Trail Sisters Half Marathon & 10k

September 14th • Buena Vista, CO

Cancer and 100 Miles

Olivia Kail lives in Fort Collins, CO with her husband Josef, dog Tony, and kitten Lilac. Her hobbies include trail running, complaining about trail running, hanging with her sister and friends, and practicing her stand-up routine in the mirror which she has yet to deliver on stage. She’s passionate about wellbeing, loves learning and talking about belief systems and religion, and making people laugh.

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About six months ago, I completed a dream that I’d been working towards for years: finishing a 100 mile trail race. Running has been a part of my life for the majority of my life. I’ve been running since I was in middle school; my family moved from Colorado to Connecticut and I needed an affordable way to make friends so I joined the middle school cross country team. I continued to run in high school- never really fast, never on the varsity team, but always loving the feeling running brought me. In college, I ran my first road marathon in a cotton t-shirt and soccer shorts. My parents and sister came to watch and my dad gave me a handful of jelly beans at mile 18, which I thought was an absurd thing to eat at the time. Of course as a trail runner now with pockets full of quesadillas and chocolate, I laugh at this. My first 50k was the first time I saw (who I consider to be) elite runners walking up hills- I remember asking the lady next to me what was going on. I finished a 50 miler in Louisiana after that while working in New Orleans as an AmeriCorps. I thought with 100% certainty that 50 miles was my 100 miles; that, first of all, it was astounding that I could get through 50 miles and second of all, that I would not run a step further.

I’m not entirely sure what made me sign up for a 100 mile race the first time but I know why I signed up the second and then third time. Finishing a race of a distance you’ve not yet completed feels amazing; DNFing a race of a distance you’ve not yet completed, at least in my case, lights a fire under the behind, if I may. I DNFed my first 100 miler with absolutely no business of being there; I had “trained” (if we can call it that) during COVID and showed up woefully unprepared. The second attempt at 100 miles was the 2022 Arkansas Traveller; this time, I was well-trained. I had put in up to 70 miles per week, I was walking as much as I could in between runs, and I had studied the course. I missed the 68-mile cutoff at the race by quite a bit that year. So, I decided to come back again a third time– this time, with the help of a crew and a coach.  

A month out from the big day, I felt that I was emotionally and physically at my peak- I felt GOOD.  I had controlled for all the variables; I had dialed in my plan. I was so ready and I felt in my bones that I was going to finish the race this time. Then, as life would have, I learned news that shook me: my mom, who had been the picture of health and energy, had received a breast cancer diagnosis. I was sad and (shamefully) angry that the news came so soon before this goal race that I’d had for years. I also felt angry at myself for even caring about the race; this stupid goal seemed like a joke backed up against a cancer diagnosis of a close family member.  

Those days between the news of the diagnosis and the race are fuzzy in my mind; not only was I tapering from months of a dialed-in plan, but I was also working so hard to keep my mind clear and fresh. In retrospect, I believe I was attempting to cope with my mom’s cancer diagnosis by muting my emotions and blocking negative thoughts. I kept thinking, “I will deal with this after the race.” I knew even if I was able to cross the finish line of the 100 miler, that would only mark the starting line of an even more challenging “race” for my mom and our family. What had originally been confidence in my mind and body felt more like an apathy in those weeks leading up to the day; I felt like I was on autopilot as I packed my bags to fly to Arkansas, as I greeted my crew at the airport, as I labeled and stuffed drop bags the night before.

And then it happened. The Arkansas Traveller began and with the help of the most incredible crew and pacers who deserved to be named- my sister Delia, my husband Josef, and my friends Emily and Amy- I completed the race. The full 100 miles, in 29 hours and 55 minutes with a mere five minutes to spare before the cutoff. I came in dead last with my whole crew running (shuffling? walking?) next to me. I dreamed of that moment for years and years; yet, when it finally happened, I was so exhausted and in so much pain that the “glory” I expected to feel missed me. I had pictured myself running to the finish, high fiving my crew and the race director… Instead, I hobbled in slowly and once I crossed, my crew wrapped me in the most tender hug. It was a moment not of triumph and intensity, as I’d pictured, but of softness and love. Truly, I was able to finish the race because of the people who were with me.

On the other side of that race, I began to learn how to be a pacer myself, though not for a runner but for my mom. I learned how to be next to someone who is suffering but holds the willpower to continue. Cancer treatment and a 100 mile race really should not be compared- one is something we choose to do, the other we must do in order to survive. One ends abruptly, the other follows you through life in a myriad of ways. One is a dream we achieve, the other is a true fight for life.

Yet, the way that both take a communal effort to get through might be comparable. I’ve reflected on similarities in the support I received running my race and how we, my family and I, work to be with my mom during her own race. Here is what I see:

  • During my 100 mile race, my pacers and crew would constantly tell me that I looked good.  I knew I didn’t, but this is a tactic to keep your runner going- tell them they look better than they feel. If they look okay, they must BE okay. They can take another step. My mother is losing her hair; she sometimes looks older than she is. Yet she exudes strength: her eyes remain bright, her voice is clear, and she’s got color in her face. She doesn’t feel good but we say, “Mom, you look good.” And while sometimes it’s a stretch, it’s never completely a lie.
  • Deep into the run, I felt sick quite a bit of the time. My pacer would hand me foods that tasted good to me and watch to make sure I ate it. They’d keep an eye on the time; was I drinking enough? How many calories did I consume in the last 30 min? Even though I was bothered by the constant nagging, I simply would not have finished the race without the fuel my team forced on me. My dad, who has been my mom’s rock during this time, ensures that she is eating and drinking when she needs to be. He tracks and charts her medication; if she is in pain, he will provide her with what she can take in that moment.  My dad shows my mom true unconditional love by remaining next to her in all her moments- good and bad.
  • The night before my race, my crew and I sat down at the kitchen table of our AirBnB and went over the plan one last time: who would be where and when. This gave me a sense of comfort; as someone looking to go this long distance for the first time, I felt security in knowing who would be where and when. At the beginning of my mom’s chemo treatments, we (her family) did our best to plot out who could be at which treatment and when so that she never has to go alone. The race is hers to run, yes, but we can be next to her throughout.
  • Pacers of the 100 mile distance have to care for themselves so they can be physically strong for their runner. They need to ensure they are well enough to continue the race next to their person. In the same way, the family members, friends, and other caregivers of a cancer patient must care for themselves. I learned this quickly during my mom’s journey; it is important for me to be emotionally well in order to walk with my mom on this journey. I imagine my dad and sister, who live with my mom, would agree.

My pacers and crew could not run the race for me, but they were the reason that I kept going and ultimately, completed. They were by my side as much as they possibly could be. They checked on me at aid stations and whoever was pacing me at a given time became my eyes and ears on the course as I grew more and more tired. Yet, the race had to be run by me. Our family, my mom’s friends, her coworkers, her community can all stand by her side. We can sit with her, cook her food, bring her flowers and coffee, hold her hand, and keep her going during her hard days… But we cannot run this race for her. It’s a great paradox- these are things we do with loved ones by our side and yet, the moments can feel lonely.

I am proud of myself for finishing 100 miles, yes, but I am in absolute awe of my mom’s strength as she goes through cancer treatment. What I thought would be the true test of strength- this distance- pales in comparison to what my mom is going through medically. She teaches me true endurance in her ability to pray, smile, and laugh through pain and anxiety of the future. I am proud of and grateful for the people who stand around her- my dad and sister and my mom’s two sisters especially. The task of being with someone suffering- bearing witness to their pain- is not easy.  

We choose some hard things- like running races- and others, we are given- like a diagnosis.  We continue to find ways to make it through the challenging moments. What I have learned is that amazing feats can be accomplished with the love and support of others. I believe the human spirit is a resilient one and in watching my mom, I have realized that I am blessed to watch the strongest of the strong. For this, I am grateful!

About the Author

Olivia Kail lives in Fort Collins, CO with her husband Josef, dog Tony, and kitten Lilac. Her hobbies include trail running, complaining about trail running, hanging with her sister and friends, and practicing her stand-up routine in the mirror which she has yet to deliver on stage. She’s passionate about wellbeing, loves learning and talking about belief systems and religion, and making people laugh.

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