24 months ago, I was sitting in a hospital bed wondering if I was going to survive the night after complications from my own Crohn’s.
That dichotomy still baffles me. Medicine saved me. Hope saved me. I now cautiously smile at a world that introduces a person to death one year and the mountaintop of triumph the next. Right now, I’m on that mountaintop.
Four months ago, I made the decision to help the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation raise money toward finding a cure and new treatments. Instead of just sending in a check, a half-marathon down the Las Vegas strip sounded more my style. And the friends and family who supported me with more than $2,500 thought so too.
It’s also my style to set a goal and then have fate trample its filthy shoe-print all over it. In my first month of training, I endured the torturous shin splints. A couple of weeks of healing saw me back on the running trail. I conquered an 8-mile evening run in beautiful Kansas City. A couple of weeks after that: the tri-fecta of medical marvels. The stomach flu along with a bacterial infection landed me in the hospital. A round of antibiotics caused a three-week fight with something called “C-Diff.” Yeah, google that dirty bastard. Not fun. I’ve given more stool samples to more doctors than I ever want to in a lifetime. The day I flew to Las Vegas was the final day of my second round of antibiotics to treat the C-Diff.
Could I run this? Would I “crap” out at mile 8? Or sooner?
When I hit the Las Vegas strip on the night of Dec. 2, the faces of 30,000 other runners — all of whom collectively raised over $4 million dollars for Crohn’s disease research — convinced me I had already won this race. (And the every-five-minute texts from Laura didn’t hurt either.)
I began running at 5:25 p.m. — the 21,000th person to cross the start line. And I didn’t stop running until mile 4 when, as nature routinely calls, I stopped for a potty break. A few minutes later, I stepped back out on the trail, and I heard “P.J.!!!!!!!” from 50 yards away. It was Laura shouting her encouragement. I grinned wider than most people were grinning at mile 4, and hit the trail again.
I cruised in and out of people. Passing at a flash pace. I coasted to mile 5. 6. 7. Each half mile, I heard the chants and cow bells from the sidelines. “Go Team Challenge!” “You can do it!”
And then my knee went out.
It was a pain like no other I had experienced while running. I stopped. Stretched. Ran again. Stopped. Stretched. Ran again. Rinse and repeat. At mile 8, the pain forced me down on the curb in a seemingly abandoned part of North Vegas, a couple of miles from the bright lights of the strip. It was dark, relatively quiet. A terribly perfect place for sulking. And I began to see people I passed miles ago trotting past me. What was I going to do? Why was this happening? I looked down at my ringing phone to see Laura’s name. I answered.
“I don’t think I can finish. My knee. It hurts. Like really hurts. I can’t leave the race. I’ve come this far.”
In typical Laura wisdom: “You’ve already won. If you need to walk, walk. If you need to step out, then we’ll bring you back. Everybody is cheering you on, regardless of how you finish.”
I popped a couple of Tylenol, gulped down some gatorade, rubbed a glob of bio-freeze on my knee, and gave myself the pep talk that I usually give myself when I’m in a hospital bed, or stranded on my upstairs toilet in agony. “Come on, Paul. Get your ass up. Move forward. It doesn’t matter how fast. Just move forward.”
And I started walking. And I walked. And walked. Mile 9. Mile 10. The strip’s lights illuminated. “Just walk toward the light, Paul.” The knee pestered. I sat down. Rubbed it. I saw a 9-year-old boy walking by, he gave me a boyish grin. I read on the back of his shirt as he eased past me: “I’m suffering from Crohn’s, too.”
The knot in my throat festered as I realized just how many people were in this fight with me.
I saw a 70-year-old man walk by me, beads around his neck, lights flashing in his hair. He gave me the thumbs up.
“Keep fighting, son!”
I gave a half smile and limped forward to mile 11. At mile 12, I heard that familiar beautiful voice. “P.J.!!” Laura perched over the race fence. I veered off to the side, just outside the Mirage, and kissed her. “You can do it. I’ll see you at the finish line.” And she was gone.
All I wanted was to jog across that finish line right into her arms. I passed the Palazzo. Then the Venetian. Treasure Island. Rather appropriately, I saw the finish line — adjacent to the Mirage. I zombie-walked another 100 yards. And another. 30 yards from the finish, I picked up the pace. I masked the pain in the knee and jogged over that finish line. As expected, Laura was waiting on the other side.
I finished just ahead of less than a hundred people — out of 30,000. Almost last. Certainly not what I expected having trained at a 9-minute mile a few weeks prior. But my road on the strip that night was not unlike my road the previous 11 years with Crohn’s. The road was unpredictable. I paced near the end, but emerged victorious. It was a road that, in the midst of beauty, I concentrated on the pain. I saw encouragement on the road. I found faith. I doubted. I trusted. And I was pulled through with love and encouragement.
What happened in Vegas that night — it doesn’t stay there. It stays in my heart forever.
And a little in my knee.