The Bryce Canyon 100 was incredibly beautiful. It was also very challenging.The race features close to 19,000 feet of elevation gain and loss and most of it sits between 8,000-9500 feet of altitude. The Bryce 100 course tested every runner out on the course, including me. Though it was very hard, I would not change a single thing about the entire weekend.
The key to success in life is to work hard and surround yourself with the best human beings you can find. This was the strategy I employed to hopefully bring success in Bryce. Months ago, when I signed up for the race, Steve and I tried to figure out logistically how we could pull off a 100 mile race and a family vacation in the same trip. I knew that I could most likely finish the 100 on my own, but since having half of my pancreas removed, my body is still a bit of a mystery to me. Since I seem to have some blood sugar issues, I knew I would feel more comfortable having a pacer with me on the course through the night. The only person I really wanted with me on the course, besides my husband, was Lisa Bliss. I “met” Lisa through online running groups. Over the years, we started having conversations via email and Facebook, and then eventually over the phone.
I asked Lisa if she would come help and I really honestly could not believe she said yes. Somehow I, a slightly faster than average 46-year-old genuine nobody in the running community, had scored an endurance superstar to help me out. I jumped around the house yelling and screaming with happiness when Lisa said she would come. Silly, I know, but I really, really wanted her to be there and could not believe she said she would do it.
After a month or so, Lisa said she did not think she could pace me, but she wanted to crew. She offered her husband Tim as a pacer. Tim and I really did not know each other at all, but I figured that if he was Lisa’s husband, he had to be just as awesome. Thus, we planned he would run about 33 miles with me and my husband would run the final 17. The goal was to keep my blood sugar stable so I wouldn’t wander off and die in the woods.
We piled the family into the car and drove out to Utah on Wednesday. The drive was uneventful and the scenery was beautiful. The first obstacle came as we arrived into Bryce Wednesday night. Apparently there was a controlled burn going on. Smoke filled the air. After living through two summers of forest fires in Colorado Springs, I know that my lungs do not handle fire very well. Forest fire was not something I had considered in my race preparation and I was very concerned about potential lung issues if the fire continued to fill the air.
We met up with Tim and Lisa at the race host hotel, Ruby’s Inn, Wednesday night. After taking some time to chat and catch up, we all headed off to bed knowing the next couple of days would be very busy. Somewhere around midnight, I woke up. Our room smelled like the fire and it made me cough and choke. I tried to go back to sleep, but never did. This was not a good thing two night before a 100 mile race.
Our amazing race team!
On Thursday, when we got up it was still smokey. Stephen, Riley, Peyton and I headed into Bryce Canyon in the morning to take in some of the sights. Photos truly cannot do the canyon justice. It is breathtaking and spectacular. I wanted to loosen up a bit, but not spend too much time on my feet, so we just did a couple of short hikes on the canyon rim that morning. Despite the beauty, I was still nervous about the smoke. We all had headaches and scratchy throats from breathing in the irritants. I just hoped the winds would be favorable come race day.
After lunch, we met up with Lisa and Tim and went to the race check-in and meeting. I loved the feel of the Ultra Adventure event right from the start.We had a very informal and casual meeting where everyone hung out, eating make-your-own pizzas. We enjoyed chatting with the other runners prior to listening to Race Director Matt Gunn speak.After the race meeting, we headed back to try to catch some sleep.
At the pre race dinner with Adrian Stanciu
With RD Matt and Cherri, who is part of the awesome UA team
I set my alarm for 3:30 am, but was up at 2:30.
My special Project Purple shirt.
The whole crew wanted to see me off to the start, which was very sweet.
The family at the race start.
One last hug
With Lisa, who means the world to me.
Going into the race, I had three goals: 1) to finish, 2) to finish in under 30 hours and 3) to finish in under 28 hours. As we arrived at the start, I was pleasantly surprised to see and smell only a little of the smoke from the controlled burn. I hung out in the car with Lisa, Tim and my family until 5:50 and then walked over to the start. We started promptly at 6 am and headed up a dirt road. After the first couple of miles, we turned off onto some single track trails. We climbed several switchbacks, and were rewarded with spectacular views of pink hoodoos. I passed the first early miles talking with Helen Pelster, of California. She took off ahead of me and I settled into running my own race.
As the miles ticked along, I chatted with a few other runners, but mostly just kept to myself, enjoying the sights. At mile 18 or so, we came to the first crew station. I was very excited to see my family and friends. I refilled, or should I say, over filled my pack. Lisa and Riley asked me if I wanted a hat and I said no. I also tried to refuse to take a rain shell with me, but Steve and Lisa both insisted. As soon as I left the aid station, it started to thunder and rain. I would not see my crew again until mile 41 and I wondered if I had made a very big mistake by not bringing the hat. As we climbed a hill shortly after leaving the aid station, it started hailing on us. One runner commented that he did not think it would last long because the sky was not very dark. I hoped he was right.
Fortunately, a few miles later, the sun came out. We continued on a long section of uphill. As it warmed up, I shed my long sleeve shirt and hoped that the nice weather would hold. The weather forecast had called for scattered rain and thunderstorms, which was good in terms of helping keep the smoke at bay. I just hoped that it would not rain for the entire race.
The sun shined brightly for the next several miles.I happily took in the scenery but was pretty much out by myself at this point. I enjoyed the solitude and the beauty of the area. I went for miles without seeing another soul. Off in the distance, however, I could see the sky was black. I wondered if the storm was moving towards us or away from us, but could not tell at that point.
Miles 30-50 can be a mentally difficult stretch for me. I have already gone a long way, but know I still have a ridiculously long way to go. I listened to some music for about 8 miles in this stretch. I arrived at the Kanab Creek aid station and saw Adrian there. Adrian is a speedy guy who runs a lot of hundreds. I had figured that he would be one of the top five males, but he was not feeling well. I asked him if he needed anything. He was going to wait at the aid station and try to get some food in his stomach before moving on. I wished him well and hoped he would turn things around for a finish. I headed out on my way, knowing I only had about five miles until I could see familiar faces again.(Adrian did finish, but I will let him tell that story in his own blog post).
Finally, I came into the Straight Canyon aid station. I had been counting down the miles til when I knew I would see my crew again. It really provided an emotional boost, though I tried to keep each stop to the bare minimum. I knew there was a big climb coming out of Straight Canyon to the Pink Cliffs, which would be the high point on the course. We could hear thunder rumbling off in the distance. I vaguely remember saying that I needed to hurry to try to beat the storm. Once again, shortly after leaving, the thunder and rain picked up in earnest. Being out in thunderstorms scares me. I am not ashamed to admit it. I am afraid of being struck by lightning. I did not survive cancer to be killed by a lightning strike.
Steve calls this my going to battle look.
The trip up to the Pink Cliffs is almost all steep uphill. I was alone as I headed out, but a man came flying down the hill towards me. I was not thinking clearly at this point and I asked him, “Are you OK?” He said, “Yes, I am good.” That’s when I realized he was the lead male. I laughed at myself for being an idiot. The lead eventually set a blistering course record for the 100.
I trudged up the long road leading to the Pink Cliffs. The thunderstorm moved in with a vengeance. I was still alone, but I could see people ahead of me. I was afraid. The lightning was striking very close. The ground shook with the thunder. The flashes and bangs seemed simultaneous.The hail hurt as it pelted me. I heard later that one runner who was using trekking poles had gotten knocked to the ground when lightning hit very close to him.
I finally caught up to Linda, Todd and another lady whose name I cannot remember. We kept plugging along towards the next aid station, wet and weary, but the company alleviated some of my fears. Eventually, I caught up with a gentleman named Bruce. He and I made it to the Pink Cliffs Aid Station at mile 46. I have never been so happy to see an aid station in my life. There were several runners crowded inside the tent around a space heater. People were talking about dropping at the turnaround. I ate some chicken soup to warm up, changed my wet shirt and told Bruce that I wanted to move on. He did too, so we took off on the final five-mile section to the turn around. Bruce was a super nice guy from Michigan, and we would run off and on all night until nearly reaching the finish.
The storm had rattled all of the runners, including me. I knew people would be dropping due to the weather, but I had no intention of dropping. I had come to run 100 miles, so finishing 50 was just not an option. It was really nice during this section to have Bruce’s company to take my mind after the scary patch we had just been through.
I was so excited to get to the turn around. Bruce and I pulled into the 50.5 mile Crawford Pass aid station in just about 12 hours. I was way ahead of schedule. Lisa made me change all of my clothing at this point, which was smart because I was soaking wet down to my bra. The big highlight for me at this point was that I would be picking up Tim as my pacer. Because I continue to have blood sugar issues, I really did not want to be out on the course all by myself in the dark. I thought it might be dangerous for me with the unknowns of my body still creating issues for me.
Tim and I did not know each other at the start of the weekend. While Lisa and I have spent plenty of time texting, messaging and talking on the phone, Tim and I had never spoken. If you really want to get to know someone, though, go for a run with them. Over the course of the next 33 miles, Tim and I would get to know a lot about one another. He was perfect. Tim was a great conversationalist, without being pushy when I needed to be quiet and focus. He helped me keep my head straight when I needed it. We shared serious stories and lots of laughs. I appreciated his company more than I can ever really express.
Still smiling as we head out of the Crawford Pass aid station (Photo courtesy of Tim Englund)
As soon as I came out of the turnaround, I started experiencing stomach problems that would plague me for the next 40 miles. I had a ton of food but I could barely get any of it down. I knew I had to eat, but every time I put anything in my mouth, I spent the next several miles trying not to throw up. This was not good and I knew it could potentially end my race. Why did I have stomach problems? I have no idea. I have never had this happen in a race before. Was it because my digestive system reacts differently now since my surgery? Or was it something simple like I ate too much salt? I don’t really know and I will likely never know the answer.
Tim and I had a couple of hours of light when we took off together, which was nice. He got to see the beauty of the pink cliffs. I had expected that he would be running entirely in the dark, so I was happy to be able to share in the beauty of the course with him. Eventually we turned on our headlamps when it was close to pitch black. Shortly after that, the rain came back, along with some thunder, lightning and hail. I put my rain jacket back on and prayed that the storm would not be as bad as the one between miles 40 and 50. Fortunately it was not. It lasted for a while, but then moved on. I was not soaked and shaken like I had been earlier in the day.
Soaking in the scenery (Photo courtesy of Tim Englund)
Bruce had caught up with us, and ran with us off and on for sections throughout the night. We rolled in and out of the various aid stations as quickly as we could. I still could not get much food into my stomach. I had to walk way more than I should have due to nausea. For quite some time, we heard two female voices in the distance ahead of us. I wondered if I could catch up to them or not. Eventually around mile 80, we did pass them. I was determined to put some distance between us and ran as much as I could in the following miles. As the night wore on, we started to count down the miles until we would return to the Proctor Aid Station where I would pick up Steve as my pacer for the final 16-17 miles. My Garmin had died a long time ago, so I kept asking Tim what his watch read to figure out where we were. After what seemed like forever, we got to Proctor. It was a little after 3 am when I arrived and I was still ahead of schedule. This was a big mental milestone. I looked at this section as the final push.
Lisa was great about getting us in and out of each station as quickly as possible. We spent maybe five minutes in the aid station. As we were leaving, the two girls I had passed a few miles back walked in. I knew I had to step up my game. We ran as much as we could going out of the aid station. It was about ten miles until the next aid station. I had borrowed Tim’s watch to help me track the miles, but it died, too. I was tired, I knew I had a big blister and pretty much everything in my body hurt at this point. I was not the conversationalist I had been earlier in the day.
After what seemed like an eternity, we got to the final aid station. They told us we only had 7.5 miles to go and I was ecstatic. I also knew this section would take some time, as there was a climb of about 1000 feet at mile 94-95. Once again, we saw Bruce, who was now running with his wife. He looked incredibly strong, and pulled away from us going up a hill out of the aid station. I was very happy for him.
The sun was now coming up, which was great, because even though I knew this last section would be really hard, I also knew it would be really beautiful. I wanted Steve to see the hoodoos. He snapped some pictures as we went.
The final long, steep climb
I suffered greatly on the big climb. That is when we heard the voices. The women I had passed were behind us. Because we were in the canyon, it was hard to tell how far back they were, but we could see and hear them. I had to really push it now. I was in second place, but if they both passed me, I would miss the podium spot. Mentally, I had thought I was done. I did not think I had a whole lot of running left in me at this point, but now I had no choice. I ran every step that I could, as fast as I could.
Steve kept me informed as best as he could as to where they were. While I need no external motivation to keep pushing, he made helpful little comments like, “You didn’t run 96 miles to get passed at 97!” Where the hell was Tim? I didn’t want this slave driver. I wanted my nice and encouraging pacer back! I kept pushing, up over the final climb and then down to the final miles of switchbacks to the finish. I was not sure at that point how far I actually had to go. I just know the switchbacks nearly broke me mentally. I kept thinking the finish was around the corner, only to turn and see more switchbacks. Still, I wanted that second place finish so bad I could taste it. I pressed on and on and on.
Then, finally, we saw Peyton in her pink jacket. We yelled to her and she said the finish was just around the corner. I really hoped she was right. We went up one final hill, made the turn and saw the finish link in all of its glory. My whole family crossed the finish line with me and we ran to see Lisa and Tim. My official time was 26:31, which far surpassed all of my goals. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. We all hugged and were a little teary. Matt Gunn, the race director, came out to congratulate me. He seemed pretty blown away and said that he had hoped to see me finish but he did not expect to see me finish so well. Neither did I, but I was thrilled that I did.
The family crossing the finish line with me!
The third and fourth place women came in within minutes after I did. It was nice to be able to cheer them on. They made me work much harder than I had planned over the final miles and I appreciated having someone push me.
With my amazing and spectacular team at the finish.
With my belt buckle and 2nd place award
This was the most special race of my life for so many reasons. Obviously, it is amazing to come back from cancer and run so well. I remember in November of 2013, wondering if I would ever run again after my surgery for pancreatic cancer. To come back and be possibly the first PC survivor to run a 100 mile race is just so wonderful. Having my husband, Riley and Peyton out there to celebrate my comeback with me was just incredible. Seeing my kids out on the course made me so happy and proud. I love having them see their mom go out and bust her butt doing things that most other moms (and dads, for that matter) do not do. Finally, spending the weekend with Lisa and Tim was absolutely one of the most special parts of this race for me. They are such selfless, giving, kind and fun people. Their presence made this a weekend that I will forever cherish, no matter what happens to me in the future. I can never express the full depth of my gratitude to this wonderful couple. This is about so much more than crewing and pacing, which Lisa and Tim did perfectly. This is about love and friendship. Spending the weekend together and enjoying every single moment of it created a special bond that will last forever.
My phenomenal crew and pacers! Indebted to this amazing group of people
Goofing around in Bryce Canyon after the race
As Lisa said several times, everything went perfectly. Truthfully, the crew and my pacers did everything perfectly. I made mistakes. I suffered with stomach problems. The weather was a real challenge. I carried too much stuff in my pack and that slowed me down. I saw that only 76 people out of 120 registrants finished the race. The conditions were very tough. But all of those factors (the weather, my stomach, almost getting passed at the end), made the finish and the placing all that more sweet. I would not change a thing. The difficulty made it all that much more gratifying.
I am so thankful to everyone who has followed my progress over the last few months and supported my endeavors. I am so grateful that I have had so much support from family and friends. I appreciate all of the support I have gotten from Project Purple. Thank you to Brooks Running for the shoes. I wore the same pair of trail ASRs through the entire race. I am grateful to Dirty Girl Gaiters for sending gaiters for my whole crew. I am thankful to Matt Gunn and everyone from Ultra Adventures for putting on a fabulous and challenging event. I appreciate everyone who has donated to my Project Purple fundraising campaign. I plan to take a little time to just enjoy the sweetness of this whole journey. I feel good and plan to savor the moment before gearing back into training for some fall events.
Thank you all for following my journey back. This is what pancreatic cancer survivorship looks like for me.