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From Cancer Diagnosis to DIY Epic Challenges

Ten-time Ironman finisher Andrea Mason has imagined—and completed—envious adventure routes across Europe.

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Andrea Mason hated her first Ironman so much she incinerated her bike in a bonfire and swore to never do another triathlon again. But after the muscle soreness subsided and the memories shifted, she found herself thinking about doing just one more. A second Ironman finish gave way to a third, and before Mason realized what was happening she was crossing the line of her 10th Ironman.

But Mason’s active lifestyle came to a screeching halt in 2017, when she began experiencing severe pain in her abdomen. Though she had experienced extreme menstrual cramps for the past 13 years, this pain was new and debilitating. Doctors assumed it was appendicitis and scheduled surgery to remove Mason’s appendix. But when they finally opened up the abdominal cavity, they uncovered the true cause of her pain: cervical cancer and severe endometriosis, a disorder where the tissue that makes up the uterine lining grows unchecked outside of the uterus.

Endometriosis is a gynecological condition that is as common as diabetes but still relatively unknown. Mason, like many women with endometriosis, endured discomfort for years before the pain grew so severe it could not be ignored. Because of disappointment and a lack of answers, Mason also skipped her annual gynecological check-ups, which delayed diagnosis of cervical cancer.

“It was quite a shock,” she said. “But I didn’t for one minute think I wouldn’t get through it. Lying in my hospital bed, I knew if I was going to be in charge of my recovery, I needed something to focus on.”

While still recovering from major surgery to remove her uterus, Mason started to plot out her return to running. She didn’t want to do just another Ironman—she wanted to challenge her own personal limits. She also wanted to use sport as a way to spread awareness of the warning signs of endometriosis and cervical cancer–awareness Mason wished she had gained 15 years ago. To get the attention of the world, Mason would have to do something crazy.

“My husband and I started to brainstorm ideas,” Mason said. “I’ve always wanted to swim the English Channel, but I knew lots of people had already done that. I live in Chamonix, France, yet have never climbed Mt. Blanc, but again, lots of people have done that. Then jokingly, Karl said to me: ‘I know! Why don’t you do it all in one go? You could cycle in between to make it a triathlon!’”

Karl was definitely joking, but the idea took serious root in Mason’s brain. “I absolutely loved the idea. It was a huge challenge, something nobody had ever done, and I could use it as a platform to promote awareness of endometriosis and cervical cancer and encourage women to take charge of their reproductive health.”

The idea was all she needed to recover with purpose. She followed every single direction given by her medical team in hopes of expediting her recovery from surgery. Within seven weeks of her hysterectomy, she was cleared for light running again. By the end of the year, she was back to her pre-surgery mileage. And in 2019, only two years after her cancer diagnosis and hysterectomy, she swam 21 miles across the English Channel, cycled 560 miles across France, then ran to the summit of Mt. Blanc–all in 4 days and 20 hours.

Mason on her Sea to Summit route. Photo: Olly Bowman

Like her first Ironman, one challenge led to another. As she developed a charity for reproductive health, Lady Talk Matters, Mason also brainstormed ways she could use endurance sport to bring attention to her cause. This time, she would go even bigger:

“I had planned and begun training for a UK challenge: swim across the three longest lakes in Wales, England and Scotland; run the three tallest peaks in each country; and cycle all the bits in between. But unfortunately, due to COVID, I had to come up with a different challenge quite quickly.”

Sticking closer to home, Mason plotted a new route: swimming 23 miles around the circumference of France’s Lake Annecy, cycling 205 miles with 29,000 feet of vertical climbing around Mont Blanc, and running 105 miles with almost 4,000 feet of climbing along the legendary Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc route.

“When planning a challenge like this, I always have a very in-depth schedule, each discipline and stage is planned to the minute,” she said. “My background is in project management, so I always apply a similar concepts, taking a risk-based approach. I like to make sure I have everything covered, with a plan B and C in the event of issues. This year though the biggest issue was COVID! This challenge involved going across three country borders (France, Switzerland and Italy) and every day there were rumors that the borders would be closing again.”

Still, Mason decided to take the chance. At 6:15 a.m. on Sept. 4, Mason jumped into the waters of Lake Annecy and hoped for the best. Four days, 23 hours, and 41 minutes later, she arrived at the finish line on Mont Blanc.

Mason in the swim leg of her latest adventure. Photo: Olly Bowman

“It was bigger than I imagined,” Mason said of the effort. “The impact on by body was huge, but every time I felt like stopping and considered giving up, I kept remembering why I was doing it. I thought about all the women out there in pain or who still hadn’t been diagnosed. That is why I put myself through this.”

Mason hopes to tackle her COVID-postponed UK challenge in 2021, and with it, bring even more awareness of women’s health and the need for open discussions on reproductive issues.

Mason and her crew. Photo: Olly Bowman