Angela Ivory stands relaxed, Broad Street, Cookeville, TN, August 11, 2006
Angela Ivory runs the railroad tracks at Cookeville, TN, August 11, 2006
Note: As the title's present tense suggests, his story about Angela Ivory was written when she was running and feeling well, back in 2006 after she'd fought breast cancer to a standstill and after she'd run a marathon in each of the fifty states plus D.C. She would repeat that running feat and set a new and harder goal. It seemed a happy time for her. She had been free of cancer for two years. We know now, of course, cancer eventually came back. This story was written as a feature for the Herald-Citizen newspaper. It was reprinted in three running magazines and has since been adapted as a chapter in my recent book Going Down Slow. On the sad occasion of her death Thursday, May 31, I dug the story out. As we mourn her death maybe it can serve as a vivid reminder of the full, vibrant life Angela managed to live during her forty-four years.
What had happened to Angela Ivory came as a rude surprise to me. I didn’t know her very well at first. We’d talked a few times at local races. Then I didn’t see her for a few months. After I heard her news, I invited her up to my Cookeville home so we could make pictures and talk about a story.
By then she had run over a hundred combined marathons and ultramarathons. That list included a marathon in each of the fifty states plus D.C., a saga that required what seemed to me a staggering amount of travel.
She lived alone in Nashville, but grew up in Memphis. Prior to her marathon saga she had been west of the Mississippi River only twice, to visit an Aunt in West Memphis Arkansas, she told me.
She spent an afternoon in Cookeville, answering my questions and posing for pictures. Then she and Jo Ann and I went out for dinner. An astonishing saga emerged. As impressive as her list of races was, it barely began to tell her story.
She’d started out by dabbling—two marathons in 2001, two in 2002, one in 2003. Then things went crazy. In 2004 she began running either a marathon or an ultramarathon every weekend, traveling wherever she had to, to wherever there was a race, crisscrossing the country time and again. When I asked her about the travel, she only said,
“Yeah, it’s hard on you. I really believe in jet lag.”
She was on a mission then to record a marathon in each of the fifty states. She was doing it the hard way, by not counting some of the ultramarathons she ran along the way. The typical ultramarathons she runs are 31.2 (50k) and 50 miles in length, usually on a trail. Since all ultramarathons, by definition, are longer than a marathon, she could have counted an ultra as a marathon in a given state. There’s a reason she didn’t count the ultras, and that’s part of her story.
With the Orange County Marathon, in Newport Beach, California, on January 8, 2006, she completed the mission, her fifty-first state (counting D.C.). It was her thirty-eighth birthday.
“I went out there scared,” she said.
To understand her apprehension, you’d have to know what happened in the December preceding that January race. As she closed on her target, two bogies reared up: her hardest marathon, and her first DNF.
The Kiawah Island Marathon, in South Carolina, was her hardest, despite its flat course. It turned into a seven-hour trudge. She had tendonitis of the IT band and had to walk most of the way. That race was her forty-seventh marathon of the year.
“Yeah, I missed a couple of weekends, but there were four weekends I ran doubles.”
“That’s where I ran a marathon on Saturday and then ran another one on Sunday.”
But her body was wearing down. The crunch came the next weekend at a 50k ultra in Indiana. It was a cold 19 degrees and the trail was under a foot of snow. Her body screamed its warning. She faltered after the first 10-mile loop. It was her first failure. She went to the car and cried.
“It hurt. You get through most of these races with your mind, and I guess my mind wasn’t in it. I guess everything has a breaking point.”
So her hardest marathon—the forty-seventh that year—was followed a week later by a failure. And that set the stage for her thirty-eighth birthday, and for that capstone race in Orange County that ended a saga.
That saga is just part of her story. To understand how that part came about one needs to go back to the year 2003. That year changed Angela Ivory’s life—and who knows in how many ways.
They cut off her left breast.
They had to. The big C. It was June. They took out 22 lymph nodes, too.
The doctors laid out a menu of long-term outrage. Chemotherapy started three months before the surgery, and continued for three months after it. For that, they planted a “port” in her right shoulder, a sort of plastic valve under the skin that connects to a blood vessel via a tube, a handy place to stick the chemo needle. After the chemo ended, five weeks of radiation followed.
Chemo is supposed to be tough, right? Tougher than the Tour de France, Lance said. But Angela didn’t whine about it. Only the port drew her scorn—for the reason that it hurt when she reached for the bicycle bars—yeah, she was biking, too. The doctors installed the port in February 2003; they decided she was clean and took it out early in 2004.
Then everything changed for Angela Ivory.
Oddly, I remember talking with her about that time. It was January 24, 2004, at Natchez Trace State Park, just after the 5-mile “Race on the Trace.” We sat on the steps of the lodge talking about running, as racers will.
I didn’t know her secret, and she didn’t mention it. I couldn’t have guessed the perfect storm of marathons to follow; I doubt she could. That day she seemed a bit wistful and dreamed about running an ultramarathon, something she’d read that I’d done.
Later that year, in June, she indeed ran an ultra, the Star Mountain 50k, in Etowah, Tennessee. Maybe by then she’d learned what she wanted to do, although she doesn’t recall a particular moment when she formed her 51-states plan; it happened gradually.
You can imagine that a black girl growing up in Memphis during the 70s and 80s faced all the usual pitfalls of big city life. But Angela’s parents taught her well. She studied hard and earned an academic scholarship to Vanderbilt University. Once there, she knew she wanted to major in mechanical engineering—this despite the scarce number of women in that program, not to mention black women.
Despite earning the degree in mechanical engineering, she took a job doing a vital kind of civil engineering work—another irony—as an environmental protection specialist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. She was working and living in Nashville…between races.
Races, always the races. Somewhere every weekend. And those races had become ultramarathons.
The ultras started another saga, another story, because Angela Ivory raised the ante: She planned to run an ultramarathon in each of the fifty states. Already she’d checked off 16 by the time of our Cookeville talk. And that number was wrong by the time I had written it, for the reason that it was growing week by week.
But why? Why that goal? I wanted to know.
The self-effacing woman was much too modest to give a pretentious answer. In fact, she seemed embarrassed by the attention and preferred to not mention the quest, or her accomplishments. She just laughed at the question and answered with humor.
“Well, I’m not sure. The more I run the less brain cells I have.
Her dad died in 1993. What does your mother think about all that running?
“I don’t think she completely understands it, but she’s supportive.”
By its nature, Angela’s quest didn’t permit great speed. Her best marathon finish came in 2005—the year she ran 47—in, remarkably, the Country Music Marathon, in her hometown, a time of 4:26:49.
Angela is a shy person who dislikes talking about herself, a trait that evinces what you might call character. As a consequence, she completed a marathon in each of the 51 states—47 in one year—quietly, without fanfare, almost secretly. And she started the ultra quest the same way.
I wrote a feature story about Angela’s running and her battle with cancer for the Sunday edition of the local paper. It was reprinted in three running magazines. The story surprised many of her running friends. Until then, they had not known about her cancer, and had barely known the extent of her running. She’d done the running quietly and endured cancer the same way.
So modest was Angela, she’d initially declined the article. She didn’t care about being the center of attention. I didn’t want to pressure her; I wanted her to make the decision, yes or no. But I did point out that such a story might inspire someone else, help someone else. That idea—the thought of helping someone else—was what changed her mind.
The story blew her cover. It was time. This brave woman deserved recognition. The inspiration her courage brings to running and to life deserved broadcasting to the most remote corners of human endeavor.
“I’m just a chicken, and a slow chicken at that,” she said.
There, in admirable humility, she belittled her remarkable courage. In Angela Ivory, humility and courage are complement qualities. Her humility veils the heart of a lion.