Cross Country

Former Syracuse runner Ryan Urie battles acute myeloid leukemia

Courtesy of Billy Cvecko

Ryan Urie (bottom) and Billy Cvecko pose in Urie's room at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in San Diego. Urie was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia less than three weeks ago.

Sun beamed down on the grass trails of Balboa Park in San Diego as two former Syracuse runners inched back to midseason form with each stride. The course, weaving alongside cookouts, dogs playing fetch and kids throwing footballs, was Ryan Urie’s stomping ground.

The San Diego native, along with Billy Cvecko, gradually lengthened their runs from 20 minutes upward after taking 2-3 weeks off since SU’s season ended.

Three weeks ago, Urie began feeling more discomfort than usual. It’s a normal occurrence for runners once or twice a month, Cvecko said, a byproduct of little sleep, lack of food or even a hangover. But on this day, the third of excessive fatigue, Urie’s vision turned white while crossing a hill on the backside of the trail. It was only 15 minutes into a 45-minute workout.

Urie saw a doctor and was referred to a specialist. After a follow-up appointment with the specialist, Cvecko texted Urie, ready for their normal run.

I would love to go for a run, but I have leukemia.
Ryan Urie

“It didn’t feel real,” Urie said.

The official diagnosis is acute myeloid leukemia, a type of cancer in which bone marrow makes abnormal myeloblasts (a type of white blood cell), red blood cells or platelets. He’s told it’s advantageous to be young and healthy, but for now there’s no timetable for the future. It’s just wait and hope.

“You live a healthy lifestyle and everything felt fine,” Urie said. “… and all of a sudden, just one day, things kind of change.”

Starting in August, Urie’s initial fatigue set in. On walks with his dog Moose, he’d lose breath. After standing up from the couch, he’d pass out, but he just thought it was blood rushing to his head. And even after being short of breath on that early September day, Cvecko considered only the heat, an iron deficiency or mononucleosis as causes.

Sitting in his doctor’s office less than three weeks ago, Urie learned the unfathomable. What exactly is leukemia, he thought. What’s the treatment process? Is it genetic? Then came what Urie calls the “hurry up and wait approach.”

The wake-up call for blood testing is 6 a.m. at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, followed by a couple hours of rest before breakfast. Doctors check Urie’s vital signs, and then he watches sports on TV, checking on his fantasy football team led by Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Doctors check vitals again in the middle of the day. Lunch and dinner is delivered and more testing follows before bed. In 15 years on the job, Urie’s doctor had never seen a bone so strong. Standard procedure calls for a sample of bone marrow to be tested, but Urie’s wouldn’t chip off.

Urie’s influx of visitors span from his parents to close friends from home, extended family and Cvecko. Any guest has to wear a surgical mask and wash their hands since he’s easily susceptible.

Instead of running alongside him, Cvecko now sits in Urie’s hospital room, watching TV and talking sports. They discuss Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and his injury. The progress of Justyn Knight, Martin Hehir and the rest of the SU cross-country team. Even this year’s Juice Jam lineup comes up.

Cvecko brought a small “good luck” turtle to the hospital because it’s what got his father through cancer, too. This one reads “hope and faith.”

“He’s like everything I could’ve asked for and that’s why I hope he pulls through and remains strong,” Cvecko said. “…I always wonder why people as good-hearted as Ryan or my dad or other people’s parents get cancer.”

Cvecko posted a picture of him and Urie in the hospital room on Facebook, using the hashtags #RunforRyan and #PrayforRyan. People who don’t know Urie text Cvecko asking for the hospital’s address to send care packages. Syracuse’s field hockey captains didn’t know Urie well, but they too have asked what can be done.

The cross-country team mails gifts and cards to Urie and on the early-season bus rides the Orange has taken, guys are always communicating with him. Assistant coach Adam Smith talks with Urie once a week and head coach Chris Fox texts him every day, mostly about sports and straying away from the medical side.

“I know he’s going through chemo here and it’s supposed to be a bad week for him and I never heard a bad word out of him,” Fox said. “Last week was supposed to be his toughest week and he never said anything but ‘I feel great.’”

Urie’s equipped for the fight even if the biggest scare is simply not knowing. Will he be fatigued again? Will a rash break out? Will hair start falling out? Questions without answers, but a future with hope.

Before last Friday’s race in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, Urie’s name had a spot in Syracuse’s pre-race pep talk. The Orange placed five runners in the top 10, including Knight and Hehir first and third, respectively.

It definitely adds fuel to the fire.
Martin Hehir

To this day, Urie’s 2012 Big East Championship run is the best race Smith has seen from him. Syracuse was top-heavy, needing a strong outing from runners outside its top two to exit the conference with a title.

Urie, a sophomore at the time, finished third for SU in 24:52, good for ninth overall and a conference title. As he crossed the finish line, he grimaced, extending both arms in full flex and clenching his fists.

He conquered that fight. Now he’ll try and conquer this one.

“Day by day,” Urie said. “That’s how I’ve been living life is day by day.”

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