What cancer and running taught me in Houston
Houston: Home to the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trial and my surprise home for three months during the winter and spring of 2005 and 2006.
Life can change in an instant. In November 2005, when my dad asked me and my five siblings to show up for a doctor’s appointment in San Diego, everyone did.
The doctor delivered the news: our dad had stage four cancer and seven months to live. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I discovered two realities that day: We’re all one moment away from our knees. When a family member gets cancer, the whole family gets cancer.
A month later my brother andI were living in a hotel room next to my dad near MD Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston.
Suddenly, running, and everything else in my life, didn’t seem as important as being there for my dad.
Christmas was spent with us wheeling my dad around in a wheelchair to his battery of tests. Our Christmas meal was spent in the hospital cafeteria. The days started early and went late. When mid- January rolled around I heard a nurse talking about the Houston Marathon—I had planned on being in Houston to race the half marathon.
Sadly, for a moment, I felt like I was on the sidelines of life, but my egocentric nature was shelved when I gazed at my dad in his wheelchair. I knew then I was more engaged in the game of life than ever before. I was right where I needed to be.
My dad’s résumé: Virginia State Champion Wrestler, NCAA Championship team at Michigan State, Olympic aspirations, successful businessman, Type-A all the way.
As a kid, my dad was great but somewhere between me running the 5:24 mile at age 12 and beating him in racquetball at 13, the road got rocky.
The son hits adolescence and the father-son dynamic changes—in most cases for the worse. It seemed my dad and I were always at odds; when I was in high school we once went three weeks without speaking. When I moved out after college we would go months. After the diagnosis, I needed to be there with my dad. Our relationship needed every day.
His chemotherapy was brutal: six different drugs pumping into his body for six straight days–24 hours a day. The head oncologist at MD Anderson called it the knockout punch.
Needless to say, our time in Houston was tough. It seemed I was either wheeling him around the medical center, reading my Bible, drinking in the bar, or reading my Bible while drinking in the bar.
I would run most nights, not for fitness but for sanity. Running was my therapist, my praying time, my crying time, my time away from the hospital and the hundreds of families that could share with you just about the same story you’re reading now.
I’d run along the levee path and make my way to a set of railroad tracks four or five miles away. I’d sit on the rail, stare at the stars and pray, cry, and wonder how this was all going to end. These were Houston trials of a different kind.
As tough as that that time was, God worked a miracle in Houston—my dad and I became closer than ever. In those hospital rooms he imparted many things. When you know someone is on their last lap, you hang on their every word. For the first time, I really learned how to listen rather than just waiting for my turn to speak.
My dad had it all: looks, charisma, made millions in business, had a big house, convertible Mercedes, the works.
But in the end, he had a mountain of regrets: putting work first, not spending more time with the family, failed relationships with his children and his divorce from my mom after 34 years of marriage.
It’s tough to put an old head on young shoulders but those months with my dad did just that.
I was holding his hand and looking in his eyes when he took his last breath that July. Everything was turned upside down.
I did a lot of soul searching. Did running matter? Why was I spending my life trying to lower my time on a clock? What’s the end game? A medal? A contract? A record? A team?
Money wasn’t the answer, worldly success wasn’t the answer, accolades weren’t the answer—my dad had all that and he died a sad man.
He thought he’d have more time to pursue his dreams but he didn’t. Tomorrow is promised to no one. Tomorrow is a lie.
In the aftermath of his death I nearly retired from running and went to seminary full time; I even took some classes. After some time, I realized that running did matter. My worldview, one that believes that God has entrusted us all with specific gifts and specific passions for specific purposes to fill specifics roles, prescribes that we use our gifts to serve others.
I believe that’s the answer. When you use your gifts to serve mankind, when you pour yourself out in service to another, you leave a lasting legacy, one that will outlive your life, your record, or the shine on any medal. Who do people build statues of? Who do streets get named after? Servants. Those who have offered their gifts, perhaps even their lives, in service.
One of the last things my dad told me, and probably his best advice, was to be faithful with my gifts and relationships, pursue my passions, believe in my dreams, and preach from the heart.
That’s what life is about, being faithful with your gifts and talents. Being our best, day in and day out. What would the world look like if we were all at our best? I’m not talking about “what split can you hit.” I’m talking about all of us, at our best, in every area of our life, all the time. It would be astonishing.
That’s what makes this weekend special: 130 of the best marathoners in America attempting to deliver their absolute best over 26.2 miles. When my friend Amby from Runner’s World says to my coach, “I think it’s great that Josh is so focused on the Trials, but you’ve got to wonder what the point is.”
My response? Going all-in is exactly the point, not just for this race, but in anything in life.
Honing your craft and stacking your chips for months, years, and even decades, to shove them all out on the line, hoping that one day their sum will deliver a magical performance—this is the dreamer’s dream, no matter the profession.
Not hedging your bets, not having plan B’s; bleeding, clawing, and scraping to keep your dreams alive when the critics, pundits, and just about everyone else is telling you to give up.
Life is full of folks telling you no, you can’t, you’re not qualified, you should move on. For every dreamer there are a hundred critics. For everyone pursuing their dreams there are a hundred cynics. But I learned something long ago; those who have abandoned their own dreams will try to convince you to abandon yours. Don’t listen.
When I heard the Chicago Tribune’s Phil Hersh badgering my buddy Ryan with the inane, “Being the best American marathoner doesn’t mean a whole lot after a while,” I could only shake my head. It’s like me telling him it doesn’t mean much to be the best sportswriter in Chicago; that he doesn’t compare to Peter King, or telling Peter King that he doesn’t compare to Stephen King.
The point is, we can’t all be the best, we can’t all make the podium, but we all have the opportunity to be the very best we can be, no matter where that places us in the pantheon of greats.
Very few have ever attempted being their very best, in anything, but Saturday we saw the nation’s top runners showcasing their best in all their glory.
In my first trip back to Houston since my dad’s treatment, being my best was what I was after. I was hopeful to be placed on the podium. But the podium wasn’t the verdict.
Success is predicated on what has been entrusted.
(Josh Cox, battling a case of plantar fasciitis on race day, finished 14th in the Marathon Trial.)