Rockin’ Rockwoods: The Best Kind of Medicine


By Anna Zelinske

Just six miles into my race, 25 days after receiving my cancer diagnosis and nine days before major surgery to remove said cancer from my body, I’m gliding along the single track when a sharp pain suddenly pierces deep inside my right knee.

I have a beautiful relationship with the Rockin’ Rockwoods Ultra Marathon in St. Louis, Missouri. It’s known as one of the most challenging races in the region, with an impressive elevation gain of more than 5,200 feet over the 53k distance. It has been a dream of mine since I completed the shorter, half-marathon distance that I would one day finish the longer race.

Race report author running to a 50K finish. Photo: Marcus Janzow

After stopping, I stretched and attempted to walk off the pain but running became impossible. The time between miles 10 and 13 was rough, as I was having serious doubts that I could finish. Pestering thoughts filled my mind – I could drop at the next station and walk to the race start. I could cheer on my friends at the finish. My body would be better prepared for my upcoming surgery if I wasn’t recovering from a race. And, finally, how hard it would be to go into surgery shortly after my first DNF.

With the help of my husband via text, we calculated that if I could maintain a 21-minute-per-mile pace for the last 20 miles, I could finish before the 10-hour cutoff. With the actual calculation in front of me, I felt confident that I could do it. Once I let go of my attempt at running, I was able to throw down a decent power-hiking pace and finish in 09:01:42, two hours past my goal time coming in 27th out of 30 runners.

I could have dropped. I wanted to drop. I had a plethora of excuses including cancer, major surgery and knee trouble. No one would blame me for dropping. If I was ever going to DNF, I had plenty of reasons lined up to make it a valid choice.

But what if I finished this race despite those excuses? How strong would I feel facing my upcoming surgery? I will be forced to rest anyway, so I could push my knee knowing I’ll have extra time to let it heal.

There was more riding on this race than a finish. If I could complete a 33-mile race 25 days after being diagnosed with cancer and nine days before surgery when I am physically fine but feeling raw, fearful and vulnerable, maybe cancer really doesn’t stand a chance.

I spent nine hours in the woods on a beautiful day and thoroughly enjoyed the course of my favorite race. Most importantly, I finished. Next up for me? Beat the hell out of cancer. Then return to Rockin’ Rockwoods in 2019 to set a course PR.




  1. JoAnne Vieweg on

    Beautifully written. AND you put to voice what many of us cancer survivors haven’t been able to express–we have strength even when we may not realize it.

    • Anna Zelinske on

      Thank you! And yes, we are much stronger than we may think we are. The word cancer brings so much fear, we often forget how much strength we really have.

  2. Wow what a similar journey to mine. I got the cancer diagnosis 5 days before my first 50 miler and had surgery 7 days later.
    It was the race of my life yet. Second and hopefully final operation in couple of weeks, should start running again in January. Keep up the spirit, we got this!

    • Anna Zelinske on

      Wow, that’s crazy how similar the timing was! Best wishes as you face your second surgery, and sending lots of hope for a quick return come January!

  3. Zabyn Towner on

    Thank you for providing such beautiful inspiration for everyone out there enduring cancer – I can’t wait to share your story with my four-year old son, who is undergoing treatment for brain and spine cancer.

    • Anna Zelinske on

      I’m so sorry you have to travel this journey with your son. I have two young sons, and I can imagine how much harder it would be to support either of them through cancer treatment. Honestly though, I think kids lack the self-imposed limitations that we do as adults. It’s their strength that’s inspiring! I’m sending lots of hope for strength for you and for positive results from treatment!

  4. Super well done for sticking at it! Your determination will serve you well getting through treatment, you’ve proved you have what it takes to achieve your dreams. I’ve used my fight with cancer (and lots beside) as motivation to go further and I’m sure you will too. Love and best wishes Rachel 🙂