Run Rabbit Run 100

I had the opportunity to complete the infamous Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race this weekend. The course was both brutal and beautiful. The volunteers were absolutely fantastic. I was challenged, uplifted and beaten down at various points over the course of the race. There were many high and low points over the 31 hours and 19 minutes it took me to finish the race. Ultimately, what I remember most is the purity of the connection to the people on the course. When you are tired and cold and nauseated, you cannot hide who you are. You must be open and be both strong and vulnerable. You must rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to help keep you moving forward. In a world where we can be guarded and jaded, the experience of allowing all of the barriers to slip away and be really present in the moment and open to those around you is unique. When it all comes together, it is refreshing and life-affirming.

I signed up for Run Rabbit Run 100 way back in January, 2016. At the time, I was not really sure why I signed up, but as winter turned into spring, I found myself sinking into a depression. As the weeks and months of training marched on, I realized that spending time running in the mountains was what I needed to save myself. (You can read more about that here: https://mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/the-panther-or-the-rabbit/ )

In the past couple of weeks as I stared down a daunting 100-mile mountain race, I felt a familiar mixture of excitement and foreboding. Every time I mentioned what race I was running, people would respond, “Wow, that’s a hard course!” or some version of that sentiment. Looking at the course profile, it isn’t hard to see why Run Rabbit Run has a reputation for difficulty.

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In addition to the long, steep climbs and the significant elevation change, runners face extremely cold temperatures at night time. I had been warned that many people DNF due to hypothermia. I packed so much cold weather gear that my husband asked me if I thought that I was running in Antarctica. I know that anything can happen over the course of a 100 mile race, but I would not drop out due to not packing the right gear.

The race, which has a 36-hour cut-off, started on September 16, 2016. I had assembled a team of three adults and one teenager. My husband, Stephen, would serve as crew chief and would pace me for approximately thirty miles. Laura, who I had been Facebook friends with for years but had never met in person, surprised me by buying a plane ticket so she could come pace/crew me. She has ultra experience, but lives at sea level, so I was not sure how she she would feel with the altitude and elevation gain. She would run either 10 or 14 miles, depending upon how she felt. My friend Larry, who is a very experienced endurance athlete, would therefore do either 20 or 25. Peyton would be on hand to help crew and keep my spirits lifted.

I chose Run Rabbit Run 100 in part due to the race’s proximity to Colorado Springs. I knew we could drive up in a few hours and I figured it would be relatively easy to get people to come help crew and pace. In fact, there was a large contingent of runners from the Springs area, which made for a warm and welcoming environment.

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With Jenny and Denise.

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Tonia, Peyton & Stephen

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At the race start (Photo courtesy of Ann Labosky)

We started up the ski hill promptly at 8 am. The course sends runners straight up Mount Werner, gaining approximately 3,500 feet of elevation in the first 4.4 miles. Even though I did a lot of steep training runs, I had a moment of wondering what in the hell I had signed up for. By the time we reached the top of the hill, I had sweat dripping off of my face. Nevertheless, I knew that we would essentially be headed out on a net downhill for the next several miles. I chose to try not to think too much about what was to come later in the race, instead just opting to enjoy the scenery. I spent some time shaking out the nerves and chatting with people, knowing that it was very early and I had to keep the pace conservative to save energy for the big climbs that would come later in the race.

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Long Lake

The Long Lake aid station is at mile 10.8. I was still feeling good and the trails, which had been crowded up to this point, began to open up. We headed to Fish Creek Falls, a section which starts off with fabulous single track that becomes quite rocky and technical. I was running alone at this point, listening to music and enjoying the scenery.

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My sunglasses were bugging me a bit so I took them off. While I was messing with them, I tripped and fell, hitting both knees on rocks. I had only gone about 12 miles into the race. The hard hit stunned me and I had blood streaming down both legs. I walked for a minute, assessing the damage. Nothing appeared to be broken, so I shuffled back into a run, hoping for the best. From Fish Creek Falls, we ran along a four-mile section of trail back into Steamboat Springs.

Olympian Hall

I came down into the Olympian Hall aid station with a considerable amount of blood and dirt on my legs, but was thrilled to see Steve, Peyton and Laura. After stopping briefly to restock my gels, I moved on and headed up the next section of trail.

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(photos courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Cow Creek

As we moved on towards Cow Creek, the general consensus was, “Wow, this hill didn’t look this big on the course profile!” I spent several miles with a guy who shared some interesting stories from his years of dirt-bagging. Eventually, we parted ways and I ran into two runners I had been talking with earlier. Neither were feeling well at this point. One was injured and the other was sick to her stomach. I tried to give them both a pep talk, reminding them that they would likely feel good, then bad, then good, then bad, for the rest of the race. I think I was also trying to remind myself of that fact, because at this point my left knee, which had taken the brunt of the earlier impact, began to stiffen up. Every step hurt as I made my way down into the Cow Creek aid station. In addition, I had switched water reservoirs in my hydration pack and something had been digging into my back for the entirety of the section. I kept running with one hand between my pack and my back to eliminate any more damage.

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Arriving in Cow Creek with Peyton and Steve (photo courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Larry had made it into Steamboat, and several other local friends were at the aid station waiting for their runners, so Cow Creek felt warm and inviting. Even though I was in a lot of pain and wondering what the future would hold, everyone assured me that I looked strong and was running between a 27 and 28 hour pace. This was ahead of what I thought I could do, so that lifted my spirits. Aside from my knee and back, I felt OK, so I headed back of the aid station feeling hopeful for the rest of the race.

The next segment back to Olympian Hall was a rolling 12-mile section. My knee loosened up and I was able to run quite a bit. The sun was shining and the scenery along the single track was lovely. I was enjoying this section tremendously until my right hip flexor started to tighten up. I tried to adjust and loosen it up, hoping the pain would fade. We ran down the long steep downhill section back into Olympian Hall. Here the plan was to pick Laura up for the four mile uphill road section to the Fish Creek Falls trail head, where I would meet Larry for the night. However, shuttle issues forced a change in plans. Now Larry, who had been mountain biking but not running all summer, would be forced to cover nearly 25 miles with me.

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With Larry, headed off into the night.

I had been warned by many runners to grab warm clothing at Olympian, because as soon as the sun goes down, the mountains get extremely cold. Last year, the temperature on the course had dropped down to 8 degrees. I had been running in shorts and a tank top for hours, but threw on a long-sleeve shirt and grabbed another warm shirt, gloves and tights to put on as it got colder. We ran through town, and within a few minutes, I was hot. I stopped and took off my shirt in what would become the first in a night of many wardrobe changes. We ended up hiking much of the uphill back to the Fish Creek Falls trail head. From there, we headed on another six-mile climb back up to Long Lake.

Friendship and Inspiration

One of the things I love most about running ultras is having the opportunity to talk with people and hear their stories. People open up in a way they might not ever under other circumstances. While the scenery of a race makes the time alone special, the discussions are a big part of what makes the night memorable.

I first met Larry a few years ago when I happened to see him running close to where I live. He had on a Team Crud (Coloradans Running Ultra Distances) shirt, and I was just starting to get into ultras. I stopped him and asked some questions about races and CRUD. He humored me, answering a few of my questions. He probably thought I was a crazy lady, but that’s OK because I am forever thankful for that chance encounter.

I ran a few ultras after that meeting and then was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As I struggled to come back to my previous form following surgery and chemo, I stumbled across Larry’s blog. I read a post where he talked about some of his own medical issues. Feeling very much alone at the time, I wrote to him. I did not know if he would remember me, but he wrote back and gave me a pep talk. Even though our issues were different, I finally felt like someone might just understand what I was going through. He encouraged me to be patient and gave me hope that things might be different but they would get better.

During the last couple of years, Larry has been an tremendous source of inspiration to me. He is an incredible athlete who has completed the Leadman series several times, but, more importantly, he is an amazing human being who gives so much to others. Larry coaches a local high school mountain bike team, spends his free time volunteering to maintain local trails and still finds time to crew/pace friends at races throughout Colorado. I followed him as he ran Burning River 100 mile race as a fundraiser for the Akron Children’s Hospital (coverage of this story can be found here:  https://www.akronchildrens.org/cms/sharing_blog/deac461c4d31a0e9/)  Knowing how much slower I am than Larry is, I was extremely humbled and grateful when he said he would pace me at Run Rabbit Run.

Running Through the Night

Larry spent most of the night sharing stories with me. I was so wrapped up in his tales that I temporarily forgot to eat. This led to a blood sugar issue as we headed uphill on the Fish Creek Trail. As we picked our way over rocks and up the climb, Larry watched me stagger and stumble like I was drunk. Because he coaches a type 1 diabetic, he knew exactly how to remedy things. He made me eat a gel every 15 minutes until I started to feel coherent again. This is why I have a pacer. I knew I was in good hands and I am grateful he was there with me.

It was at this point that the temperature seemed to plummet. I was shaking, my toes went numb and I knew I needed to get changed immediately. I plopped down on the side of a swampy section of single track and pulled off my shorts. Larry, ever the gentleman, looked the other way as he dug through his pack for a jacket. Several runners came through as I was changing and asked if we were OK. This was a reasonable question, as we had recently seen several runners throwing up along the side of the trail. I just laughed and said, “Yes, I am just getting naked…You’re welcome.”

We headed up a long uphill section that took us back to Long Lake and then to the high point on the course at Summit Lake.I was once again freezing. I grabbed warmer tights, stepped about a foot away from a crowd at the aid and changed again. I just did not have the energy to be modest at this point. I started joking that it was goal to flash every runner on the course. We headed down a 2100 foot drop into the Dry Lake Aid Station, where I would be picking up Laura for a ten-mile section. Once again, my knee started to stiffen up. I was running when I could and hiking when I had to. It was frustrating, but I maintained my sense of humor about it. As it turned out, Larry didn’t have to worry about not having run much over the summer. I told him I wouldn’t break any speed records and I as right.

We got into Dry Lake, where we met Steve and Laura. I gave Larry a big hug and told him to get some sleep. Laura and I headed off onto a section that featured several bridges and most likely would have been beautiful during the daytime hours. Fortunately for us, there was a bright spectacular full moon and very few clouds in the sky. It was a beautiful crisp night and we chatted, alternating walking and running through this out-and-back section that was fairly crowded. We got to the Spring Creek aid station, got a bite to eat and then headed back to Dry Lake.

Heading to the Finish

When we arrived back in Dry Lake, Stephen was ready to get me to the finish line. We had roughly 30 miles to go at this point. I had just gone uphill for 4.5 miles and we were facing another 8 mile climb back to Summit Lake. I knew we would be hiking most of this and was fine with that. I was tired but my spirits were still high. We laughed and joked as we made our way up the jeep road. The moon went down and the sky began to lighten. I knew 27 and 28 hour finish times were long gone. I also knew that a sub-30 was pretty much out of the question. Normally, I would be upset to slow down as much as I did, but I honestly did not care one bit. My knee and groin had been hurting and my back hurt where my pack had rubbed it raw. I knew, however, that i had more than enough time to walk it in to the finish line if I had to.

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When we finally got to the Summit aid station at mile 81.5, I was looking forward to jogging downhill for a bit. As I started to run, however, my right ankle hurt so badly that I immediately had to stop.I tried to jog again and just couldn’t do it. I felt the ankle and determined that it was probably just an angry tendon, so I resigned myself to walking. We walked back to the Long Lake aid station for the third time. I changed my clothes once again, putting on shorts in preparation for warmer temperatures.

The rolling but mostly uphill section to Mount Werner seemed infinitely longer than it actually was. I was getting passed by plenty of people but I did not give a second thought to attempting to chase anyone down. All I wanted to do was finish. I did not want to injure myself but I knew if I kept walking I would cross the finish line with minimal damage to my body. We rolled quickly through the aid station and then hit the 6.4 mile road that would take us to the finish line.

My husband is an amazing man who not only supports me in theory as I tackle these adventures, he is always there with me as I take those final steps to the finish line. Throughout the last miles of the race, I asked him to talk to me, but I could only give one word answers. This was the first time in my life that I ever got sleepy during a race. I became frustrated when I found out that he had told me I had 12 miles to go, but it was really 12.8 miles (Hey, it MATTERS!) Despite the fact that I was exhausted, I would never take my exhaustion out on my husband. He is the man who stands metaphorically and physically with me as I struggle through the most difficult times in my life.He is my rock and my hero and I come away from these races feeling more in love and connected to him than ever.

Dropping back down 3500 feet over the stretch felt painful and cruel. Many people remarked that they were unable to run at this point, and I was definitely in this camp. It was hot and I was hurting. Even Stephen was hurting at this point and wondering where the finish line was. Finally, we saw it.

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Peyton ran out to meet us and I gave Larry a hug as we made it down the road. I was completely spent physically but emotionally ecstatic. We got to the grassy section before the finish line and pathetically jogged over it.

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I got my 100 miler buckle and a beer mug for my efforts, finishing in 31:19. This was my slowest 100 mile finish by nearly five hours, yet I was not remotely disappointed with my finish time or placement. I was simply ecstatic that I finished the race and, despite some aches and pains, had a truly spectacular time.

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It was so wonderful to be greeted at the finish line by two of my favorite female runners, Tracey & Meghan.

After the race, we went back to the condo we had rented. I was so exhausted I could barely keep my eyes open. I was also too sore to sleep, so that made for an interesting night. When I awoke at 3 am the next morning, I was in a state of deep emotional happiness and gratitude. Yes, I was proud of my finish, but more importantly, I was filled with intense appreciation for all of the people who had supported me along the way. There is something so uniquely special about running through the night with people. I find that people become the essence of who they truly are over those long nighttime miles. We talk about things that we might never discuss under different circumstances. The stories, the images, and the memories will stick with me forever.

I spent the summer training for this race, often alone in the mountains for hours, trying to work my way through my own issues. Over those 31 hours and 19 minutes, I was grateful to be there in the midst of the outstanding scenery and to feel fully alive. I am thankful for the opportunity to dig deep, to work through the problems and to connect with other human beings. When people have asked me why I do ultras, I have often said it is because I enjoy the challenge. While this is completely true, more than anything, I embrace the chance to learn about not only myself but those who are around me. I am forever grateful for the selflessness of others, for friendship, for the shared stories, for love and for the opportunity to fully be my perfectly flawed self. After struggling for months with my own inner demons, a 103+ mile trek through the mountains of Colorado finally brought me the sense of connection to others I desperately needed

Finally, I had the opportunity to work with Paul Nelson and his amazing crew, John Uibel, Marina Polonsky and Shawn Brown, at Run Rabbit Run.

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They are putting together a documentary about the race and they chose to feature me as a ‘human interest’ story. They followed several elite runners as well as a few of us regular folks. I am honored to be a part of this project and am pleased that they chose to feature a variety of runners. Look for this to be coming out by the end of 2016!

https://www.facebook.com/paulmichaelnelsonphoto/?fref=ts

The Panther or the Rabbit

I last posted at the end of April, 2016, following a disappointing finish at the Cheyenne Mountain 50 K.  Throughout the spring and summer, I had plenty to say but simply could not give voice to my thoughts. These last few months have been filled with change, uncertainty, beginnings and endings. As the numerous stressors mounted, many of which I am choosing to keep private, I felt my suit of armor cracking. And so it was after several months of facing an ongoing series of challenges, I found myself staring over a literal and metaphorical abyss, facing an existential depression, wondering, “Why did I survive my cancer? Why am I here?”

Depression

After being told by so many  for so long that I was ‘strong’, I at first failed to heed the warnings. A bad day. A bad week. A stressful month. Finally, I could no longer avoid or ignore the reality. It felt like I was being stalked by a stealth black panther. At first, there was a sense that ‘something’ was lurking in the background. Then I could see glimpses of it, far off between the trees. It drew closer, watching and waiting, until finally it pounced, knocking me to the ground, with claws drawn and jaws wide open. Would it snap my neck? Would it rip my heart out? Would I, could I, fight back?

To the outside world, all was fine. I kept up appearances and took care of all of my responsibilities. But my contact with most people dwindled. Instead of reaching out, or calling for help, I moved more deeply into dark recesses of my inner world as I tried to make sense of what I thinking and feeling.

Finding a Way Out

In January, 2016, I signed up for the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race. Located in Steamboat Springs, CO, the race is actually over 100 miles. The website says that it features about 20,000 feet or ascent and descent. In other words, it is quite challenging. After my 50k in April, I not only considered not running the 100, I contemplated never racing again. My foot had hurt for months. Maybe I was too old to keep running ultras. After facing cancer, surgery and chemotherapy, maybe I just needed to give myself a break and take it easy. Or maybe the truth was that I just no longer cared or had the drive to train. I specifically remember being out with my husband on what was supposed to be a flat 20-mile run. I had thrown in the towel and was walking down the trail saying, “I think I am done, not just for today but for good.”

My emotional state was chipping away at my physical well-being. Once an every day runner, I was now even questioning that part of my identity. I could jog a few short, flat miles, but I had lost my interest in going farther or faster.I had been dealing with foot pain and endocrine issues. Running just did not feel fun anymore. I always swore that when I stopped having fun, I would move on to a new activity.

Embarrassed and ashamed of feeling as I did, I kept my thoughts between my husband and myself. I have since learned that it is very, very common for cancer survivors (and survivors of other significant medical conditions) to go through a period of depression following their illnesses. We put everything we have into fighting for so long, that when the clear and present danger passes, the bottom can fall out on everything else. I felt frustrated with myself. I was alive and OK. Why did I feel the way I was feeling?

Running

As I questioned my own life, and struggled to make sense of who I was at this point in my life, I decided that I had to at least make a decision on something simple. Was I still a runner or not? Would I train for Run Rabbit Run 100, or would I close the door on the ultra chapter of my life?

A brief conversation with a friend helped point me in the direction I needed to go. She was discussing someone in her life who was facing a goal that would take sacrifice and work. She did not think this person would be able to reach her goal. The reason? “She isn’t willing to suffer.” The conversation quickly moved on to something else, but I came back to the line many, many times in recent months. I wondered, “Was I willing to suffer to try to reach a goal?” If I could endure the suffering, then maybe I could embrace the physical pain while I worked through my emotional pain.

I knew the only way I could answer this question was to go hit the hills.

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Running Ultras

In April I wanted to quit racing. Within a couple of weeks, I fully committed myself to training for Run Rabbit Run 100. I felt that I needed it desperately. My life, physical and my mental health depended on it.

 

I have finished two other 100 mile races. The first time around, I just wanted to see if I could do it. The second time around, it was a very public experience. I wanted to have a big comeback from pancreatic cancer. I raised money for charity and wrote a lot about the training process. This time around, my journey to running 100+miles has been deeply personal. I have spent hours alone on the trails trying to discover just how much I am willing to suffer and endure. That probably does not sound fun, and it often isn’t. Was I trying to run from something? Was I trying to run to something? Was I trying to make the physical pain feel as intense as the emotional pain felt? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

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Along the way, I found that even when it felt like the world was cracking, shifting and imploding around me, I could eventually find peace in being alone, pushing myself, feeling my heart exploding out of my chest, and feeling my muscles and lungs burning. I kept myself alive and moving forward, with each challenging step.

As I learned during my battle with pancreatic cancer, sometimes it is the most difficult battles that we face that bring the deepest sense of meaning to our lives. Sometimes the battles take place in the public sphere. Sometimes those battles are internal, away from even our closest friends and family.

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The hardest part of an ultra endurance event is usually not the race itself, but the training process. When you sign up, you commit to train and make sacrifices towards reaching your goal for months at a time. With each ultramarathon training cycle, I have learned something new about myself. This time around, I am redefining what ‘strength’ means to me personally. I am not afraid of suffering and sacrifice. In fact, there is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes through incredibly physically and emotionally demanding hard work. I needed to spend days, weeks, even months, exploring my own ability to endure, even embrace, suffering. In life, after all, we will suffer. Sometimes it seems like we have to endure way more than our fair share of suffering. But that is life. We all will face hardship and must learn how to endure pain. As I pushed myself, I knew if I could endure, I could survive not only the difficult trails, but what I was facing in my life.

Though it has not always been easy, my countless miles on the trail have been a much-needed time of learning and reflection. In times when I felt alone and lonely, I found peace, contentment and a sense of self-reliance on the Colorado trails. I did not find a quick fix to any of the issues I was trying to sort out. Instead, I found that sometimes what we need is not a solution or a quick-fix but trust and patience in ourselves and the process. Gradually, the laughter and joy began to emerge again. I learned that I can look out into the abyss and question my purpose but that does not mean that I will disappear into the depths and darkness.

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