Such a cool story and such a treat to meet Tonia at Bryce!
By Arianne Brown, KSL.com Contributor
BRYCE CANYON — On June 6, Tonia Smith, a 46-year-old mother of two, crossed the finish line of the Bryce Canyon 100 Mile Trail Run as the second-place female.
The journey consisted of nearly 19,000 feet in elevation gain, done mostly at 8,000-9,000 feet of altitude, and took her 26 hours and 31 minutes.
With her husband and two daughters by her side, who completed the final stretch with her, Smith thought back to the journey that was now behind her — a journey that went beyond 100 miles and one that nearly cost her her life.
It was in 2011 when Smith noticed she was having some digestive issues. Being very in tune with her body, she knew something wasn’t right. After nearly two years of tests, failed diagnoses and changes in doctors, Smith was dealt a devastating blow. A doctor told her words nobody ever wants to hear: “You have cancer.”
What was worse was it was pancreatic cancer. One of the top five most dangerous cancers in women and men, only 6 percent of people diagnosed with it survive for five years.
The diagnosis literally stopped Smith in her tracks.
Just months before, she had completed her first 100-mile race, running it in 22½ hours, and had won a 100K just seven weeks before.
She was at the top of her game and soaring, but it wasn’t running that was on her mind, it was her family.
“I will never forget the fear that our family felt when I received my diagnosis,” Smith said. “I wondered if I would be around to watch my daughters grow up. I remember lying in bed looking at my sleeping husband thinking how I still wanted many more years by his side.”
It was Smith’s background in running, however, that helped her prepare for what was next.
Just months after the diagnosis, doctors removed half of her pancreas, all of her spleen and started chemotherapy.
“I knew that chemo would be very difficult, so I decided that I would train for it,” Smith said. “I had two months between surgery and chemo, and ran all but five days of that.”
Smith received 18 rounds of chemo in a six-month period, and ran throughout her treatments with her husband, Stephen, at her side.
“Every single Monday before my chemo treatment, my husband and I would go run 10 miles,” Smith said. ”I needed it as much as food, air and water. I was very slow, and it was hard, but I just needed to do it on so many levels. Running is what connects me to my regular life. It’s just who I am, and I didn't want to lose that part of my identity. It helped me feel normal when everything else wasn’t normal.”
Smith completed chemotherapy in June 2014.
She had beaten cancer and wanted to prove to herself that cancer hadn’t beaten her. So she set out to find a 100-mile race to run — something that no pancreatic cancer survivor had done.
In her search, she came across the Bryce Canyon 100.
"I contacted the race director, Matt Gunn, and he spoke about his father, who had died from cancer," Smith said. "A friend then sent me an article that KSL.com had published about Matt, and I knew that this was the race that I needed to run. There was something about Matt and the race that spoke to me. I wanted to surround myself with good people, and he is good. I wanted to run his race."
There was another reason Smith wanted to embark on this 100-mile journey.
“When you’re diagnosed with an illness with a five-year survival rate, it is really hard to digest,” she said. “You start to think things like, ‘I am going to die, I won’t see my girls grow up or grow old with my husband.’ And when you make it, you struggle with survivor's guilt. I kept thinking there was some purpose I survived. I wanted to make my 100-mile race mean something.”
Smith teamed up with a nonprofit organization called Project Purple that helps raise awareness and funds for pancreatic cancer.
“Ultrarunning can be a very selfish endeavor,” Smith said “You are spending so much time training. This gave me a sense of purpose; it was my small contribution.”
To date, Smith has been able to raise nearly $6,000 for her cause, and hopes to raise more.
To learn more, go to, https://www.crowdrise.com/SurvivorToniaRuns/fundraiser/toniasmith or her blog, mypancreasranaway.wordpress.com.