Amy Donaldson: Utah's Kona Inspired Ironmen are true champions

Published: Sunday, Oct. 13 2013 9:30 p.m. MDT

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.

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