Shared article is written by Pam Kragen. Written and posted for the Union Tribune. Read original article here: READ ME
Since 1982, the Ironman World Competition has been a touchstone in the lives of Mike Levine and Kathleen McCartney.
That was the year they both finished their first Ironman races in Hawaii and, since then, they’ve each found that training for Ironman has helped them work through devastating health crises.
Yet, until eight months ago, the two lifelong athletes had never met. That’s when McCartney, 58, heard that a fellow member of San Diego’s triathlon community, 68-year-old Levine, was battling stage 4 pancreatic cancer.
To lift what she assumed was a dying man’s spirits, she asked Levine if he’d like to go for a bike ride.
“The word on the streets was that he was on his last legs, but when we started riding together I saw there was a little spark in him and slowly he started coming to life again,” said McCartney, a La Jolla resident.
Since that day in January, she and Levine, who lives in Carlsbad, have become family. Not only do they train together four to five days a week, but McCartney also meets Levine and his wife, Jan, at every one of his doctor and chemotherapy appointments.
And now, thanks to a special dispensation from Ironman race officials, the duo will race together side by side next month at the 2017 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
It won’t be easy, but Levine is determined to finish the grueling triathlon with McCartney by his side.
“She breathed life back into me,” he said, through tears, of the woman he calls his “kid sister.” “She is an astounding person who brought me back after I spent a year on the couch feeling sorry for myself and waiting to die. Without her and my wife, Jan, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Full circle moment
On Oct. 9, Levine will mark the 35th anniversary of his first Ironman race in Kona. He was inspired to enter the race that fall after watching the famous finish of the Ironman race earlier that year.
That’s when McCartney ran past front-runner Julie Moss and, to her astonishment, claimed the world championship. In a moment famously captured on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” Moss collapsed just yards from the finish line and crawled the rest of the way on her hands and knees.
Watching the race on TV, Levine was inspired to test his own limits and enter the competition, among the world’s toughest triathlons, encompassing a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon, typically in extreme humidity and 90-degree heat.
Levine completed Ironmans in 1982 and 1983, then took a break to get married in 1984. When that marriage ended in divorce six years later, he threw himself back into running “because I wanted something to rejuvenate my spirit and feel strong again.”
Over the next six years, he ran nearly 100 triathlons and marathons and became a 1994 Tri-Fed USA All American. Then he met the love of his life, Jan, and gave up racing for good in 1996.
Meanwhile, McCartney continued competing in the Ironman World Championships until 1988, when she took a 15-year hiatus to marry and raise four children.
In 2003, she and her now-friend and training partner Julie Moss returned to Ironman together to mark the 25th anniversary of their first race. Then in 2007, McCartney suffered a ruptured herniated disc in her back that caused debilitating pain and the fear that she’d never run again.
Successful surgery healed her back, but in 2010 she went through a devastating divorce and calls those years the lowest point of her life. Like Levine, she found solace in sports.
“I needed to find my strength again and show my kids I could do anything, that I was the strong woman that I knew I had inside me,” she said.
With Moss again by her side, she finished the 2012 Ironman and ran every step of the way. This October’s race will be McCartney’s 12th Ironman and her 11th world championship.
‘Anything is possible’
The Ironman World Championship is a test for even the most elite athletes. So consider the challenge facing Levine, who will be the first-ever stage 4 cancer patient on chemotherapy to attempt it.
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, a retired aerospace aluminum salesman, spotted his cancer at an early stage because the position of the tumor discolored his urine, leading to a diagnosis on July 1, 2015.
Three weeks later, he underwent an eight-hour Whipple procedure, where surgeons removed six organs and 25 lymph nodes, of which 13 were found to be cancerous. After six months of intensive but unsuccessful chemotherapy, he learned the cancer had spread to both lungs.
Levine was putting his final affairs in order when he met Dr. Paul Fanta at UCSD Moores Cancer Center in May 2016. Fanta used molecular research to tailor a treatment for Levine and within eight weeks his lungs were cancer-free.
Nonetheless, complications from the Whipple surgery, the wasting effects of the treatment and the knowledge that he was living on borrowed time had turned Levine into a shell of his former self.
To buck up his spirits last December, Jan and their friend Bob Babbitt, who is co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, arranged a get-together of triathlete friends.
McCartney couldn’t attend the party that day so instead she called and asked Levine to go on that fateful bike ride. Before long, Levine said, “I could feel the strength flowing back into my body again.”
Now in the final stages of training, the duo each week cycle about 200 miles, swim about six miles and run or walk 25 to 30 miles together. To keep him in top form when Jan is traveling for work (she’s a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines), McCartney cooks and delivers all of Levine’s meals.
He’s realistic about the challenge ahead of him on Oct. 18. Chemotherapy treatments cause his bones to ache and fluid to build up in his joints. Flu-like symptoms are an everyday thing. But the Ironman mantra is “Anything is Possible,” so he recites that regularly to make the road ahead seem less steep.
In the letter he wrote last spring to Ironman officials requesting special entry consideration, he laid bare the fact that he knows he’s dying but he wants to go out on top.
“I’m not looking for redemption,” he wrote. “I’m looking for the Ironman to help me close the door gracefully, but with passion, on a wonderful life.”
McCartney said that after the race, she and Levine will turn their attention toward advocacy to raise money for research of pancreatic cancer, which by 2020 will be the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in America.
“We want people to know that when you have hope you can do anything,” she said. “The finish line for us is just the beginning.”