Team in Training Season Wrap Up

 Below are some of my thoughts from a talk that I gave at the inspirational dinner for this year’s TriRock Philadelphia Team in Training group. Most of this content made it into the talk, some may not have. This was a small but terrific group of heroes. I, as always, was moved by their fortitude, commitment, drive and willingness to make a change in someone’s life.

I think I’m supposed to talk about me, but before I do that, I need to talk about all of you for a few minutes.

This was an extremely rewarding season for me on a few levels. I was actually a little nervous going into this season since it was my first season as the head coach without our buddy coach Todd Wiley. I just wasn’t sure how things would go.

But with the help of assistant coaches Kenny Modica and Gretchen Cooney and great mentors I was able to thoroughly enjoy this season.  Our team had great chemistry, made up of alumni, first timers, survivors, a father and son team, a husband and wife team, a survivor with recycled body parts, Mildred and Hazel our swim cap models who found a remarkable way of tying together fashion, training, yard sale shopping, with an insatiable drive to make a difference, and laugh.

And this organization was again lucky to have one of the kindest and gentlest men I know return in honor and in memory of his lost loved one. Mitch Kline you are the quintessential role model and hero for many people and I am so thankful you are here.

Philly Tri TeamYou have all been an amazing group of very genuine people all united to fight the common enemy.  So, thank you for that. I get more out of this than you can possibly imagine and I get back much more than I give.

 

OK now I will tell you a little about me.

I grew up a gym and playground rat. I played at least one sport every season of the school year.  And played in multiple summer leagues from the time I was 8 years old. I was never really sick.  I have all of my God given parts, no extra ones, and to this day, I have never stayed overnight in a hospital.

I went to college on a soccer scholarship and hung on the fringe of a pro soccer career which didn’t quite go according to my plan (or my lack of a plan). I played some semi pro soccer for a number of years before discovering the dark side of triathlon and multisport racing and I was instantly hooked.

Like most people, I started small but then worked my way up to “one” marathon (or so I told my wife on New Year’s Eve of 1993). And eventually ”one” ironman. To my credit, I thoroughly believed that I could do one, get it out of my system, and be done. (I grossly misjudged that concept).

I settled into a lifestyle that proved rewarding for me and for my family on so many levels. I racked up countless races that my family was a huge part of either as volunteers, spectators, supporters, or all of the above.

I was healthy and living the dream.  

Things got a little dark for us in 2005 and 2006. The curve balls started coming our way. Fast threatening curve balls that aim for your head. My dad underwent surgery to remove a large tumor in his chest, spending 2 months in the hospital and he never made it home. A few months later my mom needed triple bypass and aortic valve replacement heart surgery. That surgery was successful and my 89 year old mom is alive and thriving today. But this, on the heels of the loss of my dad, took its emotional toll.

Our family was ready for a fresh look at a new year and a new beginning in 2006 but that wasn’t going to happen.

I started having trouble swallowing which led to number of doctor calls. Of course I chalked it up to everything under the sun before actually making an appointment. Allergies. Stress. Infection. You name it. And we tried to treat it remotely with steroids, antibiotics, anti-allergy meds, etc. But we eventually saw a specialist who THOUGHT I needed to have my tonsils removed.

Preadmission testing told a different story.

My lab work revealed a white blood count that was extremely high. That led to an appointment with an oncologist and then a weeks worth of biopsies, x-rays, ct scans, pet scans, and blood work and ultimately a diagnosis of a chronic form of leukemia on February 24th of 2006.

I was told this would require several months of initial chemo and monoclonal antibody treatment and 2 years of follow up treatment. And while this can be managed it can’t be “cured” the way some other cancers can – today.

I’ve always felt fortunate and blessed and I’ll be honest (and I’ve never really shared this before) for a fleeting moment I listened to what the doc was telling me and I thought to myself, “so is this it”? “Is this how my fairy tale life will come to end”? “Surprise” We’ve all entertained the notion of how our lives may end but this isn’t something I ever saw coming. The payback for living a great life, surrounded by great people is I get to deteriorate and whither away in front of everyone a shell of the guy I once was?”

That moment and those thoughts were very fleeting and not shared with anyone. The positive me quickly resumed control. And the reality was that my prognosis looked good. I just needed to get out of my own head, stop Googling my disease, and focus on getting well.  So we started into a chemotherapy treatment protocol of 1 week of daily treatment, followed by 3 weeks off – repeated for 4 cycles. And the long range plan would be to receive follow up treatments for one week, every 6 months for 2 years.

We did chemo right. We did it our way. My wife joined me for every treatment. Our daughters often cut class from their school which was next door to the hospital and hung out during chemo with me. We would hang out, have lunch together, and make it as positive as we possibly could.

Something worked. I responded to treatment favorably and hit remission by my 3rd round of chemo. I vowed to remain in shape and many days that meant running home from my chemo treatments. I needed to control something in a seemingly incontrollable situation and I have always been happiest when I am in motion so that became a big part of my overall plan.

That worked too because 4 months post diagnosis I was able to again race a sprint triathlon. And 7 months post diagnosis I raced another ironman triathlon. All of that is great but not as great as my decision to sign on as a triathlon coach for TNT. Which I did within days of being diagnosed. 

Coaching is my opportunity to share my love for the sport of triathlon with eager individuals who want to both take on a challenge – while raising funds and awareness for my blood cancer. It became personal.

My relationship with this organization changed my life. While my own personal goals and races are important, watching each and every one of you grow from that first day of practice to crossing that finish will never, ever get old for me.

I love helping you achieve and celebrating your accomplishments.

So, here I stand. (Quite happily I might add) I live with a chronic leukemia. I manage it – it doesn’t manage me. I live above it and not simply with it. And like to think I am making it count for something.

While I am proud of the fact that I have completed many many races of all distances spanning 25 years of racing. The reality is they don’t mean all that much. You won’t find me talking that much about that.

I think I represent an old school and minority breed of athletes who believes you don’t need to broadcast your accomplishments to make them meaningful. And if done right, people will “just know” not only what you’ve done but who you are without a lot of self promotion.

I have learned just as much or more about myself in the couple of races where I became injured and wasn’t able to finish than those I did finish. How you react to that is success. The ability to adapt defines success for me.

What I am proud of is the fact that I have weathered 46 rounds of chemo. Slipped into relapse a couple of times and come back better and happier every time. And have helped others along the way to do the same. That is what matters. That’s what keeps hope alive.

Simply put – I’m in a good place and I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve been through or where I am. I’m not sure how many people would say that living with a chronic cancer.

My wife and I have raised 2 amazing daughters along the way. And they have very much been a part of everything about my life, including cancer, and racing. And we are enjoying a beautiful granddaughter with a grandson on the way.

My journey continues to connect me with some amazing individuals who only validate the fact that I am supposed to carry this disease and be a voice and a resource for others. One of the positives about living with a cancer is that you don’t have to wonder and worry about what it’s like to live with a cancer!!  Usually it’s the fear of the unknown that scares the hell out of this. I know this disease quite well.

I also feel that the blood cancer future is incredibly bright. I am first hand living proof  what a LLS funded drug like RITUXAN can do and I’ve seen the incredible success stories around GLEEVAC with others such as IBRUTINIB right around the corner.

My world is far from perfect but I’ve learned how to reconcile all of it. And man do I love living it. And appreciate it and everyone in it.

You are all a big part of that. Thank you for a GREAT season.

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Legends, a Bust, and No Big Island (This Year)

That pretty much sums up my weekend at the inaugural Challenge Atlantic City. I had a great few days leading into the race. I had an opportunity to meet and hang out with some good friends and an opportunity to meet new ones – some legendary in the sport of triathlon, like six-time World Champion Mark Allen, two-time World Champion Chris McCormack, the mightiest of the mighty  Rinny Carfrae and Frank Day and Tom Knoll who were original finishers of that 1st “Ironman” event back in 1978.

6 time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen

6 time Ironman World Champion Mark Allen

I had a chance to hang out with one of the most recognized voices in endurance sports, Whit Raymond. Nobody brings a finisher across the line like Whit Raymond and his partner Mike Reilly. I was healthy. I felt sufficiently trained (although I was playing the course familiarity card just a little). The race directors Stephen DelMonte and Rob Vigorito are good friends and well known and respected for their increible event experiences. I had part of my family present but was missing our Arizona crew who couldn’t make this trek. All systems were set to GO mode. I was excited to be a part of this inaugural and soon to be epic race put on by the Challenge Family. I felt the stars were aligned.

 

My plan unraveled two hours and twenty minutes from the start.

While I’m not one to make excuses, there were a couple of unforeseen situations that got inside my head a little and played a part in my day ending early. And this is Ironman so I know better to always be prepared and to expect and plan for anything and everything, even the most improbable. I’m not new to this game. In fact this should have been my 12th finish. But sometimes, things just turn sideways. So you look for the lesson, you make the adjustment, and you move on.

Chris McCormack with Bob Babbitt

Chris McCormack with Bob Babbitt

Overnight water temperatures were a perfect 66-72 degrees the week leading up to the race. “Perfect” I thought. This should be a nice wetsuit legal swim in the calm back bays of Atlantic City. Somehow, the water temp shot from 72 to 80 on race morning. While we all know this isn’t possible, and clearly something was wrong with either the pre race readings, or the race day reading…it is what it is. These are the rules that we all must play by and I have nothing but respect for the USAT officials who worked Atlantic City. The bottom line is that 80 degrees meant no wetsuits were allowed unless you wanted to forego any potential awards and winnings, and go off in your own wetsuit wave after all other waves have gone. Given the fact that there was no way the water was really 80 degrees, and I didn’t know all of the nuances and characteristics of those back bays, I opted to wear the wetsuit.

The voice, Whit Raymond

The voice, Whit Raymond

What happened in those waters remains a mystery to me. The front half of the swim was manageable. Challenging, and a little slow, but manageable. My ironman swims have been as fast as 1:20 and as slow as 2:00 depending on the water. I assumed (predicted? Anticipated? Hoped for?), I would probably swim approximately 1:45, and I would have been happy with that. It wouldn’t be as easy as say a Lake Placid swim which is probably the easiest swim out there, but I thought it would be “ok”.

Frank Day and Tom Knoll

Frank Day and Tom Knoll

The 2nd half of the swim was a nightmare. Not in terms of it being fearful or dangerous, just never ending and frustrating. I have never seen currents like that. There was one entire section with two turn buoys that were soon named “treadmill buoys”.  I saw countless people cut that buoy short simply because they could have spent the entire day out there and never reached it. I saw the current slam others into buoys so hard that their legs became entangled in the anchor lines. I didn’t cut that last buoy. But I paid a time price in playing clean and honest. The currents in the section, and a few others along the back half were overwhelming  and for the 1st time in my racing career I watched the 2:20 swim cut off time expire before my eyes, along with about 60 other people. There were many stretches where I was either swimming in place, or even losing a little ground.

Misery tends to like a little company so I did take some comfort in hearing that most to all swim times were off 20-30 minutes, and the later waves faced a stronger current than the earlier waves. Thus forcing me to second guess that wetsuit decision! But do the math, if I expected to swim 1:45ish and times were 30 minutes slower, that doesn’t leave me much wiggle room.

Win, lose, draw, or DNF, this is the prize

Win, lose, draw, or DNF, this is the prize

Such is life. Or no. Such is SPORT. This stuff isn’t real life, it’s fun, it’s adventurous, it’s optional, and it’s sport. And I still love it. And again, I’m not making excuses for anything. I could have, should have done some things differently that may have led to a different outcome. I have no complaints and only a couple of regrets that will quickly fade or become opportunities. When I look back on this, I will remember having a great weekend with an incredible support crew. I will remember a crappy swim. I will remember being proud to have been part of this inaugural event and can now say that I am looking forward to next year. And I will remember a great vacation following the race. Until then, my redemption awaits me at Ironman Maryland in September.

Delmo and Vigo

Stephen DelMonte and Rob Vigorito

My hat goes off to all parties involved with making this race happen. Putting on a new race is hard. Putting on a new triathlon is extremely complex. Putting on a new iron distance triathlon has more moving parts and more things going on behind the curtain than you can possibly imagine. Kudos to race directors Vigo and Delmo, the race crew, all volunteers, and the Challenge Family for making it happen.

On a side note (and many will call me crazy for this), last week I turned down an opportunity to race in Kona this year with Team in Training. I had a couple of great conversations with the National Director and while we both recognized the great opportunity for TNT and for me, the timing just wasn’t right. I would want a little more than 3 months to fundraise for something like this they way I would want to. So we agreed this was the beginning of a good conversation to be continued for a future Kona.

Train safe, race smart, and THANK the volunteers.

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A New Teammate

I received the below email this afternoon. Just another example that my disease has purpose, meaning, and a reason. Of course I connected with this guy right away.


Hello,

I got the official Stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis today. I’m being treated at the Delaware County Hospital and when the awesome administrators saw my Eagleman shirt and had heard about my racing and triathlon endeavors they gave me a copy of your book “My New Race.” My head is spinning right now and I’m hoping I can reach out to some other athletes and active-minded people that have been through this. If you’d be up for it I could really use a sounding board in the near future.

Thanks for your time!

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Challenge Atlantic City is HERE

The athlete guide for the upcoming Challenge AC race is been published. You can check it out here:

http://challengeatlanticcity.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/CAC-Athlete-Guide-1.pdf

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Delaware News Journal Article

The Delaware News Journal ran the following story on me in connection with National Cancer Survivor’s Day. While I do live in Pennsylvania, I have worked in Delaware for many years.

Click to read.

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The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Gives Blood Cancers a “Red Card”

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Gives Blood Cancers a ‘Red Card’ with First-Ever LLS Soccerfest

CBS “Survivor” Winner and Cancer Survivor Ethan Zohn Hosts May 18 Event in the South Bronx

White Plains, N.Y. (April 30, 2014) – The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) announced today it will host the first-ever LLS Soccerfest on May 18 from 12-5 p.m. in the South Bronx (NYC). The event enlists the power of soccer to shine a spotlight and educate the Hispanic community on blood cancers.

LLS Soccerfest will be the culminating event for 2014 Bronx Week. CBS “Survivor” winner, two-time lymphoma survivor and former professional soccer player Ethan Zohn will be on hand as the master of ceremonies for LLS Soccerfest. In addition, professional soccer teams will lend support, with guest appearances from members of the New York Red Bulls, DC United and the Philadelphia Union (MLS), the NY Cosmos (NASL), Skyblue FC (NWSL), as well as legendary US Soccer and Mexican national team players.

This inspiring day will include soccer demonstrations, clinics, small sided games, meet & greets and autograph sessions with players, along with music, food vendors, family activities, street soccer jugglers, swabbing stations to become bone marrow donors, and more.

“The global power that soccer has to educate and inspire change around the world is being brought to the South Bronx to help this amazing community learn about blood cancers and healthy lifestyle choices,” said Zohn. “I am honored to be part of such an incredible event using the sport that has given me so much, to raise awareness for LLS, the need to find blood cancer cures and help patients get the treatments they need,” Zohn continued. “It’s time we give cancer a red card.”

“This event is important for LLS as we continue our efforts to reach the Latino community,” explained LLS Interim President & CEO and Chief Mission Officer, Louis J. DeGennaro, Ph.D. “Outreach is vital because we know that, in children and adolescents under the age of 20, leukemia rates are highest among Hispanics. LLS exists to find cures and ensure access to treatments for all blood cancer patients, and we are committed to expanding our educational and access programs tailored to the Hispanic population.”

Families can register their children and learn more about LLS Soccerfest by logging on to lls.org/soccerfest.

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Jackie

We lost a good man this week. A man everyone looked up to and gravitated towards. A man who I was proud to call a cousin and a man whose heart was filled with perpetual love and pride. 

Jackie had been fighting a tough fight with blood cancer which resulted in a number of complications. I was honored beyond believe when I learned that I was the one he wanted to talk to early in his diagnosis as he was trying to wrap his head around what his medical team at Penn was telling him.

Jackie didn’t talk with too many people in the beginning but asked to speak with me. I have these conversations all the time but they are generally with complete strangers and rarely do I ever even meet them face to face.

But this was different. This was family. This was Jackie. For the first time I was actually nervous about saying something wrong.

We exchanged a number of phone calls and text messages and my wife and I had a great visit with him at UPENN. We talked about every aspect of the disease and treatments. I essentially just wanted to be a sounding board or a safety net for Jackie to pull hope or inspiration from in any way he needed. I fully recognize that I am a poster child for things going the right way with my disease. I have been lucky and am always to share my positive experiences if it helps someone else. My wife made a very cool “FC” bracelet for Jackie to wear, which he wore with much pride and conviction. (FC = “fight cancer”).

I tried to take my cues from Jackie and not be overbearing with anything that I have experienced or witnessed – good or bad. If he wanted to talk about something, we talked. At times I think he just needed to know that support was there, even if waiting quietly in the wings. As one can imagine, he experienced a number of physical and emotional highs and lows but he was strong in his resolve to beat this beast. He knew he had too much to live for. And too many people who adored him were waiting for him to come home.

Our communication had trailed off recently and my messages eventually were not being answered.  I understand enough to know that could possibly be a bad thing, but it isn’t always the case. So I held onto much hope.

We received the news that Jackie passed and an instant hollowness filled my body. Please no. Not Jackie. Not now. Jackie wasn’t done here and I wasn’t done talking to Jackie.  This fight isn’t over.

Sadness, anger, emptiness, can all be used to sum up my feelings. So for what it’s worth, I have a few things I would like to tell Jackie:

Dear Jackie,

 IMG_20140508_00101535You are one of the bravest individuals I have ever had the honor of knowing. Thank you for turning to me during your diagnosis and for opening up to me. I only wish there was more I could have said, or done. You were never alone Jackie. Everyone who loves you prayed and thought about you constantly. You will forever be loved and cherished the way that you loved and cherished those who were dear to you. You are a good man Jackie. Losing you only strengthens my commitment to continue to fight blood cancer head on. In your honor and in the honor of others who have lost their battle before you, we will win this war. I’m sorry Jackie.

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Lauren Hart Show

Here is the clip to the Lauren Hart show that aired on May 1st on WMCN 44.

Lauren Hart – All Hart

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IRONMAN.com Article

IRONMAN.com just ran this piece on my return to the Chesapeakeman course.

Click to read.

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WTC Announces IRONMAN Maryland

World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) is announcing Ironman Maryland, a phoenix raised from the ashes of what was Chesapeakeman, to take place on September 20, 2014. The WTC has acted quickly to turn an imminent disaster into a windfall for its own brand and for triathletes living in the metro-Baltimore and greater Mid-Atlantic area.

Exactly one month ago Slowtwitch reported that WTC would take over the production of most of the races produced by the Columbia Triathlon Association (CTA). That followed by only 5 days a Slowtwitch report on the imminent demise of the series produced by the 30 year old CTA. The WTC did not know of the depth of the problems at the CTA until it read that story, and it took under a week to reach an agreement in principle to produce CTA’s multisport and Ironman-branded events.

Ironman is announcing that general registration for the inaugural Ironman Maryland triathlon will open Thursday, April 17 at noon, Eastern Time, on Ironman.com/maryland. The 2.4-mile swim will take place in the Choptank River on the Delmarva Peninsula. The 112-mile bike will take athletes through Dorchester County and into the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. The 26.2-mile run is flat, on country roads, providing a scenic and fast course. Ironman Maryland will offer 30 age group qualifying slots to the 2015 Hawaiian Ironman World Championship.
The deal in principle for WTC to acquire and run all of CTA’s multisport events has morphed, and it appears no longer the case that WTC will end up with all the triathlons. In particular, the The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults (UCF) is set to acquire and run the Iron Girl Columbia Women’s Triathlon as well as the Columbia Triathlon, according to WTC’s press release announcing Ironman Maryland. “They expect to finalize their agreement next week and will re-open registration for those two races shortly thereafter,” says the release.

The UCF had evinced an interest in certain of CTA’s races almost immediately when the news broke that the CTA’s series was in trouble. The UCF is not without resources and manpower to produce events, as Kari Ebeling, a program director for the UCF, is the CTA’s former executive director. Neither Ms. Ebeling nor the UCF’s Brock Yetso, its CEO, could be reached for comment.

“We were initially focused on Eagleman,” said Andrew Messick, Ironman’s CEO. “That drove our urgency. Chesapeake man was a little understood piece in the early hours and days that quickly emerged into a real opportunity for us.“

Cheseapeakeman had not opened for registration, and it was very questionable whether it would have. The CTA intended to produce only 6 or 7 out of what used to be a 10-race season, and Cheseapeakeman was unlikely to make the cut. The Ironman that will take its place will sit on the same weekend as Chesapeakeman but the course, while sharing certain elements common with Ironman Eagleman 70.3, will be different than the old Chesapeakeman course.

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