Nearly two weeks before I compete in Ironman Texas—before I strain my chest swimming in a man-made lake, before I ratchet my legs down a highway never meant for cyclists, and before my hamstring nearly seizes and ruptures along The Woodlands’ urban trails—I’m sitting in a Dallas doctor’s office in the fall of 2021 being told I have cancer. The surgeon, who I’ve just met, thinks removing my left testicle, what’s called an orchiectomy, might circumvent the need for chemotherapy. He wants to perform the procedure in the next few days. As I sit there listening to him, I’m not concerned about chemotherapy or even survival; I’m obsessed with participating in the race, pushing the limits of the body I’ve built. At 36, I’m at once the healthiest and the sickest I’ve ever been, some bizarre paradox of equilibrium. If each of us reaches a zenith in life, a moment where the scales of growth teeter-totter toward physical decline, I’ve reached it. It’s all downhill from here.
I ask the surgeon if the cancer will spread, assuming I delay the surgery until after the race. “It might spread or it might not,” he says. “I can’t tell you that.” A pause. “I don’t understand. Why do an Ironman?”
An Ironman is an intensive triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a standard 26.2-mile marathon at the end. If you drove that distance in a car, you could get from Dallas to either Temple or Longview, or, if you were so inclined, you could probably make it deep into Oklahoma with the check engine light on. The fastest competitors in the world can complete the 140.6 miles in seven or eight hours, but the average amateur finishes in a cool 12 to 13. The race pushes the limits of human endurance and the speed at which flesh and bone can cover those miles. It really shines late at night as the last competitors cross the finish line, dragging their exhausted legs across the iconic red and black carpet, music blaring from the loudspeakers. Defined as a “personal challenge as opposed to a competition” in its founding documents, Ironman has grown into a megacorporate series of races held around the world. But even with its explosive growth, each event is still a testament to not only what the body can do, but how the average person can evolve. The race, it believes, is about you. Can you, it asks, conquer me?
That morning in my wet suit, I look out over Lake Woodlands—the fog lifting off the water, the lifeguards slowly drifting around in their kayaks, reminiscent of calf ropers waiting for the chute to open. The crowd is sparse. Most people are waiting for us afterward, near the transition area, where they cheer us on and congratulate us on a grueling swim. I think back to when I started jogging before my first triathlon, how my initial desire was nothing more than an effort to rid me of a physically wasted 20s. I asked myself, “Why not me? Why not this body?”
The first race I competed in was a sprint triathlon—a few laps in an indoor pool, a 12-mile ride down a rural backroad, and a 5K that ended in the middle of an empty high school football stadium. Despite no spectators, I felt invincible at the end. Still, it wasn’t enough. I needed to swim more, bike more, run more. As I progressed, the sprint triathlon itself barely qualified as a training warmup for me. I went from thinking my own breath might suffocate me to craving a limit farther and farther down the road. One day I looked down at my legs and noticed they were carving themselves into deep ravines and valleys just above the knees. I hadn’t known disciplined pain before Ironman trainings. I hadn’t known what my body was capable of transforming into.
As the gun goes off at Lake Woodlands, over 800 of us bunch forward and quickly wade into the water, some people diving into a swim pace that’s far too fast for most of us. The water is cold, and my limbs struggle to free themselves from the mass of bodies and slapping water. It’s a strange sight, I’m sure, the lot of us entering this watery melee at once, as if fleeing something terrible on land.
I get emails from my insurance company telling me I’ve “been enrolled in a Care Journey.” It strikes me as odd that they’re calling it a “journey”—I’m not exactly going anywhere. After the race, I go through the journey of having a testicle pulled out through my abdomen, and weeks later I’ll head from my house to the chemo center after my cancer has spread. But outside of that, my Care Journey is one of medical history, from slice-happy surgeons to World War I mustard gas being reformulated and injected into my veins. The journey is one of time travel and sleight of hand—I’ve moved from the conveyor belt of destiny to the conveyor belt of science, and it takes me around the gates of death instead of through them.
A mile into the swim, I’m free and clear of the others, having survived a kick to the head and a mouthful of lake water. I channel my mantra: Don’t stop. Never stop. It has nothing to do with anything except it reminds me to drag my happy ass across the finish line, no matter what. I’ll be dead before I stop competing in this race, and that attitude has enabled me to turn in the countless hours of daily training over two years. It’s monk-like, this regimen. I eat oatmeal and trudge off to swim in the same overchlorinated pool. I eat protein, usually some nuts, then lace up my shoes to run on the same treadmill at the Y. If I’ve done a good job, I’ll eat a protein shake that’s been sweetened—this indulgence, I allow. And before my ride, I’ll eat more oatmeal, this time with fruit, then mount the stationary bike I’ve set up in my small apartment. When The Chainsmokers or Marshmello or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hit my headphones, I crush a couple of GU Energy Gels, preferably strawberry banana flavor, and then torque my legs to oblivion. I eat a mountain of salmon and veggies before bed, and in the morning, I start the process all over again. I’ve trained over 10,000 miles prior to this race, which means I could have walked around the Texas perimeter nearly two-and-a-half times. I could have driven to Vancouver, British Columbia, and back—twice. But a great deal of this training has been indoors. And God only knows how much oatmeal I’ve eaten.
As I pass a gigantic, orange, triangular-shaped buoy, I roll my body through the swim stroke, literally pulling my chest out of the water, dolphin-like, so I can see the turn. But it’s hard to spot. With windmill arms churning the surface and people drifting off course, I can’t locate where the buoys are headed, where the race leads.
The oncologist has a large bald head and wears an N95 mask that’s so tight it must leave crease marks on his face overnight. He carries the overconfidence of a well-endowed man, and while I know it’s meant to be encouraging, his references to Lance Armstrong and Scott Hamilton fall by the wayside—I certainly can’t cycle or skate my way to the health I need. But just a year after my race and not even 10 months after I finish chemo, a friend’s friend receives his own diagnosis. He reaches out to hear about my experience, and I offer the same kind of encouragement. I text him: “It’s something to accomplish. Something to endure.” But “accomplish” is the wrong word, as it implies a choice of effort, and we, as patients, do not accomplish our cures. We do not rush into the flames as firemen do; we wake up surrounded by them, enduring the heat, quietly witnessing our own imminent deaths, hoping someone will break down the door. “To endure,” though, is accurate, though suboptimal.
Triathlon transition areas are fenced-in rows of multicolored madness—a sea of Space Age-looking bicycles, people ripping off their wet suits and eating bananas in two bites. Contestants sprint here after the swim to grab their bikes, and later they coast in and hop off to grab their running shoes. For those trying to win the race, the transition area can be a make-or-break. It’s where precious seconds are won or lost—a wet suit stuck around an ankle, a forgotten gel pack that might desperately be needed on mile 17 of the run. But it’s also where the rest of us take a breath and congratulate each other for finishing a leg of the race. Everyone here has just survived more than two miles of swimming. Some people sit down, have a snack, laugh to themselves. It’s also a place where friends and family can track you down, shout your name, lean over the fencing to give you a kiss. I spend 11-plus minutes here. The winner, wherever he is, only spends two.
My wheels hit the Hardy Toll Road and I feel rejuvenated. My legs are fresh, eager to crank out the miles and induce the burn. I remember that staying within myself is the most important thing. I need to relax and be a Boeing 747 instead of the Concorde, a slingshot instead of a bullet through a bore. My pace is fine. I know that from my watch, but I can feel it in my legs, my muscles now tuned with the sensitivity of a spiderweb. I’m rolling under 20 mph, I’m sure, but the average pro is traveling in the vicinity of 25. Occasionally, I pass a person. Occasionally, I’m passed by two people.
The Hardy Toll Road is good for racing—it’s smooth and relatively straight, with a few hilly elevations yet nothing insurmountable. The problem is its bleakness, how the wide expanse of concrete under my wheels becomes all I can see. On a triathlon bike, I’m pitched forward, forearms braced in a Superman position. Because of this—because of the way I’m tracking the segments of concrete just beyond my front wheel—I miss the lush green trees on both sides, the cartoon-like clouds in the Texas sky.
The race was originally scheduled for April, but the pandemic pushed it to the fall. It’s almost 90 degrees, which most of the competitors aren’t ready for. The hardest part is the quiet. Occasionally a train will run along the highway, or I’ll hear the shouts of volunteers as I approach a water station. But until I get onto the run course and hit the more populated areas around The Woodlands Waterway, I’m alone. This is where people quit. This is where they think about how much they hurt, how much they have undertrained or how they have consumed their fuel incorrectly or … whatever. If you sow the seeds of doubt early enough, they’ll bloom somewhere before the finish line. In various races, I’ve had my goggles fill with water, dropped water bottles, or vomited into my mouth. But these things don’t stop me. They’re simply the catalysts, the earworms of self-pity.
My grandfather had the same cancer I do, at about the same age, too. It spread through his body and the doctors “carved him up,” “butchered him,” as people in my family would say. He had a pneumonectomy—one of his lungs was removed—and eventually became addicted to morphine. These are the thoughts I have around mile 80 with an entire day’s worth of a training ride still ahead of me. If I were diagnosed with testicular cancer in the 1960s, I’d almost certainly be dead soon. A friend says he’ll pray for me. I ask whether he thinks people prayed for my grandfather.
I see two bicyclists rolling to a stop and an older man splayed out in the middle of the toll road, his bike on its side. I hear an ambulance in the distance. I briefly consider stopping, but I know there’s nothing a fourth cyclist will be able to do in this situation. I put my head down, think about mountain climbers who cut themselves loose of each other for survival, and say into the wind, “Don’t stop. Never stop.”
During chemo one day, I shed a few tears as the nurse tries to find the vein in my right arm for a third time. It doesn’t hurt so much as it breaks a dam loose in my brain. The man next to me asks what type of cancer I have, smiles, and nods. “I hope it gets better,” he says. When I ask about him, he tells me how his chemotherapy is permanent, how he will need it until it’s time to throw in the towel.
I’ve stopped running the marathon leg. Somewhere along a wooded backroad or on an urban park trail or before a multimillion-dollar house—I’m not sure—my hamstring feels like it will explode. I bend over to stretch it, hoping it will subside as I transition into a quick walk. By the time I hit Hippie Hollow, a bizarre stretch of music, streamers, and people pretending like they’re attending a street-corner Woodstock, I’m running again. My legs are doing what I’ve trained them to do—am forcing them to do—and this pattern will repeat itself through nightfall. “Good work,” a man says as he shuffles past me, no faster than a power walk. “You got it,” I say, revving back into a trot. We’re all, everyone, just trying to make it to the end.
Amid fanfare, I cross the finish line in a below-average 14 hours and 10 minutes, sometime before 10 p.m. The winner—who finishes in 8 hours and 52 minutes—could have showered, had a bite to eat, and driven to Dallas by then. In the coming months, I’ll lose my hair and be given a shot of white blood cells because my numbers get too low. I’ll discuss “tumor markers” the same way I discussed threshold runs and pool splits, as I watch my body start to wither and grow gaunt. I’ll bottom out somewhere after the New Year, find new affection for my TV and couch, and think of the Ironman nostalgically, the way certain generations talk about their wars.
As the months pass, I drive down Interstate 45 a few times with my partner en route to her family’s house in Houston. Each time we pass Exit 76, the offramp to The Woodlands, I notice the Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center to the right—medical centers, I now see, are everywhere. A year after the race, I’ll have just about recovered. In between hair growth and slow jogs when the weather’s nice, I’ll return to the doctor’s office to check my status. There, they’ll slide me into the CT machine once again, draw my blood, discuss my health in a language that’s still, even today, mostly foreign to me. The document with my medical results says it again and again—my liver; my kidneys; my abdominal wall; every important organ, each one potentially fatal when marred or missing, are “unremarkable.” Stripped of human understanding, pared back to nothing but the blunt language of optimums and objectives, science sees my body through its moral obligations. But my body, permanently changed and in a private state of purgatory that allows it to playfully collide with the world, will not always be unremarkable.
Why do an Ironman? Why spend our days dedicating time and effort to something we once thought impossible? Because we can. Because the body was meant to travel. And because one day science will deem each one of us remarkable in a way that we cannot escape from, and by then it will be too late.