Ironman Lake Placid 2007

Ironman Lake Placid 2007

Triathlon is a contact sport.

That fact got punched or kicked or elbowed into my head 100m into the first lap of the Ironman swim. My stroke sputtered and my lungs filled with water as I tried to realize what had just happened. In the frothing mass of lake and limbs, I expected my vision to be hampered, but something was wrong. My right eye wouldn’t open. The roaring white seemed to collapse on one side, weighing me down. I drifted out of my body as the melee continued and looked down. The calm of the depths below me began to look inviting.

The black eye I still wear probably saved my race. Treading water in the moments before the cannon fired to signal the start of the 2007 Lake Placid Ironman, I still had tears in my goggles. The truth of how life had so utterly changed since 2004 when I was last in Lake Placid hung heavily on Diana’s face. It contrasted sharply with the innocence of my son as he lay in his stroller. The bicycle embroidered sweater protected him from the cold; the energy unique to the start of an Ironman he sucked in with wide open eyes. I held her like I’d just been diagnosed, and we cried as if no one were watching. The film crew gave us our space, albeit with cameras rolling, and for a brief period I was alone with my wife and son on the beach. I’d take them with me through the bike and the run as well.

The blow to my head cleared me of these thoughts. In an instant I went from sappy and sentimental to self preservation. Fear of drowning brought me back to competition mode, and I started racing again. I could only see out of one eye, so my swim wasn’t straight. But every time I bumped into someone, I figured I was going in the right direction. Out on the beach for the beginning of the second lap, I took off my goggles and used my hands to peel open my right eye. It ached and felt swollen, but being able to see for the next 1.2 miles increased my confidence. I high stepped into the shallows, did a few dolphin dives, and then settled back into my swim stroke. The laws of physics were strained around the return buoy as triathletes tested whether two objects really could occupy the same space at the same time. My space I protected with vicious kicks any time I felt hands trying to grab too much of my legs. But a twinge in my left hamstring told me I needed to worry more about finding the shore than fighting for my five foot four section of water.

I exited the water in 58:44, slower than I hoped but alive. I asked a volunteer how my shiner looked after the long transition to the changing tent, and he told me it wasn’t pretty. Hidden by sun glasses, it got no further comments as I ran out of T1 for the first of two 56 mile laps.

Out on the bike I blew past my family who were stationed 2 miles onto the bike/run course in, ironically, the exact same spot I had finally quit and turned around in 2004.
They cheered like madness, and I tried to show them with my legs that they’d see me again before too long. I had come out of the water in 90th place, so I didn’t have too many of the 2300 plus ahead of me to pass. Still, I tried to ride easy as I knew it would be a long day.

At mile seventy, a Gleevec-induced spasm in my left gracillis (an adductor) warned me to dial back my effort even more. I moved at what felt like a pedestrian pace the last forty miles, frustrated I couldn’t use my strength and weight to my advantage as the road turned skyward. I imagined Jeremiah, the documentary cameraman on the back of the motorcycle shadowing me, thinking that this wasn’t the cyclist he’d seen in footage from Kona or Orlando, and I bit at the reigns, anxious to go faster. But I convinced myself the patience I showed on the bike would be rewarded on the run.

Into T2, I handed my bike to a volunteer and charged into the changing tent. An abdominal cramp as I bent over to put my shoes on elicited a question from a volunteer if I was o.k. I went into a back extension and had enough time to tell him before the muscle relaxed that I had leukemia and the chemo I was on was causing all this. His jaw was still hanging as I hustled out onto the course.

Mile one hurt—all down hill and I got passed by a couple of my competitors. But I knew I would find my legs soon. Before I ran past my family to mouth a tear-choked “I love you” to Diana, I had overtaken both of them. Looking at my splits I realized I was knocking out 7:15’s almost effortlessly. Somewhere around mile three, a guy yelled my name and told me he was Chris Sinkovich from 2XU. I guess I was running focused and fast enough that by the time his statement had registered, he was too far behind me to acknowledge. After all, he was the first sponsor after Chris Pic at Blue Bicycles who believed I could ever compete at this level again. I was wearing the clothes he had given me as one of his athletes, and 2XU was in just about every frame of film being shot for the documentary. I hope that’s enough for now, but Chris, I want to shake your hand next time we meet….

An electric cart drove up beside me, and I looked over to see my friend Skeet driving three guys with cameras. Chris, Jason, and Nick looked like they might be having more fun than Jeff who was trying his best not to run me over or distract me from the task at hand: putting 26.2 miles of asphalt behind me. They pulled over as I ran onto a long stretch of road where a field of signs lined the shoulder of the course like trees. The very first one had been made for me by my family in the days before. “Go Drewdini, #665!” it cheered.

A sharp pain and the forest of signs faded as all my attention went to my left leg threatening to cramp. That damn gracillis again—the only way to stretch it was to go into a side lunge to the right. As soon as I did that, my right psoas and quad turned into concrete and then the chain reaction began. I stood back up, but the gracillis locked down again as random contractions forced me to stop in an awkward position. A couple of volunteers saw me struggling in the middle of the road and came over to help me with words of motivation. A muscle relaxer is what I needed more as I eased into a side lunge once again. I wondered if the camera crew was getting this. Linda, one of the producers, has always wanted to capture this moment. Drama she calls it. Immobilization is what it felt like. I stood there petrified as the two men I ran down a couple of miles back passed me. I tried to move forward when my muscles finally relaxed, but they seized up again. “God,” I prayed, “please just let me finish.” The volunteer told me there was an aid station just up the road. As I looked ahead, all I could see was my competition fading further and further into the distance. I looked behind me and saw Jeff and the camera crew a couple of hundred yards away. They obviously didn’t see me or they would have been circling like vultures. It’s not that they wanted “drama.” But if it happened while they were near, they had strict instructions from Linda to capture it on film.

Parts of my brain’s neurons are filled with the origins, insertions, and actions of certain muscles. I used a few of those to convince me to try walking backwards. I felt stupid doing it, but I was making forward progress for the first time in several minutes. “I’ll do this the whole way if necessary,” I thought. “Hell, I can turn around at the last moment for the finish line camera if I have to.” So I moved forward…while backwards…and talked to the two volunteers as I walked at a 20 minute/mile pace. When I tried to turn around, I was rewarded by no cramps. Eventually, I thanked the volunteers for their company and broke into a slow jog. Twinges brushed across my body like cobwebs, but left me alone if I ran more with my arms and let my legs just be along for the ride. Only when I changed my arm swing to grab nutrition at an aid station did my legs protest enough to alter my stride.

The last half of the marathon I focused on relaxation. My pace fell, but I just wanted to finish what I’d started back in 2004. Push too hard and the finish line might escape me again. But three years, ten hours, twelve minutes, and twenty five seconds after I stepped into the cold waters of Mirror Lake for the first time, I ran onto the Olympic Speed Skating Oval to the sound of my name over the loud speakers. Something about leukemia was said, but I missed it, too intent on scanning the crowds lining the arena for my wife. She handed me my son, and I jogged with him toward the finish as he screamed with displeasure. Over his cries I heard the announcer say his name, too, and I raised one arm in the air as the other cradled Declan protectively to my body. He crossed first, so technically I was the 43rd across the line, but it didn’t matter. I’d made it. And my son had made it, too. Not long ago, neither of these miracles seemed possible. But Ironman has proven to me that anything is possible.

With a volunteer on each side supporting me, I hobbled over to a railing where Diana was waiting. We made a Declan sandwich as we cried in each other’s arms and our son screamed loud enough to show he inherited my lungs. My family was there—mom, sis and brother-in-law, their children, as well as all seven of the film crew, capturing the moment for the documentary. The crowd surrounding us probably thought I was famous with all the attention. But I’m just a guy—a triathlete, a son, a brother, an uncle, a husband, a dad, a survivor. I was asked why I put myself through everything it takes to reach the finish. The answer is more complex than I can articulate. But one truth is simple: I cherish all of these roles even more each time I become an Ironman.


Jeff Farmer

what a great story andrew. i started off being a runner with times for a 5k around the 17:00 min mark 10ks 35:15 half-marathons 1:16 and a 3:o8 marathon. i got into cycling in 1986. doing the biathlons mostly for the first couple years. i finished second or third in most races in my age group which was 25-30. i started swimming i think in 1989. i am not a great swimmer so that was my poorest discipline. with allot of hard work i became a middle of the pack finisher. i was a good biker that would average 22.5mph on the bike. now on the run is where i mowed everyone down. i ran the eighth fastest time of the day. i qualified for hawaii on my first attempt. when i put all three together my first half-ironman i had a finished with a 5 hour and 30 minute time. out of over a thousand competitors i had the eighth fastest run. i can’t remember what place over all that i finished. now here is where it all started. in late june of 1992 i started to having problems with my right foot catching the back of my left foot. for over a year i was having different neurological problems with my right foot but no one could figure out what was going on. finally after a year of this i had a mri which showed that i had a brain tumor about 6cms in diameter. the good news was it was operable but soon to find out after surgery that the tumor was cancerous. laying in the recovery room i didn’t know what the outcome of the surgery would be. first i could not even move my right led but after a couple of days i did start to get movement back into my foot and right leg. the seven days i spent in the hospital were not kind to me. all kinds of test from seeing what my oxygen level was by putting a needle in my right artery and let the beating of my heart push the plunger up and if they missed the first time they would try the left wrist. painfull it was. so i leave the hospital in a wheel chair. o yea i forgot to tell you that i had five weeks of radiation five days a week. after that i had sixteen months of chemo treatment. every third week i’d have to go down to emory hospital for that. so it’s august 17th and i’m being discharged and heading home. recovery and rest await me. i went from 167lbs to 190. i started therapy almost immediately for my right leg and foot. by the end of september i did my first 5k race. somewhere in the 7min range is what i averaged. i was able to complete another half-iron man and some half marathons throw in 5ks and 10ks and i was a happy camper. as time went on i started having problems in my right groin area which would cause me to have to stop late in the run and stretch it out. i’d finish the race but would have to stop a number of times to stretch the groin out. eventually i couldn’t get on the treadmill for fifteen mins and i would have to stop. the running days ended in 2002. i’m still able to cycle and that’s what keeps me sane. the tumor was a astrocytoma. they gave me 18 to 24 months to live with this type of tumor. by the grace of God and allot of prayers i’m still here living life with a limp. i enjoyed your story and hope you are able to keep on racing.

your friend
jeff farmer

kristen farmer

Man. Talk about a tear jerker.

As I read your story I am immediately taken to the story of my father. My father, the triathlete, the runner, my hero. I do not know if you remember me telling you this story so many years ago when you trained me…

My father was an Ironman level triathlete, unfortunately he never had the opportunity to compete in the Ironman but his numbers were up there. He was a front runner at the Peachtree Road Race, was a national level karate competitor, he was a beast…and then cancer happened. I was 9, he was 34 and in his prime.

It was a level four astrocytomic malignant brain tumor about the size of a golf ball and it was located in the left hemisphere of his parital/frontal lobes. That damn tumor decided to grow right in the area that controlled his right arm and right leg. As you know, astrocytes are the cells in the brain that multiply the most. Not good cells to be cancerous.

The doctors got as much of the tumor out as possible. My dad came out of surgery barely able to move his big toes. 2 and a half months later my father ran a 5k.

Immediately upon diagnosis my parents began researching ways my dad could improve his diet to fight this cancer nutritionally. We were already eating the zone diet as a family to keep up with my dad’s training. What 9 year old already understands the zone diet? I did. My dad began taking supplements and ate as much cancer fighting goodness as possible. His sister made him a tape to listen to each night that helped him visualize the good cells in his body defeating the bad cells in his body. He had the deacons at our Southern Baptist Church lay hands on him in healing and anoint him with oil.(That had never been done at our church before. My dad showed our pastor in the Bible where it said to anoint the sick with oil and have the men of the church pray over them. I still remember the power I felt in the room as a child as those men surrounded my dad in prayer).

He began chemo and radiation. He never got sick. Not once. He and mom would go out to eat afterwards for a big meal because they had to go down to Emory for his treatment.

With all this the prognosis was still very bad. No one survived from the type of tumor my dad had. My parents demanded that the doctors never give my dad a timeline of how long he had to live. They would not even allow it to be spoken.

I remember the day, roughly two years later after his first surgery when my parents told me the cancer was gone. It was around Christmas and we were in choir rehearsal. They had just gotten back from receiving the results of his most recent MRI. I remember they sat down, they both looked completely dazed. I asked them what the doctor had said. In complete shock they both mumbled “It’s gone”. I responded with “So that means he is healed then right?”. They really did not even know what to say.

This year will mark 20 years since my dad was told he was cancer free. 20 years of life he was told that no longer belonged to him.

Yes my dad was healthier than the average person and took steps in his mind, body, and spirit to facilitate healing. These things have no substitute. I will tell you this though, I know without of a shadow of a doubt that he would not be here today if it were not for the relentless fight in his heart. I never saw in my eyes, EVER, the eyes of a dying man. His eyes spoke that he was going nowhere. That he was alive and was going to stay that way.

He has regressed in his balance over the years. He initially was able to run, swim, and bike. He actually did a few sprint triathlons during the first few years after his surgery. His ability to run left him pretty quickly. He has drop foot because of his lack of control in his right leg. He kept up cycling pretty consistently really until the last year or two. His balance has deteriorated to the point that even getting out of a chair is a big task for him. It is hard watching a man who was so defined by his athleticism slowly evolve into a man who needs my help when we cross a road.

Somehow he has navigated this transition with his head held high. I sent him this blog post in an email a few moments ago. I think it is rare for my dad to encounter anyone who can really understand what he went through being at the level he was as an athletic competitor.

Thank you for sharing your story so beautifully and with such heart.

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