The whole week was amazing. The whole experience was kind of spiritual in a way. Just to see all of the people finish, pushing their limits, just to cross that finish line, watching all of the last-minute finishers come in, that was amazing. —Lyle Anderson, Kona Inspired Ironman
Lyle Anderson and Dean Bullock are not just a couple of guys with sad stories.
They’re regular men who, when dealt life-altering blows, asked more of themselves. And that meant that instead of drowning in self-pity, they had the opportunity to swim with champions.
Life changed for both of them, like it does for far too many people, in the office of a doctor talking about diseases they didn’t quite understand.
There was nothing unique about the fact that they faced difficult diagnoses. The unique part — the part that changed them from being nothing more than sad stories into being tales of triumph — happened because of how they handled their new realities.
It’s understandable why being diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor or multiple sclerosis would devastate a person.
It certainly changed just about everything for them.
Bullock was a 59-year-old father, grandfather and endurance athlete in July 2012 when he was diagnosed with incurable brain cancer.
Anderson was overweight and unhealthy when a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis ruined his 30th birthday. Doctors told him he might be in a wheelchair in five to 10 years.
Bullock’s reaction was to revive a dream, while Anderson’s was to change his life.
Bullock had missed qualifying for the Ironman world championships by one spot in his age division two years ago. He said he never thought he’d be able to qualify, so he was content to work, train and enjoy his family.
After his first brain surgery, his children told him about Kona Inspired, a 2-year-old program that allows seven people with stories that epitomize the message of “Anything is possible” to compete in the world championships without qualifying.
Of the seven inspiring athletes chosen to compete, two were from Utah — Bullock and Anderson.
To be part of the Kona Inspired program, they had to submit short videos that told their stories. Anderson talked about losing weight and adopting a healthier lifestyle. He wanted to appreciate his good health while he had it.
The father of four wanted to live in a way that whatever happened to his body, whether MS ravaged it or crippled it or caused him so much pain he couldn’t move, he would regret nothing.
“I wanted to finish the day conquering something, something big,” he said in his video.
Anderson did that Saturday when he crossed the finish line in Kona, Hawaii. He swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles and ran a full marathon (26.2 miles) in 13 hours, 19 minutes and 30 seconds.
He stayed at the finish line until midnight watching some of the other nearly 2,000 competitors finish.
“The whole week was amazing,” he said. “The whole experience was kind of spiritual in a way. Just to see all of the people finish, pushing their limits, just to cross that finish line, watching all of the last-minute finishers come in, that was amazing.”
He said the island in Hawaii had a different kind of energy and being among some of the world’s top athletes was inspiring and invigorating. The Kona Inspired athletes were treated like VIPs.
“We all bonded with each other,” he said. The Hurricane, Utah, man also had a little extra support that wasn’t as easy to see in the hoards of fans. He and his friends had temporary tattoos made that said, “Booyah!” The sentiment was one expressed by Braydon Nielsen, who was hit by a car and killed while participating in a training ride last month.
“I could feel his presence there,” said Anderson. “It was the best I’ve ever felt after riding my bike for 100 miles. That never happens to me.”
Then again, he said he’s learned in his preparation for triathlons and marathons that your body does what the mind allows.
“I tell people, ‘You can only do what you’re mentally prepared to do,'” he said.
One of the Kona Inspired athletes wasn’t able to travel because of her cancer, so only six of them started the race. Anderson said Nicholas Tierney, Ohio; Kelly Miyahara, Calif.; and Terry Kennedy, Australia, all finished. Kennedy was competing after suffering a stroke and heart attack while training for a marathon to honor his son, born with a brain disorder, and his father, who’d succumbed to cancer. Tierney was registered for the Ironman Wisconsin when his quadruplets were born at 29 weeks and had to spend more than a month in the NICU. And Miyahara was competing for a friend who’d been killed in a car-cycling accident while she trained for her first Ironman. The two met while fundraising for an endurance event.
Win Charles, Colo., who has cerebral palsy and Bullock weren’t able to finish. On the Team IronDean Facebook page, his family reported that Bullock didn’t make the bike cutoff time and was taken off the course at mile 107 — just 5 miles shy of the transition to the marathon.
On Saturday his family posted a message to supporters, who’ve been inspired as much by his positive attitude as they are his quest to conquer Kona.
“Four months ago today our dad had his second brain surgery in a year. Over the last 15 months, he has had two brain surgeries, six weeks of radiation, 11 months of chemo, and three rounds of Avastin. The fact that he is even out here is a miracle in itself. True IronMan.”
Bullock told the Deseret News four months ago that he wasn’t going to waste any of the precious time he has left wondering, "Why?" or feeling sorry for himself.
“It is what it is,” he said. “I’m living with cancer. It doesn’t define me.”
Bad things happen to good people every day. And everyone faces tough times. Sometimes we feel better than we ever have, and sometimes we struggle more than we ever thought was possible to bear.
Their stories are not tragedies. The tears shed for them are not simply about despair because hope shines through every step of their journeys. Anderson and Bullock simply made a decision not to let life’s cruelty defeat them.
And that, more than any finish line, makes them champions.