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Published Veröffentlicht 05/06/2024

Fatherhood, Running and Cancer: Drawing Strength and Resilience from a Race With No Finish Line

Every day last fall and winter as I reclined onto the radiation table for my prostate cancer treatment in San Diego, I would close my eyes and envision myself – free of cancer – alongside my son Connor at the starting line of the Eugene Marathon in Oregon. As my motivation and focus, I viewed each of the 35 treatments as part of my training for the race, which would be my 21st and most meaningful marathon. And as many runners know, having a training partner makes a world of difference. Mine was Connor, 833 miles away as a student at the University of Oregon (UO), simultaneously training to join me and run his very first. The goal was for us to meet at the starting line after I completed my last treatment and embark on one of life’s great accomplishments and memories, running a marathon together with me having conquered cancer, finishing in storied Hayward Field, UO’s legendary track and field stadium. 

Finally reaching the starting line on a recent spring morning, standing with Connor next to Hayward Field as the mist came down from the morning gray blanket above us, the reality of the moment matched and exceeded every expectation I had.

The emotions ran strong, the tears surfaced with little prompting. Despite my best efforts to stay present and soak it all in, my mind kept going back to the radiation table, or sitting in the chair by our living room window following surgery earlier in the year, heating pads on my back and side, tubes snaking down along my side, just trying to get through to the next moment. I’d overcome so much to get to the starting line and that journey, and my experiences, all felt just as present and real as the feeling of the mist against my face, the sounds of the crowd and the music echoing off the buildings and the sight of Connor standing next to me ready to embark on our 26.2 mile victory lap. The emotions, the images and sensations came at me so quickly and I felt them all so deeply – the national anthem and the goose bumps that went with it, hugging Connor, the sounds of the announcer, counting down to the start.

We started moving toward the starting line, slowly at first and then picking up speed, in the process lengthening the distance away from my past challenges, drawing me closer to the start of a new race, a new day, a new life defined by the ability to overcome, to grow, to learn, where each step forward is strengthened by my experiences. Closer and closer to the start we moved. My thoughts went to everyone who had supported me, especially my wife Jodie, whose love, support and strength simply seemed to have no limit and was with me every single second, from my initial diagnosis, through surgery and to my last radiation treatment and beyond.  

We reached the starting line, Connor next to me just like he’d been 35 times before in my mind. On my other shoulder I carried thoughts of so many others that had been at my side –  my older son Trevor, Dr. Salem, Dr. Mesko, the incredible nurses, technicians and staff at the Scripps Cancer Center, the Informed Prostate Cancer Resource Group, friends and neighbors, and all my colleagues at Allison. We crossed the starting line together, the sounds of the classic song “Shout” propelling us forward into the new day.

There are so many ways a marathon is like life. One of them is the relationship with time. It’s often said that in life, the days go by slow but the years fly by. In a marathon, the minutes can crawl, but the hours tend to fly by. You’re in the struggle moment by moment, with each step its own moment of effort, yet before you know it hours have passed by and experiences from earlier in the race are but a distant memory. 

The other is the relationship to change. In a marathon, much like life, you experience many different phases of the race – the scenery changes, your emotions are a roller coaster, pain comes and goes, but the constant is that you soon realize that no matter what you experience and what you feel, it will soon change. Every race has been like this, and Eugene was no different.

What was very different was experiencing this with someone else – with Connor. It was something I noticed right from the start. I was experiencing the race not just through my own eyes and senses, but in a way through him as well. Together we soaked in what I have come to enjoy most about running and races – those special mornings when the streets of a community become a blank canvas for goals, dreams and bucket lists. Connor and I ran side by side, surrounded by thousands, all running for different reasons but moving in the same direction. We reveled in the sights, the sounds and the energy, we laughed at the funny signs we passed, pointed out familiar landmarks. This time, it wasn’t my race, it was our race. It was our journey through time and change – together.

Early in the race, I found myself sharing advice, helping us stay on the right pace. I had run 20 marathons, and this was his first. So, I had wisdom to share. He struggled early, battling through some stomach pains. I tried to talk him through it based on my experience (that’s what dads do), reassure him he’d be okay, the fact that so much can change over the course of a race. But as we progressed through the race the balance of support gradually changed. I started to wear down – and more specifically, the GI and abdominal pains that still occasionally flared from the radiation started to really pick up. My pain and struggle increased while Connor was settling into a more comfortable stride.

Two things propelled me forward through the second half of the race. The first was my mindset that the pain I was experiencing was just a reminder of everything that I had overcome to get to this point. Long-COVID, surgery, radiation and all of the doubts, fears, pain, challenges and difficulties, yet here I was, in the back half of a marathon just four months after concluding treatment. I made the choice that the pain wasn’t an obstacle – in fact – it was a source of strength. It was a pain and struggle that this time was born from accomplishment, from the experience of overcoming. With each step I was taking back control, I was determining my path forward. This struggle was of my own choosing and how I responded was up to me. I managed the pain and struggle, rather than it managing me. And I realized this is how I now must live my life, and in fact how I have begun to live my life.

The second thing that propelled me forward was the strength I got from Connor. At some point in the race the tables turned. Where early on I thought I could help him and guide him with my experience, at some point I realized he had started pulling me along with his strength and encouragement. He was inspiring me to keep moving.

“You got this Dad,” was his periodic rally cry.

Step by step, we passed mile markers. At this point the crowds were gone.  It was just me, Connor and the sounds of our footsteps and my labored breathing.

“You got this Dad,” he’d say, pulling me forward.

On this day, during this race, I wondered if maybe this marathon was like life in another way. When our kids are young, we pull them along (often literally), guiding them and teaching them with our experience. But at some point, the tables turn, and we can become inspired  by their strength and accomplishments, watching how they overcome their own challenges. Suddenly, they are a source of support for us, rather than the reverse.

“You got this Dad.”

Step by step I went toward the finish line. As we drew closer to the finish, my emotions raced to the surface. We made the turn onto Agate Street, down the home stretch toward Hayward Field. I had pictured this day for so long, had focused so much on this race, this shared experience with Connor, this challenge and goal as a motivation to overcome my cancer. Now, as the race drew to a close, the tears welled up in my eyes again. We made the turn into the finish on the track in Hayward. Connor by my side, a burst of energy drawing us both to the finish.

I’m not entirely sure what was driving the tears – was it joy for finishing the race? Was it a reflection and realization of all that I had been through and a final catharsis of sorts? Or was it partly fear that I had put so much emphasis on this race as my beacon and my purpose to get me through my treatment, and now that it was done, what comes next?

We crossed the finish line together, just like we started, tears in our eyes, and turned to each other and shared a long embrace. The race may have been over, but walking with Connor away from the finish line, I already felt that what I had gained from the experience would last the rest of my life. My ability to overcome, my strength and my purpose is not derived from a single race. Connor’s and my journey that began that day on the starting line didn’t end when we crossed the finish line. The strength I felt and the motivation to persevere wasn’t just applicable on the streets of Eugene. Moving forward, through each new challenge, as I embrace each new day, as I weather the passing of time and change, as a runner, as a cancer survivor, as a father, I know I’ll never do it alone.

“You got this Dad.”

Brian Brokowski is a general manager in Allison’s San Diego office and the founder and leader of Allison+Resilience, an Employee Advocacy Group helping to bridge the gap between personal challenge and professional engagement.

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