The cancer honestly wasn’t that big of a factor that day. Everything hurt, but not that. All things considered, it was a good day. —Alayna Williamson
As Alayna Williamson reached the home stretch of the day’s 140.6-mile journey, she felt herself overcome with emotion. Celebratory music was blaring, and the awaiting crowd cheered her on. Not only was the Kaysville mom on her way to completing one of her lifelong dreams of becoming an Ironman, she was doing it with leukemia.
Williamson is a wife, mother of four, full-time manager of emerging business at Overstock.com, adjunct instructor of finance at the University of Utah and exercise-enthusiast — to scratch the surface.
Her family, including Alayna, her husband, Troy, who is a seminary teacher of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at Davis High School, and their four children — Frasier, 14, Elijah, 11, Bodie, 8, and Sloane, 3, is one that she would say tries to be really active. So much so, in fact, that they have started accumulating enough medals to create a “Williamson Wall of Fame” in their home.
“We don’t worry about getting first or second place, but we do finish,” Williamson said.
Frasier, who will be starting ninth grade this fall, is training with the Davis High School track team and has a five-minute mile. Troy recently participated in the Deseret News Classic Marathon, as well as other marathons with his wife. Alayna competed in her first marathon in Ogden in 2008, and to date has 12 under her belt, having run in places like San Francisco, St. George and even Boston in 2010.
Then she got cancer.
Though she believes she has had symptoms for about three or four years, Williamson in early 2012 started noticing swollen lymph nodes, or what she referred to as “some serious knots” in her neck. When she took the problem to her doctor, she said she had a feeling it might be cancerous. Advised against doing a lymphectomy since the chances of cancer were less than 1 percent, Williamson still insisted on the procedure.
On March 7, 2012, she was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and lymph nodes most common in people in their late 60s. Williamson is 37.
“I beat the odds!” she joked. “But in a bad way.”
It was a tough blow. However, ready to combat the disease, Williamson vied for immediate treatment.
“I was like, ‘All right, let’s fight this!’ ” she said. “But then they said, ‘Actually, you’re not going to go through treatment right now.’ ”
Currently, there is no cure for CLL, and in many cases, treatment is postponed since it’s only temporary and the disease is slow-growing.
“I could have done chemo then, and it would have killed off cells, but it wouldn’t have cured me,” she explained. “My B-cells create leukemically — form incorrectly. And that will always happen. So until the side effects of that become a threat to my quality of life, I won’t do treatment. Plus, the longer you go, the better the research.”
But waiting is hard. In the meantime, exercise is her own form of therapy — and fighting back.
“My doctors say ‘when,’ and I say ‘if.’ But ‘when’ I have to go through chemo, the stronger and healthier I am, the better.”
Determined to be at her best if that time should come, Williamson started to eat healthier and exercise more.
That, and signed up with Troy for the Ironman triathlon in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
“I don’t even know the first time I saw an Ironman on TV,” Williamson said. “But ever since I’ve known it existed, I knew I wanted to do it.”
The 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and full 26.2-mile marathon comprise the race whose finishers can boast exceptional physical endurance and excellence. Williamson wasn’t going to let her cancer get in the way of that goal.
For David Nielsen, co-president of Overstock.com and neighbor to the Williamson family, “Honestly, it (Williamson’s Ironman goal) didn’t surprise me. Alayna is extremely driven and very goal-oriented, but also very caring and kind. And she pushes herself. She is the kind of person who doesn’t want anything to define her, especially a disease. I know the cancer threw her, but she got very tough, physically and mentally.
“Not many people can raise a family, work full-time, do an Ironman and have cancer at the same time.”
Even with everything going on in her life, Williamson knew waiting for a more convenient time wasn’t an option.
“As humans, we always say ‘someday,’ ” she said. “With my cancer, I’m still functioning. So instead of saying ‘When I don’t have cancer,’ I say ‘Why not right now?’ ”
And that became her creed as she strove to turn her goal into a reality.
Training included biking indoors on a trainer and biking to work, spending several hours in the pool at Gold’s Gym or at Willard Bay, as well as several lunch breaks running up and down the stairs at Overstock.com. She even had the chance to run around the Eiffel Tower while on a study abroad in Paris that fell just before the triathlon.
Though she has a determined and driven personality, training did not come without obstacles. Common side effects of CLL are extreme "can't lift your head off the pillow" fatigue and increased weakness of the immune system — which showed up periodically. Her trip to Paris specifically left her feeling more worn down than usual, but by the time race day came, she wasn’t going to let that stop her.
That June 23 morning, along with her husband Troy, her brother-in-law, two family friends and 2,500 other participants, Williamson began the race with a 2.4-mile swim in the clear waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene.
It was a rocky start, to say the least.
By her second lap in the 63-degree water, Williamson found herself getting very cold. “Like, hypothermic,” she added.
Luckily, Troy was constantly keeping an eye out to make sure she was doing OK. When he saw her struggling, he came and stuck by her until she was able to finish the swim — after which she found herself in a race-provided warming tent for 20 extra minutes.
When athletes sign up for an Ironman triathlon, they agree that if medics see fit to take them off the course at any time, they have the right to do so. Williamson recognized that, but she wanted to move on to the next phase of the race before the cutoff time.
Participants must finish the race in 17 hours to be considered an Ironman, but there are also cutoff times within the race: the swim must be completed in less than two hours and 20 minutes, the biking portion finished by 5:30 p.m. and the marathon finished before midnight.
“If you don’t finish by midnight, you just don’t finish,” Williamson explained. “So I kept telling the medics I’d get warm on my bike so I could leave.”
It was a close call, but Williamson beat the first cutoff with five minutes to spare.
Though she says most of the rest of the race she was chasing the cutoff times, by the time she got out of the warming tent, the experience got better.
“People keep asking me now, ‘Weren’t you suffering?’ but at that point, I was too grateful to care,” she said. “Before the race started, I was pretty stressed about the whole day, but after that (swimming), I was just glad to be there.”
The rest of the race went without a glitch. The leukemia even gave her a little break.
“The cancer honestly wasn’t that big of a factor that day. Everything hurt, but not that,” Williamson laughed. “All things considered, it was a good day.”
With an hour left before the midnight cutoff, Williamson tackled those last few miles. Frasier even joined the race and ran alongside her for the final two.
“He talked to me, kept me sane,” she remembered.
The finish was an emotional one. Before she crossed that line with her final time of 16:30:12 (Troy finished in 15:22:57), her boys handed her a homemade sign that said “Iron-mom: Cancer, I Win.”
And in a way, she really did.
“I think I could have taken this (having cancer) and curled up in a ball and just cried for the rest of my life,” she said. “You can definitely decide to be down, and I’m not going to lie, I definitely was for those first few days after I found out. But you just need to take your challenges and trials and turn them into positive experiences. At least, that’s what I try.
"If I can do a marathon, anybody can. I hope that people can see that average, everyday people can do extraordinary things if they work hard enough."
Though she would be more than happy to be rid of the disease, she can’t deny the effect it has had on her and her home.
“Of course I would love a cure,” she said. “I pray every day, and there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about having cancer, but it has changed my life. I’m more patient. When my kids fight, I’m just grateful I get to be around to see it. There are things that are important, and there are things that are not. I would hope that even after they cure me, I’d still remember these lessons. It has put a better focus on my life."
She also says she has been able to see tender mercies despite her health, like when they were going through the process of adopting their youngest child four years ago.
"You have to pass a medical test and be totally healthy to be able to do it," Williamson explained. "Looking back, I know I had symptoms then before I was officially diagnosed. But I know my daughter needed to be in our family. The fact that I had a clean bill of health on paper was a miracle."
As of now, Williamson says she is still far from treatment.
“But ‘far’ means ‘not tomorrow,’ ” she said. “Obviously, I hope it’s years and years (before treatment), but I don’t live in a non-reality.”
“I’ll keep signing up (for races) until a doctor tells me not to — but even then, I’ll probably still keep doing it.”
Kate Sullivan is an intern at the Deseret News with Features and Mormon Times. She is a student at Brigham Young University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org