Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Heart of a Runner

“The real purpose of running isn’t to win a race, it’s to test the limits of the human heart.”
Bill Bowerman

Steve Prefontaine and Coach Bill Bowerman
Those of you in the Track & Field world, know the name, Bill Bowerman.  He was the legendary Track Coach at Oregon or “Track Town” where this years Olympic Trials will be held.  He coached standouts such as Steve Prefontaine, was the 1972 Olympic Track Head Coach and along with Phil Knight was the co-founder of Nike and inventor of the waffle shoe tread.  I’m sure he had someone like my son, Dan Pearson in mind when he said this!  Dan will be running this weekend at the Sioux City Relays for Buena Vista University.  This isn’t his first experience at the Relays.  In high school, Dan ran both the Open 800m and the 4x800 at the Relays in 2008.  Later that year, as the anchor of the Spirit Lake 4x800, he would earn a 4th place medal at the Drake Relays followed by a 3A State championship!  He crossed the finish line just seconds ahead of the perennial state champion, Isaac Wendland.  Dan chose to attend BV and run both Cross Country and Track.  But In the fall of 2009, his life would change forever.
 He began to struggle in practice and in the first cross country  meet, he had to stop several times during the race which was very out of character for him.  After a blood test, he was found to be anemic and told to take off a couple of weeks from running and take some iron pills.  Two weeks later, a blood test revealed an even lower hemoglobin level and something else that was unexpected.  On Sept. 30, after a bone marrow biopsy, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia.  He left college immediately to enter the hospital to begin 8 months of intense chemotherapy.  He gave up a year of his life at college, lost most of his muscle tone…eventually lost his hair and was almost unrecognizable compared to the chiseled athlete he had been. 
What kept him going thru the seclusion of this time was the desire to run again.  After completing the initial rounds of chemo, in May he began the Maintenance form of his chemo which he will finish in January 2013.  It involves monthly IV chemo, daily and weekly oral chemo, lumbar punctures (including intrathecal chemo) every 3 months and bone marrow biopsies every 6 month.  It may sound like a lot, but compared to what he went thru during the first 8 months (chemo up to 4 times a week), this is almost easy…or at least Dan seems to make it look that way!
At first, the running came slow…it took weeks to be able to run a mile.  At times, the effort to run even the shortest distances was so great that he wondered if it was worth it!  In the end, it was!  He ran Cross Country (with his Doctor’s approval) that next fall – he finished every race without stopping, was never last and continued to better his times throughout the season and into the track season.  His race times were nowhere near his “healthy” times but were still amazing for someone on chemo!  More than once, he ran a cross country race within days of receiving chemo, a lumbar puncture and bone marrow biopsy!  Track has been a little more difficult to see an improvement in his times.  The 400m & 800m which used to be his forte, are now the most difficult.  Without getting into too much physiology which, to be honest, I am no expert at, the shorter distances require an efficiency that the chemo deprives him of.  In the longer races, he eventually pushes the chemo out of his body to run a faster time.  He now focuses on the 1500m, the 3000m and now, the 5000m.

It doesn’t come easy though.  He has to work as hard or harder than everyone else just to stay the same or see a minimal improvement in his times.  He misses practices because of chemo treatments although he has been known to hurry back to school after a lumbar puncture and/or bone marrow biopsy and run the same day!  He has worked thru the pain of the devastating lumbar puncture headaches.  They are similar to a migraine…he says it is like you had the worst stiff neck of your life that doesn’t go away.  The only thing that makes it feel better is laying down flat - helped a bit by some caffiene.  In January of this year, while suffering from an LP headache, Dan went to track practice…he wasn’t required to…his coaches are very cautious of his condition!  They were running  repeats  and the pain was excruciating.  The coaches told him he didn’t have to do it…that he should just stop  but Dan wanted to continue.  He continued to push thru the pain!  He would finish each rep and immediately lie flat on the ground until the next rep…then he would get up and do it all over again.  I’m sure it was inspiring to the other athletes to see what he was going through just to be able to run like everyone else!  He runs thru the pain and the disappointment of (to him) inferior times because he loves it…because it is who he is…a runner!  He refuses to let cancer take that away from him. 

So this Saturday, in the back of his mind as he steps up to the start line, is the hope and promise of next year… being able to stand at that line (God willing), still in remission from the Leukemia and free of the poisonous chemo that now runs thru his veins.  You probably won’t see his name on the leader board…he won’t be setting any record times (maybe a PR) or getting interviews from the local press but if you take a poll of the athletes with the most courage, determination and heart, he would definitely be right there at the top!  He is the epitome of courage and determination and continues to test the limits of his heart every time he steps on the track.   I am so proud of all he has accomplished with such humility!  I’m sure Bill Bowerman is up in heaven, smiling down on Dan as he watches him run!
 Here’s wishing Dan and all the other athletes good luck this weekend at the Sioux City Relays and wishing you all “the best of times”!

1 comment:

  1. dan is an amazing guy glad i can be running with him day in and day out he is not only a great friend and teammate but i fell as if were one big family running