Thursday, April 28, 2016

Blood Thicker Than Water

I have a slight confession. There are many things I have hated about the cancer experience, absolutely hated. But one of the pluses, a tiny one is that because I now have cancer I am not allowed to donate blood. See, I have the universal donor type and so before all this, at my employer's they had a van come through once every three months. I had done it twice in college and both times all but passed out, turning a shade of green. They had encouraged me then to do it regularly since my blood could be used so much... I never passed up an opportunity to do so that came up but I never sought one out but at work it came every three months, so I did it each time. Still after the diagnosis came up, there was this instruction about no caffeine or alcohol (I responded with the joke about rum and coke, don't they cancel each other out). There was the one about no more soccer (finished and won the league I was in). Then there was the one about never donating blood again and I all but smiled (might not have been that reaction had I known how many needles I was going to be taking in over the next several years; at Duke I stopped counting from check in to surgery the number of pokes; unlike on Facebook they were only annoying and nothing good came out of it!).

So when I had a medical appointment this week that was theoretically just a check up, I was less than happy because it seems a rare appointment comes without blood being drawn. That thought got bypassed when I arrived for the appointment because my doctor had moved. She was now in the exact same complex as Kiana had been born in. I didn't know if that made perfect sense or was non sense or was some zen circle of life type of thing. I've been in many medical complexes in the last few years but I was in the exact same parking lot I had once put in Kiana's first car seat.

There was long conversation about general states of health and medication management. They had asked if it was okay if a medical student watched the appointment (I get that asked at a lot of medical appointments; maybe that's true for everyone or maybe the doc goes man you gotta see this crazy case. I always roll my eyes and say we've had cameras in here, I can handle a medical student). I honestly don't remember her name and she was off to the side but perhaps the reason I like it is because there's a fresh audience for my jokes of someone whose not used to the irreverence that I treat medical appointments with; she laughed more than anyone else in the room. When we talked about the state of my ear for some reason my doctor said I had "handsome ear canals." That's a part of my body I've never been complimented on by the way. We talked about the state of my feet in which well if you've ever wanted to give me a gift a pedicure for each toe would probably only get me halfway there. I joked that apparently any girl with a foot fetish would never be my type but those girls that like ear canals... I mean obviously it means I'm a good listener ;).

Still the conversation ended with that there would be unexpected and more thorough blood work the
next morning. I had to re schedule a run and a meeting because of it and the medical staff said I had to do the blood work fasting, so no breakfast. Isn't that just asking your patients to get hangry? I arrived there and never know what to do with the fact that I am almost always the youngest person in the waiting room. That was definitely true by a couple of decades this time. There were two guys there, one very quiet and one who had no capacity for keeping his thoughts to himself. It was a fascinating distraction because he clearly said everything out loud. The thoughts he wanted to share he'd say out loud to himself and then to the person who he was directing them to. I didn't make much conversation with them other than to find out that they were veterans who had stayed friends after their service. It's times like these I wish I knew a little more about military tattoos. The one who had provided the ride seemed like the one with more health issues, breathing in and out with the aid of an oxygen tank. Finally he said to himself and then to his friends "we've been waiting for an hour and 15 minutes; this is dumb. I'm going to go home and sleep and you call me when you're done and I'll come get you." Almost word for word, he directed at his friend who quieted him down and asked him to wait which he did.

There was a problem with the insurance processing computer so that was the hold up apparently. I'd been there almost an hour and a half before they called my name. I thought that meant they were ready for me but all it meant was I had finally been put in the system and then they handed me that thing that vibrates whenever it's called. I've long ago made peace for waiting during medical appointments, that's the name of the room after all but this was atypically long. I hadn't brought anything to read or do so I just kept absorbing the room quietly, some looks of fear going in and out, others trying to be stoic, others of relief.

I was there to test my cholesterol primarily along with other possible side effects of the medication. It is a dumb dumb thing to google side effects of medication while you're waiting for blood work because you start reading because you read the honest and true, sometimes exaggerated sometimes played down stories and all of a sudden you're deep in the rabbit hole. People who were athletes like me whose cholesterol went up prematurely or unnaturally (the nurse the day before had said they had seen it spike up decades earlier than they did in people without the medication). They end up having to take medication to mess with cholesterol that reduces their athletic ability which makes other side effects worse. The day before the medical appointment I had run 10 miles on a Tuesday (I've never ran that long on a Tuesday) just continuing to remind myself that the grim reaper catches up to us all but I want to make sure to make him work for it. Was I projecting or receiving feelings from the people around the room, I don't know but I kept checking in on those two friends who had served together and I think were now the definition of blood brothers.

Perhaps it's because I'm afraid of needles. Perhaps it's because the wait was so long but somehow as I
waited I was lucky enough to receive an email that the pictures from the Spartan Super were up.
See Kiana had done a Spartan Super. It was the most ground she'd ever covered in one day, a little over 8 miles with lots of obstacles. Officially kids aren't allowed till their 14 on there and so anytime anyone asked how old she was, I said she was 14 for the day with a nod and wink. She always answered 9 honestly and gave me a bit of a glare. Our deal was that she would try all the obstacles by herself before I'd help. She would take help in almost none of them. I'd see her pull a heavy sled entirely by herself with an adult woman unable to do next to her. I'd see her jump down an 8 foot wall without fear (which scared the crap out of me). I'd see her go in water that was shallow enough for most adults to walk through but that required her swimming. I'd made her do her own set of 30 burpees for each obstacle she failed the same way I had been made to. I'd seen her pass adults who were impressed; one just like her 10k 2 weeks previously called her the exact same thing, wonder woman. I'd seen her panic before jumping over the fire and even as I tried to get her to do it on her own realizing she wasn't quite there and scooping her up and jumping with her at the end. Still in my book she had always been super but now she had a medal that made it official. The official photographers hadn't caught it all but caught enough to where I started looking through some of my own pictures and some of the ones grandma had caught.

For a guy who posts too much on it, I'm actually fairly critical of how often we miss the company in front of us to share our life with other people who aren't there so I try to put my phone away more. But perhaps, a medical lab room is the right place to go through social media and remember not just why but who has kept you alive. There were pictures there of the people who had joined us from the Spartan, once again the friend I've had the longest who I joined in Houston though she was separate from us at that point, I was keeping Kiana's pace. But almost step for step joining us was Alex Street, a friend who had flown to Duke while I was there and helped me and my mother during my last appointments before I came back. This is one of those friends from that time who had watched me with staples in my head and IV's. He is absolutely a blood brother. We have done other events together before but it felt appropriate that someone who had been there for my brain surgery, my mid life crisis was now joining Kiana and I for a little mud life.

I reflected, remembered the Spartan some more. Kiana did the kids one after, looking and feeling exhausted while doing one more mile than I would. To me that was actually the more impressive moment as she went over one of the kid's wall she saw someone else struggling and reached out and grabbed both their hand and feet and pulled them up.  Grandma was there at the end to give us all hugs and warnings about how no one better have made Kiana do anything to hard :). Here's hoping she doesn't check out the pictures of Kiana flipping over a tire all by herself. Mom, you don't read this blog right? I think if you look at those pictures of me in media I've got the right posed smile for that but if you look at the one of me watching Kiana be super girl, well that's the best and most natural smile I've got. That's what I've been staying alive for in many ways. My parenting philosophy is first you gotta give them roots but then you gotta give them wings. Some parts of watching them take wings is harder. This wasn't one of those times.

I looked back at what we had done the night before and gone on a bat cruise with a place I volunteered at. We were the only one who danced to the music and even though many were, we danced like no one was watching. I reflected on a recent triathlon that I had signed up with way too little notice but had signed up with a friend who was there the night the cancer started and who would beat me in that triathlon by about 20 seconds but I'm not bitter. I looked back at the picture of the friends who had met because she was visiting me as the cancer stuff got started and now they're engaged. They asked me to conduct the ceremony almost exactly 6 years after they met. See, who says I'm rubbish at weddings?

I don't know how much time passed between the buzzer being handed to me and me looking at those pictures and then it suddenly going off. It went by a lot faster than that other time had when I was absorbing the room. But those were the images I re-played through my head as they were drawing the blood with my eyes closed. My own blood was draining out my arm and making me light headed and uncomfortable with what results would come. There are people who always say well this is just routine follow up. I never know what to do with that comment. When this is all started it was just hey "we'll just do a CAT scan but that may not tell us anything"... then it was an MRI... then a biopsy... then brain surgery... then blood word which suggested the seizures weren't under control... then neuropsychological... then EKG... then EEG... etc etc. They were all theoretically routine at some level but they all showed some things wrong and some things right that on certain days, I'd almost rather not know.

I had gone long enough without eating or perhaps they had taken enough out that I was really light headed. This is when I needed a sugar mama not to pay the bills but to provide some Mexican coke or wine or ice cream or something just to feel better. I sat for a while before getting back to driving and thinking wait, I'm still driving and it's been almost 2 years of doing so!

The results would take a day. I skipped the crossfit workout I was supposed to have at noon since the wait had gone so long and that seemed less than safe but later I would do hill repeats with a weight vest. This was also the first time that Kiana ran with a weight vest (mine was 25 lbs, hers was 2.5). When the blood work came in, they were intense on lots of levels but everything was within normal range. Having lived in England, I couldn't help but say it was bloody good.

I went and looked at the pictures one more time that I had visioned during the blood test. Somehow it struck me that perhaps by happenstance or sheer coincidence again, every race Kiana has done this year, the Rogue Distance Festival, the Paramount 5k, the Gusher 5k, the Cap 10k and now the Spartan Super were without exception ones in which I'd been interviewed and filmed for articles in too many place. In none of them were there now cameras focused on me and it was better this way. I was never in it for anything other than to share time with people I care about and somehow the privacy in a public place was welcome. All I had been trying to do then and now was give Kiana a place to write her own name. She had done it on the Spartan wall before we raced. I hope someday she realizes that the reason I have ran with some of those friends, family and with her through roads, mud is that the people who were there for the health crisis were all family forged in blood. I hope she keeps realizing these bonds is why blood is thicker than water.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

This Is My Fight Song

T. S. Eliot once said that "good writers borrow, great writers steal." Actually I wrote that shortly after I invented my time machine but TS Eliot took it shortly afterwards and has been getting credit ever since. A rudimentary look at this blog and its titles in particular shows that a whole lot of it, like today's start is quotes. Some are from speeches or nods to writing. I am even secure enough to quote artists and poets. But the vast majority of them are from songs, this online adventure often feeling like the soundtrack of my life. People ask where I get my song since so many that I quote are so old (like from the 80's and 90's). There's a simple reason for that and it's that I pretty much never listen to the radio so any more modern songs are because of something I saw in a movie  or show and I end up downloading the song. 

But recently, in February, I was inspired by Justin Bieber (you're welcome to judge me for that... how you're judging me, let's just say it probably reflects how I'd judge you in return). I was in the shuttle for the Coaches vs Cancer event and they had the radio on and it was playing a song that said "My momma don't like you and she likes everyone." That particular day I didn't catch anything else or know who the artist was but I realized I was sounding more like my grandpa and thought "What are the kids listening to these days?!" This event was after all something for young adult cancer basketball players that had been billed to people 18-35. I was the oldest person that met the criterion and therefore the oldest in the van and everyone else seemed to know the tune and know a lot more about Justin Bieber than I did. So I made a resolution to be cooler and to listen to the radio when I was in my car on the current hits station till the finals...Let's just say that while there were some good songs, I've made peace with being old quickly and just putting on my own old tunes.

But even if it led to listening to all those songs, I still appreciated the Coaches vs Cancer experience. I practiced basketball for the first time in a couple of decades (my skill level reflected that). Still I wanted to go in with that you can't teach height, you can show hustle. Me and a local Livestrong Friend got to do an interview or two before we went with local stations promoting it. I sent the one where I was actually playing to the Doctor that did my surgery with a gigantic thank you. I was at Duke during March Madness and that positive energy there helped the recovery. They were out of it by the time I won it but I still cheered for them in my own way. My doctor wrote back a nice note (classy guy, 5 years post surgery still corresponds on a personal level anytime I write) and he loved that the video showed us both wearing Duke gear. Somehow the fact that we're both still fighting cancer in our own way, still standing was a great March highlight. The round by round bracket ended up raising $700,000 for the American Cancer Society and some of the highlights ended being in a commercial. Me and all the others who did it stepped into it for that purpose but because it was used for media purposes for infiniti we all ended up getting some payments according to the Screen Actors Guild (does getting paid for that make me able to put professional basketball player or professional actor on my resume??). The checks came in various amounts  for it being used on cable on broadcast etc at different time. Once upon a time I received a staff of different bills from being in one place for cancer things and this time I received a stack of checks for being in one place. The checks have already been put towards debt but maybe these nods to Duke, march madness all show how the universe is kind enough to balance itself out. The game itself was on April 1st so I was wondering if the craziness of all this was not just some really elaborate April Fool's joke since it was beyond March Madness. 

We were asked to write a thank you note to the sponsors and even here a week removed, I'm not sure what I'm most grateful for. It's a long list of blessings: getting to step into NRG for the first time not as spectators but as athletes, getting to be spectators during the Final Four Semifinals and what has to be one of the greatest March Madness Finals ever when Villanova sank that shot. Still, that cannot compare to the things we won't get to spectate, what that money raised will mean there will be less people sidelined by cancer in any form shape or manner. I used to volunteer for a "Post-Polio" group in high school that helped people who had gone through polio with the side effect but I've never seen polio because we've all but eradicated. I hope somewhere not too far in the future there's some high school kid whose talking to previous cancer patients who doesn't quiet have a concept of how cancer used to affect so many people since it's not really around anymore as a disease. Still for me the greatest thing in life is still relationships and the friendships that have come out of this far extend the parts of our bodies that were damaged. One of the teammates went home and proposed. Another went home because despite having testicular cancer, his wife was now pregnant and his swimmers worked. Another had his twins recently born in his hands shortly after the game. Others brought their wives or fathers. And hanging out with enough young people with cancer made me, an old man realize that maybe it was time to grow up enough to at least be open to going to prom. We had to play against each other and yeah we kept the score but in the end I think that was not the biggest win. The progress and work was done. I even had some fun switching roles with the coach Jim Harrick who has an NCAA ring!

Still I got home and showed Kiana the commercial which she thought was kind of cool. That is the beauty of raising a little girl who gets fascinated by birds and flowers and only a little impressed by the media stuff; I'm not sure which one of us has the better perspective on it. She had been sick the weekend I was gone, nothing too serious but enough to where the girl who usually sleeps in the top bunk was sleeping in the bottom to keep tissues and a trash can for that coughing and mucus that builds up as you lay down. We both had 10k's that weekend. I was running the Longhorn Run that I'd encouraged people to do the 10k for several years but had never actually done it... Gotta put your money where your mouth once in a while. Kiana was doing the Cap 10k which was going to be her hilliest run yet. For both, the weather was looking hot and humid. 

Mom was in town for the weekend so I got to get away for the first one while everyone slept in (Kiana is not a morning girl, making her get up to watch one race and do another would have resulted in revolt!). Because my parents were in town I moved all the stuff to where I was staying (Kiana's room) and forgot the plugs. Both my iPod and watch were on very low battery. The battery would run out the iPod as I entered the loneliest section of the race in which I heard a song being played on the side I didn't know till the last couple of months, "this is my fight song." Well... let's just say that's what played in my head the last couple of miles. As always I was gunning for a PR but couldn't quite hold it on a course with some serious hills and missed it by a few seconds per mile, a little over twenty seconds total. Still, I was the first non student placer and there were students from both of the classes I've gotten to speak to this year who came up and said hi as I showed them what the T-shirt said that I was in for the Long (horn) run. Even got to take a picture with the mascot during the awards presentation. Call me a simple man but that was as exciting as some of the celebrities I got to meet during the Final Four weekend. 

Kiana getting up the next morning she still had some snot. I tried to teach her how to blow snot rockets while running. The weather was rough and she had gotten the option of bowing out of the Cap 10k race (that got an immediate no). I asked her if she wanted to  try to PR or just run this one. since her first race in over 2 years she has not ever missed a PR. I mean I'm still Pr'ing once in a while but that kind of streak is unbelievable to me. So I paced her on her hilliest race yet while wearing a weight vest. Truth is she was struggling, pretty much the entire time. At the halfway point, I asked her if she wanted to ease up cause we'd have to speed up a little to get her fastest. She said let's keep trying. There was someone dressed in a Spiderman costume around there and clearly seeing her struggle I tried to make her laugh or at least distract her. She actually kept going back and forth with "spiderman" and I was like see Spiderman's not a good runner, that's why he uses those web things to move fast cause he can't run very well (small smile). Another good adult said, "that's not a little girl cause I don't get beat by little girl. That's wonder woman!)" (small smile). She actually got talked to more partly I think cause it was clear she was trying but more than likely cause it's the biggest race she's ever been a part of (20K+). I was impressed with her politeness even in the midst of the pain. Somewhere between wanting to pick her up and carry her in I just said, "sweetheart sometimes when you work hard it's supposed to hurt." Perhaps not my best choice of words because she started crying then (not like sobbing but those it hurts tears; I've done that during races more than most places cause there you can't tell if it's tears or sweat). There was a lady who saw it and said "you're almost done; crying's not an option." I'm not sure it was any wiser choice of words but I said "Crying's okay; quitting's not." That is my parental and life philosophy that all of our emotions, sadness, frustration, anger all serve their purpose which is why they are built into the system but I concede that saying that towards the end of a tough 10k may not be my wisest move. Then unexpectedly a big smile came across her face and she said "Did you see that sign?" There were tons of signs so upon asking for clarification she said the one that said "Go, random stranger, go" and she followed up with, "next time we go cheer a race let's make a sign that says that." The smile didn't last till the end of the race but it lasted a bit and somehow I think it was the fuel that got her to her fastest 10k ever by just about 20 seconds despite tough conditions internally and externally. Pam Leblanc, a reporter turned friend caught a picture of us shortly after the finish line, where you can see the smile I usually have after a tough race. It's a look that you're not sure whether the happiness is covering the exhaustion or the other way around. Three years ago she wrote a story about how I was doing that race but couldn't do it with a stroller but I'd go on to PR. Let me just say that this picture and this race meant far more than the one in the paper ever will. Let's just say we stuck around the kid's zone as long as Kiana wanted afterwards and then we enjoyed brunch at a restaurant and Netflix when we got home. 

I'm amused at how hard we work to impress strangers on social media sometimes. The age of selfies and following, trying to rack up more followers or hearts or likes is something I don't completely comprehend (says the guy who posts his journal on the internet). But there was something that I said to our assistant coach when he was asked if he'd been touched by cancer and he said no. My reaction was simple, "It is exactly those types of people that are necessary for us to beat cancer." While I stand by that neither self nor strangers shouldn't come before family and friends (we do that often and call it work obligations, hobbies etc), humanity's best chance is when we're open to other people's experiences from next to them or even by the sidelines cheering a random stranger. It seems all of my social media posts or blog posts pretty much say the same thing (hang out with people you care about, get some exercise). It's that kind of logic why I don't entirely get the popularity of one of the songs from the radio "This is my fight song" because if you have to have a song that says it that basic how clever is that, why should something that corny or cheesy  be catchy? But sometimes basics and fundamentals of connection help. You can do it a little tongue in cheek like SNL and remind yourself that "I'm smart enough, I'm good enough and doggone it people like me." But I am thankful for both myself and for Kiana that everyone once in a while there's someone on the side of the road with the right sign or the right song for a stranger. And I loved that even as she was smiling from it before her race was over, she was wanting to make that sign and go cheer a race with it. So I hope that once in a while we also get to be that stranger, those angels unaware and perhaps,

Like a small boat
On the ocean
Sending big waves
Into motion
Like how a single word
Can make a heart open
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion

If you're wondering where I got that poem from above, well I wrote it. Don't believe me, ask TS Eliot. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Smell The Color 9

This blog started, stayed and will be till it's end a simple thing, a boy with a damaged memory trying to remember life in real time, a diary (I mean journal I'm obviously way too manly for a diary) that happened to be online because in the age of the internet I could write to it or access it from anywhere.  It usually focuses around brain cancer and the changes and side effects that have come that I would not have been able to guess, if my life depended on it. Fortunate and thankful, what it is my life depends on, it's still working.

Some of the things that don't surprise other people, they still surprise me. I won a 5k in Houston recently; it was the inaugural one of the Seabrook series. I've won races before and I dare dream I'll win them again though the last race that I "gave up" the lead on, one particular element stung. So even though I've managed to win races since 3rd grade into my mid 30's, never once had I broken tape. Not once but I'm not bitter. I mean it's not like I noticed back in that race in January that I had less most of the way that the actual winner had broken tape... Or that race where I got out kicked last year that the winner broke tape within my view. Or that in other races I'd been that the pictures of the winners was always with them breaking tape. The closest I'd ever gotten to the tape was holding it once while was someone was crossing. Not all races have tape, I'm not sure if its the majority or minority of races that use it but usually even when I win races I don't do anything "triumphant" until after the race not across the finish line. But in Houston they had tape as I crossed and I saw it with less than a tenth of a mile to go and I pumped my arms up in a fashioned that showed that breaking tape was something I'd given enough emotion to garner an entire paragraph in this blog. And not only was that the coolest thing because it was an inaugural race and I was the first winner of it ever, they had planned to give it to the winner and it now sits in my home though I haven't figured out a way to put it up.

Still that was only the first of 3 races for the weekend, a feat I'd never even attempted before, with the races doubling up distance each day. The next day was a half marathon relay where I bonded even more with a girl from the Austin Runner's Club. I had the second leg and we were in second place by a few minutes by when I started, a gap I thought I couldn't make up (I also wasn't sure what place we were in but I knew we were in at least second). The watch is never quite my motivator, it's beating people but since the course was a double loop, there were people all along the course to pass and that serve as inspiration for perspiration. I gunned a little  faster than I ever have on similar distances on the road or trail. We would eke out the half marathon relay victory over 2 brothers that were 13 and 11. There was no tape the second day to break so the lack of tape might have inspired us to get a little cheeky after our victory.

Still having gunned to that left the legs hurting and realizing I was going to be running more than those two days combined for a half marathon. I had two goals and a dream, the goals were beating our joint time on my own and beating my fastest half marathon with a stroller (1:23.08). The dream was to get my faster half marathon ever but I knew with burning legs that might be pushing. I ended up 12th with a 1:22.58 and an age group win and managed to pass 3 people in the later part of the race. I was afraid I'd fly and die or crash and burn but turns out that there was still something in the legs. I got to speak at both the finish line and the awards presentation. Since it was a St. Paddy's themed half marathon I changed into my running kilt. To answer an age old question, if you're wondering what was underneath the kilt, it was my running shoes and the legs that had gotten me to 3 trophies and medals in 3 days!

Still I came back home and realized that despite the 3 races it still wasn't a full marathon distance for the weekend so when Kiana got home from spring break with her mom, we finished it up. Then we got back into the groove of going to school where for the 3rd quarter this year, she would once again get straight A's and perfect attendance. So we're both still showing up. They get a gift certificate to a Tex-Mex place for straight A's and I am amused cause when I got straight A's, I got Mexican food too but mine was my mom's home cooked and with no offense meant to anyone, my mom's way better.

I couldn't help but reflect that with 3 races in 3 days (and I kid you not the room we stayed in was 333) I also had 3 speaking engagements in less than a week. Apparently all the skills I needed for this stage in my life, running and talking about my life, I had by 3rd grade. The third speaking engagement was the most formal at a fundraising dinner for Camp Kesem. It's a camp for children of parents who had cancer, some of them orphaned by it. When someone suggested sending Kiana to it, I blew it off. One was the part of not wanting to say on my deathbed of "I wish I'd spent more time with my kid." I never went to camp as a kid but I figured that the right developmental age for my little girl to by away from home and not be able to call or write was about the time she'll be old enough to have a boyfriend, say 20 or so. She loved it when she went and missed me so much that the first thing she said when she got back was if she could go back the next year. The speech was well received but despite me getting invited still to speak at places, there is the reality check that this was the first speech Kiana had been to in a while and she, like she often does, brought a book with her (old school still giving her books instead of my iPhone). It certainly keeps things in checked that she asked that if my speech was boring if she could read during it... To my credit, she did not get the book out while I was talking but that may be because her question ended up being my opener which got lots of laughs from the audience. From Kiana it also got me a smile (albeit if you know her it was one of those glaring smiles... she's learning early). It was a formal dinner so it was the first time we got to dress up together in a  bit and showing she's already got a better sense of fashion than me, she wanted to make sure my outfit coordinated with her.

That still may not have been the biggest surprise of the weekend. I hosted a playdate with a few of her friends, something that just kind of came together after school. I worry about many things about Kiana but one is definitely that she's an only child with no family in town. My mom is the oldest of
12 and I am one of 3 and there's a social development that comes from family and friends your age that can't come up no matter how good of a parent you are. It was easter weekend so I hid eggs (being called a master egg hider by 2 nine year olds was a serious compliment since well 9 year olds tell you straight up things like when they are bored at speeches). But the one that took the cake (or earned them chocolate) was that we had this new rasberry nail thing that everyone single one of the 4 little girls called the most fun nail thing they had ever done! I never though I'd be hosting a nail salon with 4 little girls  at my house period (much less enjoying it) nor it being called the best one and by one little girl's account something that their mom had been talking about doing and she was glad to finally have the chance. I didn't do my own nails (I only do my toes with Kiana and this was finger nails) and there are certainly a few dads and friends who would think that the activity I chose to do was a nail salon reflected the damage in my brain but I dare dream it's the growth of the creativity in my heart.

So Easter was a good weekend with a chance to reflect on New and Renewed Life and that at least for now, keeping all my eggs in one basket hasn't gone too badly. There have been a few things that have come since then that are still blowing my mind. I am a boy who had never called in sick in his entire life... had missed 5 days for chicken pox from Kindergarten through college and then got a cancer that has no known dietary, lifestyle, genetic or environmental component. The things that have come from it, both good and bad are ones I would have never guessed.

But the strange life continues as this weekend I'm heading to Houston for the 4th time this year to be part of the Final Four weekend. Infinite is donating up to $700K for people's pick to the American Cancer Society. There will be 14 cancer survivors playing against each other as part of the weekend and then we get to attend the game. We had tryouts in February and if you check out the details, you can see during the selection process that I am the first one announced, which if you watch the game will be inversely proportionate to the talent on the field. I don't know for sure but I'd bet more money than I have on any on any bracket that it's because I was the last one picked :). Still,  since I was at Duke during March Madness, that's when I started following college ball, there's something cool about getting to be there as both a part of it, as a fundraiser against cancer, and as a spectator.

Yesterday I did an interview locally for it and another one with Nike about running. Today I have another one of those interviews and and I'm also speaking to UT premed students for the 4th year in a row about running more (I always want to sneak in hey by the way go cure cancer along the way). I hope that none of them have heard me each year because it's essentially the same story with a few minor tweaks and updates and some new jokes (besides do we really want doctors that take a class 4 times?!?). This is my 8th time speaking at the University of Texas, in 5 different buildings in 4 years. Yet in the middle of all these talks and interviews, I've also been on the phone quite a bit appealing an insurance claim. Cancer has strange side effects.

I am incredibly thankful to still be standing... daring to dream it's because I haven't been standing still. But it's hard to configure or reconfigure the emotions of thankfulness, guilty and responsibility when I'm visiting friends in hospice care who are dying of cancer, most of which I met because of cancer and way too many whose prognosis were better. I've been to too many of those visits, though on those I've never taken Kiana. I think and hope that I had been preparing her if my time came when oddly enough the first person whose death she has to experience was a few days ago and it was her maternal grandfather who passed away of cancer. We sat and talked about it with a game where we've playing more and more, backgammon, a game where strategy and chance and foresight all matter and nothing ever reigns consistently supreme. But in the best way, I tried to encourage her that sharing emotions anger, hurt, sadness were all okay. Those emotions are useful and serve a purpose they just have to be channeled correctly. But this was coming from me a  guy who still often hides (it it hides or experiences) his emotions in running, in music, in this blog, in a nakedness that wants to be seen but is afraid it may be too much.

There's times you want to cry out to the universe or pray and try to deduce it to logic, which cannot be done. It's one of those things that if you spend too much time thinking about you'll lose your mind, even more than I already have. Still I also believe that if you don't spend some time reflecting on it, you may well lose your soul. Trying to make sense of any or all of this is like trying to smell the color 9. You may say that 9's not a color and even if it were you can't smell a color which is my point exactly. But despite the strangeness of life in general and mine in specific, I am infinitely thankful that for me that the secret to having it all is appreciating all the life that I do have.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Deus Ex Machina

Take it from a guy with a damaged one, memory used to be a thing that was all alone in the moonlight, where you dreamt of the old days and thought life was beautiful then. Then humanity  got more efficient with writing, then drawing, then photography. Now in the modern age of social media, remembering anniversaries or birthdays has gotten easier as we get literally prompted to it. However even with a scarred temporal lobe and a not quite there hippocampus, there are days that despite having very little recollection of them, they are still unforgettable.

Just a few days ago it was 5 years ago since brain surgery. I don't recall honestly anything after 'waking up' but the humor coping mechanism was there before the surgery with the joke of "I'm going to give you a piece of my mind" to the neurosurgery team about half an hour before. Before counting down as they put in anesthesia, knowing that having someone slice up my brain was the highest chance of death I'd ever had on any given day since birth, I said what can be construed as a joke, or a prayer or a fear. Just before they injected in what would put me out, I smiled a fearful smile and said, "into your hands I commend my spirit."

I thought the fact that having put off brain surgery and qualifying for Boston was a good story, a good way to go out. There would be some physical therapy and neurological stuff but the hardest things were yet to come. I won't forget the date March 3, 2011 but when Facebook reminded me of it, I made it a point to reach out to the friends and family who had been kind enough to come out to Duke. I'm proud to say that with rare exception they are all people who I am still regularly in contact with whether they live near or not. And then I emailed the guy who actually cut me up, Dr. Allan Friedman to thank him. Like before he could bill me for something, he just wrote back and we traded some emails as humans that were somehow a doctor and his patient. I send him an old fashion Christmas card every year but I also sent him a picture of Kiana's latest 5k's. One of them may show why this kid has gone over two years without having a race that wasn't a PR. It's a finish line picture from the Paramount 5k. This the race I've done 3 years instead of the marathon that I put off surgery for because well while running is a solitary sport in many ways, I hope Kiana learns a lesson earlier than I did which is the while you have to do most of life alone, when you  have good connections, it's improved by doing it alone together. When the doctor asked for her time, Dr. Friedman responded with that her PR is now better than his. I've long joked that this whole brain cancer journey would be worth it if Kiana became a brain surgeon. Hmm, she's measurably already better in one way at 9 years of age, and in several others at least in her dad's eyes.

I shared with him the beauty of life that continues and that I still am trying to be like the one leper. Because somehow among the other memory feeds from March are that I went to Beaumont and won a marathon a little over 3 years ago, we talked about some of the running and things that have come from then. Two years ago, I went back on my own and won the half. This year I went back and ran next to Kiana who once again Pr'ed. The finish line picture wasn't that different, I was behind her looking tired and she looked happy to be at the finish line. But while this one would garnish far less attention from most people and no media, it garnished just as much affection between Kiana and I. In my book that's what counts most. In both of those races she would place in her age group, 3rd and 2nd respectively. Kid's going to have to get a proper coach someday. She's literally flying in both those pictures, with her feet seeming to not touch the ground.

I'm a chess coach at Kiana's school but this is only my 2nd year doing it because when this all started when you go through over 2 years without a full month break from a medical appointment... you stop thinking out more than a move in advance. But I think no matter what has come or will, the best choice of my life was to recognize that parenting would be my most important privilege and responsibility. It was a reassuring award that when she took her qualifying test for chess where only the top students would advance to the competition, she saw me grading it and didn't ask how she did. She knew her dad wouldn't tell her any sooner than the week everyone else had to wait. She by the way got the highest score and advances (she knows the latter, not the former). Good to see that we've both started thinking a little bit about the long game.

I've watched too many people die with the same diagnosis as me to not stay keenly aware of both the beauty and fragility of life. But when we're 3 months into 2016 with zero medical appointments and still almost as many till the next one, I breathe a little easier. I've been reading "The Whole Brain Child" and it's comforting that her neurobiological development is taking more of my thought than the disease of my brain.

We're still going and not intending to ease up anytime soon.  Yesterday I did my first Spartan race of the year competing against some family (though I beat them all, this was the first time that any of them were ahead of me at some point in the course, 2 of them in fact!). Then I did a second lap right next to my oldest friend who we've known each other since I was 8 and she was 9. Our kids did a Spartan kids race together last year and now so have we side by side... Ahh the circle of life and it moves us all.  I'm doing 3 races this weekend back to back to back, a new feat that's got me intimidated, 5k Friday, half marathon relay with the Bond girl Saturday, half on my own Sunday.  Kiana's got another 10k and Spartan coming up both in April and I'll be right there next to her. 

If you'd ask me to predict my life from brain surgery 5 years ago to now, I would have gotten it all wrong. If you'd asked me to predict my life from signing up for a marathon with a stroller years ago till now, I would have gotten it all wrong. Honestly, I would not have bet I'd still be standing but if nothing else I dare dream it's because I haven't been standing still. Perhaps just as importantly it's because even when moving, I've chosen to not do it alone, being committed to that relationships are the most important part of my life. I got to return to New York as well recently (now Beaumont and New York are both places I've been to both more than Duke for medical appointments not just period but since brain surgery!; that may seem a strange thing to note but to me, it keeps one more way in which life not cancer is winning).

The title of today's blog literally translates as God from the machinery. It is usually a reference to an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel. There are days that I don't quite understand how life has been so kind and strange and normal in odd circumstances. But while nothing that I know of lasts forever, I am glad to be waking up each day to see that hope still prevails. Or as Van Gogh said I know nothing with certainty but the sight of the stars makes me dream. 

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Bright Smile

These stories in this blog that I write started with one purpose and one purpose alone, if this tumor
was going to damage my memories, and I had to hear the stories of my life from someone else, well, I wanted that person to be me. While not everything is spelled out blatantly, there are nods and winks occasionally, there's never misdirection or creativity. It was never meant to inspire, be fuzzy or sad just a journal of both happenings and happenstance, a wandering writing of the wondering mind. Be forewarned this is one of those types of entries.

I'm a smart kid. It's been in this blog a few times that I was valedictorian of my high school and the first in my family to graduate from college. But I grew up in a rough and poor neighborhood where being "nerdy" was nothing to be admired; we (I was part of those we) made fun of the smart kids. The ones we looked up to were the ones who knew how to handle a fight (this may be why I'm a decent runner... how I handled a few fights; with that said I do know how to both throw and take a punch, never once started a fight but I finished a few.) I spent my entire life trying to "hide" that I was intelligent. I got put in gifted and talented program shortly after learning english in the United States. I graduated college with two degrees, suma cum laude, with honors and part of several honor societies but the only people who ever knew that were the people who took classes with me. Every year they would have an honors assembly at the school with all the seniors where they wold announce the awards they would be receiving at graduation. I attended every year except the year I was graduating. It wasn't humility; it was still a guy hiding the fact that he liked learning things at school more than (insert cool fashionable thing here). There was a guy I worked with for almost 3 years, a premed student who is now a brilliant doctor, who only saw my hiding coping mechanisms of pretending to be just as "normal" as everyone at intelligent things. He would say somewhat joking but mostly serious shortly after that awards assembly, all this time we've been working together and I never knew you were one of the smart kids. 

I also grew up with bad teeth. That was true of pretty much everyone in the neighborhood in a street with unpaved roads in Mexico and of almost everyone in my family. Something about the water stained your teeth, made them more susceptible to cavities, and absolutely stained them. I grew up with brown marks on white teeth or perhaps the other way around. I have zero memories of that in my first 8 years of life, neither noticing it on me, or noticing it on anyone else. Childhood pictures in Mexico have a smile that beams from ear to ear....

But then I moved to the United States, a blessing and a privilege in almost every way, but there was one very traumatic element. Most of the kids had much much better teeth and not most, perhaps not many, but enough to where it wore down my smile through elementary and certainly junior high to where I never did it without being a natural smile and even then it often came with an awkward self consciousness. This was true even around people I cared about and who I consciously knew loved me but the smile would shut down quickly because I'd remember a phrase/nickname I've never quite shaken out of my consciousness "crap teeth." Sometimes in junior high "crap" got upgraded to a more strongly rated word. It's something that I've never quite shaken from smiling even now. 

In the age of selfies and me, a guy who has been in far too much media, people wonder why I am almost never in pictures on social media that I myself put up. My brother, good friends tell me I should be in more pictures with Kiana. I joke around with something that's a hyperbolic truth; that I look much better behind the camera. But it developed in high school when I became a yearbook photographer for many reasons but an absolutely certain one was that I wanted to be in as few pictures in the yearbook as possible. I didn't want those teeth showing. I would do some yearbook photography in college and in the years I was a teacher as well. I was best friends with one yearbook editor and married another one...Despite being the first in my family to graduate college, I skipped the graduating class picture in college. Unless the photographer managed to make me smile somehow, almost all my pictures are with closed lips. A college professor, a kind old man, said what I believed he meant kindly in the middle of a conversation in front of others, when you're older you should get veneers cause you have a nice smile but those stains distract from it. I smiled a lot less for several months consciously and when doing natural smiling shut it down faster. Still, looking back through yearbooks I am grateful that my desire to hide from the camera put me behind it where I caught so many real smiles. I'd climb trees and buildings and hide and people would smile when they noticed and that got some good shots of them in the yearbooks.

Later on, less than a year into my first professional career, I'd blow through almost everything I saved into getting veneers on my front teeth, the ones I'd been most teased about. In simple frankness, I didn't know much about dentists so I may have chosen too quickly. When the brain cancer stuff started (and to this day), I stopped going to the dentist for anything regular. There were enough other medical bills to take care of. If you were wondering what my pain tolerance is, I went over a year needing a root canal before I got it done, not coincidentally on the very first month since the cancer journey started that I didn't have a brain cancer appointment. When the brain cancer appointments were further apart, I no longer had medical or dental insurance after the job issues nor had them paid off so the dentist still got neglected (I brush and floss and use mouthwash). It may well tell you the sensitive nature of this that I put off brain surgery for a few months, a root canal for longer than that because of the brain surgery bills but when my front tooth chipped, it was fixed very quickly. You may call that vanity and perhaps that's part of it but it's not the main thing. I mean this is coming from a guy who someone suggested hiding their brain surgery scar with some cosmetic surgery. I tried to grow my hair out for a few months and quickly said forget about it. 

The projection of parenting is sometimes what we want our kids to be too often to make up for our failures, or the damage we received. It was the awareness of my mortality with the diagnosis of brain cancer that me more fully aware of the fact I should be more invested in parenting. It was that possibility that Kiana might not remember me that made me be a better dad since I hadn't met my biological father till I was 15. And it was the ESPN media piece suggesting that I didn't have one that made me realize that while I didn't get one till I was 8, I'd had a great one most of my life.  Other times we parents are are trying to protect them from our bad experiences... I almost cancelled a media piece interview cause Kiana had lost a tooth naturally presuming that my issues with teeth problems would be passed on to her, that she'd hate the camera. She didn't care and smiled at me just as much in that piece as in any other. And while she's not had a perfect teeth career (we had to get her a special toothpase), a few days ago when she went for her 6 month check up she had zero new dental issues which was true 6 months ago as well. But no matter what with teeth missing or not, that kid has never hidden her smile. 

Kiana is also super nerdy and we embrace it. She's part of the chess club I coach and despite being one of the latest learners, she's consistently been one of the better players. Her science project ended up being the one that won her entire grade's competition and went to district. I thought that was awesome but it ended up not just winning her grade but being one of only 30 placers out of projects from several school districts. It's as high as they go at this level but I've joked around forever that if this brain cancer thing ends up with her being a scientists; it'll totally be worth it. They gave her a certificate that said she's a genius (it's something I've always suspected but now it's on a piece of paper so that makes it real, right?). In my neuropsychologicals, I actually still show to be in the 1 percentile so I try to make myself feel better about my damaged brain with that (while overlooking that some memory functions are now in the mildly retarded level). I never once talked bout being smart when it was normal; I was embarrassed. I've talked a lot about since I lost it, a defensive mechanism at best. Kiana has a more balanced approach because when she talks about her gifted and talented program she says well that's just what I am in, I didn't name it. Nonetheless, I am thankful she has a neighborhood, friends and a family where her intelligence is not something to hide. 

Where is this writing coming from today? So this morning one of the veneers brook off and now my teeth look horrible again (only one of them does but it's an all or nothing smile in my emotional scars). And even when they were all in place and people said nice smile, it made me self conscious, a lifetime of emotional scars or perhaps just ones that came at a young and critical age. For a guy who often says that pretentiousness isn't one of my fault, I wondered if my veneered smile itself wasn't a lie. I worked a little harder on memory tests and perhaps the guy who is usually stoic feeling his damage back in his smile, didn't do as well as usual. 

In the big scheme of things though, it's just a broken tooth. The dentist I previously use has retired so I gotta find a new one and see what the damage is both physically and financially. But while I'll probably never be comfortable in front of the camera not ever quite accept that my damaged mind is worth much anymore, I'm thankful that this is probably the best I've ever owned it. I'm thankful that I've gotten to stay alive now 5 years after cancer to watch Kiana's intelligence and her teeth be more than just flashes but more and more of a constant. So for this moment, at least today, I'm glad we both get to share a bright smile. 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Correct Way To Pronounce Someone's Name

An old sage wrote about how how rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But I do think names matter for many things... my own name Iram has been pronounced Tram, eye-ram, eee-rrram, Irma, Mari (I'm guessing that one was a dyslexic move or someone with a creative sense of humor), and properly. However, in the name it's a trilled r (doesn't even exist in english, the tongue is a little softer and a little further back than a rolled r... insert inappropriate joke here). However when I came to the US at 8 years of age, I was new to the place and the language so I let everyone call me whatever they wanted to.

However, when I arrived in high school, a teacher, an awkward but brilliant math teacher whose social skills were reflected that the most excitement I ever saw him have was over graphic calculators, a relatively new thing in the early 90's. He gave one of the best assembly talks, one of the few I remember about being honest to yourself and not trying to hard to compromise to the culture's norm of popularity. It was titled "I wasn't cool the last time the word cool was cool and I'm still not cool now." He was self aware enough to realize his excitement over calculas wasn't shared by everyone about but he could still be excited about e=mc2. However, while he helped teach my generation, one that has grown to be a bit more narcissistic than I'm comfortable with in the age of selfie sticks and self esteem valued above
achievement, he also had the quality in that because he was comfortable in his own skin, he helped other people be comfortable in theirs. There had been lots of teachers who said my name and asked if it was right... I was an immigrant who barely spoke the language when the question was first asked, an awkward elementary schooler who didn't want extra attention about just his name and a kid who had gotten used to it for 6 years, I never once corrected or redirected someone when asked, I'd just answer: "However you want to say it is fine" and me and the teachers, friends, students would move. He would be the first person in my entire academic career that would stop me on the first day of class when going through names and say, "No, tell me how you say it. The correct way to pronounce someone's name is the way they pronounce it." It took him a few tries which to my embarrassment he did in front of everyone but I was in a new town in high school so unlike 3rd through 9th grade, all of my school career was filled with most of my friends and teachers actually saying my name right, a small but yet gigantic thing. In college, a friend who realized he couldn't trill his r's started my most common nickname, "J" my middle initial since on becoming aware of his inability to pronounce it he said "If I'm going to mispronounce your name, I'm going to mispronounce it right." Somehow that phrase stuck with me and while Iram is my preferred name, I'd rather be called J than have it mispronounced.

These moments stuck with me when Kiana's mother and I were expecting a child, I had a baby
naming contest.  (I had very little faith in my own skills; the only pet I've ever taken in who just turned 12 yesterday, well her name is 'puppy'). We all try to make our kids life a little easier and I still remember the easy and cheesy struggles with my name as a kid that felt monumental at the time. I've never gotten a straight answer as to how I ended up with a name from a biblical genealogy that doesn't even have a story attached; my brother's names are a little easier, David and Alonso so I'm guessing I must have kicked a lot more while in the womb. If that's the case, I apologize mom but I was working on these legs early in order to try be a good runner some day. But with my daughter, there were some great names, some which were obviously in humor since people know my irreverence towards life. In the end, we ended up choosing Kiana Lys Leon. This was chosen for many reasons but one of them was that it was pronounced the same in English as in Spanish making it easier for both people from her and my country of birth. Another is that Kiana's mom was raised in Hawaii and Kiana is the Hawaiian moon goddess names (thus the moon motifs in both her room and on the tattoo I have). The middle name Lys is because her mother comes from a French heritage. She's liked her name, it being normal enough and yet standout enough. I've had some fun with the nicknames contrived from it... She says I smell after we run and I say it's her and have nicknamed her Stinkiana and when she's climbing up every tree she gets called Monkiana. When I say things like that she's picked up the quirk that many of my friends and family have. It must be a contagious disease because often when I'm talking their face is somewhere between smiling and rolling their eyes but I haven't gotten any doctor to verify what the disease is.

Still as Kiana gets older, the parenting approach keeps changing. We went to her annual check up and she continues to grow in both height and weight. She asks questions with a curiosity that is far beyond anything I would have ever imagined at that age. She puts a creativity into art and Valentine's that is amazing. It's still cute enough to where it makes me glow and I don't have to censure it (notice that's censure, not censor for people who misunderstood a Facebook post of mine).  I don't know if that age will come when I censure it but somehow,  I hope that day is somehow never and always simultaneously.

Several years ago, I ran my first marathon with Kiana's mom on Valentine's day. I sometimes make references to that in some of my public speeches about how we didn't do a single training run together, didn't run it together, that it's no wonder we broke up. So it was somehow heart warming to get to do this year's Paramount 5k with Kiana and my parents doing it side by side and this year the bibs were heart shaped. Some people may call that cheesy but hey I'm not lactose intolerant. Kiana hadn't done a 5k in almost a year and I reminded her that shorter races hurt more cause you should be going faster. Her latest 10k was at about a 9:10 pace so I thought maybe we'd make this one be her first sub 9 pace, holding somewhere between an 8:50-8:55 pace and kicking in the last quarter of a mile.

When we gunned there was a little boy that sprinted pass her whose dad said pace yourself. Kiana tried to keep up with him immediately and I said look we'll try to catch up but give it a while. She definitely was struggling as she gunned and said to me I'm having a hard time breathing. I let her know we could slow down or walk anytime but we weren't going to quit. She said nah let's just get it done. It was about two tenths of a mile left and her and that same boy traded spots... she won by a few seconds. Both from her picking up her speed at the end despite the pain and her competitive spirit, I was glowing at the end and then realized she'd kept about an 8:33 pace and came in sub 27 almost 3 minutes faster than her last 5k. It was much faster than I had hoped or anticipated. This girl is going to chase boys, she's going to pass them. (The official ones they caught of her finishing were the most tempting ever to buy. )

A few minutes later at 41 minutes my parents came in also both beating their best 5k time and on Valentine's day, having done it side by side showing love both to their son, their granddaughter and each other. The Austin marathon provides a big gong bell that you get to ring if you hit your PR. I am actually not quite sure whether Kiana or my parents hit it with more conviction but I'm okay with that one being called a tie. When the final results came in Kiana had come in literally in the 100th spot and 3rd in females 14 and under. As I saw her pass people of my gender both her age and older, you better believe I want her to keep running like a girl.

But that wasn't the entire day... Kiana hung out with her grandparents a lot more. Somehow they let her get away with a lot more than I did at that age... it must be because she has a better name. I'm not bitter though ;). Then when her and I hung out for Valentine's day she made arts and crafts, a language I still don't understand but still takes up space in pretty much every room in the house.

I learned a rule made of gold when I was young, treat others the way you want to be treated. There was a time when I was a little older than when I learned it but a little younger than that. I thought it was a narcissistic golden rule thinking that it was narrow because I made it too specific. Well if I wanted flowers, I should give others flowers etc. It's taken me a few years to learn that it may well be just like pronouncing someone's name, you pronounce it the way they pronounce it for it to be right. Kiana and I still have some races coming up, she has a brand new sets of arts and crafts and I still love and am loved my parents, friends and family with conviction. I think that's the right way to pronounce mine and their name.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Road Less Traveled By

They say the sequel is rarely as good as the original... Then to try to add a third is just stretching it. Perhaps that's why there's so few books or movies with trilogies. But here I was signing up for the Waco Miracle Match finish line for the 3rd time. The first was all but irresistable to a guy whose brain was damaged but I always want to test the timber of my heart. How could my last marathon with a stroller not be Texas' Toughest... How would I not carry a stroller up a long long flight of mile of stairs? The sequel returning in 2015 to do the half since it ran through the zoo had some matching miracles with some mixed reviews. It would be the first time my dad would do a race of any sort a 5k and the three generations would get across a finish line together each on their own two feet? That time would be the only time Kiana would get out of the stroller during the race, running up the stairs on her own while I awkwardly carried just the stroller... She beat me up. However, I had already made two wrong turns at that point and I would make others, the spatial orientation and exhaustion leaving me drained.

But here in 2016, I was returning with one purpose and one purpose alone, settling the score. It was tempting to do the marathon again since I've ran 4 twenty milers in the last few weeks with no marathon on the calendar but I hadn't gotten lost on that course, that course wasn't the one I wanted revenge on. So I signed up on the half... I had done a paper registration and anyone whose ever seen my hand writing will tell you that it's horrible... so the person typing it in had typed what they thought they read "Iram Leon" had transliterated it to "Team Leon." I didn't bother asking for a correction since even though this time I had no official company, you better believe my heart didn't for a second think it was ever alone, Team Leon was going to be the one taking the course.

In my pre-morning race ritual I always play a song to figure out the emphasis of that race. Some are different than others. In fact, I never know if I run so much because I'm trying to lose myself or because I'm looking for an answer...but maybe those are one and the same. But in this one, in this race, just had to go back to an old classic of Frank Sinatra... that's life:
I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king
I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race
That's life (that's life), I tell you I can't deny it
I thought of quitting, baby, but my heart just ain't gonna buy it

So I got up, got dressed and ate with one focus... which was keep my heart and mind focused to not make a wrong turn, to not make a bad step. This was the first race I was doing by myself since December, on January 31st so I decided to go out there to see how well the system could wake up from a long winter's nap. 

When the race started, let's just say it was a lot warmer than I like. The race beginning was in the low 60's... if revenge is best served cold, the weather was not suggesting that focus was the correct one. So I spent a few moments in conversations remembering that this race, the reason I came to it originally wasn't only because it was tough but also because it helped match marrow donors and recipients. In fact 4 of the Waco firefighters who help put it on had donated themselves... they save people from burning buildings and save lives down to the bone. So that got me thinking sometimes settling the score is much bigger than the pettiness of revenge. The nerves didn't calm down but the smile came on.

The race started and I got into a comfortable pace, one I knew I could hold for 13.1 miles. There were only two people in front of me for the first couple of miles but at the first turn around I realized they were both 10k participants so early on I realized I had the lead. The music was singing in my ears, the signs and spectators and military were cheering on the course... Then at mile 3 the carefully crafted playlist on the iPod gave way because the iPod ran out of batteries... Well I started singing internally and just chose to decide that I'd come out here for focus and focus was now on new alert. It didn't take me long to realize that having earphones on your ear without music is actually a distraction because you hear your heavy breathing a lot more. I threw the iPod at a volunteer and asked her to please hold on to it.

Not long after the 10k and the half split ways we were in the zoo, running around monkeys and cheetahs and near the king of the beasts, the lions. There were a couple of turns in there were it was clear I had a solid lead, a good 300 meters over halfway done with a clump of 5 or 6 all staying with each other vying for second. It was then that it occurred to me that maybe my return might be a win in more ways than one. Another turn around a couple of miles later and I had a solid minute lead or so but then we got closer to mile 10. I knew somewhere in the middle of it was Jacob's ladder.  I don’t know why it’s called Jacob’s ladder but if it’s in reference to the story in Genesis where Jacob gets to see a ladder going up to heaven... the road to heaven is a steep one. There was a spectator who was biking along the course and was saying you've got a solid lead and was confused when I yelled back, where's Jacob's ladder?

It would be at about mile 10.5 where it came through. There were two younger than me guys and therefore young guys who started kicking in about then, about the right time to start kicking in for a half. And just as I saw them for the first time up close during the race, there was the Jacob's ladder... And in the 20-30 seconds I had a thousand and one thoughts... While this is a hilly course, from that point forward there are no required hills. You can run along the riverside in the most direct way or you can go up 100 very steep, manmade stairs that add at least a tenth of a mile, quite a bit of elevation which raises your heart rate like you wouldn't believe. How to balance all of those thoughts? 

*You can out kick these guys. You're not even on PR pace and you got fuel left in the tank
*You've had a victory or a PR every month since June of last year... are you ready to let the streak end to go up some stairs?
*Kiana ran up those stairs last year and you carried her up them two years ago... you ready to tell her you came on your own and skipped them? Ready to tell yourself that?
*They say to never let them see you sweat... that's unavoidable in this heat but they've only gotten to see your back sweat... do you wanna watch their sweat

*You would literally be walking away from the potential of a victory because no matter how good of a runner you are you cannot run all 100 steps this late in the game
*What's the best choice, going straight and easy or going to the right and going hard?

And that final thought was the one that was on my mind as I turned... you go right and go the hard way. One coach always says you can do extra and another coach of mine said if you go the extra mile, it's never as crowded. I'd come out here to settle scores and the ladder and the right turns was who I needed to beat. The ladder turns so I was going up I'd get to see the guys who had been behind me now be ahead of me on their course since no one else had a brain damaged enough to come up it.

Still, I would repass one person on the way in from the half but in the end I'd take 6th overall and win my age group. So I kept running and running and running. At the top of the race they give you a bracelet... I've never actually stopped to let them put it on, just threw in the stroller before. This time I kept it in my hand and held it with the same conviction I'd gone up the stairs with. It may well tell you something that while I generally ignore finish line pictures and someone else had gotten to break the tape I was sprinting holding that band very proudly.

I finish races sprinting too hard to be smiling. But not long afterwards,I was smiling and as I remembered that the first time we came out to the race that Kiana had gone on top of a certain animal because the race kept saying, Texas Toughest' race, no bull. She's climbed on top of the bull because we'd gone to the top of the stairs. I remembered that and did the same though a little less graciously. As I waited for the awards, got the race director to do a little dance with me in the middle of "running the race." I talked to the proper half marathon winner and congratulated him and encouraged him to keep running since he had also been there last year and had stepped up his game a lot since then. I cheered on many more race finishers and the ones who had done the ladder might have gotten a little extra affection from me. The overall marathon winner heard enough people excited about it that he went back and did it himself not long after he'd finished the course. A group of firefighters did the course in full regalia and took a little girl up the ladder together.

I can't tell you that I didn't second guess the decision on the drive home. But the next day I was telling Kiana about it and the fact that I had to decide between winning and taking the stairs and asked her what she thought I did. With far less hesitation than I had taken to make the decision she said, well you took the stairs of course. A few moments later I noticed what the medal ribbon said, Rise to the Occasion... I'm thankful that on a race course, for a cause, and for our hearts, others and Team Leon had the opportunity to do so. Jacob's ladder had helped me settle the score from being lost and I'd stayed on the right path and for at least one course and at least one day, gotten not revenge, but redemption.