I run, I run,
And I run—
Till I am out of breath
Till I lose the energy that keeps me going
I run, I run,
And I run—
Till I can go no more,
Till I fall to my defeat.
But I rise up,
I take a deep breath,
And start over.
I dug out my childhood book of poetry recently, and found this little gem called “Starting Over.” Back when I wrote this, when I was 15 years old, I was surprised at the overwhelmingly positive response, as I didn’t really view it as poetry, per se. My fledgling creative self thought that all poems should rhyme, even to its own peril. It couldn’t hold a candle to my childlike ode to spring: Spring is here, let’s all cheer, for this warm day, that comes our way. I wince from embarrassment that I wrote such an infantile piece of tripe, albeit before my age reached the double-digits. Thankfully, I have improved greatly through practice, as well as maturity from life experiences that I draw inspiration for more profound topics.
Reading “Starting Over” again 28 years after its creation, I appreciate now why it was considered poetry, and of decent quality at that. I am not sure where I got the inspiration for it, although, Manfred Mann’s “Runner” was released that same year, and I recall it being a song I was quite drawn to at the time. Still, I was not an athletic child, nor did I gravitate toward running as a form of exercise. Yet, I chose that activity to symbolically express the hurdles we encounter and the way that they can be overcome—quite simply, by soldiering on. Even years later, as a seasoned lyric writer, I can’t think of a more direct and astute way to poetically convey that. It doesn’t cease to surprise me how insightful we can be as children and young adults, as well as the clarity that our youthful, non-jaundiced eyes can see.
Back in 2003, I wound up in the emergency room feeling like I was slowly suffocating to death. The CT scan revealed a tumor the size of a grapefruit compressing my right lung and superior vena cava. The mass was life threatening due to how rapidly that the tumor was growing. If I had waited even a week to get treatment, it would have been too late. A surgical biopsy was needed as soon as possible to determine the next course of action. It was Stage II Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; I spent the rest of the year getting chemotherapy and radiation. I responded remarkably well to the therapy, but developed blood clots from the chemo. While Heparin and Coumadin dissolved them and prevented more from forming, one left a permanent mark in the form of a scar in my subclavian vein. I didn’t know that until after I went into remission and started experiencing problems after my body started to recover from the numerous assaults inflicted upon it.
Even though the doctors gave it a gentler-sounding euphemistic diagnosis of an “occluded vein,” the effects of it could not be softened. Every day, I feel it to some degree. The most tolerable is a numbing pressure in my head above the nape of my neck. I feel a bit winded as the blood pools in my head and face when I rise from a squat or bending over. I learned to slowly ease out of those positions to mitigate that response. It becomes problematic when my head throbs. It borders on painful when it moves down my neck to my upper back; it is debilitating when it pulses like a hot electric current down through my gluteus muscles into my hamstrings. That is when my balance is thrown off and my vision becomes blurry in my left eye (the blockage is in my left vein). A sharp, sudden noise, such as a hammer, causes a painful spasm in the connective tissue in my neck. I won’t sugarcoat this: It sucks. I got a raw deal; I feel like I sacrificed freedom and gave a piece of my happiness in payment for my life. Even when I don’t experience it physically, I am reminded of my battle with cancer every time I see the muted roadmap of collateral veins on my torso. The wondrously adaptive mechanism of our bodies designs alternative routes for the blood to find its way to the heart when the original ones don’t function properly.
The things that cause a flare up—barometric pressure changes, excessive stress, or strain on the lower body through exercise, injury, or standing for long periods—were what I discovered on my own through processes of experimentation and elimination. I have gotten little to no help from the plethora of specialists I have seen. There is, however, a consensus on the prognosis: There is no cure or treatment for it. I was assured it should not be life threatening, but I do have to handle myself with care. I also found that the less excess weight and body fat I carry, the better I feel. Essentially, the less effort my body requires to function, the more efficiently it will operate.
It was not serendipitous that I rediscovered this poem. I believe subconsciously, I was drawn to it. Why? Because as a response to my father’s death earlier this year and a resulting increased concern with my own health, I started running. For exercise, that is. It was also a way to cope with the trauma and the realities of my own mortality. I couldn’t run away from my problems, but unexpectedly, I found I could run them off—literally and figuratively. The physical benefits of running three times per week have been palpable. I have more energy, am leaner, and the symptoms of the occluded vein have lessened. The reason for the latter is two-fold: I have less body fat that could interfere with the venous flow; Davis’s Law states that when soft tissue undergoes stress, it adapts. My vessels are being taxed from the exertion, and just as my body built the collateral veins, it strengthened the walls in order to accommodate the additional load placed upon them.
The less tangible effects are what got me thinking about how such a simple yet dynamic physical act can turn into a symbolic life-lesson. When I first started back in June, I could barely make a half a mile before I was sucking wind and had to slow to a walk for the rest of the course. It was a discouraging start, but something propelled me forward. After a little over a month, I was making at least two miles. I set a goal for myself at the end of August to make it to four miles without stopping. I reached that distance on August 7. I felt on top of the world. However, I have not been able to maintain that consistently. I was temporarily sidelined by travel and a couple of knee injuries, but even then, I made the effort to run at least a mile. If I didn’t, then I feared I would lose the drive and give up. While I can’t say that I enjoy running, as it is uncomfortable to exert so much effort, I have the utmost respect for it. There is something galvanizing about pushing my body to its limits. Just when I think I will hit a wall, I can set my sights on a stopping point further ahead, yet find myself running past it. Eight years ago, my body let me down; now, it is reassuring me that my mind sets the pace, and that everything else will follow. How liberating.
I have come to a begrudging acceptance of my situation. I have no choice. There is always a possibility that a respite, if not a complete cure, could be found. Discover Magazine published an article earlier this year regarding a development in stem cell research. A San Diego biotech company designed an organ “printer” that created the first artificial blood vessel made entirely from human cells. Could that mean that something similar would be able to generate new paths to make the blood flow more smoothly in my body, thus decreasing my ordeal? Perhaps, but it may not happen in this lifetime. It is far from a guarantee, so I must play the hand that I’ve been dealt. Where it stands, there are still consequences to putting my body through the trenches. More times than not, I experience ill effects. They get less extreme the stronger I become through pushing myself. Even though I will never be rid of it completely, it is worth the time and energy. I’m worth it.
Incidentally, I have pressure in my head as I write this, due to running this morning. Poetic, eh?