Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Hope-The Thing With Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,- Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was an odd poetic girl... an extreme introvert who overwhelmed by her emotions writing far too many poems about immortality and death. The few poems she published in her lifetime were heavily edited to fit the tastes of her times better... But at the end of the day, she lived a lot of life of fear because she struggled with illness most of her life, one school year only able to attend 11 weeks due to it. She was fortunate enough to come from a family with the finances to make some of that possible...

I am not great poet, not even a good writer but I admire the fact that even in her illnesses, in her fear of death and in her overwhelmed approach by hers and those around her, Ms. Dickinson often wrote of hope that perched in the soul. Still, she'd be overwhelmed by the death of friends like one at age 25 who died of a brain congestion. So even though she wrote precious truths about hope... she also acknowledged the heavier ones like death. I talk/think about the Grand Canyon experience here and there but maybe if the universe is kind enough, I'll get braver then that and keep going without stopping and echo Ms. Dickinson's statement "because I could not stop for death, it kindly stopped for me." Still, I wonder if her approach of being mostly secluded (she asked her sister that upon her death she destroy her poems) as opposed to my approach of being too wide open... which one shows the more damaged heart or  brain. 

But those of us who struggle with common or uncommon illnesses at any age and certainly at a young one, if we are at all human, we have fear but if we are to have a chance, we must also have hope. I have said and done stupid things with the fear of this cancer especially around the medical appointments... I have enough faith in the human heart that even when the brain is screwed up believe that we have capacity to make good choices. Still, with awareness that the human condition is at best deeply flawed, when I do make mistakes of what I say and do, all I can do is acknowledge them, apologize and not try to pretend to be a victim of my own fears or disease. Whatever I've learned through these last few years, I hope to keep. We had a question an answer period during the speech where someone asked how this has changed my perspective... and I talked about how after I won the half marathon this year, I called Kiana to tell her about it and she told me about the butterflies she'd seen and boy was that a great perspective!

So even when I was cleared to drive, it took me a few days to do so. But the first place I drove myself to... was a running party. And the second place I drove to was a kid's birthday party for Kiana. So driving to parties with friends shows our priorities. It didn't take me long to realize what the real function of cars was and took mine and Kiana's bike to the velloway (a 3.1 mile track for bikes) to ride it together for the first time. She fell once because instead of keeping her eyes on a new path she wanted to check out the flowers, we had to walk the bikes up a steep hill in there, it rained on us a bit. Still when it was all over, I took her back to the place where she'd fallen and in a safer fashion checked out the flowers. And it is my hope that no matter what else either of us do for the rest of our lives... we catch moments like smelling flowers.

As with anyone's life, there are changes. The saint of a friend who has lived with me for a while has decided to move on closer to work and a real adult life instead of one with a single dad whose house shuts down quietly. I get worried about this with my medical issues but as I try to find a solution, I'm greatful it's been a long long time since I've woken up in an ambulance and am comforted by the fact that Kiana's getting older. As I wake up to the fact that I haven't had a girlfriend since high school and am open to it for the first time, I wonder if I have any clue how to actually date someone. Livestrong has invited me to speak in a couple of weeks to many of their volunteers (I'm working on that speech so if you have any great tips let me know). I still haven't put gas in my car but looking at the prices as I drive around makes me realize that maybe my reduced medical payments will be replaced with gasoline bills. I have zero road races that I'm signed up for in the future but my first triathlon in a couple of weeks and doing the spartan workouts of the day trying to prepare for the first of those since September of last year... I realize I'm so financially behind that I sat down with a job recruiter but it makes me nervous because, well I sat through multiple court hearings where someone thought I shouldn't be raising my daughter and part of my sales pitch was the fact that I was a full time dad and that there was a back up adult there. Whether the person who asked for the custody changes, the judge or myself will see it differently if all of a sudden I'm a working person at a new job and the other home option is an established relationship with two adults... So with each of these changes or possibilities of changes, there are hopes and fears and no guarantees of which one will win out.

Still, while holding on to hopes of beating this cancer, I keep betting on the odds knowing good and well that there are people who I met who in one set of appointments was fine and at the next one had a growth and had a few weeks or months left. But I also remember what my statistics teacher used to say... that statistics are like bikins, what they reveal is interesting but what they conceal is vital... and I am glad to have had experiences and people in my life who are better than great bikinis.

And because of that I keep holding onto hope in many areas.  Because if there's anything I learned from the cowardly approach to dating I've taken since getting left in the middle of cancer, it's that there is more there than I once believed was possible, probable or wanted. Whether or not I'll find someone to match... well nobody gets that guaranteed. There's been jokes from friends about what my pick up line should be from "I've won a marathon and can break a five minute mile so I'm good for all night or a quickie" to "I won a half marathon but with you I'd go all the way." I've always said my  pick up line was "so you want to date a single unemployed dad with cancer who can't drive?"... yeah no wonder I'm single ;). But at least the last line is out now. But if I manage to find someone whose ready to be my girlfriend well... I imagine if it has any chance of lasting it will be because they can sign up for a mess while holding hands and holding hope.

Because I am going to see my brothers this weekend for Easter and all 3 of us will be together for the first time since Duke... Because the crowd from Beaumont was here for a race and I got to have dinner with them...

Because Kiana had a school field trip yesterday where she was fascinated by caves... because she watched a terra forming tree this morning... Because the sun still rose today... in all of those things and many more great ones that have along the way... they still perch in my soul and sing without words and I hope they never stop at all.

Friday, April 11, 2014


Three and a half years I’ve been dealing with cancer… and I like to think that the days that I’ve been missing my drive are rare. They have occurred but they are the exception. But a harsh truth is that the vast majority of the time that one of the symptoms, side effects and how I found out I had cancer was from seizures… which mean that the vast majority of the days while I’ve had cancer, I have not been able to drive behind the wheel of a car.

Even though I know I don’t handle pre medical appointment days at my emotional personal best… I try to be aware of it. While there has been progress on how I handle it (it probably helps there are less these days and as I’ve shared with my doctors, the less I see them, the more I like them). Those nights are usually filled with bad dreams, nightmares of appointments and various past issues from waking up in an ambulance or the life changes that have come with it. When I was in Minnesota during the Q&A, someone asked what the most stressful point was… and I responded with one of the two, the fact that both times I’ve woken up in an ambulance it was not too long after a good run. The first one was literally the day after I was in the lead of a training run for the first time since college. The second was a few days after I’d taken home a trophy for the cancer survivor division while I was in the lead in the middle of a 10 mile training run. Both times I felt fine a few minutes later and both times we were then having to try to figure out why, do tests, do blood work etc. Dealing with various cancer patients, many of us struggle with the fact that we’re fighting a disease that for way too many of us comes with no “tangible” symptoms of warning. For me, it’s literally knocked me out cold. The second, which also knocked me cold, was my marriage ending shortly after… Still, answering that in a crowd full of strangers some of which were just kids didn’t seem appropriate.

Still, the day of the medical stuff, where I try to face it as well as I can… I was below average at my parenting approach. There was nothing horrible but that morning Kiana was getting redirected a lot in a snapping fashion about getting up, getting ready, finishing breakfast. I am sad to admit that it wasn’t until my roommate pointed it out that I noticed it and sat Kiana on my lap and with a hug and a kiss and no excuses, I simply said “Look, I’m sorry I’ve been rushing you too much. I have to see my doctors today but that doesn’t make me  being rude okay.” The guilt would sit there through the morning adding to the anxiety… but while cancer may have be the case, I take full responsibility for how I handle it, trying to remember an adage from a high school assembly that emotions are horrible masters but we have to figure out how to make them good servants.

Then it was finally time to head out. We all have different ways of handling our demons… but I decided to take a slightly circuitous route on my bike the way to the hospital where I’d see the restaurant I first collapsed at, the hospital, the place I used to work, the MRI location. I couldn’t settle the emotions of whether the right move was to give them a middle finger or a nod of thanks of sorts… neither occurred.
Still, there were various reasons for the appointment with the neuro oncologist. The primary ones were of course medical but in April my doctor also has to fill out a summary to send to Kiana’s mother for the custody arrangement so that was part of the discussion. Since the increase of medication in December the seizures have held, he talked to me about some law change in legislature regarding seizures and while I didn’t catch all the details, I thought the appointment was going to end with him telling me I could drive in May and he said I could start driving now. Even as I had hoped that he’d allow me to do so in May, the way I would say it to anyone I loved hearing that I was in shock but I am not even sure if it was a good or bad one. There are zero appointments that I assume will go well but as I was getting ready for this one, I saw my bow tie hanging in the closet I realized this is the only one of my doctors I don’t have a picture with. His signature is that he wears bow ties because being Dr. Valiant, he is brave enough to realize that bow ties are cool. I grabbed mine and said, okay, if the appointment goes well we’re taking a picture together… you can decide whether we look more like Chippendales or Donald duck.

After the medical stuff and after the picture was taken, we took those human moments where I shared with him the Minnesota speech (https://www.facebook.com/notes/iram-j-leon/minnesota-speech/10153993565360554) and Minnesota Article (http://www.postbulletin.com/sports/localsports/runner-confronts-toughest-obstacle-brain-cancer/article_57668089-d130-5f9a-bd5c-fcb16e6472e7.html ). He told me about a new brain tumor support group the hospital is starting and invited me to it’s opening event (I’ll be there). He asked about my next race and I told him the next one was my first triathlon and turns out as I knew, we’re both runners and we’re both horrible at swimming.

Still, when I left there, the shock factor hadn’t set in and I didn’t have anywhere to be for a couple of hours so I got on the bike and just rode and rode and rode. I rode past the physical therapist I was seeing a few years back, the old doctor’s offices that I had to go to, and in the only place I actually said thank you to was past the hospital where Kiana was born. Then I stopped and the next conversation was with my neuropsychologist… where we discussed what I will always call cheating and what he will always call compensating. I talked about some of the games I do which didn’t seem to be translating into real life… he said that the issues I was describing were still consistent with temporal lobe and hippocampal damage. He shared the story about rats who get lost and how they tried to show them new things in a maze and thought they had actually gave them back a sense of direction but then realized they were just using the light shadows… (this is similar to what I do where when I get lost, I listen for the sound of one of the major highways in town as a way to reorient). We talked about the listening to books thing and the adding distractions etc etc etc but the grand conclusion was that while nothing  had gotten worse, nothing had gotten better and it likely would never do so though I always try to find the glimmers of hope because the conversation ended with (if I hear of any new research on this, I’ll pass it on). In perhaps a completely hypocritical stance (when friends tell me that nothing’s improved on their cancer/other medical issues), I try to remind them to be grateful that at least things are stable. But I work harder on the mental issues than anything else… so it was disappointing.

Still, sad about one thing in shock about another, but ultimately grateful for it all, I went to my track workout and did 4 mile repeats. Then in what can really only be called an extended apology Kiana got to stay up 15 minutes later than usual to play uno and go fish.

 And the next day, on my first day cleared to drive, I did not do so. Part of that is I’m not 16 anymore and didn’t feel the urgency to tear up the road the first day I got it. Part of that was insurance, batteries etc had to get into place. But most of it was just  nervousness that maybe driving stick was harder than I remember. But because I do have a triathlon in 3 and half weeks, for the first time in my life, I swam, biked and ran all in one day (this is going to be a tough event).

It is my hope that I will continue to drive as little as possible but that I’ll keep the drive that was partly a reaction to that big medical restriction. But it may well say something, that the first place I drove to was a running party at a bar though I did not drink (where I still paralleled park successfully on the first try, but still almost got a ticket for not placing something correctly). And call it being cautious or cowardly, but I'm going to mostly stick to parking lots and streets rather than highways for a bit. And when Kiana found out I could drive, she didn't care that much when I said we were still going to walk most places like we've gotten used to... I think the first place she'll get driven to

The question is often asked, what drives you? And for me for most of the last 3.5 years, in cars, it’s literally been someone else most of the time. The joke someone made that my pick up line of “can you pick me up” is no longer valid and someone reminded me of something I said that if all went well I’d start thinking about getting a girlfriend (I didn’t get one that day nor do I currently have one but I am more open to the idea and there will be no one I ever call a George Clooney girl again).

But the most important thing was that the day after the medical appointment, Kiana and I played pick up sticks, go fish, uno, and did art. After she’d beat me enough times, she eventually said that was fun but could she read extra.  She talked about her next race, the school carnival, these onions she’s picking at school. And as we laughed with less stress and no need to apologize… even if they ever take the right to drive away again, I hope we both keep the drive about life going.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

No Fool's Errand

When I was first invited a few months ago to speak at the Fools Five Road Race in Lewiston Minnesota, I thought it would be a privilege and an opportunity to be part of an 8k that raised money against cancer but even so I had no idea how great of an event I’d signed up for.

I may have arrived in the middle of a snow storm, dropping 50 degrees from what Austin had been. There I saw more snow in one day than the rest of my life combined but that was the way only way you could argue there wasn’t enough warmth there. The events started with an auction or three. Balancing cancer for most of us is no small act but these guys showed a balance and dexterity, with a silent auction, a local live auction, and another live auction. While the official gain would be achieved in a few hours, the amount and quality of items that would reach into the 10’s of thousands of dollars had obviously been the result of work of a few months. While that alone is impressive, somewhere the organizers had these three separate auctions to openly let everyone know that one of those three auctions, the local live one would be raising money for helping people in the area going through medical with the various bills that cancer racks up much too fast. The lion’s share would go to cancer research but realistically some of those funds will help only future patients so the organizing committee shifted in dealing with both the here and now and the yet to come. Having been to events that had each of those components, it was the first time that had both in one weekend. The symmetry and harmony they did that with may have been less emotional that the rivalry of bids that came in for Vikings seats, homemade cookies, pounds of meat, tools and perhaps would have been my favorite if I’d gotten to try one, pastries literally made in the back kitchen that created a bidding war where pastry puffs went for over $300 a dozen. While it was clear both their hearts and the pastries that were that good… I'll not know which was better but I’m glad I got to experience the former (though I would have taken experiencing both).  Still, if that wasn’t enough, there was something about that sense of community demonstrated by the laughing, the jostling and perhaps the fact that it took me quite an effort to find even a handful of people on their cell phone in a room of a few hundred people because they were interacting with each other the good old fashioned way. 

When race day arrived, the weather had shifted to where it was both warm but windier. In an attempt to be witty, the draft of my speech said “Wise men say only fools rush in but it’s a blast to be here at fool’s five.” It turned out to literally be a serious draft with some incredibly strong wind. The race was an out and back where somehow it literally felt like the turn around you were coming up hill and into the wind. Before the race, I’d heard stories about how one year it was so windy  that one woman talked about how she had just run still for a bit and another one about how somehow had gotten blown into the ditch. Before running it, I assumed those were exaggerations now I’m not so sure. Still… giving it what I had… I managed to come in 4th place out of nearly 3100 (that felt appropriate since the race started on April fools, the logo has a four toed foot on it to see who would notice). While there are people who will focus on the 4th place, I was amazed that in a town of 1600 people, there were nearly twice as many participants in the race. I’ve done many races but I can’t think of any that got close to the population of the town that hosted it much less nearly doubled it! There were people on that course running in wheelchairs.  Perhaps because it was an out and back or because of the nature of the community that was the most strollers I’d ever seen.  There were walkers/runners who chose to express their loss of family members through being part of the event. And it was impressive to watch the enthusiasm that community that community expressed when the female winner came in, a 10 year old girl doing it in 31 minutes and change. Let me rephrase that, it was a 10 year old girl winning an 8k in 31 minutes and change! 

The good times of this year at the race, at the auctions just show a great history. The race had started back in 1979 where with about 200 runners they had raised about $2000 on April fools. Here, three decades later they are closer to hitting the 2 million dollar mark and there are quite a few people who have never missed a year. It’s a race with a $10 entry fee and between all of the events and festivities, in 2014 they had raised over $90 thousand dollars.

They’ve had a Minnesota Viking out there to speak before, a winner of the London marathon… and trying to follow up the stage with those would have been intimidating enough but just knowing what this community had done for so long, I wondered if I was necessary at all. I talked about that it was a race like this, the brain power 5k, the first race after brain surgery that helped me realize it wasn’t time to hang up the cleats. With that sentiment, I wore the shirt from that race. Still I shared my story, my pictures, my jokes… and when it was all done, there were a few people in the audience crying because it had been so bad and they all stood up clapping in relief when I was done. Afterwards, it was a question and an answer time but somehow no one asked for my number… But while I’ve gotten to hand out finisher’s medals,  those don’t come in an 8k but they were kind enough to let me place the medals of people who had placed including my friend Kate who herself had won the girls division  of the brain power 5k.

The guy with memory problems will not forget many things about this weekend. Realizing I was surrounded by angels, I tried to fit in by making one in the snow. There was a tour of an Amish home and community, a house sitting on a frozen lake. Still, perhaps my favorite memory will be during the question and answer time… when someone asked when I started running. Just as they said that a small child ran across the gym floor in front of me… and I said “right then, just like everyone else here.There are some things you may have to grow up and grow out of them but moving’s not one of them.” Their logo this year was your life, your journey, every step counts. That little girl was getting it down and the community had gotten it right for almost 4 decades. I’m glad we got to share some of those steps. Great hosts, great people, and a great event. If a town that size with 1600 people have established that committed people fighting cancer is not a fool's errand.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Step by Step

The beauty of my life is something I think about often. It living one foot in front of the other with someone you love. The Head for the Cure’s logo paralleled that well with their idea that they are defeating brain cancer step by step so I was glad when Kiana decided to take the step of trying another 5k with them.
Kiana started her second 5k day ready and full of energy. She seemed very eager to get going at the Head for the Cure, jumping around some of the military bases exercise machines, saying hello to people. The night before we’d kept the tradition of laying out our outfit and bib’s the day before and I threw in a little surprise for her. The little girl whose fascinated by butterflies got a small medal one pinned to her bib where her dad dared to dreamed it would help her take flight for 5000 kilometers.

She wanted to start out near where most of our friends were. Most of them are fast runners near the front and while I talked her into backing up a little we didn’t back up enough. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree and she repeated the rookie mistake her dad usually does, for the first 1/3 to ½ mile we were going way too fast… I reached out to hold her hand oddly enough to get her to slow down at first. But by mile one we were on pace…

She started commenting on the blue bonnets, the planes, and the people we knew and for a few seconds here and there singing… I took that as a good sign that she wasn’t over exerting herself if she had the wind for that. Still when we were enough laps (the way she measures distance) to where we were half way through, she declared that she wanted to get a faster one than before and if I could help. She held hands with me some of the time and there were definitely points where it was questionable who was dragging who to maintain pace. I offered to get her water at the waterstop but Ms. Independent said she’d get it on her own and impressively managed to drink while not changing her step, something she’d never done before.

This course had more downhill and uphill than her previous 5k and it was my privilege to hear her share thoughts about the people who passed us and who we passed on the course. There was a guy in a wheelchair going up a hill and she said, “I think that’s harder than you pushing me in a stroller.”
When there were “2 laps to go,” she asked “where’s the finish line?” the same thought I seem to say when I’m near the end of races that end on a curve.  But once she saw it she bolted it in and beat her previous 5k time by over 40 seconds. How she moved like that on legs that small was impressive.

We checked in with teammates, most of which were people who had run the race but others who had volunteered for it and others who had even come in from out of town to cheer Kiana on and even grandma who had “cheered” by walking her own 5k a few hundred miles away in honor of her granddaughter. 4 teammates had won their age group. One was proud of herself because she had thought about walking at several points but never had. She also has brain cancer and we’ve talked about how her stubbornness to keep going like that has served her well.

Kiana would run and play with the bluebonnets and military displays. There would be people who would share their journey with me. Many, if not most, of the people who were sharing were new to this brain cancer experience either personally or by connection. I remember the loneliness when I found this out of how hard it was to have no one to talk to about it that “understood.” They shared stories of their medical treatment or of someone passing, one as recently as 8 days before from brain cancer. There’s no good way to deal with all this but my experience has certainly been that sharing some of it is better than doing it alone.  Because while I have lots of good friends who have been beside me every step of the way, there is something special about sharing it with those who “understand” because they have taken very similar steps ahead of you or know they are a few similar steps behind you.

The event would raise over 200K and have about 1700 participants. I had been part of a great time and volunteered in packet pick up. And then if those things weren’t enough, they would post the kids results  and Kiana would be ranked at the top of her age group, girls nine and under. As always  keeping in perspective, she was excited to get the medal but was also excited the wind was picking up and that she would get to fly her new kite that day.

There are steps next to Kiana, friends and family that seem to fly with the grace of butterflies. There have been others on this brain cancer journey where it feels like outside forces are pulling you till your strings end and you just enjoy the ride. Head for the Cure says that we are “defeating brain cancer step by step.” I don’t know how far a cure is but I think that 5k event on that day alone took several steps that showed we’re defeating brain cancer.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Winning Isn't Everything

Vince Lombardi quoted the old adage that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Since then it has been played with by many people I know to where I’ve seen the adage transformed to various things like

1)      Whoever said winning isn’t everything probably lost
2)      Whoever said winning isn’t everything obviously never had cancer
3)      Winning isn’t everything but it beats anything that comes in second.

Anyone who believes they are not not have ever been competitive is well… tricking themselves at best. Because as an old preacher once reminded me, for almost all of us, “at the beginning of life there was a swim meet and there were millions of other swimmers all racing for the goal, and you won.”

The balance of the counter phrase of it’s not whether you win or lose it’s how you play the game. The truth, to me, lies somewhere in the middle. In school I won some competitions both athletic and academic and even broke some records. But as an adult, it occurred to me after the Gusher Half marathon win that there have been ZERO wins and PR’s on the same race. Every time I’ve had my fastest time it wasn’t one I won, it was in a race where someone was close and I was trying to catch them or not let them catch me. Every time it’s been a win, some have been close to the fastest but none have. Even at track workouts, my friends have noticed that when I pass a group of people I speed up for a short burst. In races even if I’m feeling tired, I never ever look back because anyone whose ever done that to me ‘inspires’ me to run up next to them for a while and see which one of our competitiveness breaks first. It’s perhaps why one of my absolute favorite gifts is the “make him work for it” shirt that I wear for Spartans.

But competiveness doesn’t just occur in sports for those who criticize it there. There are no job interviews or elections or restaurants that unless they are the only choice aren’t obviously competing to be the choice. We may try to make those more polite than calling them a competition by saying this was the best fit but there is still still someone who walks away with the prize they were seeking and someone who doesn’t.

The balance of when to turn that competitive fight down matters to me. Every year since cancer started I sign up for a new event that I’ve never done before to remind myself that no matter how good of shape I may be in running, one of the other events quickly reminds me, I’m a long way from Kansas. Two years ago it was the 100 mile bike ride, last year it was the Spartans. There is no commitment yet this year (and I’ll be doing those other ones again) but the one I’m considering is trying my first triathlon. I went and did laps for the first time in 14 years a couple of weeks ago (not once since then, perhaps reminding me that no matter how good your heart and lungs are, you still have to remember to breathe). A few laps into it, I definitely questioned how I was a good enough swimmer to be the one who came out the winner out of a few million ever.

And I’ve been reprimanded for this but I try to also have a balance of the competitiveness that I encourage in Kiana. In anything where I have simple advantage of winning just by size or age, I tone it down but when we play Uno or this pick up stick game she likes, she has won but never by me letting her. When she’s frustrated at something, I let her do it as long as she will and then some to where she learns to be independent because whether or not I’ll be around, I believe my job in parenting is first to give her roots and then give her wings… Still, some of the simple things I’ve learned to do like braid her hair or read, she now wants to do by herself most of the time and I can’t say I’m not a little heart broken each time she passes on the opportunity. But the one thing she still likes the competiveness in me and where she always wants to win is where when I joke that I love the stroller or the puppy more than she, she jumps in immediately and says “No you love me more than anyone in the whole world.” And she’s right and I appreciate I suppose the simplicity of her being an only child. 

[With that said, there isn't a single time I've talked where I haven't bragged about my mom doing her first 5k and half marathon at age 60. And while we're bringing up family, I’ve been trying to challenge my little brother David to a Spartan sprint. I’m the middle child and while he’s taller, stronger, smarter, cuter and probably my mom’s actual favorite,  we’ll see how we compete in a race that’s throwing us both off balance. He hasn’t accepted yet but maybe he will now that I’ve called him out on my blog ;) I’ve been trying to get other people to do Spartans as well. It’s not as clean or predictable or nice as road races but somehow it feels like my life; I suck at dealing with the messiness and I screw up some of the obstacles but you keep going.]

I even add this competiveness to simple things. When Kiana had school pictures, I took one that day saying I was sure it’d be cuter than the one the school photographer took. Well, turns out I was wrong… his was better but they were both good pictures so I’ll take it as a win/win. And when she came home with her class picture the same day, I said (perhaps with bias), you’re the cutest smartest girl in your whole class. She pointed at a little boy and said “he said I was the cutest girl in the whole school.” Half serious, half jokingly, out of protective fatherhood, out of realizing that I’d been one upped by a first grader, I said smiling “Don’t ever talk to that boy again.” And clearly she has no respect for my authority because the very next day she was talking to him!?!  Her next report card is coming soon and on the last one she had perfect attendance, straight A’s and was noted for sometimes having a little bit of attitude. I think this one will be somewhere close and I’m hoping she keeps all three attributes but just aims them in the right direction.

March Madness has not gone the way I hoped as I picked Duke to win it all again and they got eliminated in the first round (since Duke treated me for brain cancer I keep picking them hoping to get a refund but when they lost I comfort myself by saying they were too focused on saving lives). Either way March, I assume will start and end will, with a half marathon win. Last night, one of the older guys at the ship who qualified for Boston (with a slower time than me since it’s age graded) poked at my competitiveness and said that he was faster than me. Let’s just say it riled me up enough to where I turned on the jets for the timed mile and for the third year in a row broke a 5 minute mile at 4:59. That gets a little less impressive to people because in 2012, I said for the first time since high school I broke a five minute mile. Last year I said for the first time since last year and this year well it’s just the third year in a row.  The first year was the only year I trained out right for it and all three years I’ve coughed longer after than I did to run it. But somewhere that competitive streak it feels good to still be keeping up with me.

But last week I did a radio interview for this weekend’s race the Head for the Cure race (headforthecure.org) and yesterday I did a tv one. As I said there and here, last year I took second in that race but this year I’m running it not behind a stroller but next to Kiana. And this year will be a lot more fun. I looked way better in the radio one but then afterwards Kiana did a track workout of two miles. And when she was done, she said, I hope to do this one about as fast as I did the last one but I don’t want you to tell me till the end… and I nodded ... and smiled.

I certainly am not of the camp that winning is or isn’t everything. I am actually fairly proud that the records I made that none of them stood too long because I generally interpret records sometimes show an exemplary individual but normally just an atypical one anatomically or circumstantially. I’d rather be the who worked hard enough with what he had to get to the next level and then someone similarly said, I’ve got what it takes to beat that and then they did. But as I’ve said in many interviews and on here is that if all I’ve learned from all this is that if everything goes wrong and I’m not standing in a few years or if everything goes right and I’m thriving and all I did was spend more time with people I love, that’s a win/win. I've been there in the hospital trying to figure out finances or the tournament I was supposed to be running or the race I was supposed to be training for. And those things mattered but I've also been at the hospital both at the beginning and the end of people's cancer journeys... and those with friends somehow were more comfortable at both than those that were just looking for laptops or remembering trophies. It doesn't have to be one or the other but to me,
as long as I've got to keep loving someone, putting one foot in front of the other, I hope I keep remembering those are my winning's and that is everything.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Paths Led by Example

I’m not much of an original thinker… all of the best entries in here seem to be ones referencing and reflecting a good poet, a good song, a good poem, a good show. Even all the things where I’ve been trying to be helpful with various organizations, it is just asking to be told how to help and what to do. But when your brain and memory are damaged, you learn to accept that.

 Sometimes I have to learn from my own mistakes, from my own past poor decision making. But while I’m a fan of the old adage, learn from your mistakes, I’m a much much bigger proponent of learning from other people’s mistakes since I don’t have enough time to make them all on my own. However, what I keep trying to find ways where the example of what to follow is what to do rather than what not to do. Generally the bigger emphasis in world religions, the pictures up on the gym, the political circle is be like this person cause they did it right rather than don’t be like the person who did it wrong. Both are there but the emphasis I think is in the right place.

I’ve gotten some nice messages for a new habit I’ve developed of running people in their races. Until October of 2013 at the run for the Water (read that, less than six months ago), I had never paced anyone in for a race. Some races that I did my training in required extra mileage and on those I ‘d go back out half the distance and then come back in. It wasn’t until someone paced me in, in September, when I was struggling during a race of my own that idea occurred to me and my friend Matt Naylor had paced me in other marathons as far back as 2010! Since then, every race I’ve done if I have extra distance, I go out till I see a friend run them in and then repeat till I can’t or the distance is covered (both have occurred) but I’ll tell you that’s a lot more fun and rewarding for both me and them.

People have been said kind words about me handing out finishers medals, with Gusher literally waiting until the last finisher. While I appreciate the kindness, let me point out that the first time I ever handed a medal to someone at the end of a race was a Spartan race in December of 2013, about 3 months ago. The reason for that was because in my first Spartan, Alexander Nicholas a guy who owns a gym in New York, is one of the highest ranked Spartan guys (won his age group at the Championship and the charity race the next day) (If you want to read his blog of our race together http://liveepicbeepic.com/texas-spartan-race-with-iram-leon/). But after he’d slowed down to put up with a chump on the Spartan course, he had the kindness to hand me the medal and somehow it was then I realized getting it from someone who’d shared some of the journey with you made the finish line that much greater. So when Kiana went to do her Spartan and my friend Megan went to go do her first, I gave them both their medals.

That’s where the idea of volunteering at Gusher and Austin to hand out medals came from. But not only that, the idea of sticking around till the last finisher came from John Conley, the director of the Austin Marathon whose body got much faster marathons than I ever have and whose brain is still better than mine ever was makes it his tradition to finish with the last finisher after he’s been up since the crack of dawn helping run the event.

And even though I’ve taken some compliments for going and finishing with my mom on her first half marathon, I think she should be a lot more proud that she pushed Kiana in a stroller before I did. But I hope that some of this learning is passing on to my daughter. She did her first 5k a little over a month ago and the
next race I was going to be doing with a stroller (headforthecure.org) she realized when and I quote “oh it’s just a 5k, I’ll run it next to you.” And I am pretty doggone excited about that; because of that decision, we had both an extra fun track workout together and an extra long time on the school playground.  I am not a perfect parent; most days I question if I’m even a good one. But I do know one thing, reflected in a fortune cookie she got recently that went in the “keep it forever” pile. She’s a lot more likely to follow my path than she is just what I say, whether it’s good or bad. And honestly, it would have been nice to try to win that 5k but I still believe that Kiana will one day realize how dorky her dad is and won’t be asking me to walk or run with her anywhere so some things you enjoy while they last. And when I saw her smiling at her school’s track and field day, I knew I had to be getting parenting right at some level.

I've certainly struggled in life as we all do trying to find our own path.  I hope I don’t ever ecome a person who tries to placate everyone and neglect the self basics because that would be pathetic. I hope I’ve never been and never will be a person who put themselves above all others without regard to anyone because we also have a word for that path, socipathic. How to balance living for others and living for yourself is more a a dance than a march....While I’ve been accused of marching to the beat of my own drummer (and yes I know that there are times where conformity is necessary and important) I much prefer to march to my own banjo. But while I’ve danced many styles, my least favorite is line dancing and my  favorite are the ones where you flow with others whether that be in a duet or a bigger group setting. And neither in dancing nor in life does everything always line up but some of my happiest memories are the privilege of getting to hang with some people when you get a season or two in each other’s path or each other's dance floor. And there's some of those times I could have danced all night but even if things end, to me it's better than them not having happened.

Kiana recently dressed up as the cat in the hat from Dr. Seuss for a special day at school. He is one of Kiana’s and my personal children’s author (an odd thing since he had no kids). One of the teachers had a quote of his, I’d never seen, “Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” I like the attitude but the reason Dr. Seuss is my favorite is because I can’t think of any of his books from the Lorax, to the Cat in the Hat, to Mulberry Street where the participants aren’t happier, better people from having given or sharing their life experience. So while Seuss encouraged being yourself (and I agree with that since everyone else is taken), the lesson I read from his books is you do that and share it, which generally makes both paths better. No matter how good of a parent, spouse, friend, son anyone is some of life is lived alone but it takes a walk through a hospital nursery to realize that it’s far rarer than my cancer that from birth to death we don’t want to share it and for most of us, it’s usually only in trying to minimize our damage that we learn to retain more and more. And it’s taken a while but the healing that makes me cry the most is the one that let’s me cry at all.
So I am still trying to be led my example in many things… my doctor’s appointments are 3 weeks away and they may let me start driving. But I want to keep the lesson that maybe part of the reasons I am  surviving cancer is because that medical restriction made me move more and I am going to try to remember  to use the car on only things I would have had to get a ride for before because there are lots of people that minimize their car use to move more period and have no medical restrictions. My confidence on what I can do with memory issues and learning capacities is not high but perhaps if that restriction goes away… it’s time to start pondering whether or not I’d be a really good time to be the best janitor somewhere…

So the races will come and go as will life. And I am training for and speaking at the fools five race (foolsfive.org) in April a couple of days before my appointments. They are the first who asked me to bring pictures (if you want to see the “first draft” of the slideshow it’s up on facebook). And it takes me one second of looking at those pictures to realize that the only reason, the ONLY reason I’ve gotten anything right in life is because I was fortunate enough to meet good examples.  Those are the people the slide show has in the middle and at the end.The cookie said: example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing. I am fortunate I had some very good examples on my path. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Last But Not Least

There are exactly zero races that I'm not nervous about but returning to Beaumont for the Gusher Marathon weekend was one that I was less nervous than usual. Friends were asking what my goals were in regards to the race and the first time I'd gone in 2013, since it was the first time I'd run a marathon with a stroller, I had only one goal. So I decided that as far as the return race was concerned, I was going back for the same goal I went last time, just for the run of it. Like any race I thought about a PR goal time was or if I was trying to place but the simple truth is what I was most excited about was getting to say thank you. Not everyone would be there from the previous year but anyone who I could catch from the race directors, to the announcer, to the people on the bikes who had helped try to fix the flat stroller tir, to the spectators who had splashed me on a hot day. I went back with the goal to say thank you, thank you. And since that was the goal that had lasted with me the longest, I was the least nervous about this race because while there are no perfectly adequate ways to say thank you, it's rare that one is not appreciated.

There was a last moment change before I headed out there as the friend who was originally was taking me got sick and so I had to catch a last second ride shift from another shipmate Julie, who 3 weeks after her first marathon and a week after another race was kind enough to take me with the least notice possible (that morning). But we arrived for the Golden Triangle Stutters carbing up dinner where I got to see many people who once had been strangers but now were friends. Among them was Felix Lugo, the guy who had been the very last finisher of the Gusher marathon in 2013, when for his 50th marathon he had carried the American flag the entire way.

Race start came and it felt right that I was only going to be doing the half since I only had half the team there with Kiana being on spring break. For a guy whose ran 9 half and 9 fulls, you think I'd stop this rookie mistake of gunning out too fast but I was all by myself for the first mile closer to 5k pace. By mile 3 I'd buckled it down to pace. As I do often I brought heat with me and it60 degrees and 89 percent humidity but I was going. I could hear the footsteps behind me long enough to keep fear lasting. Eventually it would subside and while at 13.1 miles I have taken two seconds, a third and age group awards, it didn't become real to me that I might win a half marathon for the first time in my life till there was less than a mile to go. I was passing the 5ker's (who had a later start) as I finished it and they cheered with enough enthusiasm that it lifted my spirit up enough to where I cheesily jumped up and hit the time clock, just under 1:22, my second fastest half marathon. (One race director already told me if anyone breaks his clock by jumping and hitting the timer that he's blaming me.)

Keeping with tradition, I went and vomited a few times after finishing but then it was time to get back to what I'd come to do, to say thank you. So before the clock had gotten to 1:30, I was sitting there handing out medals, hugging people. There were half marathoners finishing, full marathoners crossing the first lap since it's a double loop course. It's only the second time I've ever handed out medals in a race but it seems that in these long distance races, it must be a requirement to be cute and/or charming because everyone who came across the line was. I got to watch a 9 year old boy (NINE!) finish his first half marathon, a 15 year old finishing his first lap with his father right by his side, a woman who carried her baby for the entire 13.1 miles (not in a stroller mind you, actually carrying the baby). A young lady from Ainsley's Angels pushing another adult who was unable to run for the entire half. There were guys and ladies there getting PR's finishing with fist pumps and tears (some of each gender doing one or the other, one person doing both). And somewhere before the time the marathon winner came in just over the 3:00 mark, I saw a guy who I absolutely had to get the honor of putting his medal on when he finished. We'd never met briefly but Ruben was a guy who had not been at Gusher in 2013 but when he'd heard about Kiana's win, dedicated a 10 hour run in our honor. We'd communicated in the digital world but that's never as good as real life. I high fived him and said see you next time you get around to here. The race director said he'd signed up late and all of a sudden, I knew I could wait to hug and medal a guy who had come all the way from my home country in Mexico to do the 2014 edition.

Eventually after the half marathoners were done and the marathoners were on their way to the second lap, the "restricted" finish line area got more relaxed. Still we watched marathon maniacs complete their bijillionth marathon, someone who had finished her second one in six days, and even got to watch Olympian Jeff Galloway who had ran the entire course next to his wife coming in about 5:20. Husbands, brothers, friends, wives, granddaughters wanted to be there to be one of if not the first person to receive them at the finish line. Invariably, I would ask them if they wanted to be the one who handed their significant other their medals, a surprise request for most that made them glow and their significant others smile even more at the finish. While most said yes, a few said, "you medal them, I get the first sweaty hug or kiss after." And I did and they did.

Most of the participants were 5k or half marathoners so it kept getting a little more spread out and the six hour cap was almost hitting. Someone told the race director the last marathoner was Ruben and I asked if I could run out to him and bring him in (another volunteer was originally going to be the sweeper). He graciously agreed but then Amie pointed out, are you going to be able to not get lost doing the course backwards and she threw me on the back of a motorcycle where I held on for dear life and she dropped me
off. Ruben and I would do the last two miles where he would tell me about other races about how he'd upgraded his vice from drinking to running. He's done ultras even up 50 milers. His events are longer and more frequent than mine have ever been. And yet somehow for the last quarter of mile he bolted into a sprint which I wasn't expecting which he finished smiling as I did with him. He'd once ran 10 hours in honor of a stranger who had won Gusher in 2013. In 2014's Gusher, I can't imagine a greater honor than having finished with this friend and giving him his medal. He may have been the last but he definitely wasn't least.

After wrapping up at the finish line, I called Kiana to let her know I won (if nothing keeps your reality in check, a 7 year old will.)

Me:I won the half marathon
Kiana: Oh you won your division?
Me: No I won the race
Kiana: Like you won your age group?
Me: No I won the half marathon.
Kiana: Oh that's cool. I went to a butterfly garden today.
Me: Everyone says hi.
Kiana: Tell them hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi and tell yourself I love you.

I followed both directions and got her a little butterfly token.

While running is a joy of it's own, it's also good cross training for some other fun parts of life. The day would end with the post race party, the dancing (I saw a new two step that I'm going to market as the post long distance shuffle), the drinking, more thank you's. There's be many ladies and men I'd share the dance floor with but it was cool to share it.  And I would dance with the cute lady who had biked with me and Kiana in 2013, and with the cute lady that was the race director, and with the cute lady who had given me a ride.And for one day, I knew that this half marathon, like Gusher of 2013, would give me many memories, and I hope that even the least of them will last.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Measure A Year

March is a month that has been significant for three years running. I’ve blogged about it before (http://pickingupahitchhiker.blogspot.com/2013/03/march-forth.html). It’s a month that every year has had some impact for a while. In March 2011, I had brain cancer surgery followed by a few weeks of recovery and rehab. It tells you something about how quickly Kiana’s mother left that the divorce papers state that’s when we stopped living as a married couple despite the fact she was the last person I talked to before heading to brain surgery in that same month. One year later to the day, in March 2012, for the second time, I got to wake up in an ambulance in the middle of a 10 mile run followed by three weeks of medical tests. In March 2013, I had a marathon win followed by a couple of weeks of media while having custody hearings that suggested I was endangering my daughter by running with her in a race due to my medical issues. So far in March of 2014, all I did was a short run followed by 30 minutes of hold time regarding medical bills... That's all progress right?

Actually for a guy who doesn’t ever celebrate his birthday and wanted to skip his college graduation (I’m not very ceremonial), on Saturday I did my long run with a new route, simply running out to the hospital where this all started and back, passing twice by the place where they do my MRI’s, looking at the imaging building unsure whether to say thank you for the fact it’s been stable or flipping it the bird for the fact I have to check at all (I did neither but a couple of other cancer survivors and I mentioned how we’re shocked they don’t send us Christmas cards). These are my ceremonies, my quiet acknowledgements, and the truth is that run hasn’t been mentioned to anyone till now (here I hide again by sharing it with everyone). But my mother was in town and made a great breakfast. And as it’s true far too often, Kiana got a slightly more mischievous smile than usual when grandparents are in town. Maybe cutting up some mangoes with 3 generations is a better acknowledgement anyway.

I went dancing twice during the first weekend in March (I’ve gone dancing 5 times in the last 4 weeks and done only one race, someone tell me again what my favorite exercise is). One was a great house dance party, the other Texas Two Stepping… I went to church where I sat much further up than I usually do. I made some arts and crafts with Kiana. I started the month with people, friends and family I love and some with people I’d just met…. These are my ceremonies and I hope they will continue to be.

During the weekend, I also started working my playlist for the return to the Gusher Marathon. People have given me a hard time about the fact that I’m not running the marathon (which is tough because I love to defend titles, plus no one has ever won it two years in a row!!!) but I am sticking with the plan of doing the half. Because for me the truth will always be that I didn’t win that marathon, I came in second and so going with only half the team, I can only half accurately represent. But going back one year later,  I’ve added a song I’ve been listening to Rent’s 525,600 minutes (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hj7LRuusFqo).

In daylights, in sunsets
In midnights, in cups of coffee
In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife
In five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, a year in the life?
How about love?
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learned
in times that he cried
In bridges he burned or the way that she died
It's time now, to sing out
Though the story never ends
Let's celebrate
Remember a year in the life of friends

By truths Kians’s learned, by the times that I cry, in miles, laughter and strife, this is how I hope I keep measuring life,  I’ve turned down some cool races to do smaller ones with Kiana (the only one ever mentioned anywhere was mentioned outside of here so I’ll repeat, I passed up the New York Marathon). Trust me what I did that weekend and doing the 5 miler with Kiana around Central Park two weeks later was more than worth that choice. Oddly enough the weekends I’ve had the most conflicts (the only weekends I’ve had 3 invitations) were the ones of the Austin marathon where I wanted to be there both to do our first 5k with Kiana and to watch people I deeply care about finish their first marathon or their distance challenge or their PR. The second weekend with conflicts is this upcoming weekend of the Gusher Marathon. There was never a question that I’d be at either because I keep my commitments but more importantly because I’d rather hang out with friends for a few minutes at home than with famous people on any stage for hours. And both being Kiana’s sidekick in that 5k and the fact that I got to hand out medals at the Austin marathon and will get to do so at the Gusher race, well I’m glad to be the “lights and sound” on someone else’s stage for these races. Lights and sound are things you notice unless they do something wrong so I hope to get my “lights and sound” medal hanging done as well as I believe I did it in Austin.

In Rent, there are people struggling with AIDS. Now we can judge people with STD’s the way sometimes those with cancers who have a more active behavioral cause (smoking and lung cancer). I certainly am not afraid of being judged but I’m also a fan of the old idea that unless you have no sin, one shouldn’t be too in big of a hurry to be casting stones. There are those of my friends who remember a day where cancer had a bigger stigma than it has now… that’s still true in too much of Latin America, where my roots. But perhaps, showing where I used to work in juvenile probation, I wonder if we shouldn’t be more like those judges. The people on the bench certainly pass down judgment but they do it in hope and an active plan to be helpful. If I judge just to feel better about my choices… I’m not sure that we’re in that separate of camps where our actions and attitudes are about helping ourselves just to feel good. Anyway… how did I go off on that tangent…

Here in 2014, I am glad the first two months have started more calmly than ever. In March of 2014 unlike pass years, there are no medical appointments, no court sessions, no marathons. But if all goes well, in March there will be dancing, people whose company is amazing during the talking, during the listening, during the quiet. The biggest fight I'll have is watching Kiana guard her hot chocolate when I ask for some it. Three years since brain surgery today and I hope this March is kind of a calm one. Either way, I am glad and grateful to have gotten to measure one more year of life.