Project: Return

By Ryan Litwin, Testicular Cancer Survivor & 4K for Cancer Alumnus
Ryan Litwin is a three year cancer survivor and is currently attending college as a nursing major.  He ran across the country this summer with 4K for Cancer’s Team Boston.  Ryan ran in memory of his cousin Laurie Wimler who passed away from cancer.
The First Step Blog is a documentation of Ryan’s journey with cancer, from diagnosis to cancer survivorship, and ultimately to his run across the country to benefit young adults with cancer.
The roar of Team Boston was all I could hear as I rounded the turn. As I looked at my watch, I knew that this was the moment that I would finally break six minutes in the mile today. I would surpass that elusive barrier that had been just out of reach for the past four years. I had to focus now though, to avoid psyching myself out.
I relaxed my shoulders, pushed back my arms, and lifted my legs, trying to get closer to Tyler as he continued pacing me through the final lap of the mile. The neuropathy ached more and more painfully as it traveled into my forearms. A little flame of doubt flickered into my mind but was quickly extinguished by the continued sound of the cheers and yelling from the team. “This is it,” I told myself, “This is it!”
WHY THE MILE RACE IS IMPORTANT TO ME
The mile has always been a special race to me but my true appreciation for the race wasn’t completely developed until about four years ago. It was in high school when I started to enjoy racing more than just simply running.
The different training schedule and more serious nature of the team really appealed to my mentality and it became an outlet for stress. Soon I was chasing after my own times and improving every race.
I wasn’t good but I wasn’t bad either, I had a passion for running and enjoyed every aspect of it. Practice after school was basically a guaranteed two to three hours of just hanging out with my best friends. It was incredible and competing was always fun, even if I only scored once or twice a season.
By junior year of high school though, my times were slowing down. No, they were at a plateau, especially when spring track came around.
About halfway through spring track season, in April, I came to a conclusion that I would improve my times. There was a tri meet and I was running the mile, today would be the day I beat my PR.
That meet was the fastest that I would run a mile for about four years.
I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to be diagnosed with testicular cancer.
I broke my PR that day by over ten seconds, running five minutes and thirty seconds.
On Earth Day, a week after that, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I had ignored certain symptoms throughout the past few months which probably greatly contributed to the drought of personal bests for me.
In that last week before diagnosis, the symptoms worsened severely. I had testicular pain, lower back pain, and sciatica pain, to name a few.
The pain I had during that race was excruciating but running is, and always has been for so many, a completely internal battle.
It’s a head game that I suppose I won that day. By the time I was diagnosed, I had edema in my left leg and the pain and fatigue was all too real.
The doctors were surprised that I could walk, let alone run. The cancer had developed at an exponentially fast rate over the last week before Earth Day.
When they heard me tell them that a week before, I ran a five and a half minute mile, they were astounded.
As a result of that discussion with the doctors, they realized how important running was in my life.
After consulting with other doctors in Boston, my healthcare team in Connecticut decided to change my treatment.
Rather than go forward with the original treatment plan, which was the routine course of treatment for testicular cancer, my treatment plan was changed to accommodate my running lifestyle.
The good thing was that the normal treatment for testicular cancer would have decreased my lung capacity due to the long periods of chemical exposure.
Ultimately, my running and breathing during any kind of physical activity, would never have been the same. The bad thing though was that this form of treatment was much more aggressive and radical.
Throughout treatment I experienced countless complications and was much sicker than I would have been had I been treated with the original treatment plan.
Early on, I realized I would need to have a unique perspective on the entire course of treatment to get through it in a decent psychological state.
I had four cycles of treatment, three weeks long, which were usually longer due to different complications. The way that I saw this, it was a mile race. Four laps and four cycles of treatment. So one mile and one course of treatment.
This mentality is what got me through the internal battle of treatment. My treatment was a mile race.
Just like a race, each cycle, I was in my own head and my friends and family were cheering me on.
Just like a race, my support system cheering me on was crucial to having a successful treatment.
Just like a race, the internal struggle to ignore the pain and suffering I was experiencing, was pushed aside to come through the finish line strong.
Due to the more aggressive treatment I received to maintain my running ability, as well as my mental perspective on my treatments, the mile race has always had a special place in my heart.
Cancer made it even more special to me. After all, it was the longest mile that I had ever run. Around the third round of treatment, when I was thirty-five pounds under my already lower than average weight, I made a goal for myself.
I would break five and a half minutes in the mile. That’s how I would beat cancer. I would get myself back into the shape of my life and kick cancer in the ass.
GETTING BACK INTO IT
Coming off treatment, I went into a surgery that required four months of recovery. That means no running until January of senior year. When I could run again, it was so tough. I started hardly being able to run a mile and throughout the spring track season, I knocked down mile races.
Each race, I got a personal best and improved my time. I thought about my treatments and my cousin Laurie during those races.
It was the best motivation I could have, thinking each lap about different complications, stories, and experiences I had during treatment.
But it wasn’t quite enough. I never even broke six minutes let alone five and a half minutes. I struggled hard with my aerobic endurance and my post chemotherapeutic and surgical complications.
I was still easily fatigued from the chemotherapy and I had neuropathic pain that I still struggle with today. There are multiple other things that I still struggle with today but probably the side effects from treatment that most affected me was the large surgery that I had post surgery.
This surgery ended with an incision that was closed with over sixty staples. The scar follows my lower ribs and goes up to my sternum like a clam shell.
There are clips still holding my muscles together. In essence, I had no abs while I worked hard my senior year of high school track. Despite the neuropathy getting worse and traveling up my arms and legs while I ran fast and hard, I still had a heart for it. I couldn’t give up.
That summer I worked hard and trained myself. My twin sister, Aly, often did the two hundred meter workouts with me or at least came to the track with me.
It was a struggle to run on an empty track but she was there for my best times. I got 5.59 on my watch at the end of my summer and I was super excited.
Looking back though, that was just a piece of luck with timing. It wasn’t a true 5.59. I didn’t actually break six minutes. I felt defeated. I wasn’t improving very much for the amount of work I was putting in and the race was more uncomfortable than ever before.
The mile race was already painful but the neuropathy didn’t help. In all honesty, after that summer between high school and college, I gave up on my mile time.
I ended my pursuit of breaking five thirty and focused instead on distance.
Between freshman year and junior year of college I ran half marathons and got more into distance running. It wasn’t as painful and it was more therapeutic than ever before.
It was something I hadn’t done before and was new to me. I loved going out for a run and not knowing where I was going, how far, or how fast.
PROJECT: RETURN
It wasn’t until joining 4K for Cancer that I started thinking about my mile time again. In training for the cross country relay run, I realized I felt better than I had in the past.
I had a strong aerobic base and knew I was in better shape that summer after high school graduation. My girlfriend, Annalyse, told me before I left for California, that I was in the best shape of my life.
I didn’t believe her but now I realize, she was completely right.
Early on into Team Boston’s cross country run, we bonded extremely quickly as a team. One of the great things about 4K is how vulnerable everyone is on the team.
Everyone is willing to talk about anything with anyone, most anytime. It’s incredible.
In one conversation with Tyler Schoch, we talked about our running times, much like any other running conversation. Only this time, we talked about my original post treatment goals of breaking five and a half minutes in the mile. He told me that on 4K we would break that time.
I distinctly remember him telling me to get ready to “run fast!” I thought he was crazy. There was no way that we’d be able to train for a speed event while I was running the most weekly mileage of my life. There was no way that we would be able to fit in speed workouts and extra running while running ACROSS the country.
I had zero faith.
Eventually, I was convinced though. Our first effort at reaching this mile time happened on day six in Austin, Nevada. We wanted to see where I was for a time and thought it would be a great place to do it.
Austin high school, the host for the night, had a track that was open for us to use. Only there were some downsides. The track was dirt, with loose sand on the inside lane. In addition, we were closing out a ten mile day of running through the loneliest highway and we were at 6,605 feet of elevation.
Running in these conditions were not ideal at all and I didn’t go into it very confidently. It was fantastic though. Tyler, Luke, Rob, and Evan, all paced me around the track and helped me to try to break six.
We went out fast and hard, to cheering from the entire team watching in the stands. As the time trial progressed however, the neuropathy got to the worst point it has ever been at while running.
I think with all of the conditions that the race had, in addition to the high mileage and increased work of effort in those conditions, my body did not like it at all.
The neuropathy spread up to my knees and halfway up my bicep. In my last lap, I slowed dramatically and couldn’t keep up with the guys pacing me. My arms locked up because of neuropathic pain, and my breathing was erratic because of the lower oxygen levels at elevation.
At the end of the fourth lap, I managed to run a 6.17 mile. I felt like crap. I was so disappointed because I knew I could do better. Just less than a month before, I had run a 6.05 back in Connecticut in the middle of a two mile repeat.
The cheering from the team and the hugs, high fives, and words of encouragement I received from the team after was incredible though. In just six days we had already grown to be unbelievably close.
After Austin, we wanted this goal we were working on to have a catchy name. Every great barrier in track and field seemed to have an easy name to remember what it was about.
I think the Breaking2 project with Nike, the marathon, and Eluid Kipchoge really inspired this conversation and after some debate we decided on an awesome name. Project:Return would be the return of myself to pre-cancer fitness, only better.
Project:Return would be the project where I broke five and a half minutes in the mile.
Over the course of the next few weeks of Tyler coached me through different speed workouts. On off days or low mileage days, we added mileage to our days by putting in miles on the track. If we couldn’t find a track we would put in speed work on the roads.
Tyler ran D1 track in college and is to me the epitome of a great runner. He is a fantastic runner when it comes to his own times, but he is also incredibly knowledgeable about training and considerate of runners who are slower than him as well.
In speed workouts I have complete trust in Tyler and what he wants me to do. It’s been completely awesome training with him and having him as a coach.
In the fall, Tyler is going to coach his high school cross country team, and from the little amount of time we have had together I can already tell he is going to do a great job.
On day thirty seven of 4K, we decided to give the time trial another go. We were in Cleveland, Ohio this time and the conditions were absolutely perfect. The track was beautiful, the weather is amazing, and the mentality I was in was perfect.
It was a rest day that we had spent visiting with past and current patients of the Cleveland Cancer Center and my head was in the right space that it needed to be. A little reminder of why we are running across the country this summer and why I wanted so badly to break my time in the mile.
At this point in 4K Tyler had me convinced we could make serious gains in the mile. We had put in the work and the effort. The only thing that had me worried was we weren’t consistent.
I knew consistency is key in speed work, but considering the high mileage weeks we were putting in, I think we had done the best we could do leading up to this point.
We set the time for 7:30 p.m. or 8:00 p.m., which ever felt best. As Tyler and I warmed up around the track, our teammates from Team Boston started to show up. I couldn’t have been more happy to see them. I knew how much their cheers helped me last time and really wanted them to be there this time.
I am so appreciative they showed up at night, and on a rest day, when people are usually off resting or doing their own thing. On the warmup, we went over the plan for pacing and the goal time. I thought I could break six for sure but Tyler thought I could do better.
He said, “let’s shoot for 5.40 or 5.45.” We agreed on this even though I said I wasn’t sure. We’d rather go out hard and fall back, then finish with some gas still left in the tank.
After warming up, the trial was about to start. When I felt ready, and had done all of my pre race rituals and warmups, someone called out the start and we were off. I had butterflies in my stomach and doubt in the back of my mind.
But the team quickly stopped all of that with the roar of screams and cheering as we started. There was a football team practicing on the infield that probably thought we were nuts.
At the start of lap one, I felt great. Tyler took off and I followed right on his outside hip, matching strides with him as best as I could.
Using him for pace and to break the wind a little for me as well. As we closed in on the last curve of the lap, I had my breathing under control and felt as though we were in a good position.
Then when we crossed the line and Luke shouted out our splits, I realized just how fast we had gone. “Hello 5.20,” I thought as Luke shouted out our pace. I realized this was way too fast but stuck with Tyler anyway. It felt good, so “Why not?” I thought to myself.
We closed the first half of the race with a time of 2.50, which had us right on pace for a 5.40.
That’s when I really started to feel it, at the end of the second lap and the beginning of lap three. Tyler started to push it, and I felt it. I wasn’t ready for it at all but I dug deep and pushed hard to match his pace.
That’s the first time that I started to seriously notice the neuropathy travel. It reached halfway up my forearms but didn’t really travel up my legs like it usually had.
As quickly as I noticed the feeling though, I pushed it away and focused on Tyler and the cheering from the team. Tyler started to yell more words of encouragement and at the end of the third lap, he took off.
Again, I wasn’t ready for this push but it was the last lap and I didn’t have far to go. But as I pushed harder and dug deep, I slowly caught up to him. Even if my form had gone completely sideways, I was gaining ground. The roar of Team Boston was all I could hear as I rounded the turn.
As I looked at my watch, I knew that this was the moment that I would finally break six minutes in the mile today. I would surpass that elusive barrier that had been just out of reach for the past four years. I had to focus now though, to avoid psyching myself out.
I relaxed my shoulders, pushed back my arms, and lifted my legs, trying to get closer to Tyler as he continued pacing me through the final lap of the mile. The neuropathy ached more and more painfully as it traveled more so into my forearms.
A little flame of doubt flickered into my mind but was quickly extinguished by the continued sound of the cheers and yelling from the team.
“This is it,” I told myself, “This is it!”
As we rounded the corner into the last straightaway, my teammates were running towards me. They were yelling and screaming words of encouragement and running alongside me.
I pushed so hard and blocked out the pain, sprinting across the finish line. I felt like I was going to be sick but I still felt like I had more in me. I should have kicked the gas a little sooner.
“What do you think it was?” Tyler asked me. “I have no idea, 5.40,” I gasped, completely out of breath.
When I found out the time was 5.37, I couldn’t believe it. I was ecstatic, and I still am. I just couldn’t believe it. I ran so much faster than I thought I was capable of, and I still felt like it could have been faster.
The entire team ran over with hugs, high fives, and so much excitement! It was absolutely incredible. “You look so happy!” Ally told me.
“That’s because I am!” I replied. “That’s the fastest I’ve run in years!”
On my cool down I ran with Luke, who had come to watch and we talked about the race. “It sounds like to me that you’re in the best shape of your life,” he told me. Annalyse’s words a month or so earlier rang in my head.
“I think you’re right,” I agreed. I was in the shape of my life. Even if I still hadn’t broken five and a half minutes in the mile, there is no way I would have been able to run that fast in such a high mileage week, at any point in my life previously.
I had finally rebuilt my body from being so underweight. With thirty five pounds of weight loss, I was a sack and bones four years ago. Today, all of my hard work had paid off and I was beyond excited.
We waited for Tyler to finish running and cool down. He’s a beast and did three more miles at essentially the same pace with a small recovery in between. He’s an animal. My personal best was just a workout for this kid.
In summary, there’s only eight seconds left until Project:Return is finished. We have two weeks until the end of 4K and I think we might be able to complete the project.
Tyler is a fantastic coach and pacer. Team Boston is an incredible crowd and gives so much support continuously for me and my goals in Project:Return.
I’m so thankful for everyone who has gotten me to this point and I can’t help but think about the time when I struggled to walk for a few minutes during treatment.
Only eight seconds left until we reach the finish.
Read more of Ryan’s story on his blog
Ryan’s Blog
Learn more about the 4K for Cancer & their trips for summer 2020
4K for Cancer

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