Maybe I am crazy, but 2014 was a great year!

It is New Year’s Eve day 2014. This year has been amazing. People probably think I am crazy when they hear me say I had a great year. I am serious, though. Yes, I had Cancer. Yes, I went through chemotherapy. Yes, it was a really hard year. But out of the hardest times often come the greatest gifts.I am fortunate that even though I have not forgotten the hard times, I am able to focus on the good times we had in 2014. Thankfully, there were lots of good times. When I think about the medical challenges and the stress it placed on everyone in my family, I know it was really difficult. But then I think about the ways in which those challenges made us all better people.

I remember when I first got diagnosed with cancer, how I would tell people, “I know I should feel “lucky” because I was diagnosed early enough for surgery, but I don’t feel “lucky” yet. Does anyone with cancer feel “lucky”? Maybe in a year or two, I will feel lucky.” Now that a little time has passed, I do feel incredibly lucky.

I feel lucky because I continue to show no evidence of disease. I feel lucky because this year has brought me the gift of seeing life in a different, more meaningful way. I feel fortunate that my family made it through this journey. We are all stronger and closer than ever before. I feel so blessed to have been surrounded by old friends and new ones this year. I know I have said it before, but my experience has brought an extraordinary group of new people into my life.

Going through something like this strips you down to the bare essence of who you really are as a human being. I am glad that people have been so loving and accepting of me during a time when I have gone through my greatest challenge to date. What matters most to me in my life is the relationships I have had. I am thankful for all of the people who have been a part of my life this year. Thank you to my family, friends and readers who have made 2014 a year that I will remember mostly for the good that came out of the challenge. I am looking forward to sharing 2015 with all of the wonderful people in my life!

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Confessions of Christmas 2014

I have enjoyed Christmas week. I am grateful that I got to celebrate the holiday with my immediate family, though this week has not been without pain. I barely remember anything from Christmas last year. It is amazing how trauma can rob you of your memories. My husband does not remember much from last Christmas, either, and he was not the one who had surgery. That time was a blur for all of us, so celebrating Christmas this year was all the more important to me.

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I was married before. While I consider the end of my first marriage to be one of my biggest personal failures, I am glad that Riley’s dad and I continue to have a very amicable relationship. Riley spends every other Christmas with her father, and on the years that she is technically with me, I still encourage her to spend a good chunk of the vacation with her dad. I think dads are hugely underrated in our society. I think their presence and guidance is critical to the emotional growth and development of healthy boys and girls. It is very important that Riley spend time with her father and his family, and I do not ever want to stand in the way of those relationships.

Last year, it just worked out that Riley was with us on Christmas Day. I was thrilled, of course, because I really was unsure as to how many Christmases I might have left. But since I really do not remember much from last Christmas, it was harder to let her go this year. I cried after her dad picked her up. It really is OK. She is having fun and enjoying time with her relatives. I just cannot help look at Riley and wonder how many holidays she will be spending at my home, with our family. She has one-and-a-half years of high school left and then she will be off to college. How long will it be before she forms her own family and then they start their own holiday traditions?

Between my cancer experience and watching my daughter grow so close to adulthood, I want to slow down time to make every experience last longer. It seems that I keep wondering…how much longer? How much longer do I have on the planet? How much longer do my husband and I have together? How much longer will my kids be coming home for the holidays? How much longer will I have Riley around to enjoy our deep and meaningful daily conversations? She has grown into so much more than “just” my daughter. How much longer will Peyton still be my little girl who loves dolls and Lego’s? How much longer will Peyton still want to hold my hand and have me tuck her in at night? I know none of these things are permanent. I have to savor these moments when they occur.

So, we spent the week making memories that I hope can sustain me when the time has passed.

On Sunday I ran 16 miles in Cheyenne Canyon with my husband. This is my favorite place to run in Colorado Springs. The temperature in the city got up to about 50 degrees. It grew colder as we climbed past the 9000′ elevation mark, but was still pleasant. The few inches of snow on the trail made the climbing slow but the run down playful and fun. This is my favorite kind of adventure.

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On Monday, I did a six-mile loop with Riley on the Section 16 trail in Colorado Springs. I wanted to do something special with just the two of us. More snow had fallen over night, which made the trail absolutely beautiful. I am so incredibly happy that my 17-year-old daughter really enjoys being out in the woods. To get to share the trails I love with Riley is such an amazing gift. We hiked up the steep side of the trail and then ran down the long downhill, while marveling at the beauty of the fresh snow on the trails and in the trees. This will be one of my favorite memories from our Christmas break.

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The girls and I made approximately 10,000 gingerbread cookies on Monday. We celebrated Christmas with Riley on Tuesday. Riley had asked me a while back what I wanted for Christmas and I jokingly said, “A new pancreas.” So, she embroidered one for me. Yes, she is an amazing young woman.

My New Pancreas

My New Pancreas

On Wednesday, after my teary good-bye to Riley, Peyton and I did our last-minute preparations. We played a bunch of board games and then we took Greta to Petco to get her a Christmas present. Greta had a blast and Peyton and I enjoyed seeing her so happy.

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On Christmas Day, Stephen, Peyton and I opened up our gifts. We ate our Christmas meal and spent hours playing games together. It was a simple and yet wonderful day.

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On Friday, I took Peyton to “City Rock” so she could try out rock climbing. It was right up her alley.

Peyton rock climbing.

Peyton rock climbing.

Yesterday, Steve and I ran 18 miles. It was still cold, but the sun was shining and I felt good until the final mile. Maybe I am making progress!

Smiling because our run is complete!

Smiling because our run is complete!

While I have been a little sad that Riley is not with us this year, I am thankful that we have been able to create some memories with the time that we have had. I have gotten to spend individual time with each member of the family this week. While I had hoped for a little more quantity, I got what I hope is plenty of quality. Last year’s celebration felt hampered by fear and uncertainty. This year feels happier and more promising for all of us. Last year, I wondered if I would be here for this Christmas. Now, I am wondering about what future Christmases will hold for our family. While some things make me a little sad, getting to see my daughters grow up and move forward with their lives is a gift and a blessing. I remember my good fortune every single day.

Good News, Bad News

This is the longest I have gone without writing a blog post. Part of the reason why I have not written here this week is because I have been writing for a Pancreatic Cancer charity called Project Purple. Project Purple raises funds for medical research as well as to assist people who have been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Project Purple’s motto is “Running to Beat Pancreatic Cancer”. So far, I have been mostly writing features about the people who run to raise money for Project Purple. I am also working on entries featuring pancreatic cancer survivors. Each story is inspirational and I feel so honored to get to interview these amazing individuals and share their stories. I am grateful for the opportunity to help make a difference in some small way for the future of this disease. Please check out the Project Purple website, and read the stories on my blog page.

http://www.run4projectpurple.org/tonias-blog/

My writing is part of the good news. The other good news is that I had a CT scan on Monday and there are no masses or lesions in my abdomen, chest or pelvis. This is obviously great news and a nice early Christmas gift for my entire family. Each CT scan that shows no evidence of disease is a relief. I feel good about my odds for staying cancer-free about 95% of the time. I still get the occasional doubts and fears that creep into my thoughts, but they are fewer and farther between these days.

The “bad” news that I got this week is that what I thought was a minor hamstring injury is actually not my hamstring at all, but something altogether more problematic. The week following my horribly painful Rock Canyon Half-marathon, I decided to take some action. My leg has been hurting since I ran the Bear Chase 50 mile race at the end of September. I tried to rehab it a bit myself, but the pain would migrate. My hamstring hurt, then my butt hurt, then my psoas hurt. I could never quite pin down what was truly the problem. So I went to see a physical therapist this week. He asked me how my back pain was, and I replied, “My back doesn’t hurt.” He repeated his question, and then I remembered that I have a herniated L5-S1 from many, many years ago. Though the initial injury was very painful, I eventually turned it around enough that I completely forget it ever existed. My pain all makes sense now. I was experiencing numbness in my butt down into my foot but I guess I did not want to acknowledge it might be anything more complicated than a muscle issue.

Truthfully, my running has been generally pretty painful and not a whole lot of fun lately. Between the pain in my lower body and the ongoing issues related to my breathing, I sometimes wonder when running will be fun again. I have no answers for the breathing issues yet, which is frustrating, but at least I have a reason for my lower body pain. I figure that understanding the problem is half the battle. I hope that if I am diligent about following the physical therapist’s recommendations, I can at least be out of pain again in the near future. I really hope I can turn things around soon, as I have several races I plan to run in the coming months. I am trying really hard to keep my spirits up. I do not have cancer, and I am grateful for that. I just want to feel good again. I wonder if I will ever feel as healthy and strong as I used to feel. After my surgery and 18 rounds of chemotherapy, I was really looking forward to getting back to my old self. It seems to be taking longer than I thought it would. It has been six months now since I completed chemo. I had hoped by this point, that most of the residual side effects would be a distant memory. Unfortunately, it just seems like the fatigue and breathing issues are continuing to hang on.

In the mean time, even though I sometimes wonder why I continue running when it feels so darned difficult every single day, I refuse to give up. I have to believe that all of this struggle will be worth it in the end. At some point, things will improve and I will be so glad that I never gave up and did not lose faith. Finally, I got to run here this week, and it was beautiful.

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Rock Canyon Half Marathon race report

I ran the Rock Canyon Half Marathon today. My husband, Stephen, loves this race and has run it several times. I, on the other hand, have not run Rock Canyon since 1999. I had nothing against the race. Rather, it was more a matter of us having to divide and conquer when the kids were younger. We both love to run but we each picked a couple of races each year and called it good.

I have only a handful of half-marathons under my belt. I honestly had no idea what kind of pace I would be running today. I knew that it would not be easy for me to run this race at a fast (for me) pace. I have been nursing some nagging injuries since I finished the Bear Chase 50 mile race back in September. Of course, there was also that little cancer thing that I dealt with this past year. Between my leg and my lungs, I cannot remember the last time I really was able to run “fast”.

In any event, Steve really wanted to run this half and wanted me to come along, too. I reluctantly allowed him to sign me up. I felt fairly ambivalent about running the half leading up to the race. Then, on Thursday, I woke up feeling sick with a sore throat, cough and overall fatigue. On Friday, my body was aching all over. I wondered if I should bother to go to the race at all, but I knew I would end up running somewhere, whether I went to the race or not. I figured I ought to at least give the half-marathon a shot.

We arrived at the race start by 8 am and proceeded to race number pick-up. One thing I like about this race is that it always draws a ton of people from the Springs. We milled around, chatting with other runners who we knew or recognized. I was pleasantly surprised to run into two of my former chemotherapy nurses. We caught up with them and snapped a couple of photos.

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I did not think that it was a good sign that I was still not feeling well and that I was actually yawning while waiting for the race to start. Nevertheless, I said good-bye to Steve, and I lined up somewhere in the middle of the pack. As the gun went off, we walked and jogged across the start line. I quickly realized that I had lined up too far in the back. I had to struggle, bobbing and weaving around large groups of people. The first couple of miles are run on city streets and I was running somewhere around an 8:15 pace. It felt comfortable. But by mile two, my hamstring started to hurt badly. I knew this was not good, but there was nothing I could do about it. I just wanted to finish without doing too much damage.

So, I pushed on as best as I could, watching my per mile pace drop to 8:20, then 8:40s and eventually to just over a 9:00 pace. Worse than that was just how much literally every single step hurt. I lost focus. I forgot to drink and forgot about the gel I was going to eat mid-way through. Pain clouded all of my decision-making processes. I was getting passed by way too many people, but I was limping and there was no way I could give chase. With about two miles to go, I seriously wanted to cry. At this point, I just wanted not to have to walk.

As I approached mile 12, I happened to see a guy who I run into occasionally around town. He had finished and was out doing a cool down. He made a comment to the effect of, “Come on! You can do it!” I was at a really low moment. I was in a lot of pain. I was feeling miserable and on the verge of tears. All I could think to myself was, “Do you know what I have been through this past year?! Of COURSE I can do it!”

I had no idea what my finish time would be going into this race, but I definitely wanted to break 2 hours. I was starting to wonder if that was possible, but my ability to do math was now completely out the window. I crossed the finish line in 1:54. I was 5th in my age group of 33 women. I am not upset with my time or placing. I just wish I felt good while I was out there.

As I crossed the finish line, I saw Steve and Meghan waiting for me. Steve could tell I was hurting and it really was all I could do not to cry. I said a few bad words, and then announced the pity party was over. I was glad I went. I was glad I gave it my all. I was also really happy that I was able to celebrate my husband’s accomplishment with him. Steve finished in 1:34. I am so happy for him and super proud of him.

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I also got to chat with my chemotherapy nurses at the finish line again. They both did awesome and it is fun to see them outside of the Cancer center!

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After the race was over, I invested in a couple of headbands from Bolder Bands.

http://www.bbolder.com/

I am lucky that I never lost all of my hair when I went through chemo. I did, however, lose a lot of my hair. It is growing back in now and I am very happy about that fact. However, I am a little self-conscious about how crazy my hair looks when I put it in a pony tail. I have a full on shrub growing out of the top of my head and no amount of hair spray can keep it tame. It is the little things in life that make us feel good, and I am excited to have a way to try to make my hair look a little less bizarre while it grows back.

This will be our last race of 2014. The Rock Canyon half is a nice event. It is about as flat and as fast as a half-marathon can be in Colorado. Though I really struggled, I am happy that I ran today. I enjoyed the ride down and back with my husband. I loved seeing lots of familiar, friendly faces out on the course. I am glad that I was able to tough it out when I felt really miserable. I am really proud of my husband and am happy that I got to celebrate with him, even if I came in 20 minutes after he did! I have to get a handle on these lingering injuries. My immediate goal right now is to just feel good and healthy again.

What was I thinking?

I woke up panic-stricken at 2 am Tuesday morning. I had an overwhelming sense of fear. What on earth had I been thinking the day before? I had been toying around with the idea of signing up for another 100 mile race, which would be my first post-Cancer 100. I had gone back and forth in my mind on which race I really wanted to do, or if I even wanted to do one at all. For the last two months, I had been unable to make a decision on the matter. Monday morning, after yet another run/discussion with my supportive and encouraging husband, I went home and registered for the Bryce Canyon 100.

http://www.grandcircletrails.com/bryce-canyon-general-info/

When I talked about the challenge of the race and the beauty of the area, I became very excited about tackling Bryce. It just felt right. So why did I wake up in a panic less than 24 hours after registering? Why did I choose to take this on in the first place? What the hell was I thinking?

I had wanted to run a 100 mile race since I moved to Colorado in 1999. I had heard of the Leadville 100 and I was intrigued. When Steve and I first met, we had set a goal of running that race together some day. When I got pregnant with Peyton, that goal evaporated as day-to-day life and family obligations took over. We continued running and ran shorter races, but Leadville was no longer important to either of us.

In 2009, I ran my second 50k (Greenland trail race), and then ran the American Discovery Trail marathon in Colorado Springs. I had two great races but ended up injured. For the next nine months, I hit the pool nearly every single day while I could not run. I hate swimming, so this was physically and emotionally challenging. Every single day when I went to the pool, I had a pity party. The thought of getting into the cold water made me feel like crying, but I did it anyway. When I finally got back to running, I was afraid to race. I was afraid I would hurt myself again. Steve forced me to sign up for the local XTERRA half marathon at Cheyenne Mountain state park as a “date run”. I balked, but agreed to run it because it was important to my husband. The weather was horrible, with a snow/rain mix pelting us sideways. However, when I got out there, I rediscovered how much I loved being at the races. It was exhilarating, even though we were just running and not “racing”. Shortly afterwards, we signed up for our first 50 mile race. I figured, if not now, then it might never happen.

And so began my real love affair with ultras. I ran a couple of 50s and decided I was going to attempt a 100 mile race. I chose Vermont because it is one of the oldest 100s in the country, and has a reputation for being an extremely well-organized race. Also, Steve and I both have family in the area, so we were able to leave the kids with family and make a vacation out of the experience. I trained very hard for the race, and finished in 22:33, as tenth female. More importantly, I had an amazing experience from start to finish in that race. I smiled and had fun the whole way.

Smiling at the beginning of the Vermont 100!

Smiling at the beginning of the Vermont 100!

Still smiling 22 hours and 33 minutes later at the finish!

Still smiling 22 hours and 33 minutes later at the finish!

After I got my Cancer diagnosis, I thought, “Thank goodness I did not put off running a 100 mile race any longer, because I don’t know if I will ever get the chance again!” I was so glad I had fulfilled a long-term goal. All of my memories from that day are good ones. It was at that point, the hardest physical endeavor I had endured, but I enjoyed the experience so much. I will always treasure the memories I have from that event.

Now I look at life a lot differently. I had a discussion with a friend recently about running long distances. I used to want to undertake these events because I wanted to push my limits and see what I was made of. This entire last year presented one challenge after another. I know I can get through difficult times. I do not need to create artificial hurdles in my life. Any doubts I may have had about how mentally tough I am have been erased.

So why on earth did I sign up for another 100 mile race? The answer to that question is complex. I do not feel the need to create artificial obstacles and difficulty in my life. However, I am not ready to rest easy in the rocking chair quite yet. I had a goal before cancer to do a western 100. Goals can change and my life will be no less full if I do not attempt this race. However, I have continued to ask myself, “Will you be disappointed if your cancer comes back and you had not attempted it?” I cannot say for certain how I would feel, but I do not want to look back with regret. My goal now is not to go and kick ass, but to enjoy the training, take in the scenery on the race course, and finish with a smile on my face.This time around, I hope to have my kids greet me at the finish line.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one other significant motivating factor. I have said all along that there must be a purpose for my having survived pancreatic cancer when other equally deserving and wonderful human beings have not. This event will serve a purpose. I will be running for the cause of pancreatic cancer. More details on that will be forthcoming in the future. I do not want to do this for just myself. I want to tackle this for everyone who has been touched by this disease.

So on Tuesday, when I woke up in a panic, I did what made sense.. I went for a run with some significant elevation gain. It was the first time in a long time that I have attempted anything that involved a lot of climbing. I have my work cut out for me. It is going to take everything I have to get in shape for this race. However, when  I was on the single track trails that I used to train on all of the time, I remembered what I loved being out there: the challenge, the tranquility, the beauty and the peace that it all brings me. I hope the training over these next few months will be as fulfilling and gratifying as it was in 2013. My body is forever changed, but I still find joy and the world around me.

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