Running, Not Running & why I cringe over #NoExcuses

Dear runners and fitness enthusiasts:

I am happy for you that you were able to set and finish goals. I enjoy seeing your ecstatic finish line photos. I even enjoy seeing the pictures of the fabulous places you have trained. But I am begging you to please stop shaming people for not being as physically or emotionally able as you currently appear to be. For the love of God, please stop with the #noexcuses and #nolimits crap. It is damaging and harmful and unfair in ways you may not have ever considered.

Running Saved My Life, but I am no Badass

The last two years (really five, but particularly these last two) have been very rough. In 2016, I ran Run Rabbit Run 100. Despite injury, I finished the race hours under the official cutoff time. Oh, the year before that, I ran the Bryce 100 (second female-2015). In 2013, I ran the Vermont 100 (10th female). I was sidetracked from November 2013 until June 2014 for pancreatic cancer surgery and treatment. Through all of the cancer treatment stuff, I kept running. I even ran and finished a 25k with my husband. I was not fast, but I pushed myself so hard I thought I might pass out. In the fall of that year, just 3.5 months after finishing chemo, I finished the Bear Chase 50 mile race.

I was never a badass. Running was never about impressing others. I ran because it was what was in my soul. Running was what connected me to myself. More than once running helped lift me out of a significant depression. I have said many times, “Running has saved my life, both physically and emotionally.” I chased ‘the high’ because it was the natural way of keeping me out of the darkest depths of the lows.

#chronicpain #running

Taking a moment to enjoy the beauty of the wilderness with Willy

The Reality I Cannot Fully Face

After 21+ years as a runner, unless something changes dramatically and quickly, it may all be coming to an end. I am fighting it, but I am on my way to becoming an ex-runner. Psychologically, I am not quite there yet. I keep hoping I will not have to officially hang it up.

When I find myself looking at race photos or reading a friend’s race report, I often catch myself thinking, “I could totally do that ultra!” I get momentarily excited and then I remember where I am physically. Currently I am lucky if I can string together two flat miles of ‘jogging’ once or twice per week. Some days I am able to walk/jog a bit around the neighborhood. When I go to the mountains, I am now more of a hiker with MAYBE a tiny bit of running thrown in here or there. It is in no way related to a lack of trying, grit, or determination.

None of this has happened by choice. I am not making ‘excuses’. I spent 2016 recovering from injury and then had hip labrum repair surgery in 2017. The surgery went well. I rehabbed just as I was told to do. I started running again. I even hiked/ran in the mountains and was thinking I was totally on the way to a full recovery.

A weird thing happened along the way, however. Just prior to the surgery, I was sick for months. I had fevers and a severe cough that would not go away. I had many days where I could walk my dogs around the neighborhood for a mile or two but then I had to go home and go back to bed.

Following my surgery, other problems cropped up. I could not sleep. I was diagnosed with a neurologically-based sleep disorder. I had no energy. I became dizzy and uncoordinated. I took several bad falls.

 

I even fell on the sidewalk in the neighborhood, breaking my wrist. My occasional migraines turned into an every day occurrence.  I experienced excruciating Occipital Neuralgia.

Pain consumed my body. I had a minor foot injury that became disabling. Then the neck and shoulder pain started. I have pain on the ischial tuberosity on the ‘good’ side of my pelvis. There is wrist pain from the wrist break that will not heal. I have spent a great deal of time and money over the last several months at neurologists and orthopedics doctors. I have a sleep disorder, neurological problems which are not entirely clear and inflammatory arthritis. I am still in the process of trying to get some of this all figured out. But I live with physical pain every single day.

Ex-Runner

I am grieving with the loss of my ability to run even very short distances consistently.  Running was never about the glory of a race. It was certainly not about winning anything, because if it was, I would have thrown in the towel long ago. I never needed pats on the back or kudos from anyone. I did it because I needed it. I needed running to make me feel alive and to keep myself from diving into the depths of depression. Running was the part of me which made me believe in myself. I learned I could do things I never thought possible when I laced up my shoes and hit the trails.

#Chronicpain #hiking

Summiting Mountains with Willy

For 21-plus years I ran through everything. I ran through pregnancy. I got up at the crack of dawn to run when my kids were babies. I pushed baby joggers for 10+ miles at times. I spent months on end running indoors, bored out of my mind, on a treadmill when that was my only option. I ran with migraines. I ran through cancer and chemotherapy. I ran through divorce and the aftermath of losing and regaining my sense of self. When I met Steve and we started dating, we fell in love as we ran together.

For most of my running life, I ran every single day, rain or shine, whether I felt wonderful or whether I felt like death. I did not make excuses. I pushed myself outside, figuring if I did not feel better after 20 minutes, I could pack it in and go home. But, no matter how badly things were going, I made an attempt to at least start because I knew that often whatever ailed me would disappear after I started.

Then constant, intractable pain entered my life.

Pain changes everything. It changes who you are as a person and how you interact with the world around you. It changes how you see and think about yourself. Intense, long-term chronic pain forces you to alter your life in ways that you never could have previously imagined. Chronic pain literally changes the wiring in your brain. The effects of chronic pain should never be underestimated or dismissed.

#Noexcuses Philosophy does Harm

Since I was always the person who thought I could just mentally tough out anything and work through it, I thought I could just tough my out of my current physical issues. I looked at social media posts of other runners and the #noexcuses or #nolimits people and wondered if I had gotten soft or weak. I thought if I just got out and did it, my pain would fade away and I would be back doing ultras in no time.

I quickly learned I was doing more harm than good to my body. I have never thought of myself as weak or wimpy or a whiner. But the fact that I could not mentally force myself to do things that were now excruciatingly painful sent me even further into an emotional and mental tailspin. I thought I was weak and a failure. If everybody else can get out there and do this, why can’t I?

Sadly, I had to repeat this cycle in my head several times. In fact, I am pretty sure I am STILL somewhat stuck in this cycle.

Heizer with Willy

Shame, Isolation and Loneliness

I cannot meet with my running friends most days. I get very stressed when I make plans because I never know how I will feel when I wake up in the morning. Some days I could probably go for a short jog, but other days, I will struggle to make it 1.5 miles around my neighborhood just so my dog can go to the bathroom.

I warn people, “I am really, really slow” and even though they say that is OK, I watch them disappear up the trail ahead of me. So I rarely meet anyone anymore. It’s too hard for me and I hate holding people back. The irony in all of this is that even when I was young and relatively fast, I ALWAYS went the pace of the slowest person I was with. ALWAYS. I never left anyone behind and I am really glad that I was instinctively that person. #NoRegrets on that one.

I have isolated myself. I miss hitting the trails with people I love but I cannot trust my body to do what it once did. It’s embarrassing and difficult on every level, but I know I have to just do what I can right now. Some days it might be a 12 mile hike. Some days it is a short walk with my dogs. But it is simply too stressful to try to keep up with people who are faster when I simply am unable to go their pace. And, really, I have found all of this too difficult to explain to people. I am not really sure what to say or how to explain things because I do not fully understand it all myself.

I would love to find an alternative activity that could help me chase the endurance high and feel better about myself. However, swimming and rock climbing are out. Biking is out….I am not sure what could be ‘in’. Nevertheless, I am still tough. I am getting out and doing something, no matter how small, every day. I would love nothing more than to be able to get out and run long, but I do not yet know if that will be a possibility ever again.

Tonia Willly Rosa

Celebrate Yourself while having Empathy for Others

So, dear runners, please know how happy I am for you as I watch your successes and your joy. I used to BE you. I used to be a runner who relished running in the mountains for 6, 10, 12 or even 31 hours and several minutes. It was amazing. I have so many wonderful and fabulous memories from all of the good times and I truly love seeing your happiness.

But, please understand that at some point your body may fail, too.  It could end in an instant or it could be slow decline from injury, illness, aging or all three. The #noexcuses line discounts the very real experiences of so many people. Maybe someone would like to train for a 100 but their job and family circumstances leave them with very little time and energy at the moment. Those aren’t excuses. Those are priorities. Maybe the time will be right at some point for those people, but maybe it won’t ever happen. That’s perfectly OK. I have never looked at people who prioritize other things over running ultras or exercising at the gym as failures, wimps or lacking in discipline or whatever.

Or consider this…maybe someone does not zero body fat and amazing abs because they are sick or pregnant. Or maybe that person is recovering from an eating disorder and they have finally started allowing themselves to enjoy food again. In my opinion, being able to find balance with food is healthier than living with a lifelong obsession over ever morsel that goes into your mouth (speaking as someone who lived with an eating disorder for years).

My concern for and dislike of the #noexcuses mentality is that it is full of judgement without understanding all of the facts or without extending empathy to others. It pushes people to do things they might not be ready for physically or emotionally (I cant tell you how many, “I just finished a 5k and am signing up for a 100 miler” posts I have seen on FB.)  #Noexcuses preys upon people’s insecurities. The message is “I am a badass and you are a weak person with no self-control”. We need to redefine what ‘success’ and ‘badass’ mean.

What does success look like? Maybe it is the guy who quit smoking and just walked a 5k. Maybe it is the woman who has been starving herself for 25 years but has now put on three pounds and stopped weighing herself multiple times per day. Maybe it is the exhausted parent of young children out pushing the double stroller while walking the dog. Maybe it is the person who has always been extremely hard on herself finally giving in to the need to allow herself time to rest and recover and eat a donut.

While I miss the long training runs and the reward of being able to run ultras after months and months of training, that is not the most difficult part in this journey. The hardest thing in the world is thinking I may not be able to get out to see the beautiful wilderness at all at some point. For now, my wish would be to simply hike five miles without pain.

So maybe, eventually, success can be found in the ex-ultrarunner who is very sad at losing her running identity and her place in the running community but who is doing her absolute best every single day to keep moving forward ever so slowly. Hopefully she can accept herself as she is some day, though I doubt the sense of loss and longing will ever be completely gone.

 

#chronicpain

A little jog during a lot of walking in the hills of Colorado

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I had to Fake It

Have you ever found yourself in a position where you had to fake it? A couple of months ago, the circumstances were a little awkward, but I really felt backed into a corner. I had no choice. I had to smile. I had to pretend.

It was December, 2017. I knew going in to my oncology appointment that all would be fine as far as my cancer was concerned. I was unafraid.

My oncologist said, “Hey! Great news! You are four years cancer-free!” He was smiling. My husband was smiling. I felt nothing. A couple of awkward seconds passed and I realized I needed to DO SOMETHING. So, I smiled,nodded my head and said, “Yeah, that’s great! Awesome! Thanks so much!”

Four Years is Awesome! Can I Please have Four Easy Years Now?

Four years is pretty damned amazing, especially for pancreatic cancer. I know so many other people have been denied the opportunity to experience four years after a cancer diagnosis. I am not ungrateful. I know exactly what pancreatic cancer means for most patients. I knew what it meant when I was diagnosed with it.

I mean, how could I NOT fake feeling ecstatic? That would be horrible. That would make ME horrible. I felt guilty and ashamed for not genuinely wanting to do cartwheels up and down the hall. I knew the people in the full waiting room were not likely getting good news. Yet, I had a very long list of other things which were weighing heavily on my mind. It is a little bit of one of those post-cancer bullshit realities: even when you face cancer, other hard things continue to come at you.

pancreatic cancer

Four years cancer free. Smiling because that’s what I am supposed to do.

When I was diagnosed in 2013, cancer was not on my ‘worry radar’ at all. I really did not think about it. I never was angry about having cancer because I do not think I ever fully moved beyond being stunned by my diagnosis.

Like many young(ish) people who have never been ill, I thought I would have cancer, get treatment and I would either die from it or I would go back to living life as it had always been. I am grateful the first option did not happen. I was surprised when B also did not happen.

Cancer comes along and creates upheaval for everyone in its orbit. It impacts the things you see as well as those things beneath the surface which have yet to make an appearance.

Earthquake, Aftershocks and Tsunami

For many survivors, cancer is the 8.9-on-the-Richter-scale earthquake which comes out of nowhere. After a period of terrifying rumbling and shaking, you and your loved ones are left huddled together (if you are lucky) in the rubble, tasked with rebuilding something which will hopefully make you feel safe and protected again. You take the pieces, patch them back together as best as you can, but there is no longer any illusion of real safety.

You know another earthquake could roll through at any time, and you know your structure is probably not strong enough to withstand more destruction and trauma. In fact, waves of aftershocks keep occurring and no matter how well you feel you have braced yourself, the shaking chips away endlessly at your foundation.

All you can do is hang on to one another and hope for the best.

Four years of survival. It sounds glorious, and in many ways it has been; however, it has also been four years of aftershocks and tsunamis. I am still here, but I feel like I have been shaken and nearly drown.

The first aftershock came in the form of a scare two years ago. The scare was a large lymph node in the celiac plexus area. I went in for a biopsy, knowing that if my cancer was back it would be extremely difficult to fight. The celiac plexus is a difficult area to reach and it is surrounded by major blood vessels. So, it is hard to remove anything there and with the blood vessels in the area, it is easy for the cancer to travel to remote parts of the body.

It was terrifying, obviously to go through a couple of months not knowing if the cancer was back. One of the hardest parts for me was not being 100% transparent with my kids about the situation. Steve and I knew we were terrified, and I did not want to shake my children’s’ foundation unnecessarily. We would tell them what we knew when we knew it. Ultimately we did not know for sure until after the biopsy and more CT scans.

There were other things that happened during that time, and I found myself sinking into a deep, dark pit of depression. Ultrarunning was what kept me literally and figuratively moving forward. I spent the summer of 2016 training for the Run Rabbit Run 100. I put one foot in front of the other, day after day after day, trying to keep the panther from eating me alive. (You can read more about that Here)

As fate would have it, the race brought me the joy I needed, but a few months later I realized I had an injury I needed to address. I needed a delicate and possibly run-ending hip surgery. I had a hip labrum repair at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, CO under Dr. Phillippon. I had the right hip operated on March 30, 2017, just under a year ago. (Read more HERE)

My recovery was going extremely well until A)I hurt my shoulder swimming during rehab and B) my foot started to hurt. I had some foot pain off and on prior to RRR 100, but it was never enough to stop me. As soon as I started running again and adding hills into my training program, my foot started hurting. It hurt so badly I walked with a limp.

EVERY SINGLE DAY I woke up and told myself, my husband, my friends, “Today is the day! I am going to get out there, have a great run and turn this around!” I did not want this foot injury to sink me mentally after everything else I had been through.

After months of positive self-talk which did nothing to help me, I wondered if I was doing it wrong. Or if I was delusional…or just plain old stupid.

Tonia Willy Williams Canyon

For the last six months, I have tried different things to fix my foot, as I have slowly watched my identity of being a runner disappear over the horizon. I would not care so much if I could hike or do anything without being pain. But that is not where things are for me right now.

Dear God, NOW What?

In the meantime, I have been diagnosed with two other significant health issues, one being an issue I caught on my cancer CT scan report and brought to my doctor.  (People, always read your reports and ask your doctors what stuff means. If you do not get good explanations, go somewhere else!) There is another issue I am still trying to figure out.

In addition, a very dear. very much-loved family member is also having significant health issues. It kills me to be far away because I cannot hug him during his own aftershocks. And, of course, I can never forget the impact my cancer had on my children.

Who am I and Why am I Here?

The constant stress of the last four years have indeed triggered a chain reaction of problems.

I MISS the old me. I miss being a person who took for granted the fact that I would live to be 90 or older. I miss my strong, uncut body. I miss the body which rebounded from illness and injury quickly. I miss not being in pain.

I miss the unquestioning faith I had in my physical abilities. I miss the belief I once had in myself that ‘anything was possible’.

Tonia Smith Pancreatic Cancer

Tonia & Steve

I miss having a body that was imperfect but dependable. I miss taking for granted there would be more running and more races for years to come. I miss believing with every fiber of my being that I could conquer every mountain and finish every 100.

And I miss how running protected my mental health and emotions. I miss knowing I could go spend a couple of hours in the mountains and come back better for it.

Maybe it will all come back. I have not give up all hope, though there have been some extremely difficult days. I keep thinking that after battling cancer, life should guarantee you a couple of relatively easy years, but it does not. For now, I will just hold my loved ones in the rubble and hope we can all keep hanging on. And I hope at my five-year appointment, I no longer need to fake it.

Tonia Smith cancer

With my Aussie, Willy, a couple of months ago.

EEG

Detoxing from Doing Epic Stuff

Four months have passed since I had my hip surgery/labrum repair. In that odd way our perception of time works, some days it seems like it hasn’t been that long. On other days, it feels like it was a lifetime ago. Enough time has passed that I am now starting to reference time in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’, much in the way I have done with cancer, marriage, divorce, becoming a mother and many other major life changes.

During the ‘before’, I spent nearly every spare moment running mountain trails. I often put in a couple of 20+ mile runs in the hills each week. Now, the ‘after’ looks a lot different. I have trouble fathoming what I was doing at this time last year. But the happy news is I am indeed running!

Return to Running

I started running right at 12 weeks. Following my prescribed progression, I started with one minute of running followed by four minutes of walking, repeated a few times. Now I have run as much as three consecutive miles without taking a walking break. I am still transitioning back into being a runner.  Some days I walk and some days it is a mixture of walking and running. I am also getting into the foothills for hiking/running a day or two each week.

I am genuinely grateful to be able to do what I am doing just four months after this extensive surgery. I have worked very hard to make it to this point. I expect I will continue to improve, though I still have no idea what that will ultimately mean for me in terms of running. I have little doubt I will continue to run but I don’t yet know if the ‘after’ period will involve racing. The jury is still out and I won’t make any decisions on that until I am further along in the healing process.

Measuring Time

For the last several years, training for an ultra has been an incredibly important part of my life. In some ways, training for these big races is how I have come to frame the passage of time. That may sound odd, but when you spend months dedicated to preparing for an event, thinking about it, dreaming about it, planning it, it becomes intrinsically entwined with your memories of that particular moment in your life.

What do I remember about 2012? That’s the year I ran my first two 50 mile races. 2013 is the year I ran my first 100 miler and 100K…and then had surgery for pancreatic cancer.

Vermont 100 July 2013

Packet Pick-Up Vermont 100 July, 2013

Bear Chase 100k

Bear Chase 100k September 2013

What do I remember about 2014? I ran a 50 mile race three months after finishing chemo.

Bear Chase Trail Race

At the finish line of the Bear Chase 50 with RD and all around great guy, Ben Reeves.

2015 was the year of training for the Bryce 100. I trained in a lot of snow that spring…and the race was amazing.

Bryce Canyon 100

Beautiful scenery early in the Bryce Canyon 100 mile race.

bryce training in snow

What I remember leading up to Bryce: slogging through deep snow in the spring.

2016 was the year I spent in the hills around Colorado Springs training for Run Rabbit Run 100.

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Most of the time I am content to be where I am right now, but there are difficult moments. Not having a race on the calendar for 2017 sent me into a temporary tailspin not long ago. Logically I knew all along I would not be running any races this year. I knew there was a distinct possibility I would not be running at all in 2017 (or ever) following my surgery.

Cruising Ultrasignup

All the same, I felt some moments of panic with the realization that training and racing were out of the question for the year. I suddenly found myself cruising Ultrasignup.com looking for a race hookup like a junkie. I looked at Run Rabbit Run and thought, “Oh look! There are spots still left in the 50! I could probably hike the whole race if I had to!”

After a few hours, I was able to reel myself back in to reality. I am used to trying to just power through diffiulty, but this is something I cannot force through sheer will and/or mental and physical strength. The body heals on its own time table. I can do things to help the process, but I can also do a lot of foolish things that would hurt the process.

I tried to put my finger on what it was I felt I was missing…or maybe missing out on.

Run Rabbit Run 100

Foliage on full display at the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race in September, 2016

olympian aid station

Olympian Hall Aid Station, Run Rabbit Run 2016

I Need Something but isn’t more Cowbell

After spending the last 20 years running the trails and roads, going for a run feels like fulfillment of both basic and higher needs.  I love the ritual months-long build-up before a race, working towards short-term and long-term goals. I miss the early mornings spent on the trails, lost in my thoughts of how to make the world a better place and myself a better human being. I long for the feelings of freedom and power that come from exploring the trails, alone and unafraid.

ultrarunning

Enjoying solitude on the trails.

While I love working towards a race goal, the months of effort, the hard work involved, is what makes the experience gratifying for me. When I see articles about running a 100 mile race on extremely low mileage, I immediately think, “Why on earth would you want to do that?” The race is merely the celebration at the end of months of putting in the hard work. I spend weeks, months, years earning my way to the festivities. The dedication to the process is its own reward.

IMG-0798

My running partner, Willy.

I went early today for a few miles alone with Willy in Cheyenne Canon. Somewhere along the way, I realize that one key component I have missed out on during my recovery from hip surgery is the joy I feel from the solitude of being alone on the trails. I have spent plenty of time out walking in my neighborhood or at the gym or in the pool. There are benefits to all of these activities and being dedicated to them over the last four months has gotten me where I am now. I can get physical exercise anywhere, but only time in the mountains seems to bring the sense of peace I need.

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It’s Not You, It’s Me

Research provides plenty of evidence about the benefits of spending time in nature. I have never doubted the findings because I have experienced them myself. Today, while out away from technology and traffic and noise, my mind shifted into its creative space and I finally realized I am not really ‘missing out’ on anything at all. This summer has actually been exceptionally busy and while I love racing and the social aspect of running, what I really crave is the ‘quiet’ I can find only when I am alone on the trails.

I managed to get in 9 miles on the trails early this morning and was thrilled to see no other humans until I was over 7 miles in. In this world of ‘afters’, 9 miles is nowhere close to 20, but it felt just as wonderful. It was emotionally satisfying and physically challenging in exactly the way I needed. While I love my running friends, in this world of #zerolimits and baddassedry, right now I am content to go at my own pace, concentrate on healing and take care of my own needs.

Do I still Exist if I Don’t #DoEpicShit ?

Instead of looking back on 2017 as the year I did some ‘epic’ race, I will remember it as the year of recovery and no racing. I cannot and will not cap off the year by completing one big goal. Instead I am making a bunch of intermediate goals in the form of a list of trails I want to explore over the coming months. I am grateful I can still find peace, solitude and joy from doing something purely to feed my soul. If I continue to be smart and patient with my healing, hopefully I can soak in the tranquility and beauty of new open spaces as summer winds down and the cool winds of fall usher in the magnificent colors of fall.

Does My Recovery Make My Ass Look Fat?

Over the past couple of weeks I have told several people how proud I am of myself for not having attempted to run at all during my rehabilitation from hip labrum/FAI surgery. I mean, this is a HUGE deal for me. I started running when I was 28 and basically just never stopped. I had one long layoff several years back when my hip issues started, but both before and after that, I was an every day kind of runner. For me to go 10+ weeks without running…without even attempting to run…is actually quite remarkable. I am not sure which makes me more proud: how hard I have worked on the physical rehab or how hard I have worked to be OK with not being a runner for a while.

Hip labrum repair FAI

All smiles in Vail because I got good news from my medical team!

Progress

I last gave an update at around 40 days post-op. I am now at about 10.5 weeks post-op. I returned to Vail to see my surgeon, Dr. Phillippon May 31st, 2017. I also saw his Athletic Trainer, Mark, and my favorite PT, Melissa, at Howard Head in Vail. The news I got all the way around was extremely positive. They were quite pleased with my strength, as I exceeded where they expected me to be at this point in my recovery. My flexibility and range of motion still need work, but that is also ‘normal’ for this stage in the game. I cannot run yet, but there is a bunch of stuff I am now allowed to do (hiking, stair climber, elliptical) that was off-limits previously.

FAI Hip Labrum repair

Hiking ten weeks post op in Cheyenne Canon with Willy.

‘Secrets’ of Success

My recovery success so far comes down to making good decisions and working hard. (I know you were hoping I would say it is due to my vegan or paleo diet, but no, that is not the case). I did my research, chose a great surgeon with a great rehab team in Vail (thank you especially, Melissa!), and selected a wonderful PT in town (Kevin at Synergy). I have been patient, I have followed the protocol and I have worked diligently at my prescribed exercises every day. I have not ‘cheated’ on the rehab program. I am not trying to be ‘ahead’ of schedule. My goal is to be right on schedule, which is exactly where I need to be.

Learning from Past Mistakes

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, duh…what’s so amazing about that?” The thing is, my thirty year old self would not have been patient. My younger self would have rushed the recovery and likely would have caused more harm to my body. My younger self would not have been able to deal with the the difficult moments in life without being able to go for a run. My younger self would have worried about getting out of shape. My younger self would have beaten herself up over gaining weight during recovery.

My older self has learned some sense of patience and perspective. My older and wiser self has learned you either pay for lack of patience and discipline now or you will end up paying for it later. My older self is learning to focus on the daily process. I cannot control the past or what may happen two months from now, but I know what I can do right now to make myself healthier and stronger in the future.

Hip labrum FAI surgery

First walk in May!

The Body Image Trap

I knew the recovery for this surgery would be long. I knew I would not be able to run for months. I knew I had to be OK with potentially gaining some weight and not being or ‘looking like a runner’. I decided long ago I would not allow myself to have this surgery if I knew my body image issues would undermine my physical recovery.

I am physically ‘softer’ than I used to be. I am not thrilled about some of the changes Anyone who has dealt with an eating disorder or body image issues can relate to the fear of what will happen when weight gain is almost a certainty. For years, running kept the body image demons at bay. I did not weigh myself. I did not worry about what I ate. As my surgery approached, I wondered how I would mentally handle a long period of mandatory inactivity.

Does My Recovery Make My Ass look Fat?

I know it is really hard to believe, but I stopped running and probably gained a few pounds (I don’t weigh myself)…and the world has not stopped turning! The sun has continued to rise every morning. My husband and children still love me (actually, my husband thinks I’m sexier with a little more curve to my body). While self-acceptance has been a bit of a struggle, I know if I am going to heal properly, I really need to be OK with where I am right now. When I find myself worrying about weight or appearance instead of focusing on the end goal (returning to pain-free running) I think of one of my favorite quotes by J.K. Rowling:

“Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me.”

Fat is Not the Worst Thing We Can Be

As a woman, I am aware that so many people (including other women) want to reduce us down to our size, our shape, our weight, our wrinkles, the gray in our hair. Sometimes even the best and brightest among us forget we are so much more than our exterior selves. Too many of us worry that gaining weight or growing old means we have little value to society; that we are somehow no longer important when the beauty of youth fades. To not have a perfect exterior, whatever that means, is to be somehow unworthy of love.

The truth is the beauty of youth fades very quickly. Youthful beauty can offer some cover for character flaws for a time, but there better be something positive and meaningful underneath the glossy, shiny exterior. My bout with cancer gave me an early lesson on the aging process. I have a deep appreciation for just how transient youth and beauty are. In the blink of an eye, it seems, one day you wake up, look in the mirror and wonder who is looking back at you.

When your body has been through an incredible amount of stress, it can be somewhat distressing to look at yourself and wonder what the hell happened. Sometimes thinking about how much I have overcome is helpful. While I can draw some strength from knowing what I have been through, I do not want to live in the past. And while I know it is good to have goals, I also do not want to live in the future.

I am working on reminding myself of the positives I bring to the world today, no matter how small or insignificant my actions may feel to me. When the negative thoughts start to pop up, I think about the project I finished, or the the person I made laugh, or how I had a meaningful talk with my kids, or how I told my husband I loved him as he walked out the door this morning, just as I do every day.

In my heart, I know none of this shallow & superficial stuff really matters, but old thought patterns are difficult to completely eradicate. While the body image demons are hard to completely silence, I am trying so hard to keep their comments to a whisper and find some peace within myself. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to hit the stairs and the weights, because that is what is important right now, in this moment.

 

 

 

Off the Deep End

Forty Days ago I had hip surgery. This past week I hit some major milestones. I am now cleared to drive my car.

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A driving selfie just because I was so darned happy to get to drive myself for a change!

I got to go on my first short walks with my husband and the dogs.

Sadie rolling

I am mostly weaned off of my crutches, only using them when my leg becomes very tired or sore.

I have been faithful to doing my physical therapy exercises. I go to the pool 3-4 times per week. I went from barely being able to swim for 5 minutes to now being able to swim a mile (using the buoy) with relative physical ease. I am still grateful for the ability to swim for exercise. If it weren’t for the pool, I would have no way to work my heart and lungs for the first twelve weeks post-op.

The Pool: The Depths of Sadness

Yet I still don’t love swimming. Every time I go to the pool I have to have a serious heart-to-heart talk with myself. It takes me several minutes to psych myself, first to the leave the house and then, when I get to the pool, to go in. There is something I find depressing about the pool.

At first I thought that it is because you can’t really talk to anyone while you are swimming, but then I realized it is more than that. The pool, for me, amplifies feelings of isolation. When I head to the pool, I convince myself it will be a time of solitude and reflection. But the pool seems to always be busy. Instead of relishing some time to be alone with my thoughts, I find myself surrounded by people, often in close proximity, but without being able to connect with anyone. There are cursory words, ‘hi, mind if we share this lane?’ But that is about as far as the conversation goes. There is a profound sense of isolation that comes from being surrounded by people without any real sense of connection.

Isolation Vs. Being Alone

It isn’t that I don’t like being alone. But the experience through running is different. I have spent countless miles and hours alone on the trails. I come away with a clearer head. On the trails, I can focus on the world around me, taking in the beauty of nature, while allowing my internal world to work through life’s problems. I come home feeling freer, lighter, calmer. The time on the trails gives me a perspective that is hard to reach in other situations.

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Being alone with one’s thoughts without traffic, noise, technology and other distractions is a rare gift these days. Several recent studies have shown how important time in nature is to our mental health and well-being. After spending nearly 6 weeks without a single excursion to the trails I love, I realize how important that time is for my own sense of mental and emotional peace. Being alone on the trails gives a sense of connection to the universe. Being in the pool surrounded by people I don’t know leaves me feeling empty.

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The Intimacy of the Trails

There is something else that sets swimming in the pool apart from running the trails. There is a sense of intimacy that comes from relationships built on the trails. I joke that running is a sort of ‘truth serum’ that causes you to share things with people that you might not every share otherwise. Run with a partner and you will soon know everything about that person. When I think of my closest friends, the image that comes to mind is often a particular conversation or snapshot in time on a trail. Topics we might never bring up in other circumstances become subjects of intense debate, scrutiny and mutual understanding on the run.

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The Things I Learn About Running from Not Running

I don’t crave large numbers of friends built on superficial relationships. I live for the few people with whom I enjoy deeper conversations and connection. I desire the closeness that comes with truly knowing others. I want the relationship where we love one another not despite our flaws and inner secrets, but because we trust one another enough to share them.

 

Those are the moments I miss right now. It isn’t training or racing or putting in big miles or tempo runs or hill repeats that I want at this point. I long for those moments of being purely alone in the mountains. I miss the quiet moments with one close friend. I yearn for feelings that cannot be quantified or measured, those moments and conversations that leave me both energized and grounded in a way nothing else does.

So for now, the pool leaves me feeling cold, both emotionally and physically. I will keep going because I know eventually it will pay off and allow me to return to what my heart and soul crave most. For the time being, I will try to envision the mountain vistas with each stroke and breath as I try to stay afloat, forever moving forward.

Tonia Jacks

My Hippie Life

March 30th, 2017 marks the day I officially became a hippie. On that day, somewhere shortly after noon, I had hip surgery at the Vail Valley Surgery Center with Dr. Marc Philippon.

Hip History

My hip gave me some trouble several years ago. In 2009, I turned 40 and my ass fell off. Maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration, but, I trained really hard and ran a couple of good (for me) races, culminating with an 8th place finish at the American Discovery Trail Marathon. I won a little cash and enjoyed the race tremendously.

Tonia ADTM awards

I went home, very sore and spent the rest of the day reclining on the couch. The next day, I could not stand up straight. I was bent over like a 132-year-old person. Imagine my surprise when I saw my picture gracing the front of our local newspaper’s sport section (photo courtesy of the Gazette).

Tonia ADTM Gazette

How on earth did I go from feeling good and running well to being 132 years old?

An Eternity in the Pool

After ADTM, I spent months seeking a firm diagnosis on what was wrong, but doctors could not seem to agree.  ‘Maybe’ it was a labrum tear. I definitely had a stress reaction or hairline fracture to the pelvis. Some soft tissue damage. The possibility of labrum surgery was introduced at that point in time, but after doing a lot of research on the procedure, I decided I really needed to spend a long time trying to recover and rehab. I could not put my body through a procedure with an extremely long recovery without knowing for sure if the labrum was torn.

No Love at First Sight

I spent the next 9 months not running a step. I decided I would swim for recovery. I am not a swimmer. Sure, I can keep myself afloat long enough that I will not drown, but I have no technical swimming ability under my belt.

I hated every minute of swimming. The pool was cold and I was miserable every single time I got in the water. As much as I hated it. I never gave up. Over the course of 9 months, I swam nearly every day. Sticking with it paid off in spades when I got back into running. Becoming a terrible but committed swimmer kept me in great shape. When I started running again, I was grateful I had spent all of those months in the pool.

Eventually I got back into running, then racing and ultrarunning.  I never went back to the pool. I never thought I would need to.

Groin Pain or Hip Pain?

While the outside of my hip did not bother me, I occasionally developed what I thought was ‘groin pain’. As it turns out, ‘groin pain’ can actually be hip pain. For months following Run Rabbit Run, I did all I could to get better, but the pain never went away. Sometimes it was more or less intense than others, but it was always there.

Hip Surgery

After consulting with several medical professionals, I decided it was ‘now or never’ time. The labrum was now definitely torn and I needed to get it fixed soon or it might never happen. Results for this surgery seem to depend upon multiple factors, including the surgeon, the rehab work after surgery and the joint itself. If there is too much arthritis, the outcome of a labrum repair will not be good.

Fortunately for me, Dr. Philippon at the Steadman Clinic in Vail was willing to take me as a patient. (Read about the Steadman Clinic HERE) When his clinic contacted me and said he was willing to take me as a patient, I was thrilled. He is a pioneer in hip arthroscopic surgeries and has worked on many professional and elite amateur athletes. (Read more about Dr. Philippon HERE) Though he has strict criteria/requirements for his surgical patients and their recoveries (patients must stay in Vail for Physical Therapy for 4-5 days minimum post-op), I felt that going to Vail would give me the best shot for coming back to running.

I received excellent care in Vail and cannot say enough good things about the Steadman Clinic and Howard Head Sports Medicine. Within hours of my surgery, a physical therapist visited me in the hospital and got me on an exercise bike. (Visit Howard Head HERE)

Vail hospital Bike

I went to physical therapy twice per day for four days after surgery. On the fifth day, I went to morning PT and then all the hip patients went to the Avon Rec Center for a session in the pool.

hip class

How Did I End Up Here?

My labrum tore due to Femoroacetabular Impingement, a condition where excess bone on the hip socket (pincer type) and/or femoral head (cam type) causes damage to the labrum and cartilage. I had both types of impingement, so I ended up having the femoral head reshaped and excess bone cut off the socket. In addition, Dr. Philippon repaired the labrum and fixed several other problematic areas.

The Aftermath

The post-operative pain has been surprisingly manageable. I will be on crutches for approximately six weeks. I must use a ‘Continuous Passive Motion’ machine for 6-8 hours per day. The recommendation is to use it while you sleep, but that just doesn’t seem to work well for me. I do what I can and then make up the rest of the time during the day.

CPM

I am back visiting Kevin at Synergy Manual Physical Therapy in Colorado Springs. (Visit Synergy HERE). I ride a stationary bike and do my PT exercises twice per day, three or four days per week. On the other days, I am swimming/deep water running in addition to doing the PT exercises. So far, recovery feels like I am doing two-a-day training sessions for an ultra. In a way, I am.

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It is amazing to me what surgeons can do arthroscopically these days. All I have are three small scars and a big bruise (not shown).

Lessons Learned…Looking Ahead

The good news is surgery went well. Dr. Philippon and the PTs at Howard Head believe I will be able to do whatever I want to do in time. The recovery from labrum surgery can be long and at 48-years-old my body does not bounce back from trauma the way it used to. I am trying to keep things in perspective and rely on my ultra marathon mentality to get me through the long road ahead.

I have already learned a few things in the last week-and-a-half:

  1. I hate being dependent upon other people. I knew this, but it has become even more apparent this past week-and-a-half. Since I am on crutches, I feel essentially helpless. I can’t carry anything. I can’t do laundry. I can’t fix dinner. I can’t carry a cup of coffee across the house. I need to ask for help with pretty much everything and it really bothers me. Why hasn’t anyone created crutches with robot hands? I would definitely buy them.
  2. Sometimes when you try something the second time around (or even third), you find you like it better…or at least you don’t hate it anymore. It was like that with running for me. I didn’t fall in love with running until the third time I tried to make it a habit. This is the second time around with the pool for me and I actually have been really grateful to have it as an outlet. I am thrilled to get real exercise and get my  heart rate up. I come home thinking, “I am tired and calm and that actually didn’t suck.”
  3. The pool feels warmer when you aren’t as skinny as you used to be. Also, swimming is hard work. Neither of these are bad things.
  4. Using crutches and wearing a brace makes everything take way longer than you think it will.
  5. As much as I hate it, sometimes I really have to rely on others for help. My mom, my husband, other school and volleyball parents have been life savers. I am grateful for their help.
  6. As much as I love running, I won’t die if I have to take some time off. I learned this already, but I am relearning it. Life will go on. I miss seeing my running friends. I will miss certain events this year. But, I will get back to it.
  7. It is good to have goals during recovery. Dr. Philippon and the PTs have all talked to me about my goals and I already have some in mind.
  8. I want to run again. I thought I would be doing Run Rabbit Run 100 again this year. Clearly I won’t be. But I believe I will run again.
  9. I also want to do some other things. Maybe I will take swim lessons. Maybe I will learn to rock climb when my hip is better. Maybe I will hike the Colorado Trail. I want to run but I hope to also discover joy in some new activities.
  10. I sometimes believe the universe is giving me signs. The gentleman who had hip surgery immediately following mine and who I spent lots of time chatting with at PT lives in Steamboat Springs and can see the Run Rabbit Run course from his house.
  11. I could live in a one room cabin with my husband and be happy.

For now, I am focused on getting through these next 4-6 weeks of crutches and equipment. While I know some days will be difficult, I am pretty at peace with the process for the moment. I don’t have a choice, so I may as well make the best of it. The mountains are still calling and I will be there…in time.

Seven Bridges selfie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What if this is ‘The End’?

When I ran Run Rabbit Run 100 in September, 2016, I had no idea that it would likely be my last 100 mile race. I was blissfully unaware that my little 100+ mile jaunt through the mountains in and around Steamboat Springs might be my final ultra or possibly even the conclusion of my running ‘career’.

As hard as Run Rabbit Run was for me, I had an amazing time. (You can read more about my race experience HERE) Even though there were moments in time where I was really ready to be done, I knew without question I wanted to run another 100. In the immediate aftermath of my previous 100’s, I told myself I was finished with the distance. Only days, weeks or months later did I start entertaining the idea of running another one. At Run Rabbit Run, however, I knew before I even crossed the finish line that I would sign up for another one. Except now I think my days of toeing the line at ultras is over.

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Injury

It turns out the self-diagnosed ‘groin strain’ was something entirely different. I have a tear in the labrum of my right hip that is causing pain and making running difficult. While physical therapy can sometimes improve the symptoms of a labrum tear, the labrum will not actually heal on its own.

Complicating things a bit is my age. As we get older, we typically have signs of osteoarthritis in our joints. If there is too much arthritis in the hip joint, the surgery will not be successful.

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Soaking in the scenery (Photo courtesy of Tim Englund)

Debating Surgery

I have debated with myself whether to have surgery or not many times over since I first learned the nature of my injury.The recovery from hip labrum surgery is known to be very long and challenging.  If I don’t get the surgery, I might be able to keep running, with pain, for a while. Running in the hills puts extra strain on the injury, so that would be out. I could run short distances on flat trails to try to minimize the damage, but for how long? And would I be happy with that?

On the other hand, if the surgery is not successful, I may not be able to run again at all. What is the right thing to do? Take a chance on the surgery so that maybe, just maybe, I could get back to doing what I love? Or should I try to settle with what I consider to be a poor substitute for an unknown amount of time?  Do I take a chance on my passion and risk giving up running entirely? Or do I play it safe and hope to just be able to get in a couple of miles each day around the neighborhood?

Vermont 100

What would I have done if I knew it was the last time?

When I found out that I might not be racing or even running in the future, I was devastated. I thought about Run Rabbit Run and how I had absolutely no idea it was likely my final 100, my swan song. If I had known, I wondered, what would I have done differently? It was a race, after all, so maybe I would have tried harder, despite being injured, to turn in a faster finish time. Maybe.

I love competition and I get fired up by seeing how well I can do under any given set of circumstances. However, in this instance, I think I would have tried harder to soak up every second of the experience. I have wonderful and very fond memories of this experience, but I wish I could hold on to every second in my mind: the beautiful scenery, hugging my daughter at the Aid Stations, Larry’s amazing stories, the spectacular full moon that Laura made me take in, the sunrise with my husband and even those final hot and painful miles downhill to the finish line.

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As we go through life and become acutely aware of how quickly time passes, we all seem to want the same thing- the ability to slow down time so we can savor the experiences. I have no regrets at this point about my running experiences. I have run many, many roads marathons, trail marathons and ultra marathons. I am three for three on 100 mile finishes.

Memories and Miles

Each race is special snapshot of a particular moment in the times of my life. I remember something from each experience which carries meaning for me. Sometimes those memories relate to where I was at a particular point in my life. Sometimes it is something as simple as the crowds at Boston or the scenery in the mountains. Either way, the memories the races evoke are incredibly special. I wouldn’t want to change the races where I ran as hard as I could. Still, all I can think when I recall Run Rabbit Run is how I wish I could replay the whole experience. I want to slow it down in the same way parents want to slow down time as their children grow.

More importantly, I carry running memories with me that have nothing to do with racing. I think back to how I started running with my dogs when I lived on the Gulf Coast. I remember the people I have run with over the years. I envision the beautiful trails I have spent so much time on since I have moved to Colorado. I have pushed my children in baby joggers and I have developed deep friendships on the roads and trails. My relationship with my husband has become richer and more rewarding as it has evolved over the years of running together. This is what makes running meaningful for me. It isn’t the races or the medals or the t-shirts. It is the all about the moments, the experiences, the time spent alone and the time engaged with others.

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I recently purged a bunch of my old race t-shirts. I even tossed an old Boston Marathon jacket I had. My husband was incredulous. He knew that jacket had once meant a great deal to me. At some point I realized, however, that it wasn’t the jacket that was important to me. The memories of the experience are what matter.

Who Am I if I am not a Runner?

In three weeks, if all goes well, I will have hip surgery. I hope to come back to running in time, but at this point I have no idea what the future holds. As with any major life change, it is frightening to have to give up something that has long been a big source of my own identity. I have now been ‘a runner’ for 20 years. Will I cease to exist as I once was? How will I see myself? How will others see me? Will I survive the long recovery period with my sanity intact? Will something else take the place running once filled in my life?

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Maybe I will come back to running, or maybe this will be the beginning of something new and undiscovered in my life. Either way, I cherish the memories I have built over these past 20 years. Push yourself. Run Hard. Run Fast. Run Long. But every once in a while, take the time to slow down and revel in the moment because you never know if it will be your last.

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