Ultra Runner Beats Pancreatic Cancer

| November 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

Tonia with her husband, Steve, after finishing the Vermont 100 in 10th place overall.

Tonia’s ultra running was going well. She had been running at the ultra distance (anything over 26.2 miles) since 2001. After moving to Colorado Springs, she learned about Leadville and was intrigued by the distance, and by 2012, she wanted to try a 100-mile race. “I had always wanted to do a longer ultra, and I figured it was now or never.”


Tonia with daughters Riley and Peyton, winning Bear Chase 100 (3rd place overall).

In between taking care of her family, training occupied most of her time in 2013. She ran two—sometimes three—times a day and incorporated strength workouts four times a week. Summer arrived. She, her husband Steve, and two children, Riley and Peyton, traveled to Vermont. She’d run and the family would visit her parents. On July 20, Tonia started the Vermont 100. She finished her debut 100-mile race in 22 hours and 33 minutes, 10th overall. Then on Sept. 29, she stepped into Bear Chase 100k and won the women’s race, placing 3rd overall. In the last ten years, ultra running events and races have grown 345%. Ask any ultra runner why they choose such long distances and you’ll hear almost as many answers as the athletes you ask. For Tonia, ultra running is about personal challenge and finding time for herself. “You never know if a race will chew you up and spit you out, or if all of the stars will align and everything will come together. Ultras scare me … If I am not a little bit scared when I sign up for a race, then I think I am doing something wrong. The training is tough and takes discipline, but I enjoy the hard work that goes into it. I spend most of my time taking care of other people, so my training is the one thing that I do for me.”
But her training came to a halt after she received some bad news from her doctors. Now she would need to take care of herself.

Surviving Pancreatic Cancer

Although she had experienced vague digestive issues for a few years, she had no symptoms of pancreatic cancer. But last November, seven weeks after the Vermont 100, her doctor thought he saw precancerous lesions on her pancreas (IPMNs). Major surgery instead unveiled Stage 1 pancreatic cancer. She was stunned to learn that the Stage I 5-year survival rate was 14%. “I remember thinking, ‘this is what’s going to kill me.’”

Although chemotherapy treatments have relatively few patients to demonstrate their effectiveness, Tonia chose to complete 18 rounds of chemo from January to June of 2014. She currently shows no evidence of the disease. Due to the surgery and chemo, she doesn’t believe she’ll ever return to her pre-surgery physical self. Even so, she’s considering her 2015 running goals and is looking for an “epic western race.”

In the meantime, she is raising awareness about the disease. The majority of pancreatic cancer patients, 81%, are diagnosed in later stages, and for the 53% diagnosed in Stage 4, the survival rate is a grim 2.3%. When she was recovering, she did what most of us do—looked online to try to find other patients like her, to connect with people going through the same thing. But when she found their blogs, all of them had passed away. She wanted to do something so that others didn’t have to experience the same isolation she felt after discovering so many deaths. So she started her own blog, “Tonia Runs,” to enable other survivors, family members, and caregivers to come together and to share the hope she has for more awareness, funding, and a cure. “I think a big part of the reason so little is known about pancreatic cancer is that the patients get sick and die quickly and can’t speak for themselves. I feel, as one of the lucky ones, that I need to speak for them. For us.”

November is Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month, and pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths. Tonia is involved with two organizations where you can learn more about pancreatic cancer: Project Purple and Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

More information about pancreatic cancer:

What is pancreatic cancer?

Pancreatic cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells are found in the tissues of the pancreas.

Signs and Symptoms

If one or more signs and symptoms described here is present, certain exams and tests may be done to find out whether they are caused by pancreatic cancer or by something else.

Jaundice: A yellow color of the eyes and skin. It is caused by a build-up of a substance (bilirubin) that is made in the liver. At least half of all people with pancreatic cancer (and all people with ampullary cancer) have jaundice.

Pain: Pain in the belly area (abdomen) or in the middle of the back is a very common sign of advanced pancreatic cancer. Again, such pain is often caused by something else.

Weight loss: Losing weight (without trying) over a number of months is very common in patients with this cancer. They may also feel very tired and not feel like eating.

Digestive problems: If the cancer blocks the release of the pancreatic juice into the intestine, a person may not be able to digest fatty foods. Stools might appear irregular. Other problems may include nausea, vomiting, and pain that gets worse after eating.

Swollen gallbladder: The doctor may find that the gallbladder is enlarged. The doctor can sometimes feel this and see it on imaging studies.

Blood clots: Sometimes blood clots form in the veins of the legs, leading to swelling. These clots can sometimes travel to the lungs and cause breathing problems.

Fatty tissue changes: Another clue that there may be pancreatic cancer is an uneven texture of the fatty tissue under the skin. This is caused by the release of the pancreatic enzymes that digest fat.

Diabetes: Because pancreatic cancer can cause problems with blood sugar, it can (but often does not) cause diabetes.


The American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for pancreatic cancer in the United States are for 2012:

  • About 43,920 new cases of pancreatic cancer
  • About 37,390 deaths from pancreatic cancer
  • The lifetime risk of having pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 71


Category: Running

About the Author ()

Wendy Drake is a distance runner and an advocate for pancreatic cancer through her project, Elevating A Cure.. She is a published author based in Boulder, Colorado.

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