(O sewa ni narimashita, DFMC)
Each Friday leading up to the 2013 Boston Marathon, I am turning my tumblr over to a friend, family member, or DFMC teammate to share and reflect. In this case, I truly feel that Justin Bourassa is D. all of the above. You may have never laced up your running sneakers with this man, but the fortunate few who have, will tell you that this is so much more than an incredible story from a great person. In his own words (with special recognition to Caitie for rocking the edits).
Stepping from the slick pavement to the squishy riverside dirt path, I mumbled, “That’s about twenty right there.” As we passed the 32km marker, cold and windburned (the temperature had dropped about twenty-five degrees since the start), she squeezed my hand and patted her heart, pink T-shirt soaked through. “The rest is all here, right?” For a moment, the seemingly insurmountable rain and headwinds seemed like nothing.
It got uglier (12- foot-wide running alleys between miles 20-23) before it got better (someone had actual buckets of doughnuts at mile 24). But as we rounded the last of what felt like a hundred course switchbacks and spied the giant vermilion torii gates signifying that we were about to cross the finish line and enter the sacred space of Heian Jingu shrine in Higashiyama, it all came apart for me.
As I approached the finish line, I realized a lot about myself as a runner and as a person. I had just finished my sixth full marathon. I had raised almost $4,000 for Dana-Farber’s “Run Any Race” program, my third DFCI race. I should have been ecstatic. I should have been thrilled. I should have been proud. But I felt horrible. I was terrified.
Over the course of training for six marathons in six years, I have met countless people, all running toward something different. Whether it was a lower number on a scale, a New Year’s resolution, a dare, a bet, a world without cancer, or even just the challenge of reaching the finish line, everyone I’ve ever met while running has always been running towards something. I have seen so much joy and been part of so many triumphs both on and off the racecourse among my fellow runners that I can’t even keep track of them anymore. This is what running was about: the guts, the glory, the rewards. Olive wreaths and PRs, Thursday nights at Crossroads and negative splits, mile 17 and mile 25, the Wellesley Scream Tunnel and Copley Square.
But this time, just yards from the finish line in Kyoto, I wasn’t running towards anything at all. In fact, for the first time in my running career, I felt like I was running from something.
My father, diagnosed in September, still had prostate cancer. My brother, deployed in October, was still serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps. And I was still in Japan, seven thousand miles and many months away from home.
It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy with my time. It was my slowest, but my only goal had been to finish, and, more importantly, honor my dad. His November surgery had been successful, but led to a stay in the ICU after he developed massive blood clots in his legs and lungs.
It wasn’t the company, either. I was thrilled and humbled to have run a third marathon with Caitie, whose support and companionship has pulled me through the darkest of days (running and otherwise).
It wasn’t my fundraising. I was so proud to have raised almost $4,000 for Dana-Farber, bringing my career fundraising total to more than $10,000 for my three years as a DFMC team member.
But after some time spent reflecting on the hardships that have occurred since September, I finally realized what exactly it was that I was running from: being alone in dealing with my dad’s diagnosis.
It felt pretty awful being so far away while my family dealt with my father’s illness. Running, once a world of goals and improvement and plans and progress, had become something I turned to for escape. Maybe I felt like I was running away from the truth, or the diagnosis, or the world where someone I know and love was the “me” in “why me?”
From 7,000 miles away, feeling helpful or supportive was impossible. I felt like I wanted to run away, so I’d put my shoes on and hit the road for some of the ugliest miles I have ever recorded. If my Dad could deal with cancer, I didn’t have a choice but to deal with running, even when it felt horrible.
Looking back, I realize that this is where I really feel the power of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team.
It’s not just the five or six hundred runners that make up the Dana-Farber team. Sure, they get the glory they so undoubtedly deserve when they cross the finish line sporting their sweaty singlets in downtown Boston. Sure, they raise millions of dollars every year so that the amazing researchers at the DFCI can continue their breakthrough work and continue paving the way to a world without cancer.
But those researchers are just as integral to the team, too. They provide world class care to individuals and families dealing with a cancer diagnosis. They put the miles in every day in the lab, no rest days, no cross-training.
The volunteers who layer themselves up to face the elements and keep the runners hydrated and motivated weekend after weekend throughout the hellish Boston winters are also a part of the team. They never take a day off, they never look outside and say, “Well, you know, maybe I’ll just do it tomorrow.”
The patient partners, bravely sharing their stories and their struggles and their courage with their runners are another huge part of the team. Imagine my feelings when I met my patient partner, six-year-old Stanley at Mile 25 in 2010. Tears streamed down his face as we embraced on the bridge over the Mass Pike. Just two years after he had to reteach himself to walk, talk and eat again after almost slipping away, he was worried that I wasn’t going to make it. Kids like that, they’re a tremendous part of the team.
And don’t even get me started on how I feel about the Living Proof. Running Boston must be a piece of cake after/while fighting cancer. They are the heros of the team.
Toss in a coach who has not only raced but won Boston itself; add all of the individuals who not only work for Dana-Farber but also run, ensuring that the team continues churning out success stories on the course and in the labs and hospital rooms, and we’re just starting to understand the size and scope of the DFMC team.
And then there are the donors. Those hundreds of thousands of generous souls who make the gifts year in and year out, enabling, supporting, and driving the team towards a world without cancer. Because they know, just like anyone else who is involved knows, that when you are a part of the Dana-Farber team, you’re never alone. It’s impossible.
This all makes sense to me now, because it’s so very true. Whether you’re running a marathon or fighting cancer, you shouldn’t be alone. And with DFMC, you don’t have to be.
In the grand scheme of things, I realize how lucky we are that my Dad’s prognosis is a good one - unexpected hiccups aside. I am so grateful that he is in good spirits as he continues recovering, and when I visit home next month, I can’t wait to give him my Kyoto finisher’s medal and Dana-Farber singlet with the Japanese character for “Dad” written across the back.
I am so very proud to have run as part of DFMC’s “Away Team” this year. It made me appreciate how important and fulfilling being part of the “Home Team” truly is. I’m so lucky because I can say that all of my best friends are part of the DFMC team. Some of them even happen to run for DFMC, too. Whether or not they run, they have all given me something to run towards, and reminded me that nobody should ever have to feel alone when a loved one is fighting cancer. For that, 永遠 御世話になりました. Eien ni, o sewa ni narimashita. Or, I’m forever indebted.
Thanks so much to everyone who has supported me, my dad, and my family this past year. For all the DFMC team, go out there and show Heartbreak who’s boss come April 15!
Do your best! Fight!