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 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/

Breck Crest Mountain Marathon Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

Steve, me, Debby & John

Steve, me, Debby & John

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

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

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

Early uphill in the Breck Crest

Early uphill in the Breck Crest

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

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

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

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

Running at 12,500 feet

Running at 12,500 feet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoying a post-race meal with my beautiful daughters

Enjoying a post-race meal with my beautiful daughters

Hanging out in front of the blue trees in downtown Breckenridge

Hanging out in front of the blue trees in downtown Breckenridge

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

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

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

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http://www.ultrarunning.com/

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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Running to Save Lives

I used to be cynical about “raising awareness” campaigns. I remember wondering, “How does raising awareness actually help to accomplish anything?” That all changed instantly when I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer in November of 2013. Pancreatic Cancer has the highest mortality rate of any cancer, yet funding from the federal government for pancreatic cancer research is among the lowest for any cancer. While death rates for other cancers are declining, death rates for Pancreatic Cancer are expected to grow in the next several years. It is projected that pancreatic cancer will be the second leading cause of cancer deaths by 2020, surpassed only by lung cancer. The five-year mortality rate continues to be about 6% for all four stages.

After getting my diagnosis, I suddenly understood the point of “awareness” campaigns. We desperately need attention brought to this extremely lethal illness so that the general public will care enough to give much-needed funding for research. Those of us who have been affected by the pancreatic cancer want to scream from the rooftops, “Please help before one more amazing human being dies!” We are in a race against time. We desperately need new and better therapies. We need money to go into clinical trials. It truly is a matter of life or death. So, when we talk about “raising awareness”, please understand that we are talking about bringing attention to an illness that is highly lethal and we really are talking about trying to save lives.

It is because of this that I decided that I must personally do something to help others with Pancreatic Cancer. My contribution is what I am calling the race trifecta of 2015. I will be running the Lincoln Marathon in May, 2015. In June, just a month later, I will be running the Bryce Canyon 100. Then, in October, I will be running the Denver Rock N Roll Marathon.

I have established a Crowdrise fundraising link that you can follow here. Please consider making a donation. All funds raised will go to Project Purple, which has a mission of helping to fund cancer research and help those who have been affected by pancreatic cancer.

https://www.crowdrise.com/survivortoniaruns/fundraiser/toniasmith

Running for the cause of helping others inspires and motivates me. I know of no other pancreatic cancer survivor who has run  a 100 mile race. Sadly, most people who have been touched by pancreatic cancer have not been as fortunate as I have been. I hope to use my own good health to bring much-needed attention to the illness that has affected my family and so many others so deeply.

I put in 94 miles of training from last Saturday through this Friday. I ran in snow. I ran at 9500 feet of elevation in the mountains.

In the snow about 9000'.

In the snow about 9000′.

I did a speed workout. I ran when I was tired. I ran during every spare moment I had. I ran when it hurt. I ran alone. I ran with friends. I ran with my husband. I ran with my dog.

Running with my dog in the snow

Running with my dog in the snow

I ran for every person whose pancreatic cancer story has touched my life. I ran for the people who are still fighting. I ran for the people who have been lost. Every time I felt like not running, I thought about all of the reasons why I needed to press on anyway.

I have met so many amazing people who have been affected by Pancreatic Cancer in the last 16 months. As long as I continue to live, breathe and have “fight” left in my body, I will do what I can to continue to bring attention to this disease. We need a cure now. Too many people have been lost already. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to my campaign. Your money can help save lives.

Commitment

I have been thinking about commitment this week. Commitment is different from agreement. We agree to do many things in life. How many things do we truly commit to? Commitment is following through with what agreed to do, even when it becomes extremely difficult. Commitment implies that we are giving 100% of ourselves to something. We may agree to do something half-heartedly but committing to something implies an entirely different level of passion and involvement.

Commitment is when we continue to work towards a goal we set, even if we know we may not get accolades or win awards. Commitment is demonstrated by what we do to achieve something when no one else is looking. We can participate in things in our lives or we can commit ourselves completely. This is a difference in semantics, of course, but there is a difference in emotional involvement and passion when we commit versus simply agreeing to go along with a plan.

I thought I had committed a few months back to the Bryce 100. Since that time, I have experienced every emotion under the sun over having made the commitment. I have felt excitement, fear, joy, disbelief, and even anger at myself (WHY did I do this?) Lots of thoughts have gone through my head. “I don’t HAVE to do this.” “I have nothing to prove”. “Are you sure you want to put your body through this?” “No one but you cares if you do this 100.” “You could drop to the 50”. “You have so much other stuff going on in your life. Why are you adding to your plate right now?”

I signed up to participate. I agreed to run the race. Somewhere over the last week, that agreement has turned the corner to commitment. I want to do my absolute best to honor the commitment I have made to the race and to myself. I do believe that we should all do things that scare us a little bit. Truthfully, everything about this race scares me right now. Everything in my life is different from it was when I ran the Vermont 100 in 2013. I am different from I was back then. I knew taking this on would be more difficult this time around. It scares me, but isn’t that exactly why I wanted to do it?

Recently, I was running a race when I overheard participants near me engaged in banter and frankly, sand-bagging. They were discussing who among them was the least prepared for this event. “I was up drinking all night!” “My longest run was only three miles!” I wondered why people would be arguing to win the “least prepared for this race” award. Is this a new thing? Trying to run with no training? Since when are people proud of not doing the work involved to get ready to run a race? I belong to a few running/ultrarunning groups and I often see people say, “I have been running for three months! I want to run an ultramarathon NOW!” I wonder, “WHY? Why would anyone want to attempt to take shortcuts in running or racing?”

I am by no means a running expert. I am just a mom who started running at the age of 28. I jumped into running marathons shortly after I started running, but I trained every single day to prepare myself. I did the work. I logged the miles. It was not until I had been running marathons for several years that I began looking into running beyond the marathon distance. There is something to be said for patience, and for being willing to put in the work involved. Training for a marathon or an ultramarathon is hard work. There are countless hours of effort and dedication that go into making a successful race. Isn’t that part of the attraction to distance running? Why run a race if you are not interested in putting in the work that is required? I know I run long distances because I am attracted to the difficulty of the entire process. I want to do hard things. I relish the challenge.

I want to reiterate that my training is far from perfect. I do not work with a coach. I make up my training program as I go. I have to schedule runs around my family and my work. Regardless, I put in many, many miles. I put in effort. I run when it is cold, snowy, hot, raining, icy, etc. I ran through chemotherapy so I wouldn’t have to start from zero. I am proud of the fact that I work my ass off to prepare for races. It demonstrates commitment and respect for the race.

I realized at this recent race that I had been waffling on my commitment to Bryce. Either I am “all in” on this or I am not. Since then, I have made some adjustments to my training. I have a new energy and enthusiasm that has been infused into the training process. Between last Monday and this Sunday, I logged 85 miles, including a 24 mile run.

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I have had a couple of days where I ran twice. I have thrown in hill repeats while I waited for my daughter to finish up with a practice. I am trying to take every single opportunity I have to move forward towards reaching my goal. I have even begun working my weak core every single day. Good habits are formed out of practice and repetition. Ultimately, I may fail to reach my goals, but it won’t be for lack of commitment and dedication. Love the work. Love the effort. Love the dedication required to achieve something. Love how good it feels to know you gave all of your effort towards something. Be committed.

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Super Half-Marathon Race Report

In December, I ran the Rock Canyon Half-Marathon in Pueblo, CO and suffered in pain the entire way. Since then, I started seeing a Physical Therapist for my back pain related to a disc problem. Right away, I felt some improvement. On New Year’s Day, I ran the Rescue Run 10K and felt much better. Today, I returned to the Super Half-Marathon in Colorado Springs.

Last year I ran this race with a friend after completing my first cycle of chemotherapy. This year I was hoping to push the pace and see what my legs had in them.Since my long-term goal is an ultra, I just trained as normal this week, although I ran slower since I was getting used to running with our new dog, Willy.

This morning, I knew Willy wanted to run. I took him out for about 2.5 miles prior to heading down to the race start. I had wanted to get a long run in today, so I figured I would add a few more miles on with the dog after the race. I got down to the race venue just ten minutes before the race was to start.I found bathroom so I could pee right before the start, lined up with a couple of friends and then we were off.

I have run very few half-marathons, and of course, I am still in cancer comeback mode.I honestly had no idea what pace I should run. So, I figured I would shoot to keep the pace comfortable on the way out and then either just hang on or push it on the way back, depending on how I was feeling. It was cold at the start, with temperatures only in the mid 20s and with a bit of a wind, but the good news is that there was very little snow on the course. I ran, monitoring my garmin more out of curiosity than anything.I seemed to be running in the 8:15-8:20 range on the way out.

As we hit the turn around point, the course begins a gentle downhill to the finish. My splits were a little more scattered, but generally were in the 7:50ish range. I found myself running with a couple of guys for the last couple of miles and we pushed each other,so that was nice. I ended up finishing in chip time of 1:45:54, which put me 3rd in my age group and 29th out of 265 women.

3rd in 45-49 AG

3rd in 45-49 AG

I am happy with my results. The biggest bonus for me is that I felt good. After being in pain for a while, it felt awesome to be able to test myself out. Pain was not my limiting factor, my fitness level was and that is something that I can work to improve. I ran 9 minutes faster than I did in Pueblo, at an elevation of about 1000 feet higher. Hopefully this means that things are starting to turn around for my running.

I spent a little time at the award ceremony at Jack Quinn’s after the race. It was great seeing so many of my friends out on the course, running, volunteering and celebrating afterwards. When I got home,Willy was waiting by the door. He ran another 5 with me, and I got my 20 miles in for the day.Life is good.