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This 18-Time Ironman Finisher Battles Through Chronic Pain

Despite a rare, painful chronic condition that hobbles most who face it, Kristin McQueen just crossed her 18th Ironman finish line—and counting.

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Despite a rare, painful chronic condition that hobbles most who face it, Kristin McQueen just crossed her 18th Ironman finish line—and counting.

Kristin McQueen can’t wear a sun visor during a race. She struggles to put on a helmet or pull goggles over her head. In fact, pressure of any kind around her head or face triggers surges of pain best compared to electric shocks, brought about by a chronic condition called trigeminal neuralgia—or, as McQueen has nicknamed it, “Stabby Joe.”

Yet McQueen keeps going. Triathlon, says the 38-year-old physical therapist from Illinois, is her constant, her sense of normalcy. A tangible reminder that, while her body may be embattled and weakened, it still gives her what she asks of it. To date, it’s gotten her to the finish line of 18 Ironmans—nearly the same number of times she’s gone under the knife for brain surgery to treat her condition.

“Sure, I have my days where I break down, but I don’t want to stay in that place,” McQueen says. “I have to keep a smile on my face 99 percent of the time. Laughing about it takes the fear away. Everything that’s happened to me is ridiculous when you think of it.”

Aside from her near-constant searing pain, McQueen has a host of health issues that would bring the average person to her knees. She’s had seven surgeries since being diagnosed with metastasic thyroid cancer at the age of 24. (Trigeminal neuralgia, which affects the nerve that carries sensation from the face to the brain, is a side effect of the radiation treatments she received to treat the now-stable cancer.)

She’s developed an adrenal tumor that causes rapid weight loss. That same tumor is linked to her intense insomnia—she sleeps just about two hours at a time. One surgery on her thyroid resulted in a paralyzed vocal cord, and she now breathes out of just half an airway. Another surgery hit a crucial nerve that carries sound and balance information from the inner ear to the brain. As a result, she lost hearing on her right side and had to re-learn how to sit, stand, and walk. Today, she can only see out of her left eye.

McQueen casually rattles off these conditions as though she’s telling you her grocery list—and even punctuates the most sobering revelations with laughter. Because of her balance issues, she has a propensity to wobble on the bike, so she’s nicknamed her bike “Tipsy.” During a race, she wears a hospital-issued fall risk bracelet, not to warn other people about her condition, but instead to offer herself some levity when she’s hurting the most.

“Looking down at that bracelet just makes me smile. Here I am, a fall risk, out on an Ironman course,” McQueen says.

Take a look at any of McQueen’s race photos and you’ll see her beaming, even her face is throbbing with pain. Most people may think McQueen a masochist, but she just sees it as her chance to feel “normal” for 15-plus hours.

McQueen also uses triathlon as a vehicle for a very personal cause: She’s raised more than $170,000 for the American Cancer Society. And in each race, she carries an “angel list” with some 280 names of people who have been afflicted by cancer.

“I hold that list up as a sign that I’m not finishing alone,” she says. “Unlike many of them, I’m still here. I’m able to cross that finish line. I have nothing to complain about.”