My Invisible Coaches


Sometimes the people who inspire us are closer than we realize.

Hi. I'm Kevin, and I'm a person who runs. I am NOT, however, a runner. This may not seem like much of a distinction, but to me it represents opposite ends of the athletic spectrum. A runner lives to run. I run to live.

As a 13-year, three-time survivor of mantle cell lymphoma, I've made a life decision. My goal, at 60 years old, is to be the healthiest 90-year-old cancer survivor in history. Right now, I'm in remission, and hopefully, this time, fully cured. It's become pretty obvious to me that, either way, the healthier you are, the better your odds. So, running is my least worst option for fitness.

"Least worst" is a euphemism for "I really, really hate it until after it's over." I like the culture of running, and I truly love the people. I enjoy the first half mile or so of a race. The middle part, I just gut through on pure cussed orneriness. The last third, whether it's a three-miler or a half marathon, is when my little voices go to work.

"Go ahead, walk a while. Nobody will ever know."

"Quit now. It's no big deal, and nobody will judge you."

And worst of all: "Everybody knows you've got cancer. You're a hero just being out here. You've got the best reason in the world to shut it off now."

About the time my evil inner spirits really start to drag me down, I call on my invisible coaches. Let me introduce you to Dave, Dan and Gary.

Dave was a "virtual friend" I met over the internet through a mutual interest in combat robotics. He became one of my magazine writers, and encouraged me through my first round of cancer. Then he was diagnosed with severe cancer himself. Dave is the first person I spoke with from diagnosis, to the terminal stage, until very shortly before he died. During this time, I was in my first relapse. Dave handled his illness, and ultimate death, with grace, courage and dignity.

Dan was a co-worker. We both had cancer at the same time, went to the same meetings, but never talked about it. Instead, we chatted about work and running. He proudly wore a Marine Corps Marathon shirt, and I was very envious of him. He relapsed again and again, and finally slipped away, working and socializing with his friends right up to the end.

Gary was also a co-worker, but one I never met or spoke with. We worked in different groups, and only found out about each other by winding up in the same transplant center at the same time. Gary was about three weeks ahead of me in the stem cell transplant process, and we kept in touch through mutual friends. After an apparently successful transplant, after moving from inpatient to outpatient status, he suddenly died from complications, with just a few days warning. He died at peace, at home, with family and friends. I feel a special kinship to Gary. We ran the same path, but went to different finish lines.

This next part is going to sound really stupid, and maybe even weird; but hey, it must work for me. I routinely turn in what's called "negative splits" meaning I run faster the last part of a race, instead of slowing down like might be expected.

When I hit the wall, towards the end of the race, I think about one of my coaches. I use their name as a chant, or mantra, or even sometimes, as a cheer. I feel like by naming them, I'm running for them, since they can't run for themselves. After I've honored all three, I turn to my fourth invisible coach: me.

We've all heard about visualizing a positive outcome to motivate ourselves. I turn that around and visualize how horrible it's been in the past. I remember lying in hospital beds, too weak to move, visualizing then how I'd run in the future. The chute coming into view, the arch over the finish line, leaping over the timing mat. Whether you call it visualization, or self-shaming, or some sort of bizarre self-hypnosis, it works. Remembering myself lying in bed visualizing myself racing to the finish, bootstrapping my future using my past, is a trick I use over and over again.

We all have heroes. Some are living in this world, some in the next. In times of stress, or discouragement, we need to listen carefully. Their voices live in our minds, and our spirits. And remember, you are someone else's hero, even if you don't always feel worthy. All we can do is run hard, and finish the race with gusto.

Besides the other wonderful blogs on CURE’s site, I hope you'll visit my Taking Vienna site. I also encourage readers to visit the Be The Match site to learn about registering as a potential stem cell donor.

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