Monday, November 30, 2015

When the ride came to its 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.