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“How do I greet a friend back from the brink of death?” I wondered, pausing before daring to press send.
Hesitant to overwhelm someone just regaining the strength to speak, I messaged cautiously. Writing to a friend I’d spent months fearing was gone felt a bit like sending a message through the void.
“I don’t know if you’ll ever be able to truly understand the energy, life, and love that has surrounded you these past months. I don’t expect you to reply to this. Focus on your girls. And gaining strength.” I finally worked up the courage to message him.
A few days later, he answered in scratchy tones through a voice memo: “Hey man, thanks for the message. I hope it’s alright that I respond like this, my fingers aren’t working super well. I go in and out of good days and bad days. Yesterday was pretty rough, today is somewhere in the middle. It depends on when I have chemo.”
He went on to describe the delirious state of gratitude and survival he was experiencing through the process of extreme medical treatment. “It’s some nasty shit,” he remarked. It sounded like an understatement.
Known for his trademark black hat with a skull and crossbones; thick brown beard; and perpetually smiling eyes, Tommy Rivers Puzey’s inspirational social media feed went abruptly silent in July 2020. After a routine jog into the Grand Canyon, he’d suddenly felt so exhausted and disoriented that he’d lain down on the trail and wondered if he might die right there. And then, before any of his followers understood what was happening, he disappeared online, unconscious, fighting for his life.
We all assumed it was Covid. It was the summer of 2020 and medically mysterious symptoms had become our gruesome norm.
Turned out it was cancer.
His silence forced us all to scramble for bread-crumb updates online from his family members and friends. The eloquent writing of his wife, father, and siblings became the stand-in for the voice that hundreds of thousands of us had grown to admire.
By the time he reemerged months later, his world had been forever altered and his celebrity had amplified globally.
“TODOS SOMOS TOMMY!” I saw someone comment, and I got it. “We are all Tommy.” If a man of such strength could suffer so much, who were any of us?
For years I’d simply followed “Tommy Rivs” from afar, appreciating his competitive persona, his rippling 16-pack abs, and his fearless racing style. I enjoyed his winding emotional musings and beautiful journeys into the Grand Canyon.
It was as if he was built for Instagram.
A bearded, muscular, loving father of three, his true appeal was his seeming lack of “social media strategy” or blatant “personal branding.” Philosophical stories that sometimes stretched over dozens of posts, at times he seemed too absorbed with the world around him to really worry about himself. A difficult line to walk, avoiding excessive ego while still posting shirtless photos of yourself. But his following continued to grow.
He also served as a digital treadmill coach on the iFit platform, offering advice and companionship to thousands of runners in their homes training alone. Offering soft-spoken anthropological stories intermixed with training advice, he seemed to spray shards of genuine emotion in every direction he moved.
I respected his transparency and competitive fire, but didn’t know him until the marathon brought us together.
Both aspiring to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, we saw our paths merge in the final months of the pursuit. He’d already run the qualifying time, but did it outside the qualifying period that counted. In December 2019, I came frustratingly close as well, within two seconds, but that amounted to just as little.
Dejected and demoralized, I couldn’t fathom another attempt, but there was one left in a few weeks, and Tommy wasn’t much interested in my sulking. He gently encouraged me to see past the race I’d already run toward the opportunity ahead.
“There you are brother,” Tommy slid me a hello between breaths as we rolled along at 5:15 per mile early in the 2020 Houston Marathon. It was the final day to qualify, and we were together to make the most of this day.
As the sun rose, my chances slimmed. I was falling slightly off pace while he sprinted ahead. Though fighting my own losing fight, I was encouraged by the glimmer of my strong friend sprinting in the distance, clearly on pace to qualify. Sadly, shockingly, he was felled by a freak knee sprain inflected by a random Houston pothole. Though both our races ended in disappointment, I emerged from the experience with a new friend remarkably unafraid to dream.
“What’s next for you?” He inquired a few days post-race. After listening to my prudent plans to participate in the local track and road racing scene, his silence offered a fitting assessment of such cautious endeavors.
“Dream bigger.” He’d encouraged me. And offered to help however he could.
But that was early 2020, which feels like a simpler world, a lifetime ago, folded away into the album of our minds.
“No one really survives this,” a doctor friend of mine contextualized Tommy’s remarkable recovery last year. “Hardly anyone has ever gotten off that many machines after being on for that long,” she explained.
“But he’s still here. It’s a miracle that can only be attributed to his strength and determination.”
Tommy’s blood had been transfused and oxygenated outside of his body for over a month. But then he awoke. And then he spoke. All the while his legion of online fans grew, our hopes for him hanging on each update from his family.
The wait culminated last fall when his father shared that his son’s body had graduated from its dependence on life support. I received enough messages globally to know that I was not the only one who openly wept that day. Though still too weak to undergo a necessary bone marrow transplant, he was surviving, and in many ways, so were we.
When I sensed that he’d recovered enough to converse, I attempted to convey to him the essence of the symbol that he’d become.
“Seeing those who love you share it, and then watch that love multiplied around the world, it’s been incredible.” I imparted, trying not to overwhelm a man who’d missed it all while comatose in a hospital bed. “It’s something the world needed right now. It’s been an awfully tough year. To have a person people could believe in and channel their love and energy toward has meant a lot to all of us.”
2020 was too overwhelming and depressing to grasp, so many of us sought something specific to support. Facing too much global death to comprehend, it helped those of us who’d joined the global #TeamRivs to believe in, give to, and hope for the meaning of a single life.
And he’s survived!
I once heard that a good friend doesn’t ask, “How are you doing?” because the weight of answering is a burden unto itself. So I don’t. I wait and listen, passing along inspiring athletic posts from peers, sharing little moments of life’s beauty, the type of things I think might offer a slight reprieve or afford some strength.
A year ago, Tommy had to relearn to walk. He took it on, one careful step at a time. As if rebuilding fundamental motor skills wasn’t enough, he was also still undergoing rounds of chemo in pursuit of cancer remission, all while having to kick an opioid addiction brought on by the extreme medications pumped into him while asleep. As a professional endurance athlete, he’d undoubtedly woken to mornings where it was tough to get out of bed, but rising each day to tackle this trifecta of physical and psychological challenges was distinctly difficult.
“I’ve got a pretty sweet walker though!” he chuckled in a voice message to me one fall day last year as he shuffled his way through rehab in the Scottsdale retirement region of Arizona.
“It gives me a lot of cred with the retirees around these parts.” he boasted in jest. It was difficult to imagine a man who was synonymous with strength being so frail, but imagining him racing octogenarians across the crosswalk made me smile. His trademark warmth shone through brightly in the silver linings of his stories.
He was progressing, bit by bit. Never linear, but always forward.
Trading notes about the sport, we’ve even played with making plans for “the future.” Though unsure if or when he’d be able to run again, I took comfort from hearing him make suggestions. “I may not be able to run it, but I could sure crew and hand out snacks,” he offered.
Incremental signs of progress. Step by step.
RELATED: How Tommy Rivs Defied Death
“You looked good in that photo you posted yesterday!” I encouraged him last Spring.
“Just a few slow miles. It felt good to be vertical.” He level-set my excitement.
His progress has been steady, if agonizingly slow. His global audience eagerly awaits any update of his health and was gratified with a recent post from back in The Canyon with his daughter. Exploration, a glimmer beyond simple survival.
Progress, but on what timeline? When might he run again? Those of us cheering him from afar began to wonder but refused to ask.
All of which makes his surprise announcement that he would toe the starting line at the 50th New York City Marathon on Nov. 7 far beyond what most of us dared to dream.
But not Tommy.
The man who’s always pushed us to find more in ourselves than we knew was there, is characteristically unafraid to imagine grandly.
Though shocked by the news, as a kindred endurance spirit, I understood he was doing the thing that fed his soul the most; using movement to find strength and human connection just as he’s been encouraging all of us to do for years.
I once heard a speech by writer Elizabeth Gilbert about how the best way to respond to success or failure was the same, “You have got to find your way back home again,” she explained. “If you’re wondering what your home is, here’s a hint: Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself. Your home is that thing to which you can dedicate your energies with such singular devotion that the ultimate results become inconsequential.”
In this post-pandemic world, it can seem scary for many of us to dream again. Envisioning a specific future amid so much uncertainty is unsettling. So when I found out that Tommy was venturing out of his monastic life of medical recovery to the cacophony of the New York City streets, I understood the goal implicitly. He’s heading home.
He’s not a New Yorker, but he’s a lover and connector. I picture home for him as the space in which people are giving maximal effort while believing in the strongest version of themselves.
What does one say to an expanding legion of global followers? What insight might he impart from his journey to the brink of death?
His understanding is simple, his message to all of us is clear: keep moving.
“This weekend marks exactly a year to the day that I walked again. Just a couple of agonizing steps. I’ve kept walking every day since then. Just a little farther each time,” he posted the week before the race.
“On Sunday I’ll be on the start of the NYC Marathon saying the same thing I’ve said every day since then.
You’re still here.
We all are.
As long as you’re moving you’re still here.”
Even before 2020, Tommy’s presence was a reminder for me to have the courage to dream bigger and love more. After the past year, the essence of his ethos is amplified.
His return to running is a reminder to us all that despite illness, fear, or uncertainty, what counts most is the willingness to keep moving forward, and keep supporting one another, one step at a time.