Wes Emerson pushes through battle with B-cell lymphoma. 'I don't want to go backward,' he says.
With all that he has done to better his health and his running, Wes Emerson is refusing to let serious medical issues encountered in the past 13 months stop him now.
After enduring months of chemotherapy and radiation to shrink a cancerous tumor on his lung that was large enough to move his heart, after the collapsed lung that led to that diagnosis and then a pulmonary embolism during treatment, and after totaling 40 days' worth of hospital stays over more than six months, Wes Emerson knew what to do the moment he left his oncologist's office with an all-clear to resume his athletic pursuits.
Get new running shoes.
"We literally left the doctor's office, and I went to Fleet Feet and bought a pair of shoes," he says of the short trip in High Point with his wife, Jessica.
Wes Emerson, 45, is now on the comeback road. Having faced serious health consequences and been given a chance to take a step back, he is instead lacing up to take on the Richmond Half Marathon in November and the miles and races that will follow.
"He's not one to rest, really," says Jessica, whom Wes credits for getting him into the sport. "He's always got a project going. He doesn't give himself a lot of down time. He works hard and plays hard.
"I suspect that he wants to prove to himself that he can do it still. Just being able to have that benchmark of what he could do a few years ago and trying to get back to that."
As emotional and triumphant as completing 13.1 miles in Richmond will be, Wes Emerson will have another finish line, an important one, to cross a month later.
"There's one more PET scan they're going to do in December," he says, "to see if I'm starting remission."
Because of all that he has done to better his health and his running, Wes Emerson isn't going to let a collapsed lung, an embolism and cancer stop him now.
"How do I keep doing this in a way that moves me forward?" he asks. "I don't want to go back. I don't want to go backward at work. I don't want to go backward in my projects in the garage."
A 'dreadful' start to running
Emerson's interest in running dates to 2015, when he joined Jessica at the Retro Run 5K in Greensboro.
"I was dreadful at it," he says.
"That was the only time I’ve ever beaten him in a race," Jessica adds, "since I’d been training and he had not."
His interest in sports, though, goes back further. His siblings hiked and ran. And this Orioles, Commanders and Ravens fan wrestled during high school.
But a knee injury that developed when he tried to counter an opponent's hip toss on the mat resurfaced during basic training in the Army. Uncle Sam gave him a plane ticket home, labeling the injury pre-existing.
"Best of luck," they told him.
So Emerson went home to do what he called basic assembly work, climbing radio towers and hanging cables. He translated that knowledge into IT, and over a span of 15 years Emerson worked to complete associate's, bachelor's and master's degrees, the last coming in 2018.
Emerson's affinity for how things work also involves racing autocross cars and those garage projects: restoring a 1966 Volvo and a 1981 Volvo Turbo 240. And it's there that he found an intersection regarding fun and fitness.
"You look at how the race-car drivers keep in shape," he says. "It's a lot of cardio, a lot of bike riding, a lot of running."
And Jessica talked him into running the aforementioned, dreadful 5K.
"But just start doing it as something to get the pounds off me, a desk jockey," he says.
Emerson completed his first half marathon in Savannah, Ga., in 2019, training with the Fleet Feet Streakers and getting coaching from Jen Goff and encouragement from friends in the Greensboro Running Club.
In August 2021, Emerson was logging 3 to 4 miles on his runs, although he didn't have a goal race. He developed a cough, and a run from his office in Chapel Hill ended with a walk back up toward Franklin and Columbia streets.
"I could not run back up this hill," he says.
The cough led to concerns that he had contracted COVID. Perhaps it was bronchitis. Maybe it was pneumonia.
And then came a collapsed lung, which he didn't know he had but which ultimately helped doctors find an answer.
"The end result was I was diagnosed with B-cell lymphoma," he says.
Emerson vividly remembers the visit with Jessica to get a CT scan.
"My wife and I had walked out of Greensboro Imaging," he says, "and the imaging tech chased out to get us and said, 'Come back.'
"And from that point, the gentleman looked at us said, 'I can try to dumb this down, or I can tell you what's actually going on."
Moses Cone Hospital stood just a few strides away, but the Emersons received a ride.
"Ambulance regardless, just to get over there and get in because of the severity of what they found," he says.
The biopsies and other tests left them shocked, with Jessica saying her husband had been in the best shape of his life.
"They actually did tell him that the fact that he was a runner and had been running recently is probably why he was able to still function on one lung," she says.
After about a week, on Sept. 30, doctors reached their conclusion.
"It is what it is: It is cancer," Emerson says.
The next day, he began chemotherapy.
'I just wanted to keep moving'
The tumor turned out to be the size of a couple of golf balls, Emerson says, and doctors opted for treatment to shrink it rather than surgery.
Fluid – "liters of fluid," he says – had to be drained twice, with a 6-inch needle inserted into Emerson's back. The lung reinflated. Shots into his abdomen followed, providing his body with blood thinners.
"My motivation to keep walking and keep being active in the hospital: (The doctor) told me if I'm reasonably active, I don't have to get shots," Emerson says.
"I was up and down the hallway three and four times a day," he says, "just walking around for 10, 15 minutes to keep reasonably active. I just wanted to keep moving."
And it was one week on, two weeks off, for chemotherapy, he says. Check in at Wesley Long Hospital on Monday, leave on Friday. October through January.
The pulmonary embolism, dozens of small blood clots that developed in December and again triggered initial concerns of COVID, left him as a patient in intensive care.
"That was probably the scariest part of all this, especially for me," Jessica says, "because it wasn't part of the plan."
Emerson walked the hallways, needles in arms and an oxygen bottle, initially at "full blast," trailing. The goal was to lower the amount of oxygen he required, and Emerson hit zero in five days.
A motivation drove him.
"I wanted to go home and sleep in my bed," he says.
He finished his last round of chemotherapy at Wesley Long on Jan. 28, rang the bell and went home. Radiation treatments followed at the Cone Health Cancer Center at Alamance Regional, from mid-March through April 6, every weekday morning for 3½ weeks.
Then after the visit to his oncologist, Dr. Peter Ennever at Cone Health Cancer Center at MedCenter High Point in April, he set sail.
"All right, let's get out here and start doing more running and trying to get myself back into it again," he says.
'I'm getting stronger'
The Greensboro Running Club's coed training program, leading up to Fleet Feet's The Big Run and a benefit for Matt Ketterman's run to support the Second Harvest Food Bank of Northwest North Carolina, gave Wes, with Jessica by his side, a chance to see where he stood.
"The goal was just trying to figure out what I could do and how I could do it," he says.
He ran some with Goff's In Pursuit Running, "trying to get myself back in a semblance of shape."
The miles are coming for him, and they'll get more manageable now that summer's heat is relenting. He's accepting that these miles aren't going to be run at his pre-August 2021 paces.
"I don't have the pace I had before," he says. "But I'm getting better and I'm getting stronger and I actually feel it.
"This means a different thing. It's not the pace that I want; I'm dreadful on pace.
"Intervals are kind of bad with that at times. It's like, 'Let's start knocking off 10-minute miles, or nines or whatever. And it's like, 'Wait, I can't do that and finish this distance.' So it's learning what your body can handle and how to how to work with it. And that has been hard for me to learn."
He'll learn it, just as he knows that Richmond will be a mile marker on the comeback road to not only stronger health but stronger running.
"They said it'll take me a year to recover from the end of the radiation," he says. "I believe them. It's just trying to get the mileage in, trying to get back to something, and my goal is to finish that Richmond half."
Count Goff, his former coach, among those who knows that Emerson will get running figured out in the same way he has managed his career or his car hobbies.
"Going through what he went through, I tried to imagine myself in those situations," she says. "I just don't think I would be that strong. ... He takes that attitude of 'It hasn't knocked me down' and 'I'm not going to let it knock me down. I'm just going treat it as if I'm moving forward.'"
And no one knows Wes better than Jessica Emerson, who says her husband didn't "catastrophize" the medical concerns.
"His mindset is very much like, 'We'll get all the information we can, we'll make the best decisions we can, and we'll deal with each thing as it happens,'" she says. "And that we're not going to get carried away with all of the what-ifs.
"Just kind of watching him do that through all of this, I mean, I'm really in awe of him."
Cloud solutions architect, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Where he grew up
La Plata, Md., south of Washington on U.S. 301
His other hobby
Autocross race cars, Triad Sports Car Club
"We basically will pick very large parking lots," he says. "It's a time trial against the clock, more than an out-and-out race. We're not door-to-door. We'll do Greensboro Coliseum, the Danville airport in Virginia, the SCCA solo nationals in Lincoln, Neb. (held in early September). They divide the cars into classes based on what they can do to be competitive against each other. I've got a Volkswagen GTI, and I'm in the second-slowest class they offer. I can get around this course in this elapsed time. There's penalties for hitting cones; the courses are lined out. It's just a competition to see who's faster in their car at this particular course on this particular day."
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