Runners’ rocky relationship with the sun

My grandfather, Ralph Merritt "Sonny" Harris, passed away Aug. 25, 2015. He's pictured here with Esther, his wife of 54 years, along with myself and Chris at our wedding on Aug. 23, 2014.

My grandfather, Ralph Merritt “Sonny” Harris, passed away Aug. 25, 2015. He’s pictured here with Esther, his wife of 54 years, along with myself and Chris at our wedding on Aug. 23, 2014.

I have a lot of memories of running as a child growing up on our 92-acre farm in Little Mount, Kentucky. Dashing up the gravel drive to my grandparent’s house. Scampering along paths in the woods imagining I was a Native American, collecting rocks, feathers, sticks. Darting amongst tall, tall stalks of corn towering overhead. Whisking messages from house to pig sty in an era before cell phones.

These memories all remind me of my grandfather, who passed away Aug. 25. Ralph Merritt Harris Jr. — Sonny to his friends — was 73.

He was smart, sarcastic, inventive and a wizard at anything mechanical or puzzle-related. He made me Lincoln Logs and American Girls doll furniture; he hiked, rode some crazy 10-speed bike he got for a good deal off the internet and is a geocaching legend. A few years ago, he grew a rattail because he thought it would be a neat thing to do. He did IronButt motorcycle rides and was recognized by BMW for completing a 1,000 mile ride in one day.

This column is in his memory, but I hope it is an impetus for action. As runners, we spend a lot of time outside. Most of us are active in the outdoors in other ways, too — it’s in our fiber to be in nature, hiking, fishing, biking, kayaking, golfing, whatever. We’re active folks.

But do you apply sunscreen before you go out for every run? Even more important, do you put it on as part of your daily routine?

I doubt it. Only recently have I noticed a trend away from tanning and towards skin protection. I, too, am guilty of not being a diligent as I should be. But I am becoming more fastidious — my beloved, sarcastic, genius Poppa died after battling melanoma.

Skin cancer is, according to the American Cancer Society, by far the most common of all cancers. While melanoma accounts for less than 2 percent of skin cancer cases, it causes a large majority of skin cancer deaths.

In 2015, the ACS estimates 73,870 new melanomas will be diagnosed — and about 9,940 people are expected to die of melanoma. The rates of melanoma have been rising for at least 30 years — I would hypothesize related to the popularity of tanning and the seemingly ever-shrinking amount of clothing we wear.

The risk of melanoma increases as people age. The average age at the time it is found is 62 — my grandfather was 72, and had already battled prostate cancer, had a quadruple bypass and cataract surgery on both eyes. Yet he overcame all those and was still riding his mountain bike and geocaching until a few months ago. By the way, if you’re not familiar with geocaching, I’d recommend looking it up — it involves solving riddles and puzzles to locate hidden caches using GPS coordinates. Like running in a new city, it’s a fun way to get outside and explore an area. If you are familiar, my grandfather’s handle was RMHJR41 and he racked up more than 5,000 finds. We have saved, per his wishes, his ashes in the copper ammunition box he received after finding his 1,000th cache.

I was fortunate to spend time with him in the days before he left us. On the day he passed, I left the hospital and headed directly for a run. I knew 11 miles on the trails, meandering around Cherokee Park where he used to ride his bike, would do me good.

Poppa’s laugh, inappropriate jokes and mischievous look will be greatly missed. More than anything, I hope you will make taking care of your skin a priority — wearing sunscreen habitually and, please, have a regular checks by your primary care doctor or a dermatologist.

This article will appear in the October issue of the Running Journal.

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