Right around the 5K mark of an 8K race, Matt Rolain feels it, hears it, can almost taste it. Running as fast as he can but with 3K more to go, his legs burn past their lactate threshold, his chest throbs with each deep inhalation. Everything in his being says stop. “Stop.” Every muscle wants to quit. “Now.” But not his brain. His brain says, “Let’s go, man.”
It’s a classic physiological battle between body and mind that distance runners like Rolain, a senior on the Hope College men’s cross country team, have been waging since Pheidippides ran that first overly exerted marathon centuries ago. Rolain can relate to ancient Greek’s exhausting tale, maybe a bit more than others and only to a point. While he has gotten better, much more cunning in the last year at convincing his body to do what his brain insists it must (he ran a personal best at this past weekend’s MIAA Championship), Rolain is also extremely cognizant of the human body’s fragility. And he is extremely grateful for its resiliency too.
When asked why and how his bright brain now has a better command of his athletic body, Rolain, somewhat hesitantly, points to an unfortunate life event that cured his runner’s mind-vs-muscle struggle. It was a cancer diagnosis. His cancer diagnosis. Actually, blessedly as it turns out, his cancer misdiagnosis.
“In the past, I really struggled with the mental aspect of racing,” says Rolain. “I was too focused on the pain and how much I wanted to stop. Now I break the race up in chunks, play a song in my head, think about my (kilometer) splits, think about keeping pace with a teammate. Anything to take my mind off the pain… The cancer scare helped me to begin to focus more on achieving my goals.”
Hearing the word “cancer” frightens anyone and a healthy young man with a promising future headed into his junior year of college is no exception. Rolain, from Rochester, Michigan (Stoney Creek HS), had been making perfect grades as a chemistry major, dreamed of someday becoming a doctor. He was also making racing progress toward becoming one of the Flying Dutchmen’s top seven runners.
But in the summer of 2014, just before the start of his third collegiate season, Rolain was told he had testicular cancer, and his doctor wanted to operate immediately so convinced was he that the disease threatened Rolain’s life. Scheduled for surgery the next day, the same day as his MCAT exam – a requisite for medical school admission – Rolain cleared his mind of what could be going wrong in his body. He sat for the test in the morning and had surgery in the afternoon. When evening came, life would begin to become good again. The supposed malignant tumor tested benign, and Rolain later learned that he tested in the 98th percentile on the MCAT.
In one 24-hour period, the student-athlete with the 4.0 GPA and runner’s grit bravely, intensely focused with his mind to assuage his body when the stakes couldn’t get any higher.
“Matt is a great example to the rest of the team of what hard work and perseverance can do,” says Coach Mark Northuis of his team captain. “Even though he is not the fastest runner on the team, everyone knows his story and how he worked himself back (after his surgery and recovery) to being one of the top runners. This is inspirational for the younger runners and gives them hope that working hard and committing to the team for the long haul will make a difference.”
Rolain wants to make a difference for the long haul through medicine too. While his favorite class at Hope was organic chemistry and he loved being a summer researcher with Dr. Elizabeth Sanford, professor of chemistry, his compassionate, hard-working, and positive nature is best meant for the care of people. Maybe he’ll become an ophthalmologist like his father, or maybe he’ll consider oncology. With interviews set up at several different universities, “I just know I’m going into med school open-minded,” he says.
Resolute in mind and pertinacious in body, Rolain will have no problem going the distance.