I’ve been an athlete all my life: first soccer, then in college, running, and then I got bit by the multi-sport bug.
What started out as 5Ks and 10Ks soon turned into a marathon and then an Ironman. In all, I’ve completed 11 Ironmans, 20 marathons, and lots of shorter-distance races. That was my lifestyle until 2006, when everything took a turn.
It started with difficulty swallowing. I went to the doctor and got the worst call of my life: There was a problem with my blood work. I had something called chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a disease in which your body overproduces premature white blood cells with no functional purpose except to get in the way of everything else. When it’s managed well, you can live with it, but I will have it for the rest of my life. I was 46 years old when I was diagnosed.
I was to start chemo right away. The first session was awful—the chemo left me with shakes, headaches and sweats—but it got better. When I was feeling up to it, I would run the mile and a half home from my chemo treatments. It wasn’t an Ironman, but it was something I could do. It was my F-U to cancer.
A week after my diagnosis, I reached out to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. In my seven years with TNT, I’ve probably worked with around 700 athletes. It’s so rewarding, because you’ve got this chronic illness, and while you’re passionate about triathlon, you’re helping these athletes who are raising money for your blood cancer. It’s just this giant lovefest of positive energy; it’s one the best things to come out of this for me.
Between my second and third chemo cycles, when my counts were returning to normal, I began thinking about doing an Ironman. I remember telling the race director, who was also a friend and a doctor, that I wasn’t sure could do it. He said, “When you cross the finish line, I’m not going to call you an Ironman. Your new name will be Remission Man.”
He was right. I went into remission three months after diagnosis and ran the Ironman four months later. I relapsed last summer, but after a few rounds of chemo I was back on track. I raced a Half Ironman in the middle of treatment and another at the end.
Someday I’d like to have finish-line photos with my kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. I am a grandfather, and while I haven’t had the opportunity to take a photo with my granddaughter yet, you have to figure she’s four, so in 20 years, she might have children. Think I’ll be racing in another 20 years? I hope so. Everything’s possible.
>> This article first appeared in the 2013 edition of Be Well Philly. Get your free copy here.
Photograph by Adam Jones