I have a friend who is an Ironman. Not like the Marvel Comics Ironman although that would be kinda cool, but like one of those crazy dudes who do those races in über hot places like Hawaii; you know,197,000 miles of biking, swimming and running on a gazillion degree day and their shoes melt? Yeah, that kind. Anyway, a while back we were riding along at the beach on a hot hot day, of course in the comfort of an air conditioned car and he was showing me part of the bike route he trained on. He said, “Right here I’d be hitting about hour 4 and about 74 miles, with 26 more to go to get home.” As we drove he said, “still going, still going.” I got sweaty just thinking about it, so this prompted me to ask what I’m certain he thought was a stupid question, “What do you do if you are all the way out here and you want to stop?”
“You don’t stop,” he said, “you just keep going.”
Bullshit on that, I thought; I’d be calling a girlfriend to come get my hot tired ass, and telling her that while she was at it, bring an icy bottle of Chard with her too.
Then it was his turn to say something equally stupid, so politely I returned the favor of attention. He said, “It’s like when you had cancer, and you were in the middle of chemo, you didn’t stop, you kept going.” Yeah. Right. Crazy talk you crazy ass Ironman. “Uh, I didn’t exactly have a choice,” I protested, “I couldn’t stop or I would die; the consequences of not finishing chemo were a wee bit different then saying, ‘I’m hot and chapped and I want a beer and I don’t want to ride anymore today.’” Bagging on treatment just wasn’t an option in the cancer marathon, I mean you don’t die from getting off a bike. Shoot, even showing up for the race wasn’t optional. Your cancer race number comes up and you get your butt out there; you are in a run for your life and you just run as long as you have to. There’s no leaving in chemo. I punctuated my point by reminding him too, that there is nothing super strenuous about having an infusion nail driven into a numbed port. You just do it; you just show up for treatment and do it.
He got quiet; that was what he tended to do when he knew he was right and knew I just needed to marinate a bit to come around to his way of thinking. Of course this didn’t happen often.
Cancer treatment is indeed an insane, crazy marathon, where our swim, bike, run translates to chemo, surgery, radiation. Somehow, we cancerchicks just show up and do it, we shave our heads and go to our surgeries, we empty our drains and we tolerate bone pain and mouth sores; we just get up for 45 days straight and lay down and get radiated.
What is it that allows us to march through cancer as if we had no choice? To show up every single sucky day and say,“Okay, hook me up, poison me, cut me, radiate me, do whatever it takes to get me well.” How was it that I, the Queen of Bagging and Going Home Loudly Complaining When The Going Got Tough, never even thought to just call up the Big Guy and say, “Hey dude, BTW, I’m not coming to chemo today,” and instead go meet the girlfriends for martini’s? I mean, while I do recall numerous calls to the girlfriends to hurry it up and bring wine and season 2 of Weeds over to the ranch, I don’t recall doing that instead of chemo; I don’t recall ever saying I was gonna get off the bike and go home. I never ever entertained that quitting chemo or saying, “Thanks, but I’m good,” to a lumpectomy, or “Gee thats a nice offer and all, but I’ll pass on radiation tats,” was an option. Never. The only thing I came even close to backing down on was giving myself shots, but I still did it… with my eyes closed, but I did it. The ONLY thing in the whole history of cancer that I refused to do was touch my port cause it creeped me out, but I didn’t have to touch my port so it didn’t matter, I just made Marci (Chemo Nurse Extraordinaire) do it. But quitting treatment, as chapped and hot and tired as I was, was simply not an option (along with dying) that ever crossed my mind. There are no exit ramps in Cancerland, except of course one, and while endless supplies of Chardonnay are likely at the end of it, I sure wasn’t taking it.
In hindsight, where some of my more rational thinking is accomplished, I do think Ironman was kindly implying that I had some of the same “stuff” in me that he had in him; that a marathon is a marathon. But try as I might to get my little hands around that big concept, months later it still made absolutely no sense in my lil’ brain. I’m sorry but the stuff that gets you through cancer treatment is so not the stuff that finishes 140.6 miles on a 200 degree day. The threat of dying if you don’t finish is a tad bit different from the threat of feeling like a woosie for stopping. There is a big difference in choosing to finish and having to finish. I mean really, what makes me admire athletes is that I see something in them that I don’t have, that drive, that ability to muscle through; that ability to dig deep. I have always harbored a secret crush on athletes; the Olympics put me into a two-week state of weepy nirvana. There is something completely amazing to me about a person who chooses to accomplish those things at that level, who gets up at 4 AM to skate at the ice rink or who runs for two hours before work, someone who conditions his or herself to swim 80 laps in a pool every day, or who races downhill at 70 mph. That is how people become our heroes I suspect, by possessing a quality we admire but that we can’t imagine harnessing or cultivating within us, a quality we don’t recognize within, but so wish was inside us.
I concluded that that stuff was so not my stuff, of that I was sure. I mean yeah, I got through my own hellish triathlon, but I just I had to show up and let them do what they had to do. Or die.
I settled on this conclusion as:
A) I like to be right
B) I have found myself hopping off the treadmill all too frequently at mile 2 instead of mile 4 this last 6 months, loudly announcing/whining that I can’t do it
C) Being in an Ironman race is a choice, albeit an insane choice but a choice. No one chooses to do cancer
D) What (I thought) drove him was not being a woosie, what drove me was not dying. I can handle being a woosie (see item B)
E) Finishing brings a different joy, a vulnerable frightened joy for us, and ten foot tall and bulletproof joy for him
This conclusion made me feel infinitely better about doing a lame 2 miles even when all my friends were doing 13. At least temporarily.
But what nagged at me every time I got on that treadmill and dreamed of running a half marathon was that I wanted to believe differently; I wanted to embrace that there was indeed a common denominator between him, an Ironman marathoner, and me, a Cancer marathoner, I mean something beyond a shared Polish ancestry which admittedly makes you a bit tenacious and stubborn. I started to consider that maybe I did indeed have “it” and just needed to get off my fat butt and find it. If “it” got me through cancer where had “it” gone? I couldn’t seem to summon “it” right now after five years, to save my life, (even though I had back then) or to even coax 2 more stinkin’ miles out of me. I wanted to have it. I found myself secretly longing to find some of that thing I admired in athletes in me, after a lifetime of believing it wasn’t in me, and wanting to translate it from cancer to the rest of my life. I wanted to run 13.1 miles.
First, I had to figure out what “it” was. That stuff, that do itness, that dig deepness, that don’t stopness, that hit me with your best shotness, that bring it on-ness, that grit, that steely determination….that… that…salt. That’s what it is, salt. Salt is what makes you blind to the option of stopping. Salt is what it takes to do a marathon, to run big miles, to finish chemo, to finish anything.
Wait a minute, “to finish chemo?” Did I just say that?
Noooo, surely there was nothing of that in me. But I just said it didn’t I? Could it be? Was his salt my salt? Is it all the same salt? Is there salt in all of us cancerchicks?
Indeed darlin there is. Salt is what made you fight like a girl. Salt is what made you tough it out. He once said to me, “Things get weird out there at mile 23.” Tell me about it, they get a little hairy at chemo infusion number 15 too.
Is cancer salt the same as athletic salt? Surely it’s not just an individual little packet o’salt, like at McDonald’s; good for one use on cancer is it? I wanted to believe I had the giant container of Morton salt in me and just needed to know how to open the package and let it pour, especially when it rained, especially when I hit mile 4 and was being a big giant crybaby.
“Tell me more,” I asked, “tell me about when you want to stop and don’t…..tell me where your head goes when you get off the bike and have 26 miles ahead of you?” He said,
“In an Ironman event you have trained for so long and conditioned yourself to just keep going, upon recalling last year’s race I was just happy to get off the bike to have finished the 112 miles, for the pain to stop for the legs to stop cramping, you just keep going watching the mile markers tick off keeps you going, just one more mile, just one more mile. The desire to finish becomes overwhelming, the entire time your body wants to stop you must tell yourself to keep moving, ignore the pain, or better yet use the pain to help you focus to stay awake to ignore the rain the sleet the sandstorm, just one more mile, what makes you finish; the idea that you are there to do this, that you will do this that you will not stop, that nothing no one will stop you, it becomes your quest…you do it for you, you do it for your family you do to prove that you are good at something,… you just do it.”
Finally, after months of not getting it, I got it. He had no more choice to show up than I did; he had no more choice to stop than did I. The common denominator was that although we thought the other could stop, neither of us perceived ourselves as having a choice to stop. That is the essence of salt, that giving in or giving up isn’t on the menu, no matter what we are doing.
Salt allows us to morph the pain of the experience into a catalyst that moves us forward. Where his physical pain motivates, our emotional pain motivates; the pain of seeing our kids motherless, of missing the birth of grandchildren, of never seeing the world, of not finishing life. His physical pain reaps emotional rewards, and our emotional pain reaps the physical rewards of longevity; simply we roll out of bed on chemo days because we know that after today we are ticking off one mile closer to dancing at our daughter’s wedding. What keeps us both going is the quest to stay alive, physically and emotionally.
Salt is what makes you leave one hell and go directly to the next fresh hell and just do it, and never consider not moving along. Salt drives. Our quest is to finish our life as much as it is his quest to finish the race. Finishing defines you. We all, cancer patient or not, have our fears of how life will define us if we don’t finish, or don’t live long enough to define ourselves. Salt makes us dig in and finish that sentence. Salt flavors our definition of ourselves. Salt finishes.
The key in accomplishing anything in life, anything at all, is in embracing the mentality that stopping is simply not an option. Grasping and holding on tight to the notion that getting what we want both in life and from life is a quest and you must let the desire to finish overwhelm you.
Bottom line. A demon that can kill you is a demon that can kill you. A hellish marathon is a hellish marathon. We would have both died different deaths if we stopped. We will face many more demons in our lifetime, maybe not as big and bad as cancer, or a 140.6 miles, but they will come; and now we know that we have within us what it takes in us to face them, and to use them to our advantage and finish.
Girl you have it, we have it, and with it we can do anything. You have conditioned yourself for it. It is why you are here. Cultivate and harvest your salt girlfriend, you did it to kick cancer, now use it to kick ass at life; you’ve got it in you to do great things. Reach higher, go longer, finish the race; you may not be an Ironman, but yes indeedy you are bulletproof.
There is something amazing about us cancerchicks to others, something heroic about us girls who can accomplish things like a Cancer Marathon, who can complete chemo, who endure a double mastectomy, who do radiation every single day. Apparently they see something in us they wish they had in them.
Today, I got 4 miles done. Tomorrow 6. I am on a quest. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, I can’t do.
You don’t stop. You just keep going.
Sometimes, just sometimes (and listen up cause you won’t hear this often from me) being wrong is even better than being right.
Remember what Christopher Robin said to Pooh,
“Promise me you’ll always remember:
You’re braver than you believe,
and stronger than you seem,
and smarter than you think.”
Amen. You go you salt of the earth girl, you go.