Wednesday, June 22, 2016

So your biopsy is positive for cancer....

June 7th, 2016: "So your biopsy has come back as cancer..."  That is what I heard sitting in the Vancouver airport waiting for my flight home to Penticton as we wound down a vacation.

On May 26th at 11:30am I had a quick and dirty lip surgery in our local ENTs clinic to remove scar tissue in my lip. Both my family doctor and the ENT specialist quoted "I have no idea what that is so lets cut it off". So I was on the doctor bed for about 30 minutes, received a topical freezing like going to the dentist, smelled some burning flesh to cauterize my lip and I left with 6 stitches in my lip just in time for my vacation home to Dundas and Toronto.  While on vacation I did research and listened to my RN Mother-in-law and GP sister for all things about Squamous Cell Carcinoma. 94% of the time this cancer stays localized and is cured by removing the tumour. It is caused by excessive exposure to sun, smoking and alcohol. I was batting 66%.

"That's a big word doc" I said holding Meredith's hand in the airport, "what now?"

"I will see you in about 10 days and we do surgery to remove the tumour. Its not an aggressive cancer. I will have my secretary call you" and with that he hung up as I sat there. My next action I regret. I got up, and walked. I left my wingman sitting there. Probably more petrified than I was. I called my sister. We chatted. She gave me confidence. Joanne had that mix of big sis tone and professional calm only a Dr. can display.

I took a deep breath and head hung low walked back to Meredith. I can't believe I left her there. I sat down and told her I called Joanne and we should be ok. But it's cancer. That is all I heard. That is all she heard. I have cancer.  And all I could think about was that 6%.

If I look back I have been in the sun training and racing for 20 years. And rarely if ever did I wear SPF/UVA lip balm. I used sun screen religiously on my face, arms, and neck; rarely on my legs and just never on my lips. I have had a lifetime of cold sores. What I was hearing made perfect logical scary sense. I am a red headed Welsh-Canadian who burns easy. Of course if anything I would effectively get it is LIP CANCER. I sat up a few nights just thinking. My runs and rides I did that week were 100% every minute of every km burning and thinking about 6% as the odds that anyone who has ever heard the word cancer would want. 6% is gold betting money in the cancer game and that is what I have to play with. Take it. Run with it. Feel good about it.

I was petrified. Meredith stood her ground.

I told my team at work. They were great. I told my boss. He was and is amazing. I shared with close friends back in Ontario and select peers at work too.

And I talked with my sister again and of course my dad. Both are solids.

Everyone around me were great. But I couldn't help but think everything, I mean everything, has changed.

Perspective. Outlook. What matters. What do I want to do? Where do I want to live? Who do I want to be around? What do I want to accomplish? What legacy do I want to leave? Crazy these are the thoughts that rumble endlessly despite my 94% odds. It still circles and permeates and seeps into every ounce of me irregardless of my inner voice fighting the drama of it all. On one hand were all these life changing thoughts and on the other was a quick surgery and life is all back to normal.

On June 16th we booked the surgery at the Penticton hospital for the 21st. I will have my choice of anaesthesia and my ENT Dr. will remove the tumour and quote "99% of the time we are done there". So far I like what I have heard. We have dropped from 6 to 1%. But then I heard, "It will be more evasive than the first time. We will talk more at the hospital"

More evasive? The first 6 stitcher was bloody awful! Now I am petrified not of cancer, of surgery!

June 21st my beautiful and super domestique wife takes and waits with me at the Penticton hospital. The staff right from the welcoming team, to the floor nurse, to the Anasthesiologist and the two nurses in the surgery room and of course, my ENT were top class. I felt really and truly cared for. More than a professional way; in a personal "are you ok what can we do to make you ok" kind of way. It was top class.

I thought of my favourite music and chose to be put under. As the mask went on I was playing Grateful Dead's Help on the Way in my head which starts; "Paradise waits on a crest of a wave..."  As I awoke 90 minutes later I was hearing the song end "without love in a dream it will never come true..."

Quietly coming to grasp with where I was I heard, "his heart rate is really low....." as the machine beep, beep, beeps...."well his resting was 40...."

I turned to the machine and saw my HR. New PB....29! Then said, "then unplug it! Its bloody awful"

2 added drips of morphine. 2 Percocet and a bag of ice on my lip the pain began to subside. It was clearly more evasive than the first surgery. This hurt. A LOT.

As I was discharged and feeling very high Meredith drove up. I was put in the car. Then THIS happened....

A green hatch back car came screaming into the parking lot and nearly took out a pedestrian. She barely stopped the car before head on into us. Being so high everything was playing in slow motion. I could clearly see the sheer look of terror in her face and the passenger slumped over onto her shoulder. My immediate reaction was to get out and help as she ran into the hospital. Meredith was already in drive moving around the car. She had a job to do. That job was ME! I looked into the car and he was dead. Or as close to dead as I ever want to see. Blue in color. Froth in his mouth. Eyes wide open staring fixed ahead. Horrifying. Disturbing. Big-time Perspective.

I wanted to write my marathon race report. Instead I have written an experience about cancer because I want YOU TO LEARN A LESSON FROM ME. Wear SPF/UVA LIP BALM and leave a stick in your cycling jersey. Always. Don't be half assed about this. This is not a fun experience. Trust me.

As for the marathon. Here I am day after race with Meredith. The bump visible that they "cut off" my lip. I had a PB by 15 seconds but the whole race felt awful. I was off all day. Now I guess I know why!

May 2nd after the Vancouver Marathon which frankly didn't go well. I felt drained, tired, and mentally not on Que. The scar is apparent in this photo before the biopsy. I suppose I now know why I had a cold sore and eye sty the week before the race. Body was drained. 

Here I am day after the 2nd surgery with 10 stitches.

June 22. A 10 stitcher. 
My next photo I trust will be CANCER FREE.

Rhys 1. Cancer 0. Another podium in this race we call life. #FUQCANCER

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Of Age and Injury and my return to Ironman along the green green grass of home...

Friends and family,

In the background much like training for sport and following the process I do write. I let words flow, read them and often delete them because the process of writing is a form of therapy. Joke being, much like training, it keeps the crazy away of too many thoughts! Much like training is a process to racing, sometimes writing is a process in private to brings words to page in public. I can't think of a better opportunity to kick start blogging again then a race report from my favourite spot on earth; WALES.

And I have had at least two friends ask for the return of my blog and two is a trend so here it goes.

Why is Wales my favourite place on earth?

  1. Family: it is where nearly all my aunties, uncles and cousins live. Being first generation Canadian gives the gift of two home countries and what beauties the two are! 
  2. God's country: The welsh are a proud bunch and they say their homeland is god's country. The west coast Pembrokeshire coastline really gives one pause to believe this is true.
  3. Hard honest terrain and people: there is no hiding in Wales.
So why is Wales said to be God's country? Exhibit A along the Pembrokeshire coast

Mid week hike along the coast line
Spectacular views along the coast
A view from our luncheon one day. Bike course went right past this.  
literally this is called "Angel's Gate". I agree. 
Exhibit B: Tenby the home of Ironman Wales and voted the best beach areas in Europe!

low tide. The sands is where the swim is!
a view from the cottages on shore
Swim start at mid tide and calm seas. Not what we had race day!

hotels and homes overlooking south beach 
When race first came to Tenby in 2011 Ironman Wales swim was to be here but tides made it impossible moving it to north beach per photos above

Tenby High Street. Part of the run race day for 4 loops. They close this road everyday from 11:30 to 5:30 as pedestrian only. 

Town hub - the Five Arches. Run course goes through these. 
Side street which run course takes on. picture running this with 5 deep either side and many on their 12 pint! 
Wales certainly is a stunning place and a very proud country. With history and landscapes and vistas its easy to see why. Simply stunning.

Context to my limited Ironman racing; 3 in the past 7 years whereas I did 10 in the previous 7! 

I was honestly quite content with my long distance racing wears in 2008. I came back in 2011 to do Hawaii and had a great experience but an incredibly painful day. Something wasn't right and I wasn't getting younger. I then did IMC in 2012 and the same pain was happening. It was debilitating and really untenable to race with. It was disappointing because IMC in 2012 was the high point of my fitness. I was ready for a great day. Mentally and physically. I still managed a good day with 10:38 but the day should have been more a celebration of fitness and not a test of resilience. Hockey hernia surgery followed as an output from a bad bike racing crash that made me more a pretzel than a human at the time.  In the summer of 2013 I moved to Penticton and jumped in last minute to do the inaugural Challenge event in my new hometown. With really no training the day was a sufferfest and I was done. No more. Good bye. 

Then someone sent me a video of the start to Ironman Wales with the athletes on the beach and the anthem a recording from the Arms Park rugby grounds. I was registered within 10 minutes. To be in the welsh national rugby stadium and hearing that is something. It is every welsh kids dream to hear it as a player on the pitch. My mind defaulted I am a triathlete and I can hear the anthem as an athlete "in the park"?? SOLD. As dad said when I told him I was coming to race, "the anthem got you didn't it!" 

I did however promise myself no obsession. No 'relentless pursuit of...' as SQW would say. This was a balanced life approach. Of age and injury life in the Okanagan is hard to resist. It is a training paradise yes. It is also a wine and foodie paradise and I have great tastes for both. This was to be a celebration of a lifestyle not pursuit of winning something in my head or trophy on a mantle. It was simply a process of loving sport and a balanced lifestyle. 

 Swim: 1:04 for 8th in 40-44 age group.

Suffice to say the calm water pictures above were not the waters on race day. The organizers wisely moved the race to a rolling start self seeded by one's predicted swim time. This made the swim much safer for everybody than the former mass start free for all. After the anthem and the hoopla the gun went and we were in the ocean. Cold yes, but warmer than I was fearing for weeks! Once past the first few waves I settled into a groove...then the next wave hit. Then the next. And again. And again. My immediate reaction was if this is THIS HARD for front of the race what is happening at the back end swimmer? And this is a two loop swim! Insane! Waves were 5 feet and my goggles continued to be banged off my head by my own arms. I stopped at least a dozen times to empty my goggles and try to find the next buoy. I felt I was swimming pretty good but one minute I was in a pack then after a wave I was 10 feet away from them. Truly the first time I can say a swim was EPIC! 

Out of the water we run the ramp and grab shoes of a hook and run the KM to transition for the bike. I was very impressed the organizers had bottled waters so we can chug away the salt from our throats. Great attention to detail by the organizing team. As were the numbered hooks to put our shoe bag on. As were the very clear instructions littering is a DQ...take that shoe bag with you to transition! 

salt. burns. throat. WATER! 
Along the way to transition a Canadian Flag to my left is spotted and the family and friends cheer. A stop for a kiss with Meredith and a subsequent rousing Welsh ovation from the crowd around us, and off the T1 to get "dressed". 

Bike 5:51 split for 15th in age group and my longest split of any Ironman I've ever done! 

2 days before the race I did some more bike reconnaissance and found a wonderful little church in the village of Hodgsen. I asked for my bike to be blessed. Not a religious man but there is something about these little village churches with thousands of years of history that gives me pause. 

May thee have no puncture nor crash and ride free, true and fast!

This bike course is hard. According to my Training Peaks file it has 2508 meters (8,226 feet) of climbing across climbs no longer than a few KMs. Simply put we go up, then down, turn, than back up and repeat A LOT. I found it an enjoyable experience to remain calm and collective, on plan to the task at hand. Each 30 minutes I would set a lap timer on the bike computer and take a GU gel. Each half hour I geared towards an average watts of 225 or, about 70% of my threshold on the bike and over the course of the hour I would sip on a bottle Scratch Labs electrolyte and a bit of water.

The 70% threshold is the Ironman bike pace sweet spot. Stay in this zone and one is set up nicely for a great run. Where the roads turn flat or gently rolling really get aero to cut the wind. And on the climbs ride no higher than 300 watts. I measured myself and checked my ego at the door. As the Germans and Swiss riders came flying past and really pushed the hills I remained calm and stayed the course. A few of those riders came back at about 150kms into the ride but chapeau to the top 10 because they stuck it out and pulled off solid runs.

The roads were spectacular. Quite a few miles along traditional Welsh single lane roads through the farmlands. These roads were technical and where I gained a tonne of time riding. Many of the climbers were relaxing through here ramping up their power on the hills to only give time back on the  technical aero sections.  

The villages on route supported this race! Thousands road side village by village cheering and drinking! Particularly Pembroke, Narbeth, and Saundersfoot. Both these towns reflected the true spirit of embracing a great event showcasing their lands. Literally thousands in Narbeth lined the climb up and through town. Descending out of Narbeth brings us riding into Saundersfoot. To get there we hit a climb that has a sign ominously stating 16%. It is this hill that I changed my gearing from the standard gears I ride at Ironman of 53/39 - 12/27 to 52/36 - 11/28. I used every gear of the 36/28 as we hit this climb twice. 

Of particular motivation was riding this climb the 2nd time up when World Time Trial Champion; Commonwealth Time Trial and road race silver medalist; Beijing Olympic Time Trial Silver medalist; and World Duathlon Champion Emma Pooley rides past me. Those are a lot of titles and believe me, her ability to ride a bike was crystal clear. Pure poetry on a bike. Of note was how graceful she was to chat with us hacks after the race when bumped into her along the Tenby sidewalk. Her 5th place at Ironman Wales was a great a week after winning World Duathlon's and getting 3rd at Ironman France in June.  Emma's inspiration took my through Saundersfoot and up the legendary climb that are lined chalk a block with fans. Single file riding only with 6s and 7s to either side this was a deafening, exhilarating feeling only pro cyclists at the Tour de France get! Amazing fans! 

Along the route doing my best to live in the moment I felt something go in my quad just above and on the inside of my left knee. It would come and go but felt better being aero and moving. It wasn't until the 2nd loop descent before we turn and climb up to Narbeth that something went completely sideways. After a few minutes descending and not turning my legs the muscles seized up. Upon trying to spin again the pain was intense. If you look back to my bike ride file laps 10 and 11 form the time this was happening. Power is clearly down and I was in a very dark place if I can even ride never mind run! Ironman being about problem solving I spun my legs on the descents without any pressure on the pedals to keep the leg moving and simply hoped "it would come around..." By the time Emma flew by I was back in a good state. And by the time into Tenby for the transition to run I forgot all about it. 

Run: 4:05 for 31st in age group

training peaks run file here

The run is much like the bike; more hills! Back my run. That was my plan. And for the first 15km's everything was going incredibly well. Then on the 2nd lap descent back to Tenby I  was being a little over zealous and not thinking about my run form and suddenly my right side Soas issues emerged. Everything locks up and the abdominal side up to my diaphragm cramps. Happened the last few km's at the Ottawa and Vancouver marathon as well. When my form tails off this is what happens. 

Of age and injury...this is what my body is capable of.... 

My run is in three phases. Good. Mid. And Bad Form.

Good form:

coming into town after lap 1 right on target! 
Mid form:

Lap 2 starting to have Soas lock up
Bad form:

last lap and no go!
I loved this course despite it essentially mimicking the bike course. As in up, up then down, down. The course was 4 laps with 4km's out of town uphill; turnaround 4km's downhill then the real fun in the town of Tenby proper. Zig zagging the streets the crowds are incredible. Thousands in town enjoying their pints of beer and cheering every runner. It was incredible.  And each lap getting drunker and drunker!! Louder and louder!! 

Onto to my last lap my mind was coming around to a positive purgatory. Lap 3 was hell but lap 4 was my self titled victory lap. Leaving Tenby and heading up the hill I heard fans cheering a very special welsh rugby legend. I had heard Wales greatest try scorer was racing and I could hear the cheers coming up from behind on my last lap. Sure enough it was indeed Shane Williams coming up. You have to understand, Shane is to Wales what Wayne is to Canada. He is THAT BIG A STAR. So here I am running with an absolute legend on the same turf as equals. But then it got a bit annoying! "Go on Shane!" "Well done Shane!" "Atta boyo Shane Williams!" Every single fan...remember thousands of them!! So I turned after a few KMs and said, "I bet you wished you had some ear plugs..." reply, "aye this is f-k-n killing me!" Shane went onto finish then tweet the next day: "anyone else feel like they drank 30 pints and got hit by a truck!" Yep, that sums up the day after and Ironman quite succinctly I'd say!

Finish: 11:22 for 31st in age group - Still a Canadian by blood and heart. TRUE NORTH STRONG. 

Some sport moments stand still. 

And finally this......

then this...

Dad and I. The greatest I could ask for. 


Ironman Wales there is no comparison. I've been racing for 15 years and this race; its culture and community and course is like no other. It is unparalleled. Without peer.

How do we get to where we go? 

Yvonne and Ian joined us from Toronto before their World Cup of Rugby visit!! YEAH!

what can I say; she's my rock!

and the two of them put up with my ADD all week! 
And key supporters:

ZOOT SPORTS for killer shoes and kit all year! 
PENTICTON's BIKE BARN for truly blessing my bike! 
Jonathon Caron's swim group. Amazing group that get the work done! 
Nigel Gray and the NRGPT coach team for listening when I needed him to. It doesn't take much to set a person on a great path.