She Felt ‘Poisoned’ by Chemo. Tackling Ultras Helped Her Heal

Karen Baas just wanted a way to feel like she was flushing out the chemicals. Then she got hooked.

At age 35, with six months of chemotherapy and three weeks of radiation behind her for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Oregon resident Karen Baas didn’t feel relief because her treatments had ended. She felt poisoned.

“Of course I was grateful to have had treatment and get past it,” she told Runner’s World. “But before I got cancer, I was a vet tech, and one of the chemicals we use for euthanasia is red. It turned out one of my infusion chemo drugs is also red. I can’t tell you how disturbing it is to make that mental connection.”

Three days after her last treatment, she convinced her then-boyfriend-now-husband to go on a 65 k bike ride, as a way to start her mental and physical reset. It was tough, and she fought fatigue and shortness of breath the entire way, but she made it.

When her oncologist heard about the ride at her next checkup, he balked.

“I remember he said, ‘You’re no Lance Armstrong. What can I expect next?’” she says. That joking-not-joking exchange turned into the motivational fuel Baas needed to start running—in part to keep the chemicals flushing from her system, as she described it, and to inspire her two children, but also to see the look on her doctor’s face.

Mostly, though, she needed a way to reconnect with her body.

“I think every runner knows that feeling of wondering how much further you can go, how much your body can really do,” she says. “For me, I was coming back basically from zero, and to be able to run was empowering. Difficult, humbling, and almost impossible on some days. But empowering.”

That was nine years ago, and since then, Baas has just kept increasing her distance and moving her finish line further ahead. She remembers being unable to run a km without walking at first, and the fatigue was so overwhelming, she called every attempt a “hellish adventure.”

But she kept going back out, nearly every day. She finally ran that km without stopping, then the next and the next. Baas focused on training and gradual improvement, and it paid off. By three years after her last chemo, she’d completed 10 marathons.

Then, a relay race that took her over tough terrain made her really fall in love.

“There is nothing like a trail run, especially because I have the Pacific Crest Trail right here, with the mountains in the background,” she says. “When I heard about ultras, I knew I had to do it.”

She started with a 80 K and the feeling of coming across the finish line—utterly exhausted but soaking up the cheers—was enough to inspire Baas to sign up for the next one almost immediately. After a few at that distance, she started training for a 160 K.

Her biggest race yet may be her most meaningful. She recently completed the 199-mile Hood to Coast relay with a team of fellow cancer survivors who call themselves The Cancer Crushers. Sponsored by Providence Cancer Center, the 12-member team easily smashed the distance, and Baas feels lucky to have been chosen to be part of such an important event.

“We got to run and raise money for cancer research at the same time,” she says. “And to be on a team with all cancer survivors is just phenomenal.”

Although she’s long past the days of trying to get the chemicals from her system, some of the original reasons for running are still firmly fixed in her mind, Baas says. She does it for her kids, to show them that pushing their boundaries is actually a good thing, and she does it for herself, joking that her husband says she’s “not the same” on days she skips running—a rare occurrence, considering she now logs about 110 K a week.

Baas also runs so that other cancer patients and survivors can see that there’s life beyond that chemo infusion chair.

“It doesn’t matter how you choose to keep going, you just have to keep running forward,” she says.

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