When I signed up to run the Northwoods Winter Trail Marathon in Duluth on January 5th, I thought it was a 38.5 mile race. I picked the race because I thought it would be really tough-a step up in distance and difficulty, but I misunderstood the registration page and I have to admit that I was a little disappointed to find out that it was only 26.2 miles. I really wanted to push my mental endurance further than I had during the 50k and 6 hour runs I did in 2018 and I was not sure a marathon would cut it. I figured that I would need at least 35 miles to find something meaningful in the run. At least that’s what I thought when I started the race.
The race started out from the Lester-Amity Chalet, took a sharp left turn up a hill and on to an adjacent snowmobile trail. The snow was only a few inches deep but my foot gave way with each landing. It was soft and forgiving and not entirely horrible. My first mile was 9:56. After bushwacking for 15-20 feet, the course spilled on to a more densely packed trail that descended at a pretty good rate. I let my legs go and bombed the trail. I clicked off a 9:20 second mile. That was fun! I thought. Then, Good Golly Miss Molly, things changed.
The trail turned sharply to the left and began a long ascent up to Hawk Ridge. The hard pack turned to 6-12 inches of soft yet heavy snow that not only gave way with each stride but made me feel like I was trying to balance on a water bed. Each step sent my leg in an unexpected direction and my opposite arm would shoot out in an attempt to counter-balance. My effort level increased and my pace slowed: 11:04, 12:36, 14:42. I assumed the trail would get better just up ahead. Just a few more turns, I thought, and I can pick up my pace. I never made it back under 11:00 a mile.
Surprisingly, I was able to settle in to a rhythm, albeit one I was not accustomed to. I had been doing speed work as fast as 6:15 per mile pace in the weeks leading up to the race and even my easy runs averaged about 8:45 per mile. Running a mile in the 15:00 minute range didn’t seem like running at all. I can walk that fast! However, no matter how confused I became about what I was actually doing out there (running? walking? shuffling?) I was certain about this: the views of Lake Superior from the Hawk Ridge Trail were amazing.
Races like this are definitely less attended than your average summer weekend 5K but they attract a dedicated breed of runner. Who would sign up for a marathon in January, in Duluth of all places? Luckily, some hearty runners jumped at the chance like I did. Because of that, there were many runners to share my time with, marathoners and half-marathons alike. I always had someone to share a few words with, to get and give a little encouragement, and to commiserate about what body part was cold, cramping, or seizing up. We were bonded in the struggle and it made the miles go by faster.
At the half way point, I started to suspect some of the marathon runners might not venture out for the second loop. I was right. Over half the field dropped out. But me? I was there to find something and I wasn’t going to find it sitting in front of the fireplace in the chalet sipping hot cocoa. It was out on the trail.
The second loop started like the first but much slower, with fewer people, less ambition, and more pain. My right calf was constantly on the verge of a full-on cramp. My right hip was growing more sore with each foot slip. I swear the trail was permanently slanted from left to right! Maybe I was the one who was permanently slanted. Regardless, I began to feel pain in areas I didn’t even know contained muscles.
A few runners passed me within the first couple miles of the second lap, and then for the first time in about three hours I was alone. At first, I continued chugging along listening to the status reports I would give myself about how wet my feet were or how far I was going to run before I walked again. Who else can I talk to? Just myself. Then, without another runner in my vision to remind me that I was in a race and not just out for a solo journey of hurt, I stopped and just listened. It was quiet, so very quiet. I was reminded of my childhood in Proctor when I would go out into the woods in the winter and stand in the silence and ponder things or ponder no things. There is something so intense about winter silence-no sounds, nothing moving, white everywhere, and cold. Those conditions always seem to force my thoughts inward. Then I heard something I had not heard for many years and is only present when almost nothing else seems to be. It was a cold, hollow wind blowing through derelict trees that instantly made me feel small and insignificant and seemed to lay waste to walls I’d built. Its a sound that saps the heat right out of your bones with a shiver and leaves your mind clear and cold like brass. I found myself with a full accounting of how much I hurt, how far I still had to go, and the glaring fact that my wife has no finish line to look forward to.
ALK lung cancer is a lifetime diagnosis. There will always be a need for continuous treatment. Even with the advent of targeted therapies, ALK will eventually grow resistant to them. That’s part of the struggle she faces each day. The other part is the cumulative effect of two and half years of surviving cancer: the cognitive effects from the drugs passing through the blood brain barrier; joint aging from radiation, fractures, and bone mets; surgeries, loss of time, loss of the life she once knew, loss of her identity, and the loss of our unborn son Isaac. Each of these things would be devastating to deal with on their own. She faces them all.
So often people want to fix things. They hear about someone’s cancer and want to make it better. They want to soothe the suffering by putting a positive spin on it. They do it out of love or perhaps to assuage their own fear but what they are actually doing is delegitimizing the suffering. They don’t realize it but that’s what’s happening when they say things like, “my grandpa had stage 1 such and such and man that was scary, but you know what, he pulled through!” (read: you can too!) or “you know, any of us can drop dead at any minute.” (read: I don’t have a terminal disease that is forcing me to face death in his beady little eyes but somehow I know exactly what you are going through because a piano might land on my head as I walk down the street. That can happen!) As her husband, I desperately want to fix it all. I want to absorb the cancer in to my body, feel every bit of her pain so she doesn’t have to, or be as relentless as she is, but I know I can’t do any of that. And when it comes to worthless pat phrases that roll off the tongue because one doesn’t know what else to say, I can be the worst offender.
What people going through serious health issues really need is someone to stand with them and acknowledge their suffering. “That really sucks. I am so sorry you are going through that” and then shut up and let the suckiness exist untouched. There is nothing my wife can do to change the fact that she has cancer. She has to face that reality every day, involuntarily. She doesn’t have a choice to engage in Relentless Forward Progress. It’s literally a life or death proposition.
I had a choice. I could stop running, call it quits and head back to the chalet to warm my feet up by the fire. Relentless Forward Progress? Maybe not today. My feet were soaked, my legs were in pain, and there was no one along the course to cheer me on. I still had a couple miles to go until I reached the aid station and even then I would have another six miles to go after that. Good grief.
After reaching the sole aid station on the course around mile 20, I limped up to the table in silence. I was too tired to talk and a little wobbly to boot. I must have looked totally spent because the aid station workers asked me if I wanted to continue. I hope I never have to ask my wife that question, but chances are I will. Worse yet, I may be asked that question on her behalf.
“Yes”, I said with my hands on my knees. “This is what I signed up for.”
I had some chicken noodle soup and a few cookies and off I went with six more miles to go. Things felt slightly better after that. I think seeing a couple of smiling faces and hearing some encouraging words lifted my spirits. I didn’t feel as alone anymore and I seemed to find a new rhythm on the trail. My pace improved: 19:34, 18:08, 16:00. And as the sun began to set around 4:30, I finally saw through the trees the flat roof of the chalet and heard the whoops and cheers of the few remaining volunteers at the empty finish line. I picked up my pace even more because that’s what you do at the finish, and I crossed the line with a fist pump in 7:04.54. I was relieved but not overjoyed. I wasn’t sure yet how to interpret what I experienced on the trail. I was just glad it was over, two and a half hours later than I expected it would be. I could barely walk but a smile came over my face when the race director handed me my age group champion award. I was first in the Men’s 40-49 age group. There were only two others in my age group and both dropped out. I won by attrition.
I crept in to the chalet to warm up by the fire with a cup of hot chocolate. Yeah, about that…the fire was out, the hot chocolate was gone, and the chalet was empty and cold. It took me so long to finish that almost everyone had left. I guess it was time to go home.
Other than the radio, the next two and half hours were quiet as I drove – I had time to think and process. In a way, running this marathon helped me understand a little more of what she faces. Yes, I chose to run and she does not get to choose cancer; but in a small way, I experienced some meaningful suffering while on the trail. I felt my body and mind tell me to stop, to fix it, to end the pain, but I didn’t. I stood in the midst of it (sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively), thought of my wife and all she has been through, and kept going; and so doing I gained a glimpse of what she sees and feels every day. I can’t claim to know what she experiences first-hand, but I think I have just a slightly better ability now to stand side-by-side with her and let the suffering just be, and there’s a great deal of meaning in that.