Cliff: Part 2

Do you remember the column I wrote a few weeks ago, the one about Cliff? We met each other running in Forest Park, and our friendship consisted of high fives and salutes (“Keep going! Looking good!”) in passing. That is, until last fall, when he stopped me on the path along Lindell, told me he had throat cancer, and asked if I would pray for him. And I did, right there on Lindell. “I haven’t seen Cliff since then,” I wrote, “but I heard it through the grapevine that he is back up and running. I have a feeling that the next time I see him, I’ll be the one stepping off the path and onto the grass. Some occasions deserve a hug.”

Well, folks, guess what I got to do last Saturday morning?  

“Cliff!” I exclaimed as I saw him walk through the doors across the Visitor’s Center in Forest Park. “How are you!” 

He had just finished running a loop around Forest Park. He wiped his forehead and smiled. “Hey, Amy!”

We hugged with the familiar embrace of old friends, even though we hadn't see one another in almost a year. And truth be told, it wasn't an unexpected visit. When I wrote the original article earlier this month, I was flooded with responses. Cliff’s story resonated further than I could have ever imagined. People shared their own similar experiences, lauded the running community, and said they would keep praying. And through the miracle of social media, I was able to contact Cliff. I told him about the article and asked if he would be willing to meet me for an interview after a run. 

“I love to talk about how God healed me from cancer. And running again, he wrote in response to my inquiry. What time and where at?

We agreed on Saturday at the location of our first (real) introduction. A few days later, I was sitting next to Cliff and his wife, Victoria, who had also run a loop of the park. 

Cliff and Victoria grew up in St. Louis. He went to Vashon High School, where he played shortstop and outfield on the baseball team. Victoria, Cliff & AmyVictoria went to his rival school, Sumner (“the best high school in the world,” she said with a smile, poking Cliff in the shoulder). They met in 1984, in Rolla, where Victoria was going to school and Cliff was visiting his brother. They kept in contact when Cliff headed back to St. Louis, and after Victoria graduated, the two started dating.

Thirty-one years later, they are more in love than ever. The couple recently celebrated their twenty-third wedding anniversary.

Running has played a key role in their relationship. In 2009, Cliff was overweight and battling an alcohol addiction.

“I used to be—I’m ashamed to say it—a drinker,” he recounted, shaking his head. "I used to be 255. I wanted to get back in shape, like I used to be in high school. So I started coming out to the park and running.” And drinking? “God helped me stop drinking,” he said. “Me and my wife prayed to my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—who I truly believe in—and he delivered me.”

Victoria nodded and closed her eyes. “In ’09, he said he needed to stop. He came to me and said, ‘I need to let it go.’ That was the last time he had any alcohol. To replace that, we had to start something else, so I said, ‘Let’s start walking and get back into running. There was a time we were doing Tae Bo every day.” She laughed. “We were fiends for Tae Bo.

“We started walking and then said, ‘Okay, let’s try some running,’” she continued. “That’s when we started coming to Forest Park. He runs his pace and I run mine.” She looked over at Cliff. “That was our prayer, that he would get back into shape and start running. When God delivered, He delivered Clifford, and I am so thankful. God will do it. That’s why I have to say trust in the Lord. He will get you through whatever you are battling. Since that time, [Cliff] hasn’t picked up a piece of alcohol, any alcohol of any kind.”

“So… tell me about last year, about your cancer diagnosis,” I said.

Cliff was quiet for a while before he answered.

In 2014, Cliff started noticing lumps in his neck, especially after he ran. The lumps never hurt, and they usually disappeared—or at least grew smaller—within several hours of finishing his run, so he wasn’t concerned. He assumed it had something to do with his adrenal system or muscle cramping. For months, the lumps appeared and disappeared, always in conjunction with his running. They didn’t bother him, so he didn’t say anything to Victoria. But one Saturday morning after a run, the lump was bigger than usual. It protruded from the side of his neck like a golf ball. Finally, he showed Victoria. She said he should see a doctor. Cliff made an appointment. Still, he wasn’t concerned.

The lump disappeared again by the time Cliff made it to the doctor. At least, it wasn't visible. But the doctor could feel it.

“How long have you had this?” he asked.

Cliff told him. The doctor didn’t give Cliff any possible diagnoses, but he told him he wanted him to see a specialist. Cliff underwent further testing.

“So I called the doctor,” Cliff said, shaking his head, “and I say, ‘Hey, I’m wondering… I’ve been seeing all these doctors…’ The doctor said, ‘Cliff, I don’t want to speculate, but it could be a tumor.’”

In reality, it was two tumors. Cliff had throat cancer. 

“The day I found out I had throat cancer…” Cliff looked at Victoria. “My wife was with me. It was like a freight train hit you, or your world stopped. Everything changed. I thought about everything. How am I gonna be able to run? How sick I’m gonna get. What my family is gonna go through. Am I gonna die? A lot of thoughts go through your mind.”

Victoria took Cliff’s hand. “I said, ‘Remember what God did with the alcohol? He’s not short of healing you from cancer, wholeheartedly, and going back to running.’ Because that was his main issue. He was afraid he wasn’t going to be able to run.”

Tears began to well up in Victoria’s eyes. “And he was hurting, because when we found out when chemo was going to begin, it was in the month that he had plans to run the Halloween [half ] marathon. We were going to do that together. And it was our anniversary month. We had plans to go to Branson for our anniversary, which we still did, but his strength wasn’t as strong because he had just begun his chemotherapy.

“So I went ahead and ran the Halloween [half marathon], and he was there being the biggest cheerleader ever…” she paused as her voice cracked with emotion, “and I knew he was still weak because he had just finished his first bout with chemo. I cried on the trail when I saw him after the first couple of miles. He had this big sign, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God,’ because we were supposed to be doing this together…” another pause, “and he was not out there running ahead of me.”

In September 2014, Cliff began the first of nine rounds of chemo. In November, he began radiation—every day at 7:00 a.m., five days a week, from November through January, they’d place a mask over his face and strap him to the bed. The radiation burned the skin off his neck and made his throat swell. It destroyed his taste buds and sense of smell. The combo of chemo and radiation made him nauseated and violently sick every day. He couldn’t eat. He was too sick, and swallowing was too painful. Even breathing was painful. Plus, he couldn’t smell or taste food. The saliva in his mouth disappeared. He lost weight. A lot of it. In January, his doctor placed him on a feeding tube.

“There were a lot of complications between,” he said. “We were at the hospital a lot. To get fluids. The feeding tube. I had to shoot myself every morning and night to treat the blood clots—shoot myself with blood thinning shots. I lost my taste buds. I couldn’t smell food either. I like food! I still like to eat, you gotta remember. But I can’t smell food, can’t taste food—I had no desire to eat food. I was constantly throwing up. Everything was just going down. It hurt to breathe. Everything hurt.

“But one of the things through all my cancer—and I don’t even think my wife truly knows, when I had my feeding tube, not one time did she complain when she had to feed me.” Cliff turned Victoria, his eyes full of love and gratitude and wonder. “Whether it was two in the morning, three in the morning, or four in the morning—oh, and by the way, she still had to get up and go teach twelve or fourteen hours, teach her students at school.” He shook his head. “I thank God for putting her in my life. She got me through a lot.” 

Victoria encouraged Cliff to get up and move, even when it was difficult to walk from one end of the dining table to the other. In the morning, he’d bring his granddaughter to school and then head to the Galleria to walk. Some days, he felt like he were going to collapse after just a few steps.

“There were times when she would leave the house and I would cry because I couldn’t do the things I used to do. I would try to get out of the bed and my body just…” He closed his eyes and stopped speaking. “That’s when I called on God a lot, because He knew I wanted to run, that I was eager to get out and run.”

In fact, even when he wasn’t able to run himself, Cliff would sometimes drive to Forest Park and watch the runners glide down the paths and streets he loved. It motivated him.

Cliff’s chemotherapy and radiation treatment ended in January. In February, he returned to Forest Park for his first run since treatment began. He told Victoria he was going to do it. His body was still suffering the effects of chemo and radiation, and every step was difficult, but he ran a glorious mile and a half, around the Muny and back to the Visitor’s Center. 

On May 6th, Cliff was declared cancer-free. His port was removed last Friday.

“I’m back to running again, which I enjoy.” He smiled at the understatement. “I’m still not back to my form, but I think that’s a good thing because it drives me even more to keep on running. I can’t wait to run my first marathon, again.” The eagerness is apparent in his voice. “That’s what I’m looking forward to. I just want to start and finish.”

For an hour, Cliff, Victoria, and I sat at the table, tears and laughter punctuating our conversation. To the objective viewer, we look like old friends catching up—aside from the recording device propped up in front of us. 

“I call you the Mayor of Forest Park,” I confessed. “I told my parents I was interviewing you today-- Cliff, the Mayor of Forest Park.”

Victoria laughed. “It’s a beautiful gift to have, to be a people person,” she said, looking at her husband. “In today’s time, we are so to ourselves, instead of being willing and open with others. It’s good to have good-hearted people who don’t mind sharing and saying, ‘We are all together. We are all human. So let’s love one another. We’re out here. We’re running.’ [Cliff] knows everyone that he passes by, and if he sees you enough, he’s going to get to know you eventually.”

Cliff started talking about all the runners he met the same way we did—running the paths and streets of Forest Park—and how they banded around him as word spread about his diagnosis. People found him on Facebook and sent him messages. Others would stop him during his runs and ask how he was.

We runners are particular people, one message read. We’re strong. And I’m gonna be out there cheering you on when you do one of your first marathons. 

“That’s one thing I like about running. We like to encourage each other. We like to tell each other, ‘C’mon! Finish out!’ When you come to races, everyone is cheering every runner on, not just the guy who came in first, but the guy, the last one, they’re still out there saying, ‘C’mon, you can do it!’ 

“I ran slower today,” Cliff continued, smiling, “because people kept stopping me on the trail. Even the 6:20 guys! They said, ‘Hey, Cliff! We read that article about you! And she mentioned us!’ A lot of people mentioned the article. And I tell them that’s actually how we met. For years, we would just pass each other, not really saying anything because we both were just running. We never knew each other’s name.” 

But now, we do, Cliff and I. We are old friends. And if you run Forest Park enough, well, you’ll be friends with Cliff, too.

Amy L. Marxkors

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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