The other day I read about a woman who turned 116. She’s the oldest living American, still percolating somewhere in a small town in Georgia. That’s one full life. So when I got a wild hair to run a 200-mile relay with a small group of friends, it was driven in part by my need to feel I was living a full life. I swear I felt something tugging at my psyche … a need to turn upside the routine that seems to consume months at a time from the calendar. But it needed to be more than switching from coffee shop stops or driving routes to work or pulling the plug on bad tv programming. It needed to be physical, challenging and even intimidating … not just to the masses, but my hard-knocks brain.
At the end of it all, it needed to reinforce the notion that I was living life, not simply existing in it. More important, I wanted it to be the start of something, not the end of a one-time joy ride. So six of us bought into the idea of running the Ragnar Relay, a 200-mile relay that challenges runners to hand off the baton from one leg to another, 36 legs in all, taking approximately 30 straight hours over two days. One option to alleviate the stress of it all is to field a team of 12. With 12 runners, you can expect to own about 17 miles. Most average runners can pull that off in 30 hours, even sleep deprived. Crank it up to 32 or 35 or 40 miles plus miles and the entertainment value is gone. It becomes a reasonably challenging quest.
Somewhere along the way though, that seemingly ambitious goal to run not one race, but what is ultimately several races in a 30-hour window, throwing in some sensory deprivation, giving way to all common laws of hygiene and placing the body in the uncomfortable position of exhaustion and loneliness like a long-distance runner … seemed the way to go. And it seemed important to do it with the perfect balance … three men and three women all in or on the cusp of boomer-land.
However, on the training road to our ultra Jr marathon euphoria, the mission changed. One of our male runners, Rob S., had his stride broken abruptly with a cancer diagnosis. Here we are running as boomers, eager to turn the clock back 10 or so years and all of a sudden, the clock begins to play tricks on you.
Just when you were getting used to this new, world upside down commitment to running 35-45 miles a week, where you begin to feel the age stripping away, along with the weight … the exhaustion turning to endurance and the energy level feeling completely recalibrated, everything stops.
When cancer raises its ugly head, the body’s magnificent healing powers are held captive. For Rob S., he made the uncompromising decision to treat cancer as if it was a nuisance, a chore he had to tend to with weekly chemo. He continued his running and opened up his body to the poisons necessary to beat the demon. While mind and spirit remained strong, radiation can break down the strongest of souls. The running stopped. The eating stopped. And the recently transformed routine was transformed into its darkest hours.
For the rest of the Boomeragnar team, we pressed on, believing Rob’s mental strength would beat his emaciated physical weakness. As an innocent bystander on the sidelines, I never doubted the mental strength, but I wasn’t convinced who would show at the starting line … a hallowed out runner with a mighty spirit or a no name replacement runner found online at the 11th hour.
So here we are … Napa Ragnar Relay Week with the race a few days away. Collectively, we find ourselves cautiously optimistic that we will, as an ultra mixed team, complete 194 miles with five healthy runners and a sixth runner who goes by the name of cancer survivor. At 9:00 a.m., as Rob launches us into our first Ragnar Relay, the rest of us follow the 194-mile course, stronger based on what we know from a distance that our lead runner has endured.