Running, Not Running & why I cringe over #NoExcuses

Dear runners and fitness enthusiasts:

I am happy for you that you were able to set and finish goals. I enjoy seeing your ecstatic finish line photos. I even enjoy seeing the pictures of the fabulous places you have trained. But I am begging you to please stop shaming people for not being as physically or emotionally able as you currently appear to be. For the love of God, please stop with the #noexcuses and #nolimits crap. It is damaging and harmful and unfair in ways you may not have ever considered.

Running Saved My Life, but I am no Badass

The last two years (really five, but particularly these last two) have been very rough. In 2016, I ran Run Rabbit Run 100. Despite injury, I finished the race hours under the official cutoff time. Oh, the year before that, I ran the Bryce 100 (second female-2015). In 2013, I ran the Vermont 100 (10th female). I was sidetracked from November 2013 until June 2014 for pancreatic cancer surgery and treatment. Through all of the cancer treatment stuff, I kept running. I even ran and finished a 25k with my husband. I was not fast, but I pushed myself so hard I thought I might pass out. In the fall of that year, just 3.5 months after finishing chemo, I finished the Bear Chase 50 mile race.

I was never a badass. Running was never about impressing others. I ran because it was what was in my soul. Running was what connected me to myself. More than once running helped lift me out of a significant depression. I have said many times, “Running has saved my life, both physically and emotionally.” I chased ‘the high’ because it was the natural way of keeping me out of the darkest depths of the lows.

#chronicpain #running

Taking a moment to enjoy the beauty of the wilderness with Willy

The Reality I Cannot Fully Face

After 21+ years as a runner, unless something changes dramatically and quickly, it may all be coming to an end. I am fighting it, but I am on my way to becoming an ex-runner. Psychologically, I am not quite there yet. I keep hoping I will not have to officially hang it up.

When I find myself looking at race photos or reading a friend’s race report, I often catch myself thinking, “I could totally do that ultra!” I get momentarily excited and then I remember where I am physically. Currently I am lucky if I can string together two flat miles of ‘jogging’ once or twice per week. Some days I am able to walk/jog a bit around the neighborhood. When I go to the mountains, I am now more of a hiker with MAYBE a tiny bit of running thrown in here or there. It is in no way related to a lack of trying, grit, or determination.

None of this has happened by choice. I am not making ‘excuses’. I spent 2016 recovering from injury and then had hip labrum repair surgery in 2017. The surgery went well. I rehabbed just as I was told to do. I started running again. I even hiked/ran in the mountains and was thinking I was totally on the way to a full recovery.

A weird thing happened along the way, however. Just prior to the surgery, I was sick for months. I had fevers and a severe cough that would not go away. I had many days where I could walk my dogs around the neighborhood for a mile or two but then I had to go home and go back to bed.

Following my surgery, other problems cropped up. I could not sleep. I was diagnosed with a neurologically-based sleep disorder. I had no energy. I became dizzy and uncoordinated. I took several bad falls.

 

I even fell on the sidewalk in the neighborhood, breaking my wrist. My occasional migraines turned into an every day occurrence.  I experienced excruciating Occipital Neuralgia.

Pain consumed my body. I had a minor foot injury that became disabling. Then the neck and shoulder pain started. I have pain on the ischial tuberosity on the ‘good’ side of my pelvis. There is wrist pain from the wrist break that will not heal. I have spent a great deal of time and money over the last several months at neurologists and orthopedics doctors. I have a sleep disorder, neurological problems which are not entirely clear and inflammatory arthritis. I am still in the process of trying to get some of this all figured out. But I live with physical pain every single day.

Ex-Runner

I am grieving with the loss of my ability to run even very short distances consistently.  Running was never about the glory of a race. It was certainly not about winning anything, because if it was, I would have thrown in the towel long ago. I never needed pats on the back or kudos from anyone. I did it because I needed it. I needed running to make me feel alive and to keep myself from diving into the depths of depression. Running was the part of me which made me believe in myself. I learned I could do things I never thought possible when I laced up my shoes and hit the trails.

#Chronicpain #hiking

Summiting Mountains with Willy

For 21-plus years I ran through everything. I ran through pregnancy. I got up at the crack of dawn to run when my kids were babies. I pushed baby joggers for 10+ miles at times. I spent months on end running indoors, bored out of my mind, on a treadmill when that was my only option. I ran with migraines. I ran through cancer and chemotherapy. I ran through divorce and the aftermath of losing and regaining my sense of self. When I met Steve and we started dating, we fell in love as we ran together.

For most of my running life, I ran every single day, rain or shine, whether I felt wonderful or whether I felt like death. I did not make excuses. I pushed myself outside, figuring if I did not feel better after 20 minutes, I could pack it in and go home. But, no matter how badly things were going, I made an attempt to at least start because I knew that often whatever ailed me would disappear after I started.

Then constant, intractable pain entered my life.

Pain changes everything. It changes who you are as a person and how you interact with the world around you. It changes how you see and think about yourself. Intense, long-term chronic pain forces you to alter your life in ways that you never could have previously imagined. Chronic pain literally changes the wiring in your brain. The effects of chronic pain should never be underestimated or dismissed.

#Noexcuses Philosophy does Harm

Since I was always the person who thought I could just mentally tough out anything and work through it, I thought I could just tough my out of my current physical issues. I looked at social media posts of other runners and the #noexcuses or #nolimits people and wondered if I had gotten soft or weak. I thought if I just got out and did it, my pain would fade away and I would be back doing ultras in no time.

I quickly learned I was doing more harm than good to my body. I have never thought of myself as weak or wimpy or a whiner. But the fact that I could not mentally force myself to do things that were now excruciatingly painful sent me even further into an emotional and mental tailspin. I thought I was weak and a failure. If everybody else can get out there and do this, why can’t I?

Sadly, I had to repeat this cycle in my head several times. In fact, I am pretty sure I am STILL somewhat stuck in this cycle.

Heizer with Willy

Shame, Isolation and Loneliness

I cannot meet with my running friends most days. I get very stressed when I make plans because I never know how I will feel when I wake up in the morning. Some days I could probably go for a short jog, but other days, I will struggle to make it 1.5 miles around my neighborhood just so my dog can go to the bathroom.

I warn people, “I am really, really slow” and even though they say that is OK, I watch them disappear up the trail ahead of me. So I rarely meet anyone anymore. It’s too hard for me and I hate holding people back. The irony in all of this is that even when I was young and relatively fast, I ALWAYS went the pace of the slowest person I was with. ALWAYS. I never left anyone behind and I am really glad that I was instinctively that person. #NoRegrets on that one.

I have isolated myself. I miss hitting the trails with people I love but I cannot trust my body to do what it once did. It’s embarrassing and difficult on every level, but I know I have to just do what I can right now. Some days it might be a 12 mile hike. Some days it is a short walk with my dogs. But it is simply too stressful to try to keep up with people who are faster when I simply am unable to go their pace. And, really, I have found all of this too difficult to explain to people. I am not really sure what to say or how to explain things because I do not fully understand it all myself.

I would love to find an alternative activity that could help me chase the endurance high and feel better about myself. However, swimming and rock climbing are out. Biking is out….I am not sure what could be ‘in’. Nevertheless, I am still tough. I am getting out and doing something, no matter how small, every day. I would love nothing more than to be able to get out and run long, but I do not yet know if that will be a possibility ever again.

Tonia Willly Rosa

Celebrate Yourself while having Empathy for Others

So, dear runners, please know how happy I am for you as I watch your successes and your joy. I used to BE you. I used to be a runner who relished running in the mountains for 6, 10, 12 or even 31 hours and several minutes. It was amazing. I have so many wonderful and fabulous memories from all of the good times and I truly love seeing your happiness.

But, please understand that at some point your body may fail, too.  It could end in an instant or it could be slow decline from injury, illness, aging or all three. The #noexcuses line discounts the very real experiences of so many people. Maybe someone would like to train for a 100 but their job and family circumstances leave them with very little time and energy at the moment. Those aren’t excuses. Those are priorities. Maybe the time will be right at some point for those people, but maybe it won’t ever happen. That’s perfectly OK. I have never looked at people who prioritize other things over running ultras or exercising at the gym as failures, wimps or lacking in discipline or whatever.

Or consider this…maybe someone does not zero body fat and amazing abs because they are sick or pregnant. Or maybe that person is recovering from an eating disorder and they have finally started allowing themselves to enjoy food again. In my opinion, being able to find balance with food is healthier than living with a lifelong obsession over ever morsel that goes into your mouth (speaking as someone who lived with an eating disorder for years).

My concern for and dislike of the #noexcuses mentality is that it is full of judgement without understanding all of the facts or without extending empathy to others. It pushes people to do things they might not be ready for physically or emotionally (I cant tell you how many, “I just finished a 5k and am signing up for a 100 miler” posts I have seen on FB.)  #Noexcuses preys upon people’s insecurities. The message is “I am a badass and you are a weak person with no self-control”. We need to redefine what ‘success’ and ‘badass’ mean.

What does success look like? Maybe it is the guy who quit smoking and just walked a 5k. Maybe it is the woman who has been starving herself for 25 years but has now put on three pounds and stopped weighing herself multiple times per day. Maybe it is the exhausted parent of young children out pushing the double stroller while walking the dog. Maybe it is the person who has always been extremely hard on herself finally giving in to the need to allow herself time to rest and recover and eat a donut.

While I miss the long training runs and the reward of being able to run ultras after months and months of training, that is not the most difficult part in this journey. The hardest thing in the world is thinking I may not be able to get out to see the beautiful wilderness at all at some point. For now, my wish would be to simply hike five miles without pain.

So maybe, eventually, success can be found in the ex-ultrarunner who is very sad at losing her running identity and her place in the running community but who is doing her absolute best every single day to keep moving forward ever so slowly. Hopefully she can accept herself as she is some day, though I doubt the sense of loss and longing will ever be completely gone.

 

#chronicpain

A little jog during a lot of walking in the hills of Colorado

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Six Months Post Op Goal: Rosa & Ohio Mike

Six months ago, I had surgery to repair a rather large tear my right labrum caused by cam and pincer impingement. I am not going to recount all of the details of the past six months because you can scroll through previous entries of my blog for that information.  Suffice it to say it has been a long recovery requiring a great deal of humor, patience, humor, help, humor, cake, love and more humor. In addition, I spent a lot of time swimming (hated it and hurt my shoulder), walking, hiking, riding my bike in front of documentaries on Netflix, doing my PT exercises, stairmilling, ellipticating and eventually working my way back to running.

Being a goal-oriented person, I soon needed to set a personal goal, a milestone I could attempt to achieve following my surgery. I did not want to sign up for a race because I knew I was not physically or mentally ready. I thought about it a few times, but I knew it was just a bad idea. After hip surgery is not the time to get caught up in race fever or any short-term goals. I needed to think of something challenging but attainable. Something that would not hurt my long-term success or health.

The Goal: Mount Rosa

I looked up at the mountains on our Colorado Front Range and decided I wanted to hike Mt. Rosa by my six-month surgical anniversary. Rosa is a peak that stands 11,500 feet tall and is the third tallest peak in our area. It is much less well-known than our local 14,115 foot Pikes Peak, but I kind of like it that way. I have hiked and run the trails up and down Rosa a few times before, and I always think it is beautiful. Some of the trails are pretty darned steep, making for a reasonable challenge. The loop would be about 15-16 miles, I estimated, so that was a decent amount of mileage.

Mount Rosa

Steve on top of Mount Rosa in 2016. We were last there in 2016 while I was training for Run Rabbit Run 100.

Climbing Rosa was not a ‘stretch’ of a goal. Or at least, it shouldn’t have been as long as I was careful and respectful of my body while I recovered. Too much running or high intensity work could set me back, but if I stayed on track, it was certainly within reach.

All summer and into early fall, I concentrated on two things: keeping up a good rehab protocol and exploring the trails. I promised myself that since I wasn’t training for any particular race, I would take more time hiking in new areas. I did some trails which were new to me and really enjoyed it.

Tonia and Willy

With my faithful companion, Willy

It’s Been a Long Six Months

For the most part, I was good about mentally focusing on the immediate issue at hand, which was simply to do the best job of rehabbing my injury as possible. When I started having some new medical issues, I really missed being able to relieve my stress through 20 mile runs in the mountains. That was hard. Long runs have been my coping mechanism for years and I have struggled with some depression in the last couple of months.

Fall in Colorado

My favorite time of year in Colorado!

Would You like Another Crap Sandwich?

How do you cope when you life hands you a crap sandwich while you are already sitting on top of a pile of crap? Runners cope by running. Distance runners cope by running stupid distances. But, I couldn’t run ridiculous distances. I was tired, my body was beat up and I had other symptoms and things to be concerned about. I had to just sit on top of the pile of crap that was already there, while holding my crap sandwich, hoping dessert would maybe turn out to be more appealing. (I have to say that I am using crap metaphorically here. There is no actual crap involved in my current situation, and that’s about all I want to say about it for now).

While I always thought Rosa was possible, I had about a month of physical issues which really made me doubt it was ever going to be within the realm of possibilities. There was one day we started going up a trail where I thought I was going to have to go back down and have Steve take me to the hospital. Another day we went up to 11,000 feet and the altitude kicked my butt. Moving slowly, sweating profusely and breathing hard, I doubted I could make it up the additional 500 foot climb to the top. As we descended the trail, I fell on my face, hard.  Steve was horrified, but I was just happy my hip seemed to be OK.

Still, I persevered. We chose a date where Steve and I could summit and where the weather looked like it would cooperate. It was going to be special! It was going to be a date! Just the two of us achieving my goal together.

Enter Ohio Mike.

We saw Mike getting dropped off in the parking lot as we set out on our path to Rosa. His mom and brother were in the car. Mike was already started off down Gold Camp Road as we gathered our stuff and headed out behind him. Mom rolled down the window and asked if her son would be safe out there alone. They were here from Ohio. Mike wanted to go on these unfamiliar trails and Mom was worried. I reassured her the trails were safe, but being a mom myself, I understood her worry. I told her we would probably see him on the trails and we would look out for him.

Steve and I started running up Gold Camp Road and there was Mike. I stopped and asked where he was headed. He told me Mt. Rosa and I said he we were also doing Rosa. Ohio Mike was going to do an out-and-back, but we told him we were doing it as a loop. I knew this was supposed to be a ‘special date’ with my husband. I knew Steve wanted it to be just us out alone for the day. But…Mike…and Mike’s worried mom. I couldn’t just pass by and leave. We spent the next seven hours showing Ohio Mike the beauty of our local trail and mountains.

Ohio mike scenic spot

The day started off for Steve and me as a way to celebrate the first six months of my physical recovery, but it turned into something else. I love our local trails. It brings me great joy to share Colorado’s beauty with people new to the area or just new to a particular trail. In fact, Steve calls me the Tour Guide. But I have gained so much happiness out on those trails and I want to share it with others.

I told Ohio Mike to text his mom that he was with company when he had a phone signal, because I did not want Mom worrying about him being eaten by bears. Soon I found myself sending Ohio Mike off onto some of my favorite photo spots so I could take his picture. I took pictures as he hit 9,000 for the first time in his life. And 10,000, and 11,000 and, of course, on the summit of Rosa.

Mike summit

And it wasn’t just me playing tour guide. I saw Steve call Ohio Mike over to scenic overlooks to point things out to him. I knew Steve had been looking forward to our time together, but when I saw him standing there pointing stuff out to this stranger we picked up along the trail, my heart got all squishy and I loved my husband even more.

Tonia Mount Rosa

Tonia, Steve & Ohio Mike at 11,000 feet.

Mike was quiet, but he kept up with us admirably well. He never complained. He was all smiles, even when I knew he was feeling the elevation. He was very well-prepared but he was carrying a very large pack with a lot of ‘stuff’, not traveling lightly as we were. He was being smart and cautious and I admire that, but I know it had to make climbing that much more difficult.

We stopped on top of the mountain for some photos and snacks. I told him this was my six month post hip surgery celebration. I gave Steve a hug and a kiss for always being my biggest cheerleader.

We came back down the mountain, enjoying the beautiful fall day and safely returned Ohio Mike to his family. On the way home, I thought, ‘Well, OK, I guess I checked off my goal’. But I didn’t really care. All that mattered was the sense of joy I felt from having shown Ohio Mike some trails and helping him celebrate a new experience. Sharing that happiness was what made the day special.

Mt Rosa

Ohio Mike with his tour guides

Ohio Mike would have made it to the top of the mountain, I am sure. But he wouldn’t have seen the cabin remains we showed him. He wouldn’t have seen the bridges we went over. He would’t have learned the names of some of the other mountains. And I would have missed out on the chance to tell the other hikers we passed about how ‘Mike is from Ohio and he is climbing Rosa!’ And everyone we saw was impressed, because dammit, that IS impressive.

Just thinking about it still makes me happy. Goals are wonderful and it feels good to reach goals, but not this time. Of course, it did not feel BAD to achieve my goal. It just felt irrelevant. I could not have cared less about MY goal, but I did care about Ohio Mike’s goal. All that mattered was sharing the beauty of our mountains with him and celebrating his success. I am thankful our paths crossed and I got be there to see him summit and return safely to his family. Thank you, Ohio Mike, for giving perfect strangers the opportunity to share a day and a goal, to enjoy some conversation, but also some peace and to celebrate the beauty of our world.

Finally, I am so thankful for my husband who knows and understands my heart…And for Willy, who never knows what the hell we will get him into but always goes along happily.

Supermodel Willy

Willy the Supermodel on Mt. Rosa.

 

 

 

Detoxing from Doing Epic Stuff

Four months have passed since I had my hip surgery/labrum repair. In that odd way our perception of time works, some days it seems like it hasn’t been that long. On other days, it feels like it was a lifetime ago. Enough time has passed that I am now starting to reference time in terms of ‘before’ and ‘after’, much in the way I have done with cancer, marriage, divorce, becoming a mother and many other major life changes.

During the ‘before’, I spent nearly every spare moment running mountain trails. I often put in a couple of 20+ mile runs in the hills each week. Now, the ‘after’ looks a lot different. I have trouble fathoming what I was doing at this time last year. But the happy news is I am indeed running!

Return to Running

I started running right at 12 weeks. Following my prescribed progression, I started with one minute of running followed by four minutes of walking, repeated a few times. Now I have run as much as three consecutive miles without taking a walking break. I am still transitioning back into being a runner.  Some days I walk and some days it is a mixture of walking and running. I am also getting into the foothills for hiking/running a day or two each week.

I am genuinely grateful to be able to do what I am doing just four months after this extensive surgery. I have worked very hard to make it to this point. I expect I will continue to improve, though I still have no idea what that will ultimately mean for me in terms of running. I have little doubt I will continue to run but I don’t yet know if the ‘after’ period will involve racing. The jury is still out and I won’t make any decisions on that until I am further along in the healing process.

Measuring Time

For the last several years, training for an ultra has been an incredibly important part of my life. In some ways, training for these big races is how I have come to frame the passage of time. That may sound odd, but when you spend months dedicated to preparing for an event, thinking about it, dreaming about it, planning it, it becomes intrinsically entwined with your memories of that particular moment in your life.

What do I remember about 2012? That’s the year I ran my first two 50 mile races. 2013 is the year I ran my first 100 miler and 100K…and then had surgery for pancreatic cancer.

Vermont 100 July 2013

Packet Pick-Up Vermont 100 July, 2013

Bear Chase 100k

Bear Chase 100k September 2013

What do I remember about 2014? I ran a 50 mile race three months after finishing chemo.

Bear Chase Trail Race

At the finish line of the Bear Chase 50 with RD and all around great guy, Ben Reeves.

2015 was the year of training for the Bryce 100. I trained in a lot of snow that spring…and the race was amazing.

Bryce Canyon 100

Beautiful scenery early in the Bryce Canyon 100 mile race.

bryce training in snow

What I remember leading up to Bryce: slogging through deep snow in the spring.

2016 was the year I spent in the hills around Colorado Springs training for Run Rabbit Run 100.

IMG_6769

 

Most of the time I am content to be where I am right now, but there are difficult moments. Not having a race on the calendar for 2017 sent me into a temporary tailspin not long ago. Logically I knew all along I would not be running any races this year. I knew there was a distinct possibility I would not be running at all in 2017 (or ever) following my surgery.

Cruising Ultrasignup

All the same, I felt some moments of panic with the realization that training and racing were out of the question for the year. I suddenly found myself cruising Ultrasignup.com looking for a race hookup like a junkie. I looked at Run Rabbit Run and thought, “Oh look! There are spots still left in the 50! I could probably hike the whole race if I had to!”

After a few hours, I was able to reel myself back in to reality. I am used to trying to just power through diffiulty, but this is something I cannot force through sheer will and/or mental and physical strength. The body heals on its own time table. I can do things to help the process, but I can also do a lot of foolish things that would hurt the process.

I tried to put my finger on what it was I felt I was missing…or maybe missing out on.

Run Rabbit Run 100

Foliage on full display at the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race in September, 2016

olympian aid station

Olympian Hall Aid Station, Run Rabbit Run 2016

I Need Something but isn’t more Cowbell

After spending the last 20 years running the trails and roads, going for a run feels like fulfillment of both basic and higher needs.  I love the ritual months-long build-up before a race, working towards short-term and long-term goals. I miss the early mornings spent on the trails, lost in my thoughts of how to make the world a better place and myself a better human being. I long for the feelings of freedom and power that come from exploring the trails, alone and unafraid.

ultrarunning

Enjoying solitude on the trails.

While I love working towards a race goal, the months of effort, the hard work involved, is what makes the experience gratifying for me. When I see articles about running a 100 mile race on extremely low mileage, I immediately think, “Why on earth would you want to do that?” The race is merely the celebration at the end of months of putting in the hard work. I spend weeks, months, years earning my way to the festivities. The dedication to the process is its own reward.

IMG-0798

My running partner, Willy.

I went early today for a few miles alone with Willy in Cheyenne Canon. Somewhere along the way, I realize that one key component I have missed out on during my recovery from hip surgery is the joy I feel from the solitude of being alone on the trails. I have spent plenty of time out walking in my neighborhood or at the gym or in the pool. There are benefits to all of these activities and being dedicated to them over the last four months has gotten me where I am now. I can get physical exercise anywhere, but only time in the mountains seems to bring the sense of peace I need.

IMG-0812

It’s Not You, It’s Me

Research provides plenty of evidence about the benefits of spending time in nature. I have never doubted the findings because I have experienced them myself. Today, while out away from technology and traffic and noise, my mind shifted into its creative space and I finally realized I am not really ‘missing out’ on anything at all. This summer has actually been exceptionally busy and while I love racing and the social aspect of running, what I really crave is the ‘quiet’ I can find only when I am alone on the trails.

I managed to get in 9 miles on the trails early this morning and was thrilled to see no other humans until I was over 7 miles in. In this world of ‘afters’, 9 miles is nowhere close to 20, but it felt just as wonderful. It was emotionally satisfying and physically challenging in exactly the way I needed. While I love my running friends, in this world of #zerolimits and baddassedry, right now I am content to go at my own pace, concentrate on healing and take care of my own needs.

Do I still Exist if I Don’t #DoEpicShit ?

Instead of looking back on 2017 as the year I did some ‘epic’ race, I will remember it as the year of recovery and no racing. I cannot and will not cap off the year by completing one big goal. Instead I am making a bunch of intermediate goals in the form of a list of trails I want to explore over the coming months. I am grateful I can still find peace, solitude and joy from doing something purely to feed my soul. If I continue to be smart and patient with my healing, hopefully I can soak in the tranquility and beauty of new open spaces as summer winds down and the cool winds of fall usher in the magnificent colors of fall.