I started running solely out of desperation when I was 36 years old. I was convinced I was about to die at a young age, both because of something that had happened to me when I was younger, and because of how I was treating my body as an adult. I weighed more than 200 pounds and lost my breath by simply tying my shoes. I needed to start exercising, to lose weight, but I couldn’t afford a gym membership. I did, however, own shoes and a shirt and shorts, and so I headed down a rural road in Northeast Ohio on a lukewarm, late summer day. It was September 18, 2012, and I made it three-quarters of a mile before I turned around and walked home.
But I went back out the next day. And the day after that. And the day after that, and before I knew it, I had a new habit in my life. I didn’t enjoy running, but I also knew it was helping me. By the first of November, I had lost 12 pounds. But that still didn’t alleviate the fact I thought I might die before I turned 50, at least not as much as I thought it would. Which brings me to what happened when I was younger.
When I was 15 years old, a doctor told my mom and me that I had cancer — acute lymphoblastic leukemia to be exact. At the time, survival rates for my type of leukemia were just a bit higher than 50 percent. Over the course of more than two years, I had an insane amount of highly toxic drugs pumped, injected and swallowed into my body, as well as radiation pointed at my skull, and those treatments killed the cancer, which didn’t come back, thankfully. But the treatments also had the ability to cause long-lasting issues, which might not show up for ten or twenty years or even longer.
So I kept running, even as the weight kept falling off, because I thought, perhaps rightly so, that the better shape I was in, the less likely I would be felled by one of the drugs that had saved my life so long ago. About two years into my running life, I realized something I never thought possible: I actually liked running. Or not liked. I loved it. I loved it so much, I ditched the music that had carried me through all the pain early on, and started to let my brain wander as I pushed along the ribbons of asphalt, cutting between corn and soybean fields in Ohio. That opened me up to a whole new reason to run.
When I ran and let my brain wander to the far reaches of my memories, I found myself going back to the days when I was sick, to the people I knew and loved during that time, many of whom died of their own cancers while I was busy surviving. I called them my ghosts, and I ran with them as often as I could. I would find myself running five miles with my nurse Janet, who three years after she took care of me at Akron Children’s Hospital died of a cancer that formed in her gall bladder. I would think of Dr. Alex Koufos, the man who saved my life but couldn’t save his own when doctors told him he had cancer in his bile duct that had spread to his liver. I thought about Melissa and Todd and Tim, all kids close to my own age who fought their own cancers while I was fighting mine, who died before any of them reached the age of 20.
They came back to life in my mind on those runs, and so I started writing about them, trying to bring them to life through words on a page, so then others would know them, and know how much they meant to me. That was the whole point of my book “Running With Ghosts,” which came out in August 2017 — to keep my ghosts alive in my memory, and hopefully the memories of anyone who reads the book.
I brought my ghosts with me to Connecticut, when I moved to Newtown in the summer of 2016, and I still run with them. That’s the great thing about stories and memories. They live on forever, as long as we will them to do so. And so I lace up my shoes and strap on my Garmin watch and I head down my driveway and before I’ve even gone a half-mile, I’m right back with the people who impacted my life — and the lives of so many others — people who should still be alive today, but aren’t, except for within my mind when I run, and in the stories I tell afterwards.
Watch the video below to learn more about “Running With Ghosts,” and to see pictures of some of the ghosts that I run with.