Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Great Full Loop

"If you really are thankful, what do you do? You share"
      W. Clement Stone
I long ago gave up on counting my blessings... I am just not good enough at math to count that high. But I say thank you every tangible opportunity I can find. Please is a polite way to request something but to thank I hope is a proper way the receiver and the giver bring the loop back around. 
Before I had brain cancer, I had done the Thundercloud Turkey Trot for the first time 10 years ago with a couple of friends from Ultimate. It was fun, if nothing else it justified eating a few more of the calories that I would take in later that day. Seven years ago, I did it as my first race after getting out of the hospital, after the biopsy, after the news that there was a malignant brain tumor. The medications and steroids were too new so it didn't go that well in time but somehow it would become the starting point that running was, no matter what else was coming, would stay in in the future. But once again, I'd go home and get that turkey and pie and stuffed myself with stuffing with family after running alone. 
By the next year the solitary approach got gotten it to where I'd become a single father. I had started running with a stroller and I would learn this race had a stroller division! It would be Kiana's first kid's k which she shared with her friend Mae, a girl she had become closer friends with because she had been babysat here often while her mom was going through chemo during a cancer bout. As it would be the first time that either of them would be running in the streets, little notes had been pinned to them of who to call etc, I mean obviously Turkey Trots are a dangerous place. While before the end of the race they were gunning for each other, they did most of the first half holding hands. They were 4 years old, hadn't even started kindergarten.
We'd take 2nd place in the stroller division and it would start a few years of stroller races up to marathons. Yet the Turkey Trot was special, the more meaningful it became, the more thankful I became, the more I wanted to share it. My mom and dad would join us for it. I would start putting together a team from the Austin Runners Club so my friends could join us. And they showed up along with several thousand other people. It was the first race we would do in the rain, the only race that to this day is the only distance I have a faster time with a stroller than without it. Two years ago, almost a year after we had really stopped running in the stroller Kiana wanted one more trip on that stroller and we went out having won the stroller division 4 years in a row before the ride came to it's end.  It has enough of an emotional connection I've actually only missed it once since getting cancer (and I'd say leaving the country to go to Egypt to be a groomsman in a wedding is a valid excuse).  Somehow each time it seemed so magical, so mystical, so meaningful I honestly couldn't figure out how it could get any better. I may not be that imaginative but the universe is, perhaps especially so when you share it's blessings. 
The race reached out to me about telling the story in a web interview and some local tv promotions and in a race I was so thankful for what could I do but share? So this year, we once again put together a team. For the first time ever, my girlfriend-recently-turned-fiancee ran it and captained the team. And Kiana was signed up to do her first 5 mile race ever. This was a hillier course than her most recent 5k a couple of months ago so I told her to pace herself a little slower trying to keep a 7:45-ish pace and she started that way. I was hoping she'd come in a little under 39 minutes. 
I started telling her (or was it telling me) memories from the stroller days since for the first time ever, I was the one doing the cheerleading while on that course. I remembered the hills were taking the stroller down the thoughts directed at it were please don't get away from me and up please don't run back over me. I remembered each hill, I remembered the song that was playing on that one one year as she was belting out Frozen's Let It Go or the Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha. Somehow those memories put more humidity in the air than the little there was because was absorbing in my eyes or maybe some had splashed from the water stop... Anyway he weather was perfect and she started to take advantage of it and I realized before half way that wow, she just might break 38.  She would keep speeding up and speeding up and ended up astounding by finishing in about 36:30, with her last mile being faster than any she's ever done in a 5k or in a stand alone mile.  
There were many times we stayed for the awards of the stroller division. I liked the Turkey Trophy to put on the shelf, Kiana liked the Thundercloud gift certificates that we always split since as I told her for those few years, we'd earned them together. This time I actually got to help in announcing the awards which were overall winners and then by age group. So the 4th name I got to call out after the women's top winners was the girls 10 and under and it was Kiana Leon. Those gift certificates this year were all hers to use up till they were done and I'd buy my own meal when we went.
A week before the race, in the preparation, Kiana and I went on a 5 mile neighborhood route she'd never done before. It was one I used to do when I was new to the neighborhood but I'd abandoned it for ones with more hills and less turns with spatial orientation being gone since the stroller having become the norm back then. Kiana asked if this new route was a loop or an out and back. I told her that it was a loop. After a few turns she asked, dad, how it was a loop with so many turns since it wasn't a circle. I explained that loops don't have to be a circle, they just have to get you around a bit before you get back to where you started and in our case, a route that gives you some good perspectives along the way. 
After the race, we headed over to Mae's house to do Thanksgiving once again where our contribution to the meal was a pecan pie and tamales that Kiana had made from scratch with. We reminisced about that 1st Turkey Trot and times in between and how then we were worried because we might lost them on the run but since then we're amazed at how it's been 6 years. I worry about blinking because these last few years have gone so fast and if she keeps speeding up this way I may lose her on the blink. I'm exactly two weeks from an MRI, about where I'm always around Thanksgiving. Who knows how that will go, life it turns out is unpredictable and whether that unpredictable comes in good or bad or surprises, I think if keep sharing the things that are good, you keep finding more to say thank you for. 7 years after I did it alone, 6 years after I did it in a stroller and Kiana did her first kid's k, this Thanksgiving is something I am grateful for because through all the running around, despite many turns, me and the people I love managed to get back where we started which is surprisingly an improved home. And that for at least this sharing Thanksgiving day is a great full loop. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

An Average Man

Without exception for half a decade now, I had blogged on the 5th of November. Someone once said my life seemed predictably scripted is messing with the formula. Remember, remember the 5th of November, an English saying about a failed assassination plot that is celebrated now as a day to burn effigies of a failed leader. There are in my group of circles people who don't celebrate their cancerversaries... an understandable measure of people who don't want to spend time looking back at part of their own system turning against them. To me, like the British, I like to think of it as a way to look back at the failures of that treason, reflect on the thankfulness that like that monarchy, what rules me even if not quite what it used to be, still stands. 

However, this one was special in that it's a marker. While I've been saying that the average survival rate is 4 years for people without surgery, 7 years for people with, that's slightly inaccurate. It's the median, the point at which half the people have passed away before and have passed away sometime after. It's why this year I blogged one day after, to make sure I got there. I'm on my way to year number 8. But it's so much easier to say finally about average.

Turns out celebrating it was as good as it could have been. I had Kiana, my fiancee Elaine (still getting used to saying that), my parents came to celebrate. Once upon a time I put off brain surgery to run a marathon, the first time I'd qualify for Boston but my favorite race of my life so far was going to be the 2017 Run for The Water because it would be Kiana's first 10 mile race. 10 miles at 10 years old, something I didn't do till I was 30. She went out there and held pace and then sped up for the last two miles, covering more ground than she ever had holding an 8:29 pace for the first half and an 8:08 pace for the second half! She would finish in 1:23.08 making it look as easy as 1, 2, 3. The last race I would ever do with her in a stroller was the Decker Challenge, both of these hilly courses and I would do it in 1:23.08. See what I mean about a scripted predictable life? She won her age group, top 10% of women, top 20% of all finishers and afterwards she was playing like she'd just gotten up. The rest of my family were cheering at the finish but they hadn't just been by standers, they had all done 5k on their own, my dad doing his first race in athletic clothes rather than jeans (and he made it look good). 

The Cowboys took home the win. We're in the middle of doing some organizing and changing at the house and the memories went even further back with me finding papers and things from high school and college. I used to have clever titles for papers back then not just plagiarizing song titles. 

But the 'formal' celebration meal was dinner on the exact same Kerbey Lane porch that I had decided to do brain surgery at. It was with 4 guys that were part of things 'way back' then. They were among the first at the hospital, one of them literally the first one there. Three have legal capacities in my life to this day. One had flown out to Duke, one had been there when they took the staples out of the side of my head (even if he did pass out while watching), one had been the one I'd called when I woke up in an ambulance from a seizure in the middle of a run. Without exception, they all took digs at me from the simple congratulating me to giving condolences to Elaine to the clever well I thought we were here to celebrate but now the brain tumor is messing with you and gotten you to propose. One even gave me a traditional card of how my tumor was jealous of my fiancee. 

But the reason they are groomsmen isn't because they were there for that. They were there long before that, we met through work and sports but had all done multiple sporting things together from ultimate to floorball to my first triathlon to road races to bike rides. Not a huge surprise that they are all athletes in different sports to this day. Some were there at the hospital as Kiana was being born. We were there for each other for poker games, travel, the first and only weekend I learned how to shoot a gun at a ranch, PH'd receptions, Super Bowl parties, getting tricked into eating a raw egg. Elaine said after dinner that my cancerversary where most of them show up often is the quietest she ever sees me... I'm just not clever enough to respond to so many jokes about me back to back. After dinner though they headed back to the house to see the new stuff and I said man more has changed in this house in the last 6 months than the decade before that when I bought it... they asked Elaine to try to have a similar effect on me. These are my friends, imagine what the people who don't like me say! But with the house, the wedding, and that joke, we were looking forward in thankfulness and I love that hope.

Until recently, really until even after I started dating Elaine, I'd only been looking an MRI at a time at the longest. I had thought that I'd only ever be mainly a middle distance runner and while my marathon win is a victory my more impressive times have primarily been middle distance races. But 3 weeks ago, I put in my first ultra pushing a pace like I didn't know I had in me and we won the ultra relay. That medal hasn't arrived but you better believe I'll be proud of it. I actually haven't signed up for a marathon since the one I won (though I've done a few that have come by good happenstance) because I couldn't quite shake that I was the cancer guy who ran marathons. I focused on Spartans and different distances because in my heart of hearts, I am and always will be a runner. I think it may be time to return home and sign up for one that obviously I'll train for but it will be above all things for just an honest run of it.

We've all but figured out a date and the save the date cards will come in due time but they weren't sure I'd make 40 but my 40th birthday falls on a weekend and I'm already daring to dream how we'll celebrate. But for today, while I'm feeling happy about being average, I think of Teddy Roosevelt I may only be an average man but I work harder at it than the average man. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Writings on the Wall

'I want to feel love, run through my blood
Tell me is this where I give it all up?
For you I have to risk it all
'Cause the writing's on the wall'

I long ago wrote about how Elaine and I got to be officially in a relationship. But as apparently is both our style, we stepped it up a bit and got engaged last weekend. I'll get to those details of how it actually happened shortly but as the past is prologue, it's good to tell some backstory.

Life has its twist and turns as each of us at some point learns. It was about two and a half years ago, when we were just friends and just starting to work together within the Austin Runners Club board that we were on the same side of an argument with some friends about how its silly how so many people make getting married a goal of their life. She and I backed each other up, though I was and am unsure as to why she was a bit of a skeptic considering her parents have been together for about three decades. It happened to be on the evening of when she had done her first Spartan, I'd gone out there with her and car load of other people and after I had finished my heat I had gone back and helped everyone out there, except her... she had been doing burpees and I'd never found her till after she was finished. We had finished a Spartan Super out that day where she had done 210 burpees, or 7 failed obstacles.

Exhaustion and consumption of alcohol have some similar properties. There are those who say that you show who you really are when drunk... I don't agree with that. I think your mind shows what it would become if it had less barriers whether those be ones of discipline or inhibition. But in perhaps the most unromantic first mention of marriage ever, I had sort of brought it up once before. Last December I was doing the beer mile, something I do annually and the quickest I get drunk every year. Because our second date was to the latest James Bond movie, I've always called her my bond girl and for some reason that day I had been 007, not just 7 but actually 007 printed on the bib. So after the beer mile, I sat on the curve and put my arm around her and then fell into some bushes and said something along the lines of, "I love you babe and maybe we'll get married once Kiana turns 18." I honestly don't remember that event or her response at all but I think it's telling that she kept the hat from the event and somehow it still warms my heart when she wears it occasionally. I usually only keep bibs that are #8. I kept that one.

This May we went out and did that same course on the same venue. I did the elite heat and got lost and ran a few extra miles but finished just before her regular team start. I would do the course again and it was and still is the most ground I've ever covered in obstacle course racing in one day. Didn't lose her or get lost myself again during any failed or succeed obstacles as it turned out side by side was more fun.

Less than a month later, we repeated the process with me doing the elite heat and then joining her in the Spartan Stadium Sprint in the Dallas Cowboys stadium. Obviously it had gone through my mind to marry her even if the only time it seemed to slip out was in jokes and that beer mile. I'd even had a few suggestions of this very romantic spot here in San Francisco and that very romantic spot there in Colorado. But somehow idyllic scenery didn't feel like the way to ask a question about till death do us part. Somehow life has been kind enough to take us to multiple trips together but she was the first to get me do a trail run and I was the first to get her to do her longest bike ride, we weren't afraid of new challenges from life or from each other. There were in fact times where we were doing different distances when the race had multiple options but in the majority of those scenarios she was the one doing the longer haul. I hadn't figured out if to propose but the how would have to be a more realistic scenario than one where everything in the backdrop was lined up.

While it may not have been written in the stars, the idea definitely came under them because one night I woke up from a dream in the middle of the night. I had been proposing at the beginning of the a Spartan beast. It felt so real, so right that rather than go back to bed I got up and wrote it down, than typed it up in a note with a lame file name in case anyone was ever looking for something on my computer. In late June, I had already decided to do so at the Dallas beast, the one and only other one we were signed up for, her first one. She had become a little frustrated with her lack of upper body muscles like I had when I started doing spartans and was now going to the gym regularly. I kept letting it sink in but there was less and less doubt. The friend I run with the most liked the idea but wondered if I'd really be able to wait a few months. When you're planning to ask someone about spending the rest of your life together, a few months somehow seems both like a short wait and an eternity.

Before too long, I had asked the people whose blessings I wanted before proceeding. My mom knows Elaine's out of my league so she gave it all but instantly. Kiana initially struggled with it even while immediately pointing out it had nothing to do with Elaine but gave her blessing and a hug when doing so. The last person I asked, the conversation I was most nervous about having was with her father. There was never a moment I considered skipping these conversations nor would I be getting married without them because marriage in my book is not merely a merging of individuals but a merging of families. While there's an old joke that the difference between inlaws and outlaws is that outlaws are wanted, I also wanted our families to think of each other as family more than titles with hyphens at the end.

But how to get her dad's number...? I never have felt the need to know Elaine's password on her phone and when I wanted her dad's number I couldn't seem to think of any organic way to ask without tipping her off. We had watched The Big Sick together where someone puts their finger on a phone in order to unlock it while they're in a coma and for just a few seconds I thought about doing that while she was asleep but how do you explain that if she wakes up while you're doing it. I'm not creative enough for a lie and the truth getting out that way would be less than adequate. Somehow one day right after a phone call with him she put her phone down and walked out of the room. I grabbed a picture of her screen with my iPad (my boldest screenshot ever!). I would call him a couple of weeks later on a weekend she was out and about and I hoped he would be available. My hand was shaking so bad that I put down the phone before I called to try to breathe and texted a friend how bad of an idea it was to take a shot before making that phone call (I did not do so). He was gracious in the phone call, saying he appreciated the call but that he ultimately trusted Elaine's judgement and my judgement. In an awkward attempt at humor in the middle of nerves I joked that oh I'm not sure anyone should ever trust my judgement quickly realizing it was not the time to make that joke. I realized it in the middle of it and kept talking but ultimately it went well despite my poor judgement about making jokes about my poor judgement; it's a vicious cycle. 

There was the question of choosing the ring but that had been sitting for a long, long time. Over 5 years ago when I did my first Livestrong challenge there was a young lady, Linda Santos who was giving out rings at the kids station made out of the same stuff as the yellow bands but the rings said hope. I passed by and joked that if I ever got engaged, I'd have to use one of those. Linda said oh wow, here take it. I responded with that I was just kidding but eventually took it because in the end, hope is hard to resist. Perhaps even then while pretending to be cynical, the hopeful romantic in me knew that cancer hadn't caused any permanent damage to the best parts of my heart. Maybe this cowardly lion wasn't lacking courage but just hope. I keep a collection of shot glasses of places I've been in my home and a few of them have small additional souvenirs from the trip. But that ring of hope had sat in the middle of the Austin shot glass which is always front and center, gathering dust I suppose but knowing if hope was ever coming out, it was going to do so just to stay home. Last year, Kiana got a bike and Elaine so they could do their longest ride ever, 20 miles. Since then, Elaine has bought her own bicycle and at this year's Livestrong Challenge, my 8th one, side by side, we were together for the long ride when she more than doubled it to 45 miles. Linda was at the finish line giving roses to cancer survivors and I might have whispered to her that her ring was about to get used later that week. I'm not sure we've ever smiled wider at each other. 

Working out the details of the moment was somehow simple and emotionally compelling... we had to get up at five on race morning to get there on time. As she had for so long, my Iphone once again gave me the direction to "Choose An Elaine" and I wanted to respond 'I already have Siri, chill out, just give me a couple more hours before I ask.'  I played the song that this blog borrows it's title from, that is quoted at the top, the writing's on the wall. The James Bond girl and I were starting our day with the theme song from it. I tried to somehow connect it without giving it away by saying we were going to have some special walls today of going under, over. "I'm prepared for this, I never shoot to miss." I made a reference to the upcoming spear throw and that I've gotten a great batting record at it but I knew that it was that I was prepared for THIS. She referenced that she didn't want help on any of the obstacles, she'd been going to the gym and had for a long time referenced it as her A race. I played it one more time...

Somehow, that was the longest drive ever to a race. But while I usually use pump up songs on the way to races, it was the romantic ones that didn't get skipped as it shuffled through them.  I had told my cousin the night before that I was going to figure out a way to write it on a wall while he distracted her. Once I met up with him, he knew where it was going to happen but because it was literally a few degrees above freezing so he said let's go to the sun. I said I'll catch up I gotta say hi to someone... might have noticed a race photographer to also take the shots. Usually Spartan has a chalkboard wall with their logo but this time it was a plastic one... I had asked for their blessing but would have done it anyway and wrote will you marry me? I called Omar back and said let's get a pre race picture. I had originally planned to say oh I gotta tie my shoes for an excuse to kneel but forgot that part. So I just knelt and at some level I was glad it was so cold because then it could seem like the shaking of my hands was due to low body temperature. I asked will you marry me and she said... 'what are you doing? what's going on? are you being serious? is this real?' My cousin said she looked really confused and unsure as to how to respond to that I pointed at the writing and said 'see, look, I wrote it on the wall.' Not sure why that was the convincing point but she looked at it and said yes. There will be a you may now kiss the bride but that day I just needed her permission. 

We dropped off our stuff and then did the race. Very early on, in that 14 mile race in stiff cold, we were under water chest high. In most races I overheat from the constant movement so might appreciate an ice bath mid race but in Spartans the obstacles stop you from the constant movement so I've never been so cold in a race. The mud seemed stickier and colder. The barbed wire though, one of the obstacles I hate the most went by faster than it ever had in both its first and second iteration maybe cause I kept seeing Elaine through each roll amidst rocks.  Elaine got obstacles she'd never gotten before like the monkey bars, the hoist, and the traverse wall without an ounce of help. She would joke that maybe the ring gave her extra grip strength. For the first time ever, we both nailed every wall obstacle including her first time getting the 8 foot wall and that moment where we dunked fully underwater for the dunk wall. I guess the writing at the first one made the writing more powerful than any wall could be. She did less burpees that day than ever and I hear that ranch has good natural views but I swear that the best one was a moving one in front of me and I got to go back to Austin with her after. 

We sat on the drive back and traded some of the stories written herein. She was apologetic about not being sure if I was being serious and I responded with, 'who jokes about something like that?' Elaine used to do improv and said she may have grown desensitized because an oft used mechanism when a scene is fading is for an improviser to drop to a knee to propose to work something from there. I had posted it shortly after doing it before heading to the race so there were missed texts, calls and social media but I'd save that for another day, this day was just about the start of a promise. Somehow the only call that made it while I was on my phone was from halfway around the world. Elaine and I have gotten to attend several weddings in the last year (talk about power of suggestion) but the only one I was in was a groomsman in Egypt. Louay called and said when we knew the date and time to let him know and he'd get here. 

We won't do things like official engagement pictures, Spartan had race photographers out there and hopefully they caught at least one during the actual race. Neither of us is particularly good at posing for the camera but many of the best pictures of us have been spontaneous with two of our favorites at being at weddings, that one in Egypt and one here in Austin. I'm glad that it's in sharing life where we smile so well. 

I've been amused at how quickly people think we should have wedding details figured out when she didn't even know I was proposing but we've started working on it. There's a date in mind if we can find a venue, there are groomsman and bridesmaids. I actually had already picked out another ring but wanted to get her approval and ring size. I'd ran it by a friend who works in jewelry .. who liked it but asked if Elaine wouldn't want a more traditional ring.  I responded and said someone who wants everything super traditional probably wouldn't make it long with me. Thankfully, Elaine approved and I now know her ring size. Seeing how overwhelming planning a wedding might get, I wondered if in the age of email and ecommerce, Elaine might approve of eloping but ultimately we got here together but also with friends and family and we want to have a chance to make that commitment with them. We're both nerds at our own level and I had once made reference to how people shouldn't propose too soon because some things changes in the way we see our significant others seems to shift around the two year mark. Obviously I follow scientific principles cause I proposed two years and one month after we started dating. 

Still, I proposed at the beginning of a race, before the hardest event I do every year, before the first beast she's ever done. The race went well but not perfect, the conditions pre-proposal were tougher than I had imagined or than I had ever done a Spartan in. But through the mess, through the hills, somethings didn't go well there. Elaine took a rope to the face that made her cry, I took a cut to the leg that made me bleed, there were failed obstacles but there was never a moment where the thought of a did-not-finish crossed either of our minds. Blood, sweat, and tears are better and easier in good company. Jones once said that love isn't what makes the world go round; it's what makes the ride worthwhile. Elaine and I have had some awesome adventures but I fully believe we're just getting started. 

I've been here before
But always hit the floor
I've spent a lifetime runnin'
And I always get away
With Elaine I'm feeling something
That makes me want to stay