Friday, July 27, 2012

Why I Run: Olympic Torches and Motivation

With the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremonies kicking off today, I felt it would be best to give a little insight into my connection with the Olympics but also on what I have done in my ten years following that special moment on that cold winter morning of 2001.
The best way for me to describe how everything connects in my life is to provide you with the back-story to this letter, which I originally wrote to the Philadelphia Enquirer on "Why I Am Running The Broad Street Run" for their potential publication following the race back in May. (My story did not get selected, but another beautiful story of struggle and accomplishment did.) But I have many friends, family and strangers ask me the same question about running organized races like 5ks, 10 milers and half-marathons (not onto full marathons yet): "Why do you do it?," "Why pay to run long distances?," "Is there some sort of special acknowledgement for completely these runs or simply bragging rights on Facebook?" These are real questions people have asked me and so I feel there is no better way to explain than through my story.
So in honor of the beautiful Olympic Games underway, the spirit of competition, athletic endurance and fitness, and lifelong struggle, I ask for you to read my letter on Why I Run. Afterwards, if you feel motivated enough to make a small donation to the Team Fight organization, the information about the foundation I run for is linked below!

"Why I Run"
I've never been one to accept rejection lightly. I don't like to be told what I can and cannot do. And when I was 13 years old, I was told I wasn't allowed to do much with my future (whether it be long-term or near-future). I was told I had Hodgkin's disease Lymphoma , a common form of cancer among teenagers affecting the Lymphatic system. Likelihood of surviving the disease was high. I received chemotherapy and radiation as I finished up elementary school and entered into high school. I was declared "cured" after six months of treatment. Just after a few months of my regular check ups, the cancer had come back with much more severity, spreading throughout my body.
An overhaul of treatment ideas came forth and extensive amounts of chemotherapy did not do its job once again. A last resort treatment was to receive a stem-cell transplant. I harvested (froze) my own stem-cells for three months before undergoing the highest dosage of chemotherapy possible, with the hopes to wipe out the spreading cancerous cells. As a result of such powerful chemotherapy that was meant to kill any fast growing cells in my body, the treatment would completely wipe out my immune system. Without white blood cells to protect my body from harmful diseases or the common cold, I had to remain in isolation within the hospital in Boston, MA for 6 weeks to allow for my immune system to recover and grow, similiar to an infant's. I didn't eat for 17 days, I was getting sick every hour, I lost a frightening amount of weight, all while being two hours from my family and friends back home in NH. With the limited amount of people allowed to visit me due to harmful germs (even the simpliest infection or cold could have killed me if I contracted it), I had allowed my mind to dream of breaking free from the hospital and wandering the world, free of tubes, IVs, nausea, and desperately concerned looks from my family as I was on the brink. Finally, my immune system begin to recover. I left the hospital only to be confined to my house for 4 months in strict isolation. I had no physical interaction with family members. I couldn't go to school, I just had a tutor who visited and worked with me (from a distance). Being locked down in a house is not something a person like myself can handle. It was incredibly challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally, but was just a drop in the bucket compared to what I had lived through to get there.
A break happened around Christmas time of nearly my third year of fighting the disease. I was selected to run one-tenth of a mile, carrying the Olympic torch on its way to Salt Lake City. The honor was huge and my chance to get out of the house to get a little exercise had finally come.
At 4:30am, in 10 degree weather, an hour from my house in New Hampshire, my personal torch received the famous flame that has been passed from carrier to carrier for centuries. The moment will forever live in my memory as my short stretch to carry the flame began. For the first time in my life I got the thrill of running for a crowd. My one-tenth of a mile was filled on both sides of the road with my closest family and friends bearing the brutally cold weather and cheering me on. This was my first real exercise in more than 8 months, as my health was far too weak and my restrictions were overly-precautious when it came to any exercise. But while carrying that flame, it wasn't apparent that my body was recovering from its most devastating battle yet. I was so filled with adrenaline and happiness holding the glowing torch in my hand that I began sprinting and high stepping my way up the road before being told to slow down and embrace the moment.
I passed the flame to the next carrier, my parents greated me at the end with hugs and my dad said, "You looked like you could run a marathon with how excited and how much energy you had!" And it felt like I could have.
That was my first taste of organized running. It was quite a grandiose stage to enter in on. But sadly, after finally regaining a healthy, strong immune system and being completely cleared of any cancerous cells in my body, I still had obstacles to face in the future. My doctors gave me warnings of all the things I should not -- and could not -- do with my second lease on life. Of the laundry list of things my body -- specifically my heart -- could not handle, three stuck out in my mind the most; no scuba-diving, no high altitude climbing, no long endurance training/running.
Challenge accepted. Nine years after being diagnosed, while living in Thailand, I climbed to the top of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, one of the tallest mountains in Southeast Asia. The two day trek stretched my lungs and heart to the limit with its 4,095 meters (13,435 feet) above sea level elevation. After surviving that climb, I got the hunger.
To honor my ten year anniversary of my diagnosis, I climbed for four days to the base camp of the tenth tallest mountain in the world, Nepal's Mount Annapurna in the Himalayas, at 4,130 meters (13,549 ft) above sea level. I reached the peak April 8th, 2010, just three days before my decade anniversary of challenge and celebration.
Just eight months after that, I began training for my first half marathon. On October 12, 2011 I checked off another "cannot do" on my doctor's list, by finishing the Baltimore Half Marathon in just over two hours.
This year's Baltimore Half Marathon (10/12/13) will be my fourth half marathon completed since then. But with each measurement of distance, I always think of my proudest 1/10 of a mile back in 2001 with torch in my hand.
I plan to continue running longer distanced runs in the future, with hopes to complete that marathon my father told me I looked so prepared for during my sickest days.
Checking off these challenges on my list has been something I've prided myself on and have built my life post-cancer around. So when I think about why I'm running any race, I just think back to all of the times I wasn't able to jump out of my hospital bed and just run. That image encourages me everyday and every mile.

To donate towards my cause for Team Fight, please go to my personal page here and help me reach my fundraising goal for this year's Baltimore Half Marathon.
Thank you to everyone's donations, encouragement, help, and support!

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