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Out There: The Beginning of the End

After years of pursuing pain in endurance sports, it's time for Susan Lacke's friend to seek comfort.

“Wait, wait,” I gestured to my boss to pause his story for a moment. “You mean to tell me you suffer for 10 hours…”

“Yes.”

“…like, major suffering…”

“Uh-huh.” Carlos nodded.

“And you do this voluntarily. For fun?”

“Yup.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun. That sounds like pain.”

His eyes widened. “The pain is the best part! It lets you know you’re alive!”

The statement was so ludicrous, I couldn’t believe he was serious. I could only shake my head and laugh.

“With all due respect, sir, I think you’re crazy.”

It was the first time I had heard about the Ironman triathlon. My boss, Carlos, had finished the 140.6-mile race in Arizona the day before, and came to work the next day, sunburnt and limping. Though I thought the race was the dumbest thing I had ever heard of, something about his story stuck with me.

Little did I know, one day I would finally get it. A few years later, during my first Ironman triathlon, I experienced a new kind of pain—and I had never felt more alive.

Over the years, Carlos has become my closest friend and favorite training partner. Our friendship has been built on the shared pursuit of pain—riding bikes up mountains, “easy” swims that always seem to turn into competitions, pushing each other out of the way as we sprint back to the trailhead (“Last one to the car has to pay for coffee!”).

When cancer crept into Carlos’s body four years ago, “pain” took on a new meaning. Before, pain was the result of a search for what he was made of; after his diagnosis, the body preemptively answered that question, and the answer always seemed to be “tumors.” Chemotherapy caused him to curl onto the floor in a fetal position for days on end; surgeries left him covered in scars; experimental treatments tested his physical and mental limits. Still, Carlos was willing, even grateful, to accept the pain.

“The pain lets me know I’m alive.” He said with determination. “When the pain stops, that means I’ve stopped.”

His cancer has spread dramatically in the last year—to the liver, to the lungs, to the brain—and his doctors have exhausted all options for treating him. A few months ago, Carlos was told to make arrangements with a hospice facility.

“We can’t try to cure you anymore,” the doctors said, “but we can manage your pain and keep you comfortable until the end.”

“I don’t want to be comfortable,” Carlos replied, pushing away the hospice brochures. “I’m not ready for that.”

Last week, I got a text message from his daughter, saying Carlos was being transferred to hospice care. The swelling in his brain had simply become too much to bear. Ready or not, Carlos had reached the beginning of the end.

When I got to his bedside the next morning, he was smiling serenely.

“Good drugs?” I asked.

“Ohhhh, yeah.” He purred.

I sat next to his bed, holding his hand as he moved in and out of sleep. Every few minutes, he’d stir and start a brief, but lucid conversation about riding bikes on South Mountain or where to get a good post-run burrito. Sometimes, he’d fall asleep again, only to wake up confused and muttering.

“Where am I?”

“You’re at hospice, sir.”

“Why am I here?”

“Your nurse thought you’d be more comfortable here.”

“Oh.” He closed his eyes again, only to open one a few seconds later and whisper: “Am I comfortable?”

“Yes.” I smiled. “Very.”

Carlos squeezed my hand as he drifted off to sleep once again.

“Good.”

****

About The Author:

Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Salt Lake City, Utah with three animals: A labrador, a cattle dog, and a freakishly tall triathlete husband. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.