I have completed writing a biographical novel inspired by Dr. Mark Crooks, my long-time friend and fitness mentor, entitled: WARRIOR: The Life and Lessons of a Man Who Beat Cancer for 57 Years. Here's a pre-publication book trailer:
Mark Crooks, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist, sports psychologist, fitness pioneer and daredevil risked everything to survive five bouts of cancer spanning 57 years. This is the second of a two-part post, the first of which you can read by clicking here.
The stony truck driver was exhausted following his overnight haul from Chicago to Kansas City. He had kept himself awake by drinking a thermos full of coffee and taking several No-Doz. His eyes burned from staring at dark, isolated highways. Even morning chatter on his radio did not perk him up for the final leg of his drive to Salina, Kansas.
His eighteen-wheeler raced across the Paseo Bridge spanning the Missouri River. The weary driver ignored a crudely hand-lettered sign held by one of Dr. Mark Crooks’ myriad assistants. The sign demanded: Slow Down, Jumper Ahead.
A warning sign of another jumper threatening to hurl himself into the angry Missouri should have been sufficient to cause any alert driver to pause. But the trucker could only think about the number of miles he must still drive to finish a long haul to Salina. At that moment he didn’t care if another idiot might be threatening a suicide jump.
Focused on the river below, Dr. Crooks stood outside the guardrail at the apex of the bridge, the roiling river eleven stories below — the distance to impact easily sufficient to break his back and end his life. Several nearby assistants grasped the situation, understanding that this eighteen-wheeler would have sufficient wind draft to push the fitness expert out of a carefully practiced vertical pose into an awkward angle that could snap his back. The truck’s diesel engine issued a throaty rumble, but Mark could not hear anyone’s warnings not to jump.
Instead, he gazed into the choppy, brown water below, envisioning his carefully selected landing spot, a deep gulch running through the river bed where his scuba diving surveillance mission had discovered this place of optimum depth, free from impaling junk. At six-foot-four inches tall and 215 pounds of sculpted muscle, he stood on the bridge ledge above the river as if a Greek god surveying the Aegean Sea from mighty cliffs of weathered limestone. He wore a midnight-black diver’s suit, which might offer some insulation upon impact, perhaps binding his anatomy together as the force of water, hard as concrete, made contact with his feet.
Mark’s intractable goal was to leap from the bridge and will himself into a perfect vertical posture soon after reaching the apex of trajectory. Then he would hold his arms tightly to his side so that they would not be dislocated or broken at impact. If his calculations were correct, buttressed by six months of dogged preparation, he would slide into the water without damaging himself, being the first human not to die by a jump from this precarious location. His focus had become so intense to have rendered awareness of impending danger irrelevant — other than this insane jump into oblivion.
With three full breaths to oxygenate his system and prepare for the plunge that would push him to the depths of the river, he pulled his arms back behind him as if an artistic high diver and leapt. The errant trucker rumbled by Mark’s jump location at 45 miles-per-hour — five-miles-per-hour above the speed limit. The rolling draft off the truck flung small rocks and paper liter behind it, and gusts caught Mark’s back as he reached jump apogee, pushing him head first into an uncontrolled, awkward freefall. His assistants gasped as they watched Mark cascade downward, his legs and arms flailing to return his body to the vertical posture that this death-defying leap demanded.
Will Tests Life.
At the beginning of my second year of graduate school at the University of Kansas, several students and I were visiting a professor at her home. Her boyfriend stopped by, a man of imposing stature, at that time weighing around 215 pounds of solid muscle. At six-foot-four-inches and with a chiseled jaw, Mark appeared to be a stereotypical jock, albeit one who could have also posed as a male fashion model. I learned that he was a Ph.D. candidate seeking double degrees in sports psychology and exercise physiology.
Mark’s extraordinary fitness and friendly nature caused me to confess that I was then having concerns about my health. By the early 1970s, the connections between smoking and cancer were gaining wider acceptance in spite of persistent denials by tobacco companies. I knew my long-term health was on the line. Mark invited me to go jogging with him and though hesitant I accepted.
The next Saturday we ran in a city park in Lawrence, and at first I kept pace, being young and lean. But as the miles stretched out, Mark’s graceful stride left me in the background. I recall seeing him running effortlessly ahead in the distance. Because health was what I wanted more than anything after a childhood of illness, I quit smoking four days later, on September 14, 1973, an auspicious occasion more important to me than my birthday. Mark never scolded or lectured me about smoking but caused me to seek health because of his example.
As our friendship grew, I discovered that he also had confronted severe illnesses in childhood but to a degree far greater than my own tribulations. When he was an infant and living with his mother in Mexico City, relentless intestinal bleeding threatened his life; but his mother persevered until she found a physician with knowledge of nutrition who prescribed a life-saving diet of soy instead of cow’s milk.
When Mark was two, he suffered from severe sinus infections, and a then-experimental therapy involved x-ray radiation. By today’s standards, Mark received an unfiltered overdose of radiation of fifty times that recommended for an adult, predisposing him to cancer.
When he was eight, a tumor appeared on the left side of his neck; the diagnosis: neurogenic sarcoma. Surgeons removed muscle, lymph and nerve tissue, including the sternoclydomastoid muscle, which is responsible for assisting with head and neck rotation. Instead of becoming handicapped relative to his peers, Mark tenaciously worked out, played football, and ran in track while in high school, earning letters in both sports.
Because he had lost muscle tissue on his left side, throwing his physical symmetry out of balance, Mark also became committed to resistance training until he built himself up to the physical stature I first witnessed at my professor’s house. He also joined the marines after high school, which was then becoming embroiled in Vietnam, surviving the mental and physical ordeals of three months of training at Parris Island, South Carolina: “the ultimate rite of passage into manhood.” He also wanted to stare down a lingering threat of cancer’s metastasis.
Mark may be the only marine in history who was also a former cancer patient, enduring rigorous training at Parris Island while receiving an Honorable Discharge after three years of service. In the Marine Corps, he also learned to love running since new recruits run everywhere as they fulfill daily duties.
Mark worked tenaciously to get his Ph.D., and discoveries during his education, as well as his life experiences, became the foundation of a book entitled Achieving Wellness through Positive Risk Taking. This book preceded many of the health and fitness trends of the 1980s and articulated now-commonplace ideas about nutrition and fitness. Its premise is set forth in the book title: human beings can achieve greater states of health by taking measured risks.
While working as a health consultant in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Mark performed a number of experiments to test his own physical and psychological endurance, as well as to demonstrate principles set forth in his book. The feat of greatest impact to me was his jump from 11 stories off the Paseo Street Bridge in Kansas City into the swirling Missouri River below.
Mark prepared for months, enlisting support from scientific and medical advisors. The challenge for him physically was to enter the water vertically. Since the upper half of the human body weighs more than the lower half, the body has a tendency to tumble forward from great heights.
If he did not hit the water exactly upright, he risked breaking his back. Several tortured people had already committed suicide from the location of his jump, and the risks were bona fide. So Mark spent many weekends jumping from successively higher cliffs in the Missouri Ozarks until he perfected ways to achieve vertical orientation in midair.
But practice did make perfect, and, after making mid-jump corrections due to draft from the passing 18-wheeler, he landed perfectly, making a small splash and emerging from the depths of the muddy river unscathed.
On another harrowing adventure of five days duration, Mark swam and floated from Kansas City, Kansas, to St. Louis, Missouri, in the Missouri River. Not only did he encounter manmade dangers, such as fishing lines and barges threatening to pull him into their wake, he also struggled with severe hypothermia since the muddy river relentlessly sucked away body heat.
A typical reaction to these experiments is that Mark might have been eccentric. Knowing him personally, and sharing with him histories of childhood illnesses, I understood these experiments as true testimonials to the power of mind over body. Their enactment stood as a metaphor for Eros, the life force.
Mark didn’t choose to live in a safe, predictable groove; his early encounters with fatality caused him to stare death in the face — by his own account — 39 times. To Mark and many people lucid about the exigencies of mortal existence, this aggressive, gentle man chose to challenge life on his terms.
In 1992, Mark called me to let me know that the area around his Adam’s apple had swollen twelve times normal size. The diagnosis of thyroid cancer, undoubtedly a residual of his overdose of x-ray radiation, did not bend his knees for more than two days. Surgeons removed the cancerous gland, and 48 hours later Mark ran 2 ½ miles through wooded trails around his home. Again, this aggressive activity wasn’t rash; Mark had prepared with weeks of conditioning for the surgery and rapid reentry into extreme activity.
Mark called me nine years later to tell me that while running his usual path he felt tightness in his chest. He finished the four-mile run but continued wheezing and coughing over the next few weeks. One day while running he coughed and tasted blood. After a carousel of medical tests during the ensuing weeks, surgeons recommended evasive surgery to remove a cancerous egg-shaped tumor.
True to his nature as a determined scientist and athlete, Mark spent six weeks getting into peak condition for one of the most difficult and painful surgeries imaginable. The week following his operation was the most excruciating of his life, and no wonder, removal of his left lung also required breaking ribs.
As he told me, “Getting to the bathroom was like running a marathon (and I refused to use a bedpan). Tubes hung from everywhere: a venous line, an arterial line, a needle in my low back delivering titrated morphine, an oxygen tube in my nose, and drainage tubes under my left armpit.”
Mark reflected on the irony of his own medical history: “I have never smoked, and I avoid others who smoke. I was a running pioneer, doing it way before it became a social norm. I could not rationalize what this happening to me. I had crafted my body into 215 lbs of toughness, and this was not part of the plan.”
Nevertheless, Mark struggled out of his bed, where it was so much easier to lay anesthetized by pain medications, and began to fight for Eros. At first he walked hesitantly. Then he set physical goals. His one-year post-operative celebration included running three miles nonstop. His goal for the next year was to run four miles nonstop, which again he accomplished. Then he ran three miles in thirty minutes.
Mark believed his survival through so many adversities was due to a determined effort that never waned. “It comes from winning all those little confrontations with oneself. Once I’m standing on that treadmill, I know that I have won. This is how I survive.”
Getting old isn’t the part of the plan for many Baby Boomers, a generation noted for its youth-seeking persona. But the human condition demands that we age, and we have two fundamental choices for how we do it: to surrender to aging, allowing the body to unravel, and with it, the mind and spirit; or to confront and fight aging, as was the path of Dr. Mark Crooks, who faced the diseases and accidents of aging long before his contemporaries.
In November 2009, Mark learned that lesions had appeared in his liver. Resolute as always, he began exploring how he might receive a liver transplant. Current medical policies require patients to be declared cancer free for at least five years before a transplant can be scheduled. When it became clear to Mark that this would be his final confrontation with Thanatos, he accepted his fate and continued exercising in whatever form he could manage, even pushing an IV cart in front of him as he circumnavigated a hospital floor. He never stopped challenging himself until one week before his death — a week spent in the Kansas City Hospice. He died on July 8, 2010.
What have I learned about aging from Mark? Any excuse not to stay in the best shape possible is insufficient. Any excuse not to keep setting and fighting for goals is inadequate.
Life is a test of will, most assuredly, demanding that we make conscious daily choices to prevail and thrive. Mark’s approach to living is also an optimistic metaphor for a generation getting older and coming to represent societal conceptions of the aging process.
We can choose Thanatos and allow our bodies to perish due to sloth and gluttony, bad habits and dependencies, or we can choose Eros and get in shape physically and mentally, redefining the meaning of aging. We can confront media forces aimed at tearing apart aging spirits and demonstrate that this generation is not narcissistic, self-absorbed, fatuous, or any other condescending label.
To the media and to ourselves, we can resurrect an aphorism from our youth: “Hell no, we won’t go.” Against all odds, we won’t go passively to Thanatos. We will go on.
All photos and videos, Copyright 2012, Brent Green. All rights reserved.