Dewey Gerk looked up at the top of the hill. The hill, like some of the chemotherapy treatments he'd received in the last 10 years, was deceiving. One moment, as the race started, he felt great. The next moment, as time went on and he began to climb the hill, he felt drained, near death even.
He wondered if he would finish the Run 4 Greeley. The top of the hill seemed a little too far away. He wondered at times, too, if he could go on with the treatments, especially after years of feeling sick and tired.
But his family was here, 30 of them, brothers and grandparents and bunches of nieces and nephews and their kids, and so he would finish.
Doctors gave him, at most, a year to live after they diagnosed his rectal/colon cancer in 2003. But he had too much to live for. There were graduations and weddings and first communions. All those family milestones and events like this one, a July 4 race that inspired a family reunion of sorts, were the things that made life worth living.
Gerk, 51, of Greeley, acknowledges that he has Stage 4 cancer, the worst kind. But he doesn't how much time he has left. Gerk, who's carried a dark sense of humor far longer than the death sentence doctors assigned to him, likes to say he's in denial about his disease. But sometimes ignorance really is bliss, or in his case, it may mean some additional years. He's had Stage 4 since he was diagnosed.
"I've never asked," Gerk said. "I don't want to know. I can't live like that."
Gerk may mean that literally.
Gerk decorates his home with framed photos of his father, Joe, a mechanic, and collages of his grinning face next to all kinds of family members, especially the smaller ones. It was dad, he said, who instilled all of them with a love for getting out there, whether it was fishing or hunting or other sports, such as running. But the point wasn't to be successful. Sometimes catching a fish caused more problems than a day with an empty net.
"Those things were really just an excuse to get together," Gerk said. So Thursday's July 4 race was just another one of those excuses.
When it was the Run 4 Greeley the first time, before other organizations took it over, and if he was in town, he'd take part. But now it's not that simple, said a niece, Kelly Gerk Bush of Greeley.
When the July 4 event became the Race Against Cancer a few years ago and benefitted the Rocky Mountain Cancer Rehabilitation Institute, an organization that puts cancer patients on fitness plans, the Gerks took more of an interest in it. This year's race continued to benefit the institute, and the Gerks all came out to support it and Uncle Dewey. Dewey went through the institute and, until lately, exercised throughout his treatments.
There's no doubt the years have taken a toll. Gerk's remained positive through crushing setbacks -- more than once, the cancer came back after scans offered hope that it had finally left his body -- and continual treatments that made him forget what it was like to feel normal. A week before the race, yet another different treatment had dried out his skin so much that it hurt to pick up a cup of coffee.
The options always gave him hope -- there was always another treatment to try -- but they also always left him wondering what dastardly side effects they would bring. Fatigue, nausea, pain, intestinal issues and numb feet lurked whenever he'd swallow a pill or take another infusion. Sure enough, this new treatment turned a walk to his mailbox into a painful ordeal, and he doubted he could walk a 5K. But doctors eased up on the dose, he began to feel better, and he entered the race July 3 with the intention of pushing Bush's 1-year-old son, Jack.
Though some Gerks were happy just to finish, Bush, inspired by her uncle, ran as well as she had in recent memory and placed in her age group. Her younger sister, Kendra, ran hard enough to finish as the second overall female. Bush has been inspired before by Uncle Dewey. She was in labor with her second of four children, her daughter Abby, while Dewey took chemo treatments in the same hospital. Yet Dewey came over to visit her right after his treatment was over. It was the easiest labor she had, she said, and Dewey is now Abby's godfather.
"He just has a well like no one else," Bush said.
Gerk teaches fourth grade at Christa McAuliffe in Greeley, and this year will be his 30th. He always saves his treatments for a Thursday so he's not wiped out the whole week, only this year, he went home early at times on Friday. His kids knew when he was struggling. They would ask him if that day was a chemo day. Other times, he would admit he was tired and simply ask them for their help. This year, he will teach half-days. Yet the kids, just like his neighbor who mows his lawn or his family or events like the July 4 race that he finished in about an hour, keep him going too. He doesn't want to retire next year.
He talks about next year as if it's second nature. He thinks he'll be around. There are more graduations to see. He knows there are no guarantees, and some doctors are pleasantly surprised he's alive. But among the pictures of his family on his walls sits one large word in black above his back door, the one that leads to the outside world. That word is "Believe."
Staff writer Dan England covers the outdoors, entertainment and general assignment stories for The Tribune. His column runs on Tuesday. If you have an idea for a column, call (970) 392-4418 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ DanEngland. ___