Nov 19, 2013

The Kalahari

I've traveled a long way on foot, both in training, and doing ultramarathons in remote parts of the world. And I've come to realize the most important aspect of the journey isn't the actual physical distance I cover. It's the emotions I uncover. Because when we're struggling, any of us, and on our own in the middle of nowhere, the facades--what we put on while others watch--come crashing down.

Adversity brings out the truth. It exposes the most raw, vulnerable and honest version of us. It can be unsettling, though, to look that deep into our soul and see who we really are. But it's also profound. In fact, I think it's necessary, because it's where we find our real voice. So we'd better come to peace with that version of us; and learn to respect and trust it. In the end, it's the only journey that matters.

South Africa, and the Kalahari Desert in particular, will always have a special place in my heart. It reminded me that there is beauty--so much beauty--in the struggle. I needed that reminder.

The Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon is a self-sufficiency run held over six legs in seven days with set distances for each day, ranging from 28km to 75km.  Participants must carry all their supplies, clothes and compulsory safety/survival equipment for the duration of the event.

May 27, 2013

The Sights & Sounds of Rock Bottom

Sometimes things spiral downwards until we find ourselves at rock bottom. And sometimes it’s at rock bottom that we really find ourselves.

I haven’t shared this story with many people so figured it was about time...

It was a month into my six-months of chemotherapy—my spirits were already low given the surgeries, finding out the cancer had spread, and having to start chemo—when things got even worse. 

I’d completed treatment for the day and was back at home, but the usual nausea I’d been dealing with just kept escalating to the point where I’d become the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I was delirious from the fever and my body felt like it was fighting a losing battle against gravity. I could barely move, even to throw up. And there were more than a few times when I thought “this is it, I’m going to die.”

At some point in the early evening I found myself in the hospital emergency room. They weren’t sure what was happening and wanted to keep me there for monitoring. But there wasn’t a room available so I had to wait. And I did. For several hours I just sat there, slumped over in a wheel chair, because I was too weak to stand, in a hallway off to the side. A large blanket was draped over my body and I was sporting a surgical mask, lest my compromised immune system catch any hospital germs. All that were visible were my eyes, and I can’t help but wonder what they were saying to the outside world. I know what I felt on the inside...

It was one of the lowest points of my life. I was only 36 years old. I’d been an athlete most of my life. I’d never been sick before cancer... and look at me now. This could be it. I might not make it out of here.

My brain wasn’t necessarily in the most rational state, and some of the day is still a blur, but I distinctly remember (amid the delirium, pity-party and anger) two little words starting to form in the back of my mind. They told me to “rise up.” At first it was only a background thought, but they just kept getting louder and more convincing, until eventually I had no choice but to listen.

The next time the nurse came over to check on me, I told her was going home. A few nurses and a doctor later, trying to convince me to stay, I was signing a waiver form so I could be released. And as I struggled to my feet, shuffled the hell out of there as fast as I could, I heard those words again.

It took a few days, but the fever broke and I started to get better. Now I only had five more months of chemo to endure. Something I knew I could handle no problem if I just kept listening to my new mantra.
What I’d realized, sitting in that wheelchair, was that I’d been doing things on cancer’s terms. It was about freaking time I started doing them on my own. Leaving the hospital might not have been the smartest choice, and I’m not suggesting anyone else should do it, but in that moment it was the right choice for me. I needed to let cancer know that I’d fight it with the most powerful weapon I had—my thoughts. I needed to... rise up.

There’s still not a day that goes by where I don’t tell myself those two words.

Mar 28, 2013

Still Running from Cancer

It’s been a few weeks since I finished the Atacama Crossing so this post is obviously overdue. 

But I wanted to wait, because in many respects I hadn't quite finished the journey yet.

The day before I left to fly out to Chile I met with my Oncologist. She said that there were some concerns about a recent blood test I’d done and the results showed that my CEA levels—one of their cancer markers—had risen pretty dramatically. She suggested that it could be an indication that cancer had returned. Mostly it meant I needed to go through more testing, including a PET scan, as soon as possible so we could know for sure.

I’m not going to lie… I was pretty freaked out… Maybe even VERY freaked out. I walked out of the cancer clinic riding an emotional roller coaster; my mind was all over the place. And for a few seconds I actually thought about not going to Chile.

But I did what I've so often done in my life; I put on my “stubborn” hat. I decided the freaking scan could wait until I got home, because I had 250km of desert to cross! In the grand scheme of things, waiting another few weeks for testing probably wouldn't make too much difference—and luckily the doctor agreed with me.

So off I went. Uncertain about what I was heading into, and even more uncertain about what was in store for me when I got home. One thing I did know, however, was that a week in the desert would sort out my head, and put things into perspective, one way or another.

The Atacama Desert is easily one of the most remarkable places on earth. It is beautifully rugged, almost to the point of being surreal. Trying to explain what it’s like to run across it is a bit anti-climatic, and doesn't give it the justice it deserves. But I will say the combination of endless coral-like salt flats, sand dunes, river cannons, and other general ass-kicking terrain, made for one of the most challenging adventures of my life.

I just tried to soak it all in. Day one of the race was a quick but brutal reminder of exactly that... Slow the hell down and take a look around you!  The altitude, the landscape, and what was weighing on my mind the most—do I have cancer again?—made my 8kg backpack feel like it weighed a hundred times more.

That’s exactly what I did. I slowed down, took some time to look around, to think, to breathe, and to enjoy the moment. It was the right decision. What I experienced from then on was absolutely beautiful, fulfilling, and life altering.

It also helped that the other competitors were amazing—and they inspired me every day. The race organizers, doctors and volunteers were so encouraging and helpful. These events are made that much more special by the people involved. And I did form a very special bond with the people in my tent. They helped me in a way that I don’t think I’ll even be able to fully thank them for—they were exactly what my soul needed. In particular my friend Matt—we met in the Gobi Desert back in 2011—because we spent so much time out on the course together; including almost the entire long stage (76km). It’s a day I’ll never forget, because it was so therapeutic for me. At that point in time it was probably the most beneficial place on earth I could be.

And believe it or not, by the end of the race I was actually feeling stronger and better than I had at the start. My mind was in a much better place, and I’d decided that I was ready for whatever life wanted to throw at me.

But then I got home.

I think there’s often a letdown after adventures of this nature. You invest so much time and energy into them and when it’s over, after the adrenaline high wears off, there’s almost a sense of loss. It’s a bitter sweet feeling.

Plus, I had other things to worry about. Like a PET scan. The scan itself is not a big deal; it just means not eating for a few hours and another trip to a hospital. The worst part is waiting for the results, which take another week to get.

So that’s where I was this morning... Meeting with my Oncologist again—to get the results from last week’s scan.

The first words out of her mouth were… “There’s no sign of cancer.”


I still have to do some a bit more testing over the next few weeks just to be sure. And I’ll have to visit her again sooner than planned, but it’s the best news I could have received today. I'm happy, I'm relieved, and I'm grateful.

And I finally feel like my Atacama Crossing 2013 is over.

Photos from Racing the Planet
by Shaun Boyte

Feb 26, 2013

Rise up

Rise up.

Life will knock you down, but rise up. You'll be faced with adversity, but see the opportunity and rise up. Others might upset/ anger/ frustrate you, but be the bigger person and rise up. You'll screw up, but learn from it and rise up...

Because that's what living is...the highs and lows; the falling and rising. But the rising part is our choice. And not always the easy one. If we keep rising though, friends, we''ll continue to get stronger, and it will get easier. Then, it's our strength that will shape our world around us.

As I do my last minute prep work, before heading to Chile for the Atacama Crossing, I've had to remind myself of those words a few times. 

I had a mild knee sprain about a month back that has altered my training and I'm not in the shape I'd like to be. BUT I've recently had blood work and a CT scan that indicate my health is good. I have to look at the bigger picture here. So despite not being as fit as I'd like, and not having done any altitude training, I'm alive and going to freaking Chile! How awesome is that!? I don't care where I finish in the standings, I'm just going to do my best to make sure I finish. 

At the end of my life, one of the things I want to be remembered for is being the kinda dude who always made the effort to rise up.