Dec 16, 2010

The Journey Beyond Average

Cancer, despite its malicious attack on my body, has gifted me with a perpetual fear of death—which, in turn has forced me to realize some existential truths.  It may not seem like a fair trade off now, but eventually, I have no doubt, it’ll prove invaluable. You see, having the knowledge and belief that you’re capable of much more, yet, not acting on it is possibly the greatest weakness there is. And maybe it’s cliché, but it’s about time I lived up to my potential. I have the opportunity to be a difference maker and a positive influence—I can feel it. However, in order for that to happen, my thought patterns were and are in need of change.
This has always been the difficult part, because governing the direction of our thinking can be complicated. Our daily fears and doubts are ever present, continually magnifying; and the less we do about addressing them, the less we’re able to do. Eventually, our apprehension represses us so much that we miss out on opportunities, or even dreams, as we become uninspiring—average.  
And let’s face it; there’s nothing inspiring about average. Even though we may sympathize with it and its bag of excuses; it doesn’t exactly provoke a spark for change or action. What does move us, though, are the people who overcome adversity; stare down and face their challenges—own them. It’s the people who rise above, and show strength of character, who become our mentors; our motivators. Them, we’ll follow; because there’s just something about bravery that resonates very deep within us.
Personally, I believe it’s the positive energy which draws us in. Like a magnetic force or a light in the ever present abyss of negativity. When we glimpse courage in others, it reflects back to the potential that lies within. If they can accomplish or create something extraordinary, maybe it means it’s possible for us as well. After all, we’re each made up of the same stuff—biologically speaking. The only difference is the thoughts in our heads, which, we have the ability to control... or at least learn to. And as I’ve recently discovered, sometimes the learning curve can be very steep.
One of the most beautiful aspects of running is the influence it has on your mind. It’s a wonderful teacher of productive affirmation; which is very transferable to all other aspects of life. Perhaps that’s why I yearn to run even more now—post cancer. Don’t get me wrong, it won’t conquer all of our fears and doubts. But that’s okay; we’re supposed to have some as a survival mechanism. We just need to acknowledge their existence so we can then choose to channel them into something tangible and useful.
In every situation there are choices. And it’s the ones we make in the most challenging circumstances that define our legacy. I have no doubt the people around me would understand if I just wanted to get past cancer and back to a “normal” life. But I can’t and I won’t. My mind set has moved so far beyond normal—which I equate to average—that I don’t ever plan on seeing it again.
And if you’ve read this far, maybe it’s because you’re starting to believe in the same thing:  Yourself.

Nov 8, 2010

Lessons in living: One person's battle with cancer

I wrote this back in the summer for beingwell magazine, but it was just posted to the Cancer Society "fight back" website.

Some words can conjure up an array of powerful imagery and frightening thoughts, if we allow them to. One fearful word can beget the next until our minds play out the worst possible scenario: Cancer, major surgery, chemotherapy, death.

But, used effectively, words can also be a source of inspiration and strength: cancer, adversity, character defining, perseverance, victory.

Really, it’s all a matter of perspective.

Still, sitting in the cancer clinic at Southlake Regional Health Centre listening to the constant drip of my chemotherapy cocktail and the hum of the IV machine, I struggle to concentrate on the second set of words rather than the first. And I can’t help but wonder when I look around at the other people receiving treatment what’s going through their minds.

There’s a bond between those of us having to go through chemo and although it’s an unspoken one — in fact, I barely speak at all while in the chair — I can certainly feel it.

So I find myself trying to read their faces and analyze their body language in the hope they may give me some perspective on what words they’re choosing to listen to.

As tough as the physical aspect of cancer treatment is, the mental battle may be even worse. And this year has been a war for me.

When 2010 began, things were going very well for me and I honestly had no idea what was looming on the horizon. I was preparing to run another half-marathon and my personal training business was busy. I felt incredibly healthy and optimistic about what the New Year would bring.

But a couple weeks later my world was rocked. At 36, I was staring at my own mortality.

It was fate that brought me to the doctor’s office.

While volunteering with the Canadian Cancer Society, I had the opportunity to spend time listening to some moving stories of cancer survivors.

Almost without exception, they expressed regret over not having seen their doctor earlier, when they first noticed changes in their health.

Even though I was experiencing only mild symptoms, certainly nothing that was affecting my life in any way or would make me think cancer likely, I decided, as the cliché goes, it was better to be safe than sorry.

A good lesson: If I’d waited until the symptoms were becoming problematic, it would have most likely been too late.

When you hear the phrase colon cancer, you forget the embarrassment — or what seemed like that at the time — of having a colonoscopy.

Another lesson: How quickly pride can change to humility.

The next few weeks, my schedule was filled with a dizzying number of appointments at the hospital, for CT scans and MRIs, blood work and ultrasounds.

After receiving the wonderful news the cancer hadn’t metastasized to any major organs, I underwent surgery on Feb. 3 to have a section of my large intestine and a number of lymph nodes removed.

After a four-and-a-half-hour surgery, I spent the better part of the next five days in a hospital bed. I took an occasional gruelling walk up and down the hall; it felt like I was climbing a mountain.

In retrospect, the post-surgery recovery was the most humbling part of this whole process for me, perhaps the most humbling period of my entire life.

I had always been super-active and had worked for more than a decade as a personal trainer but during recovery, I was almost entirely dependent upon the care of the medical staff at the hospital. I couldn’t even roll over without their help.

The following weeks at home weren’t much easier. Even if I had wanted to disobey the medical staff by working out, I don’t think my body would have been capable. What I’m left with from the experience is a sizable scar, a shorter intestine and the lifelong memory of complete and utter weakness in my body.

A third lesson: We discover much about ourselves when we are at our most vulnerable.

Following surgery, I learned the cancer had spread to at least one lymph node and I would need chemotherapy.

As disappointing as the news was, it didn’t come as a total shock. My surgeon had been forthright with me from day one and I knew it was a distinct possibility.

I also learned Lesson 4: Self-pity only drains away energy that should be used to fight the good fight.

In the third week of March, I began the next chapter in the book I call Jim Kicks the Hell Out of Cancer. (Maybe the title gives away the ending a bit, but I’m not much of a suspense writer and it helps me stay optimistic.)

I won’t lie and say it has been easy. The nausea is horrible and carrying a chemo pump in my pocket is no fun. But I see the way it can wipe some people out, so I think I’ve got it pretty good.

I’m grateful there has been no travel for me through any of this. With the number of trips to the hospital I’ve made, it’s hard to imagine driving 50 km or more each time instead of the 4 km I do.

So here I am, part way through my 12 chemo treatments, spending hours and hours at the hospital, writing, watching and thinking.

One word has dominated my thoughts: Life. I’m only just beginning to grasp its magnitude. What does it mean to you? In the end, it doesn’t amount to anything but a word if you don’t act upon it and make the most of yours.

This is perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned: Life is not about the things that happen to you, it’s about the things that you make happen.

Cancer has changed my outlook and my priorities and I’ve grown in many positive ways as a result. But cancer doesn’t define who you are as a person. Seven-inch scars on your body don’t speak to the type of character you possess. Six months of chemotherapy can’t show people what your values are. But how you deal with and respond to adversity tells the world everything about you.

So when my treatment is finished, will I go back to training to run half-marathons? Absolutely not — that would be too easy! It’s time to move onto bigger challenges, such as ultra-marathons. Compared to past several months, running 80 plus km will seem like a leisurely stroll.

Oct 14, 2010

Runners Book of Awesome

My article in the August issue of iRun Magazine.

The Runners' Book of Awesome

Running is awesome. And we’re lucky as runners, because we have our own world of wonderful happenings and moments that are just part of the experience. So inspired by The Book of Awesome - a book of simple, brilliant everyday things - here are a few of them:

A Tail Wind

You’re three-quarters of the way through your long run; you’re zonked and have been out of liquids for a while. It has been such a tough morning that you’re praying you’ll have enough energy left to make it home. Please, oh please. You turn east onto the long homestretch - feet almost dragging now - but wait, great beards of Zeus! There’s a tail wind! It’s a 15-20 k.p.h. breeze coming from the north-east-east. (Yep, just five minutes a day of the Weather Network has made you a freakin’ meteorologist.) It’s as if Mother Nature herself has looked down upon you and said “there, there tiny struggling runner, allow my soothing hand to gently push you the rest of the way home.” You happily comply, because the feeling of the wind upon your back as you run is like having another gear. AWESOME

Pace Bunnies

The rest of the world is missing out. How cool would it be if there were pace bunnies in our everyday lives? Okay, I’m going to the mall and am not going to spend too much money, because I’m following the $75 bunny. There’s a big assignment due at work, but it’s no problem, I’ve got the high productivity bunny. But really it’s what they do for us at races. Adorning their crazy ears like some valiant knight’s helmet, leading us fearlessly onward to the promised land of a PB. These wonderful folks are like something out of a storybook. Step aside Santa, move over Tooth Fairy, thanks for coming out Easter Bunny, there are some new sheriffs in town. Bless you, pace bunnies, you are…AWESOME

The Superstar Treatment

If a runner friend asks you what you did yesterday and you tell them you ran 15k, don’t expect accolades. If you’re lucky, you might get the nod of approval, but beware, they could also one-up you by saying something like: “nice, I ran, too - 18k.” What the heck? I did 15k, give me something!
If you really want the superstar treatment, you have to tell a casual friend or co-worker who is obliious to our world. The kind of person who thinks a long run is from the driveway to the house when it’s raining. When you tell him you did 15k, he will truly be in awe. “Whoa, 15k is crazy! How far is that?” “It’s 15 k-i-lo- m-e-t-r-e-s” you can coolly reply. And the stunned look on his face will tell you he still can’t grasp the magnitude of your monumental achievement. It’s as if Superman himself is standing in his presence. Yes, that is a more appropriate response. You are a superstar! Thank you non-runner friends, we appreciate your lack of knowledge on the subject. AWESOME

New Gear

The magnificent aroma of new shoes; that soft feel of new shorts on your butt; your new watch that can satellite track you down to the centimetre even if you’re running on Mars. Seriously, is there anything better than getting new gear? In the old days, like a decade ago, you’d run in cotton and by 20 minutes in your shirt would weigh a gazillion pounds. Now, clothing is made from tiny space microbes from a distant galaxy that gather your sweat and launch it from your body with tiny catapults. And the second you get something new you can’t wait to run just so you can take it for a test drive. You can easily spot other runners who are sporting new stuff as well, and not just from the blinding gleam of their white shoes. Their run has an eerily similar look to a model on a catwalk, plus the little spins at every corner are a dead giveaway. And that’s just the guys! AWESOME

Courteous Drivers

Unless you do every single run on a treadmill or live so remotely in the Rockies that the only gridlock you experience is from a herd of elk, then at some point you have to make like Frogger (that awesome ’80s video game hero) and deal with the chaos of our road ways. Dodging and weaving traffic, coupled with some fist shaking and swearing, can be an all-too-familiar occurrence for many of us. Yet for every cell phone-using, race-car-driving wannabe behind the wheel, there are many more drivers who are courteous and respectful. Whether it’s the oncoming vehicle who switches lanes entirely to give you ample room - in case you need to flail your arms about, or need a wide berth to reach for your water belt or gel - or the guy at the stop sign who sees you, makes eye contact and gives the friendly wave to proceed. That’s right mini-van, I see you, seeing me, seeing you. Oh, why thank-you, I will mosey on. AWESOME

Crossing the Finish Line

Been there? Enough said. If not, you really should experience a race day, because it’s awesome to the power of, you guessed it...AWESOME

Oct 11, 2010

Running for my life

This is an article I wrote for the June 2010 issue of iRun magazine:

How many experiences in our lives can be classified as monumental enough to be destiny shifting - the kind of moments that are so powerful, they can move us all the way to the foundation of our core values? And if or when one of these events happens to you will you view it as hardship and misfortune…or perceive it as opportunity?

When 2010 began, the most pressing challenge facing me, or so I thought, was how to schedule the necessary runs to ensure hitting my 1:30 half-marathon goal in March. But as noted, life has the ability to humble you beyond belief at any point in time, and just a few weeks into the year my world was irrevocably rocked. At 36, I was staring in the face of - what I assumed would be decades away - my own mortality.

It’s too bad it often takes something life threatening to give us a glimpse of divine insight. And I’d like to say I’m different, but obviously not, because like many before me, my proverbial eyes were opened in a doctor’s office. When you’re diagnosed with cancer - in my case, a large intestinal tumour - two things immediately happen to you. The first of which is nothing; literally. You simply go blank, as if everything you thought you knew has come to a screeching halt. And second, the instant things do begin to move again, it’s with a mind jarring explosion of emotions; fear, anger, disgust, and in this case, surprise - a lot of surprise.

Yet, this isn’t a story of my emotional battle with and/or triumph over cancer, which at this point is still a daily struggle; it's about one very simple realization. Because, although there were a barrage of voices bellowing in my head after the news, there was one yelling louder than all the rest; and it was saying “you really, really need to go for a run.”

Like an addict needing a fix, I did need to run, and the next day had possibly the best of my life. Hopefully you’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy one of these surreal episodes and can relate. As I moved along - or more appropriate, glided - my body, my whole being, was in a higher state of awareness. Everything felt fantastic, connected, perfectly synchronized. The air going in and out of my lungs, my heart as it pumped in my chest, the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground, the feel of the wind on my face... It’s possible I could have gone on like that forever.

I used the run. Milked it for all I could, from its therapeutic effect, to its power to heal and strengthen. After all, it’s what we do, we use our runs to remedy all manner of ailment; it’s part of the allure and magic of our beautiful and peculiar obsession. And just three days later that notion was reinforced to me by a woman taking the 10k clinic I’d been teaching. I’ll never forget - as we jogged through the night, snow falling around us - how she shared with me her journey into the world of running. She explained how last year she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and after the initial shock wore off, felt absolutely compelled to prove her resolve, if only to herself. Now, here was a woman with zero running background, yet decided to go out and train for a half-marathon. And she met her goal too, at the Scotiabank Waterfront Half-Marathon in Toronto last September.

As I listened to her that evening, I really got it; it was perfect logic that likely only a fellow runner could comprehend. The truth is we are all motivated to do this for something, some internal force. And that connects every one of us. Think about it, when you see another runner what do you do? Even if you’re in the car and they’re ambling along the road side, you look. You look, because in that single glance you understand why they do it and you understand them.

Which means you also understand me, and in turn, my realization. It’s not about the things that happen to you, it’s about the things you make happen. Just like cancer doesn’t define who you are as a person. Seven-inch scars on your body don’t speak to the type of character you possess. Six months of chemotherapy can’t show people what your values consist of. But how you deal with and respond to adversity, says everything about you. And my personal response to cancer: a marathon when I’m done chemo treatments in the fall, and an ultra marathon next spring. That is who I am; and this is my opportunity.