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

Advertisements

The 100 Mile Race: Is there a Gender Bias?

Lotteries for two of the most sought after 100 mile races were both this weekend (in case you know nothing about 100 mile races, those would be the Western States 100 and the Hardrock 100). I was not going to write anything about this topic, but up in my FB memories today came posts from years past about not getting into either race via their lottery systems. Furthermore, my Facebook feed is blowing up with articles/blog posts/ commentary about how we make the system more “equal” for women.

The issue, as I see it, is that we are talking about two entirely differently subjects.

  1. Are the number of women drawn via these lotteries in proportion to the number of  female entries?
  2. How do we make the number of entries more equal, as in 50-50? Currently, most statistics show the finishers of 100 mile races are approximately 20% female.

Lotteries

Let me start by saying, no lottery system is ever going to be perfect. So, this is not a critique of the lottery system, but rather a look at how these lotteries promote or do not promote fairness among male and female applicants.

Western States and Hardrock are extremely popular races for different reasons. If you are a road runner, think ‘the Boston Marathon of 100 mile trail races’. It has a storied history and attracts top talent in the ultrarunning world. Hardrock has a reputation for being incredibly difficult. It has a 48 hour time cutoff. Think brutally long, difficult climbs/descents in the unforgiving but beautiful San Juan Mountains of Colorado. If you can hang in there long enough, you can witness some of the most beautiful land in the world.

These two race lottery systems differ quite a bit. Western States gives out a certain number of automatic entries (past top ten male and female finishers) in addition to a number of golden tickets via sponsors, etc. So, for many elite runners, Western States may be able to provide a way in, bypassing the lottery system.

Hardrock, on the other hand, divides everyone into three lotteries. 45 spots go to the ‘Never Started’ category (for people who have never started the race for any reason). 33 spots go to the Veterans (those who have FINISHED five or more Hardrocks). 67 spots are allocated for ‘Everyone Else’. This could be people who have DNF’d previously at HR, for example.

But wait, there’s more…you have to qualify for both races (which is good, IMO). Once you qualify, the first time you enter the lotteries, you get one ticket which goes into the pool. If you don’t get in the first time, you have to requalify and then when you re=apply you get TWO tickets in the pool, and so on.

This is a gross oversimplification, but the bottom line is, you have a very low chance of getting into either race on your first try…think 2%. If you do not get in that first time, you have to go back and requalify at select races each year in order to get your name back in the hat. If you miss out on a year of running, say due to pregnancy, or in my case, injury and cancer, you have to start all over again with one ticket.

So let’s go back to the two issues at hand.

Are the number of women at these popular hundred mile races proportional to the number of women who apply?

Let’s look at Blake Wood’s statistics from this year’s Hardrock.

gender ultramarathons Hardrock

Here are the number of applications, by catagory, broken down by gender, for the Hardrock 100.

 

First it must be noted that the Hardrock system is kind to veterans. This is not a judgement. It is simply a statement. Women made up 17.3% of the total applicants, but they came in at a hair under 9% of total acceptances into the race. You can see how this is broken down by category.  In total, 13 women were accepted via the lottery system for this race. In my opinion, ensuring the acceptances mirror the actual application rates would create a more equitable system for women who qualify, but that, again, is up to the race director and board to decide.

For Western States, I do not have a complete breakdown on the entry statistics, but my quick calculation of those selected via golden tickets and lottery show the entries to be approximately 17% female. 105 of the 369 spots were automatic entries, meaning NOT distributed via the lottery.  What was the gender breakdown of lottery entrants? Was it close to that 17% we see on the entrant list? Since I do not have gender breakdown of the applicants, it is impossible to say if there is a proportional number of females to males in this case.

I do not believe any female runners think it is their ‘right’ to take spots away from male runners. However, I do think women would like to have proportional representation at these races. Right now, if you are a 5+ year male or female veteran at Hardrock, the system works in your favor. In addition, at Western States, if you are an elite runner, either one who has come in top ten before, or one with connections for a Golden Ticket, the system seems to have ways to help top females find their way in.

Of course, for elite runners who are seeking money, either in the form of prize money or sponsorships, this issue comes to down to wanting to have the same opportunity to put food on  your table as the elite males. Of course, parity is important to these elites. But it is also important to women who simply want the opportunity to test themselves at these big, competitive events. The bottom line is, I think races that do entry via lottery should work hard to make sure women are represented in proportion to the rate at which they apply.

Now, on to topic two: ‘Why are the genders not represented 50-50 at 100 mile races?

Really? Do we even have to have a discussion about this? Is it because our uteruses will fall out? Hmmm…no, that’s not it. Is it because our breasts are too heavy and we keep falling over when we try to run downhill? (Well, maybe, in some cases). Is is because we keep getting lost in the woods because we are more into touchy, feely things rather than map reading?

It really should not be a mystery to anyone but MOST women are still working double duty. We have jobs AND do the majority of child care, house cleaning, cooking and emotional labor at home. Please don’t tell me ‘oh but this one elite runner ran 100 miles and nursed her baby along the way’. Yes, yes, I have read her story and I was nursing babies at marathon finish lines long before most people reading this probably laced up their shoes for the first time. Certainly there are people who can make it happen, but MOST women are just trying to make it through each fucking day without keeling over from mental and physical exhaustion.

Many women just do not have the time available or the physical or emotional energy to train for 100s. When my children were young, I could find time to train for a marathon. I could justify giving myself four hours alone each week, but I 1)did not have time to run more and 2) did not have the money to pay enough babysitters to train for a 100. This is not whining or complaining. It is simply the truth. I was ‘lucky’ that I could run marathons. Many women I know did not have time even for that. There is a reason why the most popular race distance for women is the half-marathon. You can run for 30-90 minutes a few days per week and be home, showered and ready to tackle the day by 7 am.

There are also reasons why most of the women I know who run 100s either a) do not have children b) do not work fulltime outside of the home if they DO have children or c) have children who are grown.

Yes, it can be done, but it depends upon many variables, including having a nonrunning spouse or the ability to pay for childcare so you can fit in running together. Because women do the majority of emotional lifting at home, too, we often feel that we are not entitled to take the time from our families to train. It is a multifaceted issue, for sure, and I am not blaming men, per se. Women carry the babies, women nurse the babies. Our bodies make things different for us. The division of labor at home, both physical and emotional, has evolved over time. Certainly men are doing more than ever, but it is not 50-50 for most couples yet.

Whether right or wrong, women are judged by their ability to mother, keep house, work and do many other things. I have known tons of men who have run numerous 100s, taking time from their families to train and race, and no one judges them. They don’t seem to think it makes them a worse parent. Women who are not available to their families ARE judged, by themselves, by other women and by society at large.

Many women still do not have access to quality, inexpensive day care just so they can work full-time while they raise their children.  Running 100s is pretty far down on the list of priorities for most women. Throw in safety concerns many women have about running alone and it is no wonder women do not make up 50% of 100 mile race fields.

Until women and men carry equal loads at work and at home, and until women feel safe out in the world alone, I do not expect there to be equal numbers represented at longer ultras. These are the real issues women face when it comes to running 100s.

I wanted to run a 100 since I started running at the age of 28. I wanted to push my boundaries. I like doing things that scare other people. I like doing things that not many other women do. It’s exciting and enjoy being an outlier. I did not have the time to train until I was 44. I waited not for the time to be perfect, but until it was manageable.

In 2013, at the age of 44, I finished as tenth female at the Vermont 100. For those who do not know my story, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a couple of months after finishing Vermont. I took the year off from racing to undergo major, radical abdominal surgery followed by six months of chemotherapy. I ran the Bear Chase 50 mile race 3 months after finishing chemotherapy. I came in second at the Bryce 100 just shy of one year from finishing treatments. In 2016, I finished Run Rabbit Run 100. I had a torn labrum repaired in March 2017.

I don’t know what the future of running 100s is for me, but as I approach 49, menopause and all of the changes that brings with it, I know the clock is ticking. Maybe I have another 100 or two in my body, but maybe I do not. Either way, I do not have time to play the lottery game at this stage in my life. I made that decision last year, and while I was sad not to be playing lottery roulette this past weekend, there are lots of beautiful races out there. While I have would have loved to run WS or HR, I’ve overcome a metric shit ton of stuff just to finish a 100. If I have it in me physically to train for another 100, I will choose a different, beautiful race that wants me there, grey hair, wrinkles and all.

women 100 mile

With my super supportive husband who has crewed and paced me at all three hundreds I have finished.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

IMG_6603

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.

IMG_6769

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.

IMG_7890

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

runrabbitrun100profile

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.

jenny-denise-tonia-rrr

With Jenny and Denise.

tonia-family-at-start

Tonia, Peyton & Stephen

run-rabbit-run-megan

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.

early-race

long-lake

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.

to-fish-creek

rrr-foliage

fish-creek

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

Olympian Hall

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

olympian-hall-tonia

olympian-aid-station

(photos courtesy of Laura Falsone)

Cow Creek

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

cow-creek-tonia

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.

rrr-tonia-larry-heading-out-of-olympian

With Larry, headed off into the night.

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

Friendship and Inspiration

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

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

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

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

Running Through the Night

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

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

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

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

Heading to the Finish

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

tonia-running-at-rrr

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

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

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

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

finish-rrr

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.

finish-peyton

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.

rrr-finish

finish-chair

crew-rrr

tracey-megan-tonia-rrr

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

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

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

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

film-crew

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

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

The Panther or the Rabbit

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

Depression

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

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

Finding a Way Out

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

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

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

Running

As I questioned my own life, and struggled to make sense of who I was at this point in my life, I decided that I had to at least make a decision on something simple. Was I still a runner or not? Would I train for Run Rabbit Run 100, or would I close the door on the ultra chapter of my life?

A brief conversation with a friend helped point me in the direction I needed to go. She was discussing someone in her life who was facing a goal that would take sacrifice and work. She did not think this person would be able to reach her goal. The reason? “She isn’t willing to suffer.” The conversation quickly moved on to something else, but I came back to the line many, many times in recent months. I wondered, “Was I willing to suffer to try to reach a goal?” If I could endure the suffering, then maybe I could embrace the physical pain while I worked through my emotional pain.

I knew the only way I could answer this question was to go hit the hills.

north slope

Running Ultras

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

 

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

elk

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

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

7 bridges

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

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

dawn