Oct 26, 2011

Actuality. Imagination. Dreams.

Directly between the Empire of Actuality, and the Nation of Imagination, sits the Republic of Dreams. We’re all familiar with the place: A land where our desires and aspirations perform the dance of possibility. Our expectations flutter in the breeze of faith. And the sun—always shining—smiles down from above. Throughout the Republic; hope emanates.

Every one of us has an internal compass guiding us there—and the lure to go is substantial. Some visit it regularly and enjoy all it has to offer. Yet, amazingly, others often get lost—or just give up—along the way. Maybe it’s because our time in the Empire of Actuality can make us so weary, the journey seems beyond reach. Or perhaps the dividing line between the Republic of Dreams and the Nation of Imagination gets too blurred and we can no longer differentiate. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins; our dreams read more like fiction.
Despite the barriers that prevent us from going, we still possess the ability to make the trip any time we’d like. It’s that simple. It’s never too late to have a new dream, or to pursue an old one. So it goes for you; and so it goes for me. I say that more for my own benefit than yours, because for a long time I wasn’t using my dream compass to its potential; which will never happen again. I’m in an era of awareness.

Now, I have this rather audacious dream. One that I haven’t mentioned to many people—maybe due to doubts about it happening. But maybe there’s a power in sharing it...
I’m hoping to compete in an Ultramarathon on all seven continents. In fact, not only do I want to run in some of the hardest races on earth, I’d like to reach my goal within the next few years.
But that’s not the most significant part of my dream. The challenge of it entices me, for sure, and traversing to some beautiful destinations will be great; BUT it’s really about making a difference. Hopefully my actions will inspire others to take action. And most of all I just want to help people. Raising money for charity, speaking to groups of kids, or adults, about my experiences—both running and cancer—will give me a sense of self worth. And isn’t that what it’s really all about?
Obviously it’s still a work in progress, and there’s no guarantee it will happen. I’m not going to let that stand it way my dream pursuit, though.

It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach.
It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture.
It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.

~Benjamin Elijah Mays
The Republic of Dreams: It’s a nice place to visit, but I want to live there. Everyone’s invited.

Sep 27, 2011

The moments

I have the good fortune of being able to run through a country side filled with horse ranches. I love watching these beautiful animals in fields along the route. Usually they ignore me, and sometimes they stare; but recently two of them decided to join me. They galloped down to the fence, and raced alongside me, before sprinting ahead. Within a few hundred metres, however, they were forced to stop, because of another fence. As I passed them standing there, I could see by the look in their eyes how much they wanted to keep going.  Horses get it.

I’ll never forget that moment.
It was stage 5 of the Gobi March, which was an 80km day, and the fact I’d already covered the distance of a marathon was of little consolation. The intense heat of the Turpan Basin (also known in China as “the oven”) was causing some serious nausea. I had just thrown up for the second time in the past 20 minutes and was beginning to worry about hydration. Worse, it was making it tough to spot the small pink flags marking the route through this unforgiving desert terrain and I had to back-track on more than one occasion.  I needed to get out of this stuff and needed to do it soon.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I stumbled out of the heavy, flour like sand and onto a single lane gravel road. This meant I was less than 8km from the 55km checkpoint, but the surface heat was well into the 50’s (Celsius) and I could feel my swollen feet beginning to cook. As I shuffled down the road, cursing the sun, I approached a large group of local men who were watching me like I was the strangest thing they had ever seen. Despite how I felt—and I’m sure looked—all I could do was smile at their reaction, which then made them smile and laugh, too. Before I knew it they had coaxed me in amongst them by insisting (through gestures) that I eat some fresh cantaloupe they had. How could I say no?  So I made the sacrifice and agreed, then proceeded to devour the fruit as fast as it was handed to me. Suffice to say, it was the best cantaloupe the world has ever known. 

I’ll never forget that moment.
Yesterday was my 38th birthday. Tomorrow I’ll be getting blood work for my three-month oncologist appointment next week. My mom is winding down her chemotherapy treatments and soon she’ll have surgery to remove the tumour. 

In THIS moment, as I’m typing, foremost on my thoughts is the importance of living in the here and now. As much as I love reflecting on wonderful memories, and about the amazing things I have planned for the future, I can’t forget about the present. Time, my friends, is a non-renewable resource and we are all way more precious than we realize.
I hope I never forget this moment. 

Aug 9, 2011

My Mom's Fight

Cancer doesn’t knock and ask to be invited in. No, it kicks in the door, storms through and starts wreaking havoc on the place, turning everything in its path upside down.  And one of its recent invasions is on my mom.

Last month I returned from running in the Gobi desert, feeling on top of the world, to learn that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Two weeks ago she began a chemotherapy treatment plan. And I can honestly say that this is the first time I’m glad to have gone through chemo; so I can better support her and the journey she is embarking on.

If cancer was a human sized form, standing in front of you right now, what would you say and do to it? Would you scream and yell; kick and punch; or maybe try and reason with it?
As much as I’d love to go all “Jedi Knight” on it with a lightsaber, I'd also feel compelled to take a stand.  Literally, to just to stare it down so it could see the lack of fear in my eyes, while I repeated the words “YOU WILL NOT WIN.”  

And it wouldn’t only be a reference to my own battle with it, or even my mom’s, but the war it has waged on all of us. I know that eventually we will beat this disease. What we must realize, however, is that cancer will not ever rest, not for a single second. It's going to take all of us collectively to put an end to it.
If it was your mother, what would you do? If it was your father, brother, sister or friend, what would you do? What if it was you? There has to come a point where society decides it's time to make a difference.
I'll continue to run, because that's what I can do. And whether it's in deserts, jungles, mountains or on a treadmill doesn't really matter as long as it gets the message out there. Cancer is using my mom, just as it used me. This is where I take my stand and use it right back.

I love you mom.

Jul 24, 2011

The Gobi

It was our last night in the desert and I was lying atop my sleeping bag, gazing into the starry unknown. My mind was occupied with musings of the finish line the next morning, a mere 14km away. Completing the Gobi March would mean the culmination of a journey that had begun months before the actual race did.

The midnight air had been eerily calm, but the wind suddenly stirred to life. And with it, my thoughts drifted to the previous evening and how it felt to bury my chemo port in a dune—the thing had weighed just a few ounces but afterwards my pack felt lighter than air. Right on cue, the wind whipped up with more ferocity and showed me the Gobi version of “lighter than air” by sending three sections of canopy (about 30 feet) sailing over my head.

Sandstorms can seem as though they’ve come out of nowhere, especially in the darkness, and this one hit like a freight train. Somehow it reminded me of my cancer diagnosis.
Getting back to the tent, and anchoring it down, is an adventure story for another day. But once I was inside, with a t-shirt turned sand mask over my face, I couldn’t stop smiling from ear to ear. I mean... a sandstorm, really!? The week long race had thrown virtually every weather condition and terrain possible for the desert—and some that weren’t—at us. And in many respects it had been a microcosm of my entire cancer experience. There were moments that pushed me to my limit, and then pushed me beyond. Yet, as tough as it was, there was never a moment when I thought I couldn’t make it; or that I should quit. I did the only thing I could; kept moving forward one step at a time.
I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on cancer survival, or how to run through a desert. It has been as much about good luck and fortune as it has about persistence and determination for me. I’ve fumbled and stumbled through both experiences clinging to the belief that I’m strong enough to face every challenge head on.

What I did learn out there in the Gobi is that I am strong enough—that we all are. The storms in our lives may last a night, a week or a year, but there are just some things that they can’t tear away from us.
As I ran that final 14km, through some absolutely beautiful and rugged terrain, my blistered feet barely touched the ground. It was a feeling that I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to put into words; and maybe I don’t want to. Crossing the finish line didn’t feel like the ending of something significant; it felt like I was crossing into the beginning of something monumental.  

“Adversity is like a strong wind.  It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.”  ~Arthur Golden, Memoirs of a Geisha

May 30, 2011

Scars, experiences and the light

One week post surgery 2010. Thirty-nine
staples and hundreds of stitches underneath.
I look in the mirror and I no longer see a scar. Now, I only see an experience. And what are we in life, really, but a sum of our experiences. Me, I’ve lived through cancer and am stronger because of it.

As more time passes and my hatred for this disease is slowly replaced by resolve, I realize how different of a person I‘ve become.  Case in point, I no longer need to hide behind a façade of bravery, but can openly admit thoughts of being inadequate, inferior, or vulnerable. Because I’ve been to that place—the one where façade’s come crashing down all around you—and it’s strange, it’s surreal, and it’s humbling. Be that as it may, it’s also deeply empowering to realize the only thing left is the truth.

Underneath the masks and personas lurk our fears and demons. And whether it’s me or you; crazy Aunt Betty or Chuck-friggen-Norris, we all have them. When challenges arise, however, the ultimate truth is revealed in how we cope and how we persevere, despite them.

In less than a month I’ll be headed into the Gobi desert to run a 250km race, which will be yet another experience and a different kind of challenge. And it’s one that I’ve been asked about numerous times. I think people wonder what the hell is really pushing me to do this—particularly so soon after chemo, when I still have lingering side effects.

Well, along with the obvious motivators such as raising money for a great organization in TRAILS, and just the sheer adventure of it, there is one underlying reason. Which incidentally has nothing to do with competition; I’m not going there to go up against any other runners.  The way I see it they’re my team mates—much the same way those in the chemo clinic were—and we share the same goal; to get to the finish line.  Nor am I going there to pit myself against the terrain and/ or elements.  It’s just the playing surface, and game time conditions will be harsh. Rather, what’s truly driving me is the opportunity to send a message. I think this race gives me the voice I need to do that.
WHEN I cross the finish line, I’ll have this note written on a piece of paper in my backpack:
You attacked me because that is what you do. And I know given the opportunity you’ll do it again and again. But you should know who you’re up against. Today’s finish line is just the starting line for so many other things. The war may not be over, but I will fight you every step of the way. I’m stronger than you ever thought possible. And I will never, ever quit.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?” ~ Marianne Williamson

Mar 23, 2011

Hope, Belief, and Perspective

Last week I had my chemo-port removed, because my latest CT scan showed “favourable” results.  As much as I’d love to wax poetic about my existential journey into the deepest corners of my soul, I’m in a much more “matter of fact” kind of mood. Starting with these three:
  1. I HATE cancer.
  2. It takes everything in my power to try and channel that energy into something positive.
  3. Running is my outlet.
My Belief about Perspective
As I’ve said before, cancer—or any adversity—can put things into perspective in a hurry. But life is an ongoing education and I’m also learning to put “perspective” into its proper perspective. You follow me?
Allow me to explain what I mean.
Imagine I’m standing directly in front of you holding up an ordinary medium-sized box. Printed on the front of it in large bold writing is the word “CANCER.” At first it’s the only word visible, because you’re looking at the box head on. Then you take a couple of steps to the left. Because of your new view point you can now see another side of the box and notice the words “POOR ME.” Finally, you take four or five steps back to the right so you can see along the opposite side, from here you spot the words “NEVER QUIT.” It’s still the same box, with the same word on the front, but just by moving your feet—a different perspective—it has changed dramatically.
And really, it’s that simple. If we keep our feet and our minds moving it allows us to change our perspective on anything at any time.
I personally believe that human consciousness is the most powerful tool on earth. And because we possess this ability to control our thoughts—and in turn, our actions—there is nothing stopping us from doing anything. Yet, I also think that we often lack the most important belief; the one in ourselves. Notwithstanding the external factors and/or influences of why we may have self-doubt in the first place, ultimately it is still a choice—OUR choice. We can’t control what others think or do—as much as we may like to—but we CAN control what we think and do.
My Belief about Hope
Let’s assume you’re a runner (I really HOPE you are) and have an upcoming race. You’ve trained hard and physically you’re ready. As the day approaches I say to you “I hope things go well.” Standing next to you is your training partner, also entered in the race. They’ve done the exact same training as you and to them I say “I believe you’ll do well.” Is there a difference? I think hope, no matter how noble the intentions, implies some level of uncertainty, whereas belief is concrete—absolute.
Don’t get me wrong, hope can be a wonderful thing. For example: I really HOPE cancer doesn’t resurface; and I’m hopeful THOUSANDS of people will read this blog. But those are things beyond my control. When it comes to my own mindset I prefer belief. I BELIEVE with all of my heart that I’ll go to the Gobi desert, run my race and finish well. I just hope it doesn’t get too hot and I don’t get bitten by a snake!
And that’s my perspective on hope and belief. For now at least; because my feet and mind are still moving so it could change at any time.
I’d like to leave you with something I recently read:
When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world.  I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation.  When I found I couldn't change the nation, I began to focus on my town.  I couldn't change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family.  Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family.  My family and I could have made an impact on our town.  Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world. ~author unknown

The chemo-port that was in my chest. I asked to keep it as a souvenir.

Feb 24, 2011

Taking it to the next level

Here is my article from the February edition of iRun magazine.

So many of us runners get the calling; our inner voice tells us to stop thinking about it and do it already! Register for that 5k or 10k you’re considering; or the marathon or ultra you’ve been dreaming of.

For me it happened while staring at a picture of a silhouetted runner plodding through an imposing desert landscape. And when my calling came—which, I’ll swear was the voice of Yoda accompanied by the most majestic version of the Star Wars theme song ever—it simply said; “Jim, it’s time to take your running to the next level.”

Thank you… Yoda

The photo I’d been looking at was the book cover for ultra running legend Ray Zahab’s Running For My Life. The words resonated deeply with me because I was beginning a battle with cancer at the time. This was the guy who ran through the entire Sahara desert! So naturally I did what any confused runner-slash-cancer patient, seeking answers, bumbling through the seven steps of grief, and hearing Yoda in his head would do: I called up the dude who wrote the book. Ray was happy to talk to me so I decided to get in touch with top Canadian ultra runners, Stephanie Case and Ferg Hawk, and get even more advice. Since storming onto the ultra scene in 2008 by finishing as the top female in Racing the Planet Vietnam (a 250km stage race), Case has gone onto a multitude of other victories and top finishes at some very tough and prestigious races. Hawke, who is the subject of the running documentary Distance of truth, is a two-time runner up at the Badwater Ultramarathon (often deemed the hardest race on earth) and holds the second fastest time for a North American at the Marathon de Sables—at 243 km race in the Sahara desert.

What did I learn from Zahab, Case, and Hawke?

None of the three were running prodigies when they started. Until the late 90’s, Ray was a pack-a-day smoker, but since he’s quit and started running, he’s never looked back. Stephanie didn’t run her first marathon until 2005, “Back then I wasn’t really a ‘runner’. I dreaded almost every training run I went on and I couldn’t wait for the race to be over! If I hadn’t been running for charity, I don’t know if I would have made it to the finish line.” And Ferg only started running after a doctor’s visit. “I was overweight—too much beer and wings after slowpitch— the doctor told me my blood pressure was high, and I’d have to start taking medication. So I started running.”

My inner Yoda voice satisfied, I registered to run the 250km Gobi March through China’s Gobi Desert this summer. *gulp*.

Believe in yourself and spread the word

Although they came from humble running backgrounds, each has persevered and gone on to accomplish amazing things. Ray advised me to; “believe in yourself—no matter what. Selfdoubt will be there, but learn to push it aside.” Okay, I’m starting to believe, Ray. I’ve followed Stephanie’s advice, too. “Find a race that you think is out of your league and sign up before you have a chance to talk yourself out of it. Next, tell all your friends and family about it to make sure you won’t back out!” Check. I just told iRunNation, Stephanie!

Make like a Scout — be prepared!

These three individuals have had so much running success because they believe training is crucial. I regularly think about Ferg’s words: “We all have the ability to do these amazing things, but too often people aren’t willing to put in the hard work and sacrifice it takes to get there. For me it’s all about preparation.”

Add to that Stephanie’s advice; “Give yourself the time to train and everything is possible. And get advice. Building a support network around you is the best way to achieve your goals.”

Use the Force

While recently talking to Ray, he was firing off advice faster than I could process; “What is your ideal outcome? What is your secret goal; what do you really want out of this race?” Later, when I messaged him a thanks, I told him he was a running Jedi Knight. He coolly replied; “Learn to use the force, Jim. It’s strong in you.” And what is “the force,” really, but an internal strength and heightened mind-body connection? Maybe I do have it; maybe we all do. Maybe we can all use the force to take our running to the next level.

Jan 31, 2011

The Wolf Dream

Dear running diary; I have become a wolf.
Wolves are mythical creatures that have been held in reverence, or depicted as terrifying villains, through the millennia. And despite all their metaphorical references, they are simply a predatory animal trying to survive by using numbers and stealth to seek out prey. Their success, in part, comes from learning to exist in a hierarchical world where lesser wolves submit to dominant ones.
Or so says my subconscious.
Last February, two days post cancer surgery, my epidural was removed so I could be switched over to morphine for pain control. The drug, however, did more than that. It caused me to drift in and out of consciousness, before eventually falling into a trance like sleep and having the most vivid dream of my entire life. I can recall every single detail, in perfect clarity, as if it was real and happened only yesterday...
My morphine induced vision:
I was standing in a field of tall, thigh high grasses on the outskirts of some town. At my back were rows of houses bunched together like a bizarre militant Lego project... A.k.a. the suburbs.
The sun hung low in the sky and I knew I didn’t have many hours of daylight left. Yet, the pull of open land, lying endlessly stretched before me, was too strong. As I moved off, a small structure on the horizon caught my attention, it appeared to be a farm house.
The place reeled me in with bewitching power, and I suddenly I found myself at the end of the gravel laneway.  It wasn’t quite dark out, but not light, either—it was that brief, mystical period in between. With shadows and silhouettes dancing about, I slowly and cautiously inched my way forward. On my left was a tall wooden fence that stood eight or nine feet tall—the boards so close together that it created a wall. On my right hand side, touching the edge of the driveway was the old siding covered home.
The effect of the fence and house felt like being in a tunnel; and it was further emphasized by a dilapidated free standing garage directly in front of me. It was here that I had my wolf encounter. A huge, menacing looking animal with the hair on its upper back raised, its intense yellow eyes locked on me as it crept onto the driveway from behind the house.
We stood there, face to face, for what seemed like an eternity. I was frightened, but I knew it would be a bad decision to run. My feelings of vulnerability, however, seemed to hang heavy in the air. Smelling it as an opportunity, it attacked.
The wolf was on me—its large K9’s trying to close on my jugular—so fast that I barely had time to react. At the very last instant I managed to turn my body and raise my arm just enough for it to bite down into my right shoulder. The pain was excruciating, yet with my free arm, and using its forward momentum, was able to shove free. And then...
And then I woke up. Only, I was still mid-wolf-throw when I did, so continued to roll to my side while flailing my arm, which then smashed into an array of tubes and my I.V. pole. This seemed to snap me back to reality; it’s also when I noticed an intense pain in my right shoulder... the same spot I’d just been bitten!
I later found out the pain was an after-effect of surgery, caused by pumping air into my body so they could operate. But the dream had left a profound impact; easily understood if you read it again, except replace the word wolf with cancer.
What I couldn’t comprehend at first, though, was why a wolf? I don’t have a deep seeded fear for them—not like I do for, say, bears. But that’s when it dawned on me.  I’m not supposed to be terrified. I’m supposed to see cancer for what it is; “...simply a predatory animal, trying to survive by using numbers and stealth to seek out prey.” And thus my reasoning for embracing my own inner wolf: It means I am stronger and I am dominant.  Attack if you must, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.