleen, Jesse and Nate. I took pieces of everything they each taught me through the years and kept building. I know I couldn’t have gotten to this point without the determination planted in me by my parents and the work ethic they’ve instilled. I know I couldn’t have gotten to this point if I didn’t feel I need to be a role model to so many people, and I couldn’t let them down.

Every runner has his or her story. Every runner is running through some kind of crap in their life, yet they run. They run because of the crap. They run to survive the crap. They run to overcome the crap.

Finally, I feel like I might be on the other side of that pile.

 

Miles fighting melanoma

My oncologist only laughed and shook his head when I told him I planned to run a half-marathon three months after my last Yervoy treatment. I’m not even sure he considered my lack of preparedness for this race, his response was so quick. He laughed and shared stories of his wife’s determination, as a new runner, to run despite injury. He knew better than to argue with me.

I knew better than to go into this race with the intent to break a personal record. My only intent was to finish. Inflammation and neuropathy had caused me to stop running over the summer. I was happy I could walk and tried to convince myself that this too shall pass, but many times I wondered if it would.

Following prodding from the research nurse, I went to physical therapy, which produced almost instant results. Granted, I was still a long way off from 13.1 miles, but the pain was lessening. Slowly I began to add jogging into my morning walks, until I was jogging more than walking.

By the time I was released from physical therapy a couple of weeks before the half-marathon, I could run most of up to four miles, with only occasional periods of walking. To triple that distance in a couple of weeks is not the best advice for runners.

I had never gone into a race feeling this ill-prepared, but I constantly reminded myself, that I could walk as much as needed to finish. However, when out on the course, it’s not that simple.

Starting slow, I watched as many runners passed me, where on my better days, I would have been doing more passing until I settled into a pace. I consciously had to tell myself to listen to my body, to not push too hard and too fast. Going through the first four miles was like any of my daily workouts, but by miles five and six, burning started in my left foot, a sure sign that things were out of alignment.

I walked. I stretched. I walked. I watched still more runners move ahead of me. Doubt began to form in my mind. I knew I could walk the rest of the distance, but walking felt like it was taking forever!

Coming to terms with my limitations, I had no one to race against other than myself. I had to listening carefully to what my body was saying, since my brain was screaming a completely different message. Watching the miles tick off after the halfway point, I moved as fast as my body would allow, knowing if I pushed beyond that limit, I would undo weeks of physical therapy.

With one mile left, I didn’t want to walk any of that last mile. My daughter, who had finished ahead of me, came back to meet me, cheering me on for that last stretch.

I finished strong, which is what all runners hope for. As I crossed the finish line, I glanced at the clock, surprised that I finished faster than I expected.

There was no record-breaking pace. My time was 21 minutes slower than last year’s race – in the midst of treatment, but at the beginning of the onset of neuropathy and inflammation – and 26 minutes slower than my fastest time from two years ago.

Two years ago when my daughter and I ran our first half-marathon together, I blazed ahead of her. This year, she took the lead, bettering my fastest time by a minute. We both looked at our times this year and immediately set our goals for the next race.

I could have easily sat out this race, but that would be letting melanoma get the better of me.

Running gave me identity as a teenager. It gave me endurance through life. It gave me a bond with my children, something we could do together now as adults, each at our own pace, but together. There was no way I was letting anything get in the way of that bond.

Funny enough, my recovery from this half-marathon was the best I’ve ever had – because I listened to my body all along. The strengthening from physical therapy has made me a better runner.

Cancer is strange like that. It’s one of the worst things that can happen to you, yet it can give you benefits you would never have reaped without going through the battle.

With luck and training, perhaps I will smash my personal record next year. Regardless of finishing time though, every race I get to run with my family, is a blessing and a treasure. A faster pace is simply icing on the cake.