Location: Columbia, SC
As a lifelong runner, Andrew Allden has always known that his running family is a big part of his life. First it was his fellow runners on the cross-country team at Emory University (where he ran with David) who served as his surrogate family at college and continue to be amongst his closest friends. When he graduated and began coaching runners, the teams he coached became his second family. Even with a family of his own (his wife Tara and daughter Kathleen, both of whom are also runners), Andrew has always considered his runners and fellow coaches a big part of his support system. So when he got sick and learned this past June, after a series of misdiagnoses, that he has Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, he knew he had to share the news with his running family. What he didn’t know is how much their support would mean to him and what an integral part they would play in his recovery.
Recruited at Emory University as a runner, Andrew majored in English and History with a plan of becoming a journalist. Following his 1986 graduation, he went to the University of Georgia to pursue a Master’s Degree in History. While there, he volunteered with the University of Georgia’s cross-country team and stumbled into his true passion. He changed his Master’s to sports administration and was hired as a graduate assistant with the team to pay for his schooling. He then got a job at UNC-Chapel Hill as their cross-country coach, where he worked from 1989 to 1994. Coaching positions at University of South Carolina, Tulane University and Coastal Carolina followed, as well as a return to UNC and a position with USA Track and Field (when Tara’s job necessitated moving back to Chapel Hill, North Carolina). In 2013, Andrew returned to the University of South Carolina as the cross-country coach and assistant track coach. He coaches thirty women and ten men and is also responsible for recruiting and managing eight home competitions each year in cross-country and indoor and outdoor track.
At 55 years old, Andrew credits his job with keeping him in shape and young at heart. “There’s definitely something to be said for hanging out with young people,” he says. He also really enjoys his colleagues, something he says is fortuitous since coaching requires long days. He has had the pleasure of coaching a national champion, a national runner up and three Olympians. “Working with people at the highest level is always a very rewarding and exciting experience,” Andrew says. But he finds just as much satisfaction in working with the non-elite runners.
“Watching somebody get better over a period of time is so gratifying,” Andrew says, “especially someone who didn’t have an inkling of how good they could be when they started the process.”
But now he can add having his running family rally around him during his cancer battle to the list of things he loves about coaching. Andrew’s journey began with digestive issues last spring. He initially chalked it up to complications from his long-standing acid reflux and stress. Blood tests revealed he was having a problem with his liver and a scan of his liver indicated a blockage in his biliary duct. A relatively routine surgery to clear the blockage and insert a stent determined that it was a tumor pressing on the duct rather than a treatable blockage. Several more tests and weeks of having his life put on an agonizingly frustrating hold later, Andrew was told that he had Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
Once he knew what he was facing, Andrew knew he needed to tell the team. He sent an email because he wanted them to all learn what was going on at the same time. He went back to work immediately (“I never really stopped working,” Andrew says, “other than the times I was hospitalized.”) and says he has tolerated the chemotherapy treatments fairly well. His first chemo was administered while he was in the hospital being treated for a blood clot in his neck, but since then there have been minimal complications. Which is not to say that the chemo is a piece of cake. He receives chemo every two weeks, plus more that is administered through an external pump. He is also on blood thinners to avoid any additional blood clots. He just finished his ninth treatment.
“I now know what symptoms I will have on a particular day,” Andrew says. On Monday he is unable to sleep. On Tuesday he turns red as a beet. On Wednesday and Thursday he has persistent hiccups and on Friday and Saturday he needs to sleep a lot. His most persistent side effect has been neuropathy, which for him manifests as a numbness and loss of sensation in his extremities and he is much more prone to feeling cold. Andrew has had to make certain concessions at work, and he values the flexibility of his job that allows him to do that. “If I am tired, I nap,” Andrew says. “It feels like I have a lead blanket over my whole body. I have learned to respect that and go to sleep.” He has not been able to join the team on runs since his diagnosis, but he walks up to an hour each day, often while the team is doing their long or easy run. On team trips to out of town meets, Andrew packs a mat and pillow and sleeps on the floor of the bus. And he knows his team understands and is looking out for him.
“When I wrote to everyone, once we had a path forward,” Andrew says, “I told them that it was my intention to work through the chemo.” He received a slew of encouraging emails in response, many of which he describes as “very heartfelt and touching.” He also says the team would take turns checking in on him. “It was clear the ones who were in town over the summer were deputized to come see how I was doing,” Andrew says. One of his runners ordered pancreatic cancer bracelets for Andrew, Tara, Kathleen, and the rest of the team. When they presented the bracelets to Andrew at their first team dinner this fall, he says he was close to tears. “I told them I had avoided crying up until then,” Andrew says.
They all wear their bracelets in solidarity now, and Andrew says it is both ironic and fortuitous that the pancreatic cancer color is also his team’s color. He feels very lucky because his cancer could easily have gone undetected. He is a day to day guy (“My wife and daughter are more big picture people,” he says) and he feels good about the fact that he has not lost weight (“and only a little bit of hair so far”), has a great medical team, and a job that is not, as he puts it, “life and death.” He is also grateful for how resilient and supportive Tara and Kathleen have been. “It can be hard to watch,” Andrew says. “But they have soldiered through with me. I could not have made it through this without them.” He is also relieved that he was doing better and managing his chemo reasonably well by the time Kathleen had to leave for college. “I am so glad that I am well enough that she could leave for MIT and enjoy it and not be stressed about leaving her dying father,” Andrew says. He wants her college experience to be about her, not him. It is the same way he feels about his runners. “I do not want any media coverage about them winning one for the Gipper,” Andrew says. “I absolutely do not want to be the story. I want coverage to be about my great runners, not about their coach with cancer.”
For this blog, he will have to settle on a compromise… he isthe story, but he gets to share the spotlight with his team. Their matching bracelets are a testament to the best things sports have to offer. The camaraderie and support that comes with being part of a team is fun and enjoyable in victory, but it is even more meaningful when someone is struggling. Knowing his team has his back and is appreciative that he still has theirs, even during the thick of his cancer battle, is a definitive silver lining in Andrew’s journey. “I am lucky to be where I am,” Andrew says.