Does My Recovery Make My Ass Look Fat?

Over the past couple of weeks I have told several people how proud I am of myself for not having attempted to run at all during my rehabilitation from hip labrum/FAI surgery. I mean, this is a HUGE deal for me. I started running when I was 28 and basically just never stopped. I had one long layoff several years back when my hip issues started, but both before and after that, I was an every day kind of runner. For me to go 10+ weeks without running…without even attempting to run…is actually quite remarkable. I am not sure which makes me more proud: how hard I have worked on the physical rehab or how hard I have worked to be OK with not being a runner for a while.

Hip labrum repair FAI

All smiles in Vail because I got good news from my medical team!

Progress

I last gave an update at around 40 days post-op. I am now at about 10.5 weeks post-op. I returned to Vail to see my surgeon, Dr. Phillippon May 31st, 2017. I also saw his Athletic Trainer, Mark, and my favorite PT, Melissa, at Howard Head in Vail. The news I got all the way around was extremely positive. They were quite pleased with my strength, as I exceeded where they expected me to be at this point in my recovery. My flexibility and range of motion still need work, but that is also ‘normal’ for this stage in the game. I cannot run yet, but there is a bunch of stuff I am now allowed to do (hiking, stair climber, elliptical) that was off-limits previously.

FAI Hip Labrum repair

Hiking ten weeks post op in Cheyenne Canon with Willy.

‘Secrets’ of Success

My recovery success so far comes down to making good decisions and working hard. (I know you were hoping I would say it is due to my vegan or paleo diet, but no, that is not the case). I did my research, chose a great surgeon with a great rehab team in Vail (thank you especially, Melissa!), and selected a wonderful PT in town (Kevin at Synergy). I have been patient, I have followed the protocol and I have worked diligently at my prescribed exercises every day. I have not ‘cheated’ on the rehab program. I am not trying to be ‘ahead’ of schedule. My goal is to be right on schedule, which is exactly where I need to be.

Learning from Past Mistakes

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, duh…what’s so amazing about that?” The thing is, my thirty year old self would not have been patient. My younger self would have rushed the recovery and likely would have caused more harm to my body. My younger self would not have been able to deal with the the difficult moments in life without being able to go for a run. My younger self would have worried about getting out of shape. My younger self would have beaten herself up over gaining weight during recovery.

My older self has learned some sense of patience and perspective. My older and wiser self has learned you either pay for lack of patience and discipline now or you will end up paying for it later. My older self is learning to focus on the daily process. I cannot control the past or what may happen two months from now, but I know what I can do right now to make myself healthier and stronger in the future.

Hip labrum FAI surgery

First walk in May!

The Body Image Trap

I knew the recovery for this surgery would be long. I knew I would not be able to run for months. I knew I had to be OK with potentially gaining some weight and not being or ‘looking like a runner’. I decided long ago I would not allow myself to have this surgery if I knew my body image issues would undermine my physical recovery.

I am physically ‘softer’ than I used to be. I am not thrilled about some of the changes Anyone who has dealt with an eating disorder or body image issues can relate to the fear of what will happen when weight gain is almost a certainty. For years, running kept the body image demons at bay. I did not weigh myself. I did not worry about what I ate. As my surgery approached, I wondered how I would mentally handle a long period of mandatory inactivity.

Does My Recovery Make My Ass look Fat?

I know it is really hard to believe, but I stopped running and probably gained a few pounds (I don’t weigh myself)…and the world has not stopped turning! The sun has continued to rise every morning. My husband and children still love me (actually, my husband thinks I’m sexier with a little more curve to my body). While self-acceptance has been a bit of a struggle, I know if I am going to heal properly, I really need to be OK with where I am right now. When I find myself worrying about weight or appearance instead of focusing on the end goal (returning to pain-free running) I think of one of my favorite quotes by J.K. Rowling:

“Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me.”

Fat is Not the Worst Thing We Can Be

As a woman, I am aware that so many people (including other women) want to reduce us down to our size, our shape, our weight, our wrinkles, the gray in our hair. Sometimes even the best and brightest among us forget we are so much more than our exterior selves. Too many of us worry that gaining weight or growing old means we have little value to society; that we are somehow no longer important when the beauty of youth fades. To not have a perfect exterior, whatever that means, is to be somehow unworthy of love.

The truth is the beauty of youth fades very quickly. Youthful beauty can offer some cover for character flaws for a time, but there better be something positive and meaningful underneath the glossy, shiny exterior. My bout with cancer gave me an early lesson on the aging process. I have a deep appreciation for just how transient youth and beauty are. In the blink of an eye, it seems, one day you wake up, look in the mirror and wonder who is looking back at you.

When your body has been through an incredible amount of stress, it can be somewhat distressing to look at yourself and wonder what the hell happened. Sometimes thinking about how much I have overcome is helpful. While I can draw some strength from knowing what I have been through, I do not want to live in the past. And while I know it is good to have goals, I also do not want to live in the future.

I am working on reminding myself of the positives I bring to the world today, no matter how small or insignificant my actions may feel to me. When the negative thoughts start to pop up, I think about the project I finished, or the the person I made laugh, or how I had a meaningful talk with my kids, or how I told my husband I loved him as he walked out the door this morning, just as I do every day.

In my heart, I know none of this shallow & superficial stuff really matters, but old thought patterns are difficult to completely eradicate. While the body image demons are hard to completely silence, I am trying so hard to keep their comments to a whisper and find some peace within myself. Now, if you will excuse me, I need to hit the stairs and the weights, because that is what is important right now, in this moment.

 

 

 

Off the Deep End

Forty Days ago I had hip surgery. This past week I hit some major milestones. I am now cleared to drive my car.

driving

A driving selfie just because I was so darned happy to get to drive myself for a change!

I got to go on my first short walks with my husband and the dogs.

Sadie rolling

I am mostly weaned off of my crutches, only using them when my leg becomes very tired or sore.

I have been faithful to doing my physical therapy exercises. I go to the pool 3-4 times per week. I went from barely being able to swim for 5 minutes to now being able to swim a mile (using the buoy) with relative physical ease. I am still grateful for the ability to swim for exercise. If it weren’t for the pool, I would have no way to work my heart and lungs for the first twelve weeks post-op.

The Pool: The Depths of Sadness

Yet I still don’t love swimming. Every time I go to the pool I have to have a serious heart-to-heart talk with myself. It takes me several minutes to psych myself, first to the leave the house and then, when I get to the pool, to go in. There is something I find depressing about the pool.

At first I thought that it is because you can’t really talk to anyone while you are swimming, but then I realized it is more than that. The pool, for me, amplifies feelings of isolation. When I head to the pool, I convince myself it will be a time of solitude and reflection. But the pool seems to always be busy. Instead of relishing some time to be alone with my thoughts, I find myself surrounded by people, often in close proximity, but without being able to connect with anyone. There are cursory words, ‘hi, mind if we share this lane?’ But that is about as far as the conversation goes. There is a profound sense of isolation that comes from being surrounded by people without any real sense of connection.

Isolation Vs. Being Alone

It isn’t that I don’t like being alone. But the experience through running is different. I have spent countless miles and hours alone on the trails. I come away with a clearer head. On the trails, I can focus on the world around me, taking in the beauty of nature, while allowing my internal world to work through life’s problems. I come home feeling freer, lighter, calmer. The time on the trails gives me a perspective that is hard to reach in other situations.

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Being alone with one’s thoughts without traffic, noise, technology and other distractions is a rare gift these days. Several recent studies have shown how important time in nature is to our mental health and well-being. After spending nearly 6 weeks without a single excursion to the trails I love, I realize how important that time is for my own sense of mental and emotional peace. Being alone on the trails gives a sense of connection to the universe. Being in the pool surrounded by people I don’t know leaves me feeling empty.

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The Intimacy of the Trails

There is something else that sets swimming in the pool apart from running the trails. There is a sense of intimacy that comes from relationships built on the trails. I joke that running is a sort of ‘truth serum’ that causes you to share things with people that you might not every share otherwise. Run with a partner and you will soon know everything about that person. When I think of my closest friends, the image that comes to mind is often a particular conversation or snapshot in time on a trail. Topics we might never bring up in other circumstances become subjects of intense debate, scrutiny and mutual understanding on the run.

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The Things I Learn About Running from Not Running

I don’t crave large numbers of friends built on superficial relationships. I live for the few people with whom I enjoy deeper conversations and connection. I desire the closeness that comes with truly knowing others. I want the relationship where we love one another not despite our flaws and inner secrets, but because we trust one another enough to share them.

 

Those are the moments I miss right now. It isn’t training or racing or putting in big miles or tempo runs or hill repeats that I want at this point. I long for those moments of being purely alone in the mountains. I miss the quiet moments with one close friend. I yearn for feelings that cannot be quantified or measured, those moments and conversations that leave me both energized and grounded in a way nothing else does.

So for now, the pool leaves me feeling cold, both emotionally and physically. I will keep going because I know eventually it will pay off and allow me to return to what my heart and soul crave most. For the time being, I will try to envision the mountain vistas with each stroke and breath as I try to stay afloat, forever moving forward.

Tonia Jacks

28 Days

Today marks four weeks since my arthroscopic hip surgery. Before going in for surgery, I researched the procedures and recoveries pretty extensively. I talked to other patients. I saw a few surgeons. I talked to others in the medical profession. I knew I had to be committed to doing things properly and being in the recovery for the long haul and not the short term pain and frustration. This is not easy for any athlete, but it can be especially challenging for someone who is used to engaging in their sport of choice every single day. And let’s face it: people who run stupidly long distances are not entirely right in the head. Moderation and restraint are probably not things we embrace.

Like many women, I have a lifelong history of body image issues. I have been an every single day exerciser since I was 13-years-old. I have written about body image previously (particularly HERE). As the mother of two daughters and as someone who has struggled with how I feel about my appearance, it is an issue of utmost importance to me. Running freed me from a lot of concerns I held about not being ‘enough’: ‘not thin enough, not muscular enough, not hot enough, not pretty enough…just ‘not enough’. Running was something that made me feel not only ‘good enough’ but just plain old ‘good’.

tonia running CM 50k

2016 Cheyenne Mountain 50K with Tracey: I had one of my worst races due to injury, but like sex and pizza, even when running is bad, it’s good.

This is a Test

I worried a lot going into this surgery that months of not running would make my body and self-esteem take a nose dive. I guess that is one thing about being in survival mode…suddenly the size of your ass seems much less important than just making it through each day. I learned that during my cancer treatments, of course, but we humans have short memories. We forget a lot of important lessons we learn over our lives and sometimes we need to go through a hardship again to relearn them. This recovery period is a test of how well I learned certain lessons the first time around.

Of course, I have not been inactive at all. Since the night of surgery, I have been working very, very hard at my rehabilitation. I do my Physical Therapy exercises twice each day. I spin on the bike for two 20-minute sessions each day. I have been going to the pool and swimming, water jogging and doing my aqua therapy exercises 3-4 times each week. It isn’t running on trails, of course, but it is something and I am diligent about doing it.

There are No Shortcuts

I promised myself before doing this surgery that if I lost muscle or gained weight, I would not engage in self-loathing. I promised myself that I would approach this like I do a race and look at each phase as vitally important in reaching my goals. In training for ultras, I wanted to embrace the entire process, start to finish, the good, bad and the ugly. I did not seek shortcuts then and I am not seeking them now. I want to do this properly or I would not have signed up to do it at all.

Ingredients for Recovery

Right now I need two things to heal properly: rest and good food. This includes lots of veggies, fruits, lean meats and sometimes cookies because a little indulgence is good for my mental health, too. So far, I have been kind to myself and not judgmental towards my body. This is progress.

I Don’t Hate you because you Can Run and I Can’t

I am actually proud of the fact that over the last four weeks I have not once felt sorry for myself because I cannot run. I have not felt jealous of my running friends. I am still able to look at people’s running joys and accomplishments on Facebook and think how genuinely happy I am for them. I am so glad I can celebrate along with people who are still fulfilling running goals and dreams. I hoped I wouldn’t feel pathetically sorry for myself following my surgery, but you just don’t know how things will impact you until you experience them personally.

So those are the things I really feel good about and have even gone better than I thought. But there are also things which are harder than I believed they would be and some things I had no idea would be an issue at all.

I Knew this Would Be Difficult…

I really miss being independent. Not being able to drive myself frustrates me still, but I know it is temporary and I am grateful for help. I could never have done this without my mom here.

mom driving us

My mommy has to drive me everywhere still.

Trying to sleep in the CPM is just so difficult for me and lack of sleep for four weeks is really hard to deal with. I will be shedding the CPM this week, so this too is temporary.

CPM leg bed

Hooked up to the CPM, NICE machine and  DVT calf sleeve

Sitting up causes a great deal of pain- more pain than I thought it would. I was in so much pain last night after working on stuff at my computer for several hours that I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t cry because I was in too much pain and just too tired. All I could do was lay down on ice for the rest of the evening and pray I would feel better in the morning.

Didn’t See THAT Coming

In many ways, the hardest part has been the stuff I was not able to plan ahead for. I did not anticipate was that I would be on medications (not pain meds) for a month which would make me very sick to my stomach and dizzy. For 28 days, I have felt like I have morning sickness that lasts all day. Aside from PT, I am spending a whole lot of time laying down on ice and just feeling ill. I am far from resuming my normal life.

After beginning to progress towards weight-bearing, things that didn’t hurt at all before are now quite unhappy. My adductor muscles are very angry and so is my IT band. This is to be expected, but I was doing so well at first I believed maybe I would escape with no pain at all.

I did not expect what a toll this would take on my mental faculties. I apparently am not the only one, because a friend of mine who had a very similar surgery also commented to me that her brain was not firing at 100% either. There are a lot of things from the last month that are a bit foggy, and since I am not on pain medications, I cannot attribute it to that. It must just be the stress on the body and lack of sleep. Whatever it is, it is real.

Yay! Phase Two is Here

So, phase one of recovery comes to a close now and I move on to phase two. I can start to say goodbye to the CPM, the DVT calf sleeves, the ice and hopefully the crutches shortly and begin working towards full weight bearing.

The goals for me for now are to maintain my (mostly) good attitude and continue to adhere to PT protocols even when I am feeling poorly. Equally importantly, I hope to continue focusing on my end goals and recognize that each moment, especially the hard ones, are what will help me get there. I will be patient. I will be smart. I will be kind to myself. I will move forward slowly and surely.

 

 

 

 

 

My Hippie Life

March 30th, 2017 marks the day I officially became a hippie. On that day, somewhere shortly after noon, I had hip surgery at the Vail Valley Surgery Center with Dr. Marc Philippon.

Hip History

My hip gave me some trouble several years ago. In 2009, I turned 40 and my ass fell off. Maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration, but, I trained really hard and ran a couple of good (for me) races, culminating with an 8th place finish at the American Discovery Trail Marathon. I won a little cash and enjoyed the race tremendously.

Tonia ADTM awards

I went home, very sore and spent the rest of the day reclining on the couch. The next day, I could not stand up straight. I was bent over like a 132-year-old person. Imagine my surprise when I saw my picture gracing the front of our local newspaper’s sport section (photo courtesy of the Gazette).

Tonia ADTM Gazette

How on earth did I go from feeling good and running well to being 132 years old?

An Eternity in the Pool

After ADTM, I spent months seeking a firm diagnosis on what was wrong, but doctors could not seem to agree.  ‘Maybe’ it was a labrum tear. I definitely had a stress reaction or hairline fracture to the pelvis. Some soft tissue damage. The possibility of labrum surgery was introduced at that point in time, but after doing a lot of research on the procedure, I decided I really needed to spend a long time trying to recover and rehab. I could not put my body through a procedure with an extremely long recovery without knowing for sure if the labrum was torn.

No Love at First Sight

I spent the next 9 months not running a step. I decided I would swim for recovery. I am not a swimmer. Sure, I can keep myself afloat long enough that I will not drown, but I have no technical swimming ability under my belt.

I hated every minute of swimming. The pool was cold and I was miserable every single time I got in the water. As much as I hated it. I never gave up. Over the course of 9 months, I swam nearly every day. Sticking with it paid off in spades when I got back into running. Becoming a terrible but committed swimmer kept me in great shape. When I started running again, I was grateful I had spent all of those months in the pool.

Eventually I got back into running, then racing and ultrarunning.  I never went back to the pool. I never thought I would need to.

Groin Pain or Hip Pain?

While the outside of my hip did not bother me, I occasionally developed what I thought was ‘groin pain’. As it turns out, ‘groin pain’ can actually be hip pain. For months following Run Rabbit Run, I did all I could to get better, but the pain never went away. Sometimes it was more or less intense than others, but it was always there.

Hip Surgery

After consulting with several medical professionals, I decided it was ‘now or never’ time. The labrum was now definitely torn and I needed to get it fixed soon or it might never happen. Results for this surgery seem to depend upon multiple factors, including the surgeon, the rehab work after surgery and the joint itself. If there is too much arthritis, the outcome of a labrum repair will not be good.

Fortunately for me, Dr. Philippon at the Steadman Clinic in Vail was willing to take me as a patient. (Read about the Steadman Clinic HERE) When his clinic contacted me and said he was willing to take me as a patient, I was thrilled. He is a pioneer in hip arthroscopic surgeries and has worked on many professional and elite amateur athletes. (Read more about Dr. Philippon HERE) Though he has strict criteria/requirements for his surgical patients and their recoveries (patients must stay in Vail for Physical Therapy for 4-5 days minimum post-op), I felt that going to Vail would give me the best shot for coming back to running.

I received excellent care in Vail and cannot say enough good things about the Steadman Clinic and Howard Head Sports Medicine. Within hours of my surgery, a physical therapist visited me in the hospital and got me on an exercise bike. (Visit Howard Head HERE)

Vail hospital Bike

I went to physical therapy twice per day for four days after surgery. On the fifth day, I went to morning PT and then all the hip patients went to the Avon Rec Center for a session in the pool.

hip class

How Did I End Up Here?

My labrum tore due to Femoroacetabular Impingement, a condition where excess bone on the hip socket (pincer type) and/or femoral head (cam type) causes damage to the labrum and cartilage. I had both types of impingement, so I ended up having the femoral head reshaped and excess bone cut off the socket. In addition, Dr. Philippon repaired the labrum and fixed several other problematic areas.

The Aftermath

The post-operative pain has been surprisingly manageable. I will be on crutches for approximately six weeks. I must use a ‘Continuous Passive Motion’ machine for 6-8 hours per day. The recommendation is to use it while you sleep, but that just doesn’t seem to work well for me. I do what I can and then make up the rest of the time during the day.

CPM

I am back visiting Kevin at Synergy Manual Physical Therapy in Colorado Springs. (Visit Synergy HERE). I ride a stationary bike and do my PT exercises twice per day, three or four days per week. On the other days, I am swimming/deep water running in addition to doing the PT exercises. So far, recovery feels like I am doing two-a-day training sessions for an ultra. In a way, I am.

incisions

It is amazing to me what surgeons can do arthroscopically these days. All I have are three small scars and a big bruise (not shown).

Lessons Learned…Looking Ahead

The good news is surgery went well. Dr. Philippon and the PTs at Howard Head believe I will be able to do whatever I want to do in time. The recovery from labrum surgery can be long and at 48-years-old my body does not bounce back from trauma the way it used to. I am trying to keep things in perspective and rely on my ultra marathon mentality to get me through the long road ahead.

I have already learned a few things in the last week-and-a-half:

  1. I hate being dependent upon other people. I knew this, but it has become even more apparent this past week-and-a-half. Since I am on crutches, I feel essentially helpless. I can’t carry anything. I can’t do laundry. I can’t fix dinner. I can’t carry a cup of coffee across the house. I need to ask for help with pretty much everything and it really bothers me. Why hasn’t anyone created crutches with robot hands? I would definitely buy them.
  2. Sometimes when you try something the second time around (or even third), you find you like it better…or at least you don’t hate it anymore. It was like that with running for me. I didn’t fall in love with running until the third time I tried to make it a habit. This is the second time around with the pool for me and I actually have been really grateful to have it as an outlet. I am thrilled to get real exercise and get my  heart rate up. I come home thinking, “I am tired and calm and that actually didn’t suck.”
  3. The pool feels warmer when you aren’t as skinny as you used to be. Also, swimming is hard work. Neither of these are bad things.
  4. Using crutches and wearing a brace makes everything take way longer than you think it will.
  5. As much as I hate it, sometimes I really have to rely on others for help. My mom, my husband, other school and volleyball parents have been life savers. I am grateful for their help.
  6. As much as I love running, I won’t die if I have to take some time off. I learned this already, but I am relearning it. Life will go on. I miss seeing my running friends. I will miss certain events this year. But, I will get back to it.
  7. It is good to have goals during recovery. Dr. Philippon and the PTs have all talked to me about my goals and I already have some in mind.
  8. I want to run again. I thought I would be doing Run Rabbit Run 100 again this year. Clearly I won’t be. But I believe I will run again.
  9. I also want to do some other things. Maybe I will take swim lessons. Maybe I will learn to rock climb when my hip is better. Maybe I will hike the Colorado Trail. I want to run but I hope to also discover joy in some new activities.
  10. I sometimes believe the universe is giving me signs. The gentleman who had hip surgery immediately following mine and who I spent lots of time chatting with at PT lives in Steamboat Springs and can see the Run Rabbit Run course from his house.
  11. I could live in a one room cabin with my husband and be happy.

For now, I am focused on getting through these next 4-6 weeks of crutches and equipment. While I know some days will be difficult, I am pretty at peace with the process for the moment. I don’t have a choice, so I may as well make the best of it. The mountains are still calling and I will be there…in time.

Seven Bridges selfie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What if this is ‘The End’?

When I ran Run Rabbit Run 100 in September, 2016, I had no idea that it would likely be my last 100 mile race. I was blissfully unaware that my little 100+ mile jaunt through the mountains in and around Steamboat Springs might be my final ultra or possibly even the conclusion of my running ‘career’.

As hard as Run Rabbit Run was for me, I had an amazing time. (You can read more about my race experience HERE) Even though there were moments in time where I was really ready to be done, I knew without question I wanted to run another 100. In the immediate aftermath of my previous 100’s, I told myself I was finished with the distance. Only days, weeks or months later did I start entertaining the idea of running another one. At Run Rabbit Run, however, I knew before I even crossed the finish line that I would sign up for another one. Except now I think my days of toeing the line at ultras is over.

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Injury

It turns out the self-diagnosed ‘groin strain’ was something entirely different. I have a tear in the labrum of my right hip that is causing pain and making running difficult. While physical therapy can sometimes improve the symptoms of a labrum tear, the labrum will not actually heal on its own.

Complicating things a bit is my age. As we get older, we typically have signs of osteoarthritis in our joints. If there is too much arthritis in the hip joint, the surgery will not be successful.

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Soaking in the scenery (Photo courtesy of Tim Englund)

Debating Surgery

I have debated with myself whether to have surgery or not many times over since I first learned the nature of my injury.The recovery from hip labrum surgery is known to be very long and challenging.  If I don’t get the surgery, I might be able to keep running, with pain, for a while. Running in the hills puts extra strain on the injury, so that would be out. I could run short distances on flat trails to try to minimize the damage, but for how long? And would I be happy with that?

On the other hand, if the surgery is not successful, I may not be able to run again at all. What is the right thing to do? Take a chance on the surgery so that maybe, just maybe, I could get back to doing what I love? Or should I try to settle with what I consider to be a poor substitute for an unknown amount of time?  Do I take a chance on my passion and risk giving up running entirely? Or do I play it safe and hope to just be able to get in a couple of miles each day around the neighborhood?

Vermont 100

What would I have done if I knew it was the last time?

When I found out that I might not be racing or even running in the future, I was devastated. I thought about Run Rabbit Run and how I had absolutely no idea it was likely my final 100, my swan song. If I had known, I wondered, what would I have done differently? It was a race, after all, so maybe I would have tried harder, despite being injured, to turn in a faster finish time. Maybe.

I love competition and I get fired up by seeing how well I can do under any given set of circumstances. However, in this instance, I think I would have tried harder to soak up every second of the experience. I have wonderful and very fond memories of this experience, but I wish I could hold on to every second in my mind: the beautiful scenery, hugging my daughter at the Aid Stations, Larry’s amazing stories, the spectacular full moon that Laura made me take in, the sunrise with my husband and even those final hot and painful miles downhill to the finish line.

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As we go through life and become acutely aware of how quickly time passes, we all seem to want the same thing- the ability to slow down time so we can savor the experiences. I have no regrets at this point about my running experiences. I have run many, many roads marathons, trail marathons and ultra marathons. I am three for three on 100 mile finishes.

Memories and Miles

Each race is special snapshot of a particular moment in the times of my life. I remember something from each experience which carries meaning for me. Sometimes those memories relate to where I was at a particular point in my life. Sometimes it is something as simple as the crowds at Boston or the scenery in the mountains. Either way, the memories the races evoke are incredibly special. I wouldn’t want to change the races where I ran as hard as I could. Still, all I can think when I recall Run Rabbit Run is how I wish I could replay the whole experience. I want to slow it down in the same way parents want to slow down time as their children grow.

More importantly, I carry running memories with me that have nothing to do with racing. I think back to how I started running with my dogs when I lived on the Gulf Coast. I remember the people I have run with over the years. I envision the beautiful trails I have spent so much time on since I have moved to Colorado. I have pushed my children in baby joggers and I have developed deep friendships on the roads and trails. My relationship with my husband has become richer and more rewarding as it has evolved over the years of running together. This is what makes running meaningful for me. It isn’t the races or the medals or the t-shirts. It is the all about the moments, the experiences, the time spent alone and the time engaged with others.

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I recently purged a bunch of my old race t-shirts. I even tossed an old Boston Marathon jacket I had. My husband was incredulous. He knew that jacket had once meant a great deal to me. At some point I realized, however, that it wasn’t the jacket that was important to me. The memories of the experience are what matter.

Who Am I if I am not a Runner?

In three weeks, if all goes well, I will have hip surgery. I hope to come back to running in time, but at this point I have no idea what the future holds. As with any major life change, it is frightening to have to give up something that has long been a big source of my own identity. I have now been ‘a runner’ for 20 years. Will I cease to exist as I once was? How will I see myself? How will others see me? Will I survive the long recovery period with my sanity intact? Will something else take the place running once filled in my life?

tonia run

Maybe I will come back to running, or maybe this will be the beginning of something new and undiscovered in my life. Either way, I cherish the memories I have built over these past 20 years. Push yourself. Run Hard. Run Fast. Run Long. But every once in a while, take the time to slow down and revel in the moment because you never know if it will be your last.

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Run Rabbit Run 100

I had the opportunity to complete the infamous Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race this weekend. The course was both brutal and beautiful. The volunteers were absolutely fantastic. I was challenged, uplifted and beaten down at various points over the course of the race. There were many high and low points over the 31 hours and 19 minutes it took me to finish the race. Ultimately, what I remember most is the purity of the connection to the people on the course. When you are tired and cold and nauseated, you cannot hide who you are. You must be open and be both strong and vulnerable. You must rely on the kindness of friends and strangers to help keep you moving forward. In a world where we can be guarded and jaded, the experience of allowing all of the barriers to slip away and be really present in the moment and open to those around you is unique. When it all comes together, it is refreshing and life-affirming.

I signed up for Run Rabbit Run 100 way back in January, 2016. At the time, I was not really sure why I signed up, but as winter turned into spring, I found myself sinking into a depression. As the weeks and months of training marched on, I realized that spending time running in the mountains was what I needed to save myself. (You can read more about that here: https://mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/the-panther-or-the-rabbit/ )

In the past couple of weeks as I stared down a daunting 100-mile mountain race, I felt a familiar mixture of excitement and foreboding. Every time I mentioned what race I was running, people would respond, “Wow, that’s a hard course!” or some version of that sentiment. Looking at the course profile, it isn’t hard to see why Run Rabbit Run has a reputation for difficulty.

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In addition to the long, steep climbs and the significant elevation change, runners face extremely cold temperatures at night time. I had been warned that many people DNF due to hypothermia. I packed so much cold weather gear that my husband asked me if I thought that I was running in Antarctica. I know that anything can happen over the course of a 100 mile race, but I would not drop out due to not packing the right gear.

The race, which has a 36-hour cut-off, started on September 16, 2016. I had assembled a team of three adults and one teenager. My husband, Stephen, would serve as crew chief and would pace me for approximately thirty miles. Laura, who I had been Facebook friends with for years but had never met in person, surprised me by buying a plane ticket so she could come pace/crew me. She has ultra experience, but lives at sea level, so I was not sure how she she would feel with the altitude and elevation gain. She would run either 10 or 14 miles, depending upon how she felt. My friend Larry, who is a very experienced endurance athlete, would therefore do either 20 or 25. Peyton would be on hand to help crew and keep my spirits lifted.

I chose Run Rabbit Run 100 in part due to the race’s proximity to Colorado Springs. I knew we could drive up in a few hours and I figured it would be relatively easy to get people to come help crew and pace. In fact, there was a large contingent of runners from the Springs area, which made for a warm and welcoming environment.

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With Jenny and Denise.

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Tonia, Peyton & Stephen

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At the race start (Photo courtesy of Ann Labosky)

We started up the ski hill promptly at 8 am. The course sends runners straight up Mount Werner, gaining approximately 3,500 feet of elevation in the first 4.4 miles. Even though I did a lot of steep training runs, I had a moment of wondering what in the hell I had signed up for. By the time we reached the top of the hill, I had sweat dripping off of my face. Nevertheless, I knew that we would essentially be headed out on a net downhill for the next several miles. I chose to try not to think too much about what was to come later in the race, instead just opting to enjoy the scenery. I spent some time shaking out the nerves and chatting with people, knowing that it was very early and I had to keep the pace conservative to save energy for the big climbs that would come later in the race.

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Long Lake

The Long Lake aid station is at mile 10.8. I was still feeling good and the trails, which had been crowded up to this point, began to open up. We headed to Fish Creek Falls, a section which starts off with fabulous single track that becomes quite rocky and technical. I was running alone at this point, listening to music and enjoying the scenery.

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My sunglasses were bugging me a bit so I took them off. While I was messing with them, I tripped and fell, hitting both knees on rocks. I had only gone about 12 miles into the race. The hard hit stunned me and I had blood streaming down both legs. I walked for a minute, assessing the damage. Nothing appeared to be broken, so I shuffled back into a run, hoping for the best. From Fish Creek Falls, we ran along a four-mile section of trail back into Steamboat Springs.

Olympian Hall

I came down into the Olympian Hall aid station with a considerable amount of blood and dirt on my legs, but was thrilled to see Steve, Peyton and Laura. After stopping briefly to restock my gels, I moved on and headed up the next section of trail.

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(photos courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Cow Creek

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

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

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

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

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With Larry, headed off into the night.

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

Friendship and Inspiration

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

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

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

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

Running Through the Night

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

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

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

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

Heading to the Finish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Panther or the Rabbit

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

Depression

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

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

Finding a Way Out

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

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

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

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.

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Running Ultras

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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