Sunday, September 8, 2013

#473: The Man I Want To Be

"You're always talking about what you want to be for someone else, but what kind of man do YOU want to be?"

Damned head-shrinker. Always asking the hard questions.

I have a pretty good idea what kind of man God wants me to be. I know what's expected of me at work. I'm far too aware of the things I should have done to be a better husband... but what kind of man do I want to be? What kind of self would let me say, "I'm understand that you feel that way about me, but I'm confident in the person I am"?


First, I would be courageous, like the wolf. My life's compass would be Love, not Fear. I would be proud to join the pack, and lead when needed, but I would also run alone when my heart told me it was the right thing to do. When faced with danger of loss or defeat, I would use my senses and my experience to choose the best course of action and take on the challenge as an opportunity to grow in wisdom and courage. When other, weaker wolves were placed in my care, I would teach them, challenge them, protect them, and defend them with my life.

I would be strong, like the lion. I would work to keep my muscles and mind ready to do the things that need to be done. I would eat what I needed to grow strong and powerful; rest to allow myself the chance to restore and recover from the day's tasks; and exercise to teach my body how to overcome today's obstacles and to prepare for tomorrow's challenges. When my heart said "Go!" I would have the capacity to go, even through great fatigue or even pain. I would have no need for other's weakness, because I would know the confidence of  my own strength.

I would be compassionate, like the gorilla. I would see the world through eyes that may not always understand, but always accept. I would use my courage and strength with tenderness toward the world, taking only what I needed, doing no harm, bringing gentleness and patience to the task of nurturing myself and my community. Though I would be a fierce adversary, my ferocity would be tempered with kindness, and my heart, powerful enough for any battle, would be soft enough to feel the pains and joys of every creature I encounter.

Finally, I would be joyful, like the bear. I would know the beauty of play and treasure the value of laughter. I would wrap my arms around creation and roar with happiness at the blessings of this life. To others, I might appear clumsy, oafish, clownish, or even dangerous, but in my own heart, I would know the happiness of a bear who knows where the softest moss is, where to find the best fishing, and how to roll back and laugh as the water tickles my belly and the sun dries my fur on an autumn afternoon.

"Do you see," asked the head-shrinker, smiling, "that you are all these things already? You have courage and strength and compassion and joy, and you exercise them every day! This man you wish you were... he exists right now. He is not perfect, and he does not always live up to his own ideals, but he is alive and growing and he is YOU... he is NOW... not some future possibility."

It is so easy to notice and remember our vices. Ask me to list the cowardly, weak, selfish, miserable things I have done in the past year, and I will fill pages with sins and omissions. Opportunities missed. Responsibilities shirked. Mornings when the sunlight was just too much to bear and I pulled the covers back over my head. Nights when it was easier to turn up the music and eat ice cream than to listen to the voices arguing in my own soul. I know the things I've done wrong I know them by heart.

And that's why I've started recording Three Right Things. Every day, before I go to sleep, I try to remind myself of three things that I have done that reflect the man I want to be. It might be something as simple as getting out of bed when I was filled with anxiety. It might be an hour spent on the road or in the weight room. It could be a long phone call with my Mum. Or it could just be sitting and laughing with a child at the Y who finds some kind of delight in the company of a big, round, hairy bear of a man with a loud voice and eyes that seem to see you when they look at you.

As I remember the things I do right, I am reminded of the man I am. I am reminded of the man God created me to be. And I remember that God is sending people and experiences to me so that I can learn how to better be the man I want to be.

Three Right Things. It doesn't seem like much. Not when you compare it to the mountain of things I do wrong every day. Maybe it isn't a very ambitious goal. But it is mine. I will work to imitate the wolf, the lion, the gorilla, and the bear. I will try to do three things every day that make the world better than it was. I will continue to nurture the best in the man I already am.

I will battle with strength and courage. I will love with compassion. And whether times are good or bad, I will not miss an opportunity to lay back in the sun, wave my big paws in the air, and laugh.

That's a self I can live with. Even if it is only three times a day.

Peace,
Bob

Sunday, August 4, 2013

#472: Running with a Friend


There is a sacred fellowship, a holy communion that passes between friends who run together. 

On the road, with people I love, we share stories of promises broken and kept. Relationships in trouble. Battles with depression and financial hardship and the pain of being alone and the joy of being married. As the miles roll by, hearts are bound together in the hushed music of footfall and breath. Sometimes one leads, then the other. Sometimes side by side.

There is fun and celebration in running with a group or in a race. Glorious solitude awaits the lone runner on the early morning streets of the neighborhood, but to run with a friend, wordlessly drinking in the world together... this is holy.

A winter morning, the Bluegrass hills looking like a snow globe as the two of you come to the crest of a hill, only to see half a dozen deer glide weightlessly over the barbed wire fence, across the road, and disappear into the whitening trees.

A frigid day, racing the rain, spent coming to know an old internet acquaintance who you've never met in real life, and crossing the finish line hand in hand, knowing that a faceless cyber connection has been forged into a life-long friendship.

Struggling through the afternoon heat with a pal who won't let you get a word in edgewise because the past few days have been so overwhelming and sometimes you just need someone to hear what you have to say.

Running hard, side by side in the morning mist, then stopping dead in your tracks together, overcome by the unspeakable beauty of a cool stream and a clear waterfall and an ancient mill. No language is necessary; you breath the clean, moist air. No one else will ever share this moment with you, and you both know it. This is sacred.

One of my favorite prayers in the Episcopal liturgy is part of the Eucharist: 

Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. 

That's why I say running together is communion. On the road, in the hills, on the streets and trails if find peace and consolation, redemption even. But there is so much more there. Every run makes us stronger, teaches us confidence and humility, and if we are very lucky, it binds us together as friends in ways that nothing else I know about can do. This is fellowship. This is communion.



I ran with my friend this morning, on a course where in a few weeks, we will both be racing in a half-marathon. He is younger, stronger, and faster than me, (though not as good looking.) We will not see much of one another once that race has started, but because of the time we shared this morning, and on so many other mornings together, I will have him right by my side. When my breath feels labored, I will hear his stories. When my legs are heavy, I will see his infuriatingly steady pace just ahead of me, drawing me along like a locomotive pulling freight. Once you run with a friend, you never really run alone again. 

Peace,
Bob

Monday, July 15, 2013

#471: Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!


I just mailed a letter to 50 of the most inspiring people I know. Each of them contributed to a fundraiser I held this spring in conjunction with my attempt to complete the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati.  When I think of the song "Wind Beneath My Wings," these are the people I remember. Their encouragement and support help to keep this Fat Man Running.



July 13, 2013

Dear Friends,

Thank You, Thank You, Thank You! 
It has been three months now since the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, and the conclusion of the fundraiser you helped to put over the top: Living Strong at the Y 2013. Our goal this year was an ambitious one: $7000. Thanks to your generosity, we smashed through that wall and raised $7551. That is beyond anything we expected or hoped for. You taught me a lesson. No goal is too high when we reach for it together.

Thank You for Supporting Our Survivors
Your dollars are already at work in the LIVESTRONG® at the YMCA program at the North Lexington Family YMCA, and every penny is going toward helping cancer survivors and their families to enjoy the benefits of fitness, healthy eating, and new friendships, many of which will last a lifetime. I am so grateful to you for making all that happen. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Thank You for Running with Me
My very ambitious personal goal was to beat my 06:21:53 time in the 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon by an hour. I didn't quite do that, but I was able to finish in 5:42:35... almost 40 minutes faster. I was proud of that effort, and the special "Buck a Minute" pledges that it raised. I know that 5:21:53 target is still out there waiting for me. Your support and kind thoughts will help me to get there before much longer.

Thank You for Sticking with Us
I'm already planning and dreaming for next year. After consulting with the folks at the LIVESTRONG foundation down in Austin, I've decided to change the name of our project from Living Strong at the Y to Run Bob, Run. I checked with them because I was concerned that the original name of our project was too similar to the trademark “LIVESTRONG,” and might be confusing to people. Together, we came up with a title that reflects the focus and personal nature of our work. If you would like to visit the new online site, the address is http://www.crowdrise.com/runbobrun2014/fundraiser/pennsy

I haven't settled on next year's event, but be sure it will be a fun one. I'm thrilled with the things we have accomplished together, and can't wait to see where the next few months will lead us.

On behalf of the YMCA, the LIVESTRONG foundation, and the survivors and families who will benefit from your gifts, thank you. LIVESTRONG at the YMCA is alive and growing thanks to you. I hope you have a safe and joyful remainder of your summer.

Peace,

Bob


Thursday, July 4, 2013

#470: Race Report, (sort of): 2013 Bluegrass 10,000

Ten...

Thousand...

Meters.

Even after half a dozen marathons and half marathons, the 10K... this 10K has a special place in my heart.

I don't remember the year, but I remember the night. It was lifetimes ago. Before cancer and the mental hospital and getting fired and my marriage coming apart. It was a summer evening and life was full of possibilities and I was making a list. It was like the list Gatsby's dad shows to Tom at the end of the novel. I still remember some of the items. "Practice cursive writing." "Get out of debt." "Take Martha to Ireland." And the last one was something special, something impossible, for no one's benefit but mine: "Run the Bluegrass 10,000."

I wasn't a runner at the time. I wasn't doing anything physical at all, if I remember. But something - I would say it was God's inspiration - prompted me to stick that item on the end of my list of life goals. Looking back, I'm convinced it was divine inspiration, because that thought planted the seed that sprouted when I was lying on my sick bed, looking for a reason to hang on to life. "I have to live. I haven't run that race, yet." And so the dreams began and the running soon followed.

2011 Bluegrass 10,000
My first BG 10K was the last race I ran before joining the Y. There were no coaches, no trainers, no YMCA logos... just my own will and Martha's faith in my ability to do the impossible. I wore the shirt that Mum bought me on my 50th birthday. She paid full price at Dick's because I said I wanted a LIVESTRONG shirt, and I was almost finished with treatment and there was no telling how much longer I was going to live so a $30 tee-shirt wasn't so extravagant as it might have been another year. Martha took this picture with her phone, from a balcony high above Main Street as I shuffled along the last mile of the race.

I remember feeling amazement as I crossed the finish line. It all sort of hit me at once... the miracle I had gone through. Since my diagnosis, I had four members of my family and friends still fighting cancer for their lives. Soon, they would all be gone, but three lived to see me finish that race. They were all proud of me. They still are, I hope.

2012: A familiar uniform makes
it's Lexington debut
.
My second time down Main Street was very different than the first. 2011 had been a cool, overcast morning, perfect for running. July 4, 2012 lived up to its name: it was a firecracker of a morning. I didn't record the temperature in my log, but I know that I didn't skip any water stations that day. Temps and humidity both soared and battered me, especially out on the hills of Richmond Road. After the turnaround, I was running on fumes. My second half was much slower than the first, and I finished strong, but spent. It was fast enough; faster than I'd ever run 10K before; but it didn't feel like a quality effort. I had let myself get pulled along by faster runners early and spent all my endurance coins too soon. I didn't want to make that mistake again today.

2013: You must admit,
I'm taking better pictures...
This morning, I was awake at 3:00 AM, too excited to sleep. You would have thought I was getting ready for the state championships and not a community holiday race. I made my standard race day breakfast: jelly toast and coffee. Chatted with the insomniac club on Facebook. Joked with other runners as they woke up to predictions of thunderstorms at race time. Pinned my bib on and put the timing chip on my shoe. Climbed the walls. When I couldn't stand the wait any longer, and the sky had started it's transition from black to steely gray, I tucked my spare key into the waistband pocket of my running shorts and headed out the door.

There wasn't a lot of traffic on Broadway as I began the 2 mile jog toward town. I took it slow, working out the kinks. Taking stock. Feet? Feeling good. Ankles and calves? Strong and relaxed. Coach Carrie had seen to that. Quads? A little twinge just above the right knee. Just early morning bugs to work out, I hope. Go easy up to the crest of the hill and see how it feels on the flat. There, that's better. Hips? No sweat. Tuesday's ache must have been from the stride change on the treadmill. I haven't run inside since the weather turned to spring and shortening up for the 'mill probably caused that little tweak. My posture is strong. Arms feel light and powerful. Chest high. Head back. Eyes up. Yeah, I'm ready for this.

Police officers and volunteers were setting up barricades as I came into town. We exchanged cheerful  "Good Mornings" and I thanked them for coming out on their holiday. I turned the corner toward the starting line and was struck, as I always am, but the beauty of the gathering tribes of runners. Gorgeous, toned bodies. Wide bottoms and rolling bellies. Golden tans. Pale, aged skin. Pre-teens and grand masters all jogged loosely back and forth along Main Street. We were all early and it was fixing to dump rain on us and there was no place on earth we would rather be.

2013: Strider Nation reporting for duty
I found the Striders and exchanged fist bumps and greetings. Runners bump fists. It isn't a pose, it's a sign of respect and a way to make contact without exchanging whatever fluids and ointments and microbes and whatever else is on the hands of the dozens of people you greet at a race. We laughed at the weather, and Chris joked that she wanted a pair of glasses with windshield wipers on them. Someone suggested that my sunglasses were an admirable show of optimism. Finally we gathered on the steps at Thoroughbred Park and posed for our annual group shot.

John's Striders is a running group affiliated with John's Run/Walk shop here in Lexington. John's is mecca for running in our town, and the Striders were created to help new runners find their way into the sport. They are an amazingly joyful group of people. Runners with decades of experience willingly share their wisdom and encouragement with newbies. There has never been a time I've run with them that I didn't come away inspired and a smarter runner. I'm proud to be one of them.

2013: In the Zone on the way to a new PR
The race was just super. I had mixed a special 10K playlist on my iPod to keep both my spirits and my cadence from lagging. The support from spectators was great. People with cowbells shouted encouragement, and several times I heard my name from friends and fellow runners. The storm never materialized, but a light drizzle kept me cool through the race and I was able to pass several of the early water stations by. I don't usually run with headphones, but today I did and I found that the music helped me to stay focused. My mind didn't wander like it does on a long training run. I probably missed a few things along the way, and I don't think I'd make a habit of running with earbuds, especially in a  longer race, but today, I was glad I did. The hills that had caused me such grief last year were little more than gentle rollers today. Mountain miles training with the Striders had seen to that. When I hit the half-way point, I was right on target with my pace, and decided to press the gas pedal a little to see what I could do. My body responded better than I could have imagined, finishing the second half of the race two minutes faster than the first, and running the last mile in 9:34: as fast as I've ever run a mile in a race. My goal had been to finish in 66 minutes. I finished in 1:04:18, a new PR by almost 4 full minutes. And what was playing in my aging ears as I crossed the finish line? Freebird, of course!

I jogged/walked home in the rain, alone. I usually like to meet friends for brunch or coffee after this race, but it's kind of a special year for me. I'm learning a lot about being alone these days. I expected to be a little sad about not having anyone to hug or share my post-race euphoria with, but I wasn't sad at all. I felt... dare I say it... proud. Grateful to God for giving me a chance to run. Grateful to all the people I've known and lost this year and the inspiration they will always give me. Grateful for the friends who are sticking with me, and the new friends I haven't met yet.

And yes, dammit. I'm proud that I made the choice to accept all those gifts and turn them into a loving celebration of life. I may never break any records other than my own PRs, and I may never win anything other than participant shirts and finisher's medals, but crossing that finish line, you feel like a champion. And in a way, I guess we all are.

Everybody in a race has a thousand reasons not to be there. Excuses. Rationalizations. Justifications. Anxieties. Nobody with any sense puts on skimpy clothes on a rainy morning and runs 6 miles in a race they can't win. And in spite of all that, we run. We run together. We run alone. We run. And by running, we celebrate who we are... who we can become... and we testify to the power of will and faith. We all succeed because we choose to run and we believe that no matter how crazy it looks to the rest of the world, it is worth it.

When people see us running by the side of the road, they see all kinds of things. Fanatics. Neurotics. Traffic hazards. But once in a while, I hope they see the miracle. In a world full of death and discouragement, we are alive and running. We are not stronger. We simply choose to run. We choose to live. I hope that now and then, when people see a runner, they realize that they too can choose life. There are miracles waiting for each of us.

Peace,
Pennsy

Sunday, June 16, 2013

#469: Race Report: 2013 Capital City Stampede 10K

Kentucky's State Capitol Building in Frankfort
Downtown Frankfort rests beside the Kentucky River, in a lovely valley. Driving from Lexington, you approach the city down a long hill, past historic Northern Kentucky University. Yesterday morning, a thick fog rose from the river and rested just above the rooftops giving the whole town a mystical canopy. At the Capital Avenue Bridge, where a sharp left turn usually offers a magnificent view of the domed capitol building, there was only a long climb toward the clouds making the great edifice seem more like something from a storybook than a stone and marble temple of government in what was once the wildest part of the western United States.

Runners and cyclists had already started to arrive when I parked my car. There was a century ride scheduled in another part of the city, and I drove in with several cars laden with zillion dollar bikes and people in those crazy jerseys that cyclists wear. I do enjoy riding my bike, and I admire their sport, but I don't think I'll be joining them anytime soon. Running gives me more than enough challenges. It would have several in store for me before this day was over. 

Here in cloud-land, high above old downtown Frankfort, the sun was doing his best to burn through the morning haze. I walked down to the foot of the steps and collected my packet. This race supports the Frankfort YMCA, so it was particularly special to me. I am always proud to race in my yellow Y singlet, but that was especially true to day as I ran to represent not only my LIVESTRONG at the YMCA family, but the whole YMCA of Central Kentucky association. It was like being at a family reunion. You may not know a lot of the names, but there is comfort in knowing that they're all your cousins, somehow.

I started to warm up, and was reminded just how rough those picturesque hills can be on a runner. They make for great views, but there's a lot of climbing up and down to do when you race in Frankfort. I did a light jog or two up the big hill that leads around the right side of the capitol, past the floral clock, and behind the annex where the supreme court sits. This was to be the last half of mile 6 in the 6.2 mile race. We would all be feeling it the next time we saw that colorful clock.  (Come to think of it, I don't remember noticing it during the race.) At the top of the hill, I realized the beauty of the course. The last quarter mile was a steep down-hill sprint. Our finishing kick was going to be more like a finishing free fall as we tore down the road around the left side of the building. This would be a blast. 

By now, the sun was making some headway against the fog, so I trotted back to the car to change from my amber to my dark glasses. The pause gave me a chance to admire the assembly of the tribes. There were the Pear Shaped, the Lean and Mean (aka the "real" runners,) the Aging Hippies, they Callow Youths, and of course my own people, the Fat Men. I love these guys most of all. Fat Men haven't been running all their lives, and running isn't easy for them. Somewhere along their journey something made them say, "I really need to be running." A Fat Man Running is a man who is trying to make a change. I love that about my tribe. I watched one fellow in his baggy shorts and XXXL tee shirt as he paced around the grounds, stopping now and then to stretch, a little awkwardly maybe, but with as serious an intent as any Olympian. I loved him in all his middle aged glory because I felt as if I knew him. I knew he had great things in store for himself.

The starting area was strangely quiet at 7:50. There is usually a big crowd assembled 10 minutes before start time. Music was playing, but no local celebrity was at the mic making announcements and shouting encouragement. No pace group signs. Nothing at all to indicate that a race was about to start. At 7:55, I decided that I had the starting time wrong. Must be an 8:30 gun. Cool. No sense standing around cramping. I started to jog up the hill, running backwards on the course, away from what would be the finish line. I was probably 200 yards away when I heard the horn blow and uttered a word that was not appropriate for the uniform I was wearing. I had just missed the starting gun.

It was a good thing I had been warming up for 45 minutes, because I'm not sure I could have completed a 200 yard dash without the EMTs otherwise. Of course, I did have that long, steep hill to assist me. I managed to cross the start/finish line with the last of the walkers and began the long, slow process of weaving my way through traffic. In the excitement, I forgot to start my Garmin, and so did not start timing until about a block into the race. I'm still waiting on the official time to tell me how fast I ran.

The start of the course is a long descent from the Capitol steps to downtown and the river. The easy slope gave me a chance to recover my legs and my composure. It's tempting to exploit this long stretch to build up some speed, but racing down hills can wear you out too. I chose a conservative pace as I started finding runners who were more or less in my league. We wove around the downtown streets, along the railroad tracks on Broadway, and then turned into the long slow climb back up toward the start. These first two miles are an out and back loop, but they are also a down and up loop. All that glorious downhill run now had to be paid for. That's how Frankfort works. It's all long rollers. You enjoy one, then pay for the next one. Half-way back up the hill, we made the sharp left turn toward the river again. The Kentucky winds through these mountains and you never know where she's going to turn up next. Slipping down hill again, all you can think about is what a long climb this is going to be on the way back. And a long climb it is. The second leg of the course is another out and back and as you approach the turn, you realize that you have been going down just about the entire way. You're about to finish the last third of a 6 mile race and it's almost all uphill from here.

Of course the beauty of an out and back course is that you get to see runner's faces as you are heading back toward home. One of them was my brother Fat Man. He was the very last runner. Walking along, soaked to the bone with sweat, but his face hardened with determination. I said a silent prayer for him. I know what he feels like. He's going to have a great race when he comes back next year.

I had been tracking another runner for quite a while. A long haired, middle aged fellow with dark blue shorts and a gigantic beard was about 30 yards ahead of me, where he had been since the downtown loop. He was slow but steady, like me, and taking more frequent walk breaks than I was. I could tell he was tiring and decided to try to reel him in. That was going to be harder than I thought. I was as close as I had been all day when we hit the hard left turn that started the steepest part of the climb around the capitol building. Up we went. I had planned on 1:00 walks every mile, so my last one was done. He was taking those random breaks that tell you a runner is too tired to hold his rhythm. The dude was gassing. I turned my eyes down and chugged along. Every time he walked, I closed a little more. By the time we reached the crest of the hill, I was close enough to hear him breathing hard. I swung out to pass... the sucker had been playing possum! We both started to kick, and I watched with delighted amazement as this hairy old dude pulled away from me like a dragster. I don't know if I could have caught him or not, but I was in no mood to try. Instead, I settled into a hard run just short of "go for broke" and concentrated on not letting anybody pass me on the way to the finish line. And nobody did. 

It was a pretty race. The humidity was high, but the combination of the morning dew and the shady roads kept things feeling a lot cooler than they actually were. I felt strong at the end and I like my conditioning as I prepare for the Bluegrass 10,000 on July 4th. I don't know if I'm ready to hit that 60 minute mark just yet, but I'm confident I'll be beating last year's heat soaked time.

Today, I'm resting. I'm not a racer, not really, but running hills in a race does funny things to your head. You don't want to be passed, and you want to catch the next runner. You press a little harder, a little longer than you might if you were running on your own. My batteries need recharging. But tomorrow? That asphalt better be ready. The great big feet of the Fat Man tribe will be out pounding again.

Peace,
Pennsy

Saturday, June 8, 2013

#468: A Legacy of Love

Edna Givens
1940 - 2013
I attended another LIVESTRONG at the YMCA sister's funeral yesterday. It was a joyous, sometimes even raucous celebration of a life well lived. Edna Givens didn't waste a minute of her life.

She was a nurse. She was a wife and a widow. A mother and grandmother. Edna didn't just go to church, she lived the church. Sunday morning service was just the beginning for her. She was a leader for a group of women who served in their community. Feeding. Clothing, Healing. After her time as a participant in the program at the Y, she served as a mentor for other survivors. Her two sons are leaders in their own rights. The church was packed with mourners who seemed motivated more by thanksgiving than grief.

Cancer had to take three shots at her before she lost her life, but as the preacher said, her loss was a victory.  She lost this life, but gained a place with her Savior. We lost her company for a time, but will never lose the inspiration and the power she gave to the world. Love is her legacy.

There isn't a second to waste. Not in a life that can end so quickly. One of the things that the past few weeks (!) has taught me is that life happens all of a sudden. Yes, sometimes things change gradually, but sometimes it happens in a flash. A conversation overheard. A piece of news that slips out. A driver who misses the light changing. A word that turns your life upside down.

For God's sake, you could lose everything you have before you finish reading this sentence. Don't waste a second on anything but love. Don't spend a drop of your life fighting for the things that death is going to take away from you. Love. That's what Jesus did. That's what Edna did.

Build a legacy of love. What better use can you make of your short time on this earth?

Peace,
Bob

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

#467: Morning Run

Rack Face: the reason Pennsy doesn't
run in the morning.
It may be because I grew up making theatre, but I am really not much good in the morning. I'd make a lousy swimmer. Early morning runs are the exception for me, unless I'm meeting someone for a long one or the summer weather makes afternoon runs impossible. This morning, I broke that pattern for a couple of reasons.

First, I was two miles short yesterday. I wanted to do five, but the heat sent me home early. Second, according to my friends on Facebook, it is National Running Day, (whatever the heck that is,) and I wanted to show solidarity. So after my coffee and PB&J, I pulled some shorts and a shirt off the clothes line on the porch, (another thing I love about summer,) and hit the streets for a short one.

Nice, nice morning. 58° - 62°. depending on which bank thermometer you believe. just a little overcast. at 7:00, people are heading to work, but the traffic is still light. It's safe to run out on the side streets and avoid the uneven seams and low hanging branches that can trip you up on even the nicest sidewalks.

Once I get started on one of these Up At Dawn affairs, I always wonder why I don't run early more often. I just love seeing the neighborhood from a different, more peaceful perspective. The birds have a special music at this hour of the day. There are fewer voices, and they seem respectfully aware of the fact that most of the world isn't ready to enjoy them in full voice just yet. The people you encounter are generally out and about because they have to be. There's a particular sense of freedom you feel when you're the only one on the street who has chosen to get up and out rather than being compelled by a job or a class schedule. I ran fairly hard. Just two miles in just over 10:00 per mile... a decent training pace for me. I concentrated, when I thought at all, on my posture, keeping my core strong and my shoulders back and relaxed. I almost never think about form on a long run, so these short ones during the week are a good time to teach my body what a nice stride feels like.

Got home with a good sweat, and fresh legs, ready to start the day. Took a short nap, which is my habit since I've started waking up after just 6 hours of sleep for some reason. And now I'm ready to get to work having finished my workout with gas left in the tank.

I'd like to say I'll remember that good feeling and want to run more often in the wee hours... but I think we both know Pennsy better than that. These imaginary national holidays don't come along every day, you know.

Peace,
Pennsy

Monday, June 3, 2013

#466: What Has Running Done for Me Lately?

It's been a rough spring for me, in case you haven't noticed. Personal loss, mental illness, professional set-backs. I am really looking forward to the summer of 2013 with hope. Through all this trouble, my one faithful companion has been running. When it seemed like every other rug in my world was being pulled out, I always knew I could lace 'em up and hit the road. Running has become more than exercise, more even than therapy for me. It has become my touchstone. When things are at their worst for me, running has reminded me just how much I love being alive.

When I learned that my friend was going away, I spent a couple of days holed up in tears, then I went for a run. I ran so hard and so long that I wound up in the ER with dehydration... but running reminded me that I was still strong, even without Coach.

When it seemed like my fundraiser was going to crash and burn under the weight of my emotional breakdown, I went for a run. I ran 28 miles one day and people were inspired to give so generously that we not only reached our goal, we surpassed it.

When I felt  my friend's pain as she lay critically ill in a nursing home with a relapse of the cancer she thought she had beaten years ago, I wrote her name on my bib and went for a run, busting a new Marathon PR and lifting her spirits along the way.

Yesterday, the weight of all the grief and loss and changes and frustrations seemed ready to crush me. There are times when I am so close to despair that I could almost give up. Instead, I went for a run. Nice and slow. Hot and humid. More of a jog, really. I heard the birds, felt the wind and the sun on my face and legs. The tap of my feet on the pavement kept time as the music of my breath drew me along. Gritting up hills. Smiling at strangers. Loving every second of what seemed to be a terrible life just an hour before.

That's what you've done for me lately, Running. You've kept my heart beating. Helped me blow off steam. Let me taste the air mixed with clean, salty sweat on my lips. You got me through the rain and mile 26. You got me out of my bed, off my ass, and out the door. You reminded me that there is a God who loves me and who in the middle of all this loss is still giving me one precious gift... life... and the ability to run toward it.

Thanks for the reminder, old friend. It's a Great Day for a Run.

Peace,
Pennsy

Friday, May 31, 2013

#465: What We Are Not Now



It's getting to the point where I'm no fun any more. I am sorry.

Yesterday's session with Mike, my  therapist was especially difficult. Tearful. Which probably means that we were on to something. Let me try to wrestle with what I think that might have been.

Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud, "I am lonely,"

The tears are evolving. A few weeks ago, they were tears of shame. Tears of grief. Tears of loss. Now, they are tears of fear. Of loneliness. I cry because I feel like an empty cup where love and laughter once overflowed. Then, I grieved for the loss of people I loved. Now I ache in the empty places where they once lived. The suffering is still real, but it carries a kind of hope along with it. Pain can change, can soften over time.

Remember what we've said and done and felt about each other.

Because we are human, we cannot choose but to remember. When the wounds of loss are fresh, reflecting on the past can sting like alcohol on a skinned knee. The pain of remembering is worse, more intense than the pain of the loss itself. It isn't just the emptiness that hurts. It's knowing that those beautiful times are gone and will never be repeated. No, we cannot choose but to ache at those memories, but what we can choose, and time is our friend in this, we can choose how we respond to them. 

Don't let the past remind us of what we are not now. 

And there it is. Stephen Stills' words have been ringing like his guitar in my mind for the past few days. He wrote Suite: Judy Blue Eyes as an expression of his own grief at the imminent loss of his lover. If you let yourself get caught up in the musical hooks of this great song, it feels like a toe tapping celebration. But I hear something more. I hear a man fighting for his life against an enemy I know well.  Depression is a murderer; he is also a liar. One of his favorite lies is that our past and our future are the same. The things that have gone badly for us, the patterns we discern are doomed to repeat themselves. The good we have lost will never return, and whatever good may come in the future is bound to be lost as well. 

Tearing yourself away from me now, you are free and I am crying,
This does not mean I don't love you, I do
That's forever, yes, and for always.

And there is the first part of the answer. Though the loss is forever, so is the love. Depression wants you to believe that the love leaves with the beloved, but that is not true. Love is the force at the center of the universe. God is love. Love, once given, can never be withdrawn. Even when a relationship comes to a stormy, angry end, the love that was set into motion in that relationship remains, like a child born of a short lived romance. Love lives, even without the company of the lover. Presence can come and go. Love is for always.

Something inside is telling me that I've got your secret,
Are you still listening?
Fear is the lock, and laughter the key to your heart
And I love you.

"Fear is the lock..." And so it is. Fear shuts our hearts up tight. Keeps us safe in our fortress. Fear remembers only the hurt, not the love. Fear has not hope for the future, only dread for a past that is fated to repeat itself. But laughter, true laughter shakes the heart's doors open so it can receive the things only an open heart can know. Compassion. Delight. Serenity. Yes, even pain. Only an open heart can be hurt, but the price of letting fear lock up our hearts is so much greater than pain. Because a closed heart has no way for love to come in. And a heart that holds no love is wasted space.

I am yours, you are mine,
You are what you are,
And you make it hard.

The things and people we lose... they are never really gone. If we loved them with truly open hearts, then they changed us, we changed one another in ways that will never go away. Life happens. Tragedy. Happiness. Celebration. Grief. Each moment, no matter how dark or frightening, is a blessing to be savored for itself. If we let fear fix our gaze on yesterdays gone, terrified of tomorrows that have not yet come, then we let our hearts be locked against the beautiful possibilities that today has to offer.

Did I lose a job once? Yes. I can work in fear of losing this one, or I can work with an open, loving heart, drinking every sweet blessing that today's work has to offer.

Did I lose a friend? Yes. Each of us has our own ship with its own course. We travel together for a time, and then life may part us. If we are wise, we will not waste a second of our journey together travelling in fear of separation. Since I'm preaching from the book of Stills today, I'm reminded of another lesson. "Love the one you're with." God sends us people for a time, and sometimes takes them away again. Let the few precious moments we share be filled with laughter and love, not fear.

Have I lost my mind? Yes, I have lost control of my thoughts and emotions. sometimes for weeks at a time. i can look back and see patterns, but my past does not have to be my destiny. Thoughts can change. The way we cope can change. Mike is helping me to understand how my thinking produces the episodes I experience. Is my depression partly orgainic? Yes, probably. But it can be fed and thrive if I keep my heart locked up and fearful. Bad brain chemistry can give me a bad day or two. Bad thinking can send me into the shadows for months. Healthy thinking, loving mindful living can help me to live each moment as it comes, grateful for the blessings of the past without being fearful of the possibilities the future holds. I can learn. I am learning.

We are learning together.

Peace,
Pennsy

Thursday, May 30, 2013

#464: How Much is TMI?

Shhhhh!
TMI? Too Much Information? For someone with an exhibitionist streak as wide as mine, it's a more difficult call to make than it should be. How do you know when you've said too much? More importantly, how to install a filter that will keep those nuggets of TMI from escaping into the air or the blogsphere in the first place?

There are some easy cases. Does sharing the information violate a trust or an assumption of privacy? Is the information yours to share? Does it belong to you, or was it given to you in confidence. Even if it wasn't intended to be kept between you and the giver, is sharing it going to do harm to your relationship? My training partner might share something personal with me on a run, but  "My friend Julia says that running in cotton panties always make her crotch break out in a painful rash," is probably not something she intended to read about on my blog.

Another easy case: Is the information appropriate to the audience? A personal blog offers a lot of latitude. People come to FMR expecting to read about fitness, running, mental health, cancer, and the kind of sentimental jibbering that is sort of my specialty. I'm not sure where the line of inappropriate content might be here. We've covered a lot of ground together over the years. I hope most readers know that going in. And there is also the very important fact that it's easy to stop reading if you want to. Walking out on an after dinner speech or a eulogy at a funeral because you don't want to hear f-bombs or a the details of a recent colonoscopy could be tougher to do, and I think a speaker should take that into account.

There are times though, when the ice gets a little thinner. What if sharing something could harm your reputation? During my treatment for cancer, I could say just about anything. For one thing, people cut you a lot of slack when they think you might be dying. I once wrote a post about admiring women's bodies on my way to my daily radiation treatment that would be down-right creepy in any other context. Since I've starting writing about my mental health, I have to be more vigilant than ever about the shades of gray in this area. I might be having a bad mood swing one morning when I sit down to write, and people will think that I'm tumbling completely off the deep end toward suicide. I have invited my bosses at the Y to use these posts as a barometer of my ongoing healing, and that has backfired sometimes, too. I know that people worry about me because of many of the things they read here. I understand that. I worry some myself. I wonder if I would be better off if people knew a little bit less about my illness and my struggles.

There is one final case that springs to mind, and it is the only one that has lead me to actually censor myself by pulling down posts that I had previously published. There are times when information is true and important  and maybe even valuable, but sharing it is harmful to someone I love. If people judge me because of something I write here, that's their problem, and maybe mine. But if by sharing my own pain, I expose someone I love in a way that is humiliating or embarrassing or just unkind, than I have crossed a very important line. Though I don't think I have ever written anything here with the intention of hurting anyone, I know that people have been hurt. I don't mean they were insulted or offended. I mean, they were treated with disregard or disrespect. That has happened, and I regret it. I have taken the steps I felt were necessary to make amends, including pulling some posts off the blog.

A few days ago, I wrote about conversations I've been having about professional/personal boundaries. How much is TMI when the context is a professional relationship? One of my friends was a little upset by the things I said. She felt that my cancer story was in important part of who I am, and a very valuable way to let clients know that I understand their struggles from a point of view that is much like their own. I have to admit, it's something I'm still struggling with. When am I sharing to help make a client's training more effective, and when am I sharing in hopes that a stranger will trust and like me? I think that's as good a description of the boundary as any. But it's hard to recognize when I cross it sometimes.

I think it's a struggle that I'll continue to have: learning what's appropriate and what's TMI. It may be that only the experience of getting it wrong a few times will teach me how to get it right. In the meantime. I'll do my best to be as open and as honest as seems necessary at the time.

But you might have to wait for a while to read my illustrated guide to missing toenails. Sorry to disappoint.

Peace,
Pennsy



Monday, May 27, 2013

#463: 10 Mountain Miles

Yes, there are beautiful places. The Rockies can be so beautiful that words stick in your throat. Sunset over the Pacific can bring you to tears. The icy waters of Lake Superior on an August afternoon on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan can make you feel like you're stepping back in time. I love all these places, but my God do I love my Kentucky.

Today, I ran 10 miles in a little more heat than I would have preferred. We didn't get out of the house until late, and it's a good hour's drive to Cedar Hill in Nicholas County, so it was almost 1:00 and 75° when I finally strapped on my hydration pack and hit the country roads.

How to capture such a beautiful experience? I started out strong. The beginning of the course is a gentle slope along the north bank of Crooked Creek. Then, just past the 1 mile mark, you turn right (on this course, you only turn right,) and begin your ascent on Johnson Road. This is no ordinary climb.
Elevation chart for the Cedar Hill 10 mile loop

Johnson Road climbs 236 feet in just over a mile. And those little bumps at the top of the ridge are no joke either. As I trudged along, I remembered the day, weeks before, when I had tried to top this ridge at the end of a 20 mile run. I wasn't making that mistake today. I wisely put it at the start of today's run. I passed a family working in their front yard, planing flowers. Dad was swinging an enormous pick, and I was happy to move along, however slowly. A trio of yapping dogs, the first of many little packs I encountered, raced to meet me as I ran. I didn't confront them or even slow down. I ignored them, maintained my speed, and tried to look liked the biggest, baddest dog in the woods. None of them saw fit to challenge me, though one bully looking fellow jumped up and nipped at me at one point, snagging my shorts and nearly re-enacting the famous Coppertone ad... only this time with big blue compression shorts instead of a pale, pink bum underneath.
Beware of Dog
 The south face of the ridge drops as steeply and sharply as the north face rises. Running downhill is always a challenge. Running down what amounts to a ski slope requires courage, luck, and the brains of an eggplant. Only an idiot would try it. So naturally, I made the descent my two fastest miles of the day. No walk breaks coming down the hill. I'm not sure I could have stopped if I wanted to.

Once you reach the bottom, you begin a long, rolling run along the north shore of Beaver Creek. The Saltwell United Methodist Church welcomes you into the valley where you'll spend the next few miles among the shady trees. It was noon, so I didn't see a lot of critters. On the other hand, there is next to no traffic on this road, so there isn't much road-kill either. The only time I stopped all day was to pick up a decent sized box turtle and move him over to the side of the road, away from marauding truck tires.

A man driving a tractor gave me a thumbs up as he passed, some kind of dangerous looking machine in tow. Farther down the road, after he had pulled into his driveway, he gave me a holler. "How far you going?" "Ten miles." called back. "Where?" "Crooked Creek," I answered, and was gone into the woods again. I wondered what made him so curious. Maybe he just doesn't see a lot of men in earrings and lime green shoes out here. Or maybe he was once a runner himself. A cross-country star at Nicholas County High School back in the 50s. I smiled at the thought that he just might have run this same route back in the glory days. Part of me wished he'd lace 'em up and join me. But I was enjoying the solitude far too much to really want to share.

Lucky for me, my bird wasn't in a fighting mood.
From birdsofoklahoma.net
Just past the 7.25 mark, I started getting a little tingling feeling. I knew that there was a serious hill at the end of this course. My friend Sandy had warned me about it, but also promised a rich reward for the effort. The climb up the ridge on Gannett Road is just as high as the one on Johnson, only it gets there in half the distance. This isn't a hill, it's a pillar. Parts of it feel more like mountain climbing than running. But Sandy was right. The view from the top is really out of this world. Miles of rolling hills in all directions. Turkey Buzzards and hawks circling at eye level as they scan the ground far below for a little afternoon snack. As I crested the hill, there was a whoosh and a wild turkey flushed out of the tall grass about 10 yards ahead of me and flapped off toward the tree line. For a moment, I could look all around me and see nothing that had been built by humans. I wondered if this is what the Kentucky that Daniel Boone fell in love with looked like.

The hill from the gate to the house... don't suppose anyone
could just bring me down a bucket of ice and some Ben-gay?
The run back down the other side of this ridge isn't a run at all. It is a scramble. I was possessed by only one thought. "Don't fall." I said my prayers and gave myself over to gravity and the grace of God. I managed to get all the way back to the bridge over Crooked Creek with my Nikes pointing in the right direction. After that, it's one more brutal little hill that's steeper than a Pittsburgh Driveway, then a weary mile or so back to the cool porch, a cold drink, and a hot shower.

My friend Terry was waiting for me at the gate. "I can't believe you just ran 10 miles. I can barely walk from here to the house." I smiled, (I hope) and answered, "I am seriously considering driving myself up to the porch." I didn't. But I wanted to.

The Memorial Day cook-out was in full swing when I arrived. I grabbed a bowl of rice and beans, plopped an impeccably rare burger on top, and went out to select a rocking chair. On the porch, old friends chatted easily about ancient news and modern gossip. We laughed. We caught up. We listened to the frogs gallumphing down by the pond, and some kind of screeching bird that sounded for all the world like an angry monkey. Kentucky in the spring time is all green and blue and cool breezes and music. We had all of that and more. It was a perfect finish to a beautiful day.

Well actually, the apple pie and carrot cake were the perfect finish. I admit it. I am unashamed. Besides, holiday calories don't count, right?

Peace,
Pennsy

Saturday, May 25, 2013

#462: Is There Another Story Worth Telling?

Who is the man behind those dark glasses?
I have had a couple of conversations this week about my story... well not the story so much, as about my telling of it. I believe that it  inspires people. That's why I tell it every chance I get. I want them to know that they can come back from a terrible place and be even stronger than before.

But this week, I have had a couple of people challenge me to think about helping people on their own journey without telling them about mine.

It's a hard thing for me to grasp. When practiced competently and respectfully, personal training is a healing profession. A good trainer has personal boundaries and limits just like any other professional. We handle confidential information. We meet people when they are vulnerable. We build relationships based on trust - trust in our ability to help our clients to meet their goals.

But, I have always used my story to help build trust between myself and trainees. Now I am being called to ask just how important that story is to my success as a trainer... and to whom is it more important: to my clients, or to me?

"You use it to build credibility," said one adviser, "but they don't come here for you to understand them. They come so you can help them to get back to life." Another put it this way. "Your professional competence has nothing to do with the fact that you've had cancer. If you're a good trainer, you'll earn their trust."

And so I wonder. Am I exploiting my story for my own sake, rather than for the sake of the people who are so "inspired" when they hear it? When I think of how my coaches earned my trust, it was through the compassionate, joyful practice of their profession, not because of their compelling life stories. Have I been making a big mistake, insisting on being "one of the family?" Or as another counselor put it, "You're making it about you, but it's supposed to be about them."

Am I holding on to the blessings of the past and missing out on the possibilities of the present? Two scary questions come to my mind. Am I a good enough trainer to succeed on my skill and knowledge alone, without the boost I get from being Cancer Boy? And even scarier, if I stop being The Boy Who Didn't Die, will I go back to being the miserable, Fat Man Running that I was before I got sick? Cancer gave me so much. It gave me someone to be. The Survivor. But have I let it become a crutch? Could I be a better trainer, even a more inspiring one, if I left the Fat Man at home?

I guess I've never believed I could be very interesting without a character to play. The actor. The manager. The survivor. Can I find the courage to stop play-acting and just be Bob? Do I even know how to start?

They've got me on a very tight leash at work. They don't want me to get sick again, and they want to be sure I'm well before I assume any real responsibilities. It frustrates me that I've fallen from being the lead trainer to a glorified towel boy. But the truth is, I'm lucky to still have a job at all. There are very few organizations that would have tolerated my illness the way the Y has. I want to be sure I'm well, too. But, how to tell when that time comes?

Maybe it will be the day that I don't need to tell anyone about my cancer - the day that I let my heart and my mind and body speak for themselves, without a superhero persona to hide behind.

It has been a brutal season of letting go, but the hardest could be yet to come. It may soon be time for me to put the dynamic duo, Fat Man and Cancer Boy away for good. Then maybe I'll see who this "Bob" guy is that everybody keeps talking about. They tell me he's worth knowing.

I wonder if they could be right.

Peace,
Bob


Thursday, May 23, 2013

#461: Victory For Kathy

Today, I was a part of something beautiful. A woman's family and friends came together to honor and remember and celebrate her life with stories. They told about her love - fierce love, they called it - for her family. Her mother and her daughter both called her their best friend. We heard stories about her smile, and the way she made people feel. People spoke of the music that filled their house and their lives. Promises were made: to carry on. To look after one another. To remember.

I am always tempted to rise at these occasions. I never know if it is the prompting of the Holy Spirit, or my own ego calling me, so I usually resist. I resisted today. I didn't know Kathy. I only knew of her through my Coach... our Coach. Melissa described her as a woman of power and joy. And the person I met today, through the stories of her loved ones, was also a person of strength and courage.

Had I spoken... had God given me the words to speak... I hope I would have spoken comfort to Paul, Kathy's husband. After she passed, Paul had told a friend, grieving, "We didn't win." I wish I could have told him why I think he was wrong about that.

Kathy's doctor told us about her last hours in the hospital. She was suffering. She did not want to die. And her mind was on her family. Her last breaths were not spent on misery and despair; rather, they were spent on love, fierce love, love too strong for cancer to overcome.

Cancer doesn't come for your body. Not really. That's easy. Any germ can do it. It doesn't even want your life. Death is his own master and comes and goes as he pleases. No, what cancer wants is your broken heart. Cancer comes to kill your spirit, to steal your hope. That is what makes it so terrible. What cancer wants is for you to give up. Once you've done that, it doesn't really matter if you live or die. Cancer has won.

But not this woman. Not Kathy. She fought for her life, for her family, right to the end. When Death came for her, he found a heart intact, full of love, unwilling, but prepared for her next adventure.

We who remain, owe a debt to our sister. Though I did not know her, she taught me through her friends and family that life is for hope. For joy. For music. For laughter. For fierce, fierce love. Thank you, Kathy. You gave me a wonderful gift this morning. I look forward to meeting you when Jesus wraps me in the embrace that you are now experiencing. And I promise to carry on your legacy of love. Fierce love.

Requiem Aeternam dona eis, Domine
et lux perpetua luceat eis:
Requiescant in pace. Amen


Rest eternal grant her, Oh Lord,
And let light perperual shine upon her.
May she rest in peace.
Amen.

Pennsy

#460: What Job Taught Me About Depression

Albrecht Durher: Job on the Dunghill

I've been thinking about Job quite a bit. Not so much out of pity for myself, as much as a desire to make sense of all that I have lost in the last few weeks. Not that there is much sense to be made of it. Part of me believes that it's just a string of really bad events. Coincidence.

Job's story doesn't offer a satisfying explanation of why suffering exists; but it does teach us a way to respond to the pain of existence.

Job stayed faithful. So did God. When life takes everything away, God remains. Paul prayed to have the "thorn in my flesh" removed, and God's answer was, "my grace is sufficient for you." God isn't cruel and unfair: life is. But what God is, and this is a most radical and difficult idea, what God really  is, is faithful. Did God take away my friends? My health? I don't know. But what I do know is that God will not take away the Steadfast Love that is at the heart of the universe. When everything else is lost, God's love remains. If there is a theme that ties all of the Bible together, I think that is it. Life may be confusing and painful, almost unendurable at times. But it is a pain that we can endure because in our darkest hour, when it seems like everything we need or desire has been taken away, God's love remains.

In spite of the healing I feel every day, there are still times when it feels like the only reason it isn't getting worse is that I have nothing left to lose. But that is not true: my purpose remains. There are still people with cancer. People will find comfort and inspiration in the story I have to tell. People need to know that there is abundant life after cancer. People's lives can be better because of what happened to me.

My life's work remains. And where will I find the strength to do that work? It will be where it has always been. Even when I thought it was coming from smiling faces and kind words. My strength comes from God, who will never abandon me, not even in the deepest regions of the shadow lands.

People in the 21st century might find that a pretty foolish thing to believe. Many of the people I love find Job's story to be silly and superstitious. I can live with that. "Religion is for the weak," others will say. I can live with that, too. If this season of darkness has taught me nothing else, it has taught me just how weak I am. Healthy people don't need doctors. Strong people don't need God. Well, I'm not healthy, and I'm not strong. I need God's love to stay alive.

And by God, I'm staying alive.

A famous theologian, Karl Barth was once asked, "what is the most profound religious truth you have ever heard?" His answer was one that could transform the world, if only we would let it:
Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so,
Little ones to him belong,
They are weak, but he is strong;
Yes, Jesus loves me...
The Bible tells me so.

Peace,
Pennsy


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

#459: Losing Weight, Licking Cancer, Living Strong

As I've mentioned before, tomorrow I am giving a presentation that will test whether or not I am mentally able to function as a public representative of the YMCA. It's a crucial step in my rehabilitation and I consider it a make or break event for me. I'm not looking to hit any singles... not this time. I just finished a 2 hour walk where I finished composing my thoughts. Here's a sneak peak at the words and feelings that I hope will win be my job back in just a few hours. ~ Pennsy

They've asked me to make a speech today. The trouble is, I don't really know much of anything, so I'm not very good at making speeches or delivering lectures or preaching sermons or anything like that. Mostly, I'm just a story teller. They want me to talk to you about losing weight, licking cancer, and living strong, and it just so happens I know a couple of stories about those things. I tell you three, then maybe I'll shut up and you can tell me some of yours.

My sister Beth and Me
I was a fat boy. And I grew up to be a fat man. A fat boy. A fat, sad, angry, resentful, lonesome boy. I guess you could say I was really a frightened boy, because that's how I grew up. When I was young, I used to think I was sad because I was fat. Much later in my life, I learned that I had things exactly backwards. I was fat because I was so very sad. Like so many men, I lived for years before I learned that I had a mental illness called Bipolar Mood Disorder. Most of the time, you'd never know there was anything different about me. I might seem especially energetic some days, or particularly down on others, but you'd probably just think, "That's just Bob. He's an emotional guy." But every now and then I have more than just a bad day. Every now and then, every few years or so, I have a week or a month or a season where my emotions and thoughts seem to be totally out of my control. I can have enough energy to conquer the world at breakfast, and by lunch time be in such a dark lonely shadow that I can barely even think of getting out of bed without bursting into tears. Those of us who have this disease find many ways to manage it. Some of us get help from friends or doctors. Some of us try to help ourselves with smoke or drink or some other addiction. My addiction was food.

Eating was something I could control. I couldn't do anything about the grief and the rage that battered me like a hurricane, but I could control what went into my mouth. The more I ate, the more in control I felt. Being sad made me eat. Eating made me fatter. Getting fatter made me sad. And that's how addiction fuels itself.

60 inch jeans, XXXL shirt. 
Eventually, I found the people who could help me to tame the Bipolar monster... at least most of the time. They taught me new ways to think. They helped me find the right combination of medicine and activity to keep my emotions on a more even keel. But you know what? Life is sad sometimes. That's just life. And in my life, I had one way to manage sadness. I would eat. Every time. Until Friday, April 16, 2010 when I stepped on a scale at St Joseph's hospital. I was 49 years old. I was 6'-4" tall. I had a 60" waist and weighed 397 pounds. And that is the story of how a sad, fat boy grew up to be a depressed, morbidly obese man.

Now, here's my second story.

So, that's what cancer looks like...
You may be wondering how I can be so sure about the day and date of that step onto the scale at St Joe's. Well the truth is, I wasn't really in the hospital to get weighed. A few weeks earlier, I found a lump about the size of a raisin under the right side of my neck. Within a week, it was the size of a ping-pong ball, and I was on my way to the doctor. By the time I had had my third and fourth doctor visits, a CT scan and a PET scan, it was the size of my fist. It stretched from the base of my ear to my larynx and threatened to crush my carotid artery. "I can't tell you if it's cancer or not," the doctor said, "But if we don't get that thing out of there this Friday, you may not live till Monday.

Well, it turned out that it was cancer. Squamous Cell Carcinoma, a very particular kind of skin cancer that affects the inner linings of your body. It had started under my tonsil and grown into a 6 centimeter tumor. It had metastasized into the surrounding muscle and the lymph nodes in my neck. They removed 9 nodes, a portion of my neck muscle, my jugular vein, and several nerves; but they never found clean margins. The surgeon cut out everything he could find, but he was sure he hadn't found it all. I was going to need radiation. I was going to need chemo. It was going to be really, really bad. And then the surgeon told me these words that changed me forever.

"I've been treating people with cancer for almost 20 years. Some of they live, too many of them die. They have good attitudes and bad ones. They get angry or spiritual or serene or generous. They travel the world or they go home and call people on the phone to tell them they love them. No matter what their attitude, some live and some die. But the ones who give up... they all die."

"Your cancer has a 50% survival rate. You only have one chance, and that is to fight for your life."

But wait. I was the fat boy, remember? The unhappy kid? The depressed man? My life was miserable. Why would I want to pass up a chance for it to finally be over? It should have been the easiest question in the world, but it took me days to answer it. "Why do I want to live?"

The Hill in my dream
Then, one night, I had a dream. I am standing at the top of a grassy hill, near my grandmother's house in northern Pennsylvania. I can see blue skies and thick, soft grass as I begin to walk, then run down the hill. I look down at my feet, and I realize that I'm only touching the ground with every second or third stride. I am gliding along the top of the grass. Then I rise up. I am flying... no... not flying... I am running through the air, high above the trees and the telephone wires. I look down on herds of cows and fields of corn. It is the most beautiful day and in the dream I know that if I ever beat the heads you live/tails you die odds that the doctors have given me, if I can beat this cancer, then I am going to run. THAT's why I want to live. Because I want to run.

It came slowly. There were days when I couldn't make it from my bed to the bathroom. On my 50th birthday, my mom had to help me to the toilet so I could wretch with all my might, as if I could somehow choke up the cancer along with the sick that the chemo was forcing out of me. There were days when the burns on my neck looked like charcoal, and the blisters in my throat felt like glass shards when I tried to sip water. I spent my mornings bolted to a table while they shot me through with radiation or strapped to a chair while they filled my veins with chemicals so toxic that the nurses had to wear haz mat suits to handle them. But through the Percocet induced haze, when I closed my eyes, I could look down and see those country roads as I flew past. I was going to beat this thing. I was going to run.

The first time I tried to climb the steps, I had to sit down on the third one and call for my wife to come help me back to bed. But I remembered what the doctor had said. The ones who quit, they all die. I refused to quit. I walked to the door and back. Next day, to the porch and back. Then the sidewalk. The corner. Around the corner. Around the block. Weeks went by and finally I was strong enough to try to jog a few steps. Jog two strides, then walk a minute. Jog 10 seconds, and walk two minutes. Never give up. Never quit. The day I jogged a mile for the first time, I felt as if I had just won the Boston Marathon.

I knew that day that I was no longer just a survivor.

I was a victor.

I hadn't just beaten cancer. I had kicked its ass. And I had become a runner.

My third story is about Living Strong. 

Now during the six months from the day of my diagnosis until my first clean scan, I lost about 90 pounds, most of it muscle. I could walk. I could jog a mile, but I was still weak as a kitten. I was determined to keep losing weight. I called it "cancer's silver lining." I kept walking. I ate more and more whole foods, fewer and fewer baked goods. I stopped eating french fries and burgers. No more chips and cookies. I found that my treatment had changed the way a lot of things tasted to me. Cake was like chewing rags. Tomatoes, a food I had never really liked before, suddenly tasted like an explosion of summer air. I learned to love foods that looked like food, not just shapes in a bag or a box. I kept walking. I lifted weights. The pounds kept falling, but I wasn't really getting stronger. I needed more, but I didn't know what.

When I learned about a program called LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, I jumped at the opportunity. It was a three month, free membership. I could use the pool, the weight room, the cardio equipment. I thought it sounded like a sweet deal. I had no idea how sweet.

The original Eight and our coaches
LIVESTRONG is about wellness, not just fitness. It's about training your mind and your spirit as well as your body. It's about nutrition. Learning how to eat so we can help ourselves to heal and prevent the relapse that is always hiding out there in the darkest corner of our imaginations. It's about exercise: Zumba, Pilates, yoga, aquatic fitness, weight training, walking, running, biking... everything that the Y has to offer. But mostly, LIVESTRONG is about us, the survivors. The things we know that nobody should have to learn... that nobody could ever learn unless they have walked the road we have walked. It's about surviving, and about how survival just isn't enough. I didn't want to be a survivor. I wanted to be a warrior. I wanted cancer to be as scared of me as I had been of it.

And three amazing women: Carrie, Chelsea, and Melissa, our trainers helped to turn us into warriors. When they looked at me, they didn't see a fat, sad boy. they didn't see an obese, depressed man. They saw - of all the crazy things in the world - they looked at me and saw a Marathoner. The first time they said it, I thought they were nuts. I thought so when they made me run twice as much as my classmates. I thought so when I was lifting weights and jumping and lunging across the basketball court. I thought they were nuts right up until the May morning in 2012 when I finished the Pittsburgh Marathon in 6:21. And I raised $3600 for the LIVESTRONG at the YCMA program. This May, I finished the Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, cutting my time by almost 40 minutes. And I raised $7411 to help our program to thrive. And I did it because of my brothers and sisters in LIVESTRONG.

For Becky: in a nursing home this morning, her doctors are waiting for her to get sick enough to die, but she hasn't got the time. She's laughing, visiting with friends, joking, remembering fun days together. When Death comes for Becky, he isn't going to find her waiting. He's going to have to go catch her.

For Raynee: a young mother and wife whose life is being threatened by the cruelest cancer of all. The doctors removed an enormous mass from her brain. She knows that there is no such thing as  a guarantee of tomorrow. So every few weeks, she goes out and gets a new, beautiful tattoo. Her most recent? A gray brain cancer ribbon, wrapped around a pair of brass knuckles. Raynee isn't giving in to cancer without a fight.

For all of them. For John and Mary who supported one another through each of their cancers. For Emma whose greatest fear used to be stepping off of a curb. For Pam who beat stage 4 lung cancer and for Frank who never quit until he could finally bench press a 10 pound bar.

They will never quit. They are not "survivors." They are champions.

They know what we all know.

The cancer can always come back. The cancer can always kill us... but it can never defeat us. Not if we live strong.

And those are my stories.


Never give up.
You probably have some of your own. But let me leave you with this word. Don't wait. Don't wait until you are too fat to walk. Don't wait until you are ready to kill yourself to make the sadness go away. Don't wait until you get cancer to know how beautiful and full of possibility your life is.

The ones who give up all die.

Never give up.

Never stop fighting for your life.

Never stop living strong.

Peace,
Pennsy



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