I divide a lot of my life into ‘Before’ and ‘After’. We all have plenty of ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ in life, of course. For example, there is before/after marriage and before/after having children. For the past couple of years, it most typically refers to ‘before’ and ‘after’ my pancreatic cancer diagnosis. I last ran the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race 50k in the ‘Before’ era of my life. It was April 2013, and I was gearing up to run the Vermont 100. I was in great shape and healthy and strong. I had been training hard for months. I ran a 5:48, finishing as fourth female, first master. I was happy and proud. I ran pretty much the entire race and finished feeling good about my fitness and my ability. That was ‘before’.
I had some misgivings about returning to a race that I had run in my ultra prime, so to speak, but I love the course, love the Race Directors, Tim Bergsten and Michael Pharis, and enjoy local running events. So, I signed up in January with every intention of training to get into hilly, ultramarathon shape. Unfortunately, a foot injury has kept me off of the hills and family commitments have forced me to cut my runs short. The training just has not been what it should be. I knew that I was physically incapable of turning in a good, competitive race effort, but I knew I could finish the 50 k as a training run.
I am going to subtitle this post as “The Race Where I Carried a Bullmastiff on My Back.” For every ultra I run, Peyton, my 13-year-old, makes me a little good luck charm. I have become superstitious about having my good luck charm. As I was running out the door to the start of the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race 50k, Steve said to Peyton, “Did you make anything for mommy?” I had forgotten to ask and she had forgotten our tradition, but she did not want to let me down, so she ran off to her room and came back with this:
It is a shrinky dink. She said enthusiastically, “It kind of looks like Greta!” I believe that it was actually a pug, but for the sake of providing a sense of meaning, let’s just go with it and call it ‘Greta the Bullmastiff’. I stuffed the Bullmastiff in the back pocket of my new running skirt. Little did I know that I would soon feel like I was carrying an actual mastiff on my back.
The best part of local races is seeing all of the familiar faces out there and also finally getting to meet people I have heard about for a long time. I took a minute to snap a selfie with Kristin who I connected with on Facebook via a mutual friend quite a while back. This was a great way to start my day!
Meeting Kristin (r) for the first time was a highlight of the race.
The Cheyenne Mountain Trail Races are deceptively hard, in my opinion. While the elevation gain is certainly not the most of any ultra, it is a relentlessly rolling course with plenty of roots and rocks. There are roughly 3600 ft of ascent/descent over the course of the 50k. When I am in shape, like I was in 2013, this course is tough but runnable. This year, with three flat 20 mile long runs under my belt, I knew I would not be able to run the whole thing. However, I also knew that if I didn’t make the jump to hilly long runs now, Run Rabbit Run 100 will not happen in the fall.
I started off running just fine. I was having fun and enjoying myself. I chatted with an amazing guy who is preparing to run his 9th Leadville this summer, along with Hardrock and a bunch of other races. We started talking because he noticed my Project Purple shirt and he had lost his brother to pancreatic cancer. It amazes me that everywhere I go it seems that someone has a connection to the disease.
Mile 8 begins a roughly three-mile stretch of significant uphill. I was hanging with my buddy Tim Gore and his friends at this point. We had switched to hiking and were talking, but my chest started to hurt. I was working way too hard and something did not feel right. I back way off and let them go. At mile 10, I seriously wondered if it was wise for me to continue. I thought, “My first DNF cannot come in a 50k, but I don’t want to be stupid.” I had not eaten anything up til about 10 miles, so I ate a gel and took a salt pill to see if I could right the ship.
Soon, I met up with Allisa. She was down from Lakewood and she was not feeling particularly well, either. So, we hiked the uphills and ran the downhills. We briefly got separated, but then joined up again at the start of the second loop. Unfortunately, I had to walk hills at the beginning of the second loop that I ran easily the first time around. I was still working way too hard. Finally, we parted ways and she continued on ahead.
The volunteers on the course were a highlight of the day for me, and they were all doing an amazing job of taking care of the runners at the aid stations. It was great seeing so many people I knew out there and hearing them call my name when I rolled in. I seriously needed those wonderful people to uplift my spirits.
Coming into the Achilles International Aid Station. (Photo courtesy of Denise Flory).
Photo Courtesy of Tim Bergsten & Pikes Peak Sports.
I was particularly thrilled to see my good friend, Tracey, out on the course. I just love her. She popped up in seemingly the middle of nowhere and made me laugh. She was volunteering for the race after having completed the 10k. I was nowhere near the finish line in this photo, but I was so happy to see Tracey. It was a great excuse to run a few steps with my friend AND to stop to pee. What more can a girl want?
As I ran the remaining miles solo, I listened to music, tried to stay on top of eating and drinking, and continued with my mixture of hiking and running. For quite a while, I felt at peace. I love company, but I also love being alone on the trails. I feel best when I can allow myself to fall into the rhythm of my own body. Once again, I turned things around for a bit, but then the fatigue returned..
Eventually the sun came out and it got very warm.I started losing my mind a bit out there, honestly. I was wearing a vest-style hydration system and I kept forgetting to refill it at aid stations. I just could not remember to check my water supply. I ran out of water. I made stupid mistakes that I normally would never make. Finally, I closed in on the finish line. I had passed one runner in a late-in-the-game burst of energy and was running as fast as I could when Karen, a volunteer, ran up and said, “There’s a rattlesnake in that bush.” I thought to myself, “I came all of this way to get bit by a freaking rattlesnake. This is how it is going to end, isn’t it?” Karen told me she would stay between me and the snake but I also did not want her to get bit. What a bizarre way to finish a race! Fortunately, neither of us got bit.
Photo courtesy of Tim Bergsten
I crossed the finish line somewhere around 6:42 (by my watch. Waiting for official results to be posted). I immediately had to lay down in the shade for a bit after finishing. I talked with a couple of guys who had finished a few minutes ahead of me, then went back to the drop bag area to collect my stuff. I was feeling pretty emotional at that point in time. I knew I was not in shape to run fast today, but I did not expect chest pain and delirium. I wonder if this is some lasting effect from my chemotherapy. I wondered several times on the course why I was still running ultras. Bryce was so amazing last year, but Bear Chase was very rough and CMTR 50k was also quite rough.. I wondered if I could get myself in shape for Run Rabbit Run 100 in the fall. I mourned the loss of the body that could run a 5:48 on this particular course. I doubt that I will ever get that conditioning back.
I spent a couple of minutes talking to Race Director and all-around great guy, Tim Bergsten, at that low moment and let a few tears escape. “My running is so up and down these days and it feels so much harder than it used to be,” I told him. There is really nothing to be said. It just is. There are things I can improve (my fitness), but there are things that are different that will never be the same. This is the ‘After’. The reality is that I had major surgery and poison pumped through my body. It prematurely aged me. My body is changed and I am changed. I want to be gentle and forgiving with myself but I am having a hard time with that because I also really want to kick ass and take names. I am thankful to be here and be able to run at all, but this part of ‘before’ and ‘after’ is emotionally tough to deal with sometimes and makes me question a lot. I often say that if I had to choose, I would choose to go through what I went through because it changed me in a lot of positive ways. However, the lingering physical effects are something I could do without.
So, I carried the Bullmastiff on my back today. It was hard but I made it. I finished. I went through an incredibly full range of emotions out there. I think I experienced as many low and high points as I have in any 50 or 100 mile race. Those highs and lows are part of what I love about running ultras. There is something so intrinsically rewarding about problem-solving on your feet, digging deep and trying to find a way to turn things around when they are not going your way. I was not proud of my performance yesterday, but today I am very proud that I was able to fix my problems enough to finish.