Article below is written by Pam Kragen of the Union Tribune and can be found on their website.
by Pam Kragen
Nine months ago, Mike Levine started training for the 2017 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, but on Oct. 14, he fell short of crossing the finish line.
That might be the end of the story for many triathletes who fail to complete one of the world’s toughest one-day competitions. But just getting to the starting line of the grueling event was a true miracle for the 68-year-old Carlsbad retiree.
Levine is the first stage 4 cancer patient on chemotherapy to attempt the Ironman World Championship. A year ago, Levine’s wife, Jan, was making plans to move him into hospice care. Then in January, a chance encounter with a stranger — 1982 Ironman World Champion Kathleen McCartney of La Jolla — put him not only on the road to better health, but to Kona.
When McCartney, 58, met Levine nine months ago, he was a dying man. But then they took a painfully slow bike ride together and she saw something spark in his eyes. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Levine ran two Ironmans and more than 100 triathlons and marathons, but he stopped competing decades ago and admits he had spent most of the previous year “on my couch waiting to die.”
Within weeks of their first meeting, the duo grew as close as siblings and they dreamed up an audacious plan — train full time all year for the Ironman World and cross the finish line together this month.
Things started well. The duo easily completed the opening 2.4-mile swim, emerging from the water hand in hand, and they finished nearly half of the 112-mile biking portion.
But the extreme heat and humidity and the latent effects of Levine’s chemotherapy sapped his strength. Fearing he would black out, tumble over the handlebars and break his neck, Levine made the agonizing decision to withdraw at the 53-mile mark. McCartney, a 12-time Ironman competitor, refused to continue on without him.
“We started this journey together and we were going to end it together,” McCartney said on Wednesday. “Once we made the decision that it wasn’t safe to go on, there were no feeling of sadness or shame or disappointment. We’d made it to Kona, after all … and we’re going to go back there someday and cross that finish line.”
That’s an equally audacious plan. Pancreatic cancer is one of the most deadly cancers. Because symptoms aren’t usually noticed until the end-stage of the disease, 90 percent of those diagnosed are dead in three to 12 months. Five percent live two years and the rest are usually gone by year three. Levine has been battling the disease for 2-½ years.
“It’s very difficult to describe when you’re staring at your own mortality,” he said. “I don’t know when this will turn south for me, but I’ve decided my anger against cancer is not going to dictate my life.”
Levine’s oncologist is Dr. Paul Fanta at UCSD Moores Cancer Center, who flew to Kona to watch the race. He told Levine the race-training regimen strengthened his immune system, which has worked in concert with the twice-monthly chemotherapy treatments to hold his cancer at bay. The disease is incurable; for now, it’s in check.
The pair’s inspirational story made Levine and McCartney media darlings this month. Alaska Airlines, where Jan works as a flight attendant, paid for their flights and hosted a party at their departure gate. And after they arrived in Kona on Oct. 7, they had one or two press or speaking events every day. One morning, they were interviewed on the radio show of Bob Babbitt, the San Diego triathlete who co-founded Competitor Magazine and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Babbitt — who has known both Levine and McCartney for years — said that few people besides Ironman competitors know how steep the deck was stacked against Levine. Even the youngest, healthiest and best-trained athletes in the world can end up walking, or crawling, during the final 26.2-mile marathon portion of the event.
It was Babbitt who Jan Levine turned to last November to lift her husband’s spirits by organizing a gathering of fellow triathletes — McCartney was an invitee — for a “going away” party.
“Jan was going to put Mike in hospice so this party was for Mike going away to die,” Babbitt said on Wednesday. “So watching the whole progression of Kathleen reaching out, their workouts together, his health going in the right direction, and then to be there with them in Kona — that was an amazing journey.”
At a post-race competitors banquet on Oct. 15, Babbitt stunned Levine and McCartney by honoring them with a slide presentation that brought the audience of 5,000 to its feet.
“The fact that they got as far as they got is a victory,” Babbitt said. “So many people were coming up to them afterward saying how they’d been motivated by their story. They’re inspiring people well beyond the tiny realm of triathlon.”
Their story will soon go global, thanks to NBC Sports. The network’s cameras followed the duo around Kona and throughout the race. They’ll be featured on the network’s Ironman broadcast at 11:30 a.m. Dec. 9. The duo is planning a viewing party.
While training and competing was their routine, Levine and McCartney have always had another end goal in sight — to raise awareness and money for a pancreatic cancer cure. That’s a journey they’ll continue together in the years to come.
On Saturday, they were the featured speakers at a fundraising race at UCLA for the Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research. And since September, Levine said he’s been getting calls every day from fellow cancer patients and their family members seeking some inspiring words.
One of them is a San Diego man in his 50s who was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer four months ago. The man was waiting on the sidelines to cheer Levine on in the town of Hawi, just two miles beyond where Levine was forced to pull out of the race. His eyes fill with tears when he talks about the heartbreak of letting the man down.
When people call, Levine said he gives them all the same message — he isn’t giving up. He hopes to live long enough for a cure and intends to finish at Ironman one day. His 2018 goal is to do some sprint races this winter, finish a couple of half-Ironmans next spring and then hopefully he and McCartney will get another special invite to Kona next fall.
Over the past year, Levine and McCartney have trained together four to five days a week. But McCartney is starting a new media relations job at Tri-City Medical Center, so they’re planning to limit their training to weekends and will race apart. That doesn’t mean they’re growing apart.
“We are family forever,” she said. “I will do anything to keep him living the most happy, healthy, positive life to share with his wife, Jan. For us, this is only the starting line.”