Gratitude, grace and love define the Puzeys
In a recent Instagram post, Jacob Puzey shares how he is grateful for so much this year even amid the pandemic challenges, general uncertainties and questions surrounding his own mortality. Jacob, of course, is the brother of Tommy Puzey, the beloved elite runner suddenly struck by an unrelenting rare type of cancer.
Jacob’s conclusion to the post is representative of the family’s fight — not plight. He credits others he recently interacted with, heaping praise on them, while offering hope to everyone in his reach. “Thank you for being here. Thank you for your support! Please reach out if there is ever anything I can do to help. You are not alone. There is so much to be grateful for. There are so many reasons to live.”
Tommy’s health challenges began during a run around the Grand Canyon. Amid the initial wave of the pandemic, the first thoughts were that he contracted the coronavirus. After a quarantine, the elite athlete’s health continued to decline. COVID was ruled out and replaced with an even nastier C word.
Chemo then bone marrow transplant
Tommy, who lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., has been hospitalized since July 23. He had been receiving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) on a machine that serves as his heart and lungs. After being taken off ECMO and a ventilator, the 36-year-old began receiving chemotherapy for primary pulmonary NK/T-cell lymphoma.
Recently, Tommy completed the fifth round of chemotherapy and, as of this writing, he was scheduled to begin another round the week of Thanksgiving. After he recovers from each round, doctors do a CT scan to see how much cancer remains and decide next steps. In between rounds of chemo, Tommy does physical therapy to prepare his body and mind for the bone marrow transplant.
Even in his weakened state from his hospital bed, Tommy — who finished 16th at the 2017 Boston Marathon in 2:18 — expresses gratitude to supporters when he can. On Oct. 28, he posted on Instagram, his first public communication since becoming ill.
“My currency has grown common and my efforts yield seemingly nothing. But I know I have to keep moving. Even in this there is process and so I place my trust and strain,” he writes. “Humans are not inherently focused on self. I have found through this that people are good and given the opportunity they will move mountains to communicate love.”
“That was really encouraging that he felt good enough to do that,” Jacob says. “I think part of the reason people appreciate him is he's usually pretty good at responding to comments. I know he's been hesitant to get online, even if he wanted to say thanks. For a while he honestly didn't have even the strength or the dexterity to even write a text, let alone a long message or respond to comments. He's made significant progress just in the last couple of weeks since he has been transferred from the ICU and taken off of life support completely.”
Another significant change for Tommy, who lost 70 pounds, is returning to eating solid food.
“I know he's on the larger side of the marathoner size, but most of that is muscle,” Jacob says. “He didn't have 70 pounds of muscle to lose. I don't think he's weighed what he does now since he was in elementary school.”
Beyond what little fat Tommy had and the muscle mass he has lost, his body also shed the synapsis of the neuromuscular connections. “It’s all atrophied or gone unused, so he's having to refire everything and reconnect all of that.”
As an athlete and physical therapist, Tommy is better suited than most to understand his situation and the recovery process. It’s not a sprint. It will be a long journey back to even basic health.
“He knows what he needs to do to build stamina and to build strength and fortitude,” Jacob says. “He has that on the mental side and on the physical side. As a physical therapist, he has worked in recovery clinics for neuromuscular damage, specifically with Alzheimer's and MS. So he understands the neuromuscular side of things as well and how slow and frustrating that can be, but also just that it's all just part of the process. We learn to use our bodies as babies and gain those motor skills and we regain through the same way just through repetition and consistency routines.”
A year of constant adaptation
The initial unknown of Tommy’s illness, followed by the devastating diagnosis, caught loved ones, friends and followers off guard. Jacob has been the public face of Team Rivs, standing strong amid the whirlwind.
“It's been really hard and it's been, to be completely honest, very overwhelming,” he admits. “Even before this happened, I make my living primarily as a coach and as a race director.”
Not only did the pandemic force the cancellation of Jacob’s races, it compounded the work he puts in for his athletes. As his runners faced postponed or canceled races, signed up for virtual races or attempted FKTs, training plans were written, scrapped and rewritten.
“Pretty much every event has been canceled or postponed, so there has been some sort of modification to every plan that I have written in the last six months,” he says. “I rewrote plans, honestly probably 10 times more per athlete than I've ever done in my life, so it was like this goal race isn't going to be the goal race anymore. Let's scrap this whole plan. We know where your fitness is, but so now this is the starting point and now the goal is whatever the next race is. OK, never mind, that one just got canceled or postponed. It has been stressful.”
Jacob used to pride himself on quick turnarounds for emails. Those days are gone. “It’s just the volume of emails that I am dealing with. That in itself has kind of become a full-time job as well. And I'm not upset about that. I'm grateful that I can do what I can from where I am to handle that piece.”
And there it is: gratitude. It’s not just a throwaway word in our hour-long interview. It’s how Jacob, Tommy and the entire Puzey family approaches their battle and the outside support flowing from throughout the world.
In this year of a global pandemic, environmental catastrophes and racial tensions in the United States, the Puzeys are choosing gratitude, love and positivity.
“It wasn't anything I asked for or was hoping for, but I'm happy to do what I can, because I love him and I love his family and I want to help them out,” Jacob says.
‘Anything you need, we will rally’
That love is multidirectional.
In the early days of Tommy’s sudden setback, concern poured in from fellow athletes, his fans, those who followed his training on iFit and others. As his prognosis became public, the support grew even stronger.
“There really has been just an overwhelming amount of support, love and just kindness in general to me,” Jacob says. “Sometimes that's in the form of a donation or purchasing an item. Sometimes it's in the form of a message of support or encouragement or some random gift that shows up at my address or my family's address, or something like that. Even dealing with brands and sponsors, some of whom are his and my sponsors and some of them are just good people at other places that really it doesn't feel disingenuous, they just want to help out.”
Among the most public efforts was the Rage On auction established by Todd Beck and Patrick Reagan to raise money for Tommy’s medical care and related expenses. Athletes such as Magda Boulet, Courtney Dauwalter, Rob Krar and Maggie Guterl donated items.
“It's not like we spent a lot of time with all of those people,” Jacob points out. “A lot of them such as Magda came together and just asked us what we need. I know her a little bit from running TransRockies with her, but it's not like we maintain contact or we're good friends. She reached out immediately, ‘Anything you need, we will rally.’"
And it’s not just elite athletes donating used gear.
Caleb Schiff, one of Tommy's best friends owns Pizzicletta. He did a pizza night and raised almost $50,000 for the cause. “They couldn't make enough pizza to actually fulfill the demand, but people from around the world bought gift cards to donate for first responders,” Jacob recalls.
He rolls out example after example of support.
“It's also been really cool to see brands like iFit and Craft step up and go above and beyond.”
The Puzey family and Craft are continuing to produce gear to support Tommy’s financial needs. Shirts, knit caps and other merchandise has been extraordinarily popular. “The black shirts sold out in two minutes, oh, I guess we need to order more black shirts,” Jacob recalled thinking.
Plans are in the works for hoodies, masks and beanies, perhaps even a jacket. Check the Craft website for updates.
Thankful for everyone
In 2020, the American Thanksgiving will have a different look for many families due to the pandemic. Fewer family members will make long trips to be with loved ones. Virtual meet-ups will replace firm handshakes and embraces.
Jacob, who is an American, now lives in Canada where American Thanksgiving is just another Thursday on the calendar. For his part, Jacob expresses his thanks, regardless of what day it is.
“We’re so grateful to still have Tommy with us. I don’t think people realize how dire the circumstances were. The doctors were told by other doctors not to take him on because he was so far gone with the cancer being as aggressive and unique as it was. His lungs were completely gone. It’s rare for anyone to be on life support as long as he was.”
Jacob is thankful for the medical professionals who couldn’t even worry about the cancer until Tommy was stable enough to be alive.
“We’re just really grateful that we had people who were willing to believe and willing to fight to give him a fighting chance. He’s a medical miracle in a lot of ways. We’re grateful for the people who were willing to work round the clock and we’re really grateful for technology and the support from his sponsors and more so the support of his fellow runners and nonrunners who read about his situation. And those who hike or bike with him through iFit. We’re just grateful for the extraordinary support ”
Tommy has the ability to make just about anyone feel loved. “Through the interactions we’ve had with him over the past few months, most of what he is trying to do is rather than talking about himself or feeling bad for himself, is to check in on me to make sure I am OK and to ask how he can help,” his older brother says.
Jacob notes Tommy might be embarrassed if he knew the depth of the reaction. There are an army of supporters not only fighting for but emulating Tommy.
“It’s about being grateful for every step that you are going to take and every breath you are going to take,” Jacob observes. “And just getting outside and moving, and being kind to one another, and being good citizens of planet Earth.
“It’s just unfortunate that something tragic had to happen for people to learn about and worry about him. When people started down that hole they find that he’s a pretty remarkable human being.”