The cancer and the treadmill

Late last Thursday afternoon you could find me in my usual place, running on the treadmill at the downtown Y.

Running and crying. Not weeping but more than a little bit teary eyed.

I blame my son.  Earlier in the week he recommended I listen to an American Life podcast, a recent live one with stories and pieces from a list of greats like the two Davids, Sedaris and Rakoff.

It started well with a warm hearted piece about a blind father raising a sighted child.  Then a funny bit about celebrity that somehow escaped me. Who is Taylor Danes any way?

None of this had to do with crying.  It involved nothing more embarrassing than an out loud laugh that caused other gym patrons to turn around and stare for a short moment.  It could have been worse.  It could have been a fart.

Then Ira Glass dropped the bomb.

David Rakoff has cancer and he stepped out onstage to read about it.  The piece – very wry and funny – was about dancing, or rather not dancing when that’s what gives you joy.

From childhood Rakoff has loved dancing, the spins, the leg lifts, the flapping arms, all of it.  But he can no longer flap the arms.  After years of cancer treatment and pain his doctor recommended an operation to remove a damaged nerve causing the pain.  The nerve also controlled his left arm.

The operation left him with little more than a shrug on his left hand side.

I’ve had 6 operations to remove various tumours around my brain stem.  The last one left me with a neck made of steel and a band of pain from my head to the end of my right shoulder.

All my life I have loved to run.  Like Rakoff, a self described mediocre dancer, I’m a mediocre runner with the wrong kind of body to ever be really good at it.  But I love it.

I still have a clear picture my favourite run of all time.  It was over ten years ago, my second leg of a relay race through Sonoma and I started the leg with a pulled calf muscle and a fistful of ibuprofen.

The route began uphill and got steeper.  Hills suit me.  I might be slow but I am strong and I often passed dozens of better runners on uphill stretches.  So I ate the ibuprofen and ran the hill, passing one runner after another and building my confidence.

The road ended at the crest of the hill.  A farm gate was open and the race warden guided us onto a dirt track that took the race through a small forest leading to a wide open field.  It was downhill from there.

Uphill suits me.  Downhill doesn’t.  I don’t have the control and speed to take advantage.  But this time was different.

From the top of the hill I could see out beyond Marin County to the sea.  The sun was setting and the moon rising.  The warm air was rising off the fields pushing me along.  I rose up on my toes and glided down the slope, faster than I had ever run before or have run since.  I felt like I was, for an hour or so, a different animal.

At the end of the next leg somewhere near Sausalito I checked my result.  Out of a thousand or so runners I finished in the top fifty.

As Rakoff continued to talk about dancing, his lessons, his college career and adult life, then the cancer and operation that cost him movement in his arm he began to choke up.    Finally, unable to continue he fell silent and walked away from the podium.

The wetness around the eyes was already there.  Then Ira Glass described what happened next.  Rakoff began to dance, his left arm hanging at this side.  Slowly he danced off the stage.

That’s when the tears flowed.  I can’t run outside anymore.  It hurts too much.  But I can run, on a soft treadmill holding the rails to stabilize my shoulder and neck.

It’s not what I want but it’s what I’ve got.  And it is something.

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11 Responses to The cancer and the treadmill

  1. Catherine Reid says:

    Beatiful, Ian, just beautiful. Fantastic visuals.

  2. John Brooks says:

    Ian: the closest I could ever get to you was when I asked to borrow a run shirt for a leg of a relay. You gave me one that you had worn the previous day and as I ran and heated up your earthy scent rose and filled by head. “this is what’s it’s like to be Ian” I thought…. Only slower, much slower. Thanks for writing.
    Long may you run,

  3. Arleigh Chase says:

    I’m sure your family’s grateful for your fighting spirit, Ian. Keep it up.

    I second Catherine’s comment. It is a beautiful piece of writing.

  4. cosmicsync says:

    Thank you, Ian. The next time I come home on a cold, rainy November evening looking for an excuse to skip my run, I’ll think about what you wrote here and I’m sure it will provide sufficient motivation to get me out the door.

    Keep up the fight, and thank you for sharing the David Rakoff story, as well as your own.

  5. Kristen says:

    You teared me up. Beautifully written! 🙂

  6. Garth says:

    Hey big brother We have run many miles together. Some on the road, during relays – remember the snow storm in the Ice Fields. Others as we have travelled on our persoanal journeys, often intertwined with each other. What I do know, from all of this, is that you have something special. To paraphrase Mr B senior, long may you continue to run.

  7. Dale says:

    Thank you for writing this.

    If I can share my story: in my early Forties
    I took a major risk by embarking on a new career
    in the Aviation industry; long story short I
    worked my way up from a general labour
    position to an apprentice spot in the sheet metal
    division, once I got myself established I took
    up creative writing as a hobby. After 3 1/2 years
    I was seeing success on both fronts when
    *BAM* a cancerous tumour ate into my
    Humerus (of my dominant arm) rendering
    It useless. No more throwing a hammer for a
    living and no more writing as a hobby.
    I know where your tears come from.

    Thanks again for writing this. Sorry for
    the ramble.

  8. RS says:

    You rock Ian Reid! You are a rock Ian Reid!
    Rock beats scissors every time — and paper is, and papers are quickly becoming redundant.

    Slainte mhath,


  9. Shawna says:

    Such a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing your words and for reminding me to be grateful for all of the everyday gifts that I so often take for granted.

  10. Shane Simpson says:

    Thanks for this my friend. It is a true picture of real courage when facing a huge battle. I will think of this every time I see you at the Y on the treadmill. I look forward to thinking about it for a long time to come.

  11. David MacIntyre says:

    Wonderful writing, Ian. I miss you in your apartment below me playing your music too loud when I was trying to write mine. I miss seeing you in the laundry room and talking politics. I miss hearing you thinking so loud – and so fast!

    I read your later blog – the one published today, June 21 – about your upcoming vacation with Paul before readying yourself for another surgery.

    Catherine and I are thinking of you. Keep running. Keep writing. xo

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