Bear Chase 50 Mile Race Report

Yesterday I ran the Bear Chase trail race 50 mile race. I have run this ultra twice before. In 2012, I ran the 50 mile in 8:39, finishing as third female overall. Last year, I ran the new 100k and was first female. This year, as I went through my cancer treatments, I kept it as a goal of mine to be back this year for one of the distances. I was not sure what I would be able to run, but I hoped to run one of the ultras (there are 10k, half marathon, 50k, 50 mile and 100k distances offered at this race). A couple of months ago I decided to go for it and sign up for the 50 mile. My husband, Stephen, and my friend, Vanessa also signed up for the 50k.

I will skip over the my less than stellar prep, other than to say I did the best I could given the circumstances. I have written about it previously, and those interested can scan over my previous blog posts. In the week leading up to the race, I thought about how I felt like I was brand new to ultras. I felt like I still had the same brain, but after my pancreatic cancer surgery and my 18 rounds of chemo, my body was different and there was a big question mark in my brain as to how my body would respond when I really demanded something difficult.

Steve and I picked up Vanessa at 4:20 am and headed up to Morrison, CO. The forecast was a little scary. After some unseasonably cold weather, we were in a heatwave, with temperatures predicted to be in the mid 80s and sunny. It was 66 degrees at 5:15 when we arrived in Morrison. We put our drop bags down in the staging area, took care of last minute business and those of us running the 50 mile and 100k lined up for the 6:30 am start.

Last minute “good byes and good lucks” with Vanessa…

And with my husband, Stephen.

A group of us in front of the porta potties, because that’s just what runners do.

From left: Ali, me, Jeff, Christoph and Dan.

At 6:30 am, we were off. The fifty mile race consists of four 12.5 mile loops. When I ran the race two years ago, I finished my first loops in just over two hours each. I knew it was going to be hot, so I wanted to get the first loop done as quickly as I could. I normally go out fairly slowly, but I wanted to bank some time for the inevitable slow down. I saw Heather just as we were starting off, so we chatted and ran the first couple of miles together before eventually splitting up to run our own races.

I felt pretty good on that first loop, running pretty much every step. I got back to the start area in 2:02. I thought, either I am going to hang on and have an amazing finish or I am going to blow up.  I had to spend several minutes at the start area, refilling my supplies before heading back out. On the second loop, runners started spreading out a bit, however, this is when the 50k racers, who started at 7:30 on a different loop, begin to join the people who are running the longer races. Many of these runners are running faster and look a little fresher. This is where my competitive spirit kicks in and I want to chase people down, but I had to remind myself not to be an idiot and just to run my own race.

I felt ok on the second loop. I was running a little more slowly, but more in line with a pace that made sense to my body. I was not pushing myself as hard but had settled into a rhythm. The sun was now up, and even though there was a breeze, I was starting to get a sense of how hot it was going to end up being. I finished my second loop in about 4:15. Slowing a bit, but still thinking I might be able to run a sub 9 hour if things went well.

I went out on my third loop. This was where I would be getting into unknown territory. My longest run had been a flat 24 miler about two months before the race. While the Bear Chase course is not mountainous, it does roll, notably going up Mount Carbon four times, followed by a long downhill. I lacked hill training and I knew it. It was also getting very hot as we headed into the late morning. I now walked up all of Carbon to save myself for the rolling, exposed nature of the last half of the course. I was running strong on the downhill after Carbon somewhere around mile 30. A gentleman stepped off the trail to let me pass. Something seized up in my hamstring. I thought it popped, but couldn’t be sure. I could not run at this point. In fact, I was walking with a significant limp. I thought my race was over and didn’t even think I would be able to finish the third loop. I walked, limped, massaged my leg, and tried to dunk it in the creek, but could not bend. I walked up to the next aid station, only to find Stephen there waiting for me. We each grabbed a drink of Coke and moved on walking together. I told him I really did not want to drop, but I did not know if I would physically be able to finish or not. It was at this point that Stephen threw up the Coke he had just drank. My poor husband has been plagued by stomach issues in ultras. We talked about our races and what had gone wrong so far. We alternated between small bits of jogging and longer stretches of walking.

Finally, I was able to run slowly for a consistent stretch and thought perhaps I could get the last loop in and salvage a finish after all. Stephen and I ended up splitting up again, as he told me to go ahead. I got through the start/finish area again somewhere around 7 hrs. My slowest loop by far, but considering how much I had walked, it was not too much of a disaster. I was greeted by Vanessa’s husband Andy in the start/finish area. Andy graciously helped refill my water bottle and helped me get my head straight while I tried to face the last loop on my own. Stephen came in while I was still at the staging area, finishing his 50k in 5:58:14. He told me that he had thrown up two more times after we parted ways. I am so proud of my husband for finishing so strong despite the stomach issues that continue to plague him!

I finally got off on my way to the last 12.5 miles. Maybe a third of a mile into my loop, I happened to cross paths with Dimitar, who was running his first 50 mile race. We decided to run together and ended up sharing 6ish miles together until the top of Mount Carbon. I had run on my own for much of the race, and had not been looking to a very long and slow final loop on my own. Finding someone who I could share miles and conversation with made it so much more pleasant to keep going in the face of pain. While we parted ways for the final miles of the race, we ended up leapfrogging and finished within a minute of each other.

Here is a photo of us from the finish.

The final six miles were hard. Every step hurt. I kept pounding salt down my throat, trying to stave off the cramps that now plagued both legs, my arms, my neck, and my back. While you can hide your weaknesses in shorter races, ultras will always expose them. I know the last year has taken a toll on my muscle tone and strength and this is something I really need to work on if I want racing to be remotely pleasant. I wanted to walk desperately, but I really wanted to finish quickly and just be done with it. So, I kept pushing as hard as I could. I briefly thought I could break 9:30, but then I realized it was not going to happen. I knew I could break 10 hours, and did so in 9:34:15.

I have never been so grateful, thankful and relieved to finish a race. When I finished the Vermont 100 last July, I was ecstatic. Everything hurt, but it was a different kind of pain. I was well trained and had a great race. This time, it was painful and difficult most of the way through. About two miles prior to the finish, I finally let myself think I was going to complete the race, and tears welled up in my eyes. I would not let myself cry until the finish line. As soon as I crossed the finish, and saw Race Director Ben Reeves coming towards me with my medal, I started to cry.

I finished as fifth female, and second in my Age Group. Here I am with RD, Ben, who gave me my award.

So many emotions welled up at once. I thought about everything I had been through this past year since last year’s 100k, and how much it all meant to me. I thought about everyone who had supported me. I thought about the list of cancer survivors I brought along so I could remember them and run in their honor. I thought about how I almost dropped, but did not and fought through to the end. I thought, I may not be 100%, but I have not allowed cancer to beat me nor to define me.

While everything did not go anywhere near perfectly this time around, I had an amazing experience. As I have discussed with other runners, it is not the races that go perfectly that show how tough we are. It is the races that go south, whether we ultimately finish or not, that really show our inner strength. How we handle circumstances when things do not go as planned really reveals so much about ourselves, and also teaches us so much about ourselves. I am still processing things, but one thing I learned while out there yesterday is that while I love competing, I really had a lot of fun when I spent time running with Heather, my husband and with Dimitar. Sometimes pushing the pace all on my own is really fun for me. Yesterday, I had the most fun when I spent time chatting and working with other runners. There is a place for both intense competition and for fun and joyful companionship in running. Neither are wrong and both can be fun, depending upon the goal for the race.

A lot went wrong yesterday. I think I got behind on nutrition, fluid and electrolytes early in the race. I pushed the pace too hard too early. I was not trained to run fast and I could not maintain the pace. The heat was monstrous and small mistakes are magnified when the weather does not cooperate. I should have taken it conservatively from the start. Really, what it boils down to is that I am out of practice and not in the shape I was in before. These are mistakes that can be fixed, but I had to go into damage control late in a long race. That is not fun and is quite demoralizing. I kept pushing the electrolytes and was able to turn things around enough to continue and even run, albeit slowly.

I am so appreciative of everyone who has sent words of support and encouragement as I have endeavored to return to running ultramarathons.  Knowing I had people following me and cheering me on kept me going. I want to send a special thanks to my running partners who have shared many miles with me. Thank you to all of my friends, both long term and new friends. I love you all and am so fortunate to have so many amazingly supportive people in my life. Thank you to my family. My parents, kids and husband all think I am insane but they have supported me unconditionally. They may not always understand why I want to run crazy distances, but they know it is something that makes me feel happy, whole and alive. I am forever indebted to my husband. I am amazed that we ran into each other at a mutually crappy moment yesterday, but we both encouraged and pushed each other. What a wonderful and supportive partnership we enjoy.

Today there is not an inch of my body that does not hurt. I will be spending the day sitting on an ice pack. My hamstring is tight and painful, but hopefully it is just a minor injury that will heal with rest, recovery and some rehab exercises. As for what is next, I will be focusing on making myself stronger physically for the next few months. I still have a long way to go.

Finally, the finish with Vanessa, who did awesome in her first 50k.

With Stephen. Words cannot adequately explain how much he means to me.


Race Day Morning

I am up though not quite ready to go. Today is race day. We will be out the door soon. I am a little nervous. I feel like when I had surgery months ago, I went to sleep as Tonia, in brain and body, but woke up with someone else’s body that I have been trying to live in ever since. I will be running 50 miles today with that different body. Whereas I usually had a good sense of how my body would react to certain stresses, I am not sure how this new body will handle today’s race. I am not sure how my body will respond to all of the stressors it will face today. My digestive tract is not the same as it once was and running ultras can be a real challenge with digestion is not functioning properly.  It is going to be very hot and I do not handle heat as well as I used to. Nevertheless, I am going to get out on the trail and give it my best shot. I hope my best is good enough for finishing 50 miles while having fun along the way. Will post an update on the other side.

Unicorns and 50 Milers

“Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt”- William Shakespeare

Our doubts are traitors. Traitors. Our self doubt sabotages our ability to take chances in life. We all have self doubt. We all have moments of wondering if we are up for a task. Can I pass that class? Can I succeed in that job? Can I climb that mountain? Can I finish that race? More often than not, the answer is yes. I truly believe that we are often our own worst enemies. We allow our doubts about ourselves and what is possible to fill our heads so that we do not even attempt things that we want to try. Soon, we find there is no time left and we wonder why we had not attempted those things we wanted to do. It sounds cliche but failure really is not the worst thing. Not trying is so much worse than never attempting something in the first place. We end up with a life of unfulfilled goals mainly because we merely doubted ourselves so much we were too afraid to even try.

Anyone who runs long distances knows the phrases “taper nutty” or “taper psychosis”. I began tapering last weekend and started loosing my mind just a little bit. As I cut back on running, my idle mind has too much energy and it goes to unhelpful places. Running is absolutely essential to my mental and physical well being. It keeps me feeling calm and healthy and well. I know tapering is a key component to a good race, but that cut back in mileage leaves me feeling antsy and amped up. That is actually part of the point. On race day, you want to be antsy, amped up and ready to go so you run faster. However, knowing I am not particularly well trained, and knowing I am not fit, and knowing I have an injured hamstring is not helping my frame of mind. I was lying awake in the middle of the night two nights ago, my muscle literally waking me up with its throbbing, thinking, “Maybe I should be a DNS (did not start)?”

The race is in six days. A theme over and over in my pre race build up has been my own mind doubting my ability to do this, or my own wondering why I have signed up to do this at all. Privately I have told my friends that I do not know if I will run any more ultramarathons after this 50 mile race. I know it is common to have those thoughts while at the peak of training. But I really have never pondered quitting ultramarathons before. I have said, “maybe not another 100, but I love 50 milers!” I truly do love the fifty mile distance! But I am so tired now that 50 seems really daunting. My enthusiasm has waned. Whereas I used to love nothing more than spending all day out on the trails with people I love, now long runs leave me completely drained rather than energized.

This week, I was finally fully able to fully recognize why it had been so important to me to sign up for this race. It all boils down to wanting running an ultra to be a choice. wanted to choose running ultras, versus my CANCER making that choice for me. am the decision maker, not my illness.

I remember how truly scared I was going into surgery that I would never be able to run long again. Going into chemotherapy, I did not know what the long term effects would be on my body. I realize that it was important for me to run an ultra NOW as opposed to waiting until next year because no matter how ugly it is, I had to get that first post cancer ultra under my belt. I will not put stuff off that I want to do because I do not know what the future holds. If I never run another ultra again, I am hopeful that it will be because I made the decision that I no longer wanted to run ultras and not because CANCER made that decision for me. In six days, I will be running 50 miles because I still have that choice.

I am one of the lucky ones because not everyone in my position has a choice. I do. So I choose to run 50 miles for now simply because I can. With a disease that often offers grim statistics, I want to be the person that gives someone a reason to be hopeful. I am such a very rare patient. My doctor said he would likely never see another patient like me. I jokingly call myself a unicorn because I am almost a mythical creature in terms of PC. Because I am lucky enough to be a unicorn, and I have a good shot at survival, I feel that I have an obligation to continue to get the word out about pancreatic cancer. I will continue for as long as I am healthy, well and able to do what I can to bring hope for others who have been given this diagnosis, and to raise awareness for this very deadly form of cancer. I have been given a mission and a purpose.

Photos from my week. Running with fellow Cancer warrior Tori!

Running with one of my favorite people on the planet, Tracey. My poor long suffering husband was there, too. He took the picture.

Running with Peyton, who runs sixth grade cross country.

And a photo from her meet. I am such a proud mom because she raised the bar for herself, worked her butt off, reached her goal, and got positive feedback from her coach. Hard work always pays off.

Six more days until my race. Now I have to banish my doubts because they are indeed traitors. I will be the less than graceful unicorn running on behalf of every other person with pancreatic cancer. I am betting on not only finishing but also on winning the “half a pancreas, spleenless, running with a chemo port” division. I am pretty sure that’s a thing! I am working on my list of cancer patients/survivors that I will bring with me to the race for inspiration. If there is someone you would like me to include, please contact me!

Dedicated to “R”

This year, on the day of the Boston Marathon, I went in for chemotherapy. On that day, I was wearing my own Boston marathon shirt in solidarity with the people who were running the race the year after the bombing at the finish line. My shirt happened to spark a conversation with another gentleman who was in for chemotherapy also. I had really not talked with any other patients up to this point, but as fate would have it, I met R on this day. Our conversation turned from the marathon to our cancers. I asked what kind of cancer he had and he said, “pancreatic”. I couldn’t believe it. I had never met anyone with pancreatic cancer to this point before. I told him, “me, too!” This was the beginning of a brief friendship, but a friendship based upon the understanding that we were united by the same diagnosis. Our lives were very different. We were very different people, and yet just by virtue of having been diagnosed with the same form of cancer, we understood certain things about each other. Because there is no support group locally for pancreatic cancer, we became our own support group of two.

We talked that day and exchanged emails and phone numbers. I knew from the start that R was very sick. His cancer had spread already. He was not eligible for potentially curative surgery. I represented best possible case scenario for a patient with pancreatic adenocarcinoma. I also knew that his illness would eventually kill him. We did not say that directly to each other, but we both knew what our diagnoses meant.

We exchanged email messages, and spoke on the phone several times. We sat together a couple of times at treatment so we could talk. His chemotherapy combination was much more toxic than mine. He had very significant issues with side effects. He was in a wheelchair. I continued to run and live my life. I wanted to talk to him and listen to him and to connect with him. He was the only other PC patient I had had the privilege of meeting up to that point. While there was so much that was different about our cases, I felt comfort in talking with R, and in knowing that we both had an understanding of what it feels like to be told you have pancreatic cancer.

I know very little about R’s life prior to his diagnosis. I do know that we had many conversations about how getting diagnosed made us love and appreciate everything about our lives so much more. Every moment seemed sweeter. Every day we got to live was a good day. Every experience meant something to us. Time and again, while going through chemotherapy, I have been reminded how people who have been diagnosed with a potentially fatal illness seem grateful for whatever time they have. R, despite the devastating diagnosis and side effects he was experiencing, never once said he was angry or that his circumstances were not fair. He and I only talked about how much we loved our lives.

We spoke not too long ago and I knew it was only a matter or time. I learned yesterday that R passed away. It felt like a punch to the gut, even though I knew it would happen. While his tumors had initially responded to chemotherapy, the regimen had been so tough on his body, he was unable to continue treatments. He took a couple of breaks while I knew him, and I knew this last time he would not be restarting treatment. I had hoped and prayed for a miracle, but I knew he was suffering. I am so sorry there was no miracle to be had for R.

I am so glad I got to meet R and have our brief but meaningful friendship. There have been many days where I felt miserable, but I went out for a walk or a run and thought of him, prayed for him and dedicated my run to him because I knew his journey was much harder than my own. His love of life, and our conversations have stayed with me as a reminder to always love my own.

I am experiencing survivor’s guilt. Why was my cancer found early? Why am I one of the very few “lucky” ones? Why do I get a chance at living a long life when most people with pancreatic cancer do not? I am no more worthy than anyone else who got my diagnosis. With a five year survival rate of 6% for all stages, there are few of us left standing. Why me and not the others? There is no reason, of course, other than luck. I only hope that I can use whatever time I have left to make a difference in some small way. There has to be a reason going forward why I am still here and so many others are not. I will never forget R. He and the countless other PC patients who have not been so fortunate as I have will be a constant reminder to me that I am here for a reason and my time must serve a purpose.

I am scheduled to run 50 miles in two weeks. Every mile of that race will be dedicated to another cancer patient. I am making my list of dedications this weekend. Their struggles are my struggles and I will draw my strength from our shared journey in life.

Why Am I Doing This?

I had some good news this week. First, my chemo port is officially scheduled to come out October 7th. I am looking forward to getting this foreign object removed from my chest. I am grateful that I had it, because it saved my veins, but it really is time for it to go. I also discovered that my hair is starting to fill back in where it had thinned out during treatment. My receding hairline will hopefully blend in with the rest of my hair in a few months.

Life is pretty full and I am enjoying getting back to my regularly scheduled activities. Last weekend, I spent a good portion of my time volunteering with my family for the American Discovery Trail marathon. This was our second year volunteering for this race.  Chatting with other athletes about our mutual passion for the sport brings me joy. The energy and enthusiasm found at races is infectious and I love interacting with runners, whether they are out to win, they are first time participants or they fall somewhere in between.

I worked packet pick up all day Sunday with my daughters, and some other fabulous volunteers, which made it extra fun.

Then the next day, my family and friend Tracey ran aid station #4 at Baptist Rd. 

I had to be out every night this week. I had a board meeting on Tuesday, followed by meetings at both girls’ schools Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I put in a few hours volunteering at school. I also supported the youngest runner in our family at her first cross country meet.

These are all things that I both needed and wanted to do. But as my energy level fell off a cliff this week, and I thought about this race that I had signed up for, I wondered why I had not signed up for a race of a shorter distance. My doubts took the form of a question, “What the hell was I thinking signing up for a 50 mile race that takes place three months after the end of my cancer treatments?” My training has not at all gone according to plan. I am getting miles in, but I haven’t been able to follow any sort of program. My long runs are not as long nor as hilly as I would like. I hurt my hamstring in NY and the injury continues to inhibit my ability to attempt any sort of speed workouts. My long runs have left my feet and legs throbbing and I have felt completely drained after finishing them. As the doubts crept in this week, I wondered can I really do this? Why do I want to do this?

Then I thought back over everything I have been through, from the surgery and recovey to the chemotherapy. I remember wondering when I went in for surgery if I would ever be able to run long again. Through chemotherapy, it was always my goal to come back and train for an ultra. I thought about it every single week during treatment. I wanted to come back to as close to my former self as possible, and that is exactly why I signed up for an ultra. I have nothing to prove to anyone but I have a lot I still want to prove to myself. Maybe I bit off more than I could chew at this point in time. But for now, I am glad I signed up for another ultra. I am glad I tackled something that was a goal through my cancer treatments, because I know I would have been disappointed in myself if I had not at least made the attempt. So while nothing has gone optimally, and I have still been so very tired, and I am nowhere near as fit as I once was, I have not let my doubts or fears dictate whether I at least attempt to reach my goals.  Maybe I will be successful. Maybe this time around I will fail. Either way, I learn something new about myself through the process of training and daring to toe the line despite my fears.