When Dan and Toni Crockett board a flight for San Jose, Costa Rica, next weekend, their journey will represent as much a celebration of life as it will a mental and physical challenge.
The Kelowna couple of 44 years will brave the heat and humidity of the tropics to compete in the Trans Coastal Challenge Rainforest Run, a six-day ultra-marathon along the diverse Pacific coast.
That Toni is able to travel at all—let alone run in an ultra endurance event—is ample reason for the Crocketts to celebrate.
It also explains a lot about why this super-active, 60-plus duo takes nothing in life for granted.
Toni is a two-time breast cancer survivor.
She underwent her first mastectomy in 1995, then a second one in 2008.
Through all of Toni’s challenges, the surgeries, treatments, rehabilitation and reconstructive surgeries, there have been a number of constants for the Crocketts—their love of running, their desire to lead fit and healthy lives, and their commitment to one another.
Toni, now 63, took up running in her 50s, nearly three years after recovering from her first bout with the disease.
And, through thick and thin, she’s been relying on it ever since.
“Even when I had all the setbacks from cancer and the surgeries, I just kept coming back to running,” Toni said.
“It keeps me fit and it keeps me motivated to stay fit. The hardest thing is coming back each time because it’s so mentally and physically tough to build your way back up again.
“Three or four times, I’ve built myself up from square one. It’s been hard, but I feel like with whatever is thrown at me, I can find a way to deal with it.”
Training for her first multi-day ultra race has taught Toni a lot about her own capabilities.
After her most recent battle with cancer, she wasn’t able to resume running until the spring of 2010.
Miraculously, in the span of less than a year, Toni has worked her way up to as many as 70 kilometres a week in preparation for Costa Rica.
“(Running 70 km a week) was never something I thought I would ever be doing, let alone at 63,” she said.
“It just shows you it can be done if you really work at it and believe in yourself. Anything’s possible. “
In addition to running, Toni does yoga and strength training at the gym.
The Crocketts also cross country ski together in the winter, and from spring to fall ride thousands of kilometres on their road bikes.
In short, physical activity dominates their lives.
“All we do is work and train,” said Dan.
“We love it. We’re active people. Kelowna is the perfect place for us.”
It was Toni’s first battle with cancer that had a profound and lasting effect on Dan.
As Toni moved close to a full recovery by 1997, he decided to make a dramatic shift in lifestyle.
“When Toni was sick it was a really big change for me,” he said. “
I decided from there on in it was all going to be about healthy living and eating. We both made that healthy lifestyle choice, exercising and eating right. We have a pretty strict regimen and we stick to it.
“Toni has had to have a lot more dedication and commitment than me all these years to get through what she has. She’s maintained her health and fitness through all of it. She inspires me.”
Dan took that inspiration to heart and has literally run with it.
He has competed in no fewer than 20 ultra marathons of up to 100 miles in length.
Last year, Dan won the Fat Dog ultra run at Manning Park, finishing the gruelling 126 km event in 19 hours, besting dozens of competitors two and three decades his junior.
In 2007, he celebrated his 60th birthday by setting a new super veteran record at the Kneeknacker North Shore Trail Run by more than 20 minutes.
He has run a three hour 10 minute marathon, and can still break the 40-minute barrier at the 10 km distance.
And just to prove that his athletic abilities extend across all types of running, Dan won the silver medal in the 400 metres at the 2010 World Masters Indoor Championships in Kamloops.
In addition to being intrinsically competitive, running continues to give Dan an immense feeling of satisfaction as he turns 64 this week.
“To me it’s the challenge of it all that I enjoy…and it’s also the feeling of well-being I get from it. I love being fit.
“When I know I can go out and run a marathon anytime I want as a 64-year-old, that’s empowering. It’s a real feeling of accomplishment. I also want people to know you’re never too old to get out there and be physically active.”
It’s for all of the reasons above that Dan wanted to take on his most formidable challenge yet—the Trans Coastal Challenge Rain Forest Run.
He was invited to join the Canadian team in Costa Rica by captain and fellow adventure racer Jen Segger.
Initially, Dan intended to make the trip on his own. But after some thought he invited Toni to come along—not as a competitor but as a tourist. Toni had other ideas.
“It didn’t interest me to just go down and sit around, if I was going to go on the trip I would be running, too,” said Toni, who has run as far as 50 miles in an organized ultra event.
“This isn’t something I would have ever done on my own, but this is Dan’s passion and I wanted to share it with him and be there with him.
“He’s running so well right now and he’s so focused, this will be great for him. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have a chance to do something like this, so it’s a great opportunity.”
The six-day race along the west coast of the Central American nation will take the Crocketts through all varieties of terrain, from sandy beaches to muddy trials, from river crossings to rocky climbs.
As one of 12 members on the Canadian team, Dan is entered in the expedition race, a 250 km event with a total elevation change of more than 9,000 metres. He will be required to run between 30 and 60 km per day.
Toni will compete in the adventure race, 160 km in length with a combined elevation of 6,500 metres. She will face the challenge of running between 15 and 35 km per day for six days.
Each competitor is allowed a 24-gallon Actionpacker for a week’s worth of supplies.
Among the essential items in Dan’s pack will be snack bars, energy bars, a sleeping bag, a flashlight, water bottles, running shorts, shoes, casual clothing, a mosquito net, a safety whistle and a camera.
“Everything we’ll need has to be in there,” Dan said.
“It’s been a real challenge organizing things, deciding what you have room for and what you need most. Once you start the race, everything you need has to be in that pack.”
The race begins Jan. 30 at Puerto Quepos and will conclude Feb. 5 at Drake Bay near the Panamanian border. And it will all happen in the heat and humidity of the rain forest with temperatures ranging from 26 to 34 degrees Celsius.
“It’s going to be quite a shock to the system, so we’ve been trying acclimatize by spending a fair bit of time in the sauna before we go,” said Dan who has been running 125 km a week in preparation.
“Getting used to that part will be a challenge. With everything that’s involved in training for this, a marathon a day for six days, it’s the biggest commitment I’ve ever made.”
Like every race he enters, Dan heads to Central America with high expectations.
Age will not stand up as an alibi or excuse for Dan who is firmly focused on a top-10 finish.
“I’m going there to compete and do my best. I’m not thinking at all about my age. I expect to do well against a lot of the younger runners.”
In Toni’s case, the only important result will be completing the six-day journey under the allotted time.
Dan describes his spouse as “not fast, just very tough and steady. She has a great perspective…I feed off that.”
Still, there is some apprehension and fear of the unknown for Toni.
At the same time, there is the anticipation and thrill of a new adventure. Besides, Toni has conquered her share of challenges in the past.
“The one fear I have is getting lost, going off the trail, but that’s all part of it,” she said.
“Mentally I know I can do it, but I just don’t know about my body and how it’s going to hold up and respond over that many days.
“But I’m sure going to try. I believe more than ever that you can’t be afraid to step out, you have go with your passion and live each day to the fullest.
“This is far from home and it’s very intriguing. We’re doing something totally different, so we’ll see what happens when we get there.”
Kelowna ultra runner and close friend Shirlee Ross has known the Crocketts for many years and continues to marvel at their fitness, vitality and zest for life.
Ross and Dan Crockett work together as co-organizers of the Scorched Sole, an ultra run held each summer in Kelowna.
That the Crocketts would take on the daunting mental and physical test of a multi-day race in a foreign country comes as no big surprise to Ross.
“You know, they just have incredible strength of character,” said Ross.
“There’s no such thing as them saying ‘No, we can’t do this.’
“I was able to be with them through Toni’s ordeals, and she never complained, she was always matter-of-fact about her situation.
“Dan is a problem-solver at work and he believes anything is possible.
“It’s that kind of attitude that’s prevailed throughout their lives. It’s a pleasure to know them and inspires others to want to be better.
“It’s no shock at all to me that they’re taking this on.”
So what seems an unthinkable endeavor for most people—let alone two people approaching their mid-60s—the Crocketts instead view as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“What better way to see a country like Costa Rica than on foot,” Dan said.
“The wildlife, brilliant sunsets, the coast, all the scenery…this is our holiday. We think it’s going to be an amazing experience for both of us, like nothing we’ve ever done.”
Dan and Toni Crockett will leave for Costa Rica next Sunday, Jan. 29 and are due to return to Kelowna on Feb. 7.