Strength Is Freedom

I was a prisoner of my past.  My prison warden was someone called “I used to”.  “I used to” would remind me of my previous accomplishments lifting humongous weights, running long distances, and various feats of acrobatics.  The warden was quick to steal the joy out of my life and pull the rug out from under me whenever I attempted to regain the strength I was so proud of having before.  I spent many days feeling sorry for myself and lamenting the things I could no longer do until one day I decided I was done with the suffering.

For cancer survivors, the pain doesn’t stop at the end of chemotherapy.  In the first months after chemotherapy was done, I worked hard to recover my strength.  I was deeply depressed at how weak my body had become and I cried tears of frustration when I couldn’t do a fraction of what I hoped I would be able to in the gym. 

I went from running half marathons without issue to getting winded by running a half mile outside of my house.  I went from bench pressing two hundred twenty five pounds to struggling with push ups.  The list goes on and on.

But like I said, I was done with the suffering.  I am no stranger to hard work and I’ll be damned if I was going to waste any more mental energy on negativity.  I had to remember the lessons that I learned from my lifelong pursuit of strength and I’m always thankful that the values of strength did not leave me even when the physical strength did.

From weight lifting, I needed to remember to appreciate the process of hard work even if the results are not always what you expect.  From running, I needed to remember that humans can persevere far past the point where they say, “I can’t”.  It felt so frustrating to know what I had to do and not be able to implement it.

It turned out that there was a piece missing.  There were things I learned about myself during chemo that were the result of hours, days, and months of sitting still with poison in my veins.  I learned how much I could hate feeling weak.  I learned the pain of being unable to do mundane things without becoming short of breath. Most importantly, I learned that I never wanted to feel like that ever again.

So I gritted my teeth through the frustration and made whatever progress I could manage. Two months after treatment ended, I did a 5k color run to celebrate the end of chemo with my friends. I had to stop multiple times and ultimately walked most of the event, but it was nice to get outside and try to have fun.

I redoubled my training and then did the Disneyland half marathon a few months later which went much better. Unfortunately, my legs cramped and muscles spazzed out when the finish line was in sight. Other racers helped me hobble across the finish that day.

My biggest challenge in the first year after treatment was the Los Angeles marathon. This marathon had a special weight to it because I was signed up and training for this race before I found out my cancer returned and that I would be in chemotherapy instead of crossing off one of my major bucket list items.  I had to watch this race from the sidelines and it was simultaneously inspiring and a bitter reminder as I watched those thousands of fit people taking on the race I could not participate in.

I continued to train and in March of 2014 I finally had my chance to stand at the starting line of this legendary event. It was extraordinarily hot on race day. They opened up a lot of fire hydrants along the route so that racers would cool off and despite the extra water, I saw lots of people dropping out and being carried away by paramedics. It took me five and a half hours, but I finished.

The take away here is that I freed myself of my ‘self-pity prison’ somewhere along the way of training. It wasn't crossing the finish line that made me stronger, that much is certain.

I've since taken a lot of time to appreciate the process of getting stronger and appreciate being able to put in hard work towards my goals. 

The strength I gained in training for the marathon also opened up doors to many other adventures I previously considered too difficult. Since the marathon, I've done many more half marathons, a 10 mile tough mudder, and I am currently training for my first Spartan event.

For all of you reading this that have unchecked boxes on your bucket list, I encourage you to take that first step and to persevere.  I strongly believe that of could do it, that anyone can.

Dan Sarmiento
TCAF Ambassador