Printed with permission from Tony Gage
I was 23 years old, just finishing my last semester of grad school and – after a few year hiatus – getting
back into running. I had run my first marathon the summer before and was feeling motivated again. I
thought it was just a cold – I could deal with the coughing. I thought, hey – I have a full load of graduate
coursework, I’m a TA for graduate level statistics, and training for a Marathon – of course I’m tired. I
finally went to the doctor and, after a couple months of misdiagnosis, found out that the reason I was
coughing and taking naps in my office was not at all normal. The doctor took one look at a CT scan of
my chest and coolly said “I think you have Lymphoma, but it’s a rather treatable form of Cancer.” Excuse
me? Cancer? – He left the room and sent me on my way. I guess that was the starters gun for the race of
my life – or maybe, more literally, for my life.
The thing is, my case isn’t special. There are thousands of people every day who get hit with the same
shocking information. They all react differently, and there is no “right” way to deal with such a life
changing event. However, I had an unlikely coach for this race.
A professor who I was a TA for had seen both of her parents be diagnosed and survived. Before I started
rigorous treatment, she called me into her office, looked me in the eye, and stated simply, “This is going
to be the most difficult experience of your life. It is going to be painful, and tiring physically, mentally,
and emotionally. But, you will get through this, you will survive and 5 years from now you will not even be
thinking about this.” That was brutal honesty and confidence that was greatly needed at the time. The ultimate pep talk – if you will.
Going thorough chemotherapy and radiation treatments is not something that is easy to describe.
Chemotherapy is essentially poison. You are trying to kill all of the bad cells without killing enough of the
good cells to extinguish your life. It was everything my professor described and more. Explaining the
experience of chemotherapy is sort of like describing why you run, or more specifically describing how it
feels to push the last 400 of your track workout until you feel like you will throw up. You can’t truly know
how it feels until you have done it, and anyone who hasn’t done it won’t truly understand.
I dealt with this treatment the only way I knew how. I turned to the only other truly physically difficult
thing I had done in my life – Running. In high school, my teammates and I put ourselves through a lot of
pain; my only coping mechanism for this new fight was to turn to that mentality. My wardrobe for every
treatment: black warm-up pants from high school (my teammates know the ones I’m talking about – I still
have them) and some sort of t-shirt from my running days. I had one from the Marathon I had run the
previous summer, but most of them were from high school (5 years removed). They said things like, “Top
10”, “Summer Sweat, October Reign”, I had one from the Junior Olympics meet where I ran my PR for the
5k. Some of those shirts weren’t easy to get. Treatment days were race day. This mentality seemed to
serve me well.
After all was said and done – 12 weeks of chemotherapy and 20 radiation treatments to two different
areas – I reached the finish line 6 months after the gun went off. This experience redefined endurance,
for me. And, now it is kind of funny. When I am in a race and things are hurting, what do I think about?
You got it – I’m thinking about not being able to get out of bed some days, riving in pain on my living room
floor because the growth factor shot I was given to boost white blood cell production was making my
bones throb with every heartbeat, or simply seeing the faces of the other people in the treatment rooms.
Faces young and old; undoubtedly, many with less fortunate outcomes than myself. Nothing can be
worse than that, so I just keep going.
As a runner, being tired is kind of a constant state of being. But sometimes, I come across a day that stands out among others. Typically these include two of my closest friends.
Matt Neukirch and Devin Townsend . There are very few people who are as tough, stubborn, and good spirited as these two guys, all qualities that are important when hiking in the mountains. I know both of these guys from college rock climbing and I go back even further with Matt (you will hear about him a lot on here). We typically escape the heat, humidity, and low elevation of Lincoln and Iowa City once a year to hike 14,000 foot mountains in Colorado.
This year Devin and I headed out early on a Thursday to knock off La Plata Peak (5th highest in CO). That was an eight day of leisurely hiking. Matt came in on Friday night to join in for what turned out to be top 5 most grueling day in my life.
Up at 430am for a pre-dawn start. Missouri Gulch Trailhead was busy to say the least. This was one in a string of cloudless days that seem to come along once in awhile in the Colorado High Country. We had an ambitious plan to summit all three peaks in the Missouri Gulch Basin (Mt. Belford, Mt. Oxford, and Missouri Mountain). Mizzou was up first and it was not a bad hike. Pacing ourselves accordingly we gained the summit ridge with views of Mt. Huron and the Three Apostles. Descending back down 1200 feet to the valley floor to start back up to the Belford and Oxford saddle. Most connecting ridges between two peaks are mellow and gradual, this one was not. But a relatively quick jaunt over to Oxford, back up Belford to an interesting summit, steep two hour descent down Belford’s NW Ridge (1200 vertical) and then another two back to the car for a grueling 14 hour day of hiking. Gerry Roach in his Colorado Fourteeners Guidebook calls it a “TOUGH” day. I would have to agree with him.
I love the challenge of stuff like this. In the moment, it is incredibly taxing and I swear each and every time to not do it again (like a marathon). But I (we) keep coming back to this for whatever reasons. It is impossible to convey the emotions one goes through during a day like this. Frustration, wonder, self-doubt, regret, accomplishment and on and on. . . The lessons learned about what I can put myself through and relying on friends to help me out are ones that I look to in my life.