The 100 Mile Race: Is there a Gender Bias?

Lotteries for two of the most sought after 100 mile races were both this weekend (in case you know nothing about 100 mile races, those would be the Western States 100 and the Hardrock 100). I was not going to write anything about this topic, but up in my FB memories today came posts from years past about not getting into either race via their lottery systems. Furthermore, my Facebook feed is blowing up with articles/blog posts/ commentary about how we make the system more “equal” for women.

The issue, as I see it, is that we are talking about two entirely differently subjects.

  1. Are the number of women drawn via these lotteries in proportion to the number of  female entries?
  2. How do we make the number of entries more equal, as in 50-50? Currently, most statistics show the finishers of 100 mile races are approximately 20% female.

Lotteries

Let me start by saying, no lottery system is ever going to be perfect. So, this is not a critique of the lottery system, but rather a look at how these lotteries promote or do not promote fairness among male and female applicants.

Western States and Hardrock are extremely popular races for different reasons. If you are a road runner, think ‘the Boston Marathon of 100 mile trail races’. It has a storied history and attracts top talent in the ultrarunning world. Hardrock has a reputation for being incredibly difficult. It has a 48 hour time cutoff. Think brutally long, difficult climbs/descents in the unforgiving but beautiful San Juan Mountains of Colorado. If you can hang in there long enough, you can witness some of the most beautiful land in the world.

These two race lottery systems differ quite a bit. Western States gives out a certain number of automatic entries (past top ten male and female finishers) in addition to a number of golden tickets via sponsors, etc. So, for many elite runners, Western States may be able to provide a way in, bypassing the lottery system.

Hardrock, on the other hand, divides everyone into three lotteries. 45 spots go to the ‘Never Started’ category (for people who have never started the race for any reason). 33 spots go to the Veterans (those who have FINISHED five or more Hardrocks). 67 spots are allocated for ‘Everyone Else’. This could be people who have DNF’d previously at HR, for example.

But wait, there’s more…you have to qualify for both races (which is good, IMO). Once you qualify, the first time you enter the lotteries, you get one ticket which goes into the pool. If you don’t get in the first time, you have to requalify and then when you re=apply you get TWO tickets in the pool, and so on.

This is a gross oversimplification, but the bottom line is, you have a very low chance of getting into either race on your first try…think 2%. If you do not get in that first time, you have to go back and requalify at select races each year in order to get your name back in the hat. If you miss out on a year of running, say due to pregnancy, or in my case, injury and cancer, you have to start all over again with one ticket.

So let’s go back to the two issues at hand.

Are the number of women at these popular hundred mile races proportional to the number of women who apply?

Let’s look at Blake Wood’s statistics from this year’s Hardrock.

gender ultramarathons Hardrock

Here are the number of applications, by catagory, broken down by gender, for the Hardrock 100.

 

First it must be noted that the Hardrock system is kind to veterans. This is not a judgement. It is simply a statement. Women made up 17.3% of the total applicants, but they came in at a hair under 9% of total acceptances into the race. You can see how this is broken down by category.  In total, 13 women were accepted via the lottery system for this race. In my opinion, ensuring the acceptances mirror the actual application rates would create a more equitable system for women who qualify, but that, again, is up to the race director and board to decide.

For Western States, I do not have a complete breakdown on the entry statistics, but my quick calculation of those selected via golden tickets and lottery show the entries to be approximately 17% female. 105 of the 369 spots were automatic entries, meaning NOT distributed via the lottery.  What was the gender breakdown of lottery entrants? Was it close to that 17% we see on the entrant list? Since I do not have gender breakdown of the applicants, it is impossible to say if there is a proportional number of females to males in this case.

I do not believe any female runners think it is their ‘right’ to take spots away from male runners. However, I do think women would like to have proportional representation at these races. Right now, if you are a 5+ year male or female veteran at Hardrock, the system works in your favor. In addition, at Western States, if you are an elite runner, either one who has come in top ten before, or one with connections for a Golden Ticket, the system seems to have ways to help top females find their way in.

Of course, for elite runners who are seeking money, either in the form of prize money or sponsorships, this issue comes to down to wanting to have the same opportunity to put food on  your table as the elite males. Of course, parity is important to these elites. But it is also important to women who simply want the opportunity to test themselves at these big, competitive events. The bottom line is, I think races that do entry via lottery should work hard to make sure women are represented in proportion to the rate at which they apply.

Now, on to topic two: ‘Why are the genders not represented 50-50 at 100 mile races?

Really? Do we even have to have a discussion about this? Is it because our uteruses will fall out? Hmmm…no, that’s not it. Is it because our breasts are too heavy and we keep falling over when we try to run downhill? (Well, maybe, in some cases). Is is because we keep getting lost in the woods because we are more into touchy, feely things rather than map reading?

It really should not be a mystery to anyone but MOST women are still working double duty. We have jobs AND do the majority of child care, house cleaning, cooking and emotional labor at home. Please don’t tell me ‘oh but this one elite runner ran 100 miles and nursed her baby along the way’. Yes, yes, I have read her story and I was nursing babies at marathon finish lines long before most people reading this probably laced up their shoes for the first time. Certainly there are people who can make it happen, but MOST women are just trying to make it through each fucking day without keeling over from mental and physical exhaustion.

Many women just do not have the time available or the physical or emotional energy to train for 100s. When my children were young, I could find time to train for a marathon. I could justify giving myself four hours alone each week, but I 1)did not have time to run more and 2) did not have the money to pay enough babysitters to train for a 100. This is not whining or complaining. It is simply the truth. I was ‘lucky’ that I could run marathons. Many women I know did not have time even for that. There is a reason why the most popular race distance for women is the half-marathon. You can run for 30-90 minutes a few days per week and be home, showered and ready to tackle the day by 7 am.

There are also reasons why most of the women I know who run 100s either a) do not have children b) do not work fulltime outside of the home if they DO have children or c) have children who are grown.

Yes, it can be done, but it depends upon many variables, including having a nonrunning spouse or the ability to pay for childcare so you can fit in running together. Because women do the majority of emotional lifting at home, too, we often feel that we are not entitled to take the time from our families to train. It is a multifaceted issue, for sure, and I am not blaming men, per se. Women carry the babies, women nurse the babies. Our bodies make things different for us. The division of labor at home, both physical and emotional, has evolved over time. Certainly men are doing more than ever, but it is not 50-50 for most couples yet.

Whether right or wrong, women are judged by their ability to mother, keep house, work and do many other things. I have known tons of men who have run numerous 100s, taking time from their families to train and race, and no one judges them. They don’t seem to think it makes them a worse parent. Women who are not available to their families ARE judged, by themselves, by other women and by society at large.

Many women still do not have access to quality, inexpensive day care just so they can work full-time while they raise their children.  Running 100s is pretty far down on the list of priorities for most women. Throw in safety concerns many women have about running alone and it is no wonder women do not make up 50% of 100 mile race fields.

Until women and men carry equal loads at work and at home, and until women feel safe out in the world alone, I do not expect there to be equal numbers represented at longer ultras. These are the real issues women face when it comes to running 100s.

I wanted to run a 100 since I started running at the age of 28. I wanted to push my boundaries. I like doing things that scare other people. I like doing things that not many other women do. It’s exciting and enjoy being an outlier. I did not have the time to train until I was 44. I waited not for the time to be perfect, but until it was manageable.

In 2013, at the age of 44, I finished as tenth female at the Vermont 100. For those who do not know my story, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a couple of months after finishing Vermont. I took the year off from racing to undergo major, radical abdominal surgery followed by six months of chemotherapy. I ran the Bear Chase 50 mile race 3 months after finishing chemotherapy. I came in second at the Bryce 100 just shy of one year from finishing treatments. In 2016, I finished Run Rabbit Run 100. I had a torn labrum repaired in March 2017.

I don’t know what the future of running 100s is for me, but as I approach 49, menopause and all of the changes that brings with it, I know the clock is ticking. Maybe I have another 100 or two in my body, but maybe I do not. Either way, I do not have time to play the lottery game at this stage in my life. I made that decision last year, and while I was sad not to be playing lottery roulette this past weekend, there are lots of beautiful races out there. While I have would have loved to run WS or HR, I’ve overcome a metric shit ton of stuff just to finish a 100. If I have it in me physically to train for another 100, I will choose a different, beautiful race that wants me there, grey hair, wrinkles and all.

women 100 mile

With my super supportive husband who has crewed and paced me at all three hundreds I have finished.

 

 

 

 

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We Were So Happy

“We were so happy,” she said as I hugged her and felt her tears fall on my shoulder.

It is a moment and a feeling I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

There are plenty of things I know nothing about, but one thing I know is love. Whenever I saw this couple together, I knew one thing: they were in love. I was not part of their ‘inner circle’ but we spent enough time together that I just knew. I could see it and I could feel it in the space they occupied together. There was an ease to the relationship between them and a mutual admiration that was refreshing. Their love was the real deal.

It was a second marriage for both, and as I know quite well myself, second marriages come along with a lot of complicated history. I do not presume to know anything about their relationship beyond what I, and others, could clearly see. All I can say is they shared similar interests and passions, and if I saw one, I was sure to see the other. Always together. Always smiling.

He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, in his 40s.

All I could offer was, “He loved you so much.”  She confirmed what I knew, “We were so happy.” While I know she wanted to try to be strong and focus on how fortunate they were to have each other, that was something I could not bear.

“It’s not fucking fair,” I told her. Words I never allowed myself to think about my own plight as I faced pancreatic cancer….except when I thought about my own marriage. My second marriage. The one I came to later in life. The one I brought my broken self and my own baggage to. The one I felt loved in and cared for every day. When I found out I had pancreatic cancer and did not dare to think I might survive it, I thought about our love and thought, “It isn’t fair. We haven’t had enough time together!”

How many people can truthfully say about their ownn marriages, ‘We are so happy!’?

Many times over the 15.5 years Stephen and I have been together, I have thought, “I hope I die before my husband does, because I don’t know how I would ever make it through life without him by my side.” I did not know if long-term happiness in a marriage was even possible when we got together, but all of these years later, I know it is. I am still crazy about my husband.

Over the years, I have also frequently spent time feeling guilty about my divorce. I have analyzed what I contributed to the failure of my first marriage many times since we officially split. I have felt badly about our daughter not getting to grow up with both biological parents in the same house. While my second marriage has been a blessing, I have spent too much time anazlying my own ‘failures’ as a human being.

Stephen and I have faced a lot of hardship together. We have faced things together which would have torn many couples apart. But, yes, we are still happy together. We are happy in a different way from when we first met years ago, of course, but we still choose to spend our time together. We still make each other laugh. We still have the intimacy of a couple ‘in love’.

The one ‘gift’ of my divorce was that it allowed me to look critically at my own shortcomings as a human being and figure out how I could be a better partner the second time around. I express my needs clearly. If there is a problem or an issue, I will not allow it to fester. I probably drive my husband nuts at times, but I don’t want to waste time being angry at each other. We resolve problems quickly or just decide maybe the ‘problem’ isn’t worth spending energy on. Move on. Let the anger go.

While divorce is painful and difficult for all involved, I learned something from mine which, I hope, makes me a better person and a better spouse today.

Are you happy?

Life is hard. There are times when the world is going to hand you a lot of really challenging stuff you have to face. You may not always love your job, but you should always love your partner. Home should be the place where you are loved and cared for no matter what else is going on in the cruel, harsh world.

If you aren’t happy in your relationship, why not? Do you feel valued and respected? Do you make your spouse feel valued and respected? What can you BOTH do to improve your relationship? Is it fixable? Or is there too much anger for either of you to move beyond? Maybe what you wanted at 20 is just not what you realize you need at 40 or 50?

Either figure out a way to fix things or move on.

Before anyone accuses me of being cavalier about marriage, I assure you I am not. However, there is a point where everyone involved is losing, including the kids. I have witnessed many people going through the motions in their own marriages. I have also seen people stick it out even though it is clear everyone involved is miserable.

And I have seen a whole lot of happiness the second time around.

If I die tomorrow, I hope my husband tells everyone ‘We were so happy’. And I hope he tells people he was happy because I made him laugh, and took him on crazy adventures, and made him feel loved and sexy, and teased him about how obsessed he was with getting the garbage out on time, but that’s because I knew that was part of how he showed our family love…and I sincerely appreciated it.

And I know for the last few days, I have thought often about this couple who was so happy and I have cried and thought a million times about how my heart aches for her. I know many, many people will miss her husband, but none as much as she will. I hope everyone who knows her allows to her to be sad, and angry, and to say it isn’t fucking fair, because it isn’t. I hope she feels free to cry, scream, stomp her feet, break things or do whatever she needs to do to get through each day.

Because in a world where there is so much unhappiness, I cannot make any sense of why a couple who was so happy together has been denied the many more years of joy they should have had ahead of them. They were in love. They were happy. They made each other better people that second time around, because that’s what love does. It makes you better together.

Celebrate love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Months Post Op Goal: Rosa & Ohio Mike

Six months ago, I had surgery to repair a rather large tear my right labrum caused by cam and pincer impingement. I am not going to recount all of the details of the past six months because you can scroll through previous entries of my blog for that information.  Suffice it to say it has been a long recovery requiring a great deal of humor, patience, humor, help, humor, cake, love and more humor. In addition, I spent a lot of time swimming (hated it and hurt my shoulder), walking, hiking, riding my bike in front of documentaries on Netflix, doing my PT exercises, stairmilling, ellipticating and eventually working my way back to running.

Being a goal-oriented person, I soon needed to set a personal goal, a milestone I could attempt to achieve following my surgery. I did not want to sign up for a race because I knew I was not physically or mentally ready. I thought about it a few times, but I knew it was just a bad idea. After hip surgery is not the time to get caught up in race fever or any short-term goals. I needed to think of something challenging but attainable. Something that would not hurt my long-term success or health.

The Goal: Mount Rosa

I looked up at the mountains on our Colorado Front Range and decided I wanted to hike Mt. Rosa by my six-month surgical anniversary. Rosa is a peak that stands 11,500 feet tall and is the third tallest peak in our area. It is much less well-known than our local 14,115 foot Pikes Peak, but I kind of like it that way. I have hiked and run the trails up and down Rosa a few times before, and I always think it is beautiful. Some of the trails are pretty darned steep, making for a reasonable challenge. The loop would be about 15-16 miles, I estimated, so that was a decent amount of mileage.

Mount Rosa

Steve on top of Mount Rosa in 2016. We were last there in 2016 while I was training for Run Rabbit Run 100.

Climbing Rosa was not a ‘stretch’ of a goal. Or at least, it shouldn’t have been as long as I was careful and respectful of my body while I recovered. Too much running or high intensity work could set me back, but if I stayed on track, it was certainly within reach.

All summer and into early fall, I concentrated on two things: keeping up a good rehab protocol and exploring the trails. I promised myself that since I wasn’t training for any particular race, I would take more time hiking in new areas. I did some trails which were new to me and really enjoyed it.

Tonia and Willy

With my faithful companion, Willy

It’s Been a Long Six Months

For the most part, I was good about mentally focusing on the immediate issue at hand, which was simply to do the best job of rehabbing my injury as possible. When I started having some new medical issues, I really missed being able to relieve my stress through 20 mile runs in the mountains. That was hard. Long runs have been my coping mechanism for years and I have struggled with some depression in the last couple of months.

Fall in Colorado

My favorite time of year in Colorado!

Would You like Another Crap Sandwich?

How do you cope when you life hands you a crap sandwich while you are already sitting on top of a pile of crap? Runners cope by running. Distance runners cope by running stupid distances. But, I couldn’t run ridiculous distances. I was tired, my body was beat up and I had other symptoms and things to be concerned about. I had to just sit on top of the pile of crap that was already there, while holding my crap sandwich, hoping dessert would maybe turn out to be more appealing. (I have to say that I am using crap metaphorically here. There is no actual crap involved in my current situation, and that’s about all I want to say about it for now).

While I always thought Rosa was possible, I had about a month of physical issues which really made me doubt it was ever going to be within the realm of possibilities. There was one day we started going up a trail where I thought I was going to have to go back down and have Steve take me to the hospital. Another day we went up to 11,000 feet and the altitude kicked my butt. Moving slowly, sweating profusely and breathing hard, I doubted I could make it up the additional 500 foot climb to the top. As we descended the trail, I fell on my face, hard.  Steve was horrified, but I was just happy my hip seemed to be OK.

Still, I persevered. We chose a date where Steve and I could summit and where the weather looked like it would cooperate. It was going to be special! It was going to be a date! Just the two of us achieving my goal together.

Enter Ohio Mike.

We saw Mike getting dropped off in the parking lot as we set out on our path to Rosa. His mom and brother were in the car. Mike was already started off down Gold Camp Road as we gathered our stuff and headed out behind him. Mom rolled down the window and asked if her son would be safe out there alone. They were here from Ohio. Mike wanted to go on these unfamiliar trails and Mom was worried. I reassured her the trails were safe, but being a mom myself, I understood her worry. I told her we would probably see him on the trails and we would look out for him.

Steve and I started running up Gold Camp Road and there was Mike. I stopped and asked where he was headed. He told me Mt. Rosa and I said he we were also doing Rosa. Ohio Mike was going to do an out-and-back, but we told him we were doing it as a loop. I knew this was supposed to be a ‘special date’ with my husband. I knew Steve wanted it to be just us out alone for the day. But…Mike…and Mike’s worried mom. I couldn’t just pass by and leave. We spent the next seven hours showing Ohio Mike the beauty of our local trail and mountains.

Ohio mike scenic spot

The day started off for Steve and me as a way to celebrate the first six months of my physical recovery, but it turned into something else. I love our local trails. It brings me great joy to share Colorado’s beauty with people new to the area or just new to a particular trail. In fact, Steve calls me the Tour Guide. But I have gained so much happiness out on those trails and I want to share it with others.

I told Ohio Mike to text his mom that he was with company when he had a phone signal, because I did not want Mom worrying about him being eaten by bears. Soon I found myself sending Ohio Mike off onto some of my favorite photo spots so I could take his picture. I took pictures as he hit 9,000 for the first time in his life. And 10,000, and 11,000 and, of course, on the summit of Rosa.

Mike summit

And it wasn’t just me playing tour guide. I saw Steve call Ohio Mike over to scenic overlooks to point things out to him. I knew Steve had been looking forward to our time together, but when I saw him standing there pointing stuff out to this stranger we picked up along the trail, my heart got all squishy and I loved my husband even more.

Tonia Mount Rosa

Tonia, Steve & Ohio Mike at 11,000 feet.

Mike was quiet, but he kept up with us admirably well. He never complained. He was all smiles, even when I knew he was feeling the elevation. He was very well-prepared but he was carrying a very large pack with a lot of ‘stuff’, not traveling lightly as we were. He was being smart and cautious and I admire that, but I know it had to make climbing that much more difficult.

We stopped on top of the mountain for some photos and snacks. I told him this was my six month post hip surgery celebration. I gave Steve a hug and a kiss for always being my biggest cheerleader.

We came back down the mountain, enjoying the beautiful fall day and safely returned Ohio Mike to his family. On the way home, I thought, ‘Well, OK, I guess I checked off my goal’. But I didn’t really care. All that mattered was the sense of joy I felt from having shown Ohio Mike some trails and helping him celebrate a new experience. Sharing that happiness was what made the day special.

Mt Rosa

Ohio Mike with his tour guides

Ohio Mike would have made it to the top of the mountain, I am sure. But he wouldn’t have seen the cabin remains we showed him. He wouldn’t have seen the bridges we went over. He would’t have learned the names of some of the other mountains. And I would have missed out on the chance to tell the other hikers we passed about how ‘Mike is from Ohio and he is climbing Rosa!’ And everyone we saw was impressed, because dammit, that IS impressive.

Just thinking about it still makes me happy. Goals are wonderful and it feels good to reach goals, but not this time. Of course, it did not feel BAD to achieve my goal. It just felt irrelevant. I could not have cared less about MY goal, but I did care about Ohio Mike’s goal. All that mattered was sharing the beauty of our mountains with him and celebrating his success. I am thankful our paths crossed and I got be there to see him summit and return safely to his family. Thank you, Ohio Mike, for giving perfect strangers the opportunity to share a day and a goal, to enjoy some conversation, but also some peace and to celebrate the beauty of our world.

Finally, I am so thankful for my husband who knows and understands my heart…And for Willy, who never knows what the hell we will get him into but always goes along happily.

Supermodel Willy

Willy the Supermodel on Mt. Rosa.

 

 

 

Sophomore Year: It’s not about the Boots

Last year when I moved my older daughter, Riley, into her college dorm room for the first time, my feelings were too painful and raw to voice, let alone write about for a public blog. Months later, I touched on the topic briefly, when time and distance had dulled the feelings enough to make sharing them tolerable.

I foolishly thought bringing her to college would be easier this year, but it was not. In August, we drove Riley back to college and helped her move into her first apartment. Moving her into a dorm for the first time last year felt BIG but moving her into her own apartment felt monumental. This is it. She has to pay bills and be an adult. She has a lease. She needs to prepare meals for herself and shop for herself and do all of the fun and not-so-fun things adults do every day.

Even though I knew she was capable of succeeding on her own as a Freshman last year, there were still plenty of unknowns. Would she enjoy school? Would she make friends? Would she and her roommate get along? Would she be lonely? Would she want to stay for four years?

Sophomore Year Drop Off

Returning for Sophomore year, in theory, seemed like a piece of cake. Yes, we had to move her into her apartment, but she had a successful year of college under her belt and she was planning to live with people of her own choosing this year. And yet I couldn’t shake my conflicted emotions. There is never, ever enough time.

Sophomore year college

Riley happy to be returning to college for her Sophomore year

We hugged and said our goodbyes at the end of the day. Steve, Peyton and I descended the four flights of stairs and piled back into our now-empty van for the return trip home. As I sat silently in the passenger seat, I grappled with the realization that this summer was probably the final time Riley would ever really live in our home under our roof. As scenes from her childhood flashed through my mind like a movie, I panicked and thought, “Oh my God…I wonder if she has an umbrella? And what about rain boots?”

SERIOUSLY?

What. The. Hell. I kid you not. I was in a panic thinking she might not have an umbrella and rain boots. I fought back against my urge to cry and beg Steve to turn back towards the apartment building. Where did THOSE seemingly random thoughts come from? Of all of the things I could think about, why did an umbrella and rain boots seem suddenly critically important? I did not give voice to my internal storm because I knew I would sound insane and irrational. I also knew it wasn’t about the boots.

What’s the Big Idea?

We spend our whole lives trying to prepare our kids to exist on their own. If we do a ‘good enough’ job, we hope they will absorb enough information to become fully functional adults.

I also spent a lot of time conversing with my kids about ‘big picture’ things: love, marriage, sex, friends, drugs, career, war, equality, religion, and pretty much any controversial or important topic we can think of. Rather than dictating beliefs, I hoped to instill ethics and values and give them room to be thinking individuals who could seek information and make decisions in life.

Sometimes It’s the Little Things

Still, I wondered….had I done a good enough job? I covered as many big life topics as I could, but did I do a good enough job with the details, the mundane aspects of life, too? During the drive home, I silently held onto my pain, wishing for a few short hours that I could go back and cover safety lessons and proper attire for a variety of weather conditions and so I could assuage the guilt I was feeling for maybe not having covered all of the important little lessons she would need to know in life.

What I really wish for is a chance to go back for just a few moments in time…to hold and nurse my baby again….to read another bedtime story…to hold her hand and play games and walk her into school. As scenes from her childhood rolled through my brain, I regretted the times I was distracted or tired or impatient.

If Only I Knew then What I Know Now

At one time it seemed we had all the time in the world, and now I see how quickly it has passed by. At 28, as a new mom, I wondered how my mom seemed to have all of the patience in the world with my screaming newborn baby. I was exhausted and it felt like it would be forever before my baby could do anything for herself. Riley growing up and leaving home was a possibility I never pondered at that point.

But now, at 48, I understand that patience very clearly. It is funny how the passage of time gives us an entirely new perspective and what seemed like an eternity before is now truly just a very brief and fleeting moment in our lives. Don’t we all wish our younger selves knew what we know now?

So now, my daughter is off successfully navigating life as an adult and I am happy for her and proud of her. Like all of us, she will make mistakes and will have regrets. I hope she feels loved and confident in herself as she moves forward, knowing she has a mom at home who is proud of her and who thinks she is amazing.

And if she has questions about relationships, love, career, children, religion, politics, social justice….or what kind of umbrella to buy…I am here, just a phone call or text message away.

Sophomore year 2017

Riley at the Oval with Peyton in the background. Go forth and do Epic Shit, my darling!

 

Detoxing from Doing Epic Stuff

Four months have passed since I had my hip surgery/labrum repair. In that odd way our perception of time works, some days it seems like it hasn’t been that long. On other days, it feels like it was a lifetime ago. Enough time has passed that I am now starting to reference time in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’, much in the way I have done with cancer, marriage, divorce, becoming a mother and many other major life changes.

During the ‘before’, I spent nearly every spare moment running mountain trails. I often put in a couple of 20+ mile runs in the hills each week. Now, the ‘after’ looks a lot different. I have trouble fathoming what I was doing at this time last year. But the happy news is I am indeed running!

Return to Running

I started running right at 12 weeks. Following my prescribed progression, I started with one minute of running followed by four minutes of walking, repeated a few times. Now I have run as much as three consecutive miles without taking a walking break. I am still transitioning back into being a runner.  Some days I walk and some days it is a mixture of walking and running. I am also getting into the foothills for hiking/running a day or two each week.

I am genuinely grateful to be able to do what I am doing just four months after this extensive surgery. I have worked very hard to make it to this point. I expect I will continue to improve, though I still have no idea what that will ultimately mean for me in terms of running. I have little doubt I will continue to run but I don’t yet know if the ‘after’ period will involve racing. The jury is still out and I won’t make any decisions on that until I am further along in the healing process.

Measuring Time

For the last several years, training for an ultra has been an incredibly important part of my life. In some ways, training for these big races is how I have come to frame the passage of time. That may sound odd, but when you spend months dedicated to preparing for an event, thinking about it, dreaming about it, planning it, it becomes intrinsically entwined with your memories of that particular moment in your life.

What do I remember about 2012? That’s the year I ran my first two 50 mile races. 2013 is the year I ran my first 100 miler and 100K…and then had surgery for pancreatic cancer.

Vermont 100 July 2013

Packet Pick-Up Vermont 100 July, 2013

Bear Chase 100k

Bear Chase 100k September 2013

What do I remember about 2014? I ran a 50 mile race three months after finishing chemo.

Bear Chase Trail Race

At the finish line of the Bear Chase 50 with RD and all around great guy, Ben Reeves.

2015 was the year of training for the Bryce 100. I trained in a lot of snow that spring…and the race was amazing.

Bryce Canyon 100

Beautiful scenery early in the Bryce Canyon 100 mile race.

bryce training in snow

What I remember leading up to Bryce: slogging through deep snow in the spring.

2016 was the year I spent in the hills around Colorado Springs training for Run Rabbit Run 100.

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Most of the time I am content to be where I am right now, but there are difficult moments. Not having a race on the calendar for 2017 sent me into a temporary tailspin not long ago. Logically I knew all along I would not be running any races this year. I knew there was a distinct possibility I would not be running at all in 2017 (or ever) following my surgery.

Cruising Ultrasignup

All the same, I felt some moments of panic with the realization that training and racing were out of the question for the year. I suddenly found myself cruising Ultrasignup.com looking for a race hookup like a junkie. I looked at Run Rabbit Run and thought, “Oh look! There are spots still left in the 50! I could probably hike the whole race if I had to!”

After a few hours, I was able to reel myself back in to reality. I am used to trying to just power through diffiulty, but this is something I cannot force through sheer will and/or mental and physical strength. The body heals on its own time table. I can do things to help the process, but I can also do a lot of foolish things that would hurt the process.

I tried to put my finger on what it was I felt I was missing…or maybe missing out on.

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Foliage on full display at the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race in September, 2016

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Olympian Hall Aid Station, Run Rabbit Run 2016

I Need Something but isn’t more Cowbell

After spending the last 20 years running the trails and roads, going for a run feels like fulfillment of both basic and higher needs.  I love the ritual months-long build-up before a race, working towards short-term and long-term goals. I miss the early mornings spent on the trails, lost in my thoughts of how to make the world a better place and myself a better human being. I long for the feelings of freedom and power that come from exploring the trails, alone and unafraid.

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Enjoying solitude on the trails.

While I love working towards a race goal, the months of effort, the hard work involved, is what makes the experience gratifying for me. When I see articles about running a 100 mile race on extremely low mileage, I immediately think, “Why on earth would you want to do that?” The race is merely the celebration at the end of months of putting in the hard work. I spend weeks, months, years earning my way to the festivities. The dedication to the process is its own reward.

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My running partner, Willy.

I went early today for a few miles alone with Willy in Cheyenne Canon. Somewhere along the way, I realize that one key component I have missed out on during my recovery from hip surgery is the joy I feel from the solitude of being alone on the trails. I have spent plenty of time out walking in my neighborhood or at the gym or in the pool. There are benefits to all of these activities and being dedicated to them over the last four months has gotten me where I am now. I can get physical exercise anywhere, but only time in the mountains seems to bring the sense of peace I need.

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It’s Not You, It’s Me

Research provides plenty of evidence about the benefits of spending time in nature. I have never doubted the findings because I have experienced them myself. Today, while out away from technology and traffic and noise, my mind shifted into its creative space and I finally realized I am not really ‘missing out’ on anything at all. This summer has actually been exceptionally busy and while I love racing and the social aspect of running, what I really crave is the ‘quiet’ I can find only when I am alone on the trails.

I managed to get in 9 miles on the trails early this morning and was thrilled to see no other humans until I was over 7 miles in. In this world of ‘afters’, 9 miles is nowhere close to 20, but it felt just as wonderful. It was emotionally satisfying and physically challenging in exactly the way I needed. While I love my running friends, in this world of #zerolimits and baddassedry, right now I am content to go at my own pace, concentrate on healing and take care of my own needs.

Do I still Exist if I Don’t #DoEpicShit ?

Instead of looking back on 2017 as the year I did some ‘epic’ race, I will remember it as the year of recovery and no racing. I cannot and will not cap off the year by completing one big goal. Instead I am making a bunch of intermediate goals in the form of a list of trails I want to explore over the coming months. I am grateful I can still find peace, solitude and joy from doing something purely to feed my soul. If I continue to be smart and patient with my healing, hopefully I can soak in the tranquility and beauty of new open spaces as summer winds down and the cool winds of fall usher in the magnificent colors of fall.

Does My Recovery Make My Ass Look Fat?

Over the past couple of weeks I have told several people how proud I am of myself for not having attempted to run at all during my rehabilitation from hip labrum/FAI surgery. I mean, this is a HUGE deal for me. I started running when I was 28 and basically just never stopped. I had one long layoff several years back when my hip issues started, but both before and after that, I was an every day kind of runner. For me to go 10+ weeks without running…without even attempting to run…is actually quite remarkable. I am not sure which makes me more proud: how hard I have worked on the physical rehab or how hard I have worked to be OK with not being a runner for a while.

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All smiles in Vail because I got good news from my medical team!

Progress

I last gave an update at around 40 days post-op. I am now at about 10.5 weeks post-op. I returned to Vail to see my surgeon, Dr. Phillippon May 31st, 2017. I also saw his Athletic Trainer, Mark, and my favorite PT, Melissa, at Howard Head in Vail. The news I got all the way around was extremely positive. They were quite pleased with my strength, as I exceeded where they expected me to be at this point in my recovery. My flexibility and range of motion still need work, but that is also ‘normal’ for this stage in the game. I cannot run yet, but there is a bunch of stuff I am now allowed to do (hiking, stair climber, elliptical) that was off-limits previously.

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Hiking ten weeks post op in Cheyenne Canon with Willy.

‘Secrets’ of Success

My recovery success so far comes down to making good decisions and working hard. (I know you were hoping I would say it is due to my vegan or paleo diet, but no, that is not the case). I did my research, chose a great surgeon with a great rehab team in Vail (thank you especially, Melissa!), and selected a wonderful PT in town (Kevin at Synergy). I have been patient, I have followed the protocol and I have worked diligently at my prescribed exercises every day. I have not ‘cheated’ on the rehab program. I am not trying to be ‘ahead’ of schedule. My goal is to be right on schedule, which is exactly where I need to be.

Learning from Past Mistakes

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, duh…what’s so amazing about that?” The thing is, my thirty year old self would not have been patient. My younger self would have rushed the recovery and likely would have caused more harm to my body. My younger self would not have been able to deal with the the difficult moments in life without being able to go for a run. My younger self would have worried about getting out of shape. My younger self would have beaten herself up over gaining weight during recovery.

My older self has learned some sense of patience and perspective. My older and wiser self has learned you either pay for lack of patience and discipline now or you will end up paying for it later. My older self is learning to focus on the daily process. I cannot control the past or what may happen two months from now, but I know what I can do right now to make myself healthier and stronger in the future.

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First walk in May!

The Body Image Trap

I knew the recovery for this surgery would be long. I knew I would not be able to run for months. I knew I had to be OK with potentially gaining some weight and not being or ‘looking like a runner’. I decided long ago I would not allow myself to have this surgery if I knew my body image issues would undermine my physical recovery.

I am physically ‘softer’ than I used to be. I am not thrilled about some of the changes Anyone who has dealt with an eating disorder or body image issues can relate to the fear of what will happen when weight gain is almost a certainty. For years, running kept the body image demons at bay. I did not weigh myself. I did not worry about what I ate. As my surgery approached, I wondered how I would mentally handle a long period of mandatory inactivity.

Does My Recovery Make My Ass look Fat?

I know it is really hard to believe, but I stopped running and probably gained a few pounds (I don’t weigh myself)…and the world has not stopped turning! The sun has continued to rise every morning. My husband and children still love me (actually, my husband thinks I’m sexier with a little more curve to my body). While self-acceptance has been a bit of a struggle, I know if I am going to heal properly, I really need to be OK with where I am right now. When I find myself worrying about weight or appearance instead of focusing on the end goal (returning to pain-free running) I think of one of my favorite quotes by J.K. Rowling:

“Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me.”

Fat is Not the Worst Thing We Can Be

As a woman, I am aware that so many people (including other women) want to reduce us down to our size, our shape, our weight, our wrinkles, the gray in our hair. Sometimes even the best and brightest among us forget we are so much more than our exterior selves. Too many of us worry that gaining weight or growing old means we have little value to society; that we are somehow no longer important when the beauty of youth fades. To not have a perfect exterior, whatever that means, is to be somehow unworthy of love.

The truth is the beauty of youth fades very quickly. Youthful beauty can offer some cover for character flaws for a time, but there better be something positive and meaningful underneath the glossy, shiny exterior. My bout with cancer gave me an early lesson on the aging process. I have a deep appreciation for just how transient youth and beauty are. In the blink of an eye, it seems, one day you wake up, look in the mirror and wonder who is looking back at you.

When your body has been through an incredible amount of stress, it can be somewhat distressing to look at yourself and wonder what the hell happened. Sometimes thinking about how much I have overcome is helpful. While I can draw some strength from knowing what I have been through, I do not want to live in the past. And while I know it is good to have goals, I also do not want to live in the future.

I am working on reminding myself of the positives I bring to the world today, no matter how small or insignificant my actions may feel to me. When the negative thoughts start to pop up, I think about the project I finished, or the the person I made laugh, or how I had a meaningful talk with my kids, or how I told my husband I loved him as he walked out the door this morning, just as I do every day.

In my heart, I know none of this shallow & superficial stuff really matters, but old thought patterns are difficult to completely eradicate. While the body image demons are hard to completely silence, I am trying so hard to keep their comments to a whisper and find some peace within myself. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to hit the stairs and the weights, because that is what is important right now, in this moment.

 

 

 

Off the Deep End

Forty Days ago I had hip surgery. This past week I hit some major milestones. I am now cleared to drive my car.

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A driving selfie just because I was so darned happy to get to drive myself for a change!

I got to go on my first short walks with my husband and the dogs.

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I am mostly weaned off of my crutches, only using them when my leg becomes very tired or sore.

I have been faithful to doing my physical therapy exercises. I go to the pool 3-4 times per week. I went from barely being able to swim for 5 minutes to now being able to swim a mile (using the buoy) with relative physical ease. I am still grateful for the ability to swim for exercise. If it weren’t for the pool, I would have no way to work my heart and lungs for the first twelve weeks post-op.

The Pool: The Depths of Sadness

Yet I still don’t love swimming. Every time I go to the pool I have to have a serious heart-to-heart talk with myself. It takes me several minutes to psych myself, first to the leave the house and then, when I get to the pool, to go in. There is something I find depressing about the pool.

At first I thought that it is because you can’t really talk to anyone while you are swimming, but then I realized it is more than that. The pool, for me, amplifies feelings of isolation. When I head to the pool, I convince myself it will be a time of solitude and reflection. But the pool seems to always be busy. Instead of relishing some time to be alone with my thoughts, I find myself surrounded by people, often in close proximity, but without being able to connect with anyone. There are cursory words, ‘hi, mind if we share this lane?’ But that is about as far as the conversation goes. There is a profound sense of isolation that comes from being surrounded by people without any real sense of connection.

Isolation Vs. Being Alone

It isn’t that I don’t like being alone. But the experience through running is different. I have spent countless miles and hours alone on the trails. I come away with a clearer head. On the trails, I can focus on the world around me, taking in the beauty of nature, while allowing my internal world to work through life’s problems. I come home feeling freer, lighter, calmer. The time on the trails gives me a perspective that is hard to reach in other situations.

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Being alone with one’s thoughts without traffic, noise, technology and other distractions is a rare gift these days. Several recent studies have shown how important time in nature is to our mental health and well-being. After spending nearly 6 weeks without a single excursion to the trails I love, I realize how important that time is for my own sense of mental and emotional peace. Being alone on the trails gives a sense of connection to the universe. Being in the pool surrounded by people I don’t know leaves me feeling empty.

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The Intimacy of the Trails

There is something else that sets swimming in the pool apart from running the trails. There is a sense of intimacy that comes from relationships built on the trails. I joke that running is a sort of ‘truth serum’ that causes you to share things with people that you might not every share otherwise. Run with a partner and you will soon know everything about that person. When I think of my closest friends, the image that comes to mind is often a particular conversation or snapshot in time on a trail. Topics we might never bring up in other circumstances become subjects of intense debate, scrutiny and mutual understanding on the run.

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The Things I Learn About Running from Not Running

I don’t crave large numbers of friends built on superficial relationships. I live for the few people with whom I enjoy deeper conversations and connection. I desire the closeness that comes with truly knowing others. I want the relationship where we love one another not despite our flaws and inner secrets, but because we trust one another enough to share them.

 

Those are the moments I miss right now. It isn’t training or racing or putting in big miles or tempo runs or hill repeats that I want at this point. I long for those moments of being purely alone in the mountains. I miss the quiet moments with one close friend. I yearn for feelings that cannot be quantified or measured, those moments and conversations that leave me both energized and grounded in a way nothing else does.

So for now, the pool leaves me feeling cold, both emotionally and physically. I will keep going because I know eventually it will pay off and allow me to return to what my heart and soul crave most. For the time being, I will try to envision the mountain vistas with each stroke and breath as I try to stay afloat, forever moving forward.

Tonia Jacks