Before you read this, you should at least read Part 1 else this whole ramble will make even less sense than it does currently
Enniskillen, Northern Ireland - Friday 15 August 2015
Stage 1 of the Ulster Rally (Mallabeny Hill)
Stanley: “Alex, Do you mind if I have a quick prayer?”
Me: “No problem, Stanley – go ahead..”
If you know Stanley Ballantine, there’s three things you can pick up right away. 1 – He eats gluten free 2 - He’s the nicest guy in the world, and 3 – He loves Jesus. While I’m not a religious person in the slightest, I am committed to the principles of respecting the views of others and appreciating any act that comes from kindness . Plus, I could probably use a prayer right now. .
“…please keep us and everyone at this event safe, and we thank you for continuing to place your healing hand on Alex so that he is well enough to be rallying with us here. Amen”
I peer one eye out to check the starting clock as it strikes the next minute.
Bwaaaaaaa! - A classic, red Mk2 Escort dumps the clutch and does a burn-out that ensues all the way to the first corner. That’s, well..one way of getting the tires up to temperature I guess. We pull up to the line as the smokes settles and take one last whiff of burnt rubber from slain tires.
Ok – I’m focused now. I know the first few notes. My full attention is on the clock. The verbal countdown of each number must be timed perfectly with the changing of each second. It’s the metaphor that every word must be timed precisely to every bend during the stage. I must force the discipline to hold on looking at the clock until it actually zeroes, rather than putting my head straight down into my book of pace notes simply because I’m worried every corner is coming too fast for me to look up. Use your eyes. Observe. Nothing other than the two of you and this stage exist right now.
“30 seconds…15 seconds…10…5, 4, 3, 2, 1, GO”
Contrast to popular belief, for me, it’s not the speed or the thrill so much that makes rallying so addictive, or else I’d stick to riding rollercoasters or jumping out of planes; it’s the total immersion to nearly another dimension where you let go of any thoughts of self-preservation and immerse yourself completely in the task at hand (as a navigator, the best thing you can do to preserve yourself is to immerse yourself in the task at hand). It’s a different existence, and in rallying, all you do the whole day is pop yourself into that existence on stage, then come out of it on the road section, then back into it for the next stage. This cycle continues for days on end as the rally continues on, and through enough cycles of that, like a repeated therapy, it’s enough to detach you from all the troubles that were once so persistent and now seem distant.
Rallying in Ireland has been an addiction itself as of late. Something about flying through the bumpy/jumpy tunnel through the narrow hedges – at frantic pace with frantic pace notes, limited sightlines, fast, short corners, and frequent junctions that pop up at any given moment - just keeps pulling me back there. It requires a ton of concentration to get the timing right. The roads are narrow; getting on the racing line doesn’t require much extra planning or placement of the car, so the pace notes can be delivered just-in-time. The sightlines are limited and corners are short, which makes calling notes as far ahead as you’d like to be at high speeds difficult because it’s just so much information beyond what the driver can actually see (which isn’t much). However, you still may need to read far enough ahead so that the driver can brake from over 100mph through a series of fast short corners for a tight junction. You must be on point, and there’s no better feeling than getting it right.
Fortunately for me, I have the opportunity once again to get it right.
My last three articles came during the depths of my initial treatment for chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), and while I was fatigued during that period, the combination of free time, a spinning, overactive mind that accompanies any trauma, and sleeping ‘til noon/wearing sweatpants all day meant writing came a bit more easily than it does now. I must say though, I’m doing really well so far, and maybe, the blog took somewhat of a backseat when the opportunity to resume normal life came about fairly early. With that caveat, I wanted to tell a quick, seemingly irrelevant story that has actually everything to do with my recovery and outlook now.
When I was a teenager, about 15-16 years old (about when I started rallying), we had a really difficult time in my family. Both my parents were unemployed, were having financial difficulties as a result, and were divorcing simultaneously, which was both a cause and result of more financial hardships. We didn’t have much of savings or much of a safety net, so I was off with my mom to live with my very conservative aunt and uncle in their house on a 13 acre plot in the woods. My friends and my school were nearly an hour drive away. We were bankrupt, but we did one thing every day. We’d write down 10 things or more that went well - what we appreciated that day (referred to as the “Appreciation List”). What I realized was, despite a few bad days that created that current shitty situation, most days were actually quite alright – dare I say good actually. Plus, I could do handbrake turns on my uncle’s driveway when no one was looking.
Rim of the World 2004 - at the turnaround with some legends - from left to right - Travis Pastrana, myself, Jeff Burmeister, Christian Edstrom, Chris Rhodes
While it was pretty inconvenient, I could still see my friends at school, and unlike many people in high school, my friendships had a ton of depth, mutual respect, and trust, and I still refilled myself with escaping into sports, my own schoolwork (which is always there to reward me when I had nothing else more fun to do), and starting out in rallying, which, in those days, was in a hand-me-down racing suit, a hand-me-down helmet, and a massive fro. However, I was still doing it. Despite all this, despite any outsider who might look at the state of affairs and say “well..that looks pretty shit.” I had what I needed, and soon enough, I learned to not be ashamed in taking part of the joys of everyday life simply because of the situation I was in. It may not have seemed like I was living my dream, but essentially, I felt I (nearly) was. All the components were there, and my rallying, my relationships, my schoolwork would only progress me further along that same dream. With very little, I was more or less content, and I knew once I had the freedom to choose my own destiny, that I’d create a backdrop that was simply more tailored to my own personality and aspirations.
Shift forward 13 years to my leukemia diagnosis, and the habits established from that list helped me shift quickly from the frustration of the unfairness of it all to realizing the importance of taking part and enjoying what I feared could be the last years of my life. The backdrop of death, which – I hate to say it and sound overly cynical - is inevitable for us all, didn’t need to deter the great things I experienced every day. Since my diagnosis, I’ve a had a lot of great days, actually mostly great days, and I’d like to share a few of those with you.
(one very great day folk racing in Sweden back in July with the “lads” - clearly they all enjoyed my tasteful celebration style)
As word spread of my situation, unbeknownst to me, the people in every aspect of my life instantly did everything they could to make sure I was supported. Work filed as much excused leave as I pleased, no questions asked; my co-workers picked up everything I left half finished; my mom and sister booked plane tickets to come see me; my rally team (Nameless Performance) deferred competition until July; and my close Philly friends and co-workers did a secret fundraising that ended up covering the entire cost of my mom and sister’s plane tickets to come visit me.
(probably the nicest thing anyone has done for me; pictured above)
Upon their arrival, my terrific friends here in London gave them a place to stay for free. This is already on top of the healthcare system in the UK giving me free access to great doctors and the expensive treatment that I needed. Fortunately, I can keep my IndieGogo campaigns to desperate attempts to compete in Rally Finland rather than desperate attempts to save my own life, as I heartbreakingly see having to be used by many of my friends and family back in the US that end up being diagnosed with a serious condition.
All the while I could stay in my own home, relax, catch up on writing, and chat to all those people I love that have scattered across something like 18 time zones. In 6 weeks I reached hematological remission, in 10 weeks I was back to rallying and working full time, and as I write to you now, the leukemic cells are now undetectable in my bloodstream (BCR-ABL < 1% for you nerds out there). While it was, and well, still is, a challenging time for me as I continue the treatment indefinitely, I’ve been absolutely blown away and humbled by the response and shocked at just how quickly my condition turned around.
(First stage back in the rally car, and one enthusiastic spectator is just as stoked as me to be back at it)
If I’ve had any struggle, it’s the adjustment to being thrust right back into the midst of my life’s mid-day as a late 20’s something, rally co-driving, working, traveling ex-pat that debatably, is always trying to do a bit too much. Contrast this with, just weeks prior, I felt as though I was watching the sun set over my own life. I guess I can take comfort in the fact that it was, after just 28 years, a stunning sunset. I actually did enjoy the time to reflect on a full lifetime of experiences that I have had. And fortunately for me, for my own life, I have yet another chance to make it even better, and in what’s (hopefully) old age I can look forward to the glamorized memories of now.
Like 13 years ago, when I began rallying and thinking this way, I may have been diagnosed with leukaemia this year, and I may have unfairly been thrust into a horrific situation. However, as I write this from a café in Venice, from a plane from Ireland, from a forest in Czech Republic, from my own mother’s home in the USA, from my flat in London, I realize the ridiculous extent of procrastination that went into writing this blog, AND more importantly, I realize I still live the fucking dream, way beyond what I ever imagined.
(Helping out with a bone marrow registration drive at FIA ERC Barum Czech Rally Zlin, which led to over 500 tested, registered donors during the weekend)
What’s most important is that I take everything from this experience that I can; that I use this as a step forward rather than a step backward and I take the psychological toughness, confidence, and wisdom gained and replicate it exponentially throughout the rest of my life like a leukocyte with the BCR-ABL gene. Unfortunately for most of us with this illness, you do not “beat” cancer; you deal with it, and if you can keep your mind open enough to recognize that no condition, experience, person, or thing is inherently bad or evil, it can be used in a way that benefits the content of your life rather than destroying it from within.
(Such as playing the cancer card to write a ridiculously long 3-4 part blog series that goes in a billion different directions and spews thoughts and ideas I could never get away with saying otherwise.)
So with that, I think it’s best to stop the pondering that has taken over such a huge chunk of time in my recent life, and with concluding this, get back to the doing. Now, the structure is in place, both externally and within myself, to enable me to do what I love to do, better than I used to do it, at a much higher level than that little 3 year old rally fanatic would have ever dreamed, while still having the privilege of living a completely normal life, just like everybody else.