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“Everybody has their own limits. And part of this is figuring out what mine are.”
Some athletes struggle with obesity. Others deal with setbacks due to severe injury. Others face incurable illness. And then there’s 45-year-old Kevin Robson, an attorney from Draper, Utah, who’s wrangled all three. Robson will be on the start line on Saturday in Kona, buoyed by the support of his wife Torri, their three children Macie, Maya and Dylan and a massive entourage of family and friends. Here, Robson shares his complex story and the inspiring attitude with which he counters adversity.
Triathlete.com: You had been a triathlete for several years prior to receiving the cancer diagnosis that you’re currently dealing with. But it was actually a weight issue that initially prompted you to start running. Did you do so at your doctor’s urging?
KR: My doctor never said anything. None of my doctor’s ever said anything to me. I was in my early 30’s and I was having sleep apnea problems. My wife complained about my snoring and I felt absolutely lousy. Walking up the stairs was terrible. So I went to get a sleep apnea surgery, and the doctor that did the surgery was heavier than I was. I asked him what role my weight had in my disease and he said, “Well, it might be nice to drop 10 or 20 pounds.” But he was not critical at all. I would show up for my physical every year with my regular doctor and he would never say anything to me. So when I started losing weight and getting in shape and he started noticing how much I had changed things around, I said “Doctor, every year I’m going to come into your office and I’m going to remind you that it’s your job to tell people that they’re fat and that they need to lose weight or they’re going to die!”
My dad was a great runner and he didn’t start until he was in his late 30’s or early 40’s. He ran his fastest marathon – a 3:01 – when he was 49 years old. I had been a football player and I’d always been around my dad who was a pretty good runner and I thought: OK, I know that I probably have it in me to run a little bit because of my dad. That seemed like a natural way to start taking a stab at this thing. But I live on a mountain. It’s pretty hilly, and to start doing that as a fat person was really difficult. It was hard to walk the neighborhood, let alone run it.
Triathlete.com: So you started jogging, then swimming and then were encouraged to try triathlon. Fast-forward to 2007 and you raced your first Ironman, which led to another and another and ultimately Ironman Coeur D’Alene in 2011, where you really began to sense that something was seriously wrong. Tell me about that experience.
KR: 2007 was the last year that Ironman Arizona was held in the spring. There were really high winds and I was just beaten to a pulp. I didn’t know how to handle it. So I was kind of anxious to sign up for another one. My buddy John, who has been my training partner this entire time, got into Kona, so I thought I’d sign up for Arizona in the fall and we could train together. The plan was to race Arizona and then go to Disneyland for a family vacation over Thanksgiving. Well, 52 miles into the bike I was hit head-on by a course marshal. I tried to continue but I had cracked ribs and blood in my lungs and my leg was hamburger. My first thought was actually that if I could continue it would look super cool with my leg bleeding how it was when I crossed the finish line! But it didn’t work out – I couldn’t stand up. Then I did Coeur D’Alene in 2009, and that was my first Ironman after my recovery from being hit. I really enjoyed it and I thought I was pretty successful but honestly, if I look back, that’s when I started to notice that I just wasn’t progressing the way that I thought I ought to be. I was getting sick more often than I should, but it was nothing that seemed too bad. It was in 2011 that I really became concerned.
I actually said it out loud. I don’t know if that’s believable or not, but I remember where I was when I said it. I was running along Lake Coeur D’Alene on my second loop, and I was just processing the whole thing and I said, “I think I have Leukemia.” It just made sense to me with what was going on. I finished the race and I was in horrible shape. I was put on antibiotics for 40 days following the race, and I started thinking maybe I just had a super bad infection, maybe it was just in my head. But then I started having more setbacks and that led to me being diagnosed on January 31st, 2012 with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia [CLL].
Triathlete.com: What’s the prognosis for your disease?
KR: When you’re diagnosed they determine if you’re an immediate candidate for a stem cell [bone marrow] transplant. There are four different categories of CLL, and with two of them you are short for this world if you don’t get treatment. Another is the least aggressive form. The other is an intermediate variety, and that’s me. When I met with my doctor in August he said, “You have aggressive markers in your cancer, but it’s not acting aggressively right now. That doesn’t mean that it won’t act aggressively next week or next month, but we’ll just continue to go along the way that it is until it starts being aggressive.”
Here’s the deal: it’s an incurable disease. Nothing they do by way of chemotherapy or anything is going to fix it. Even after chemo, you still have it floating around in your blood, but what they hope is to put you in a partial remission and postpone that period of time. But the problem is, over time and the more times you’re treated, your bone marrow fails. So what ends up happening is if you live long enough and you have this disease you are going to be a candidate for a stem cell transplant. One of the weird things about it is that the average age of diagnosis is 70. I’m in something like the one or two per cent of people diagnosed at my age or younger.
When I was diagnosed, I had to pull it out of my doctor but I said, “Is this going to kill me?” He said, “Probably. But there’s a lot of space between now and then. We don’t know for sure what’s going to happen in the future, we don’t know where research is going to go.” Most of the research is really recent, and in fact CLL is included in M.D. Anderson’s new three billion dollar project to attack eight cancers.
Triathlete.com: So you have an incurable form of cancer, yet through triathlon training I would assume you are also healthier and fitter than ever. What does it mean to you to take control of your health as much as you can?
KR: I remember the day that I found out there was a snowstorm in Utah. So I went out with my shovel. I have a snow blower and other things, but I went out and started shoveling and I kept shoveling. The thing that strikes you is that there are things you can control and things you can’t control. I have absolutely no control over the disease progression in my body. But I can control a lot. I can control how healthy I am in the meantime. I can control how much I enjoy life in the meantime. I can control how fulfilling I make my life in the meantime. How good a dad I am. How good I am at work. I can control all those sorts of things. And when I was invited to race Kona I thought: I am going to do everything I can that I can control to do the best I can. I’ve always felt like I walked into my Ironman’s a little heavy. I’ve been a fat guy, so I understand that those last pounds are hard, and I’m also 6’4”, so I’m not a little person. But I’m lighter than I’ve ever been going into an Ironman, because that’s something that I can control and that will help me run a little better. My diet’s been better than it’s ever been. And my training has been smarter than it’s ever been. In the past, I followed training programs no matter how I felt. In 2011 I literally rode a century ride with a fever. So stuff like that, I’ve gotten much smarter at.
Honestly, I appreciate training in a way I’ve never appreciated it before. I’ve always looked at it as a means to an end, but my perspective now is that I’m really thankful I’m able to do it. One of my last long runs I did on trails in the mountains, because it was just so beautiful in Utah and it seemed like a really enjoyable thing to do. It was probably not the best training for running on the pavement in Kona, but it was super nice.
Triathlete.com: What symptoms or health challenges do you have to deal with?
KR: My doctor has been surprised that I’ve managed to have as few infections as I’ve had, training for Kona. But I feel fatigue in ways that I haven’t ever felt before, and I’m just trying to be really conscious of it. If I train a lot and then I’m fatigued, I have to ask myself: Am I fatigued because I trained a lot, or am I fatigued as a symptom of what’s wrong with me? And a lot of times I don’t know the answer. Then I have to ask myself: Do I push through it, or do I just take a day? Or do I maybe take two days? That’s been the hardest thing, because I’ve always been so Type A that I would never have taken that day off before. My wife has found me on the front porch more than once this year, dressed in my running gear, just sitting there thinking about whether I’m going to go for a run. And if I have to think about it that hard, it’s probably the wrong thing to do. One of the things I read very early on in Ironman training is that you’re always asking yourself: How do I feel? Can I go harder? I just have to ask myself that lots of times during the week, if not the day.
Triathlete.com: What has your doctors’ feedback been to your training and racing – and do they believe it may potentially impact the cancer or cancer symptoms?
KR: I had a consultation with a bone marrow doctor who’s an ultra-marathoner. I had a couple of my best friends and my wife in there, and I said to the doctor, “There are people in this room who are going to have very specific opinions about what I should do and what I shouldn’t do. I need you to tell them that it’s OK for me to exercise and to push myself a little bit.” She said, “You’re going to be at a disadvantage because your blood’s not functioning the way that other people’s blood is functioning. But you’re going to be able to do stuff. You can push yourself, but it’s a super fine line in terms of how hard. You’re going to have to be really conscious of pushing yourself without going over the edge, as opposed to where you were before when you were constantly pushing yourself over the edge.”
One of the lowest points since my diagnosis was when I met with one of the people at the bone marrow transplant center in consultation. I was asking about all the exercise I was doing and whether or not I was helping myself – because you want to think that what you’re doing is the most beneficial possible thing for you. The doctor looked at me and said, “The disease is going to do what it’s going to do. It has nothing to do with what you’re doing to your body. But if it makes you feel better then you should continue to do it.” I kind of choose not to believe that! Because I want to believe that I can kind of control my circumstance, at least to some extent, based on how I am mentally and how fit I can keep myself physically.
You know how when you’re young and you think that you’re invincible and you think that nothing that you do to your body is going to ever catch up with you? That’s how I think training for an Ironman makes you feel. But in the back of my mind I know that something’s brewing. I’m just keeping it at bay. And that’s OK; I’m not necessarily even upset about it. It’s just something that’s there that I’ve got to deal with.
Triathlete.com: What are you most looking forward to about the race in Kona?
KR: I’m looking forward to the start. I watched the race in 2007, and I can’t wait to be in the spectacle that is the start. I can’t wait to swim in the ocean and see the yellow and blue fish swimming underneath me. Before the race I can’t wait to swim out to the catamaran and get an espresso! I’m looking forward to the entire experience. And I’m not delusional. I know there are going to be times that are going to be hard and that won’t feel good, but I’m really looking forward to the whole thing.
I’m trying to tell myself that it’s OK to be passed by whoever passes me and I don’t have to try to chase them. It’s hard for me – I’m like a dog chasing cars and I would like to chase the cars, but it’s not the right decision for me. The conditions in Kona are such a wild card that I’m doing my best not to have any expectations, but here’s what I would like: by the time I hit the run, to feel like I can run. That would be super nice and that’s what I’m expecting, but we’ll see how that goes.
Triathlete.com: What are you most nervous about?
KR: I’m nervous about the swim. Not about whether or not I can do it, but I’m nervous about cramping. I tend to cramp in the water. My doctor tells me that I’m probably at increased risk for dehydration, so I’m concerned from that standpoint. But I honestly think I’ve done everything I could do to get ready. It’s certainly not what the elites have done or what the pros have done, but everybody has their own limits. And part of this is figuring out what mine are.
Triathlete.com: Ultimately, we all have a finite amount of time to live and make an impact in the world. However, I imagine that when you receive a diagnosis such as yours, what that impact will be is front and center in your thoughts. What message do you hope that what you’re doing delivers?
KR: One of the great things – and that’s a weird thing to say – but one of the great things about being diagnosed is the people that you meet. I’ve made friends with a guy named John who is an ultra-marathoner and who was diagnosed with cancer right about the same time as me. Five days before he went into the hospital for a stem cell transplant, we were running trails together. And he had been in chemo for five months! His doctors were in shock that he was able to do it. I think so much of it is mental. He and I have often talked about who would be better prepared for a challenge than somebody who has intentionally put their body through challenging situations. An Ironman is honestly like a life. You have a beginning, you have rough patches – and from my understanding it’s not just me who has rough patches! And really, it’s just a matter of how you address the rough patches. Everybody has those kind of moments in Ironman and in life, and you just have to deal with them.
I’ve told John it’s like this: for you, you can see the train and you just know you’ve got to get off the railroad tracks. For me, I have to put my head down on the railroad tracks and I can hear the train coming. I don’t know how far away it is. I know I’m eventually going to have to get out of the way, but I don’t know when that is. So I just want to be seen as living my life to the fullest and getting the most out of what I have. For me, that means being positive and knowing that I’ve given it everything I’ve got. And I’m doing my best to do that.