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Monday, December 10 , 2018, 12:07 pm | Mostly Cloudy 63º


Kevin McFadden: Going the Distance to Honor a Friend Battling Cancer

Running a marathon becomes much more than a race; for one athlete, it represents suffering, determination — and triumph

“Suffering! We owe to it all that is good in us, all that gives value to life; we owe to it pity, we owe to it courage, we owe to it all the virtues.”Anatole France

“For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks-not that you won or lost-
But how you played the game.”
Grantland Rice

It started with four words: I have Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Those were the words that my friend, Charles Porter, spoke to me over the phone on April 28, 2010, shortly after his diagnosis.

At age 31 and as healthy in mind, body and spirit as anyone I have ever encountered, Charles was the last person I would have expected to hear such a gut-shot. But, as I stammered and stuttered, attempting in vain to find the proper response, or at least an appropriately demonstrative curse word for what I was feeling, Charles demonstrated, with his usual aplomb, exactly why he has been one of my best friends for the past 17 years.

“Hey man, it’s all right,” he said calmly. “The way I see it is, some people get cancer, and some people don’t. I got cancer.”

And that was that. There were no histrionics or lamentations. I believe that for Charles, life has always been fairly simple — or at least simple in theory, even if difficult in practice. In other words, there are things in this world that we can control and other things that we can’t. And Charles has always been one of those rare people with the ability to compartmentalize the two, an ability for which I have the utmost admiration.

I am of quite the opposite disposition when it comes to the vagaries of life. I am a fixer. Things that are broken — things that are out of sync with my opinion of “the way things should be” — can’t be part of life’s plan. In fact, they are a distortion of that plan, anomalies that need correcting. The reason for this is simple: I am a selfish man. Therefore, I have to be right, even if it means that the universe itself must be wrong.

As I hung up with Charles, an idea immediately began to foment in my head. I could not sit idly by while the universe made an egregious error, allowing my friend — one of the best human beings I have ever known, a man full of character, integrity and faith — to wage a battle with cancer at age 31, without the benefit of medical insurance. And as much as it pained me to even consider, I knew what I was going to do.

A little more than a year ago, I wrote an article for Noozhawk documenting my first, and allegedly last, marathon. At the conclusion of the article, I brashly wrote, “It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and I look forward to never doing it again.”

At the time, I meant those words wholeheartedly. In fact, there were only three things that had any prayer of coaxing me out of early retirement: a signed court document promising that Katy Perry would never again make “music,” an uncontested sucker punch at each of the male cast members of Jersey Shore, or someone I love getting a cancer diagnosis.

Kevin McFadden, right, and longtime friend Charles Porter sing karaoke at a bar in Manhattan.
Kevin McFadden, right, and longtime friend Charles Porter sing karaoke at a bar in Manhattan. (Mike Mobley photo)

God, why couldn’t it have been a free right cross at The Situation?

I find it to be a very interesting and uniquely human trait that we tend to believe that only through personal suffering have we truly achieved something meaningful. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone propose a watching-TV-athon for a cause, or a delicious treat-eating contest? I, for example, am a Rembrandt at movie trivia, but am built like 6 feet of tree stump. But did my mind immediately consider a Trivial Pursuit Movie Edition party for Charles? Of course not. I chose to run. Nice thinking, Stumpy.

However, my opinion of running as a sport changed considerably after my first marathon experience. I have been a lifelong athlete. I was a college baseball player. For me, running was not a sport. In fact, running was an unfortunate necessity that we utilized to prepare to play real sports. If you had to run more than 90 feet at a time, that meant you had hit a home run — in which case, you could feel free to take your time touching ‘em all.

After my first 26.2-miler, I realized I was wrong. Running is not simply a means to get in shape for another sport. In fact, it is perhaps one of the purest of sports in the world. There may be thousands of participants, but there are only two competitors: you and the 26.2 miles. If you succeed, nobody else can take the credit, and if you fail, nobody else can shoulder the blame. It is you against 26.2 unrelenting miles of earth, grass, concrete. The course can’t take bribes or shave points. There are no referees to yell at or teammates to accuse of “dogging” it. It’s just you and 26.2. It is a level playing field. How many of those do you honestly see these days?

It is simple. Or at least it is simple in theory, even if difficult in practice.

I picked a marathon in New Orleans — or Nawlins in parlance — for no particular reason and began my training in southwest Florida toward the end of summer. Now, for those of you not familiar with performing cardio exercise in southwest Florida during the summertime, allow me to paint you a picture. Imagine that you’re on a treadmill, in a sauna, on the surface of the sun. Now crank the treadmill up to 7.8 while somebody mildly waterboards you. Your lungs fill with moisture, and the only deep breaths you’re able to take are met with scalding hot air, on account of the pavement constantly roasting like a Waffle House grill.

Do you see the culture you created, Ponce de Leon? Are you proud of yourself? I may be willing to call it a wash if you tell me where the Fountain of Youth is before Johnny Depp finds it in the latest offering of that travesty of a Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

On the bright side, I kept reminding myself that the harsh conditions in the beginning of my training would be to my benefit down the stretch.

In the meantime, Charles was busy completing his chemotherapy, which his doctors hoped would lead to full remission. Unfortunately, because of the fact that they didn’t catch the cancer until it was Stage 4 and had metastasized to his bones, the original chemo was not a powerful enough tool to finish the job. So, as I trained, Charles prepared for more intensive (and painful) chemo, in conjunction with several rounds of stem cell harvesting, which will soon be used for a bone marrow transplant. It is an exciting, and fairly new, practice that obviates the need for an outside donor.

During my first marathon, I managed to break the four-hour barrier by three minutes and three seconds, and this time around, I was training even harder, determined to put my original time to shame. I was well on my way with nearly two months to go. I ran 16 miles with no problem, and even began having premature aspirations of being the first tree stump to ever qualify for Boston.

But with only six weeks left until race day, I was met with the scourge of long-distance runners everywhere: dead leg syndrome. Overnight, I went from running eight miles without breaking a sweat to being unable to complete a three-mile warm-up.

At first, I assumed it was a natural part of the training process, and that my body would soon return to stasis. But with only a week left, my legs had not returned, and I feared the worst. I tried heat, cold, massage, stretching, yoga, meditation, e-stim, vigorous running and even reading my legs the romantics, Byron and Keats, in case they felt underappreciated. Nothing worked.

It was suggested by many of my friends and family that I consider running a half-marathon, or a marathon down the line. My response was always the same: “I am running this marathon, even if I have to do it alone.”

I had wanted to believe that I could blaze through the marathon and qualify for Boston. Now I was doubtful that I would leave the Big Easy (I will spare you the corny marathon jokes about that nickname) without serious injury to my body — or worse yet, my pride.

I walked to the starting line with my older brother, Dan, and his girlfriend, Brit. The staging area was like a rock concert, and 17,000 people started this marathon. The Santa Barbara Marathon was 3,600, which I loved, but this number was impressive.

My dad caught up to us and imparted a bit of sage advice: “Remember, son, the tortoise never loses.” I smiled and nodded, knowing in my heart that he is right.

The problem is that I only know how to run one way: full speed. I am either running, or I am walking. Jogging slowly seems to me to be like staying up all night watching Vin Diesel movies: It’s an incredible drain on your mind and body, without offering much gain in return.

As I took my place in the middle of a great wave of people, waiting for my group’s countdown to begin, I felt a bit like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky II. After being assured that “there ain’t gonna be no rematch,” there I was again, getting ready to take it on the chin. I imagine legendary boxing referee Arthur Mercante’s voice in my head. “OK, now I want a good, clean race. I don’t want to see any potholes, steep hills or uneven surfaces. I don’t want any contact above the belt. Now, come out swingin’ boys.”

As I lit out, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” by Frightened Rabbit played on my iPod. “For Charles,” I whispered. Come out swingin’. Ding, Ding.

Mile 2: Marathons are about endurance. Not just endurance of the body, but of the mind and heart as well. You need to be able to count on all three to see it through to the end. The past few weeks have cast a serious shadow on my body’s ability to hold up its end of the race. But as I take in the beautiful, proud, resilient city of New Orleans, I am thankful that today I feel strong. Ichor is pumping through my veins, and my legs are not mere flesh and blood but steel pistons, grinding their way toward the finish line at City Park, leaving a trail of chewed up asphalt in their wake.

I weave my way through the crowd, realizing that I’m running much too fast to ever keep my pace constant. But as I said, marathons are not just about the body. I am going to push my legs to the very limits of their endurance, running as hard as I can, for as long as I can. I don’t know how to do it any other way. After that, it becomes a matter of will. As Canadian clergyman Basil King once said, “Go at it boldly, and you’ll find unexpected forces closing around you and coming to your aid.” Well, Basil, I hope you’re right, eh?

Mile 6: As the half-marathoners split off to run their route, my iPod segues seamlessly from DragonForce, a speed metal band from the United Kingdom that makes Metallica look like The Wiggles, to Bon Iver, an indie folk band whose lead singer, Justin Vernon, combines beautiful acoustics with a hauntingly spectral voice to create a sound that is nothing short of heartbreaking. I crack a sad smile when Bon Iver, which is a play on the French phrase “bon hiver,” meaning good winter, sings, “Someday my pain. Someday my pain will mark you.”

I allow my mind to wander, and I think of Charles. The son of a white British woman and a black father in the U.S. Air Force, Charles was forced to move quite a bit as a young man. Being the product of an interracial marriage and having to adjust to the vicissitudes of different environments could have embittered some people. Not Charles. He is simply magnetic. He projects a confidence and a facile a vivre that is unparalleled in my experience.

There are many people who have the ability to blend in to any environment, but Charles is one of the few people I have encountered who can become a galvanizing figure in any environment. He is loved, respected and admired, without ever going out of his way to be any of those things.

On his personal blog, Charles writes the battle cry “NEVER QUIT” at the end of each of his daily entries. It is a cry that I have on the front of my Team Porter T-shirt that I wore for this race. I pound my chest, presumably looking like an escaped mental patient who accidentally ambled onto the course. But I don’t care. Those two simple words keep me running. As I push ahead, Bon Iver refrains in ghostly tones, “What might have been lost. What might have been lost. What might have been lost.”

Mile 10: “Don’t Stop Believin’” is blasting my eardrums as I cross the 10-mile marker — not the original Journey version, mind you (no hard feelings, Steve Perry). Rather, I have the version from the show Glee.

For those of you unfamiliar with Glee, it’s basically a show about a group of ridiculously good-looking, talented, privileged 20-something actors playing a group of ridiculously good-looking, talented, privileged high school students who are constantly whining about their horrible luck being born with perfect bone structure and insanely mellifluous voices. It’s like the show The Hills, only set to music. You see, they are ostracized by the rest of the school for being members of the Glee Club. Yes, I admit that it’s a horrible premise, but when those gorgeous little misfits start singing, it fires me up.

I could see Charles on a show like Glee. After incurring a back injury as a standout defensive end for the Duke University Blue Devils, Charles’ dreams of making it in the NFL were lost. Rather than bemoaning his bad luck, Charles simply turned his focus to another dream: acting.

He moved to Hollywood and within months had an agent and a manager and was already landing modeling and acting gigs. He has since been featured on high-profile shows such as House and Without a Trace, traveled around the world as a model for companies such as Adidas, and this Sunday, Feb. 20, he will star in the ESPN original movie Wendell Scott: A Race Story immediately after the Daytona 500.

The film is a biopic of the first black to win a race in NASCAR’s top division. Charles filmed the entire thing this past October, in the midst of his chemo treatments. He plays the title character. Despite being one of the beautiful people, like the singing and dancing Gleeks, Charles has always remained humble and grounded, and would never even consider whining about his luck.

Only 16.2 miles left. Here I come!

Mile 13.1: I am listening to Ke$ha. Just kidding. I am actually listening to “My Way” by Frank Sinatra. Because through it all, when there was doubt, I chewed it up and spit it out. I cross the halfway mark in 1:47. The last marathon I ran, I crossed halfway in 1:45, I felt far more solid than I do now and I only crept in under four hours by three minutes. It does not portend well. Nevertheless, I congratulate my body for getting me this far without serious incident.

If the marathon indeed is a collaborative effort of body, mind and heart, then I hope my mind and heart have taken their vitamins and stretched a bit, because my body is already finished. “Legs, you did a good job, and I appreciate the effort,” I tell them. “We’ll try to carry you the rest of the way. I am proud of you.” My mind is still doing a good job of telling me what I need to hear. I clutch at the “NEVER QUIT” on my chest.

There are already people who are only a few miles from the finish line. For a moment, I wish I had purchased one of the voodoo dolls sold in the French Quarter so I could jab a safety pin into its hamstring, hobbling the leader of the pack. But I am not a vindictive person, and my momentary Schadenfreude passes before my karma is destroyed. Besides, pain is not necessarily bad, and the avoidance of pain is not necessarily good. As Ernest Hemingway said, “We burn the fat off our souls.”

Mile 18: My mind is beginning to turn on me. Guilt, shame, regret and envy — the Four Horsemen of the subconscious mind — are elbowing their way in. You have quit before, you have let people down before, they taunt. Just give up. This is New Orleans. It beat Hurricane Katrina. You think it won’t beat you? Ha ha. You’re weak. You can’t win. And even if you finish, who cares? You think that one victory makes up for years of losses? Just throw in the towel after the first half, Jay Cutler. Ha ha.

Even my Nike wristband mocks me, the swoosh patronizing, Just Do It. C’mon, guy. You think you’re in pain? It’s the easiest thing in the world, putting one foot in front of the other. Just Do It, you quitter. I knew there was a reason I bought ASICS shoes.

I clench my teeth and pick up my pace slightly. I will not break. But my mind is useless now. I am not even inspired by “You’re the Best Around” from the Karate Kid soundtrack. This is your cue, Heart. Bring it on home. There is no pain in this dojo.

Mile 22: My body is beyond finished, and my mind is screaming at me to stop at a volume that would drown out a screaming baby on a plane. My iPod is playing a cover of “Take Me Home Country Roads” by Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, but I can barely hear it above the din of my condescending mind. I pass a man holding a tray of vodka martinis on the side of the road, and the mawkish scent almost makes me puke, but I don’t have time to puke. I don’t have time for pain. And as Governor Ventura stated in Predator, “I ain’t got time to bleed.”

Pain means nothing now. Injury means nothing. All that matters is crossing that finish line. I don’t know what time I have left to beat four hours, but I can estimate in my head, and it is going to be close. I am hemorrhaging heart with each step. It is flowing out of me, and I can’t find a tourniquet. Please, God, just let me finish proud.

Mile 25.2: I know there is only a mile left. I am an athlete. I am a competitor. I tell my body to suck it up for one mile. I ask my mind to come through. It tells me that I’m a loser, and that I should stop. I tell my mind to go do something to itself that I can’t write. OK, heart. Are you still there? There is a faint pulse. I don’t know whether I will make it in less than four hours. I don’t know if I will make it under my old time.

But when I pass a spectator who tells me I have only a ¼-mile to go, I stride. I stride for Charles, and I grab my chest again, throwing my poor body into the sprint of its life. My hamstrings scream. My quads protest. My calves begin to spasm, and the right one is ready to pull off the bone. My feet are twin 10-ounce strip steaks, tenderizing against the harsh pavement. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is finishing strong. I sprint the final leg, every muscle in my body fighting me. When I cross the finish line, the final pulpy bits of my heart dribble to the Louisiana pavement in a diaphanous puddle that only I can see. I left everything I had on that finish line.

I would find out later that I finished in a time of 3:58:04. I missed my previous time by one minute and seven seconds, but I came in under four hours for the second time. Boom goes the dynamite. I should cross the finish line, arms raised, doing the Dougie, the Neon Deion. Instead, I walk over to a patch of dirt off to the side, I crumble to my knees and place my hands on top of my head.

There, genuflected on the New Orleans soil that had witnessed so much pain, I break. I start crying, without even knowing or caring why. I am a sieve. I feel like John Boehner when someone mentions America, or kittens.

I cry for Charles and what he is going through. I cry for the success I feel. I cry for my many failures. I cry because it’s over. And I cry because it’s over. I cry just because it feels good to cry, and because I don’t want to stop.

As Washington Irving said, “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the sign of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are messengers of overwhelming grief … and unspeakable love.”

Before I rise to my feet, I can sense the Four Horsemen surrounding me. They are not mocking me, because they know that I won this race. But they smile at me coldly as they say, don’t you see? You can never outrun us. We are here for the rest of your life. Just give up.

I respond silently: I may never outrun you, but I can give you a hell of a race. They whisper as they fade into the crowd of revelers, “We will see you soon, selfish Kevin.” When I am able to pull myself up to my feet, I hug my father, who is crying as well, and then I hug my brother. I step off to the side of the course to call Charles. After a few rings, he answers. We talk for a few minutes. He thanks me. And I thank him. And it ends with four words: I love you, man.

What I have learned from my second marathon is that it is much more than a pure sport. It is an allegory for life itself. Everyone starts at the same place — all with different talents or unique disabilities. But you cross the starting line and you run. You swim until you can’t see land. You run until you can’t possibly run anymore. Then you walk. You may not know where the finish line is, but you walk anyway. You walk until your legs crumble beneath you. Then you crawl, confident in the faith that you are headed toward something important. And even if you aren’t, you know that the journey itself is more meaningful than the destination.

When you can’t crawl, someone will be there to carry you for a few miles, so that you can get your legs under you again. But you keep moving. Some people’s bodies give out. Some people’s minds do. Some people get cancer, and some people don’t. But you NEVER QUIT. You keep moving. And as soon as you finish one marathon, there is someone waving a brochure in your face for the next one.

After all, life is nothing if not a long, winding, often brutal and occasionally gratifying marathon — one that can’t be won or lost, only run. Like Charles, I choose to run. I choose life. Now, on with it.

[Noozhawk’s note: Visit www.fight4cp.com to follow Charles Porter’s blog or to donate money to his fight.]

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.

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