In September 2012 I completed my longest triathlon to date, the Rev3 Cedar Point half ironman in Sandusky, Ohio. I started doing triathlons in the summer of 2011 after I spent the last 10 years completing 11 full marathons and 15 half marathons as well as races of all other distances. You can say I am addicted to competing despite the fact that I will never find myself atop the steps of a finishers podium. I also enjoy the pain involved with exerting myself beyond my capacity. In addition, there is the cathartic nature of training for hours on end with just your thoughts.
During the course of the half ironman, which consists of 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of cycling and then 13.1 miles of running, I had a lot of time to spend within my own head and simply "be." Mainly I tried to focus on keeping forward momentum. There are times in long endurance events when the destructive thoughts begin to filter through your brain, suggesting how truly pleasurable it would feel to simply take a seat and stop. As those thoughts taunted me, and often manifested themselves in my back while on the bike and my legs while on the run, my mind turned to one thought: my daughter never quit, neither will I. You see, my little girl Alexis spent more than half her life in a much different race; a race for survival. Diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor known as DIPG at just 27 months old, she spent the next 33 months traveling up and down the East Coast in one desperate attempt after another seeking a viable treatment, a magic silver bullet that tragically does not exist. In the end, she lost her heroic battle on January 14, 2011, just two weeks shy of her fifth birthday.
Somewhere around the 30th mile while I was on my bike I became exceedingly aware that my lower back was trying to tell me something. It was not truly pain as much as it was that nagging feeling of exertion and discomfort. It was present just enough to make those negative thoughts creep into my mind. I took note that I had around 26 more miles to go in the aero position on my bike and my brain began insisting upon me to stop. I didn't. I thought of Alexis. During her journey she was sedated over 70 times for radiation, numerous MRI's and four surgeries. Never once did she complain. Always, she would go into the anesthesia suite with one of her stuffed animals and ask for the sleep medicine by name. She would rise to the challenge thrown upon her diminutive yet strong little body and simply face each moment with amazing calm and dignity. The anesthesia team would marvel at her spirit and chutzpah and in no time they understood what an amazing soul Alexis was.
I kept pedaling despite the nagging discomfort. I hit 56 miles and ran my bike into transition. Quickly I threw on my running shoes and was out on the course in a matter of a minute or two. The day was perfect in so many ways, including the amazing blue skies and white puffy clouds. Such a rarity for Ohio in September when, while growing up in Cleveland, there were times we had snow that early in the season. As I reached the third of 13.1 miles running on the day, I felt a twinge in my right knee. I could feel pain coming on in my right iliotibial band, or IT band for short. I began to sense the voice tapping me on my shoulder again. It suggested that I walk or better yet, find the nearest curb and take a load off. It nagged and needled me like the knee pain itself. I made it to the next water station and grabbed some fluids and got myself running again. In my mind I saw Alexis who defied the initial six to nine month prognosis thrust upon her, and did so with the heart of a lion and the soul of an old warrior. For most of her journey she remained asymptomatic. Looking at her, you would never have known that she was in the fight of her life with one of the deadliest brain tumors. She grew to know hospitals and doctors as the norm and she embraced life with a vigor that inspires me to this day. I have no need to look for heroes to worship, I am the father of a hero. Alexis taught me more about life than any portion of my undergrad and law school education combined. Quit? Never. Alexis never quit, and neither did I.
In the early to middle part of that Sunday afternoon, I came running through the parking lot at Cedar Point amusement park, made a left hand turn into the gates of the course, and there before me lie the oasis of the finishing arch of the Rev3 Cedar Point half ironman triathlon. Seventy point three miles later, I stepped over the finishing line, one finger pointing to the sky, tattoo of Alexis' hand-print on the inside of my arm, looking up at my inspiration, my hero, knowing that I could on that day and any other day keep going and never quit. I believe there are no more amazing people on the face of the earth than children with cancer. I have had the honor to sit with smiling children at an art table in a hospital as toxic substances drip into their veins, draining the life from their tiny bodies. I have watched as children record laps around a pediatric cancer ward as their IV pole drag along next to them. Society falsely creates all kinds of heroes. I suggest that if you want to see a hero for yourself, walk around a pediatric oncology ward for just a few minutes.
One day I intend to cross below a finishing arch of a full ironman distance race and hear an announcer say those magical words, "Jonathan Agin, you are an ironman." At that moment, I will know who is the true ironman. No, Alexis never quit. And neither will I.