Words by: Sierra Asplundh
Images by: Geoffrey Knott & Sierra Asplundh
Alarm goes off. It’s a summer morning back in 2008. I reach for the water glass by my bed and slowly sip, awaking my metabolism along with those other bodily functions. My training plan calls for 30 minutes of cardio as I begin my summer training, heading into my first year of playing collegiate field hockey. I’m able to train again after a nasty high ankle sprain at the end of my final spring lacrosse season, and don’t want my fitness to hold me back. After all, fitness is one of the main things you can control as an athlete, while skill and team dynamics are an ever-evolving variable in comparison. I head downstairs, grab a granola bar to chow down, and finish my first glass – beginning to fill my second glass at the sink. I head back upstairs, shed the clothes I slept in, and throw on: my baggy shorts, Champion bra, and oversized T. One last pull on my hair, finish my second glass of water, and head out the door to drive into town.
There were two routes I ran regularly since I was in 7th Grade; one for speed and the other for hills and endurance. I remember them better than most of my other middle and high school memories. The speed route was aptly named, Byeberry and Back, after the street that was the turnaround. It consisted of jagged sidewalks, driveway entrances, and the endless possibility of friendly faces en route. Slight uphill the entire way out, slight downhill on the way back, and one small incline with less than a half mile to go. Bonus: it was always covered in shade, which came in handy on those early summer mornings. The hills and endurance route was fondly called Sleepy Hallow. I say fondly in jest. You’ve heard of The Legend of Sleepy Hallow and the Headless Horsemen? No? Go ahead and use the Google machine. If yes, then you can recall the visual of the covered bridge and the small opening on the other side that you aren’t sure the main character will ever reach. This hill of ours was an intense hill that was once again at the last half mile of the route. But in this case, the ominous bridge-covering was replaced with trees looming over you, taunting you all the way up. This scenic route would take you around the backside of our town’s church, which is picturesque and sometimes daunting. It winds around hills and a creek, where more houses can be found, including the town’s graveyard. This is where one of the three inclines creeps in, with the last being the most intense – The Hill of Sleepy Hallow. You know it’s coming. You mentally prepare en route, over and over again, to realistically gauge how it will go down that day. Only to make the 90 degree turn and see the small opening up at the top. Shit. Why did I decide to run this again? The guitar solo glides in and up the hill I go, one foot in front of the other. I wait for the familiar stress of breath, then settle in.
For Byeberry and Back, I always ran for time. Warm-up was minimal: some leg swings, light stretches and strides, and something to loosen my hips. Blinders on (read: headphones), go. Those days I ran with music. I preferred either rock or rap; rock for the days where anger was a major emotion and rap for the days I felt light yet needed the grounding beat to hit my turnover speed. However, it never mattered what genre I started with, I would preemptively scroll for Can’t Stop by RHCP before the dreaded incline on routes. If you know me, and it’s your first time running hills, I’ve shares how much I dislike them. Crazy enough, I kind of love them now. Back then, I couldn’t understand how to pace them – if I’m not training for anything specific, I fall back into my habit of running them to get them over with.
Fast forward to Fall 2009. I’ve received my diagnosis of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (read: a blood cancer) a week prior and am sitting in a meeting with my athletic trainer, coaches, and academic support members. The clear decision is made to red shirt for the remainder of my sophomore season, which means not participating in any regular season games due to injury or medical reasons, and not allowed to train until further notice. Some athletes who get sidelined due to injury entertain the knee-jerk reaction of wanting to ignore the doctors’ orders because, ‘I know my body best.’ Which is hilarious to me now considering I was straight up ignoring all of my body’s signals until a couple of months prior to diagnosis, blaming my dwindling performance on a lack of training instead of pressing pause. We can also enter the mental game of knowing when we’re fully and physically back. My injuries up to this point were: sprained ankles, muscle cramps, pulled groin on my right leg, pulled hamstrings on both legs, 12 stitches over my right eye from a field hockey shot deflection, and a handful of minor concussions. None of those prepared me to sit (stand in this case) on the sidelines because of something that I hadn’t come to grasp. I could rationalize that I had cancer and I understood they didn’t want me to feel the mental pressure of wanting to keep up with my team mates. Yet, no training. This is when I began to practice yoga, hatha and ashtanga, and dreamt of the days of running in my capable body which now felt like a sewed-on coat that I had no recollection of purchasing.
I continued to ingest my recurring rounds of chemotherapy. My weight loss turned into fourth meal weight gain and my cough began to minimize. With one month left of treatment remaining, I was slowly allowed back into the weight room to train with my team heading into the spring offseason. The eagerness that I felt from setting my 5:00 AM alarm was complicated and simple: I dreaded early mornings and craved the old, physical routine alongside my teammates. That transition was like riding a bike. Sure, I was weaker, yet the movement was still accessible as if I had never left. I have a physical presence about me, my limbs expressed muscle definition from an early age and had responded well to strength training from the get go. However, the segue back into running post treatment was not as smooth. My cancer had resided in my blood vessels near and on my lungs, with multiple doctors originally speculating that it was cancer of the lung. My first day back to cardio was walking for 15 minutes, which was followed by an off day…and then the next day I was granted access to another 20 minutes. The day after next was walking for 25 minutes. The next week, walking from 25 to 30 minutes. The first day I was allowed to run was a session of 3 minutes walking then 1 minute of running, repeating for 12-16 minutes total. I remember being extremely determined to cruise through this to show my athletic trainer that I was back. I recall being anxious; yet hopeful. We begin. One minute in of walking and my mental chatter echoes that of the toxic weight-room: child’s play, this is nothing. Minute two has begun and I’m counting down the seconds. Finally, the third minute of walking has begun and I’m sweating slightly. Mind you, my athletic trainer – Meghan – has seen me through every phase of this experience, leaning into her tough role of reigning in an athlete still processing the unknown of cancer treatment while also giving endless options to let me choose based off how my body felt in my recovery, coaching me on awareness. She’s right beside me as we begin to pick up the pace. Go. Holy shit. I’m running again. Well, not exactly…but whatever it is, it’s faster than walking. Holy shit my lungs. Why do my legs feel so heavy? How do I use my arms again? Ugh, I feel disgusting. And weak. The negative thought-vomit dragged on for what felt like years before it was stopped abruptly. Time. We slow our pace to a walk, slower than we started. Meghan asks how I feel. I speak with tears already down my face. I don’t remember what I say specifically, I just remember it being this proud emotion communicated with doubt and disappointment. By acknowledging it out loud and to my friend whom I trusted completely, I was able to surrender to my fear. And she was able to (bluntly) remind me to pause and acknowledge what I had just finished putting my body through over the last 7 months. I laughed, snot and all. Shaky, we continued on. One foot after the other.
Based out of New York City, Ciele FAM Sierra Asplundh is a writer for Blood-Cancer.com and co-leader for November Project.