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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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/

The Rebel Females of Ultramarathons

I was a bit of a rebel growing up. I liked being a girl, but I was not always accepting of societal conventions. I grew up in a fairly small town and I never really felt like I fit in. I wanted to be bold, daring, and did not relish the role of being the good, quiet, compliant female. I wanted to see the world, explore, experience life, warts and all, from an early age. I had a yearning to see what else was out there. I decided to graduate early from high school so I get just get on with my life already. I wrote my college entrance essays about ground-breaking women like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. In my adolescence I learned that girls were still expected to be “nice”, “polite”, “undemanding”. It was important to be a “good girl” in the traditional sense: Pretty and attractive and friendly but somewhat asexual. None of it felt right to me. I had a wild and reckless side to me. I felt like I could not be who I was expected to be.  I often felt badly about myself, because I didn’t know why I couldn’t just conform.

I looked for socially acceptable ways to burn off my energy. While other girls played volleyball or were cheerleaders, I took up weight lifting. While I started off with the little cutesy weights, I ended up eventually benching 155 pounds and squating 200 pounds. I loved it. I felt powerful and strong, and sexy. I was often the only girl in the gym. I worked out with guys who pushed me hard and never told that girls couldn’t lift heavy weights.I had always felt like I had big legs and I hated them. Eventually I realized that I might as well make them really big and strong.

Channeling my inner Madonna with the bleach blonde hair as a young 20 something.

Channeling my inner Madonna with the bleach blonde hair as a young 20 something.

As life went on, I settled down in marriage and parenthood. I was the Military Officer’s Wife who could just not be the proper officer’s wife. I didn’t do teas. I wanted to spend my time at the gym. I started to get the itch again. I had to expand my experiences and try new things. For a variety of reasons, I started running just days after Riley was born. Suddenly, I had a new avenue to express myself and experience life. When we got stationed in Colorado, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I discovered trail and ultrarunning and felt rejuvenated. I met Cathy, a complete badass female, who had run may 100 mile races, stage races, done the Eco Challenge, etc., and she opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was the first female ultrarunner I had ever met. I knew there were more out there, but they were a rare species in a sport highly dominated by men. She trained with male running partners because that is all that had been available to her.

It never bothered me that ultras were a male-dominated sport. I like men very much and enjoy their company. However, there is really something unique about being able to see other women doing something that really pushes boundaries in an unconventional setting. Cathy, like me, was different. She has always chosen to live a life that is a little outside of the box. I love that about her. We could run together, tell stories, laugh, spit, swear, stop to pee and feel 100% comfortable. However, Cathy lived far away. our chances to run together were few and far between. Her inspiration stayed with me, though. She showed me that I could do anything I wanted to do.

Over the next few years, I took a break from ultras while my life went through some major changes. My first husband and I split. Steve and I met. We had Peyton. I was caring for two young children instead of one. He works long hours. Running ultras was just not in the equation for me for a while. Then, suddenly, it was. I ran a few 50s, a 100k, a couple of 100 milers. Steve and I continued running together, but I also started meeting other women who ran ultras. I was so happy to meet other ultrarunners who looked like me. Women who wanted to experience big challenges and push themselves. But they are also runners who have similar life experiences simply because we are women. I love my female friends and really enjoy sharing miles and time with them on the trails. There is comfort in that familiarity of experiences.

Nevertheless, ultrarunning is still a sport dominated by men. Women make up a much larger percentage of road runners. In some shorter road races, the number of women now exceeds the number of men. But for ultras, particularly the 100 mile variety, the number of women is still very low.

This opinion piece came out in Irunfar.com recently:

http://www.irunfar.com/2015/10/sugar-and-spice-and-too-nice-for-the-trails.html

In it, the three very well-known and well-respected female ultrarunners talk about why they think we have fewer women competing in ultras. A big theory that they float is that women don’t feel comfortable getting dirty for long periods of time.

In Ellie Greenwood’s earlier post, the 27%, she also wonders why more women don’t compete in ultras.

http://www.irunfar.com/2012/10/twenty-seven-percent-why-arent-more-women-running-ultras.html

I really believe that the fact that we don’t have an equal number of female participants has nothing to do with not wanting to get dirty and everything to do with the demands of working and raising children. Most of the women runners I know can find time to train for a half-marathon or even a marathon. But finding time to commit to longer distances seems impossible. Women tend to feel guilty for pretty much every choice they make in life, but we really feel guilty for taking time away from our kids. We feel like we are not entitled to time to ourselves. We are not being good mothers if we have our own needs and goals in life. I am certainly no different. I waited until my kids were at a sweet spot in their ages, where they could stay home alone but they were not completely over scheduled by their own activities. I only train for a couple of long races per year, but I find time. I make it work because I need to for my own mental health.

With Lisa, who means the world to me.

The other reason why I believe more women are not running ultras is because the thought of being out alone on the trails for a long time seems scary to women. I would argue that being out alone on a trail is far safer than running through many city streets, but I can understand the fear of the unknown: creepy people in the middle of nowhere, animals, getting lost, getting hurt outside of cell phone range. Women have been conditioned their whole lives to be careful, to fear what “could” happen, while men have always been taught to be bold and unafraid.

But this is where ultramarathons hold a great deal of appeal to me. I LIKE the fact that I am in the minority in the sport. It appeals to that rebellious part of my brain. I am a happily married 46-year-old mom who still harbors that bit of a wild child. I love my husband and my kids and I go to bed at 9 pm every night. My life sounds like a snooze fest to most people. But, I do things that other people are afraid too take on. I love the thrill of doing something that most other people perceive as nuts, crazy or risky (for the record, I think running 50s-100s is none of those things). Go ahead though, and call me crazy. I consider it a compliment.

Steve calls this my going to battle look.

Here is part of why ultrarunning appeals to my inner rebel: I get to run around in the woods. I get dirty and sometimes bloody. I get to run with and compete against the boys AND the girls and no one thinks anything of it. I do not have any idea what I look like, nor do I care what I look like when on the trail. Running has nothing to do with my size or shape. It is all about how I feel and perform. I can spit, blow snot, swear, pee, etc., and no one gives it a second’s thought. When you realize that less than 1% of the population has finished a 100 mile race, just entering one feels subversive. When you realize that only about 20% of that 1% is female, well, it feels almost revolutionary.

With Kathy, who finished her first ultramarathon! So proud of her!

I love my female ultrarunning friends. I also love the fact that it feels like we are part of a small, special sacred tribe. We are housewives. We are doctors. We are scientists. We are writers. We are teachers. We are single. We are married. We are partnered. We are moms. We are child-free. We are all expressing that little bit of rebellion within ourselves. We are tackling things that we did not think was possible. We are taking our passions to an extreme. It is exhilarating and thrilling and scary all at the same time. If more women want to join us, we will welcome them with open arms.

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Breck Crest Mountain Marathon Race Report

This past Saturday, Steve and I ran the Breck Crest Mountain Marathon (http://www.mavsports.com/events/?event-categories=breck-crest-2015 ), a challenging high altitude mountain trail race. We last ran the Breck Crest Mountain Marathon in 2007. At that time, I had just run Pikes Peak Marathon two weeks prior and had a bit of a groin injury. Somewhere around mile 15 or 16, Steve severely sprained his ankle. We finished the race, but basically limped in to the finish. In fact, we were so late to the finish that year, that our family had given up on us and gone back to the condo we had rented. Nevertheless, the beauty of the course had left quite an impression on Steve and me and we had always wanted to go back and run it again.

This year, our friends Debby and John had invited us to join them on race weekend. Debby was going to run the half-marathon and John the full. We thought it would be a great way to get away for a couple of days, run a race and enjoy some time with our family and friends. Since Steve had been training on Pikes Peak most of the summer, I knew he would do fine at altitude. I, on the other hand, had not had time to get up very high in the mountains. I knew I would suffer pretty much right from the start of the race. I just hoped that Steve would be tired still from his Pikes Peak Double so that we could comfortably run together.

The Breck Crest starts at 9500 feet elevation in downtown Breckenridge. Pretty much immediately, the runners head up into the ski hills and surrounding trails. Runners climb about 3000 feet over the first several miles, topping out at 12,500 feet of elevation. The half-marathoners drop back down into town at this point, while the marathoners drop down to around 11,000 feet before heading back up to 12,500. From there, the course follows the “crest” over the ski hills of Breck. Runners stay up at 12,000 feet or above until mile 12 when the course drops back down, rolling between 10,000 and 10,500 for several miles. The final mile brings runners back to downtown Breckenridge. The trail is often rocky, covered in roots and quite technical. It is also spectacularly beautiful.The race course is actually short of a full marathon. My garmin read 24 miles, Steve’s read 23.5 and John’s read 23.7. The first time I signed up for this race, I was bothered by the fact that it was not a “true” marathon. After having run this race twice now, the hills and the high altitude provide enough of a challenge that I never feel like I got cheated out of miles.

Our family loaded up the car and drove up to Breckenridge Friday evening. We stopped by race headquarters at the Vertical Runner store in Breckenridge. This is a lovely running store, and any runner visiting the area should check it out. We chatted with RD Jeff Westcott and picked up our numbers. Vertical Runner was providing free pasta for racers and their family. This gave the race an extra nice and homey feel. It was great way to start the weekend.

The next morning, Peyton snapped a quick picture of us before we headed out on our adventure.

Steve, me, Debby & John

Steve, me, Debby & John

We headed down and lined up at the race start in downtown Breckenridge. We saw Steve’s co-worker Chris, who had driven up that morning for his first attempt at a mountain trail race. We also were pleasantly surprised to see Steve’s childhood friend, Dave, who lives in Silverthorne. Dave had ridden his bike over to see us off at the race start. We chatted for a few moments and then were on our way.

My goals for this race were to 1) spend time with Steve, 2) enjoy the views and 3) get in a good training run for races coming up later in the season. I knew I was not trained for the altitude, so I figured that for the first time in my life, I would take pictures on the course and just generally have a good time.

The race course gains about 3000 feet over the first six miles. It is a very runnable course in the early miles. My main goal in those early miles was to keep my heart rate and breathing under control. This was not too much of an issue. If I felt the hills and altitude getting to me, I just back off the pace and hiked until I felt recovered.

Early uphill in the Breck Crest

Early uphill in the Breck Crest

Steve and I ran together, chatting throughout the early miles. As we reached an elevation of around 11,000 feet, we had to switch over to power hiking. The trail grows very steep in this area, as you head up to tree line. Despite our slower pace, we managed to pass a few runners during this section.

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More hiking as we near a snow field and the top of the first big climb.

More hiking as we near a snow field and the top of the first big climb.

By around mile 6, we reached 12,500 feet of elevation. We chatted off and on with Josh and John, runners we had just met out on the course. The course rolls for a bit and then eventually turns into a quad-busting steep downhill. We ran back down to about 11,000 feet between miles 9 and 10. Then, we power-hiked back up to an elevation of 12,500+ feet, peaking at mile 12.

Running at 12,500 feet

Running at 12,500 feet

At this point, we ran up above treeline for a ways. The views from the crest are spectacular.

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As we headed back down below treeline, we hit more screaming downhills. I knew we still had a long way to go and tried not to burn myself out. The trail is extremely rocky and root-filled through this downhill, so Steve and I were both concentrating on making it down without getting hurt. Finally, around mile 16 we made it back down below 11,000 feet. At mile 17, I said to Steve, “I think it is time to start racing now!” Steve replied with an incredulous, “What?!” There were not too many other marathoners, as most people seem to choose to run the half, but I set about trying to pick off as many runners as I could from mile 17 to the finish.

I was really enjoying myself at this point until we had a couple of unfortunate incidents with mountain bikers. The vast majority of mountain bikers were so polite and accommodating of those of us who were running. However, we had a couple who literally ran me off the trail. I will spare most of the details, but because mountain bikers were on our tails riding their brakes, I was very distracted. I had already twisted my ankle getting out of own cyclist’s way and now as I listened to continuous squealing brakes, I feared this person was going to run me over. I tried to move out of his way and I ended up hitting a rock and flying off the side of the trail. I would have rolled down a large embankment had I not fallen directly into a tree. I am a little banged and bruised from hitting the tree so hard, but the tree saved me from far worse injuries. Once I found my sunglasses, I dusted myself off and Steve and I continued on our way.

In an instant, I went from having a great time to wishing I had not started the race. I had to mentally talk myself through this rough patch. I could not allow some inconsiderate people to take away from the fun that I was experiencing. I had to pull myself out of the bad space I was going into mentally. I had come out to have fun with my husband, and I could not let anyone take that away from me.

We ran along as the course rolled between 10,000 and 10,500 feet for several miles. Finally, we descended back into town. We wound our way through the streets of Breckenridge, not exactly knowing how the race would finish up. We became extremely excited when we eventually saw our daughters waiting for us. We knew we must be right around the corner from the finish line. We crossed the finish in 5 hours and 55 minutes. We did not break any speed records, but we improved upon our 2007 time by an hour and neither of us was seriously injured. Steve and I started together and finished together. We had fun. We got in some beautiful miles. We achieved everything we had set out to do.

Our family at the finish line. The girls got to see us finish!

Our family at the finish line. The girls got to see us finish!

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With Debby, who had finished the half hours previously. She was showered & fresh as a daisy when we saw her at the finish.

With Debby, who had finished the half-marathon hours earlier.

John had finished about 15-16 minutes before us. Steve’s co-worker had finished in 4:46, a time that I cannot even fathom on that course. Colorado Springs elite runner Joseph Gray finished in 3 hours and 5 minutes. He is a super nice and humble guy who is a complete freak of nature. Can’t wait to see what he does next! The race finish line had an amazing spread of food from local vendors, which was a very nice treat after a long and difficult run.

I love this race. It is everything a Colorado mountain race should be. It has that nice small, low-key feel. The course is beautiful, breath-taking and challenging. Despite the high-altitude profile, much of the course is runnable, which I love. The post-race festivities are fun and the food is great. I really like this event and am sure we will be back.

After the race, Debby, John, Dave and our family went out for a bite to eat. We enjoyed spending the evening chatting with our friends away from the distractions of our normal lives.

Enjoying a post-race meal with my beautiful daughters

Enjoying a post-race meal with my beautiful daughters

Hanging out in front of the blue trees in downtown Breckenridge

Hanging out in front of the blue trees in downtown Breckenridge

Since the purpose of this weekend was to spend a little time bonding amid the chaos of the school year, our family opted to go for a hike on Sunday. We hiked up to Mohawk Lakes. We had done this hike last year in July, just about a month after I had finished chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer. It is amazing how much easier it was to hike this now that the chemo is fully out of my system! We really enjoyed the beauty of the hike. It was the perfect way to finish off the weekend.

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As busy as we are and as tired as I get from spending a weekend out-of-town, it was much-needed time to reconnect with my kids and my husband. It felt great to get away from the distractions of every day life, if even only for 48 hours. All in all, this was a wonderful weekend. Mountain therapy is something I think we all needed.

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Finally, please check out the September issue of Ultrarunning Magazine. John Medinger wrote a lovely article about my pancreatic cancer experience and my Bryce 100 journey. I am greatly indebted to John and Ultrarunning Magazine for sharing my story.

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http://www.ultrarunning.com/