Celebrating The Life of Will Steele aka “the cancer guy”

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By: Weldon Johnson, LetsRun.com
January 24, 2013

*****

“I’m given today, I’m going to do what I can with it and see what happens. I’ve accepted that I’ve got something and it’s probably going to get me in the end, but it doesn’t have me today. I’m going to keep going and see how far I can get.”
- Will Steele, aka “the cancer guy”, writing about his incurable cancer in October of last year.

*****

Will Steele has run his last mile. The 36-year-old married father of three lost his battle with cancer on Christmas Eve.

Will became an inspiration to countless thousands on LetsRun.com when he began posting last year under the hopeful moniker of “the used to be cancer guy” chronicling his attempt to train and battle cancer in the thread, “Here’s to breaking 20 for 5k (à la EddyLee).”

Will started the thread by posting he ran 2 miles in 36:48. That’s 18-minute miles for those of you who struggle with math. Never has a runner with slower times posted his or her training on LetsRun.com and never has there been a bigger inspiration.

When the diagnosis got even bleaker for Will, he switched his moniker back to “the cancer guy” and continued posting and trying to run or walk. When he no longer could walk, he switched to trying to do push ups. Will talked in the frankest terms both on LetsRun and on Facebook about his diagnosis, dying, his hopes, his fears, and much, much more. Some of it was very, very heavy stuff. By doing so, Will taught us not so much about death, but what it means to truly live.

*****

“God doesn’t promise us long and healthy lives”
- Kerri Steele, Will’s wife talking in October.

*****

You are going to die. I am going to die. That much is certain.

Until I met Will Steele for the first and only time, I liked to pretend it wasn’t going to happen to me. I was aware of Will’s thread on LetsRun.com, but didn’t read much of it, because if I’m being honest, I didn’t like thinking too much about my own mortality.

After meeting Will and his family for roughly two hours in October, I saw what it means to be alive, to live life like it’s meant to be lived. Will’s honesty, frankness, and grace were impressive.

I’m not sure how to eulogize a man I’ve only met once, yet who was able to inspire me more than many I’ve met hundreds of times. Hopefully by letting his own words speak for themselves.

*****

“I might be thinking differently, but, I have to accept I am basically at the end of my options. In other words, I need to begin accepting and preparing to die.

This is a weird place. I never thought about what death would actually look like, much less, like this. Having to tell your boss, thank you for the opportunity, but, I must now leave work to go and never come back. Telling my kids I can’t play with them because if I get an infection it could kill me. Essentially having to systematically and methodically close up shop and prepare to depart. Man, what a weird scenario! We have a little time to decide, yet, even if I do therapy and it does work, the same message stands as did before: this is incurable, and, now, is twice as deadly since it’s in two bodily systems. Not sure if I’ll ever walk or run again. My body just ache more and more these days. Walking is painful. Breathing is hard. And, the thought of running is frightening.

I appreciate all the support and help I have gotten from folk on the board. Thanks everyone for letting me share my story and encouraging me. I have had some low places and this is one of the few spots I have been able to be honest because I don’t fear the effects it will have on my relationships if I bare my soul here as I might in face to face conversation. Even when I was no longer a runner this place took me and made me feel like I belonged and that’s important and special. So, I will try to keep updating as time passes, but, at some point, there will be a last post and I won’t be around any more. I don’t know how far off that is, but, I suspect seeing new years would be a pretty surprising thing.”
- Will Steele posting on July 31st.

*****

I met Will for the first and only time this October (two plus months after the post above). Cancer survivor and former two-time USA marathon champ Ken Martin was in the Dallas area doing some work for the charity he started WorkOut Cancer, which provides financial support to researchers studying how/whether exercise can improve cancer treatments and outcomes, reduce side effects of treatments, and reduce recurrence.

Believe it or not, twenty years ago in high school, Will had tried to get Ken to coach him via fax – yes, fax. They reconnected because of Will’s battle with cancer and his thread on LetsRun.com.

Ken is also in the process of training to try and break the 50+ world record in the mile (at age 54 nonetheless) to raise awareness for WorkOut Cancer. Since September, Ken has been posting his training in the popular 50+ Masters Training and Racing Open Forum thread. The plan was for Ken to meet up with Will while in the Dallas area. Ken also wanted to reconnect with this long-time friend Aaron Ramirez, the 1986 NCAA Cross-Country champion, who lives in South Texas. Will invited me to join them hoping to generate some publicity for Ken’s charity. Watching Ken work out was thrown into the mix, and I headed over to meet all three of them.

*****

“Do whatever you want (in terms of exercise), we’re just going to give you drugs.”
- Will talking in October talking about the advice he was given by his cancer doctors about exercise.

*****

Will Steele and his family

I think it is fair to say Will was frustrated with his own cancer treatment as he was left searching for many answers himself. A super-fit man by the standards of normal society, yet he was treated by the cancer doctors like a sedentary couch potato? Does that make any sense?

Should he exercise? Or would it just make him weaker for chemo? Could he withstand more chemo because of his fitness heading into his fight with cancer? Not a lot was known.

It does not take a scientific degree to understand that running helped Will in his battle with cancer. The goal setting, the routine, pushing your body to do what seems out of reach. Will had done this all his life, for he was a runner. Running was not something he did, it was part of who he was. Just from reading his posts, one sees that continuing to be a runner, even when he could barely walk, helped Will in his cancer fight, at the very least helped him keep up the fight.

Will did his own research and learned of Ken’s charity and felt exercise could do more than just inspire people in the cancer fight. It could possible help fight cancer or at least prolong the fight.

“There are studies that indicate that exercise literally helps prevent cancer growth and I don’t think a lot of people realize that … Getting people to realize (exercise) is not just going to help you feel better it is going to help you fight cancer. That is revolutionary in my mind,” Will said in October.

Will and Ken both had been left to search on their own for what they could and should do in terms of exercise while battling cancer. Self-coaching as an athlete isn’t the easiest thing to do. Now throw on top of it chemotherapy and in Will’s case a day-long surgery in 2011 that removed 268 tumors.

“There is a little bit of information out there but it is hard to pull it all together and make sense of it while you’re going through therapy and your brain is fried,” Will said.

Exercise at the very least can limit muscle wasting while undergoing chemo and can limit some of the damage to the heart from the chemo drugs. That much appears to be known. Will and Ken both believe it can do a lot more. But a lot is unknown.  Ken noted that exercise science has progressed a lot in the last few decades, but exercise science as how it relates to cancer treatment is still in its infancy.

“Can you use exercise to improvement the treatment and will more people have better survival? That hasn’t really been investigated,” said Ken Martin.

*****

“I did a mile on Wednesday in just over 26 minutes. For me, that’s pretty good. I really thought it was going to take me about 40 minutes. Plus, that day, I was not taking pain meds, so, I was short stepping and achy. Not the best conditions for a ‘stroll.’ I could tell my heart rate was pretty elevated (maybe 150-160bpm) at that pace, but, I figure, if nothing else, it could help stimulate some blood cell production. Positive stress on the system. Hopefully, if I keep at it I can get a little better before things slip again … I really want to start doing at least a mile a day if I can help it. let’s say 30 minutes a day, bare minimum, 7 days a week. That’d give me a good 3.5-4 hours of aerobic activity. Add on top of that some weight lifting and stretching and I think I’ll see positive benefits in a few weeks. At least, that’s my hope.”
- The cancer guy writing on November 16th.

*****

Will Steele in 2010

Will Steele was a runner.

He may have posted on July 31st about no longer being a runner, but he was a runner until the very end. Even if his final post about his own training on November 22nd was about walking, he was a runner. On LetsRun.com, I don’t think there is a better compliment you could give someone.

In high school, Will started out as a 19 minutes for 2 miles guy. Thanks to two 1,000 mile summers (that’s more than 10 miles a day as a high schooler), he ended up as a 16 minute for 3 miles guy. His coach in high school was Pete Boudreaux, who would become the 2010 USATF Gill Athletics Coach of the Year. Pete’s expertise did not stop Will from searching for more answers and inquiring about Ken Martin coaching him via fax.

In college, Will then ran at Christian Brothers University an NAIA school in Tennessee. After college, Will was a 15 minute 5ker and 33 minute for 10k guy. I don’t know Will’s exact PRs because he didn’t tell me them. At one point, Will defined himself by how fast he ran in a circle, even to the point where he lied about his PRs. Now facing what proved to be terminal cancer, Will could take pride in 26 minute miles, and the rest of us were inspired.

Just as a life is not judged by how many years it lasts, Will reminded us a runner is ultimately not defined by their PRs.

*****

“I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I run …

What in the world are you talking about?”
-Will recounting what he was thinking when told he was diagnosed with cancer

*****

Cancer does not discriminate. The couch potato, the 33 minute 10k guy, the two-time USA Marathon champion, the seven time Tour de France champion, the founder of Apple Computer, are all victims.

Exercise, organic food, “being healthy” – these are not guarantees that keep cancer from striking.

Will believed his cancer was caused from a battery recycling plant near his house, but was well beyond the being pissed off stage when I met with him. Not to say anger didn’t occasionally creep into his posts, but I witnessed a man who knew what was most important to him, starting with his wife Kerri and children Paige, Emma and Liam, but extending to other areas of his life.

I asked him why there wasn’t more anger and outrage, and Will made it clear that anger and outrage wouldn’t improve what little time he had left.

The reality is we are all facing certain death. For the fortunate ones among us, that death is further down the road, but talk to someone facing an early death, or their loved ones, and you get a real different perspective quickly.

*****

“Does that make God any less holy? If I am to be honest, no, it doesn’t. It was my mistake for assuming something that isn’t necessarily true … but, rather, something I would like to believe. Who wants to think I’ll get incurable cancer at 33 and never see my kids grow up. As someone who tries to see God as a benevolent being, presuming things like that is not near the top of the list. But, when realities like that arise, it doesn’t necessarily invalidate claims like, ‘God is good.’  As I see it, the truth is so infinitely more complex than that, we as people, fail to grasp the numbers of ways things can go wrong and theological answers still hold true. Does it mean I all happy about it? No, I am a bitter, pissed off dude. But, is it reason to abandon my faith? Again, if I am honest, no.”

and
“God taps us on the shoulder all the time and we are often to(o) busy to even notice. Imagine if we heard all the little ‘shoulder’ taps. There is something awesome about living a fully spiritual life to which no action movie could compare. When everything you do was sparked by some improbably, unlikely, or, impossible event and suddenly, you wake up one day, realizing, you have been alive a year and a half longer than the doctors told you would, and (you) are in touch with people from every corner of the earth sharing this story people couldn’t even dream up if they tried. Yeah, I could reject God (I have at times only to come back) at all this, but, life is just so much more awesome with him in it than without him.”
-Will Steele writing on LetsRun.com about his faith.

*****

Will Steele was a believer in God and he wrote honestly about his faith on LetsRun.com.

Incurable cancer in his mid thirties did not diminish Will’s faith. It made him question what it means to believe and what his relationship with God was, but not to abandon his faith.

The honesty, the openness, the grace that Will dealt with his cancer on LetsRun.com was amplified when he discussed his faith.

Facing death, Will saw the beauty in life. Life was a gift from God that should not be wasted.

 *****

“I’m given today, I’m going to do what I can with it and see what happens. I’ve accepted that I’ve got something and it’s probably going to get me in the end, but it doesn’t have me today. I’m going to keep going and see how far I can get.”

and

“As a runner you’re in the middle of the race and you are like, ‘I am so freaking tired. My legs are burning’ and you have to choose, ‘ok pull it together, focus, get it together, let’s go.’ And I think the same type of attitude is required to deal with cancer.”

and

“One of the hard choices is, you have the ability every day to choose ‘Am I going to live today?’ Or I am going to let cancer determine the way my life is going.”
- Will Steele talking about cancer in October.

*****

Ken Martin (l.), WIll Steele (c.) and Aaron Ramirez (r.) in October

Why do we run? Why do we live?

The first question has been grappled with since the founding of this site and many times (1,2,3,4,5,6,7) afterwards. The second since the beginning of humanity.

Will’s posts taught us or reminded us how to live.

In the quotes above, Will is talking about his life and his battle with cancer, but notice the running metaphor. It was through Will’s own running and battle with cancer that he showed us how to live.

Running as a metaphor for life is not a new concept, but Will in his struggle and grace made it less of a metaphor and more reality. It was through running, or his attempt to run, that Will showed complete strangers that he was still alive and what it means to live.

As Oprah Winfrey once said, “Running is the greatest metaphor for life, because you get out of it what you put into it.”

All of us as runners understand on some level the running as a metaphor for life concept, but we do not fully embrace it. Will was consciously aware he was living it.

“Am I going to live today?”

“Or I am going to let  ____ (cancer in Will’s case) determine the way my life is going.”

That was Will’s decision each day. Ultimately he couldn’t determine how long he lived on this earth, but he could determine each day if he was going to truly live.

 *****

“It doesn’t sound like much but going from where I could literally
barely walk to running 16 minute miles, I was happy with that …”

“I’m going to take running not as  a competitive athlete as I used to
be, but I’ve been blessed to have a little bit of life left …”

“Running is for me becoming a distant memory. I still love it. I
still check letsrun every day. I follow the news. It’s in my blood …”
-Will Steele talking in October.

*****

When I met Will in October, I was also talking to a LetsRunner who was hit by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan and survived the attack. For the longest time, I have wanted to have a Blue Collar Runner of the Month on LetsRun.com and the guy hit by the suicide bomber seemed to be the perfect candidate for the first Blue Collar Runner of the Month.

With Will’s death, I thought of making him the first Blue Collar Runner of the Month. To do so, however, would seemingly trivialize life and death and more importantly Will’s life and his impact on LetsRun.com.

Will was not just a blue collar runner. He was a runner. He represents what running is all about. So Will Steele is my Runner of the Year for 2012. Message board poster “joho” summed up Will best:

 

“Dude, You will always be a runner. You absolutely epitomize what being a runner is all about.

Don’t quit because it hurts.
Never give up.
One day at a time.

You are truly inspiring those of us following you and your battle.”

 *****

An endowment has been set up in Will’s name at Christian Brothers University. The William Steele scholarship is being set up there to honor Will and to benefit (freshman) runners at CBU who have shown courage, determination and strong moral character throughout their life. You can contact Stephen Kirkpatrick: Director of Development @ CBU – skirkpat@cbu.edu or 1-800-283-2925 for details on how to contribute to the scholarship.

Alternatively, if you are short on charity funds but would like to help contribute to the Will Steele fund, LetsRun.com in conjunction with partner Road Runner Sports is donating 15% of all purchases from Road Runner Sports originating from LetsRun.com now through the end of February to the Will Steele fund. LetsRun is making zero from these sales and donating 100% of its commission. Click here if you’d like to shop and contribute that way.

15% of All Purchases from Road Runner Sports via LetsRun.com Going to Will Steele Fund From Now Through End of February

More info:  “Here’s to breaking 20 for 5k (à la EddyLee).” This is the thread where Will started posting his journey and is a highly recommended read.
*50+ Masters Training and Racing Open Forum thread (Where Ken Martin is chronicling his training to break the 50+ world record in the mile. Wejo will have more on this in January)
*WorkOut Cancer 501c charity started by Ken Martin to help use exercise to help improve cancer survival.

Weldon Johnson can be reached at weldonjohnson@letsrun.com

Will and Ken and Aaron in their own words -

Will Steele Talks About Exercise, Cancer, And Getting Together With Ken Martin

Will Steele On His Running Career And Running With Cancer

Recommended: Will Steele On Being Diagnosed With Cancer, His Battle, And Living Life

Keri Steele: “God doesn’t promise us long and healthy lives.”

Two Time US Marathon Champ Ken Martin On Getting Diagnosed With Cancer, Fighting It And Deciding To Train For 50+ World Record In Mile

#15: “Can I take more chemotheraphy?”

With Will’s death, the meet-up between Will, Ken Martin and Aaron Ramirez got less attention, but we’ll have more on this in January. A few videos below with Ken and Aaron.

Ken Talks About His Training For The 50+ World Record, Gives Advice To Today’s Runners, Talks About His Great Oregon Teams That Didn’t Win NCAAs

Aaron Ramirez Talks About His Running Career, Winning NCAA XC And Not Having A Shoe Contract, What He’d Advise Today’s Runners And More