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?”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.