I was asked to be the inspirational speaker at the 2009 TEAM IN TRAINING pasta dinner prior to this weekend’s Philadelphia Marathon. It was a great evening. I really do love to address those groups and do so any time that I am asked. I always meet some amazing people and walk away feeling like I totally understand what I am supposed to do on this earth.
I also raced the half marathon on Sunday which proved to be another great day. I didn’t know what to expect of myself having raced the NYC marathon three weeks ago and then being hit with the flu right after the race. I was very happily surprised at how strong and comfortable I felt. And taking into consideration a brief port-o-john pit stop at about mile 5, I was also very happy with my time.
To make the weekend even more rewarding, my wife and her sister walked the half and had a great time. My daughter’s boyfriend made his marathon maiden voyage and posted a very respectable 4:20. And I got to hang out with some good friends. It was the perfect weekend to close out the race season.
Below are some of the highlights of the talk that I delivered to the athletes and their families at the TNT dinner on Saturday…
How many 1st time marathoners and half marathoners do we have here? How many of you have told yourself or someone else that you just need to do one marathon to get it out of your system? And so the madness begins…
Here is a quick story for you guys. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in a restaurant with my wife on New Year’s Eve in 1993 and I proclaimed to her “I want to run a full marathon; I just need to do one to get it out of my system”. Well if I do the math right that was about 20 marathons ago. It’s no wonder that a few years later when I said I “just needed to do ONE ironman triathlon… to get it out of my system” my wife gave me that “yeah right” look. And she was right as I am up to 10 ironman triathlons and don’t think I’m stopping anytime soon.
You will all be happy to know that I have the secret to your success tomorrow! I learned it in a conversation that I had with a guy that I met prior to the start of the NYC marathon three weeks ago. He told me that it is totally fine to “race” SLOWLY. Of course I agreed with him but asked him what made him say that. His words of wisdom were …. Just remember – the slower you go, the better value you get for your entry fee. Those sub-3 hour guys are getting ripped off and are not very good money managers.
I also have info from a very reliable source that the full marathoners will be treated to some very special race day nutrition at about mile 22 tomorrow. A few friends of mine always man that area offering Yuengling beer and brownies. So if you have had your fill of Gatorade and gels at that point, you have options!!
I want to talk a little bit about me and my reasons for being here. But it’s important to first understand a little of my background. I really was one of those people who felt “immune” to any kind of illness or cancer because I was so healthy and always the athlete.
I was a very active kid and involved in every sport that I could sink my teeth into. I played three sports through high school and went on to play college and semi professional soccer. I’ve also never really been sick and never had an overnight hospital stay. I have all of my God given parts, and no extra ones.
I discovered multisport racing in about 1987 and never looked back. I have completed many marathons, triathlons, and even many ironman triathlons. I have always felt that I have been given very charmed and gifted existence. From childhood to today, I have always had a great life.
At the end of 2005 and in early 2006 I was starting to have trouble swallowing food. My tonsils had become enlarged and I was tripping over them when I ate, swallowed, or even spoke. In early 2006 I was referred to an ear nose and throat specialist who wanted to remove my tonsils. I went through preadmission testing and of course was a little nervous about a tonsillectomy. I had never had any type of surgery at all. But it sounded like it was the right thing to do.
A few days prior to my scheduled surgery, I received a phone call from the surgeon that stopped me dead in my tracks and that nobody ever wants to get. It went something like this “Mr. Brown we need to put your surgery on hold. Something came back in your blood work that needs a closer look so we are referring you to an oncologist/hematologist”. I was speechless. I was stunned. I really didn’t completely comprehend what he was saying, but I did know what an oncologist was. I was pretty certain though that whatever it was would end up being a big mistake, and more of an annoyance than anything else.
My wife recommended a top notch oncology practice and saw the first available doc. I through a battery of tests, biopsies, and scans and on February 24th 2006 what had the potential to be a tonsillectomy had officially become a leukemia diagnosis. So I went through the normal course of emotions from denial and disbelief, to anger, and depression. The first question my doctor asked me was whether or not I had been feeling tired. I couldn’t tell. I mean probably but let’s be real here for a minute… if I got tired after spending 5 hours on my bike I wasn’t thinking Leukemia. I was thinking maybe I should take a day off from training. But cancer never entered my mind.
The hardest part of that diagnosis was having to go home and share the news with the rest of my family. Our family had just gone through a real rough patch. We had lost my father in August of 2005 after spending 3 months in ICU. My mom underwent aortic valve replacement and triple bypass surgery in December of 2005 and spent a few months recovering. Our family needed a break in 2006. Nonetheless, I had to sit in my living room and look my kids in the eye and tell them that their invincible ironman triathlete super dad had a blood cancer and needed chemotherapy.
After I ran the gamut of emotions, and had multiple arguments with the voices inside my head, I remembered something very important that I often talk about. I recalled the word “CHOICE”. Obviously, I had no choice in the fact that I was just diagnosed. That was the hand that was dealt to me. But I still had choices in how I would handle and respond to my diagnosis and treatment. I made the commitment to send a positive message from the very beginning for everyone else to see and hopefully emulate. I wanted to lead by example. And I wanted to control anything I could in a relatively uncontrollable situation. I still wanted to be that “athlete”. I still wanted to be that super dad.
Since my white blood cell count was elevated off the charts, it was advised that I start chemotherapy treatments right away. I was lucky enough to be able to go to our local hospital for treatment and come back home each day. The treatment protocol was one week of treatment followed by three weeks off and was repeated over four cycles.
I was also lucky enough to have my wife with me at every appointment and treatment session. I made the decision to try to be as normal as I could during these treatments. Fitness WAS my normal so the weeks in between chemo, I worked hard and trained hard to keep my baseline fitness level up so I could knock it down a few rungs during treatment weeks. That was my way of staying somewhat in control.
For me staying in control also meant running home from chemo treatment. On treatment days when I felt strong enough, I would either run home or hop on a stationary bike. And the looks on the faces of the chemo nurses were priceless when I would stand up walk out the door and run home from treatment. I enjoyed that feeling of defiance. And I used mental imagery on the run home and envisioned cancer cells falling off of my body while I ran and I was kicking them into the storm drains on the side of the road. In my role play, the cancer cells were saying “this guy is NUTS. First the chemo and now he’s running!” “We can’t hang with this dude”.
After two rounds of treatment my doc called me a “responder”. By April I had hit complete remission. By end of June I was finished all four rounds of initial treatment. In mid July I raced my first sprint distance triathlon as a survivor and on September 30th, just 7 months after being diagnosed, I crossed the finish line of another ironman triathlon with my wife and kids with me as the announcer and race director renamed me “RemissionMan”.
Yes I am proud of all of that but little did I know that the best was still yet to come. Within days of being diagnosed, I signed on as an assistant triathlon coach with TNT. It was another positive choice that I made. I started working with a group of triathletes for the 2006 Philadelphia triathlon and I was going to group swim practices on a Saturday and then back to chemo on Monday. It was immediate connection that has only gotten stronger with each season. I have been given the opportunity to work alongside an incredible collection of gifted and giving individuals. And the athletes and patients that have touched my life as a result are too many to count.
I now completely understand what it means to have “reasons” for a diagnosis. I never really got that before. But there is no doubt in my mind that I was given this to try to work some good from it. A week doesn’t go by that I don’t make a new connection of either a patient or a family member that I am able to help guide in some way. I feel like I am making this leukemia community stronger.
Many of you are here tonight to support a friend or loved one. My own personal support infrastructure has carried me and helped me through everything I’ve ever done – from ironman triathlons, to chemotherapy. Never under value or underestimate the importance of that support system. Everyone is playing some kind of a role in this mission. Some are running, some are volunteering, some are supporting in other ways that are just as heroic.
Before I go, I want to share a couple more thought that I hope you will remember.
Obviously the unexpected stuff can and will happen. I am a classic example of this. But I also want to be thought of as a reminder that it’s not the “stuff” that measures or defines us. It’s how we react and how we respond to the “stuff”. It’s the choices that we make.
I feel like the choices that I made and continue to make, including just being able to stand up here and talk to you, have taken a negative situation and turned it into something not just positive but incredibly rewarding and constructive.