Sophomore Year: It’s not about the Boots

Last year when I moved my older daughter, Riley, into her college dorm room for the first time, my feelings were too painful and raw to voice, let alone write about for a public blog. Months later, I touched on the topic briefly, when time and distance had dulled the feelings enough to make sharing them tolerable.

I foolishly thought bringing her to college would be easier this year, but it was not. In August, we drove Riley back to college and helped her move into her first apartment. Moving her into a dorm for the first time last year felt BIG but moving her into her own apartment felt monumental. This is it. She has to pay bills and be an adult. She has a lease. She needs to prepare meals for herself and shop for herself and do all of the fun and not-so-fun things adults do every day.

Even though I knew she was capable of succeeding on her own as a Freshman last year, there were still plenty of unknowns. Would she enjoy school? Would she make friends? Would she and her roommate get along? Would she be lonely? Would she want to stay for four years?

Sophomore Year Drop Off

Returning for Sophomore year, in theory, seemed like a piece of cake. Yes, we had to move her into her apartment, but she had a successful year of college under her belt and she was planning to live with people of her own choosing this year. And yet I couldn’t shake my conflicted emotions. There is never, ever enough time.

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Riley happy to be returning to college for her Sophomore year

We hugged and said our goodbyes at the end of the day. Steve, Peyton and I descended the four flights of stairs and piled back into our now-empty van for the return trip home. As I sat silently in the passenger seat, I grappled with the realization that this summer was probably the final time Riley would ever really live in our home under our roof. As scenes from her childhood flashed through my mind like a movie, I panicked and thought, “Oh my God…I wonder if she has an umbrella? And what about rain boots?”

SERIOUSLY?

What. The. Hell. I kid you not. I was in a panic thinking she might not have an umbrella and rain boots. I fought back against my urge to cry and beg Steve to turn back towards the apartment building. Where did THOSE seemingly random thoughts come from? Of all of the things I could think about, why did an umbrella and rain boots seem suddenly critically important? I did not give voice to my internal storm because I knew I would sound insane and irrational. I also knew it wasn’t about the boots.

What’s the Big Idea?

We spend our whole lives trying to prepare our kids to exist on their own. If we do a ‘good enough’ job, we hope they will absorb enough information to become fully functional adults.

I also spent a lot of time conversing with my kids about ‘big picture’ things: love, marriage, sex, friends, drugs, career, war, equality, religion, and pretty much any controversial or important topic we can think of. Rather than dictating beliefs, I hoped to instill ethics and values and give them room to be thinking individuals who could seek information and make decisions in life.

Sometimes It’s the Little Things

Still, I wondered….had I done a good enough job? I covered as many big life topics as I could, but did I do a good enough job with the details, the mundane aspects of life, too? During the drive home, I silently held onto my pain, wishing for a few short hours that I could go back and cover safety lessons and proper attire for a variety of weather conditions and so I could assuage the guilt I was feeling for maybe not having covered all of the important little lessons she would need to know in life.

What I really wish for is a chance to go back for just a few moments in time…to hold and nurse my baby again….to read another bedtime story…to hold her hand and play games and walk her into school. As scenes from her childhood rolled through my brain, I regretted the times I was distracted or tired or impatient.

If Only I Knew then What I Know Now

At one time it seemed we had all the time in the world, and now I see how quickly it has passed by. At 28, as a new mom, I wondered how my mom seemed to have all of the patience in the world with my screaming newborn baby. I was exhausted and it felt like it would be forever before my baby could do anything for herself. Riley growing up and leaving home was a possibility I never pondered at that point.

But now, at 48, I understand that patience very clearly. It is funny how the passage of time gives us an entirely new perspective and what seemed like an eternity before is now truly just a very brief and fleeting moment in our lives. Don’t we all wish our younger selves knew what we know now?

So now, my daughter is off successfully navigating life as an adult and I am happy for her and proud of her. Like all of us, she will make mistakes and will have regrets. I hope she feels loved and confident in herself as she moves forward, knowing she has a mom at home who is proud of her and who thinks she is amazing.

And if she has questions about relationships, love, career, children, religion, politics, social justice….or what kind of umbrella to buy…I am here, just a phone call or text message away.

Sophomore year 2017

Riley at the Oval with Peyton in the background. Go forth and do Epic Shit, my darling!

 

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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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fish-creek

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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olympian-aid-station

(photos courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Cow Creek

As we moved on towards Cow Creek, the general consensus was, “Wow, this hill didn’t look this big on the course profile!” I spent several miles with a guy who shared some interesting stories from his years of dirt-bagging. Eventually, we parted ways and I ran into two runners I had been talking with earlier. Neither were feeling well at this point. One was injured and the other was sick to her stomach. I tried to give them both a pep talk, reminding them that they would likely feel good, then bad, then good, then bad, for the rest of the race. I think I was also trying to remind myself of that fact, because at this point my left knee, which had taken the brunt of the earlier impact, began to stiffen up. Every step hurt as I made my way down into the Cow Creek aid station. In addition, I had switched water reservoirs in my hydration pack and something had been digging into my back for the entirety of the section. I kept running with one hand between my pack and my back to eliminate any more damage.

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Arriving in Cow Creek with Peyton and Steve (photo courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Larry had made it into Steamboat, and several other local friends were at the aid station waiting for their runners, so Cow Creek felt warm and inviting. Even though I was in a lot of pain and wondering what the future would hold, everyone assured me that I looked strong and was running between a 27 and 28 hour pace. This was ahead of what I thought I could do, so that lifted my spirits. Aside from my knee and back, I felt OK, so I headed back of the aid station feeling hopeful for the rest of the race.

The next segment back to Olympian Hall was a rolling 12-mile section. My knee loosened up and I was able to run quite a bit. The sun was shining and the scenery along the single track was lovely. I was enjoying this section tremendously until my right hip flexor started to tighten up. I tried to adjust and loosen it up, hoping the pain would fade. We ran down the long steep downhill section back into Olympian Hall. Here the plan was to pick Laura up for the four mile uphill road section to the Fish Creek Falls trail head, where I would meet Larry for the night. However, shuttle issues forced a change in plans. Now Larry, who had been mountain biking but not running all summer, would be forced to cover nearly 25 miles with me.

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With Larry, headed off into the night.

I had been warned by many runners to grab warm clothing at Olympian, because as soon as the sun goes down, the mountains get extremely cold. Last year, the temperature on the course had dropped down to 8 degrees. I had been running in shorts and a tank top for hours, but threw on a long-sleeve shirt and grabbed another warm shirt, gloves and tights to put on as it got colder. We ran through town, and within a few minutes, I was hot. I stopped and took off my shirt in what would become the first in a night of many wardrobe changes. We ended up hiking much of the uphill back to the Fish Creek Falls trail head. From there, we headed on another six-mile climb back up to Long Lake.

Friendship and Inspiration

One of the things I love most about running ultras is having the opportunity to talk with people and hear their stories. People open up in a way they might not ever under other circumstances. While the scenery of a race makes the time alone special, the discussions are a big part of what makes the night memorable.

I first met Larry a few years ago when I happened to see him running close to where I live. He had on a Team Crud (Coloradans Running Ultra Distances) shirt, and I was just starting to get into ultras. I stopped him and asked some questions about races and CRUD. He humored me, answering a few of my questions. He probably thought I was a crazy lady, but that’s OK because I am forever thankful for that chance encounter.

I ran a few ultras after that meeting and then was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As I struggled to come back to my previous form following surgery and chemo, I stumbled across Larry’s blog. I read a post where he talked about some of his own medical issues. Feeling very much alone at the time, I wrote to him. I did not know if he would remember me, but he wrote back and gave me a pep talk. Even though our issues were different, I finally felt like someone might just understand what I was going through. He encouraged me to be patient and gave me hope that things might be different but they would get better.

During the last couple of years, Larry has been an tremendous source of inspiration to me. He is an incredible athlete who has completed the Leadman series several times, but, more importantly, he is an amazing human being who gives so much to others. Larry coaches a local high school mountain bike team, spends his free time volunteering to maintain local trails and still finds time to crew/pace friends at races throughout Colorado. I followed him as he ran Burning River 100 mile race as a fundraiser for the Akron Children’s Hospital (coverage of this story can be found here:  https://www.akronchildrens.org/cms/sharing_blog/deac461c4d31a0e9/)  Knowing how much slower I am than Larry is, I was extremely humbled and grateful when he said he would pace me at Run Rabbit Run.

Running Through the Night

Larry spent most of the night sharing stories with me. I was so wrapped up in his tales that I temporarily forgot to eat. This led to a blood sugar issue as we headed uphill on the Fish Creek Trail. As we picked our way over rocks and up the climb, Larry watched me stagger and stumble like I was drunk. Because he coaches a type 1 diabetic, he knew exactly how to remedy things. He made me eat a gel every 15 minutes until I started to feel coherent again. This is why I have a pacer. I knew I was in good hands and I am grateful he was there with me.

It was at this point that the temperature seemed to plummet. I was shaking, my toes went numb and I knew I needed to get changed immediately. I plopped down on the side of a swampy section of single track and pulled off my shorts. Larry, ever the gentleman, looked the other way as he dug through his pack for a jacket. Several runners came through as I was changing and asked if we were OK. This was a reasonable question, as we had recently seen several runners throwing up along the side of the trail. I just laughed and said, “Yes, I am just getting naked…You’re welcome.”

We headed up a long uphill section that took us back to Long Lake and then to the high point on the course at Summit Lake.I was once again freezing. I grabbed warmer tights, stepped about a foot away from a crowd at the aid and changed again. I just did not have the energy to be modest at this point. I started joking that it was goal to flash every runner on the course. We headed down a 2100 foot drop into the Dry Lake Aid Station, where I would be picking up Laura for a ten-mile section. Once again, my knee started to stiffen up. I was running when I could and hiking when I had to. It was frustrating, but I maintained my sense of humor about it. As it turned out, Larry didn’t have to worry about not having run much over the summer. I told him I wouldn’t break any speed records and I as right.

We got into Dry Lake, where we met Steve and Laura. I gave Larry a big hug and told him to get some sleep. Laura and I headed off onto a section that featured several bridges and most likely would have been beautiful during the daytime hours. Fortunately for us, there was a bright spectacular full moon and very few clouds in the sky. It was a beautiful crisp night and we chatted, alternating walking and running through this out-and-back section that was fairly crowded. We got to the Spring Creek aid station, got a bite to eat and then headed back to Dry Lake.

Heading to the Finish

When we arrived back in Dry Lake, Stephen was ready to get me to the finish line. We had roughly 30 miles to go at this point. I had just gone uphill for 4.5 miles and we were facing another 8 mile climb back to Summit Lake. I knew we would be hiking most of this and was fine with that. I was tired but my spirits were still high. We laughed and joked as we made our way up the jeep road. The moon went down and the sky began to lighten. I knew 27 and 28 hour finish times were long gone. I also knew that a sub-30 was pretty much out of the question. Normally, I would be upset to slow down as much as I did, but I honestly did not care one bit. My knee and groin had been hurting and my back hurt where my pack had rubbed it raw. I knew, however, that i had more than enough time to walk it in to the finish line if I had to.

tonia-running-at-rrr

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

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

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

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

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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.

film-crew

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

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

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?

Running

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.

north slope

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.

7 bridges

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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Cheyenne Mtn Trail Race 50K

I divide a lot of my life into ‘Before’ and ‘After’. We all have plenty of ‘befores’ and ‘afters’ in life, of course. For example, there is before/after marriage and before/after having children. For the past couple of years, it most typically refers to ‘before’ and ‘after’ my pancreatic cancer diagnosis. I last ran the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race 50k in the ‘Before’ era of my life. It was April 2013, and I was gearing up to run the Vermont 100. I was in great shape and healthy and strong. I had been training hard for months. I ran a 5:48, finishing as fourth female, first master. I was happy and proud. I ran pretty much the entire race and finished feeling good about my fitness and my ability. That was ‘before’.

CM2013 podium

I had some misgivings about returning to a race that I had run in my ultra prime, so to speak, but I love the course, love the Race Directors, Tim Bergsten and Michael Pharis, and enjoy local running events. So, I signed up in January with every intention of training to get into hilly, ultramarathon shape. Unfortunately, a foot injury has kept me off of the hills and family commitments have forced me to cut my runs short. The training just has not been what it should be. I knew that I was physically incapable of turning in a good, competitive race effort, but I knew I could finish the 50 k as a training run.

I am going to subtitle this post as “The Race Where I Carried a Bullmastiff on My Back.” For every ultra I run, Peyton, my 13-year-old, makes me a little good luck charm. I have become superstitious about having my good luck charm. As I was running out the door to the start of the Cheyenne Mountain Trail Race 50k, Steve said to Peyton, “Did you make anything for mommy?” I had forgotten to ask and she had forgotten our tradition, but she did not want to let me down, so she ran off to her room and came back with this:

shrinky dink

It is a shrinky dink. She said enthusiastically, “It kind of looks like Greta!” I believe that it was actually a pug,  but for the sake of providing a sense of meaning, let’s just go with it and call it ‘Greta the Bullmastiff’. I stuffed the Bullmastiff in the back pocket of my new running skirt. Little did I know that I would soon feel like I was carrying an actual mastiff on my back.

The best part of local races is seeing all of the familiar faces out there and also finally getting to meet people I have heard about for a long time. I took a minute to snap a selfie with Kristin who I connected with on Facebook via a mutual friend quite a while back. This was a great way to start my day!

CM with kristen

Meeting Kristin (r) for the first time was a highlight of the race.

The Cheyenne Mountain Trail Races are deceptively hard, in my opinion. While the elevation gain is certainly not the most of any ultra, it is a relentlessly rolling course with plenty of roots and rocks. There are roughly 3600 ft of ascent/descent over the course of the 50k. When I am in shape, like I was in 2013, this course is tough but runnable. This year, with three flat 20 mile long runs under my belt, I knew I would not be able to run the whole thing. However, I also knew that if I didn’t make the jump to hilly long runs now, Run Rabbit Run 100 will not happen in the fall.

I started off running just fine. I was having fun and enjoying myself. I chatted with an amazing guy who is preparing to run his 9th Leadville this summer, along with Hardrock and a bunch of other races. We started talking because he noticed my Project Purple shirt and he had lost his brother to pancreatic cancer. It amazes me that everywhere I go it seems that someone has a connection to the disease.

Mile 8 begins a roughly three-mile stretch of significant uphill. I was hanging with my buddy Tim Gore and his friends at this point. We had switched to hiking and were talking, but my chest started to hurt. I was working way too hard and something did not feel right. I back way off and let them go. At mile 10, I seriously wondered if it was wise for me to continue. I thought, “My first DNF cannot come in a 50k, but I don’t want to be stupid.” I had not eaten anything up til about 10 miles, so I ate a gel and took a salt pill to see if I could right the ship.

Soon, I met up with Allisa. She was down from Lakewood and she was not feeling particularly well, either. So, we hiked the uphills and ran the downhills. We briefly got separated, but then joined up again at the start of the second loop. Unfortunately, I had to walk hills at the beginning of the second loop that I ran easily the first time around. I was still working way too hard. Finally, we parted ways and she continued on ahead.

The volunteers on the course were a highlight of the day for me, and they were all doing an amazing job of taking care of the runners at the aid stations. It was great seeing so many people I knew out there and hearing them call my name when I rolled in. I seriously needed those wonderful people to uplift  my spirits.

CM 50k

Coming into the Achilles International Aid Station. (Photo courtesy of Denise Flory).

tonia Aid station CM

Photo Courtesy of Tim Bergsten & Pikes Peak Sports.

I was particularly thrilled to see my good friend, Tracey, out on the course. I just love her. She popped up in seemingly the middle of nowhere and made me laugh. She was volunteering for the race after having completed the 10k. I was nowhere near the finish line in this photo, but I was so happy to see Tracey. It was a great excuse to run a few steps with my friend AND to stop to pee. What more can a girl want?

CM 50k tracey

As I ran the remaining miles solo, I listened to music, tried to stay on top of eating and drinking, and continued with my mixture of hiking and running. For quite a while, I felt at peace. I love company, but I also love being alone on the trails. I feel best when I can allow myself to fall into the rhythm of my own body. Once again, I turned things around for a bit, but then the fatigue returned..

Eventually the sun came out and it got very warm.I started losing my mind a bit out there, honestly. I was wearing a vest-style hydration system and I kept forgetting to refill it at aid stations. I just could not remember to check my water supply.  I ran out of water. I made stupid mistakes that I normally would never make. Finally, I closed in on the finish line. I had passed one runner in a late-in-the-game burst of energy and was running as fast as I could when Karen, a volunteer, ran up and said, “There’s a rattlesnake in that bush.” I thought to myself, “I came all of this way to get bit by a freaking rattlesnake. This is how it is going to end, isn’t it?” Karen told me she would stay between me and the snake but I also did not want her to get bit. What a bizarre way to finish a race! Fortunately, neither of us got bit.

CM 50 snake

Photo courtesy of Tim Bergsten

I crossed the finish line somewhere around 6:42 (by my watch. Waiting for official results to be posted). I immediately had to lay down in the shade for a bit after finishing. I talked with a couple of guys who had finished a few minutes ahead of me, then went back to the drop bag area to collect my stuff. I was feeling pretty emotional at that point in time. I knew I was not in shape to run fast today, but I did not expect chest pain and delirium. I wonder if this is some lasting effect from my chemotherapy. I wondered several times on the course why I was still running ultras. Bryce was so amazing last year, but Bear Chase was very rough and CMTR 50k was also quite rough.. I wondered if I could get myself in shape for Run Rabbit Run 100 in the fall. I mourned the loss of the body that could run a 5:48 on this particular course. I doubt that I will ever get that conditioning back.

I spent a couple of minutes talking to Race Director and all-around great guy, Tim Bergsten, at that low moment and let a few tears escape. “My running is so up and down these days and it feels so much harder than it used to be,” I told him. There is really nothing to be said. It just is. There are things I can improve (my fitness), but there are things that are different that will never be the same. This is the ‘After’. The reality is that I had major surgery and poison pumped through my body. It prematurely aged me. My body is changed and I am changed. I want to be gentle and forgiving with myself but I am having a hard time with that because I also really want to kick ass and take names. I am thankful to be here and be able to run at all, but this part of ‘before’ and ‘after’ is emotionally tough to deal with sometimes and makes me question a lot. I often say that if I had to choose, I would choose to go through what I went through because it changed me in a lot of positive ways. However, the lingering physical effects are something I could do without.

So, I carried the Bullmastiff on my back today. It was hard but I made it. I finished. I went through an incredibly full range of emotions out there. I think I experienced as many low and high points as I have in any 50 or 100 mile race. Those highs and lows are part of what I love about running ultras. There is something so intrinsically rewarding about problem-solving on your feet, digging deep and trying to find a way to turn things around when they are not going your way. I was not proud of my performance yesterday, but today I am very proud that I was able to fix my problems enough to finish.

cm 50 finished

 

 

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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I refuse to be a helicopter mom. Don’t judge me.

I have a confession to make. I don’t check my kids homework. I don’t look at their assignments. I do not log into the various on-line places that the schools want me to check their grades. In a world where supposedly “every” parent is a helicopter parent, dooming their children to be clingy and dysfunctional, I sometimes feel like a bad parent. As much as we hear “don’t be a helicopter parent” from schools, colleges, and various media sources, it really feels like society and schools are pushing parents into the role of helicopter parenting. I am fighting back against it as hard as I can but I admit that sometimes I feel like a loser for nothing constantly logging on to see what my kids’ grades look like. That said, so far, I think my strategy is working out just fine for my kids. But sometimes I wonder if I am a secret loser of parent who is not being as “involved” as I should be.

When Riley was in elementary school, I used to check on her homework. I would go over her math answers and make sure they were correct. I tried to help her when she was struggling with something, but even though I was doing my best and my heart was in the right place, I think my “involvement” caused more harm than good (my poor first-born “test” child). I am now embarrassed when I think back at the time I spent standing over her shoulder correcting her. But, I was trying to help, be involved, be a good parent. That is not to say that I think parents should not help their kids when they are struggling. But, it really is OK if they make mistakes. We do not need to point all of these mistakes out to our kids.

When Riley moved on to Middle School and Peyton went to elementary school, I went back to work.  My  husband works very long hours and I was working a health care setting. I frequently worked swing shifts and was not there when Riley got home from school. I started relying on the on-line grade book to see how she was doing. This only served to increase the loss of control that I felt over what was happening in my kids’ lives. I was barely seeing them as it was, and I could not be there to help or monitor what was going on in their lives. This prompted me to ask questions based upon electronic information. “You have an assignment missing in this class? You went from an A to a D over night! Where is this assignment?” I was at turns exasperated and afraid and angry. Most of these conversations took place over the phone or in the brief, bleary-eyed few minutes that I had with my kids in the mornings. I felt our relationships slipping away. I realized that I thought I had some semblance of control over these people with whom I lived, but in reality, I cannot control what other people are doing. I can only control myself. I decided to back off. When cancer decided to visit my life, it really hit home that these two girls that I am raising will have to function on their own in life. I may not always be here for them. I need to make sure that they are equipped to face the ups and downs of life on their own. They need to believe in themselves.

Unfortunately, I feel that the expectation in today’s world is that parents will be available at all times and will be constantly monitoring their children. When Riley went to high school, she did not have a smart phone. Right off the bat, at back-to-school night, a teacher started talking about how they will use their smart phones in class. WHAT?! I was very upset. The district policy was “no phones” in class, but the teacher said essentially, “The kids use them anyway, so we might as well harness the technology for academic purposes.” While I understand that sentiment and realize that teachers are playing whack-a-mole with the ‘no phone’ policy, I felt that my own parenting was being undermined. Suddenly, I felt that I HAD to get my daughter a smart phone or she would be at a disadvantage in school. Shortly thereafter, we had an emergency where she had to miss a sports practice. Because I, myself, had no smart phone and I was not at home at my computer, I had no way to communicate to the coach. I bought myself a smart phone so that I could be a “good parent” and essentially be available 24/7. I resented feeling like I had to be “on call” at all times and like I had to purchase expensive technology that I did not believe was necessary for a 15-year-old or for myself (how quaint, I know, but that’s just my personal belief).

Riley's birthday

Now, as Riley prepares to graduate and Peyton is in middle school, things are very different. I am determined to be as supportive but as un-helicoptery as possible. I ask them every day, “What did you do at school today?” and “Do you have much homework?” I never check their homework unless they specifically ask me to read something that they have written (which is almost never, because apparently writing professionally affords me no gravitas at home!). Sometimes we talk specifically about what they did in classes, but only if it is something that they want to share. There are no inquisitions from me. They choose what they want to talk about. Sometimes we talk about friends or activities or what is going on in the news, the election cycle, or the universe. I want to hear about whatever interests them. I want to talk to my children about their lives. I want to learn more about who they are and what they care about. I am more interested in who they are as people than what their current grades are looking like. A funny thing happened as I backed off from the role of monitor and enforcer: our relationships improved and their own personalities started to develop and really show themselves. I started learning more about who my daughters are as people and about what they actually think about and believe in. They put enough pressure on themselves to succeed academically. They do not need me adding to the pressure that they face. They need me to help put those pressures into perspective.

But, here is my problem: I feel constant pressure from the academic world to not be the kind of parent I want to be. Every week, I get multiple email reminders to check this app and that app and the on-line grade book and the team and class web pages, etc. I do not blame the teachers one bit. They have pressure from everywhere to COMMUNICATE with parents. Parents demand to know what is going on every single day. But, does that make me a bad parent if I do not feel like i have to be constantly informed as to what is happening in the classroom? I trust the teachers to do their jobs. I trust my kids to do theirs. If my kids do not do their jobs, the natural consequence is that they will get poor grades. If a teacher is not doing his or her job, my kid will also suffer consequences, but no website or app is going to tell me anything important about what the teacher is doing. If my kid comes home and tells me, “We are talking about X in class and it is really interesting!”, then that is what I feel like I really need to know.

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My kids are fortunate enough to be in a school district that consistently performs well by all metrics that I have available to me. I know that they will be prepared for college. I am well aware that we are “privileged” in this regard. As important as I believe parent-involvement is, I just do not think it is something that can forced. I consider myself to be a very involved parent in the ways that truly matter. Signing papers and looking at apps will not make me more involved in any meaningful way.

delicate arch

I want to make sure that my kids are hungry to learn and excited about education by the time they get to college, because ultimately that is what matters most. I want my kids to learn to monitor their own work loads on their own. I want them to be responsible for themselves. It is a process, of course, and I will provide support for them when and if they need it. But, I am not interested in looking over their shoulders every day to see what grade their received for behavior or on any one particular homework assignment. I laugh when I have to sign off on a homework calendar for my 18-year-old. (Really? How the hell do I know whether she did these assignments or not? “Hey Riley, did you do these assignments?” “Yes”. “Ok, I guess I can sign it then”). I expect that they will do their jobs and do them as well as they are able.

So, by bucking the system, I hope I am teaching my kids not that I do not care or am not involved. Rather, I hope they see that I am involved in the stuff that matters. My job is to be the support system and help shape and guide them as they grow up. I am actually more interested in guiding their ethical and moral behavior than I am in driving them to get good grades. Their desire to get good grades needs to be internally-motivated, because I sure as hell am not going to college with them.

So, to my teacher friends. I love you and respect you and would never want to do your job, because I know it is really, really difficult. I also trust that you are doing your job. This does not mean that we should not touch base on occasion, because I actually really like you and enjoy chatting with you. But please forgive me for not looking at the apps you set up. I ask my kids how they are doing and when they answer, I assume they are telling me the truth. If my kid is a problem, I want to know about it and I assure you that it will be dealt with, as I am in no way a pushover. But, my expectation as a parent is that they will do the right things in life. If they don’t, then they have to live with the consequences and learn those lessons. Trust me to be an involved parent but not one who is constantly looking over my daughters’ shoulders. They need to learn to be independent. I want them to go out into the world and feel strong and confident and competent. I want them to know that they have a mom who is interested in hearing what they want to share but it not interested in micromanaging their lives. I want them to learn the lessons that they will fail and fall down and make mistakes and that they will be able to brush themselves off and continue on with their lives…and that i will love them no less.

 

 

Love and Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

Tahoe

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

wyoming

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

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

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

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

riley and steve

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

Moab

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

soccer coach

steve girls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

inspiraiton point