If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse. – Jim Rohn
This blog post has been a long time coming. It’s been really hard to put this out there for reasons that will be abundantly clear. So, here’s where my journey’s taken me over the last few months.
When I was selected to join the MS Run the US Relay I had grand plans. It was truly the kind of perfect opportunity that life rarely, if ever, offers. When I thought about it, I could feel a surge of adrenaline pump through me. My mind spun with the possibilities, all of the amazing things I was going to do. Not only was I going to run my segment, I was going to run it with style. I was going to kick this thing in the ass! 7 marathons in 7 days. Could I do them all under 3:30? All under 8:30 min/mile? 8:00? 7:30? I joined the Relay for the cause and for my mom, but my ego quickly hopped on board too. I can’t deny that a part of my savored the attention this was sure to garner, the spectacle of it all. I liked being a part of something so over-the-top.
But it seems the fates had other plans for me. In my first blog post I wrote of the MS Relay that it would be the hardest thing I had ever done both physically and mentally. I was far more right than I knew. But not for the reasons I thought. A few weeks after joining the Relay I woke up one morning to find my entire upper back was pretty much frozen. I could barely move my head. It wasn’t that painful, but clearly something was very wrong. It was Saturday. No doctor or chiropractor was open. The schedule called for a 20 miler. So, I did what any good runner would do: I went running. As a concession to reason and common sense I took a phone and vowed to call my wife to pick me up if it got bad. 20 miles passed without me feeling the need to bail. The next day I did 13 miles. My back didn’t feel great, but I let my drive overpower my judgment. By Monday I couldn’t run 20 feet without significant pain. This was bad. A chiropractor convinced me not to run for a while. On Thursday I tried again, only to find myself walking back to the car after a mile and a half.
I felt defeated. That surge of adrenaline that I had felt was being replaced by a slow churning fear in the depths of my gut. I didn’t want to think about what this meant, but I couldn’t avoid it. Was this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity evaporating before my eyes? Was my Relay journey already over? My segment was three months away, not long at all given the training I had planned. I couldn’t afford to take much time off if I was to be ready for a 182 mile week, more than double my previous high mileage week. I spent a week just feeling sorry for myself. Resting and hoping to magically feel better.
Eventually I called Ashley, MS Run the US founder and the organizer of the Relay, to tell her what was going on. She is a great listener and her age belies a surprisingly deep wisdom. I told her that I felt “dishonest” continuing to ask for money. And she agreed that I should hold off with fund-raising for a while and see where this injury was going. But over the next few days, our talk was ever-present in my mind. Why did I feel dishonest? After a lot of time and reflection, I finally had to admit the real answer to myself: I had doubts about the Relay and about my back. Serious doubts. My mom has had three spinal surgeries. Was this it? Was this the beginning of the end for me? There was a part of me that had spun some very dark tales. I wasn’t at all sure that I could do the Relay anymore. A part of me wondered if I’d ever even run again.
Around the same time, another member of the Relay was diagnosed with a stress fracture. No running for 6 weeks. Ouch! But her reaction was the opposite of mine. She said “well, I guess this will give me more time to focus on fund-raising.” How could she be so positive about her injury when all I could do was be angry at my situation, scared for my future and feel sorry for myself? But it made me stop and think. She planned to cross-train and stay fit until she could run again.. I had been so focused on what I couldn’t do. But I needed to be focusing on what I COULD do. Certainly I could do something. I could ride a stationary recumbent bike. So, I went to the gym that day and rode for an hour. As I sat there sweating and pushing those pedals round and round in little circles, I thought. I thought about why I was doing this Relay. For my mom. And for everyone living with MS. For all of those people who’ve come up and shared with me their stories of how MS has affected their lives and the lives of those they love. Those living with MS can’t just choose to wake up without it one day. They can’t just walk away. But I could. I could walk away. I could quit. I could give in to the doubt and the darkness and concede defeat. But what would it mean to those who wake up every morning and fight because they have no other choice? I was supposed to be fighting for them, pushing my body to do a marathon everyday as a symbol of what they do everyday. No. I could not even consider quitting. The question was not IF I would do this Relay, it had to become HOW I would do it.
And I finally fully realized that this Relay wasn’t about me at all. This had nothing to do with my personal ambitions. This was about working for others. This was about setting aside ME for once. Apparently the universe wanted to make sure I got that message loud and clear. And right there my mind did a 180.
Over the following weeks I spent a lot of time on that recumbent bike. And I started hiking the steepest trail in Boulder, Fern Canyon…and I hiked it a lot (8 times in 15 days at one point). It’s 2700 vertical feet in less than 3 miles. Hiking that trail fast was as good a work out as running, maybe better. And I started walking everywhere. To work and back, 5 miles each way. 20 miles on the weekend. I was running again: little bits here and there. But I simply didn’t have time to ramp my running back up to the volume needed to run 182 miles in a week. And quitting was not an option. Maybe I could run some of the 182 miles, but I wasn’t going to run them all. Again, it was time to set aside my personal ambitions, my ego and my pride. This was about getting it done for others. Sometimes we must focus on what exactly our goal is with extreme clarity. To finish. That was the only goal. Everything beyond that was just my ego talking.
This has proven to be incredibly difficult. I hate the gym. I find no joy in sitting on a bike that doesn’t move, staring through a pane of glass at swimmers doing laps in a pool, breathing hot, sweaty, stale air. It’s awful. As for walking? It’s fine, far better than that bike. But it doesn’t feed me the way running does. The endorphins are lacking, the feeling of wind on my cheeks, the steady rhythm of my footfalls, heart and breathing. It’s not the same. The training for this Relay has not been fun. It’s been hard. Far harder than running those many miles would have been. Or at least very, very different. But perhaps that’s apropos. Living with MS isn’t easy. Waking up in pain isn’t fun. Struggling to walk or see isn’t fun. Each day that I trained I was reminded that this is not about me. It never was. Apparently that was the lesson I was meant to learn through this journey. It was always clear to me that this Relay would be transformative, but I could never have guessed how. I suppose if life simply taught us the lessons we wanted to learn, we wouldn’t really be able to grow.
And so tomorrow I leave for Barstow, CA, a small, unglamorous town in the middle of the desert that I’d never heard of. There I’ll start my segment of the MS Run the US Relay. I imagine it will be a pretty nonchalant affair. No screaming, cheering hoards of adoring fans. No one asking for my autograph. No starting gun. Just me and Ashley and my wife and daughter. And my will to do this. I honestly have no idea what my Relay segment is going to look like. I don’t know what my body can give at this point. Though better, my back is far from healed. I’m going to cover the miles. That’s all I know. It won’t be sexy. It won’t be glamorous. And it definitely won’t be pretty. But the ugliest finish is better than the prettiest DNF. I’ll invoke an old ultra-running adage: “Run. When you can’t run, walk. When you can’t walk, crawl. And when you can’t crawl…do it anyway.” After all isn’t that what life is? Just moving forward at all costs?
I will be only a vehicle. My Relay segment will be about my mom…and Becky…and Sue…and Terri…and Bill…and Michelle…and Jill. It will be about all the people who’ve told me their stories, who’ve come up to me and shared how MS has touched their own lives. And about their brothers and sisters and friends who’ve suffered and who’ve died.
I will run and walk for those who can no longer run and walk due to this terrible disease. I will move forward always and move us a tiny bit closer to a cure.