From Hodgkin’s to Ironman

From Hodgkin’s to Ironman

From A 6th Bowl of Chicken Soup for the Soul

From Hodgkin’s to Ironman

It is by tiny steps that we ascend the stars.

Jack Leedstrom

“It’s possible to eat an elephant—but not in one sitting. It can only be consumed one bite at a time.”

These words, spoken by a close friend, influenced the outcome of the most difficult and grueling endeavor I ever attempted.

In early 1994, I was very ill and had lost twenty pounds.

That February, oncologist Dr. Jack Chritchley told me I was dying of cancer. Instead of being filled with panic at the diagnosis, I experienced a profound sense of peace because of my spiritual connectedness to God. However, I was terrified for my family. Thinking of having to leave them left my knees weak and my heart pounding. I broke the news to my wife, Caroline.

At supper that night, we told our two teenagers. Jodi was only fifteen, in grade ten, and her brother, Chris, was two years older and in his senior year.

They were stunned. I explained how Dr. Chritchley suspected advanced Hodgkin’s disease.

That night as I was watching TV, Jodi slowly approached my rocker. I saw the hurt in her dark eyes. She asked me, “Daddy, are you going to die?” I felt as if a knife were thrust into my heart.

There was only one answer I could give her. I held her close, and, with my tears falling onto the top of her head, I gave her—and myself—the answer we had to hear.

“No, honey, I’m not going to die.”

After a month of medical procedures, Dr. Chritchley’s diagnosis of Hodgkin’s disease was confirmed.

He sentenced me to eight months of aggressive chemotherapy, two treatments a month. Three weeks after my first poke, I began losing my hair. I watched in fascination as clumps of hair snaked down my body, swirling in large circles into the drain.

I envisioned my life being sucked away. Shortly after that, I lost my job because the sweats, mood-altering steroids and other drugs made it impossible to work.

As spring turned into summer, I gradually became weaker because of the chemotherapy. My muscles were atrophying. I could not risk any kind of scrape or cut because an infection could prove fatal to my weakened immune system. Even a cold was dangerous.

In August, Caroline and I watched the Ironman Canada Triathlon held each summer in Penticton. Eighteen hundred athletes from around the world entered the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon, which must be completed in less than seventeen hours to earn the finisher’s medal.

I turned to Caroline, and with tears in my eyes, croaked, “I’m going to do that someday.”

At the end of October, I completed my sixteenth poke.

With difficulty, I struggled at getting back in shape. My shoulders, hips and heels were constantly sore, an aftereffect of the ravages of the chemo.

I started a new job in January 1995 and intensified my workouts. In September, Caroline and I met with Dave Bullock, a three-time Iron man competitor. We asked questions about the commitment required to complete the race and whether I could finish it.

The answer came back a resounding “Yes!”

There was only one fly in the ointment—I had never learned to swim. This would be high on the list of things to do.

My running began in October 1995, and in early November, I enrolled in swimming lessons.

Over the winter, I ran indoors on a treadmill and learned to swim. On Victoria Day weekend, I finished the Kelowna half-marathon in two hours and two minutes. I had never run thirteen miles nonstop before.

At times, though, I had to fight the black thoughts of uncertainty. The mental struggle was often as difficult as the physical training. I was hoping the cancer would not come back because of the stress on my body.

My blood ran cold at that horrifying thought. Ian Mandin, a close friend, was battling cancer. One evening by phone, I told him about my mental struggle, and he told me something very profound.

He said, “If you take on a challenge and it seems to overwhelm you—pretend it’s an elephant.”

“Pardon?” I asked incredulously.

He explained, “You can’t eat an elephant in one sitting, but you can one bite at a time.”

He said I had beaten cancer one “poke” at a time.

Now I would earn my Ironman medal, one stroke in the water, one pedal push and one running stride at a time.

In July, I entered the Peach Classic, an Olympic-distance triathlon consisting of a one-mile swim, twenty-five-mile bike ride and six-mile run. This would enable me to defeat the demon of deep water.

I was the last of three hundred triathletes in the water. I fought back waves of panic as I saw the beach drop away below me into the blue-green murkiness of Okanagan Lake. I screamed at myself, You can do it. You’re taking another bite out of the elephant.

Thirty-two minutes later, I was back on the beach at the finish line. With a mile-wide grin, I pumped my arms into the air. I’d conquered the lake.

Three hours later, soaked in sweat from the midday heat, I jogged over the finish line into the arms of Caroline and Dave.

My confidence mushroomed.

At four o’clock in the morning on August 24, my alarm sounded.

It was Ironman Sunday!

The four of us gathered in the living room and had a family hug. Tears sprang to our eyes as we again thanked God for strength, and we prayed for one more day of the same—for all of us.

I arrived in darkness at registration before five o’clock, and at six-thirty, as the sun rose, I put on my wet suit and warmed up in the lake. The cannon boomed the start of another Ironman at seven sharp. I’m swimming in the Ironman! my mind screamed as I dove in.

One hour and forty-two minutes later, I touched sand. I got up and jogged through the finish line, up onto the lawn.

Suddenly, I stopped short.

There in front of me was Dr. Chritchley. I grabbed him in a big bear hug. He looked at me and said, “In my thirty years in oncology, I’ve never seen anyone who was as sick as you come back to do something as brutal as this.”

Soon I was on my bike for the seven-hour ride.

By eleven o’clock, the sun was blazing in the sky, and I had passed Osoyoos and was on my way up the difficult Richter Pass. The hours melted away under the afternoon heat. Through Cawston and Keremeos, I arrived at the steep incline to Yellow Lake. Halfway up, I felt a sudden stab on the outside of my left knee.

With each downward push the pain increased. I had to pedal the last twenty-two miles using only my right leg.

At the medical tent, Dr. Chritchley and two other doctors examined the knee. Finally they wrapped it with a tensor bandage, gave me several Tylenol and said, “Go do it.”

I couldn’t run. I looked at my watch—5:25 P. M. I had to average four miles an hour to get back before midnight.

Several miles up the road, I came on another triathlete, Peter Diggins, an Australian, who was limping along. I introduced myself to him. Soon we were heading south on Eastside Road past orchards, a few feet away from Skaha Lake. By eight-thirty, as the sun was setting into the mountains to the west, we made it to the turnaround, about a mile and a half south of Okanagan Falls. I picked up my sweatshirt in my special-needs bag.

I tied it around my waist, knowing the cool mountain air would soon make the night chilly. I looked at Peter and said, “Well, buddy, only thirteen more miles to go—just a little jaunt in the country.”

Night arrives quickly in the mountains. The walk back became a surrealistic trip. My knee was throbbing. Every step hurt. I knew blisters were forming on the bottoms of my feet.

At the seventeen-mile marker, I sat down to shake some small rocks out of my right runner. I tried to get up.

To my horror, my legs would not respond. A jolt of panic hit me. My legs had seized up. I shouted to Peter, who was now forty yards ahead of me, “Help me!” He came running back, and I told him I couldn’t get up.

He held out his hand and jerked me to my feet. My legs, which moved stiffly, felt like concrete pilings. In a few minutes, the awful sensation passed. I knew I would have to walk through the pain till the end.

By eleven o’clock, we had reached the south end of Penticton. Two more miles to go.

Over the past ten miles, we had seen a dozen ambulances pass us to rescue those who were unable to finish.

It was a very sobering parade of flashing red lights. Each time, I gritted my teeth and vowed not to quit.

I looked at my watch: 11:15 P. M. One mile to go.

I began to cry. My dream was about to be realized. With three blocks to go, I put my arm around Pete’s left shoulder and thanked him for helping me get through the previous twenty-six miles.

One more block to go. At the end of Main Street, the racecourse turned left to the finish line. One hundred yards away.

I could hear the voice of announcer Steve King as he brought home another exhausted triathlete.

At the corner, I saw six thousand people waiting at the finish line. The big white Ironman Canada structure housing the finish line gleamed like a brilliant star.

My emotions exploded in a fireball of hot, salty tears, which clouded my vision. I began to run.

Suddenly, I heard Steve in an excited voice, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, here’s a local man who just last year finished chemotherapy and conquered advanced Hodgkin’s disease, and now he’s conquered the Ironman—Mr. Wally Hild.”

His voice trailed off as a loud cheer went up from the crowd. They had surged forward, allowing me a narrow, twisting trail to the finish line. Hands went out in front of me, and I touched as many as I could.

I was sobbing, choking and unable to breathe. My windpipe was constricted with indescribable emotion. I pumped my hands high into the air as I approached the tape emblazoned with the words “Ironman Finish Line.”

I looked up and saw my time: sixteen hours, thirty-four minutes and seventeen seconds. I stumbled over the finish line into the arms of my family. Moments later, the medal was around my neck. We were oblivious to the cacophony of sound and kaleidoscope of motion around us.

I was given my Ironman Finisher’s T-shirt, which I triumphantly put on. We walked slowly to the massage tent, my body now racked with pain.

But I didn’t care. I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face.

Just before we got to the massage facility, I turned back to look at the giant structure above the finish line. Right before my eyes it vanished.

I had eaten the elephant.

Wally Hild

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