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.

 

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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!

https://www.facebook.com/paulmichaelnelsonphoto/?fref=ts

The Panther or the Rabbit

I last posted at the end of April, 2016, following a disappointing finish at the Cheyenne Mountain 50 K.  Throughout the spring and summer, I had plenty to say but simply could not give voice to my thoughts. These last few months have been filled with change, uncertainty, beginnings and endings. As the numerous stressors mounted, many of which I am choosing to keep private, I felt my suit of armor cracking. And so it was after several months of facing an ongoing series of challenges, I found myself staring over a literal and metaphorical abyss, facing an existential depression, wondering, “Why did I survive my cancer? Why am I here?”

Depression

After being told by so many  for so long that I was ‘strong’, I at first failed to heed the warnings. A bad day. A bad week. A stressful month. Finally, I could no longer avoid or ignore the reality. It felt like I was being stalked by a stealth black panther. At first, there was a sense that ‘something’ was lurking in the background. Then I could see glimpses of it, far off between the trees. It drew closer, watching and waiting, until finally it pounced, knocking me to the ground, with claws drawn and jaws wide open. Would it snap my neck? Would it rip my heart out? Would I, could I, fight back?

To the outside world, all was fine. I kept up appearances and took care of all of my responsibilities. But my contact with most people dwindled. Instead of reaching out, or calling for help, I moved more deeply into dark recesses of my inner world as I tried to make sense of what I thinking and feeling.

Finding a Way Out

In January, 2016, I signed up for the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race. Located in Steamboat Springs, CO, the race is actually over 100 miles. The website says that it features about 20,000 feet or ascent and descent. In other words, it is quite challenging. After my 50k in April, I not only considered not running the 100, I contemplated never racing again. My foot had hurt for months. Maybe I was too old to keep running ultras. After facing cancer, surgery and chemotherapy, maybe I just needed to give myself a break and take it easy. Or maybe the truth was that I just no longer cared or had the drive to train. I specifically remember being out with my husband on what was supposed to be a flat 20-mile run. I had thrown in the towel and was walking down the trail saying, “I think I am done, not just for today but for good.”

My emotional state was chipping away at my physical well-being. Once an every day runner, I was now even questioning that part of my identity. I could jog a few short, flat miles, but I had lost my interest in going farther or faster.I had been dealing with foot pain and endocrine issues. Running just did not feel fun anymore. I always swore that when I stopped having fun, I would move on to a new activity.

Embarrassed and ashamed of feeling as I did, I kept my thoughts between my husband and myself. I have since learned that it is very, very common for cancer survivors (and survivors of other significant medical conditions) to go through a period of depression following their illnesses. We put everything we have into fighting for so long, that when the clear and present danger passes, the bottom can fall out on everything else. I felt frustrated with myself. I was alive and OK. Why did I feel the way I was feeling?

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As I questioned my own life, and struggled to make sense of who I was at this point in my life, I decided that I had to at least make a decision on something simple. Was I still a runner or not? Would I train for Run Rabbit Run 100, or would I close the door on the ultra chapter of my life?

A brief conversation with a friend helped point me in the direction I needed to go. She was discussing someone in her life who was facing a goal that would take sacrifice and work. She did not think this person would be able to reach her goal. The reason? “She isn’t willing to suffer.” The conversation quickly moved on to something else, but I came back to the line many, many times in recent months. I wondered, “Was I willing to suffer to try to reach a goal?” If I could endure the suffering, then maybe I could embrace the physical pain while I worked through my emotional pain.

I knew the only way I could answer this question was to go hit the hills.

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Running Ultras

In April I wanted to quit racing. Within a couple of weeks, I fully committed myself to training for Run Rabbit Run 100. I felt that I needed it desperately. My life, physical and my mental health depended on it.

 

I have finished two other 100 mile races. The first time around, I just wanted to see if I could do it. The second time around, it was a very public experience. I wanted to have a big comeback from pancreatic cancer. I raised money for charity and wrote a lot about the training process. This time around, my journey to running 100+miles has been deeply personal. I have spent hours alone on the trails trying to discover just how much I am willing to suffer and endure. That probably does not sound fun, and it often isn’t. Was I trying to run from something? Was I trying to run to something? Was I trying to make the physical pain feel as intense as the emotional pain felt? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

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Along the way, I found that even when it felt like the world was cracking, shifting and imploding around me, I could eventually find peace in being alone, pushing myself, feeling my heart exploding out of my chest, and feeling my muscles and lungs burning. I kept myself alive and moving forward, with each challenging step.

As I learned during my battle with pancreatic cancer, sometimes it is the most difficult battles that we face that bring the deepest sense of meaning to our lives. Sometimes the battles take place in the public sphere. Sometimes those battles are internal, away from even our closest friends and family.

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The hardest part of an ultra endurance event is usually not the race itself, but the training process. When you sign up, you commit to train and make sacrifices towards reaching your goal for months at a time. With each ultramarathon training cycle, I have learned something new about myself. This time around, I am redefining what ‘strength’ means to me personally. I am not afraid of suffering and sacrifice. In fact, there is a deep sense of satisfaction that comes through incredibly physically and emotionally demanding hard work. I needed to spend days, weeks, even months, exploring my own ability to endure, even embrace, suffering. In life, after all, we will suffer. Sometimes it seems like we have to endure way more than our fair share of suffering. But that is life. We all will face hardship and must learn how to endure pain. As I pushed myself, I knew if I could endure, I could survive not only the difficult trails, but what I was facing in my life.

Though it has not always been easy, my countless miles on the trail have been a much-needed time of learning and reflection. In times when I felt alone and lonely, I found peace, contentment and a sense of self-reliance on the Colorado trails. I did not find a quick fix to any of the issues I was trying to sort out. Instead, I found that sometimes what we need is not a solution or a quick-fix but trust and patience in ourselves and the process. Gradually, the laughter and joy began to emerge again. I learned that I can look out into the abyss and question my purpose but that does not mean that I will disappear into the depths and darkness.

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Link to UltraRunning Magazing Article

 

Just wanted to link to an article that I wrote for UltraRunning magazine. This article is about a woman who is an inspiration to me. Junko Kazukawa is a woman that I had the pleasure of running with in 2013 at the Bear Chase Trail Race. In 2015, she did something that no one else has ever done before: she completed the Leadwoman series AND the Grand slam of ultrarunning in the same year. She is also a two-time breast cancer survivor. Most importantly, Junko is an all-around good human being. Read her story here:

http://www.ultrarunning.com/featured/junko-kazukawa-grand-slammer-leadwoman-2x-cancer-survivor/

Junko Grand Slam awards

Don’t Ever Get Sick: Insurance company woes

I recently received an explanation of benefits form from my insurance company showing that it would not pay my most recent oncology appointment. They did pay for part of the blood tests the oncologist ordered, but they refused to pay for the other blood tests. I am nearly two years out from my pancreatic cancer diagnosis. I have seen the same in-network oncologist all of the way through my treatment. This is just the latest in a long line of refusals as I have gone through this process of cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery. It is cruel to treat patients the way I and so many others have been treated. Here is a look at some of the highlights from the past year.

In 2013, I switched doctors because my old primary care doctor was completely unresponsive to my complaints. My new doctor was fabulous and ordered some tests to determine why I was having some symptoms which concerned me. As we learned that I had a pancreatic tumor of some kind that needed to be removed, I started researching pancreatic surgeries. I learned that the mortality and morbidity rate for these surgeries continues to be much higher at hospitals that are considered to be low-volume for these procedures. I determined that study after study has recommended that patients have these surgeries only at high volume hospitals. Kaiser has none of the top PC facilities in my network. I found a highly regarded PC surgeon just one hour away. My primary care doctor did a lot of work seeking approval for me to see this noted surgeon, but my insurance company refused to allow me to go. My primary’s office fought this for a while, but the clock was ticking. My GI doctor said the tumor needed to come out ASAP. I did not have time to fight. I gave up and had surgery locally. In essence, Kaiser was willing to allow me to have surgery with no regard to potential outcome and without regard to the clinical evidence that high volume hospitals are safest for patients.

Prior to my surgery, the GI doctor thought the tumor was pre-malignant. When the tumor came out, part of it was found to be adenocarcinoma. I have always wondered if it was cancer all along or did it just become cancerous while we waited and fought with my insurance company?

Following my surgery, Kaiser would not allow me to go out of network to a pancreatic cancer oncology specialist. I received a message from a Kaiser rep telling me that she was not aware of any PC oncology specialists. There ARE PC specialists in this country. There are a couple of PC specialists an hour from my home, but they would not have been covered. When you go to a PC specialty facility, they give patients access to GI doctors, endocrinologists, and dietitians as part of a team treatment plan. Finally, two years after surgery, I have an appointment with an endocrinologist. I am beyond grateful for it, but wish I had not had to wait this long.

I saw and continue to see the same local oncologist. He ordered a PET scan. That was rejected. My oncologist made a referral to another specialist for an issue that has developed following treatment. That was also rejected.

Shortly after getting home from the hospital, as I was in the middle of a flurry of rejections for my pancreatic cancer treatment, I got a letter from kaiser reminding me that I needed a mammogram and a pap smear. While I agree that those tests are important, I resented the fact that my lady parts seemed to be of more importance to my insurance company than my pancreas, which was currently trying to kill me.

My OB/GYN ordered a breast MRI. That was rejected. It was appealed and rejected again.

Following my abdominal surgery, I developed some back issues. The body tends to become weak after being cut straight down the middle. I started seeing  a physical therapist. Even though I have had visits authorized, Kaiser has rejected payment on every single claim. I have called at least 8 times now, and each time I have been told, “We will pay this.” I have documented these calls along with reference numbers each and every time. Within a week, I get another EOB where payment is refused. If they did not want to pay for Physical Therapy, they should have rejected it out of hand, rather than authorize the visits and then refuse payment each and every time.

Yesterday, I got another PT rejection notice. In the same envelope, I got a notice of the refusal to pay my oncologist and for some of the labs. I called Kaiser again. The rep had no idea why the oncology appointment was rejected. She said there was absolutely no reason for it. Then she saw the list of PT rejections and thought that maybe the oncology appointment was rejected because they were just rejecting ALL of my services.

I have been exceedingly polite, but I have lost all patience with my insurance company. The powers that be demonstrated early on in this journey that they had no regard for actual medical science when I requested a surgeon that was out of network. What this comes down to is greed and a total disregard for patients AND for their doctor’s expertise. When you are dealing with an illness where the survival rate is 6%, there is no margin for error. Patients should be granted the leeway to go to specialized facilities. In fairness, the Kaiser representatives have all been polite and they seem to be doing their best to be helpful. I do not know who or how payments and authorizations are determined, but it seems that the new normal is simply to reject EVERYTHING out of hand.

There is a lot more to this story. I have a stack of rejection forms in a binder that I started back when this journey began in 2013. Kaiser was great when I was healthy. They are fine when all you need is a physical and a flu shot. Heaven help anyone who has them for an insurance company if they actually become seriously ill. When will this madness end? This is part of the gift of cancer. Not only do you have to fight for your life. Apparently you are sentenced to a lifetime of fighting for insurance benefits that you have paid for during the all of those years of good health.

The Bear Chase Trail Race 50 mile 2015

The month leading up to the Bear Chase Trail Race 50 mile has been a difficult one. The last race that I ran, I had an altercation with a bike and ended up with a concussion, whiplash and a separated shoulder. It hurt too much to run a whole lot for a couple of weeks following that accident, so my running was sporadic and uninspired. I could not do core or lift weights because of the shoulder, head and neck pain. I had to really rest. I hate resting. Then, the week before the race, two things happened. On Monday, I was throwing up and sick from some bug that I had acquired. On Tuesday, my daughter, Riley’s friend passed away unexpectedly. My heart ached for her. I found myself consumed by her grief. Running suddenly seemed pointless.

I watched Riley grieve and did the best I could to comfort her. But this weekend was also her final high school homecoming. I wanted her to mourn her friend and keep him in her heart. But, I also wanted her to go on with her own life. She needed to go to homecoming and I needed to go run my race.

On race day, I woke up at 1:30 am with my stomach not feeling well again. I have had issues with reflux off and on since my surgery for my pancreas, and so I was feeling bloated, full, a little nauseous and I could not stop burping. Food was not at all appealing. This is not how you want to start a 50 mile race.

My husband, Stephen, was running the 50k. We packed up our stuff and were out the door by 4 am, so we could make it to Denver in time to board the race bus.

On the bus to the race start at 5 am

On the bus to the race start at 5:15 am

We got to the race with about 45 minutes to spare before the start of my race. The 50k started an hour later. We set up shop and chatted with some of the other runners. Finally, we lined up just prior to the gun going off at 6:30.

At the start with my friend Kathy, who was running her first 50k!

At the start with my friend Kathy, who was running her first 50k!

At the start receiving my annual pre-race hug from RD extraordinaire, Ben Reeves

At the start receiving my annual pre-race hug from RD extraordinaire, Ben Reeves

At 6:30 am, the 50 milers and 100kers were off. Right away, I knew I was off my game. A lot of times, I taper and go into a race feeling sluggish and stiff, but then am fine once I warm up. My hips were so tight that I could not run with my normal full range of motion. Add to that the fact that I felt full, bloated, flabby, weak and heavier than my normal racing weight, and it was a rather inauspicious beginning to a very long day of running. I really hoped that those feelings would pass.

The course is four 12.5 mile loops. Some people hate loops, and truthfully I think my favorite courses are out and back or point to point. However, the nice thing with loop courses is you do not need to carry much. I had a small water bottle and that was all I took. I knew there was plenty of aid on the course, and I could access one drop bag at the start/finish area. Traveling lightly is nice in a long race.

My reflux was in full swing, so I kept belching and feeling classy. Then, within the first mile, I had to pee. Badly. My hips were still not moving well. I could not run remotely fast. I was not feeling like myself. I started wondering if I was going to make it 50 miles.

Since I had to pee so badly, I started looking for a place to go. The course was set up slightly differently this year, so I was a little confused as to where we were. I saw that we were going to be headed up a very exposed Mt. Carbon shortly, so I pulled off into the trees quickly. Feeling extremely relieved, I hopped back on the course went up & over Mt. Carbon and soon had to pee again! I went on to pee three times in that first loop. Nothing seemed to be going well. Towards the end of the first loop, two other women and I went off course. After a couple of minutes, we saw another runner and figured out where we needed to be.

I saw Stephen as  I was coming to the Boat Launch aid station! I got very excited because I was not having much fun. We ran together for a bit, thinking that we could maybe finish out his race together, but then the 50k and 50 mile courses split up again. It was fun while it lasted. I started wishing that we had decided to run the same race as a “date run” and that maybe I wasn’t really a competitive person any more. I also thought that while it was nice to have company, I would have DNFd had I kept chatting while running. I just did not have the energy for it.

I had not been able to get any food down and barely drank any water for the entire first loop. It is not good to get behind on eating and drinking so early in a long race, and I knew it. But I was afraid if I ate or drank, I would throw up. I started thinking about quitting the race somewhere early on in that first loop.

Coming through the start/finish after the first lap. Photo courtesy of Ali Smith

Coming through the start/finish after the first lap. Photo courtesy of Ali Smith

After a while, I ran into my friend Kathy, who was running her first 50k. We ran and chatted for a few minutes, but then eventually parted ways, too. My stomach took a turn for the worse as the heat cranked up. I had to stop and walk because I felt like I was going to throw up. If I started puking, I would have to drop. I was having an internal debate. The devil was on one shoulder telling me it was ok to quit. The angel on the side kept telling me, “You don’t quit. You are not a quitter. You have never DNF’d. Suck it up and find a way to finish.”

I kept thinking about quitting. Every mile, I tried to convince myself that it would be ok to drop. I could run three loops. The would be 37.5 miles and technically be an ultra, even if it wasn’t an official race distance. Who cares, anyway? 37.5 miles is a nice distance to run for fun.

After the third lap, I saw Ali Smith and asked her if she could find me some tums or rolaids or something to help settle my stomach. I grabbed a couple of gels and some salt pills, ate the tums that Angel Ali found for me, and headed back out.

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It was hot and I was not heat acclimated. I have been running with Willy as early as possible because he gets hot quickly. As a consequence, I was not handling the heat well at all. I walked a lot of that third lap, especially the long section by the golf course, which has zero shade. I continued debating quitting. I had picked up my ipod at the start finish to help motivate me for the last two laps of the race. When I dumped water on my head, some of it must have gotten into the ipod. It kept stopping every couple of seconds. I would restart it. It would stop again. I debated throwing it into a drainage ditch. It was infuriating to me but I desperately needed something to take my mind off of the pain I was in.

At each aid station, I packed my bra with ice. I was suffering in the heat. I kept battling waves of nausea. I was afraid if I kept going that I would have to walk the entire final lap. I started trying to play mind games to try to convince myself that I could keep going. I told myself, “You only have 5 more miles to the start/finish. You can make it there. Then you only have to do one more loop!” While I generally feed off of my own internal happiness when I run, I was not feeling particularly happy. I told myself, “You know there are people who would love to see you fail. Don’t give them the satisfaction of throwing in the towel.” After a whole lot of internal dialogue, I found some motivation. I was able to start running again.

Eventually I made it to the start/finish area. I did not allow myself to think of quitting. I had no doubt that I would now finish the race. Steve had finished his 50k about an hour prior and was sitting in a chair, not feeling too well. He had made it to the final mile of race but then threw up four times. This was a bit of a setback, but he managed to finish in just under 6 hours. Ali Smith and RD Ben Reeves came over to help me get my stuff together for the final lap. Race Timer and friend Lonnie Somers of Hallucination Sports announced that I was second female in the 50 mile. I thought, “There is NO way.” But, this lit a fire under my behind. I had to suck up the discomfort and run as much as I could. I ran and caught up to Marianna, whom I had passed going into the start/finish, but who had passed me on the way out. She was ahead of me going up Mt Carbon, but I pulled ahead on the downhill. It was my goal to get as much distance on her as possible, because she had been strong and steady all day. Marianna inspired and motivated me, particularly over the last two laps.

I ran until the Fox Hill aid station, which marks the long exposed section by the golf course. Here I knew I would be mixing in walking and running until returning to the wooded section. My legs were cramping at this point. My ipod kept shutting itself off. I was frustrated but knew I would finish at this point. My goal was to just not get passed. I ran as much as i could and walked when I absolutely had to. I looked behind me to see where Marianna was, an instead saw a new woman behind me. Where the hell did SHE come from? I could not afford to goof off or walk unnecessarily.

About three miles from the finish, my glasses fell off my head and broke. The lens popped out. I briefly tried to fix it but knew that I couldn’t waste time on my glasses. I shoved the lens in my bra since I had no place else to keep it.

I kept moving forward and eventually came up on the finish line. My official time was 9:52, a PW on this course by far (PR is 8:39). But, I had made it. I was so incredibly relieved. I also held on to second place female overall. This was in many ways the hardest day I have ever had on a race course. I usually do not think about quitting. Instead, I spent the entire day thinking about quitting. I had to talk myself into finishing. It took me a while to find reasons to keep going, but I did and I am so glad. I would have been very upset with myself for dropping.

Why was this particular race so difficult? There are many reasons. Since finishing 2nd at the Bryce 100 in June, my training has been completely unfocused. I signed up for a high altitude mountain race and the Bear Chase. My training was not zeroed in one particular course or goal, so I was all over the place. My mental motivation was also somewhat lacking over the last few months, too. I never fully came out of 100 mile recovery mode. I need to drop a couple of pounds to get back to my fighting weight. Some of this was due to lack of discipline but some of it was due to the fact that I still don’t have my half-a-pancreas digestive system figured out. I was getting hypoglycemic, so I was eating more than normal to prevent myself from having scary bonks. I was not heat-trained. I did not taper properly. I ran more than I should have two weeks out, then the final week I ran very little due to my stomach issues and Riley’s friend’s passing. I have a typical protocol that I follow and I did not follow it at all this time around. I will be running the Denver Rock & Roll Half-Marathon with the Project Purple team, but I am going to take a couple of months to focus on recovery and fix all of the things that I did wrong this time around.

I may have run a Personal Worst, but I am so glad that I did not give up.

Crossing the finish line. So happy!

Crossing the finish line. So happy!

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.

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

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

With Stephen, who had to hold onto my awards because I physically could not do it.

With Stephen, who had to hold onto my awards because I physically could not do it.

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http://www.bearchaserace.com/

The Love Affair

Our family spent the last two weeks in upstate NY visiting our relatives. Last year, I felt almost desperate to get there shortly after completing chemotherapy. At that point in time, I still was not feeling completely confident about my future and I had a strong need to see and touch my family. This year, still feeling strong and healthy following my recent 100 mile race, I looked forward to seeing my family not out of desperation, but out of the simple desire to see the people I love. We had a wonderful time relaxing, getting away from the stresses of our daily lives, and reconnecting with our families and friends.

Hair blowing wildly in the wind on the Lake Champlain Ferry

Hair blowing wildly in the wind on the Lake Champlain Ferry

Today is my two month anniversary from having completed the Bryce 100. Since the race, I have had plenty of people tell me that I no longer have to do ultras anymore. However, a funny thing has happened since Bryce. I seemed to have remembered how much I love running and racing. In the lead up to Bryce, I kept telling everyone I knew that I would never run another 100. I meant it with complete sincerity. I was tired and worried. I was afraid that some nagging pains I was experiencing would become serious injuries. I thought that maybe I had not put in enough miles in training. I was concerned that perhaps my heart was not completely into finishing 100 miles.

All of those worries ended up being completely unfounded. Instead, while I was out on the course, I remembered how much I just love to compete. I love to run, but I had forgotten how much I love the thrill of hunting down other runners, and of pushing myself to see what I am actually capable of accomplishing. I have never been an elite runner. I have no idea what that experience is like. But as a slightly better than average runner, I still get incredibly fired up over testing my limits. I love pushing myself as hard as I can to see how my body and mind will respond. It makes me feel completely alive.

I have run many races since I started running in 1998. I remember the thrill of crossing the finish line at my first marathon. I could not wait to do it all over again, and so I ran my second marathon just seven weeks later. I remember the first time I ran a 5k and a 10k at an all out effort. I was not sure if I could sustain the pace without passing out or throwing up, but I did and I was so proud of myself for giving everything I had. I remember the excitement of running the Boston Marathon, which to this day is the only big city marathon I have ever competed in.

Boston Marathon 2000

Boston Marathon 2000

I remember the joy of finishing my first ultra, a 50k. I remember the apprehension leading up to my first 50 mile race, and then the elation as I crossed the finish line. I remember the incredible pride I felt after finishing my first 100 mile race, as I experienced the payoff of months and months of hard work and dedication. This year, I returned to road marathons in Lincoln, Nebraska. I had not run a road marathon since 2007, and as I ran through crowds of people, I remembered exactly why I fell in love with marathons so many years ago. I returned to 100s this year, in Bryce, and my love affair with trails and ultras was reignited.

But racing is never easy. On numerous occasions, I have engaged in an internal battle with myself. There have been several races where I have wondered if I would be able to finish what I had started. During one trail race that had gone poorly almost from the start, I sat in a mud bank and debated about whether I could go on. I decided that I could. Nothing was broken, and I was not in physical danger. I was just having a bad day. I am tremendously proud of those race finishes that I really had to fight for.

Every distance I have chosen to run over the course of my lifetime has proven to be a challenge in a very different way. Every race has been hard and painful and wonderful and beautiful all at the same time. I have never regretted having shown up to run a race. Each experience has been unique and has taught me something new about myself. That is the beauty in running. Every outing provides a new challenge. Each distance is hard in its own way. No two racing experiences are alike. Just thinking about facing those difficulties gives me a jolt of mental excitement. I love it all: the competition, the challenge, chasing down other runners, and trying to fight off those who are attempting to beat me. Perhaps most of all, I love battling against my own demons.

When I finished Vermont, I thought I had officially closed the book on running 100s. Then I got cancer. It became an important part of my psychological recovery to push those boundaries again.I am still so happy about my experience at the Bryce 100. Part of me wondered if my experience at Vermont was a fluke. My second 100 mile finish made it all feel more legitimate in some way. More importantly, my time at Bryce reminded me how much I enjoy the whole race experience. In the lead up to Bryce, I often felt tired and I had some nagging aches and pains. I think I was not yet 100% following my battle with pancreatic cancer. I hope I have finally officially turned the corner on the road to a full comeback. More often than not these days, I am excited to go out and run. That feeling was often lacking a few months ago.

Vermont 100 finish, 2013

Vermont 100 finish, 2013

Like all long-term love affairs, feelings will wax and wane over the years. The secret is to learn to be patient and weather the difficult times. I am thankful that I have never given up over the times that running was less fun. These days, whether I am running up in the mountains or am pushing for a long flat steady-state run, I have rediscovered the fun and joy. I have three completely different races coming up in the next three months and I am very excited for each of them. Beyond that, I am really looking forward to finding out what new adventure the 100 mile lottery gods have in store for me in 2016. 

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