Cancer Survivor Completes Yeti 100

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Monday, October 30, 2017

Celeste Brooks P'12, '21, Director of Public Relations

Josh Ilnicki conquered cancer, then went on to conquer a 100-mile race, making him an inspiration to his students and his cross country and track athletes at Randolph-Macon Academy.

Some of us might groan at the suggestion of a 10K (6.2 mile) run, or even a 5K—actually, let’s face it. Quite a few of us whine at the mere thought of running a lap around the track, which is a whole 400 meters (1/4 mile). So the idea that someone might actually voluntarily run 100 miles—consecutively and in a one-day period, mind you, not over the course of a year (or ten)—well, that idea might sound a little crazy. 

But when you add into that the fact that the race was run by a man who three years ago was battling Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, suddenly it doesn’t seem crazy. It becomes inspirational. Such is the story of Joshua Ilnicki, a middle school teacher at Randolph-Macon Academy; not surprisingly, he is also the varsity cross country and varsity track coach. 

Ilnicki’s journey to the Yeti 100 began less than a year ago. An avid runner who has participated in multiple marathons, Ilnicki was always looking for a new challenge. So when his friend Jeremy Sanders asked him if he might be interested in doing the Yeti 100 with him, Ilnicki gave the natural response. “Sure. I’ll do it if you do it.” 

The pair discovered they were too late for this year; registration was closed. “We both said, ‘Ah, man, that stinks,’ but I think we were both secretly thinking, ‘Thank God,’” Ilnicki said candidly.

But when Sanders emailed the organizers, explaining how he and Ilnicki regularly run races or challenges to raise money for the UVA neo natal care unit through the For Lucas Fund, the race director sent them a special invitation. (The two form Team Running Dad; the organization was founded for Jeremy’s first-born son Lucas, who died within the first day of being born.) So on December 12, 2016, the two were officially signed up. 

While Ilnicki runs regularly, he did not start training in earnest until July. In August, he and Jeremy did 33 miles together in one day. Before the pair knew it—and maybe before they were ready—it was Saturday, September 29, 2017, and the race was about to begin. 
The course was set on the gorgeous Virginia Creeper trail. It was 33 miles downhill, then back up for 33 miles, then back down again, with a 3,000 foot change in elevation. Ilnicki felt good for the first 33 miles, hitting running miles at about a 9-minute pace and walking a 15-minute-mile on “breaks.” But the mental challenge was just about to begin. 

At mile 50, there was an aid station, and Ilnicki made it in 9 hours 47 minutes. “I thought I was doing well, but my legs felt heavy, so I laid down in the grass for 10 minutes to rest,” he recalled. “I told my pacer get me up in 10 minutes.” Those 10 minutes flew by, and when it was time to get up, Ilnicki did so a little too quickly. “I jumped up too fast, and got tunnel vision,” he said. “I passed out; when I woke up a nice lady was helping me put my legs up. I was freezing cold. She and my friend Mario dragged a chair into the sun so I could warm up a little bit.”

At that point, Ilnicki realized he had not trained well enough for the race; frustrated with himself, he called it quits. “I told my pacer, ‘Call my wife, call the rest of the crew. We’re done; I’m cramping, I’m cold, I’m done.’” 

His pacer didn’t argue. But the call to Ilnicki’s wife Sara didn’t go through. Nor did any of the calls to the rest of the crew. They tried texting, Facebook messaging…nothing was getting through. Then, despite his haze, Ilnicki heard one of the head guys telling the volunteers to check for jackets and headlamps, because it was getting dark. Although he had claimed to have given up, Ilnicki didn’t want to be thrown off the course. Unfortunately, that could happen if he didn’t move immediately, as he did not have his headlamp with him; he was scheduled to meet his wife in another few miles and pick it up. If he moved out, he could make it before dark. So mustering his strength, he staggered to his feet, told the volunteer he was good, and moved out.

His legs were cramping; he was rigid from the hips down, and he could barely walk. It took him 45 minutes to walk the three miles uphill, but somehow he made it. His wife joined him as his pacer at that next stop. “For the next 20 miles or so, I pretty much walked the rest of the way to the top of the mountain,” Ilnicki said.  It was a cold night, only about 35 degrees, and as he entered the top of Whitetop Station dressed in only his singlet, shorts, and light rain jacket, Ilnicki was continuing to experience cramps, not just in his legs but everywhere, and he was shivering uncontrollably. 

“I had complete mental and physical breakdown,” he admitted. “I started crying. I kept saying I couldn’t finish, I can’t believe it.” His crew tried to argue with him—there was nowhere to go but down anyway, so why not finish it? But Ilnicki couldn’t fathom how he could possibly go on. “I’m done,” he told them.

A man entered the aid station, with a blister the size of a cell phone on his foot (according to Ilnicki’s memory). After the personnel at the aid station drained it, he prepared to go back out. Surprised, Ilnicki said, “You going to do this?” “Yeah,” the man answered, unknowingly making himself an inspiration, “I’m getting that belt buckle.”

Encouraged once more, Ilnicki stumbled to his feet and began running; his crew had been right—this portion was downhill again, and as his feet fell into rhythm, it suddenly seemed possible. He made his way to the next aid station, where he downed potato chips and Fritos.
But the rest of the journey was not without challenge. Exhausted and in desperate need of sleep, Ilnicki found himself running, walking, and then even falling asleep while running. The side of the trail started to look enticing, the leaves equivalent to a pillow mattress. At one of the 46 bridges on the trail, Ilnicki paused, leaning against a rail, and dreamed that he fell off the bridge. An encouraging fellow runner lifted Ilnicki’s spirits, and he was off again, spurts of energy allowing him to attain an irregular 11-minute-per-mile pace. 

Upon entering Alvarado, where there was a real bathroom, a comforting fire, and plenty of replenishing salt and broth, Ilnicki took a break with confidence, knowing now that he was going to finish the race. He started back off in the dark once more, but soon enough the sun began to rise and with it, Ilnicki’s spirits also rose. 

Knowing he was nearing the finish, Ilnicki picked up the pace and was eventually rewarded by a throng of people who celebrated his finish with him. He was hugged by the race director and his crew, and there are reports that he even shed a tear as he received a commemorative belt buckle, a traditional honor given to each person who completes the race. 

A week later, Ilnicki was still recovering, his feet swollen and bruised, but his euphoria over his accomplishment was also still intact. “One thing that I learned is never give up. It was a thing I liked from Jimmy Valvano--he was a really great coach, taking underdog North Carolina State to the championship. He gave the most phenomenal speech of all time. ‘Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.’ I kept that in mind when fighting cancer, and I had it in mind all the way through the race.”

His tenacity has inspired his students and athletes, especially those who know that he had fought cancer only a few years ago. Ilnicki hopes they take that inspiration to all areas of their lives. “Something as infeasible as a 100 mile race, if you set your mind to it, you can achieve it,” he said. “Don’t settle for mediocrity. You can always go a little bit further, a little bit longer; you can always handle the pain a little bit better.”

Now that he knows what to expect, Ilnicki is considering doing another 100-mile run in the future. But for this year, his main goal is to get a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, and to get under 17 minutes for a 5K.

For more insight into Josh’s journey during the Yeti 100, visit his running blog. To learn more about the Lucas Fund, visit www.forlucas.com.