Nothing would keep Tonia Smith from her daily runs — not the chemotherapy drugs that flowed through her body, not the fear of dying.
From January to June of 2014 she ran about 50 miles a week for six months while being treated for pancreatic adenocarcinoma, a vicious disease that kills at a 90 percent clip.
Those miles hurt, but she was determined to remain active during her chemo treatments. She ran slow and walked sometimes. She threw up, she kept moving.
Six months earlier, feeling fit and strong, Smith had finished her first 100-mile ultra run in Vermont. She then ran in a 100K ultra in September. A few weeks later doctors discovered the cancer during an operation to remove a pancreatic cyst. She and husband Steve Smith, who is also a runner, were shocked.
"It was mind-blowing, and I'm thinking I'm the healthiest person I know," Smith says. "I don't have any genetic predisposition, I don't have risk factors. I'm not overweight. I don't smoke, I don't drink alcohol. It was such a mind-blowing experience."
They had caught the cancer at Stage 1, and still the prognosis was terrible. Her chances of living stood at about 14 percent. She shared the difficult news with her daughters, Riley, then 16, and Peyton, who was 10.
Together, the family met each day with a resolve to live it fully. Steve barely left Tonia's side.
"For the month leading up to surgery and every night after for as long as I can remember — we're not touchy feely kind of people — but he held me, every night. He just held me," she says.
"You really find out what people are made of when you go through something like that."
Doctors cleared her to run about four weeks later, but the surgery — half of her pancreas and her spleen had been removed — left her scarred and in pain. She laced up her Brooks running shoes and hit the trail.
"I joke that I'm like the drunk who gets out of rehab and goes straight to the liquor store," Smith says. "When I was released to run, I had to hold my stomach. I was bent over. But I wanted to be in shape for chemo. I set a goal of running a minimum of two days a week and I ran every single day — except for five — for six months."
The running community responded with old friends and new plodding along beside her while rolling up the miles. Debby Patz Clarke thought Smith was crazy, but soon realized that running played a big part in Smith's recovery. She'd recover on her feet, not on the couch.
"Running was really what kept her feeling normal in a time when so little felt normal," Clarke says.
Smith fought pancreatic cancer — with chemo, of course — but also by clinging to everything she loves.
Today, she says, doctors can find no evidence of disease, though it could come back.
"I try to remind myself, don't forget the things that are most important," she says. "And No. 1 is my family and No. 2 are the people in my sphere. My relationships matter to me more than anything else in the world. If I don't have that then I have nothing. We all know that, but I really know it."
Now she has taken her fight to cancer through Project Purple(run4projectpurple.org), a nonprofit organization that raises awareness and funding to beat the disease. Smith organizes teams of runners who sign up for a race, then collect donations for the cause.
Her team of five raised $25,000 at the 2015 Rock 'n' Roll Denver Marathon. Smith raised $7,000 by herself for her efforts at the Bryce 100 ultra at Bryce Canyon, Utah.
Want to help? Smith is organizing the second Tonia's Run to Beat Pancreatic Cancer, a fun 5K in Monument Valley Park on April 3. Entry fee is $30. For more information and to register, check out run4projectpurple.org/event/run-to-beat-pancreatic-cancer.
"I just feel like we can't raise enough money for research fast enough," she says. "It's so hard seeing so many people die so quickly. This is what drives my involvement and my putting together this 5K. We have to do something, not tomorrow, not next year. We have to do something today."
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