Tonia Runs the Bryce 100

In 2013, I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Adenocarcinoma. I was 44 years old, fit and healthy. I had recently run my first 100 mile race at the Vermont 100 endurance run. I had followed that up with a win at the Bear Chase 100k. Just seven weeks later, I was in the hospital having surgery to remove half of my pancreas. Prior to my surgery, I wondered how much time I had left to live. I wondered if I would ever run again. After my surgery and during my chemotherapy treatments, I was fortunate that I was able to continue running at a much lesser level during my treatments. As I counted off the weeks of chemotherapy, I set a goal of returning to the trails and ultra marathons that I love so dearly.

In September of 2014, I finished the Bear Chase 50 mile race as a Pancreatic Cancer survivor. Shortly afterwards, I wondered if I could finish another 100 mile race. If I did attempt another 100, I did not want it to be just for my own personal satisfaction. I wanted to raise money and awareness for Pancreatic Cancer. I have known so many wonderful people who have been lost to this disease. I have wondered, “Why am I doing so well when so many others are no longer here?” I felt compelled to do something to help others who were affected by Pancreatic Cancer.

When I found Project Purple, I knew that I had found the charity I wanted to support. Running 100 miles is very difficult, but training for a 100 mile race is the real challenge from my perspective. The training takes so much time and energy. If I was going to invest the time, energy and money into the event, it had to be for an organization I believed in 100%. That is why I chose and committed to fundraising for Project Purple.

I chose the Bryce Canyon 100 because I thought the course looked challenging and beautiful. I spent roughly six months training for the 100. I logged many weeks of running over 80 miles per week. Though we had a great deal of snow and rain in Colorado this year, I trained in the foothills as much as time and the weather allowed. Every day, I wondered if I had done enough in training to carry me 100 miles with nearly 19,000 feet of elevation gain and loss in the mountains of Utah.

My incredible support crew gathering prior to the Bryce 100
My incredible support crew gathering prior to the Bryce 100

After months of dedicating my time and energy to the race, I packed my family into the car and we drove from Colorado to Bryce Canyon, UT. As the week progressed towards the Friday start, the weather forecast became progressively worse. I knew we would get rained on and possibly encounter thunderstorms. The high temperature was supposed to be in the low 60s and the low temperature was supposed to be in the high 30s. Combined with wetness, this could set the stage for hypothermia. I knew proper gear was going to play a big role in finishing this race.

My family & I at the race start
My family & I at the race start


Saying good-bye one last time.
Saying good-bye one last time.

We set off up a dirt road at 6 am. There were 120 registered runners who started the 100 mile race. As we started up the dirt road, nervous energy and excitement filled the air. We soon turned onto a single track trail and headed up to amazing views of the hoodoos that make the Bryce Canyon area famous. I chatted with runners off and on along the way, but mostly just took in the beauty of the area.

There were 13 aid stations along the course, and five spots where runners could see their race crews. The first crew spot was between miles 18 and 19. Seeing my husband, children and friends at the aid station gave me a mental boost and provided something to look forward to throughout the day. As soon as I headed out of the first crew spot, it started to rain, thunder and hail. Lightning scares me, so I knew this may be the start of a very long day.

Mile 19 and feeling strong.
Mile 19 and feeling strong in my Project Purple shirt.

As we wound through the forest, we were treated to beautiful views of the pink cliffs and rocks that are unique to the Bryce Canyon area. After the first storm passed through, I enjoyed the sunshine that came out for a few hours. At mile 41, I headed into the second crew access point. I was thrilled to see my family and friends again, but I knew a storm was headed our way. I had to move on as fast as I could.

Preparing for the impending storm at mile 41.
Preparing for the impending storm at mile 41.

Once again, as soon as I got out of the aid station, the thunder began again in earnest. I had been running alone for most of the race. Now I was heading into a strong electrical storm by myself and I was afraid. To make matters worse, this section was a very long, mostly uphill stretch of about 5 miles to the next aid station. We would climb over 1000 feet to the highest point on the course, the pink cliffs, which sits at 9500 feet of elevation. It was slow going up this long hill. The storm intensified. Lightning was all around the immediate area, and runners were pelted by hail through the long climb. It was in this section that I started to catch up to other runners. I enjoyed chatting with other people at this point as it took my mind off the storm just a bit.

After what felt like the scariest climb of my life, we hit the Pink Cliffs aid station. I took a moment to change my wet shirt and headed back out to the next aid station, Crawford Pass, which would be the turn around. I had joined up with another runner for this section and we passed the next several miles chatting. I knew I would be seeing my crew and picking up my pacer at mile 51.5 so my spirits were high. I was also way ahead of schedule, pulling into the aid station in under 12 hours.

Heading out from the turn-around and marveling in the beautiful scenery.
Heading out from the turn-around and marveling in the beautiful scenery. Photo courtesy of Tim Englund

I am still adjusting to my post-cancer body and I am still figuring out how it will react when I push it to its limits. I knew if my blood sugar dropped, my race would be over and I would be in a potentially dangerous situation. It is very common in ultra marathons to have crew, who help out at aid stations, and pacers, who run the final miles with the runner. Though my husband ran the final miles of Vermont with me in 2013, I have never had a crew before. My friends Tim and Lisa came out to help with the race, and I will be forever grateful for their assistance. They are both very experienced endurance athletes so their help was invaluable. Lisa was in charge of crewing. Tim would pace me for 33 miles and then I would pick up my husband for the final 17 miles. Though Tim and I did not know much about each other when the race started, by the end of the night, we had truly become friends. I always say, “If you really want to get to know someone, go for a long run with them.” Tim’s fun, encouraging nature made him the perfect pacer for me in every way and I enjoyed running through much of the night with him.

As we ran through the dark together, it started to rain, thunder and lightning again. I was not afraid anymore. Quitting was never an option and now I knew I just needed to keep moving forward. The big issue I struggled with at this point was my stomach. In any long distance event, it is important to fuel well. I got nauseous at the turn around and the nausea stayed with me beyond mile 90. I kept trying to get food into my body, but every time I ate, I felt sick to my stomach. This concerned me from a blood sugar standpoint. If I bonked too badly, I would not be able to continue. I choked down what I could and kept moving as best as I could.

At mile 83, I bid Tim good-bye and picked up my husband, Stephen, who would run with me to the finish line. It was about 3:15 am when we started off together. My three goals for the race had been 1) just to finish 2)to finish in under 30 hours and 3) to finish in under 28 hours. When Stephen and I left the final crew access point, I was in second place for females, after having passed two women somewhere around maybe mile 80.

Stephen and I ran together through the night as the sun started to come back up. The final 10 miles of the course are beautiful and spectacular, but also very challenging. There was another 1000 foot climb at around mile 94. I trudged up that long and steep hill, just focusing on getting to the finish line.

One foot in front of the other up the last big climb somewhere around mile 94.
One foot in front of the other up the last big climb somewhere around mile 94. Photo courtesy of Stephen Smith

Unfortunately, the women I had passed earlier seemed to be catching up to me. My race really started at mile 95. Now I knew I had to run to the finish if I wanted to maintain my podium spot. I ran as hard as I possibly could until I turned a final switch back and saw my kids waiting for us. The whole family got to cross the finish line together, creating an incredible memory for all of us. It seemed appropriate that after everything our family had been through together, we would share that wonderful moment in time.

Running to the 100 mile finish with my husband and daughters.
Running to the 100 mile finish with my husband and daughters.

I finished in 26 hours and 31 minutes, which blew all of my goals out of the water. Along the way, only 76 people of the original 120 registrants stuck it out to finish. I maintained my position as second female.

With my finisher's belt buckle and tomahawk award for placing as 2nd female.
With my finisher’s belt buckle and tomahawk award for placing as 2nd female.

Despite the nasty weather, everything about the race feels perfect. My crew and pacers were amazing. The views were spectacular and the challenge was everything I had hoped it would be.

There is no "I" in team. At the finish with my crew. They were absolutely amazing.
There is no “I” in team. At the finish with my crew. They were absolutely amazing.

When I was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, my first hundred mile race experience had been physically the hardest thing I had ever undertaken. When I faced surgery and chemotherapy, I knew that all of that training and the race itself were merely a rehearsal for what was yet to come. I was correct. The hard work I had put into distance running prepared me physically and mentally for what I would have to endure over the coming months.

As I came out of my treatment, I wanted to return to the trails that I loved. I also wanted to take advantage of my own relatively good health to do something for all of the people who are currently fighting Pancreatic Cancer, and for those we have already lost. I wanted an epic challenge that would symbolically represent the challenge everyone faces as they battle cancer. While I was out on the trail, I never once thought about quitting. When times were difficult, I drew strength from every single person who I have met who has been affected in some way by Pancreatic Cancer. Knowing how many people I had cheering in my corner certainly lifted my spirits and kept me going. While I am no longer physically battling cancer,  I will continue to battle Pancreatic Cancer through my running and writing on behalf of Project Purple.

I now turn towards preparing for the Denver Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. I am so excited to be gathering a wonderful team of people to represent Project Purple as we run to beat Pancreatic Cancer. I continue to be so inspired by everyone who trains and runs for this cause which is so near and dear to my heart.  I truly feel like I have been given a second chance at having a full life and at living out my dreams. My hope is that all people who have been diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer will get the same the opportunity to chase their dreams and pursue their passions that I have been given. I hope that by providing funding for Pancreatic Cancer, we can see a dramatic improvement in survival rates and quality of life for survivors. Please consider joining our team of runners, or consider making a donation to my fundraising campaign at the link below.

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