Monday, November 30, 2015

When the ride came to it's end

Sometimes life is too kind even in the midst of confusion. There are moments, constants like the
North Star that as long as you can see it the darkness hasn't won. For me, the moments I look back and forward to aren't quite that grandiose... they are more like a good tree which you know has growth and changes and seems to have always had it even if you met in the middle of seasons of both of your lives. For me, those trees that measure life changes are races and there is one race that has been there every year since cancer began and perhaps just as importantly before, the Thundercloud Turkey Trot.

I had done it well before I woke up in an ambulance, mostly to justify the calories I take in, a symbol of gratefulness. But it was a race I would do less than 3 weeks after I had first had a grand mal seizure, exactly two weeks after I got out of the hospital with knowledge of a brain tumor. It was a race to feel alive, still waiting for biopsy results, that even if my head was on fire, my legs were just fine and that I'd carry on. Still, back in 2010, I went on my own despite my family and Kiana all being at home, it didn't occur to me that I should invite them cause running was my thing.

One year later, Thanksgiving 2011, a brain surgery, way too many appointments and medical pills later, I'd woken up. It would be Kiana's first kid's K and I'd run it right next to her at 4 years of age because what good parent could possibly let a child run a whole kilometer and be a good parent without being right by their side!?! Then I'd run the first race I would ever with a stroller because even I hadn't been open to it, the race was family friendly, the only race I've ever done that had a stroller division and a maternity one and all kinds of division that helped a guy with a damaged memory remember that running was something you could, perhaps should share. I'd take second in the stroller division that year.

The next year 2012 I'd come back and the concept kept growing. Kiana would do the race next to her best friend, May. And by next to, you could already see the competition in both their eyes. Two worried parents realizing that their kids were fine and having fun doing that natural run. It would be the first time I'd win the stroller division in the closest the competition has ever been with me and a professional triathlete sprinting side by side for the last quarter mile... I won by less than 10 seconds though I had been behind with 1 mile left to go. I liked getting a trophy, Kiana liked that too but she also appreciated we'd won gift certificates to the presenting sponsor, Thundercloud Turkey trot.

It just kept getting better with more friends each year, repeating the title in 2013, first time I'd ever defended a title in a  running event. In 2014, they added a team division and the Austin Runner's Club put together the team that won it so we went home with 2 trophies. It was also a come from behind win (though I'll point out the guy who led and eventually took second was pushing a double stroller). Still it was nice to have gotten together together the trifecta, a back to back to back turkey trophy stroller track. I thought it would be the end honestly. Kiana had already done 2 5k's, she was getting too big by my standards even if she was still enjoying the ride. 

Still, when 2015 came around, she insisted that she wanted to do one last stroller race. I insisted that she hadn't been in it since January... Don't know if the Turkey Trot cookies or subways were her motivator but she kept asking to do it. I told her no matter how it went, this was the last one, this one was just for the run of it. We practiced one 4 miler around the neighborhood and I wondered how I had ever done it before and realized I was not in stroller shape. We put together a well crafted playlist from Mulan (Make a man out of you) and Big Hero 6 (Immortals). I threw some shot blocks cause I miss more water stops on stroller races cause I'm nervous that I won't be able to turn sharp enough to avoid hitting the volunteers while trying to keep one hand on the stroller and another reaching out while angling in and then out. Kiana put her stuffed lion and lion cub figurine in there (they're sown together). We found one of the friendly Turkey dressed people and I joked with her that I was just using her for her body... She said that at the Turkey Trot is the only time she lets anyone say that to her. I couldn't help but think that there was at least one turkey back at my house that would have probably been less receptive.

Race day arrived and Kiana got to do her first race all on her own with me just near the start/finish to cheer her on. She was sitting there making friends with another "independent" girl and they started side by side. In a cloud of kids, I couldn't see her till she was near the finish and she was flying back so I barely caught a picture as she blazed by. I hugged her at the finish and she was smiling waiting for her finisher's bracelet and then waiting for her new friend.

We went from there to get a group picture with the Austin Runner's club before the race. I was helping get people together but remembered the magic of life that the best part of life is when your friends become your family and your family become your friends. There for the first time ever at the Turkey Trot was the person who had been there since before my birth and provided the way of it, the man who helped raise me, and the person who I had been lucky enough to be there since her birth. There were people who I had known since before cancer, some since, and some who I was literally meeting moments before the picture. Isn't that the way family reunions happen anyway?
We headed to the race start and tried to get the music going... then I realized I'd forgotten to charge the iPod and the speaker since the practice run... So we were going to have no music which is well not exactly my style.  Kiana looked up and said what she would repeat a few times during the next five miles... "Don't worry about it dad, you can do it."

The Turkey Trot is 25 years old and somehow this was the first time ever that it rained on us right before it started... But I thought a little drop of rain could hardly hurt us now. Plus it was Thanksgiving, why not take it as showers of blessing. Then we were off with a course that has a lot of elevation... just kept thinking what the... hill? I'd forgotten how hard it was to push half your body weight up one of those or contain it while going down steep ones. I tend to focus a lot during races, the music is mostly a distraction from the pain. With that gone, I only heard how hard I was breathing but also an occasional voice. A competitor with a smile on his face looking sideways and saying, "hey can you slow down, you're making me look bad!?" A friend and face  from Livestrong cheering. But above all, a quiet little voice saying "I think we're going to win, I don't see any other strollers," "Dad did you see that sign", "you can do it daddy". That was the inspiration and the motivation was that with each mile marker it was a countdown, at mile 1, only 4 miles left ever behind a stroller. At mile 2, only 3. When I hit mile 4, I turned it on, the watch was irrelevant, even the competition was irrelevant. Only one mile left and I would bet that was one of if not the fastest mile I ever ran with a stroller. Someone I had passed would come up and say how he all of a sudden heard the crowd cheering really loud for him but then realized as I passed him that they were cheering for me. He shook my hands in congratulations as he said I would have cheered too if I'd had more breath.

A friend was there at the finish line and caught a picture of Kiana and I wet. There is someone who said we look happy, another one mentioned mostly that I look relieved, another said that I look exhausted. Those are probably all entirely correct. 

We waited and cheered my parents doing the mile walk and my teammates finishing. Kiana hung out more under the cover with grandparents but I just kept soaking in the rain which I don't know just felt right knowing that my my teammates, running, Kiana, well none of us were fair weather friends. The announcement came that we'd placed in various age groups and that my team was once the fastest team. And that for the 5th time placing and 4th consecutive time winning and by the biggest margin of victory we'd ever taken, on the last stroller race, Kiana and I were the stroller division champions.

I got home that day with the trophy in hand and before putting it on the trophy shelf along with the others, Kiana and I put together every medal and trophy we'd ever won from a 2 mile race, to a couple of 5k's, 10k's, half marathons, 30k's and marathons. When I got told I had cancer as I do often, I made an off the cuff edgy joke... When I get complimented, not knowing how to handle it either, I make a self depreciation joke which people confuse with humility (when I get called that, I usually say I'm super humble, probably a picture of humble next to me in the dictionary). I'm known for often being stoic but I have to confess that at that moment, somewhere in the balance of happiness and sadness, I was overwhelmed. There were some races that only happened once, others that I have done with a stroller every year of their existence but it certainly felt right that the one that I'd never missed, the one that had 5 stroller trophies was the one I was retiring on the Thanksgiving ThunderCloud Turkey Trot. In as manly way as possible, I wept a little. Perhaps because she didn't know what to do, perhaps grandma encouraged her, perhaps because it's just what you're supposed to do, Kiana came and hugged me and then well I folded the stroller and put it away one last time in the garage. It was in someone else's home less than 48 hours but believe you me, I'm not done running and neither is Kiana. While it's the end of an era, with a lot of great rides, I am very very thankful. 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hold Something Precious and Run

It's around this time of year that I start doing holiday cards... I got them done before Thanksgiving both last year and this year so it'd be hard to call them Christmas cards. There is of course the fact that I wouldn't want to offend my friends of other religions or lack thereof... or the Starbucks overreacts or the over reactors to the over reactors (with that said, in a train of thought blog, let me make 2 succints points 1: with all that silliness I couldn't resist putting it on a red backdrop 2: if you read this regularly and haven't received one, message me your address please. Trust me I have a damaged memory).

While sometimes I am embarrassed to admit that for some people it becomes a way to stay in contact at least once a year, I always try to encapsulate the theme of that year and some of the highlights of that year. In 2015, the quote on there reflecting some of the pain and passion of my entire life, "we don't walk away but when we're holding onto something precious, we run." They represent my dad getting into running, Kiana doing longer races and without exception everyone of those pictures were days we saw friends and family, people we loved.

For the 3rd year in a row, I can say I've traveled more and raced more than any year before it and had less cancer medical appointments. That bikini statistics I quote often from an old professor reminds me of another one from college, correlation does not mean causation. But why take risks, it is perhaps no coincidence that in 2014 and 2015, the two years I've only had two MRI's the months I have raced, the most are May and November. "Coincidentally," my MRI's have been in early June and early December. I've long said I'm not sure if I'm running to or from something, but I keep running.

But I've stepped up my game in ways I'm more proud of than anyone else. This month I'm at 5 races with two more to go. The first one, Run for the Water, that I had helped promote to Austin residents for a good cause but I went to training runs with the group and listened to stories about their first run and I was proud to run next to some and on the same course as them. This was the day after I had done a Spartan beast side and by side with my family.

The next weekend was a Spartan super in Sacramento with friends from the west coast with 2 of the 3 teammates that have been on my Spartan charity team 3 years in a row. The next one was with other friends from the west Coast in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park with Voices Against Brain Cancer. One of those was one of the first friends that had flown in shortly after the brain tumor story started, Nicole, and 5 years later she was doing her first 5k. There was a young man there running for his mom who had brain cancer and I sat and talked with her and the passion he ran with and the compassion he shared with the race organizer gave me a little faith and hope that perhaps someone with a brain tumor has a good opportunity of raising a child. I took first place in that race, keeping the streak alive of a win or a PR every month since June, longest streak of my life. Being part of that team was by far the bigger win. And that I've gotten to help on races from coast to coast is both not lost on me and beyond my wildest imagination.

I headed from San Francisco to Denver to help with Flip the Clinic. I went running there in the snow and helped work on a project called Patient First. There were people well established in their careers on my team, a couple of medical students and a nurse who decided to go into becoming a doctor who made me have faith that perhaps the transplantation would be like those of us who are immigrants but came at a young age and had to figure out how to translate to ourselves and to others two cultures that we were in the middle of. The project which I got lucky enough to name, Empowering Preparation, will be launching a prototype soon by people whose brain is well above my capacity but I do think it will help the patient experience. Not everyone who is in the medical world are as good as my doctors (if you're wondering how good they are, some of them who can no longer bill me for anything, still send an email here and there checking on me) but maybe it will begin a shift in the culture. It's pretty humbling to have two different doctors commending your group's idea on how this will make both theirs and the patient experience better.

I came home for less than 48 hours before heading to Chattanooga for a race. Kiana had done two
10k's at this time, one trail one and one road one. She had won her age group in both of them so with those being her exes we went to go do a hybrid in Tennessee. On a tougher course with mud, she started ramping it up in the second half because she started to pass two little boys and they didn't want to let her so she ramped it up and literally left them in the mud. Someone who received my holiday card said she's growing up so quick she's going to be breaking hearts soon. I reminded them she's going to be a nun and I hope this race is the indicator that she's not going to chase boys but pass them. But that wasn't even the highlight of the race, she was the first 10k female finisher. Let me phrase that again. She beat every girl out there at 8 years of age doing a 10k. It was a small race but she got hugged pretty tight at the end. There were some cool pictures of us at the finish line together... My favorite part was that we were stuck step in step. The camera focused on something in the background but I like to believe it's because we were moving so fast we could only be blurry.

Still in Denver, the friend I had some one on one time with was Leandro, a friend who also came to my house between the diagnosis and the surgery from high school. And in Chattanooga, my friend Gil who was the best man at my wedding and I was a groomsman at his, I hung out with him and his wife. I've known him about 20 years and they did their first 10k together (is it rude to point out Kiana beat them both). He's someone who came to visit me at Duke a few days after surgery. If anyone thinks it's a coincidence that the places I go are always near people who I care about... well let me say that on this particular one, correlation does mean causation. I was in all 4 times zones in one week and did 3 races in 8 days and if anyone thinks that's not exhausting... But sometimes excitement and exhaustion go hand in hand.

And I came home and tried to catch up on sleep and holiday cards and time with friends. I signed up for a trail 25k where I was in the lead but ended up taking a serious spill in the mud but stuck around to cheer and hug. It was a day where I had nothing planned other than to work on the relationships I want to keep and it turns out it was worth it. Sometimes focus, honesty, patience and willingness are hard but I'm still a runner and I want to keep pace.

So there are two more races left in November which will make for a grand total of 7... anyone find one nearby on Saturday and I'll be tempted to make it 8 ;). Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, appropriately enough the first one I did a stroller race was the Turkey Trot. Despite having ran 4 longer ones, Kiana wanted one more race in the stroller. We did a practice one of 4 miles (first time she'd been in the stroller since January and I honestly have no idea how I ever ran a marathon with that much less won one). We got 2nd once in the stroller division and 1st three times. She's gotten bigger since then and I am not in stroller shape but thought we'd finish where we started in Austin on Thanksgiving. She'll be doing the kid's k and for the first time ever my parents are joining me for the race, 4 generations. No matter how it goes well, that's the last stroller race and this one, this one's just for the run of it. Black Friday there likely will be a clearance sale on a used stroller (medals, child and batteries not included. )

And the last one on Saturday will be the beer mile cause it's a charity race and I get affectionate when I'm drunk. It might be the right idea when worried about brain scan results. Then I'm about 10 days out till the MRI. People ask me how I feel and that's really irrelevant. Even here almost two years exactly since the last seizure, I know that I felt fine moments before each one. One of the people who I helped organize the young and strong events with passed away from breast cancer last week and I keep looking at pictures from an event about a year ago where 4 of us went out to watch a Cowboys game... 2 had a better prognosis than me, 1 had a worse one but 2 of the 4 cancer have passed away since then, half of us. Did I mention this was the young and strong group and that I was the oldest of the group? There's no easy way to reconcile that and believe that life is fair or just or always sensical.

So I keep going, sometimes primally, sometimes with help pushing up as best as I can, not sure if that's really cheating death but if it emphasizes feeling alive more, why not? I go to Livestrong Events and help out with cancer events and with running events to try to pass things forward as a way to give thanks. I went to one last night where Kiana and I did our longest training run ever, 5.5 miles. Someone asked if I hoped she would carry my legacy someday and I joked that I was hoping she'd be carrying me soon. But that was never why, it was just a way to keep going. When my time comes well whether it be not long after this MRI or in a decade or few, I pray, trust and hope to know that I'll be able to look in the mirror and that I didn't walk away. But that I held onto something precious and that I ran.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Fudge and Family and Five Years

Remember, remember the fifth of November! 5 years ago today the brain cancer journey began in a hospital emergency room... I thought it meant my future was going away but it was just the beginning of a life I couldn't have imagined but that I love living each day. There's certainly been damage, ambulance rides, way too many medication attempts. But there's also been wins, focus, and a heart that perhaps has gotten bigger to make up for the gaps in the brain.

It's funny, I'm a guy with a damaged memory but there have been some good ones in the last few years... I hope I remember the best ones but I know some of each never materialized. Still both in just basic humanity and awareness that some things don't quite sink, I recently added the "memory" feature on Facebook this morning it brought up the very last social media post I ever would put up before the seizure that would start the cancer journey: "families are like fudge, mostly sweet with a few nuts."

That describes the last 5 years incredibly adequately... I had a hospital room full of friends before and after the biopsy, before and after the surgery. Almost all of them are still here but there are even more friends now. The awareness of my mortality made keep too many people away at a distance, wanting to believe that I could handle it all alone and that if I couldn't they'd be better not having to put up with me. Now I appreciate them each time I see them often showing affection with as firm of a handshake or hug that I can do and still pretend like I'm super manly :). I'm not sure whether it shows how sweet they are or that they're nuts that we are still all friends.

I stopped by Livestrong to drop off the $4000 check from the 3rd Spartan Charity Challenge Win. Turns out on what I consider my birthday of life part II, it is more blessed to give than to received. It was funny that the organization the helped me the most I blew off being called a survivor for a while but once I embraced it, I embraced it thoroughly. I learned to ride a bike for the Livestrong challenge and have biked five 100 mile rides with them. I'd never heard of Livestrong or a Century 5 years ago but turns out the people who help you face the unfriendly unknown get you to embrace a new way to move, turn, glide. There's not a single time that I drive that I realize it was gone for a good chunk of the last 5 years due to seizures. But I also recall that it's been almost 2 years since I had one. Some people say knock on wood and if there's no wood knock on their skull; I don't do the latter since I don't want to cause a seizure. But it somehow felt appropriate to drop off that check that on a day which is important to me to say thank you.

That mantra of attitude is everything has gotten me to try one new sport a year and one of those was the Spartan itself. I've ran 5 beasts in the last few years as well constantly believing that if you sign up for difficulty messy things the ones you don't sign up for are a little easier. The last one was the first one was one where there were team obstacles, ones you couldn't do without each other. I started in the elite heat but on my latest one I did it right next to my family, my cousin and his boys on their first elite heat and their first beast. The challenges that you needed teammates for were a lot tougher than any I'd ever done alone but joys and difficulty in my book are better shared.

I've kept up my old hobbies, playing ultimate still and running. I've pr'ed in every distance since then. I put off brain surgery to run a marathon so while I've done 5 Spartan beasts and 5 100 mile bike rides, it may show what built my heart that I've done 10 marathons since then. But I had a very inspirational person who heckled me into doing something I thought unachievable. I matched one week ago today the fastest mile I ever ran in high school at 17, 4:51 at 35 years of age. It might have been the right mix of unexpected rest and no road races in October. But it helps remind me that while inevitably for all of us, our best day will be behind us, well it reminds me not to accept that easily. Quiet desperation was the original road I took for a short time with cancer but I'm glad it didn't hold long and life has been kind enough to let me keep choosing life with a view. Still that's not nearly the part of running I'm most proud of. When I couldn't drive, Austin Runner's Club's leg, the Ship of Fools saved my life. I'm now somehow the president of it and I'm mostly the smiling face at the front of event while we have a great board and we're getting some good things done. 

In total honesty, some of the motivation for far too long was settling the score. Paying back the Austin
Runner's Club, paying back Livestrong, paying back the ultimate community, and of course paying bills that had come very unexpectedly. The proud hispanic male who couldn't accept anyone paying him for anything had to resettle the score and if truth be told, I intended to fade once that was done. While the personal debts are not settled they are ahead of schedule, may it be well said that the others I was just wrong about and I'm glad life was kind enough to let me share it forward. To him who much is given, much is expected but perhaps more accurately I wasn't expecting life to be this kind and to pay it forward in adequate perspective would be infinitely impossible. 

So instead I choose to embrace both the old and new, the borrowed time and to rarely be blue. People have dared say to me that my perspective has to be put on, it's like a unicorn that doesn't exist. That I see the world upside down from what I should. My daughter has perfect attendance, loves that her dad's the chess coach, was the top seller in the 3rd grade program. That alone would make any parent please. She got some jazz hands tonight during her musical as she played a spider in Squirm! This morning Kiana asked if I wanted to see upside down and then wrote upside down on a piece of paper and showed it to me. She then drew a stalk of corn on top of a unicycle and showed to me that there is such as thing as a unicorn. Someone tell me again, I'm supposed to be the one raising the kid right, cause maybe losing the imagination to have a little bit of fun is how we learn to be scared. She keeps me smiling and perhaps she shows exactly why we're family cause we're both kind of like fudge, a little sweet and a little nutty. 

I still worry on occasion; I mean my MRI is in about a month. Still, cancer and its side effects should be aware that the score is 5-0 and even if it grows (it was never gone so it's not like a return) it's too late in the game to make a comeback and in my book, no matter what happens, me and those on my team already won. So today or anyday anyone wants to celebrate let me know and we'll accept that we're both sweet and a little nuts and go have some fudge. 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Humanizing Cancer

Once upon a time I had a chance to speak to the Livestrong leaders about why I appreciate the work of the organization and the people who do it, so it's always with endearing and enduring excitement that I like the weekends that are with the team, with my family. Perhaps there are those who would not understand how cancer can cause family but the birth process is a complicated mess in its own way and I've long called the cancer part of my existence, life part II. So both of my families, those who came from birth and those who came from cancer are because of a biological connection in their own way. Maybe it's an odd thing to say but while I certainly would never sign up for cancer, this second part of life, made me aware of my mortality more poignantly and gave me a greater appreciation for life. At the first part of life, just that being born, I was far too young and immature to appreciate the gift... With both there were fears and tears and a reaching out for holding hands and each year, I'm glad to still be holding on.

The weekend began as it had last year with me, the guy who once couldn't drive for the better part of
3 years, picking up some friends who are joys in life and having good old Texas BBQ since they were mostly from out of state because that's obviously the best nutrition for long bike rides. Time flies when you're having fun so lunch hadn't been done too long before it was time for the official "Ride for the Roses" dinner. There'd be old friends to catch up on, new friends to meet, new survivors. The survivors are always the easiest to talk to for me because you find encouragement in that not only are they standing; they're working to help others stand long. There are those moments where you see someone knowing that some are still grieving the losses that have come from cancer since the last time. A couple of them had lost spouses and you hug them a little higher commending them for having kept their word of the 'till death to us part' and encouraging the rest of their journey. Seeing them smile as they told stories of the spouse cancer had robbed much too early makes you know that love is stronger than death in its own way. The hardest ones are those who are their in honor of their children passing... I can't imagine the difficulty of this one not even try because we're supposed to be buried by our children not the other way around.

The formal part of the dinner where we tell jokes about the journey and shed tears along the way, the mix of pathos and ethos echoing the up and down hills we're getting ready for. There was the survivor who talked about his childhood cancer and how out of everyone on his childhood hospital wing, he was still the only one standing. There was the survivor who talked about how they went up Mt. Kilimanjaro after cancer, taking on a peak after a tough valley of life. There was the person who graduated nursing school on the same day they finished chemo treatment, if that's not balancing health care I don't know what is.

It's been a year of transition with Livestrong as the new CEO, Chandini Portteus, taking the stage about some of the things that have shifted, changed but while she gave many new details she focused on what is, was and will be always an important part of the Livestrong mission, they had helped more cancer patients this year. The upcoming Chairman of the Board also shared her experience with cancer in her speech she gave what to me was the line of the night, "just because cancer treatment is terrifying doesn't mean it has to be dehumanizing."

This is why I've always appreciated Livestrong because they help in the here and now. They helped me deal with the treatment part and connected me to the right doctors. While it would take time and it's not done yet for it all to absorb correctly, they would help line me up with a better approach to relationships from parenting to significant others. We have to throw out numbers to get a concept like that there's over 32 million people dealing with cancer right now, in my particular case the diagnosis is 3 in a million. But those numbers are abstract without a human face and on every Livestrong story, they connect the diseases to individuals, humanizing why we have to fight the disease. We are the faces of those who got to be better parents or were incapable of childbearing because of treatment. My friend Cisco is the one who had finished treatments years back but then realized he could be part of making the cancer journey easier. My friend Scott realized it immediately and has been a serious fundraiser every year because he'd beat cancer; whether that or the fact that he kept doing it after his wife passed away from it is more impressive. My friend Steve who is still doing the journey with cancer. These are not just statistics or numbers; they're people who I have hugged and heckled, had meals with, shared memories with. Cancer and Livestrong made each of us keenly aware of our mortality, helped us balance accepting it and fighting it simultaneously.

The ride itself is always a tough party (not a typo)... I've done 5 of these and each time signed up for the century, the 100 miler, simply believing that if you sing up for the long haul then maybe I'll end up with a  longer one on my own. I knew when I started that once I got across that finish line I would have biked 500 miles with and for Livestrong. There'd be moments where I'd ride next to people, a man who had just turned 30 doing it in honor of his father who he'd lost at age 20. I'd have a few miles with another runner pretending to be a cyclist where we weren't quite sure how to turn all the gears on all the hills but hey sometimes trying new things is what messes with the system enough to get new health going in the middle of challenges. Some were riding to support their friends and family. There were of course those who were just there for the ride and that's called life. While this is theoretically just a ride not a race, I might have only stopped once and biked as hard as I could cause the weather was perfect. I've never been good at taking it easy and maybe I'll learn that lesson someday but at least for now, I chose to believe that pursuing the right pace with passion is the better path.

When it was all said and done, there was a sign at the end that said "Cancer survivors move right." All that was supposed to imply was of course left vs right and I think it's been at every Livestrong event I've ever done and I've never really caught it. But on this 5th 100 miler, I went back and took a picture of it so that the guy with the damaged memory from a cancerous brain tumor, could remember that's why I love livestrong because from day one, they pointed me in the "right" direction. Somethings I ignored initially, others I'm still learning but they were a consistent force in sending me to the right places and people.

Still, I came to a quick stop at the end cause there was some good music playing and what do you do but dance... the bike wasn't the best dance partner I've ever had but luckily a lady who gave me hope the moment I met her, Linda Santos came out and danced with me. I got my survivor's rose and then went looking for friends who had done different and shorter distances because their brains weren't as damaged. We traded some more stories, some more hugs and were grateful for the weekend.

Still, when I came home, I didn't keep my rose. I never once have. I gave it to a little girl who I hope always appreciates flowers and life. Like me, like them, like all of us, how well we're planted, tendered will be a factor in how well we grow. Like all of that, nothing is 100% predictable but if we appreciate it more that's how we humanize cancer patients and how we love and Livestrong.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Magic & Special Effects

Once upon a time I asked Kiana what she wanted to be when she grew up and she said a princesses... I got more than a few reprimands when I redirected her and said there was no such things as princesses. It would take time, and perhaps  a cancer diagnosis before I understood that I don't know if my home is my castle but there's been a princess living there all along. And so while it's tough to watch her grow up somedays in the best of my hearts I think she's always been and always will be a princess. 

Kiana has picked up some of my slightly cynical "focus on reality" approach. Still she arrived at Disneyworld incredibly excited about all that we would do. Still she said something as we arrived and talked about the Hollywood themed park that I was a little sad to hear "Magic is just another word for special effects." Still, only moments after we arrived, we were staying in the Animal Kingdom Lodge where there were giraffes just outside our room window before going to sleep. In the morning there would be zebras and birds that I didn't recognize. We hadn't even gone to sleep when she said this place was amazing and this was going to be the best vacation.

When the day finally started, as the shows got greater she felt water splashed and smelled things during 3-dimensional shows that showed far more dimensions than she'd ever seen. It was during the Frozen sing along show that I realized that actually this was the first time in forever that Kiana and I got to take a trip that we didn't have a race to do (still with a late arrival and no alarm clock, Kiana woke up with conviction and woke me up first.  This was a surprise since wile she is always a beauty but can be a little grumpy after first waking up from sleeping). With each ride, she kept asking if it was real or how did they do that? I generally love trying to explain the world to her but a lot of the questions I didn't know the answer to or was so mesmerized I wasn't sure it was worth figuring out.

Part of it was that I grew up in Mexico without money or even the concept of theme parks really. So the scariest roller coaster or Twilight ride were first time for both of us. It seemed appropriately eery that the only day we had a dark cloud in the sky was right before we cross over into that Zone...There that little girl hung on with conviction to me like she never had before. She made it clear that no matter what I wasn't going to let her go. I might have pretended the entire ride since this was the scariest one I'd ever been on that I was holding onto her for her sake... Some of the people who recommended going there with her or calling it the happiest place on earth described the memories they had there with their parents, or siblings and how they'd go back as an adult to relive them even without children. With Kiana and I do it, it was two people of similar maturity enjoying it. She seemed the perfect age and on many of the rides she was so excited she was just exactly the right height to go on and some were frighteningly fun enough to where there was more than one way I wished she wasn't grown up quite so fast.

I couldn't even begin to describe the number of things we did and saw in any one day period because from the day we arrived on that planet and blinking stepped into the sun, there was more to see than could ever be seen, more to do than could ever be done. Still there were moments that amused me in all areas. There was a stroller parking area at almost every place... Kiana and I laughed that while we'd done many races in many places with a stroller, she was the one who was fast passing by me and telling me to hurry to get to the next thing, no stroller necessary. She had an autograph book but very rarely used it deciding that the waiting time was best saved for experiences than for a few moments with the disney celebrities. I've been in too many waiting rooms but the faces she got at the end of each of these were the best results I've ever seen out of any line I've stood in. The questions kept coming, how did they make that chocolate stamp of lady and the tramp, how did the water come on fire during fantasma, how did Mickey disappear from here to there and end up in a different outfit? Whether the hugs of fear on the ride or the hugs of thank you or affection were tighter, I can't really tell but I'm fairly certain they were all much tighter than the ones to the Disney characters because you know those you share home is where when you gotta love the most.

Still, in enchanted tales with Belle they chose many kids for many different parts but the first one was chosen was Kiana for the part of the beast. I am not sure I'd agree with that analysis other than that I don't know anyone who in the end chases beauty with more conviction than Kiana. They would choose two adults in the audience to play the guards based on how well we could march in place and the runner in me turned on. Turns out even in a guarded castle these legs have to keep moving to protect a princess. Don't believe me? Ask the dishes.

Still as we went wonder by wonder, over sideways and under, the place that we would spend the most time was on the very first day in Hollywood Studio. It wasn't in a line, or at a show or in a ride but in a place meant to replicate the scenery from Honey I shrunk the kids. One of the great beauties of it was that by then Kiana was letting me know it wasn't actually a gigantic place but that the machine really had shrunk us as we went in. I gotta say it's a good thing I work out because the tiny places she wanted me to join her and some new friends through, down and up were making me realize that Kiana had been shrunk more than me... it was great fun.

There'd be character parades, sing alongs where Kiana was singing at the top of her lungs, pirate performances, adorable aliens, light shows. Rides down Mt Everest in roller coasters where Kiana held on which endeared me even more to life.  I took and shared more pictures in 3 days than I ever had in anything ever. There was never a time Kiana needed a break and it was a good thing I knew how to buckle down and keep going when exhausted because we were there pretty much from when the park opened till it closed each day.

The last day was in the Animal Kingdom, the place where we'd see many real animals along with characters and animation and bones of creatures like dinosaurs long extinct.Still with a little girl who makes me walk around every single bug or snails she ever sees on the ground as she rescues them and puts them into safety, it was good to see her eyes wide open asking questions about every rock and tree and creature, their life, their spirit and their name. They had a safari expedition where we got to see real lions and zebras and hippos and alligators and Kiana pointing every direction. She realized that while she'd been to zoo this was the first time she'd seen many of these animals without glass or a fence. Those weren't approachable but the place we'd spend the most time was at the petting zoo and show where she raised her hand more to either answer or ask questions. Perhaps that's how you ever achieve any balance in knowledge in life... I bring back a shot glass from everywhere I go (though at DisneyWorld they don't sell those but they sell something similar called a toothpick holder). Reminded that somehow getting to be entirely on this adventure was entirely bonkers, I told Kiana a secret that some of the people are. We picked a toothpick holder with Alice looking into things that said curioser and curioser...

We were passing by Mickey and Minnie as they were ready to sign autographs between all these and even at 35 years old meeting them from the first time somehow felt pretty cool but I kept it together :). I actually was thinking about Jungle Book about how on the last day I'd reach the top and the vacation was about to stop but the privilege of the fun made it less likely that it was going to be bothering me. It honestly felt pretty cool and made it feel real what was posted in various places from Walt Disney "Never forget that this all started with a mouse."

The last thing we'd do before heading out of there is catching the Lion King festival... felt appropriate for the Leon's. Somewhere the combination of songs and lights and humans flipping was the grand conclusion. With some great meals and times, we'd gotten Hakuna Matuta, no worries for 3 wonderful days. She gave me a huge hug as we got on the plane and thanked me for the "best vacation ever!" She fell asleep on the plane hugging the stuffed animal she'd picked up. Those hugs, the affection having a chance to live uninterrupted and highlighted by such colorful fun surroundings was special. And if the effects of that had been just the experience and the laughter and the curiosity growing that alone was plenty special. But the memories have kept coming up of things I never knew I never knew she noticed. And those hugs before, there, after, those call backs meant Disney had some great special effects and that, to me, that's magic. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Race For A Reason

For a little over two years now, I've been in the world of Spartan obstacle course racing. Without exception, the hardest thing I've sat through each of these years is the World Championship Beast Course 3 times runnings. It turns out that the muscles I had neglected since high school are used there and I've tried to build them up, some of those are physical and some of them are mental.

For the first time in any Spartan or any race, I had to face a course that was completely uphill for the first half, essentially 7.5 miles up a mountain that people use to ski down, along roads, single track at the highest altitude I've ever raced. I've ran in Denver before but this was a higher altitude so even further up than joining the mile high club. The race started in the 30's which I haven't seen in half a year... I joked as the course started that due to this should be a low pressure chill out kind of race but knew that there's never a day where I do that completely. At the top of the mountain there was a swim across a lake whose temperature barely broke 50 degrees and appeared to break many racers with the number of people who took DNF's after it. There was barbed wire in the cold and wind that wouldn't let you get back on your feet in very long before you had to crawl but you had to crawl and then get up and get over walls or into water again... I don't know if misery loves company but we had some company while going through misery. There are times at the beginning, middle and end of these courses where I have to remind myself that the reason I keep doing these things is because I've fully internalized that if you sign up for some hard messy things in life, the ones you don't sign up for get a little easier. There might be a fine line between masochism and accepting a tough challenge; I suppose for me that line is called a Spartan finish line.

It would be the first time I ever got all weight based obstacles without taking a break to put them down, a serious log carry, a Herculean Hoist, a farmer's carry with handles attached to two logs. I
nailed the spear throw dead center, I got the rope faster than I ever had and just when you thought you didn't have too much left they threw in a bucket brigade where all of a sudden those riding up those ski gondolas and coming down on ski's seemed a lot more attractive.

Still when it was all said and done, 15 miles with some serious elevation change and the better part of 40 obstacle, it was heart warming to once again have earned the title of being a beast. Because if it hadn't been heart warming I would have gone into hypothermia. 

Still,  once in a while, the universe is kind enough to where you get to do your best after you've done your hardest task. Where I come from, the best thing you ever do is never entirely for yourself, it's to help others. This is how I got into the world of Spartan, a guy who is much better than me, Alexander Nicholas, had guided me. So we signed up once again for the charity challenge. That first year it was just a few of us and we won it by a few seconds. Last year we put together an even better team because we had more ladies being reminded that ancient Sparta was the place that was the most egalitarian. The charity challenge requires that one of the ladies count towards your score; they are necessary if you want to rule the podium. Like the ancient female ruler Gorgo answered why Spartan women were the only ones who could rule men, she answered, "because we are also the only ones who give birth to men" It's perhaps no coincidence that our first woman placer in the challenge and top 5 overall, Jackie, is a mother of five and had come in the top 20 at the beast the day before.  

Still, as we sat there some meeting for the first time before the charity challenge, some hugging out a reunion, some talking strategy, I felt honored to be part of the team and the event. The event itself as the announcer asked how many had done the beast before, the vast majority of hands went up. I think though perhaps for each hand in there they knew they were doing one of the best things simultaneously with the hardest things and certainly for many of us the best thing after the hardest thing might mean the exact same thing. There would be folks on my team who are personal coaches that use the strengths they have and make it contagious. They make it both Epic and Tough. There would be people who were doing it because they knew cancer survivors sharing the journey and they were ready to go up and down part of this mountain again to provide help with their own hands and feet. There would be there people with injuries who were joining the team some on the sideline, some on the course, knowing we needed each of them. There were those whose father, spouse, girlfriend were competing for the best picture. When we were taking the team picture, while not all conceded, I tried to get them all to jump in because there wasn't a second where I didn't think of them as part of the team. It was a moment to realize that they helped me fight my internal demon with a hard race. I knew some of them fought their anxiety, their worries, their fears this way and it sure beat any other way that I know of. Some of them were already parents, some of them were on their way to becoming one, all of them knew how to fight life for each other. It's fairly heart warming that almost all of our original team is still there for the 3rd time in a row. I sometimes dare to dream, perhaps just wishful mystical thinking, that the reason my tumor hasn't grown is because my body has spent it's energy growing muscles and friendships grow while keeping almost all of them. Perhaps for a little while at least, the negative things stay in the background because there's no room for them at all.  

I created my team with Livestrong, a way to help out survivors of various cancers across the country. It felt entirely appropriate that we had people from coast to coast and all points in between. There were other teams there fighting for other diseases including specific cancers. There were those standing up for veterans who had pushed their minds and bodies far longer and for far nobler reasons than just a medal. It took a few simple conversations and looks around to realize that the reasons all of us, any of us ever take on cancer or enemies is not for ourselves but because we know that losing any of us is losing part of all of us. I love that the charity challenge is a team challenge because aren't we all better together? The whole is always greater than the sum of it's parts and man we had some good looking parts ;). 

When it was all said and done I was a contender of the race for far longer than I ever had been but it
was my teammates that made sure we took home the title. At least that's what I told them and they reminded me it was a team title. They had handed out a band that said race for a reason to the charity challenge. I had looked down at it and it overlapped with my Livestrong and Hope band. This was after all the reason I raced, believing that I and others keep making life have a little more hope because our reason is greater than ourselves.

I coincidentally had worn my make him work for it shirt in all Spartan races and it's now expected of me which is fine. But on the charity challenge it feels right to look at that band and wear that shirt and remember an old spartan saying, "You should reach the limits of virtue, before you cross the border of death." For three years in a row, this team, this event has done that and I think continued to push higher the limits of virtue and thus keeping the border of death further away. And that, in my book, is the best reason to race.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Home Field Advantage

There are people who think that rare are the moments that come once in a life time... perhaps they're right but perhaps they aren't impressed often or much. If there is anything that's kept my damaged mind and heart any room to heal is the reality that those ridiculous moments that come one time in each forever are a balance of the right situation and also the right choice.

There will never come a day where I'd sign up for brain cancer despite some of the "good lessons" that have come from it. But there are days where I learn to be grateful for the moments, the connections that come from it. So when a 5k was announced in the town that I won the marathon pushing a stroller in that benefitted Livestrong, how could I possibly not go? Before and after brain surgery Livestrong helped me make good choices about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness which to me there is no greater happiness than meaningful relationships. Beaumont after I had asked a few was the first and only town at the time that would let me do a marathon with a stroller. 

It's funny there are three places I'd been to four times since brain cancer, Duke for medical things, New York twice for races, twice for visits, and Beaumont 4 times, each time for a race. It occurred to me on the way there that it would be the first place I've visited 5 times since then appropriately enough once again for the race. It was a beautiful place each time and when it tied I couldn't help but think that the tie goes to the winner. But now there'd be no tie, Beaumont is the place I've been to the most, somehow a proper surprise and perfectly fitting because it's a place I've gone each time to stay ahead of cancer. 

I was at a wedding the night before till pretty late as my pre race warm up was dancing and my pre-race hydration and nutrition was appropriate for a wedding, questionable for a race. And then I got up at 4 am so my actual pre race warm up was sprinting to the bathroom and swinging my legs during the Star Spangled Banner... we were off and it was hot and humid just like it was the day I won the full there in March of 2013, and the half March of 2014, and when I didn't win but PR'ed in a 10k in November of 2014. This time I would win the 5k in just over 18. 

There are exactly 2 places that I've ever won more than one distance in: Austin and Beaumont. In sports, they talk about home field advantage. I don't know what that means in a gigantic stadium but I knew in my home town of Austin it means there's familiar faces on the course, people who you know are cheering for the event, the cause and you a combination that makes your heart happier and perhaps reflecting that your feet feel a little lighter. I'd sit at the finish line watching and cheering people come in till the last one and then run the kid's k with them. I got beat by 4 of them on that one!

I'd get to spend lunch with the directors of the marathon that let me in having a good burger, thanking them over fries and laughs, talking about that day where I thought about stopping to go to the restroom near the end. They said it was a good thing I didn't because they don't make stories about the guys that come in second. 

I was speaking at a dinner later that night about Livestrong and Beaumont, the combination of two which was now in the lead. I told them about how they helped me focus on people and how living and loving are only one letter apart, perhaps because that's how close they should be in existence. I reflected on how even running, generally an introvert's game, has been better for me
shared. There were some great items for auction from Cowboys tickets to decorative art to apple watches to ways to exercise better. I think it showed the nature of people's hearts at the events that many of the items were going above what people could buy them outside of there (maybe it reflected how good the wine  and beer tastings and food was). The event was called Hope Uncorked and untapped and there were many great parts of the evening but one was that they had a sign which read something I think of almost everyday when other 4 letter words are tempting to say, 'hope is my four letter word.' I also got to hear a doctor who was the second speaker and it was interesting to see how someone who had to help people be better share their experience of trying to get better. And the organizer, Cisco, someone who had been a cancer survivor and had been done with treatment it was years before he had started to give back but has kept giving back since then. To him who much is given much is expected but I think both of those guys have long exceeded expectations but perhaps in doing so are the ones who have given and raised expectations for others down the line. It is this way that we show attitude is everything and that even while in treatment we are beating cancer right now. I had to dress up and see people in dress clothes which is a change for my way too short shorts and no shirt uniform of most days. I wore all black to try to look thinner but wore a yellow tie to match my bracelet. The tie was the accessory but the Livestrong bracelet has always been a reminder. 

I ended up going out with some people to dance after and ran with others the next morning with flowers and crocodiles and birds. Then I showered and got ready to head home and I couldn't help but think that there were actually other places I'd visited more since brain surgery... where my mom lives and California where I went to college but I didn't really think of it as visiting, it was just returning home. Perhaps running and visiting in Beaumont for Livestrong was the same type of thing, where I wasn't so much a visitor as just reconnecting to a place where I felt a part of me would always be even I wasn't there. Cancer is a global problem but I think most of us fight at home to feel at home and it was my honor to be part of the Golden Triangle Strutters and Livestrong. Cancer and winning that race there reminded of just the old reality and what I hope will always be my attitude that life may take you to unexpected places but love brings you home. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Fly like a bee

For much of human history, scientists determined that theoretically bees should not be able to fly. The bulk of what they're made of should not be sustainable enough but yeah somehow, they work with a certain conviction, with enough spin and turn to where they go back and forth, not only flying but sharing life as they do, creating sweetness in the process.

This was the image that was going through my head as I prepared for the first and only time in my life to start from the back of the pack for the Brainpower5k. Well, I suppose I should step back a minute and remember what I was recalling. I was sitting there reflecting on many things that the race means both in and of itself and to me personally.

The race has been around 5 years and is entirely organized by volunteers. It is the only race I know of that has grown every single year starting with a few hundred and before packet pick up we had
already exceeded last year's number and ended up with a couple of hundred more. There is no way to deny the sad reality that part of the reason it has grown is because people have become aware or become patients of brain tumor. Still, over and over, there is a light we can shine in the way of the darkness.

For me personally, it was the first race that I did after brain surgery, not long after I got cleared to drive for the first time after seizures had stopped long enough. It was a race that had been announced to my running on my first birthday after the cancer diagnosis... making me realize that perhaps the best way I could react to cancer was to take it as a second shot at life, as life part II. It was the first race that I accepted and "labeled" myself as a survivor. I have always struggled with the term since some of the tumor is not removable and I still have cancer, thinking survivor should imply a clean bill of health. But on days like the brainpower 5k where I remember that it means I'm still standing, I take it as a reminder not of cancer but of the good things in my life. Counting my blessings on any given day could be an all day thing. But it certainly is each time of the brainpower 5k.

Somehow the universe was kind enough to where it would be the first race since college that I won and was the lead fundraiser but on that first one, I went with only one good friend. I count it as one of those blessings that's still one of my good friends. But the second year it would be Kiana's first kid's k and my mom's first 5k after she had just turned 60. It would also be the race where I became painfully aware of my spatial orientation issues and would be a race I'd get lost in. Still the positive things kept happening with the next year it being one of the largest teams and on the 4th one it being the largest team with people I'd met in the triathlon world, in the spartan world, in the world of ultimate, and of course in the world of running. It's funny the prize for winning biggest fundraiser that first year was a stay in wine country, where I'd gone to college. I honestly believed when the brain cancer diagnosis started that obviously my best days were behind me but if there's anything I learned that life can be like good wine, better shared, opened at the right time and completely capable of getting better with age. It was the progress at each of these races that reminded that maybe I don't know how old I'll ever get to be but I firmly believe that the best in life is yet to be.

This race was the first time that both of my parents were joining me for the Brainpower 5k though they were in good company. The announcer from the race I won in Beaumont was there and a brain tumor survivor who I had made friends with was getting out of bed to do her first athletic event, a 1 mile walk. There was an old coworker and boss, I was at her wedding and now she's been dealign with her child having a brain tumor who doesn't even have words to describe what she's going though. But then again what parent or child would? There was my doctor in whose brain I've trusted my life. There was a friend who was one of the honorary cochair this year who had to step out of college and now is working on her master's.  There was the other chair whose life it is what is she thinks is honesty but with the smiles and efforts she puts on, I know it's progress. There were people who I'd only met because they or I had been through a brain tumor... man I wish that wasn't how I met them but I'm glad that some of our life moments are shared. I've never quite grasped how to deal with the realities of people who you meet or even those you don't who the event is there not in honor of, or in hope of the right research beating what invaded our brains will get beat; those people their signs and family are their in memory of. No good way to grasp it all but perhaps Shakespeare can be applied that in these cases it's better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.

I could pretend that there was someone I was cheering for louder on the course but highest on the list was Kiana. This would be her first road 10k and the first race that she started entirely on her own. I'd do about 40 yards with her and show her the pace that we had held in 5k's and then see her run off... let's just say it was a very emotionally happy moment of watching her grow up. (Someone would send me a picture of her on the course of her own and she was smiling and so was I though somehow the sweat was still in my eyes when I got a couple of days later.)

The race would start and I'd start almost 5 minutes back knowing that with each person I passed Believe and Train was going to be making a donation. I've never been more hungry to pass people in any race nor realized that the challenge of the bee was suddenly mine, weaving, fluttering, trying to stay afloat in the idea that keeping going forward gave things a little more chance at life. There were high fives and cheers and a keen awareness that this wasn't a race I would be taking it easy on for one step. I was at one of the fastest paces I've ever kept for a 5k but weaving and dodging makes you do some extra. Still when it was done I had gotten the 4th fastest time over all and had passed all but 40 something people. 

I turned just as I finished to realize Kiana wasn't far behind me and I had only a moment's breath before I'd go run her/my second lap. With no watch on what she had done or what she was doing, we would go on passing 5ker's and 10ker's along the way. She would finish in just slightly over an hour at a faster pace she had kept in her previous 5k's. She and I had both had people who had donated to our run and I hope we earned it. It's the loudest I've ever gotten cheered for by the people I've been passing but I think that reflects the community of people who deal with tumors, we understand that the people who are ahead of us and behind us are part of us, not beating us or lagging behind us. 

The awards came and this year our team earned the fastest team (I couldn't believe they didn't put in a best looking team cause shy of the captain, my team would have had a great chance) with Kiana, my mom, my dad and me all placing in our age group (along with my running buddies). More importantly the event had raised over 100,000 to keep not just hope but actual people alive. 

It took wise and intelligent people a long time to figure out how such small wings carry the load of bee's body, thinking it's too much. It only takes a few looks around the brainpower 5k event to realize how we do it, somewhere the desire to carry life, to help it last a little longer, it gives you a little extra heart, a little extra flight. We're not quite home yet but we're not done flying.