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.

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Beautiful scenery early in the Bryce Canyon 100 mile race.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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/

Are We Having Fun Yet?

I spent the better part of last week trying to recover from my 3:39 Lincoln Marathon. My plan had to be 1) Not go out like an idiot and 2) Not get hurt. My secret third goal, because there is always a secret goal, was to qualify for Boston. I accomplished almost everything I set out to do in Lincoln, perhaps with the exception of not going out like an idiot. I was hurting pretty badly all week and I kept thinking that maybe I should have reined my competitive spirit in a bit on the course. Knowing myself and my personality, this is probably not realistic. It is funny how when I have said to my friends, “I just cannot seem to hold myself back”, the response I get is, “Well, yeah, I knew you would go race hard.” Am I really that predictable? If I line up at a race, unless I am truly running start to finish with a friend, I know I will go hard. As they say, go hard or go home.

One more finish line photo with two of my favorite people, Dino & Elli

One more finish line photo with two of my favorite people, Dino & Elli

In any event, last week involved some second-guessing and wound-licking. I had hoped to train fairly hard for the Bryce 100 last week, but recovery became the most important aspect of the week. I did all I could to hasten the recovery and spent a good deal of time rolling around on the foam roller and tennis balls trying to work out the aches and pains. I still managed to run about 60 miles last week, which is substantially fewer miles than what I have been running, but nothing to sneeze at, either. But, I figure that the hard marathon effort counts for something in the grand scheme of things.

This last week presented a whole host of other issues for my training. In Colorado Springs, we received unbelievable amounts of rainfall over the past week. Normally, we have a fairly dry climate. We used to be able to set our watches by the brief afternoon showers we would get, but rarely would it rain nonstop all day. This past week, it just never stopped raining. We are not talking about showers, either. We had torrential daily downpours with hail and impressive lightning storms. At one point this week, we had rain, hail, snow, thunderstorms and tornado warnings all in the same day. Trails are flooded. I have never seen so much water and water damage in the 16 years I have lived here. This makes training a challenge. I got out every single day, but it is hard to get in runs of any length when I am afraid of being struck by lightning. I did not survive cancer to go out in that manner (with a bang?).

My friend Debby and I went up to the hills on Thursday and got stuck in a very impressive thunder/lightening/hail storm.

Debby In Cheyenne Canon, before the scary storm moved in.

Debby In Cheyenne Canon, before the scary storm moved in.

Hail on the trail. It is amazing how even small hail hurts.

Hail on the trail. It is amazing how even small hail hurts.

By the time Steve and I got around to doing a long run on Sunday, there was snow on the ground. This is May 10th. I cannot remember the last long run I was able to do that did not involve slogging through snow. It is exhausting and takes forever. What was fun back in October or November is now mentally and physically challenging. Furthermore, there is so much extensive flooding on many of the trails in this area, that routes are sometimes cut off entirely. We spent a great deal of time trying to cobble together a passable route yesterday that would give us climbing and elevation gain. I ended up with 20 miles total yesterday with about 4300 feet of gain and loss. This was good, but it took forever and I was hoping for more total mileage.

We never usually have this much water around here.

We never usually have this much water around here.

May 10th snow. Really. May 10th.

May 10th snow. Really. May 10th.

I hope that by later in the week, some of the trails will have dried out a bit. I have about ten more days of high mileage training and then I have to taper.

I have had a lot of people ask me what you do to train to run 100 miles. My answer is usually some version of, “I run a lot.” The truth is, there seem to be general principles for running 100 miles, but no set in stone answers on what is right or wrong. When I trained for the one and only 100 I did previously (the Vermont 100 Endurance Run http://vermont100endurancerun.blogspot.com/), I just ran as much as I could. I am certainly no expert in the matter. I just figure that if I put in as many miles as I can, it will help build the strength I need physically and mentally to get me to the finish line of the upcoming Bryce 100.

Since Lincoln, I find myself waking up in the middle of the night thinking things like, “I wonder if our headlamps still work?! I need to check the batteries. Do I need more socks? I wonder what phase of the moon it will be on race day? (If there is a full moon, there is more light for the night time portion of the race). Will I get my period on race day? I wonder if I should try trekking poles?” Yes, these are the things that wake me up in the middle of the night. After allowing these thoughts to go through my mind at all hours of night, I can’t help but laugh at myself and think, “I wonder who else is lying awake right now with these questions and concerns running through their heads?”

I have run a lot of miles these last few months. I have not gotten nearly as much time at elevation as I had hoped for due to snow and time constraints. I have not gotten in as many true back-to-back long runs as I had wanted. I spend too much time thinking about the things I have not been able to do. I am trying to remember all of the things that I have done: all of the weeks when I have run 80-100 or more miles. All of those runs through deep snow that were slow but that also build mental and physical strength. All of the runs I have done that had lots of elevation gain and loss, even if they were not as high up as I wanted.

I ran into friend and fellow ultrarunner Larry DeWitt this weekend while out on the trails this weekend. He is an amazing runner who has overcome some physical obstacles of his own. Larry has been a source of inspiration for me throughout all of my recovery and comeback to running. He reminded me this weekend that the big goal is to have fun while I am out on the trails in Bryce. I know when I ran Vermont, I had fun the entire way. Even when I hurt, I had a good time. I needed Larry’s pep talk. It sounds so simplistic, and yet his words have stuck with me. I needed someone who has been there and done that to remind me that this is all supposed to be fun, and if you forget about the fun, then you run the risk of throwing in the towel even when you truly can keep going. I have some amazing people coming out to Bryce with me and their one and only job is to keep me smiling no matter what.

My goal for the next ten or so days is to put in some good quality miles, spend as much time in the hills as possible and continue to try to focus on the fun. I know I can do that much. No matter what has happened in my life, even through my surgery and chemo, I still managed to have fun. “Difficult” and “fun” are not mutually exclusive. Some of the hardest things I have done in my life have also been the most fun and rewarding. As usual, this lesson from running (Just remember to have fun) is applicable to life in general. If we stop having fun no matter what we are doing, even in the most difficult of times, we run the risk of giving up and throwing in the towel. Find the fun. No matter what you face in life, never give up the fun.

Even a slog through the snow in May can be fun.

Even a slog through the snow in May can be fun.

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.