Owen strapped on the face mask and stepped on the treadmill. He started slowly, regulating his breath and his pace. He picked up speed as he ran. And ran. And ran.
His goal? Measuring how efficiently his body uses oxygen during exercise. The VO2 max test would establish a baseline for Owen, a former St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital patient now enrolled in the hospital’s research program for cancer survivors.
“It’s supposed to be a test to failure, until the patient says they can’t go anymore,” Owen’s mother, Kelly, explained. “But Owen just kept going, until finally the exercise physiologist told him to stop.”
That’s so Owen, whose love of running began when he was a patient at St. Jude, undergoing treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a type of blood cancer. He started treatment at 4 years old, and his cancer quickly went into remission.
But treatment for ALL lasts two-and-a-half to three years. While undergoing chemotherapy, Owen started participating in kids’ triathlons. When he got back to school, he joined his school’s running program.
By the end of first grade, Owen had run 200 miles.
“I love running, especially distance,” said Owen, 13. “It makes me feel good.”
Now a teen, Owen runs cross country and has added football to his line-up. It’s not uncommon for him to have a meet followed by a game in the same day. A schedule like this takes determination, focus and strength.
Owen’s parents were collegiate athletes. Kelly rowed and Brian, his dad, threw shot, hammer, discus and javelin. Since the time they were toddlers, Owen and his siblings were outdoors running, playing soccer and swimming, bouncing from one activity to the next. It’s no surprise running comes naturally to Owen.
On a blustery afternoon last October, spectators huddled in sweatshirts and jackets, trying to block the wind. Owen stood in running shorts and a t-shirt, jumping from foot to foot to stay warm, watching the race before his.
He stood at the starting line, hands on his hips, a focused look in his eyes. There were other runners, parents, siblings, coaches, photographers and bystanders milling about.
“It can get distracting, especially at the beginning,” he said of the crowds.
But Owen studies the course before each race and maps it out in his head. By the time he’s standing at the starting line, waiting, he’s already halfway through the course, in his mind, navigating the rutted Arkansas terrain near his home.
“You have to figure out how to get your head away from the crowd,” he said. “You have to think about when to run faster, when to draft. You don’t want to sprint at the beginning, so you need to pace yourself, you need to focus.”
Owen learned to focus during long hours in the St. Jude medicine room. Getting chemotherapy, waiting for appointments, sitting through port access and other procedures, Owen would focus on puzzles or trying to solve his Rubik’s cubes to pass the time. He taught himself to juggle, honing his focus, perspective and concentration.
He placed second in his race that fall afternoon. And then, in a flurry of motion, Owen high-fived his teammates, hugged his siblings, grabbed his water bottle and headed off to a football game.
“This fall is my first year playing football,” he said. “It’s competitive and really fun to play. I think about a game like I think about a race. I know I have to focus on the ball and my teammates.”
Owen isn’t the biggest kid, but he’s one of the most self-assured. The team huddles together, listening to the coach. When they break, Owen puts on his helmet and starts toward the field. The sun has set, sending the temperature down. Friends and family sit on metal bleachers, wrapped in coats and scarves. The scoreboard lights flip on, signaling game time.
Standing on the far end of the field, Owen is poised to go.