We Were So Happy

“We were so happy,” she said as I hugged her and felt her tears fall on my shoulder.

It is a moment and a feeling I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

There are plenty of things I know nothing about, but one thing I know is love. Whenever I saw this couple together, I knew one thing: they were in love. I was not part of their ‘inner circle’ but we spent enough time together that I just knew. I could see it and I could feel it in the space they occupied together. There was an ease to the relationship between them and a mutual admiration that was refreshing. Their love was the real deal.

It was a second marriage for both, and as I know quite well myself, second marriages come along with a lot of complicated history. I do not presume to know anything about their relationship beyond what I, and others, could clearly see. All I can say is they shared similar interests and passions, and if I saw one, I was sure to see the other. Always together. Always smiling.

He passed away suddenly and unexpectedly, in his 40s.

All I could offer was, “He loved you so much.”  She confirmed what I knew, “We were so happy.” While I know she wanted to try to be strong and focus on how fortunate they were to have each other, that was something I could not bear.

“It’s not fucking fair,” I told her. Words I never allowed myself to think about my own plight as I faced pancreatic cancer….except when I thought about my own marriage. My second marriage. The one I came to later in life. The one I brought my broken self and my own baggage to. The one I felt loved in and cared for every day. When I found out I had pancreatic cancer and did not dare to think I might survive it, I thought about our love and thought, “It isn’t fair. We haven’t had enough time together!”

How many people can truthfully say about their ownn marriages, ‘We are so happy!’?

Many times over the 15.5 years Stephen and I have been together, I have thought, “I hope I die before my husband does, because I don’t know how I would ever make it through life without him by my side.” I did not know if long-term happiness in a marriage was even possible when we got together, but all of these years later, I know it is. I am still crazy about my husband.

Over the years, I have also frequently spent time feeling guilty about my divorce. I have analyzed what I contributed to the failure of my first marriage many times since we officially split. I have felt badly about our daughter not getting to grow up with both biological parents in the same house. While my second marriage has been a blessing, I have spent too much time anazlying my own ‘failures’ as a human being.

Stephen and I have faced a lot of hardship together. We have faced things together which would have torn many couples apart. But, yes, we are still happy together. We are happy in a different way from when we first met years ago, of course, but we still choose to spend our time together. We still make each other laugh. We still have the intimacy of a couple ‘in love’.

The one ‘gift’ of my divorce was that it allowed me to look critically at my own shortcomings as a human being and figure out how I could be a better partner the second time around. I express my needs clearly. If there is a problem or an issue, I will not allow it to fester. I probably drive my husband nuts at times, but I don’t want to waste time being angry at each other. We resolve problems quickly or just decide maybe the ‘problem’ isn’t worth spending energy on. Move on. Let the anger go.

While divorce is painful and difficult for all involved, I learned something from mine which, I hope, makes me a better person and a better spouse today.

Are you happy?

Life is hard. There are times when the world is going to hand you a lot of really challenging stuff you have to face. You may not always love your job, but you should always love your partner. Home should be the place where you are loved and cared for no matter what else is going on in the cruel, harsh world.

If you aren’t happy in your relationship, why not? Do you feel valued and respected? Do you make your spouse feel valued and respected? What can you BOTH do to improve your relationship? Is it fixable? Or is there too much anger for either of you to move beyond? Maybe what you wanted at 20 is just not what you realize you need at 40 or 50?

Either figure out a way to fix things or move on.

Before anyone accuses me of being cavalier about marriage, I assure you I am not. However, there is a point where everyone involved is losing, including the kids. I have witnessed many people going through the motions in their own marriages. I have also seen people stick it out even though it is clear everyone involved is miserable.

And I have seen a whole lot of happiness the second time around.

If I die tomorrow, I hope my husband tells everyone ‘We were so happy’. And I hope he tells people he was happy because I made him laugh, and took him on crazy adventures, and made him feel loved and sexy, and teased him about how obsessed he was with getting the garbage out on time, but that’s because I knew that was part of how he showed our family love…and I sincerely appreciated it.

And I know for the last few days, I have thought often about this couple who was so happy and I have cried and thought a million times about how my heart aches for her. I know many, many people will miss her husband, but none as much as she will. I hope everyone who knows her allows to her to be sad, and angry, and to say it isn’t fucking fair, because it isn’t. I hope she feels free to cry, scream, stomp her feet, break things or do whatever she needs to do to get through each day.

Because in a world where there is so much unhappiness, I cannot make any sense of why a couple who was so happy together has been denied the many more years of joy they should have had ahead of them. They were in love. They were happy. They made each other better people that second time around, because that’s what love does. It makes you better together.

Celebrate love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Six Months Post Op Goal: Rosa & Ohio Mike

Six months ago, I had surgery to repair a rather large tear my right labrum caused by cam and pincer impingement. I am not going to recount all of the details of the past six months because you can scroll through previous entries of my blog for that information.  Suffice it to say it has been a long recovery requiring a great deal of humor, patience, humor, help, humor, cake, love and more humor. In addition, I spent a lot of time swimming (hated it and hurt my shoulder), walking, hiking, riding my bike in front of documentaries on Netflix, doing my PT exercises, stairmilling, ellipticating and eventually working my way back to running.

Being a goal-oriented person, I soon needed to set a personal goal, a milestone I could attempt to achieve following my surgery. I did not want to sign up for a race because I knew I was not physically or mentally ready. I thought about it a few times, but I knew it was just a bad idea. After hip surgery is not the time to get caught up in race fever or any short-term goals. I needed to think of something challenging but attainable. Something that would not hurt my long-term success or health.

The Goal: Mount Rosa

I looked up at the mountains on our Colorado Front Range and decided I wanted to hike Mt. Rosa by my six-month surgical anniversary. Rosa is a peak that stands 11,500 feet tall and is the third tallest peak in our area. It is much less well-known than our local 14,115 foot Pikes Peak, but I kind of like it that way. I have hiked and run the trails up and down Rosa a few times before, and I always think it is beautiful. Some of the trails are pretty darned steep, making for a reasonable challenge. The loop would be about 15-16 miles, I estimated, so that was a decent amount of mileage.

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Steve on top of Mount Rosa in 2016. We were last there in 2016 while I was training for Run Rabbit Run 100.

Climbing Rosa was not a ‘stretch’ of a goal. Or at least, it shouldn’t have been as long as I was careful and respectful of my body while I recovered. Too much running or high intensity work could set me back, but if I stayed on track, it was certainly within reach.

All summer and into early fall, I concentrated on two things: keeping up a good rehab protocol and exploring the trails. I promised myself that since I wasn’t training for any particular race, I would take more time hiking in new areas. I did some trails which were new to me and really enjoyed it.

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With my faithful companion, Willy

It’s Been a Long Six Months

For the most part, I was good about mentally focusing on the immediate issue at hand, which was simply to do the best job of rehabbing my injury as possible. When I started having some new medical issues, I really missed being able to relieve my stress through 20 mile runs in the mountains. That was hard. Long runs have been my coping mechanism for years and I have struggled with some depression in the last couple of months.

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My favorite time of year in Colorado!

Would You like Another Crap Sandwich?

How do you cope when you life hands you a crap sandwich while you are already sitting on top of a pile of crap? Runners cope by running. Distance runners cope by running stupid distances. But, I couldn’t run ridiculous distances. I was tired, my body was beat up and I had other symptoms and things to be concerned about. I had to just sit on top of the pile of crap that was already there, while holding my crap sandwich, hoping dessert would maybe turn out to be more appealing. (I have to say that I am using crap metaphorically here. There is no actual crap involved in my current situation, and that’s about all I want to say about it for now).

While I always thought Rosa was possible, I had about a month of physical issues which really made me doubt it was ever going to be within the realm of possibilities. There was one day we started going up a trail where I thought I was going to have to go back down and have Steve take me to the hospital. Another day we went up to 11,000 feet and the altitude kicked my butt. Moving slowly, sweating profusely and breathing hard, I doubted I could make it up the additional 500 foot climb to the top. As we descended the trail, I fell on my face, hard.  Steve was horrified, but I was just happy my hip seemed to be OK.

Still, I persevered. We chose a date where Steve and I could summit and where the weather looked like it would cooperate. It was going to be special! It was going to be a date! Just the two of us achieving my goal together.

Enter Ohio Mike.

We saw Mike getting dropped off in the parking lot as we set out on our path to Rosa. His mom and brother were in the car. Mike was already started off down Gold Camp Road as we gathered our stuff and headed out behind him. Mom rolled down the window and asked if her son would be safe out there alone. They were here from Ohio. Mike wanted to go on these unfamiliar trails and Mom was worried. I reassured her the trails were safe, but being a mom myself, I understood her worry. I told her we would probably see him on the trails and we would look out for him.

Steve and I started running up Gold Camp Road and there was Mike. I stopped and asked where he was headed. He told me Mt. Rosa and I said he we were also doing Rosa. Ohio Mike was going to do an out-and-back, but we told him we were doing it as a loop. I knew this was supposed to be a ‘special date’ with my husband. I knew Steve wanted it to be just us out alone for the day. But…Mike…and Mike’s worried mom. I couldn’t just pass by and leave. We spent the next seven hours showing Ohio Mike the beauty of our local trail and mountains.

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The day started off for Steve and me as a way to celebrate the first six months of my physical recovery, but it turned into something else. I love our local trails. It brings me great joy to share Colorado’s beauty with people new to the area or just new to a particular trail. In fact, Steve calls me the Tour Guide. But I have gained so much happiness out on those trails and I want to share it with others.

I told Ohio Mike to text his mom that he was with company when he had a phone signal, because I did not want Mom worrying about him being eaten by bears. Soon I found myself sending Ohio Mike off onto some of my favorite photo spots so I could take his picture. I took pictures as he hit 9,000 for the first time in his life. And 10,000, and 11,000 and, of course, on the summit of Rosa.

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And it wasn’t just me playing tour guide. I saw Steve call Ohio Mike over to scenic overlooks to point things out to him. I knew Steve had been looking forward to our time together, but when I saw him standing there pointing stuff out to this stranger we picked up along the trail, my heart got all squishy and I loved my husband even more.

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Tonia, Steve & Ohio Mike at 11,000 feet.

Mike was quiet, but he kept up with us admirably well. He never complained. He was all smiles, even when I knew he was feeling the elevation. He was very well-prepared but he was carrying a very large pack with a lot of ‘stuff’, not traveling lightly as we were. He was being smart and cautious and I admire that, but I know it had to make climbing that much more difficult.

We stopped on top of the mountain for some photos and snacks. I told him this was my six month post hip surgery celebration. I gave Steve a hug and a kiss for always being my biggest cheerleader.

We came back down the mountain, enjoying the beautiful fall day and safely returned Ohio Mike to his family. On the way home, I thought, ‘Well, OK, I guess I checked off my goal’. But I didn’t really care. All that mattered was the sense of joy I felt from having shown Ohio Mike some trails and helping him celebrate a new experience. Sharing that happiness was what made the day special.

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Ohio Mike with his tour guides

Ohio Mike would have made it to the top of the mountain, I am sure. But he wouldn’t have seen the cabin remains we showed him. He wouldn’t have seen the bridges we went over. He would’t have learned the names of some of the other mountains. And I would have missed out on the chance to tell the other hikers we passed about how ‘Mike is from Ohio and he is climbing Rosa!’ And everyone we saw was impressed, because dammit, that IS impressive.

Just thinking about it still makes me happy. Goals are wonderful and it feels good to reach goals, but not this time. Of course, it did not feel BAD to achieve my goal. It just felt irrelevant. I could not have cared less about MY goal, but I did care about Ohio Mike’s goal. All that mattered was sharing the beauty of our mountains with him and celebrating his success. I am thankful our paths crossed and I got be there to see him summit and return safely to his family. Thank you, Ohio Mike, for giving perfect strangers the opportunity to share a day and a goal, to enjoy some conversation, but also some peace and to celebrate the beauty of our world.

Finally, I am so thankful for my husband who knows and understands my heart…And for Willy, who never knows what the hell we will get him into but always goes along happily.

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Willy the Supermodel on Mt. Rosa.

 

 

 

Time and Health

 

These last few years have shown me the precious and fleeting nature of time.  Sure, money makes life easier, but time and health are what we need most. We need time for experiences which give meaning to our lives. We need time to love and give to those who mean the most to us. We need physical and emotional health to be able to create those meaningful relationships and experiences. If you have neither time nor health, you will wish with every fiber of your being you could go back in time and change something, anything, to give yourself more of both.

For the latter part of 2016, I realized that I needed to take a step back from many things so I could take better care of myself. Last year was full of moments in time that were both joyful and emotionally draining. My oldest daughter graduated from high school. When I was diagnosed with cancer, one of my top goals was to live to see my daughter graduate. Luck was on my side. We both made it to this day. I was, of course, proud of all of her accomplishments and reaching this milestone in life. But I also knew it meant my daughter, my friend, would be leaving our home soon.

Growing Up and Leaving Home

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How do you go from holding a tiny helpless baby in your arms to saying goodbye to a young woman who is literally a part of you but also very uniquely and wonderfully her own person? But this is a parent’s job and we have known this all along. We who get to see our children grow and fly the nest are the lucky ones. Not every parent has that privilege.

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And though I heard many times, ‘The high school years go by so quickly!’ I now know in my own heart how true that is. I have 4.5 years left with my younger daughter. I plan to make each one count.

Summer

The summer of 2016 was full of bittersweet moments. I had the pleasure of traveling with Peyton to spend time with my family in New York State.

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I traveled to Montana to spend time with my husband’s family. Steve, Peyton and I spent time enjoying the beauty of Glacier National Park.

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Iceberg Lake

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Moving on to College

Through it all, I knew that our lives were about to significantly change. In August, we brought Riley to college. While I was excited for her to enjoy this next step in life, I felt like a piece of my heart was literally being ripped from my body. It was very apparent that all I wanted was more time with her. I knew we would talk and see each other again, but I knew it would never be the same. She had to adjust to being ‘on her own’ and we would shift to mostly being a group of three on a daily basis. I wonder when will be the first time she tells me she is not coming home for vacation or not coming home for summer. I wonder where she will ultimately end up living.

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Sisters saying good-bye at the end of their summer vacations.

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Saying goodbye to my baby on move in day.

As our car drove away, I waved to my daughter until she was out of sight, and then the tears came. I wished I could go back in time so I could hold her little hand, read her bedtime stories and play more games with her. As my daughters grow older and move on to the next phases of their lives, it is these little moments I wish I could experience again, because now all I have are photos and distant memories.

The Importance of Time and Health

We all tend to feel invincible when we are young. We are surprised, shocked even, when we first face our own health crisis. Though it feels like time is endless when we are young, we are mortal, after all. Time does not come to us in unlimited quantities.

Health crises come in different forms. We all know people who have died much too young from an illness. A long, slow protracted death from cancer cells ravaging the body. A sudden, shocking end from a heart attack.

Mental illness robs many of joy and fulfillment in life. It steals time and happiness from people in a more insidious way than a physical illness, but is often no less devastating. If the mental illness is severe enough, it can be deadly.

There are other health problems that may be not as deadly but can be equally destructive. As we age, we find out our bodies or our minds are no longer capable of doing some of the things they used to do. We may be forced to give up things we love to do. Eventually we may find we have problems with basic tasks or mobility. It seems cruel and unfair.

Growing Up and Growing Old

We watch our parents age and realize someday we will have to navigate the world without them. If we are lucky, we still call our parents well into adulthood asking for advice. We wonder why we live so far away now and wish we could go back and right some of the wrongs we feel responsible for.

We wake up one day and see our own wrinkles and gray hair. We experience the failings of our own bodies. Confronted once again with our own mortality, we wish we had more time. We wish we could go back and do the things with our young, healthy bodies that we can no longer do now.

All of this brings me back to time. Spend your time wisely. Spend it doing what is important to you. Spend time with the people who are important to you. This past year was exceptionally difficult at times and I found myself mentally and physically completely drained. I faced many difficulties that I did not want to discuss with others. The personal struggle too real and too raw.

Saying ‘Yes’ to Saying ‘No’

I have always been one who has trouble saying no. I don’t like to disappoint people. I feel like I should be strong enough to ‘do it all’. I spent days volunteering for events and then went home and had to lay in bed the following day because I developed a fever. I smiled and gave to others while taking away from myself and my family. I have always been a giver. I finally realized that what I was giving was physically and emotionally destroying me. I have my own battles that I am not done fighting. I need time and energy to take care of myself and my family.

For years, I spent so much time saying ‘yes’ to other people that I had to say ‘no’ to my own needs. While I do not do New Year’s resolutions, as 2016 moved towards 2017, I knew there was no choice. I needed to pull back and focus on my health and my family.

I have pulled back gradually and I know it was the right decision. I need to make 2017 the year of saying ‘no’ to things which draw my time away from my family and make it more difficult to focus on my own emotional and physical health. For someone who is so used to saying ‘yes’, this is not an easy undertaking. This is not a New Year’s Resolution. It is a gradual, but necessary, process. I have to treat it like my life depends on it, because right now, I feel like it does.

Time and health. Those are the things that matter. You don’t get second chances with either.

 

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.

tonia-running-at-rrr

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.

finish-rrr

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.

finish-peyton

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.

rrr-finish

finish-chair

crew-rrr

tracey-megan-tonia-rrr

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.

film-crew

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

No Air

I felt secure in my health. Invincible. I knew I was not immortal but I pictured a long, active, healthy life surrounded by people I love. I had a follow-up appointment scheduled with my doctor on a day when my husband had training for his job. He offered to change his training days, but I was so confident all would be fine that I told him not to bother. I would go alone. It would be fine. I would be fine.

As I  waited in the oncologist’s office, I had some mild pre-report jitters, which is normal.. The doctor came in and we engaged in a couple of minutes of idle chit-chat. I was waiting for the words, “Everything is fine. I will see you in three months.” But, instead, he opened his mouth and told me there was a lymph node near the celiac plexus that needed to be biopsied. As we looked through my scans together, he showed me another spot, this one on my liver. He emphasize that both could be nothing. However, he was recommending further testing to be sure.

As I listened to him, I kept a half-smile on my face, because I don’t want to show that I am rattled. But, I can feel the air leaving the room. I have a deja vu. I am back in 2013  when I first heard bad news about a tumor in my body that needed to be checked out further. I feel the same half-smile on my face, nodding in agreement to a voice that sounds a million miles away. No air. I hear the tumor board will discuss my case and let me know what will happen next. I think: I am alone. WHY did I come alone? Because I thought I was fine. I AM fine. But I thought I was fine in 2013, also. I don’t know what is real. I cannot trust my own instincts. I am afraid and so very alone.

I think, ‘What am I going to tell my daughters?’ I cannot tell them everything is fine, but I don’t want them to worry needlessly. After all,  I am going to be fine.

I leave and am, fortunately, able to speak to my husband. He sounds like I feel. A punch to the stomach. Fear. Disbelief. We are both desperate to be together, but are over 100 miles apart. I cry on a bench by the hospital elevator and I don’t care who sees me. I can’t drive. I can’t breathe. He has to return to class. I drag myself downstairs for the ride home but I just can’t do it yet. I sit on another bench and cry for 20 minutes, watching the rain pouring down outside. What am I going to tell my daughters?

Eventually, I pull it together enough to drive home. I talk to my parents. I talk with a couple of very close friends. I get home and sit on the floor, unable to move for 20 minutes. I am so thankful for Sadie, my Boston Terrier, who is licking my face. When my daughters come home, I tell them I need another test, but I do not elaborate. We have too little information. I am scared but I do not want to cause them unnecessary stress. There is no point. It seems cruel. They will know as soon as we know for sure one way or the other, good news or bad.

Sadie on my lap

The doctor calls the next day and says a biopsy is recommended. I vacillate between thinking I am totally fine and feeling fear that comes from seemingly nowhere. It consumes me on a visceral level. It does not seem to be triggered by anything in particular. I can only assume it is a response to the old wounds and fears coming back. One minute I am fine and the next I feel like the earth is swallowing me whole.

I cannot think about possible treatments. In fact, I don’t. I think about the test and just want to get through that. But when Stephen and I start discussing plans we have…races we have signed up for and trips we will take to see family, I become choked up. “But I have PLANS,” I think. “I have so much stuff that I want to do!”

The waiting is the hardest. Neither of us sleep well. We walk around, distracted zombies, trying to go through the motions and fulfill our daily duties and obligations. There is no time to emotionally deal with our personal crisis. We are so busy, we wish we had time to just sit and hold each other. When there is a moment of down time, our thoughts become our own worst enemies.

Steve & Tonia Santa Fe

I have the test. They biopsy enlarged lymph nodes. I go home and I wait and wait and wait. i try to figure out what it means. Why haven’t I heard anything? Is no news good news or does he not want to deliver bad news over the phone? I over analyze.

I actually think that I am healthy and fine. The logical side thinks I will be OK, but since I thought I was fine prior to my initial diagnosis, that leaves the door slightly open. Wednesday comes and I am supposed to see the doctor. A blizzard arrives, shutting down essentially every major road on the Colorado Front Range and I am stuck at home waiting to see if I will learn any news. I work and play games with my kids, but I am anxious and distracted. Finally, my phone rings and I get the news: I am fine. There is no sign of cancer in the lymph nodes.

There is relief and joy when I tell people, but after two-and-a-half weeks of living in some alternate universe, my own personal little time in hell, I am mentally exhausted. The news comes to me not as a surprise, but as a confirmation. I am fine. I knew it.

Today, as everything sinks in, I celebrate a new day of continued good health with a run. There is air. I can breathe again.

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Love and Marriage

We met and he told me he had gone to school in my hometown. I had little faith in men and relationships and I did not believe him. I thought it was a line. But then I realized it was true and I felt the comfort of connecting with someone who shares your roots and who understands where you come from. It felt like home.

I was someone who did not become attached to people easily. I ended many fledgling relationships quickly. I did not mind moving away or moving on.

He did not try to impress me. He did not try to wine or dine me. He simply wanted to spend time with me. He wanted to show me the trails he loved. He wanted to talk to me and just be together.

We hiked. We ran. We talked. We kissed.

I enjoyed his company. We shared a similar sense of adventure. We traveled.

Tahoe

We raced. We started thinking about the possibility of a future.

wyoming

He was not jealous or possessive. He did not grill me about my past. He was willing to listen if there was something I wanted to talk about, but he did not push me for details. He asked questions but did not demand answers.

I enjoyed the simplicity of our relationship. We spent hours, days, weekends together. The conversations were not forced. We did not agree on everything, but we when we disagreed, we did so respectfully. We were alike, but we were not the same.

We laughed and had fun. We shared dreams and goals. He listened to my darkest secrets and they did not scare him.

He was kind to my daughter. He was playful and fun and enjoyed being with her.

riley and steve

I fell in love with him. We planned a life of adventure and outdoor endeavors. We were young and healthy and took it for granted that we would always be so.

Moab

We had a baby. He was a beautiful father. He loved me. He loved our girls. We were a loving family of four.

soccer coach

steve girls

I had a simple surgery that went terrible wrong. He brought my damaged body home from the hospital. I was in excruciating pain. I never thought I would be the same. I couldn’t leave the house many days. I was 35. He cleaned me and cared for me. He could have left. This was not the life he had signed up for. But, of course, he did no such thing. He is loyal and caring and kind.

Eventually we found a doctor who could fix the damage. Gradually I got better. After a couple of years, we were going on adventures together  and having fun again. We raised our family together. We went to band concerts and gymnastics and cross country and karate and all of the other kid activities together. We ran and hiked and laughed and played. We made wonderful memories. We took it for granted that we would grow old together.

I got cancer. He brought me in for surgery and waited in the waiting room. He tended to me in the hospital. He brought me home on one of the coldest days I can ever remember. He walked around the block with me in the frigid cold, holding me so I would not fall on the ice.

He went to every chemotherapy appointment. He cared for me and the girls while I was sick. He held me every single night because the girl who previously needed no one actually needed him desperately.

And gradually, I got better. We went on with our lives, forever altered and different. We were damaged and weary, but still in love.

I love him because he takes out the garbage. I love him because he takes the girls ice skating and swimming and skiing and to the amusement park.

I love him because he repairs the fence and because he puts air in Riley’s tires. I love him because he is reliable and hard-working and honest.

I love him because he whether I say, “I want to get a dog” or “I want to run 100 miles”, he says, “OK, go ahead and do it. I support you.” I love him because he has cared for me when I could not care for myself.

I love my husband more today than I did in the early months of of our relationship. There is passion and intrigue in those early months, and it feels like love, but it really is not. Love comes after you build a life together. Love comes when you spend days together with your baby, who is in the NICU. Love grows as you share time and experiences together. Love happens when you learn each other’s stories, fears, and passions. Love is tested as you face adversity together. Love develops when you hold each other’s hands as you go through hell and back together.

Love happens when you spend years together. Happy Anniversary, honey. We have been through so much together. Thank you for sharing this flawed and beautiful life with me.

inspiraiton point

Two Year Cancerversary

November 18, 2013. That was the day I had surgery for pancreatic cancer. I was one of the lucky ones. I could have surgery. Most people with my diagnosis cannot. Half of my pancreas and my whole spleen were removed and then shortly thereafter I went through 18 rounds of chemo. It was a long road that I have previously chronicled here, but I made it through. Most pancreatic cancer patients do not survive the first year. In fact, 80% do not make it to the one year mark.

When I planned my surgery, I did it strategically. In our house, November is a busy month. Our oldest daughter, my husband and my father all have November birthdays. I remember scheduling my surgery between my daughter’s 16th birthday and my husband and dad’s birthdays. I knew my illness cast a dark cloud over all of our celebrations that year, but I wanted to try to give enough time so that we could celebrate everyone else’s special day.

Last year, as the birthdays and my cancerversary approached, I admit that I thought a lot about my own anniversary. I was excited for the birthdays and so grateful that I got to be there for them, but I thought a great deal about my own anniversary and what it meant to me. I thought about everything that it signified and all of the stuff that we had experienced over that past year.

This year, as my cancerversary has approached, I have been aware of it, but in a significant mental and emotional shift, it has become less important to me. I have been more focused on other stuff in my life: Riley’s 18th birthday, my husband’s 50th birthday, my daddy’s birthday, my work and the race series that I am currently wrapped up in co-directing.

Still, it is an important anniversary and one that bears marking, because so much in our worlds changed two years ago. At this point in time in 2013, our worlds were rocked by my diagnosis. We did not know how much time I would have with my family. I think about the things that I have gotten to take part in over the last two years that I might not have had I not been so fortunate throughout my diagnosis and treatment. There have been birthdays. The girls were 10 and 16 when I was diagnosed. Now they are 12 and 18. Riley is legally an adult. Riley got her driver’s license. The college decision has been made (Go CSU Rams!) There have been homecomings and a prom. For Peyton, there have been karate belts earned, selection for a club volleyball team and a number of other successes in athletic and academic areas. She moved from elementary to middle school as I finished chemotherapy.

With Riley & Peyton on Riley's 18th birthday

With Riley & Peyton on Riley’s 18th birthday

Steve and I celebrated another year of wedded bliss. My family and I took an amazing vacation together, where I also happened to run a 100 mile race.

The family crossing the finish line with me!

The family crossing the finish line with me at the Bryce 100

Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race

Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race

I ran a full marathon and a half-marathon with Project Purple charity teams.

With Elli & Dino

With Elli & Dino in Lincoln, NE

With Jenny

With Jenny in her home state of NE

Several of the Project Purple Denver team members at the event.

Several of the Project Purple Denver team members at the event.

I ran a 50 mile race this fall at the Bear Chase Trail Race.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

Lucky girl getting a hug from both RDs, Ben Reeves (l) and David Manthey (R). Notice the missing glass lens.

I ran a mountain race with my husband and friends.

Breck Crest with my honey

Breck Crest with my honey

With Debby, my friend since I moved to CO in 1999!

With Debby, my friend since I moved to CO in 1999!

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I race directed a charity 5k for Project Purple and continued working with our local club, the Pikes Peak Road Runners.

Having fun after the race!

Having fun after the Project Purple 5k!

With my PPRR Fall Series crew

With my PPRR Fall Series crew

We gained a new family member when we adopted Willy in January.

Our newest family member, Willy

Our newest family member, Willy

And last week, we said good-bye to the Grand Dame, Greta, who passed away..

She was a natural beauty

Greta, the Bullmastiff

I got to spend time with our wonderful extended family back east over the summer, which is something I never, ever take for granted.

Through all of this, I have met so many amazing and wonderful people that I simply cannot name them all. I do hope they all know the positive impact they have had on my life.

I often think in long-term thoughts now, which is something I did not always feel that I could or should do. I wonder what college will be like for Riley and what high school will be like for Peyton. I wonder what new adventures are on the horizon for Steve and me as our kids grow and prepare to move on to live their own lives independent of us..

Not everything is easy or joyous, of course. You never get through cancer without any long-term repercussions. I saw an endocrinologist recently and  we agreed that it was time to try a medication to help stabilize my blood sugar levels, which have been all over the place. I have not felt like my normally energetic self for a while now and I am hoping that this will help return me to where I used to be. I am still trying to make peace with this recent turn of events. I would never have been in this position if I had not had half of my pancreas taken out. While I know that I am so very lucky to be here, I am also frustrated by how I have been feeling. If pancreatic cancer had not chosen me, I would not be facing the health issues that I am facing now.

All of the above being said, I know that pancreatic cancer gave me many gifts, too. One of those gifts is the gift of friendship from so many people I would not have otherwise met. I will relay one story now because it demonstrates to me the serendipity of life. In September, I was running the Bear Chase 50 mile race. I was wearing my Project Purple shirt which says “Survivor/Running with half a pancreas” on the back. I passed a woman who was running the 50k (different courses that converge over time) and she asked me, “Why are you running with half a pancreas?” I told her my story and she told me that she was a type 1 diabetic. We chatted a bit, but eventually parted ways. I had hoped that I would see her again after the race was over, but I did not.

Three weeks later, I was working the Project Purple booth at the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll marathon expo. Guess who stopped by?

With my new friend, Jen.

With my new friend, Jen.

Jen and I were meant to meet. I believe that fully in my heart. As it turns out, she had a friend who was battling pancreatic cancer. Sadly, her friend passed away shortly after we met in Denver; another tragic loss to this dreadful disease.

When I met with the endocrinologist a couple of weeks later, he told me to make friends with Type 1 diabetic athletes. I believe we met because we both needed each other at this point in our lives. She needed to see someone living beyond PC and I needed to meet someone who could show me that distance running and diabetes can co-exist. It all seems overwhelming right now but I know that I will figure it all out in time.

So much has happened in the past two years. I am so grateful that I am still here. I have been given the gift of more time with my family, and I have been given the gift of new and meaningful friendships. This year I look forward to seeing my eldest graduate from high school and go off to college, and to seeing my youngest enter her teenage years. Even though it has not always been easy, I am excited to see what year three brings!

You can read last year’s cancerversary remembrance here:

https://mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/remembering-on-my-cancerversary/