Pals Perspectives: Racing With Stage Four

Pals Perspectives: Racing With Stage Four

Ariel M. stands in Utah after her most recent running race.Today’s guest blogger is Ariel M. from Salt Lake City, Utah.

If it’s a race, it’s a competition.
If it’s a competition, there is a winner.
If I am racing, I’m competing, and if I’m competing, I’m already winning.

Crowded behind the start we timidly size each other up as we choose the perfect place in line. I’m encouraged by passing people along the way, but I certainly don’t want to get stuck behind a group of walkers using this time as their social hour. So I choose somewhere in the middle. The gun goes off and there is an awkward mix of music with the speakers blasting “The Distance” by Cake and my headphones in one ear blasting “WAP” by Cardi B. Both songs are soon drowned out by the rushing river which we follow through the first 4 miles down the canyon. I feel easy and light on my feet in the beginning but quickly realize it’s because we are going straight downhill. Downhill proves to be a harder impact on my osteopenic knees than the uphill so I lean forward and befriend the help of gravity. Legs circle and tumble one in front of the other, landing on the pads of my sockless feet. My hands flop at the wrists as I relax my arms and let them swing openly. The cold morning air instantly wicks any sweat that beads out of my armpits.

We pass a huge rushing waterfall that flows from about 50 meters up. I take note of its beauty and power while a woman stops to take a picture. I think about what a unique photo opp this is since the road is closed off for the race and I could snap a shot front and center from the middle of the highway. But I don’t stop. Because I’m racing. Still, I appreciate the gentle mist that radiates, touching my face. My mind focuses back to the rushing river and the sound of 10 feet from the little grouping of runners around me. I see the first water station ahead. I strategically situate myself to grab one of the cups, throw a splash in my mouth and dunk the cup into a trash can all without missing a step in my stride. This maneuver allows me to pull ahead of my little grouping and now I’m alone.

I notice a new bunch of runners ahead of me and I wonder how a 10-year-old child and a hobbling older lady have been in front of me this whole time. I analyze their strides and think about how I must look compared to them. Then I remember that the 5k started ahead of us. This makes sense now. I slowly start to pick people off. One at a time, I chase them down building up my fortitude as I do.

This whole experience is a great challenge for the ego– The mediation between the conscious thoughts about how I seem to the outside world and who I really am on the inside. The ego reminds me that I can be many things at once. Competitive and friendly. Aggressive and encouraging. Ecstatically joyful and deeply depressed. All of which I am feeling now as my attention fades from my mental state to my physical one. My philosophical musings get broken up by the lactic acid pulsing around my hips and dull aching in my knees and ankles.

My headphones now play “Higher Love” by Whitney Huston with some sort of techno remix. I tear up and think how I wish someone I knew would be there at the finish line to hold me. Lyrics become like a little prayer:
Bring me a higher love.
Bring me a higher love.

I choke back tears and then think about how I probably just need to eat. I put my emotions in check and my mind turns psychedelic. My breath, while labored, is my consistent anchor, reminding me of the potency of the present moment I find myself in. Regardless of my attempt to feel some enjoyment out of this, my legs are definitely hurting. But I can’t blame anyone else for my suffering because I signed up for this. And for the first time in a while, I feel empowered by my own self-inflicted pain. It makes me feel in control. It makes me feel powerful. I get to do this. I get to run fast down a canyon with strangers shouting their encouragement and ringing cowbells. A smile goes a long, long way in these spaces. A good job or a thumbs up can be all someone needs to remember that they are still among the living and perhaps supposed to be having a little fun. We all cross the finish line by the end of the day so it’s better with a happy face.

An African dance song has me feeling positive with about 5k left to go. After we exit the bottom of the canyon, we take a paved trail through the city that winds towards downtown. The last turn takes us onto a straight path to the finish line. I can see the large banner up ahead, a deceptive 6-8 blocks yet. Not time to sprint, but one can only run faster when the finish line is visible.

These longer races have me thinking that sometimes it’s not about who is fastest or strongest,but it’s about who can withstand the most suffering for the longest period of time. It’s not just my legs that ache now, but my lungs and heart are also struggling to make sense of this intensity. I remind myself that I am good at suffering. Really good, in fact. I have some advantages in that department.

I speed up with every block and I wonder what song will play last when I cross the finish line.

I pass a kid with a Huntsman Cancer Center jersey and I shout “HUNTSMAN! WOOP!” We high five and his dad asks him who that was. He says he doesn’t know. I shout back “I’M A PATIENT! STAGE 4 BABY!” I find it interesting that when I pass people and give them a verse of positivity, it actually makes me run faster. Instant proof that the more we give, the more we receive. We become inspired by sharing our inspirations.

I’m throbbing with encouragement and all in the 30 seconds before I cross the finish line I think:

Ariel M. sports a strongman pose with her belly scar and proud momma grin.I have had 25 rounds of chemo. 
I have had level 10 pain on the way to the ER, multiple times.
I’ve had my abdominal wall sliced open multiple times.
I have lost my ability to ever carry my own children again.
I lost the ability to feed my child on my own terms.
I know what it feels like to lose control of life because of an outside force.
I look death in the eyes on a daily basis and here I am, running all this way, and pretty damn fast! 

The last song comes on, “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine.
“Run fast for your mother, run fast for your father
Run for your children, for your sisters and brothers
Leave all your love and your longing behind
You can’t carry it with you if you want to survive.”

I cross the finish line stronger than when I started though now with sore baby deer legs. In my blurry vision, I see families with signs and children hugging their sweaty parents. I hurt. I hurt so good. I feel weepy and happy and nearly hallucinative. I’ll always be drawn back to this feeling and curious about how to recreate it. How to share it. Standing at the finish line on a beautiful sunny day, alone in a crowd of people, I remind myself that I’ve already won…although 4th in my age group isn’t bad for a stage 4 cancer survivor!