How Triathlon Saved My Life

By Shannon Richmond | May 25, 2018, 6:25 p.m. (ET)

Shannon Richmond

I have always been a multisport athlete: soccer, swimming, softball, cheerleading, marathons — and I fell into the sport of triathlon after a couple friends of mine who were already racing encouraged me. I was terrified but loved it immediately. I loved the training that took up so much of my time, I loved the way my body transformed, and I especially loved the confidence that I developed by completing the distance races that I had once thought were impossible.

I made the decision to complete a full IRONMAN after completing my first half-IRONMAN in October 2014. Unfortunately, I was deployed to Afghanistan in January 2015 and had to forego my first IRONMAN in South Africa later that year. During my deployment I met up with a few other triathletes and we continued workouts as best as we could. We encouraged and supported each other in a truly difficult environment and it was wonderful. Toward that end of my deployment I began to experience severe fatigue and trouble finishing my workouts. I thought this was possibly just due to the environment I was in and thought when I got home everything would get back to normal. When I finally got home, things seemed to improve briefly but then the fatigue creeped back in and I was sick almost weekly. Eventually blinding headaches led me to ask a friend of mine (a doctor) to draw some blood and make sure things were OK. Sadly, things weren’t OK, and I was sent immediately to an oncologist.

I had already started training for my next attempt at a full IRONMAN and was set to do IRONMAN New Zealand in March 2016. I spent the last few months of 2015 having tests run, trying not to lose hope, and struggling through my workouts for the race. In January 2016, I was diagnosed with a myeloproliferative neoplasm, a rare form of blood cancer sometimes lumped with leukemias that have no cure. I was started on a daily oral chemotherapy regimen and began frequent doctor’s visits and blood draws to monitor. For several weeks I was defiant and likely in denial. I continued to train for the IRONMAN despite weakness, fatigue and continued detriments to my health. I had always identified as an athlete and was not about to let go of that identity. Although, a lot of this proved to be too much, and I eventually had to make the decision to not race. With my mindset, mental distraction and new chemo regimen, I did not feel prepared to face the mental challenge that IRONMAN presents. This was the start of a downward spiral for me — I no longer considered myself an athlete, I felt lost, I was becoming deeply depressed, and even worse, I made the decision not to share my diagnosis, not even with my family. I thought that if I could keep the diagnosis secret then it wouldn’t affect me; it would be like it didn’t exist.   

This downward spiral continued as I desperately searched for something in my life to give me meaning and purpose. I was empty and felt like a shell of myself because my identity had been taken from me. If I wasn’t competing, I was no longer an athlete. In desperation I searched for something, anything to bring me back to life. Sadly, that led me into a truly toxic relationship that was verbally and emotionally abusive leading to deeper depression and loss of self. Eventually this person believed that he could physically push me, and I left immediately. Within a week of leaving, my oncologist informed me that my condition had progressed faster than expected and that I was now expected to live about 60 months, give or take a little. This was the most difficult, painful period of my entire life. Although this was a truly gut-wrenching time for me, it led me back onto a healthy path.   

Slowly, I began to fight my way back to find myself. I began training again. I allowed my friends and family to comfort and support me. I completed my first marathon in three years, I began training for another IRONMAN (to be completed on June 10 in Boulder), and I started to open up about cancer. I also started to take a hard look at what I wanted out of life and why racing is so important for me. I’m still working through things, but I have gotten so much closer to the life I want for myself. I have regained my positivity. Training has given me time to think and meditate, training groups have given me a sounding board and encouragement, and the community and excitement that come from race day is something that I thrive on. I still struggle at times, my training is not like it once was, and there are still days when getting out of bed is almost too much; however, I have a much bigger purpose for myself and my accomplishments.

My races and achievements are now not just my own, but for everyone who fears that their life may be over because of this diagnosis. I would love to be someone that others can look at know that they too can continue on with their dreams and passions. Cancer is no longer the end of life; it’s something that may slow you down a little or cause you to alter plans, but you can continue to achieve your goals. Every race I now wear a jersey that explains exactly how I feel about living with cancer and I love the people that come up to me and give me encouraging words or share their stories.

Last November my best friend (and athletic hero) Kelly and I raised money for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society (LLS) when we ran the NYC Marathon. Next up for me is IRONMAN Boulder on June 10, then a 10-mile swim, several other shorter distance tris, and in March of 2019 I will hike to Everest Base Camp (EBC) to raise money for the LLS. I am not currently 100 percent, I am not the fastest, and I may not see many more races in my future, but right now I know that this sport has saved my life. I will continue to focus on simply the next race and not my limitations. And if I can help change things for the better, either by raising money for research or by helping to inspire the next person, that would mean that everything over the past two years has been worth it.

Want to contribute to Shannon’s fundraising? Visit teamintraining.org.

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