Have you ever continuously worked to train for something that you never got to fulfill? In the trail running world, I would imagine all of us had experienced setbacks not limited to injuries, babies, health, or personal situations. I have been running most of my life. It provides a symbiotic release to the constant anxiety, stress, and uncertainties in my world as a wife, mother, nurse, and friend. I wouldn’t say I ever identified as a trail runner, but most of my early running was on the local trails. I didn’t know this was a separate category of running. But I do know that I have always found most of my peace in the woods.
In 2020, I would be led to the solace of the trails. My story of identifying as a trail runner starts with the COVID pandemic. I’m a nurse leader. And it was the absolute worst of times. The increased stress coupled with social distancing orders forced the runners in my area to seek group running activities in the privacy of the mountain, where there was ample space for distancing. As the stress of my working world increased dramatically, I found consolation in the pain of traversing 1,000’s of feet of elevation in mere miles.
I needed my runs to hurt more than my heart hurt from watching the waves of humans around me die. And man, did trail running deliver. What I found most impactful in trail running was the ability to linger and enjoy the world around you. To be on top of a mountain staring at the valley below, a sense of grounding happened. It always reconnected me to my purpose. And also helped me have hope for a better future and hope for a better future of our Country.
Naturally, as one does in the trail running community, I started to desire the opportunity to compete against myself by completing various distance races. I had met some very accomplished trail runners, who told tales of physical destruction in 100-mile races. It sounded lovely to my jaded-needing-to-feel-anything heart. I had set my sights on running a local 25K to test the ground with trail races.
The course followed trails in Weiser State Forest, a place I had never heard of before that was literally ten minutes from my house. The mountain was in full beauty that morning, and I found myself re-experiencing my hometown for the first time again. Life in that moment was a perfect combination of release and pain.
I would soon find myself on a hiatus from trail running as we anticipated our third albeit, surprise baby. But after his Spring birth in 2021, I would find myself re-exploring new trails with my new body. My lack of speed kept me from running in groups, so most of this exploring was done on my own. My comfort level went from sticking to the main trails to gracefully forging through never-before-ran trails and hoping for the best possible outcome. Read: not getting lost in a dead zone with no all trails signal. Also read: avoiding snakes like the plague. Not only did I never end up lost, I also was finding the terrain more possible as the months went by. There were also a lot of snakes.
I had my sights set on running my first ultra in the spring of 2022.
Life is funny. Just when you think you know the direction you are going, and know you can accomplish anything, you are tested, determined to find yourself at the very top of an absolute bottom.
My ultimate bottom of bottoms would be discovered in Fall of 2021. I would find out, at a mere six months postpartum, that I had Stage 3C Triple Negative Breast Cancer.
As an athlete, and as a young woman, my existence orbited around the notion that I was healthy, I was fit, and I was happy. With that at my core, I couldn’t conceptualize how such a catastrophic disease could have been also in my body. It didn’t fit. It didn’t belong. But it was there, and without immediate intervention, I would be lucky to see 2022.
The light in my world turned off. Or turned on. I debate back and forth about this. Was cancer the end of my existence as I knew it? Or did cancer turn on a light switch on to the dark world I didn’t know I existed in?
I found out I had very likely breast cancer on a Friday. I couldn’t function Friday or Saturday. I remember trying to go through the motions. I tried to go on a run with a friend. I had trouble breathing. I went grocery shopping with my five-year-old daughter and spent 45 minutes in the produce aisle in a full-blown panic attack, unsure of where the next safe step would be. It apparently would be to the cereal aisle. There were still some absolutes in life.
Sunday, I had existing plans to attend my first group run since having my baby. I debated on if I could attend if I wanted to attend. I had intense fear that running would affect my cancer in some sort of twisted outcome. I decided I needed to exist somewhere I knew and somewhere safe. So, I found myself out the door to run, in the pouring rain.
The rain was relentless. And I was running harder than I was accustomed to. Therefore, I ran, with friends, in silence. They were talking around me, but I wasn’t listening. What I distinctly remember is the toxic, negative energy in my body. I wanted to scream. I wanted to take a branch and hit something. Over and over. But as the miles ticked on, I felt a slow release happen. I felt the negative energy propelling my body forward, expending itself in the process. As the miles ticked on, I could feel the strength from deep within, gaining momentum and power to take over. The tears that had flowed too easily that morning, were replaced by rain. I ran taller, I ran straighter. It was a strong performance for me, despite everyone else deeming this run a sexy pace.
I saved myself on that run. Every single negative, terrible thought was pushed to the trail, and I left the woods with a newfound sense of pride and purpose: I can do hard things.
I had trained for this. I was fit to beat cancer. I was in a race I had unknowingly signed up for, but one I was going to stop at nothing to finish. I prefer to live my life experiencing constant intensity around me, and this was as close to the edge as I could possibly go.
I fought and ran through 16 cycles of chemotherapy, double mastectomy with flat closure (because WHY would I as an avid active woman NEED boobs?!), 36 rounds of radiation, 12 months of immunotherapy, and 6 months of oral chemo. My story isn’t over. I’m in this very critical period where my cancer has been known to recur with a vengeance at distant locations. I’m being monitored by six different specialties, closely monitoring labs, physical assessments, and my overall disposition. Am I running an ultramarathon? Well, no but I think this should FUCKING COUNT. Can I get a belt buckle for winning my life back?
The moral of the story is that you never know. You never know what your challenge will be, and you’ll never know the outcome. But what you do know is yourself, and what you are capable of. And whether you prove that to yourself at the top of a mountain swell or by ringing a victory bell, ending chemo, you are badass. So, sit back, and be proud of where you stand today. At this moment. Because whether this is your beginning or end, you are here. And you are wonderful.
And you can do hard things.