My body signals a protest in the cold in its usual way. Stiff fingers find the zipper of my scarlet running jacket and meet the teeth together in a smooth motion to the top, tucked just beneath my chin until I realize that I need to slip the keys to the place my son and I refer to as the glorified Residence Inn into my running bra, and I slide it down again. Turning the lock, I stuff them down into the fabric, stabbing and scratching myself. Swiping at the top of my chest I feel for blood and find the familiar, sticky warmth on the pads of my fingers, swearing under my breath. Quickly, I settle the keys where they belong for the duration, tug the zipper back to where it had been, and find the second zipper of the reflective vest the early morning necessitates. Glancing up for the moon, a small sliver is visible as clouds push through on a light wind, and I close my eyes briefly as I settle one ear bud and then the other, adjust a head lamp over a running hat, and pull on gloves. Exhaling, my breath pushes out before me in a cloud, evidence of the 34 degrees, visible in a light frost on the grass in front of me. With one push, my legs move forward and “start workout” chirps on my app. It is 3:45 am.
Within the first quarter mile I am willing my heart to find a rhythm, feeling it jump around in my chest as if trying to play the keys just beyond my flesh like a tambourine in some sort of frenzied song. I hear the words of the cardiologist from a year ago suggesting I stop running due to the damage to my heart from the chemo, chastising me for even attempting a marathon, and shove his words down into my legs, focusing on a metronome of sweeping one leg in front of the other instead. Winding through the path of leaves and fallen branches from the storm the night before, the head lamp offers just enough of a glow to see what is before me, but creates a halo around my eyes. I find myself drifting in the run to the left side of the path and stumbling, adjusting the headlamp to try to eradicate the halo effect, moving forward another quarter mile, drifting to the left and falling off the path again. I file this away as another symptom to share with the medical team at my upcoming appointment and turn on the light from my phone for additional light. The running app on my phone cheerfully clicks away telling me I’ve run two miles as I emerge from the woods. I pick up the pace once I am on the road with street lights, switching off the light from my phone.
Within a quarter mile, a car approaches with intermittent flashes of high beams that my eyes cannot avoid, and I find myself stumbling and drifting, finally splashing into a large puddle of water and mud. Righting myself, my feet and ankles soaked in the cold, I stop for a moment to take in a deep breath. It is not supposed to be this hard. It shouldn’t be this hard. And yet, here I am running in the earliest hours of the morning by myself, yet again.
Adjusting the headlamp, I shake each of my legs to rid my shoes of excess water and start again because that is what I know. I think about my plan for the run today and the miles I want to cover and steel myself toward that goal, figuring that neuropathy should be setting in soon and I won’t feel the cold in my feet anyway. Sweeping the path in front of me, I keep an eye out for things that would make me stumble and allow myself to think about the previous days to push me forward. It makes more sense to work through it than push it down anyway. As a runner, when I find a rock in my shoe, common sense tells me to stop and get it out. More often than not, I’ll run for miles with it rolling around because I don’t want to stop running. At least not yet.
Ironically, the small stone or gravel is defined as “grit”. And even though this bit of stone or sand nags us and we try to rid ourselves of it, for some of us, we put up with it simply because we know we have to. At the same time, I think about how often “grit” is lauded in cancer patients. And yet, I wonder if it’s bravery or simply what one does to get through. Is it grit like the rock in the shoe, or grit in terms of courage?
I think about the difference for the better part of two miles, finding myself near the center of town. My mind wanders through the past few days and seeing my parents for the first time in two years and hearing them tell me to “move on”. My pace picks up despite having run five miles already. Turning the corner into a headwind I am thinking about the friend who promised to always be there for me and I think about the absence of his daily check ins. I think about the conversation with the scheduler at the new oncology center, as I listed for fifteen minutes my history and her deep intake of breath stating “that’s a lot”. My mind recalls my inability to remember the name of the breast surgeon as we both sat there in stunned silence as I tried to pull her name from some cavern of my mind. And she repeated, “that’s a lot” and stated the tumor board has labeled my case “complicated” and has requested a day of scans and appointments to figure out what is going on now. I push forward in my run thinking about the length of the appointment, noting as the app tells me my mileage has reached nine miles that once more I will be alone.
And then I think that maybe grit isn’t about courage, but it’s about endurance. Breast cancer really is like having that tiny piece of stone in your shoe. The person with the cancer is stuck with it. I am always running with the rock in my shoe. But I am running. Every day I am running, even if it is in the cold and wet earliest hours of morning. And it might be by myself. Perhaps that takes courage and resolve. It’s not about being brave. It’s about acknowledging the rock and running with it. Every day.
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