TRAVERSE CITY — Dr. John Bruder and close friend Jerry Glenn like to recite a humorous refrain before every cross country ski race they enter.
"We always say, 'Start slow, and then back off from there,'" Glenn said. "Of course, the gun goes off and John's gone. There's no stopping him."
There's a different tone on the eve of this year's big race, the annual Vasa set for Saturday. Bruder, 66, will take part in his first Vasa event in three years. He was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in December, 2010.
"When my lung cancer was diagnosed, I was quite certain that I would be dead by now," Bruder said. "But I have been pleasantly surprised. Because of excellent health care by a variety of physicians, and the support I've received from everyone, I'm doing better than I ever thought possible."
Bruder, an orthopedic surgeon, continues to work and continues to ski, thanks to a portable oxygen tank. He continues to amaze his friends, too.
Vasa's nod to Bruder is a special "Ski With John" 12K event Saturday at Timber Ridge Resort. A special "Team JB" wave is scheduled to start around 1 p.m.
"This is not going to be a competitive race," Bruder said. "This is going to be a fun time with friends."
Friends, and any other skiers who would like to join them. Glenn and Dr. Bill Smith came up with the idea.
"I thought this would be a fun thing to do, a way that we could support him," Smith said. "John, in many respects, is a pretty private person. I didn't want to do something that in any way he wouldn't want to do. We've gotten his OK with this and I think he's been quite amazed by all the support."
Friends replace speed
Bruder used to traverse a 12K course in about 45 minutes. Now it takes 75 to 90 minutes.
But time on the clock isn't as important now as his time with friends.
"Our goal Saturday is to ski as a group and have a group experience," he said. "This will be an event we will all be doing together. I'm sure I'll be the slowest, but if I'm not I'll wait for the slowest.
"I get great satisfaction out of participating. The last two and half years have been the most challenging and the most satisfying in my life. I appreciate every day I get. I hope I show that with my friends. I hope I can continue to do the things I love for a long time. I just go day by day and I'm grateful for every day I get."
It will be Bruder's 28th Vasa, made possible because of an oxygen tank, one he tried during a downhill ski trip out west in December. It worked so well there that, following a test, his pulmonary doctor here prescribed a liquid oxygen tank so he could exercise more. It's an eight-pound tank he carries skiing. He's now skiing four days a week.
"That's been a real turning point for me," he said. "I go until I run out of oxygen. It usually lasts about 15K. That's my limit. On the steep hills, I have to stop two or three times to recover so I can keep going."
Started with a cough
After his diagnosis — it came like "a kick in the face" — Bruder gave up the idea of racing.
It all started with a cough that wouldn't go away. One Friday before leaving work, Bruder, a non-smoker, had a chest X-ray taken. He was stunned by the findings.
"I had these three snowballs in my lung," he said. "It changes your whole life."
Bruder decided to treat the cancer aggressively. He's had five surgeries. He's had part of his lung removed.
Glenn remembers that day when he heard the news.
"He called me that night," Glenn said. "We were both crying and then he says, 'but, you know, we're still skiing tomorrow.'
"Some people didn't think he would last the summer. There was just no way he would be able to go through all those surgeries, lose that much of his lung capacity, and still try to live. He's a perfect example of what can happen."
Bruder said he "feels fine."
"I don't feel ill," he said. "I just feel short of breath."
One thing is certain, Bruder is not letting life pass him by.
"He's an incredible role model," Smith said. "I was a partner with John VanDalson, who also lived life to the fullest even when he was diagnosed with cancer. You learn a lot by watching how people deal with a pretty bad diagnosis."
Surgery set on trail
Smith and Bruder go way back. In fact, Bruder performed Smith's two knee replacements.
"It's because of him that I've been able to keep skiing," Smith said.
Clark Phelps, a retired radiologist, is another of Bruder's longtime friends. He's also had his knees replaced. Bruder operated on his left knee more than six years ago, and knew it was just a matter of time before he would have his right replaced.
That happened three weeks ago. The appointment was set-up on the ski trail after the two came across each other during an early January outing.
"When I saw John I started whining about my right knee again," Phelps said. "John says, 'I can't replace it next week, but I can get you in the week after that. Call my office and make an appointment'."
Bruder skied off, Phelps made the call.
"We went from talking about it to having it done 10 days later," Phelps said.
Phelps missed just two prior Vasa races. One because of illness, the other because he tore a rotator cuff preparing for the race. This will be his third.
"I wish I could (ski) because I think this is a wonderful thing, to see a bunch of people getting together to ski with him. I feel bad that I can't do it, but I'm pleased they got this organized."
Bruder won't be hard to spot Saturday. He'll be the one in the pink attire.
"John was always known over the years for skiing in this God-awful pink racing suit," Smith said. "We could all see him. We all knew who it was when you saw him up ahead. We've forced him to wear it. That's the only thing we've asked of him."
And about that "start slow, and then back off" mantra?
"Now I'm actually beginning to adhere to that motto a little," Bruder said. "I can't go as fast as I used to."
Try telling that to his friends.