Wednesday, December 14, 2016

My road to Boston Ep 1: qualifying unwittingly at time..with cancer....

As an endurance junkie it is very hard; I mean very hard, to sift through the clutter that is the continuous pull between exhaustion and exhilaration from workout to workout, week to week, and race to race.  Am I over fatigued and need to let off, or am I just tired from a few hard days? Or is the stress of life/work throwing off centre? Is it work that I need to assess and adjust? How is my family commitments, am I falling off course with those (guilty often!) We go through all these spot checks well before we ever land at the one big question; am I sick?

From am I sick we work towards "I will be good in a few days after some rest.." and we soldier on to the track, or the climbs, or the lake. We soldier on dutifully crafting our fitness for the next start line. Process. Process. Process. Consistency is key. I must hit that workout.

2016 I learn a valuable lesson. I am not invincible. It is not "just a few good days rest…" that solves all. Indeed, I am actually very vulnerable.

My episode 1: Road to Boston is a story of reflection from the Vancouver Marathon finish line and what it taught me about myself. It took awhile to post because I needed to a) get healthy, and b) reflect. A lot!

Resilience: the ability to recover from adversity.

My last blog talked about learning of and dealing with cancer which was my June/July journey into and out of a difficult space. That was after this finish line. This is a story from what lead up to visiting a Dr. and saying, "something's not right".

It was May 1st for the beautiful Vancouver marathon. Meredith's BIRTHDAY! I was well trained and coached by a Canadian Olympian Malindi Elmore. I was ripping test workouts to a 3 hour marathon. I was primed and ready and enjoyed the process with my mate Vik Bains. We went down to the start together with his Kelowna run team. We soaked in some start line energy and paced nervously for the gun to go. My personal best was 3:08:55 from the 2014 Vancouver Marathon and I was now going for 2:59:59!

Vik and I heading to start with TD in background...i don't work there anymore though! Look close and my squamous cell carcinoma is on lip.

This at hand, my first start line of 2016 I had no idea I had cancer.  What I was deflecting health wise was serious and I had no idea. A few good days rest and all will be good wasn't working. Two weeks before the start line I had to take a sick day at work with an eye sty. 10 days before the marathon I had a cold sore under my nose always a telltale sign my body's immune system has crashed. Of course on the start line I had what I thought was a cold sore on my lip and it was this that ended up being squamous cell carcinoma.  I disregarded all that. A start line awaited.

And we're off. And 4:15 per KM pace for a 3 hour marathon went up the road pretty quickly. Vik and his mate were gone within the first mile. At 5km's I knew something was just "off". I was sluggish and was struggling for my usual race day focus. My mind wandered. My thoughts fleeting. My legs sluggish. I tried and found a mantra "Grind. Just grind".  I hit the climb at 10km on 4:16/km pace. Dead on pace for 2:59 marathon but the hills were coming. I wanted to be at 4:10 pace at 10K into race. "Stay calm. Grind. Just grind".

Popping up the topside I was now on 4:20/km average pace and I found a group that were clearly going too fast for who was in the group but on target for what I needed. They kept surging over each other. Pushing their pace. When they would let off we would come side by side. At 19km the Vancouver marathon is running through UBC campus and approaching a mile descent to Jericho beach. This hill killed my quads in 2014 so I stayed calm and on pace as my group faded into the distance. At the half way in Jericho Park I was 1:31. Right on pace for a negative split 3 hour marathon. I felt energy from this. "I can't believe I might pull this off" is what I said. Out loud. To a very confused few runners around me! I picked it up to stay on top of 4:15 pace. 2km's later it was all but over. My mind wandered. My thoughts fleeting. My legs sluggish.

Resilience: A climb out of Jericho and off into Kitsilano was my reset button to focus for a 3:05 marathon which is still a 4 minute PB and damn good for 45 years old.

Coming over to Burrard Street bridge was the last of the group I was running with at UBC. The rest were already behind me. He was in hit wall mode at 30km into race. I've been there. I tapped him and asked he come with me. He was done. Marathons are cruel. The Burrard Bridge might as well be a mountain. Up and over feeling like 3:05 marathon was easily doable but 3:02 is a new stretch target.

Grind. Just grind.

Left and into English Bay I dropped to 4:10/km pace and felt amazing. The headwind was building and into Stanley Park I was putting a bet down. 4:10/km for as long as I can hold and I am in serious contention for 3:02.

GO FOR IT! YOU DID THIS IN TRAINING. RIGHT HERE ON THIS COURSE. JUST GO!  I was flying. Feathers for legs. Mind was free. Then….it wasn't. My mind wandered. My thoughts fleeting. My legs sluggish. I was blowing up. Badly.

And I had 7km's to go.

Turning the corner under the Stanley Park bridge I had no fight. Fight is my weapon. Fight is what I do. Its what's won me races. No one ever out fights me. I had no fight. I went negative. How can this happen? What's wrong with me? why am I even here? 5:00km went to a 5:15km. I was dying a slow marathon runners death.

With 2km to go a guy in front of me let up. Staggered. Then promptly fell over. Do I stop? Is he ok? and thankfully 2 spectators ran over "I have CPR.." they yelled. Thank you; decision made. Keep going because I am him in 10 minutes.

Please just let this end!

2KM to go and I am running a marathoner's nightmare. Bricks for feet and on the back. Grind. Just grind.

Turning left onto finishing chute was Meredith and dad and I had barely enough energy to wave. 1 km to go and I was fighting in no man's land between epic fail and utter relief to be done. I was racing towards a reward I didn't know existed. With 400 metres to go I could see the clock and I was a sprint away from an award I didn't know was there. If I sprint. If I fight. If I just grind. I have a personal best. GOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

3:08:41….14 second PB. The thing about personal bests? THEY ALL COUNT!

8th in Age Group. Top 2%. Who knew? Resilience.

I won't deny I was pretty happy. I enjoyed some brown pops with Vik, dad, Meredith and friends. Celebrated Meredith's birthday with steak dinner and Prosecco. Relaxed and soaked it in. I slogged out a PB despite feeling terrible. I am proud of this.  And I knew April 2017 Boston Marathon was ticked off the box.

Resilience. That thing we have that we don't know we do ... until we do know we have it.

But something was not right and I knew it. So did Meredith. From this finish line my path to vulnerability began.

Out the other side takes me to episode 2. A few more start lines. Post cancer start lines. And a different perspective on life with some changes in store.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

So your biopsy is positive for cancer....

June 7th, 2016: "So your biopsy has come back as cancer..."  That is what I heard sitting in the Vancouver airport waiting for my flight home to Penticton as we wound down a vacation.

On May 26th at 11:30am I had a quick and dirty lip surgery in our local ENTs clinic to remove scar tissue in my lip. Both my family doctor and the ENT specialist quoted "I have no idea what that is so lets cut it off". So I was on the doctor bed for about 30 minutes, received a topical freezing like going to the dentist, smelled some burning flesh to cauterize my lip and I left with 6 stitches in my lip just in time for my vacation home to Dundas and Toronto.  While on vacation I did research and listened to my RN Mother-in-law and GP sister for all things about Squamous Cell Carcinoma. 94% of the time this cancer stays localized and is cured by removing the tumour. It is caused by excessive exposure to sun, smoking and alcohol. I was batting 66%.

"That's a big word doc" I said holding Meredith's hand in the airport, "what now?"

"I will see you in about 10 days and we do surgery to remove the tumour. Its not an aggressive cancer. I will have my secretary call you" and with that he hung up as I sat there. My next action I regret. I got up, and walked. I left my wingman sitting there. Probably more petrified than I was. I called my sister. We chatted. She gave me confidence. Joanne had that mix of big sis tone and professional calm only a Dr. can display.

I took a deep breath and head hung low walked back to Meredith. I can't believe I left her there. I sat down and told her I called Joanne and we should be ok. But it's cancer. That is all I heard. That is all she heard. I have cancer.  And all I could think about was that 6%.

If I look back I have been in the sun training and racing for 20 years. And rarely if ever did I wear SPF/UVA lip balm. I used sun screen religiously on my face, arms, and neck; rarely on my legs and just never on my lips. I have had a lifetime of cold sores. What I was hearing made perfect logical scary sense. I am a red headed Welsh-Canadian who burns easy. Of course if anything I would effectively get it is LIP CANCER. I sat up a few nights just thinking. My runs and rides I did that week were 100% every minute of every km burning and thinking about 6% as the odds that anyone who has ever heard the word cancer would want. 6% is gold betting money in the cancer game and that is what I have to play with. Take it. Run with it. Feel good about it.

I was petrified. Meredith stood her ground.

I told my team at work. They were great. I told my boss. He was and is amazing. I shared with close friends back in Ontario and select peers at work too.

And I talked with my sister again and of course my dad. Both are solids.

Everyone around me were great. But I couldn't help but think everything, I mean everything, has changed.

Perspective. Outlook. What matters. What do I want to do? Where do I want to live? Who do I want to be around? What do I want to accomplish? What legacy do I want to leave? Crazy these are the thoughts that rumble endlessly despite my 94% odds. It still circles and permeates and seeps into every ounce of me irregardless of my inner voice fighting the drama of it all. On one hand were all these life changing thoughts and on the other was a quick surgery and life is all back to normal.

On June 16th we booked the surgery at the Penticton hospital for the 21st. I will have my choice of anaesthesia and my ENT Dr. will remove the tumour and quote "99% of the time we are done there". So far I like what I have heard. We have dropped from 6 to 1%. But then I heard, "It will be more evasive than the first time. We will talk more at the hospital"

More evasive? The first 6 stitcher was bloody awful! Now I am petrified not of cancer, of surgery!

June 21st my beautiful and super domestique wife takes and waits with me at the Penticton hospital. The staff right from the welcoming team, to the floor nurse, to the Anasthesiologist and the two nurses in the surgery room and of course, my ENT were top class. I felt really and truly cared for. More than a professional way; in a personal "are you ok what can we do to make you ok" kind of way. It was top class.

I thought of my favourite music and chose to be put under. As the mask went on I was playing Grateful Dead's Help on the Way in my head which starts; "Paradise waits on a crest of a wave..."  As I awoke 90 minutes later I was hearing the song end "without love in a dream it will never come true..."

Quietly coming to grasp with where I was I heard, "his heart rate is really low....." as the machine beep, beep, beeps...."well his resting was 40...."

I turned to the machine and saw my HR. New PB....29! Then said, "then unplug it! Its bloody awful"

2 added drips of morphine. 2 Percocet and a bag of ice on my lip the pain began to subside. It was clearly more evasive than the first surgery. This hurt. A LOT.

As I was discharged and feeling very high Meredith drove up. I was put in the car. Then THIS happened....

A green hatch back car came screaming into the parking lot and nearly took out a pedestrian. She barely stopped the car before head on into us. Being so high everything was playing in slow motion. I could clearly see the sheer look of terror in her face and the passenger slumped over onto her shoulder. My immediate reaction was to get out and help as she ran into the hospital. Meredith was already in drive moving around the car. She had a job to do. That job was ME! I looked into the car and he was dead. Or as close to dead as I ever want to see. Blue in color. Froth in his mouth. Eyes wide open staring fixed ahead. Horrifying. Disturbing. Big-time Perspective.

I wanted to write my marathon race report. Instead I have written an experience about cancer because I want YOU TO LEARN A LESSON FROM ME. Wear SPF/UVA LIP BALM and leave a stick in your cycling jersey. Always. Don't be half assed about this. This is not a fun experience. Trust me.

As for the marathon. Here I am day after race with Meredith. The bump visible that they "cut off" my lip. I had a PB by 15 seconds but the whole race felt awful. I was off all day. Now I guess I know why!

May 2nd after the Vancouver Marathon which frankly didn't go well. I felt drained, tired, and mentally not on Que. The scar is apparent in this photo before the biopsy. I suppose I now know why I had a cold sore and eye sty the week before the race. Body was drained. 

Here I am day after the 2nd surgery with 10 stitches.

June 22. A 10 stitcher. 
My next photo I trust will be CANCER FREE.

Rhys 1. Cancer 0. Another podium in this race we call life. #FUQCANCER