I want to introduce you to Vanessa Hood. She had leukemia. She has had a bone marrow transplant, high dose steroids, intense chemotherapy and total body irradiation. She is currently receiving oral chemo and will be for the rest of her life. That hasn’t stopped her from completing Trail Ragnar, an eight-person team relay of over 120 miles in Wisconsin. She has also completed a 25k trail run, two sprint triathlons, and a Spartan Beast in Montana all since her diagnosis in 2012.
When I posted on the cancer page about running distance after diagnosis, she immediately reached out. She encouraged me that, “when we set ourselves up for success, we can do incredible things! We’ve been through hell- running is nothing.” That was the push I needed to get moving- to put my head down and keep going. She reminded me that cancer isn’t a barrier but the spring board to accomplish things we never thought possible.
The last few weeks she has been such an inspiration to me. Cheering me on with little notes of encouragement and connecting me with other ultra-runners with a cancer diagnosis. I wanted to share some of her words with you. I have asked her if she would share how running was important in her recovery and how it affected her overall fitness goals.
“The importance of exercising and staying active during and after treatment was impressed upon me by my nurses and doctors. It was a chore some days and welcomed on other days. I was a healthy young adult and averaged 2 half marathons a year before I was diagnosed. Running was my happy time, a chance to get outside, work through frustrations and listen to my favorite music or the sounds of nature. During inpatient stays I occupied my time with hall walking and averaging 5-10 miles on a spin bike. When I was admitted for transplant, walking was a necessity but it was tough. On a good day I would try to get a mile in and on bad days it was hard to get just a 1/2 mile done. High steroids and being fed through a tube wreaked havoc on my body. My muscle mass suffered greatly.
Just after a year post transplant, my husband and I rescued a puppy. We named him Murphy and he was full of energy. He was my motivation to continue to work on my fitness while trying to tire him out on the trails. Before I knew it I was back to 10k trail races and satisfied with just being able to complete a race and shaving off a couple seconds each time.
My sister was into Ragnar races at the time and Trail Ragnar finally came to the Northwoods of Wisconsin. She formed a team and I joined. Trail Ragnar is a relay style race, each member has 3 legs to complete on a continuous clock. I had a blast even though I was exhausted by the end. It was awesome to be a part of a team and accomplish something despite being on oral chemo.
I was released to go home from transplant in the middle of March in Wisconsin, we still had snow on the ground but I wasn’t ready to break out my cross country skis. I was housebound for the next couple of months and spent time on the “dreadmill” while mixing in some body strength workouts. It was so disheartening to feel how weak I had become. When the weather warmed up I started to walk outside in nice shaded areas. It wasn’t easy to get back to running and I adopted the method of running until I needed a break and walking to recover then back to running, etc. I was able to complete a couple 5ks in late fall that year. I was so excited to be back racing but mentally it was an adjustment to see my pace suffer, I became a back of the pack runner.
Before I was diagnosed I joined “Team in Training” with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and ran in honor of my sister’s mother-in-law and my husband’s grandfather. How ironic right?! In 2017 I connected with my local chapter here in Wisconsin and gave mission minutes for current teammates who were set to complete a triathlon. I connected with one of the teammates over our shared love of paddle boarding. We became fast friends on and off the trails. She told me her next goal was to run a trail 50K and wanted me to do it with her. I wasn’t ready for an ultra but I told her I would be willing to do the 25K course. Unfortunately, she became injured but I was able to train on and complete my longest race to date. Training for that race was so healing. I sought out new trails, rediscovered trails from my high school days and even got my husband to accompany me on some of my long runs. Being out in nature provided me so much peace and I was able to feel like my old self despite my body feeling new aches and pains. The following year I learned about “Team Phoenix” an all women cancer survivor group that trains for a sprint triathlon. A triathlon had been on my radar since my days with Team in Training and I jumped at the chance to try my hand at multisport. Team Phoenix has been the most impactful group during my survivorship. The coaching, community and continued engagement is something I will treasure forever. While I was training for the triathlon my husband and I went on a week-long backcountry canoe trip with True North Treks. Walking to one of the scenic morning yoga spots one of the guides told me about their team for the Spartan Beast. As he described the camaraderie and unity of the “Spartan Survivors” it really piqued my interest. The guide used the phrase “We race to complete not compete” and a huge smile spread across my face. A mantra I have since adopted. The thought of doing this race alone was daunting but the idea of doing it as a team, staying together throughout the 13.1 miles and helping each other complete over 30 obstacles sounded like a challenge I could get on board with. In May of 2019 my husband and I raced alongside our teammates in the forests of Montana to complete the Spartan Beast! AROO!
“The guide used the phrase ‘We race to complete not compete’ and a huge smile spread across my face. A mantra I have since adopted.”
Before cancer I prided myself in never walking during a race and rarely ever walking during a training run. Cancer and long term therapy served me some humble pie and it wasn’t easy to swallow. Instead of fighting against myself and hating my body for not performing like my pre cancer days, I decided to change my outlook and love my body for being able to just get up and get moving after all it had endured. Once I adapted this notion and let a little of my competitive edge fall away I was much happier with the progress I made in my fitness goals. I don’t focus and beat myself up if I don’t keep a consistent pace anymore. I listen and give my body what it needs in order to keep doing the things I love. My recovery game has become so much stronger and almost ritualistic. Carving out extra time to give my muscles much needed TLC is something I look forward to as much if not more so than my actual training. The mind is a very powerful thing and when you are diagnosed with cancer it gets pushed to the limits. Survivors are strong because there is no alternative. We didn’t choose to get cancer and be put through chemo, radiation, surgery and all the little pokes and prods in between, yet we carry on because we want more time with our loved ones. I do however choose lofty fitness goals because I know my mind is tough enough. My body will need more coaxing along the way but the memories are so worth it. I strive to be more than my cancer diagnosis and more than the treatment I need to live. Cancer will not define me but will be the ball I continually juggle.
“Instead of fighting against myself and hating my body for not performing like my pre cancer days, I decided to change my outlook and love my body for being able to just get up and get moving after all it had endured.”
I love when I see fellow survivors going after amazing goals and especially ones after my own heart. I felt compelled to reach out to Shannon and share my experience and offer some encouragement. When you have others to help you accomplish your dreams, the skys the limit. You will have resources to troubleshoot you out of a valley and get you climbing until you reach your peak with your head held high!”