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Ironman veterans team up to beat common foe: pancreatic cancer

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Ironman vets

Ironman legend Kathleen McCartney, center, helped organize the "Ironman in Minutes" event, where participants re-create a micro-version of Ironman to raise money and awareness for pancreatic cancer research. The first honoree was Mike Levine, left, and this year's is Katie Gutzwiller, shown here after the third annual Ironman in Minutes in Solana Beach, Fla., on March 10, 2019.

SOLANA BEACH, Fla. — Every winter for the past eight years, 1982 Ironman World Champion Kathleen McCartney has kicked off triathlon training season with family and a few fellow Ironman veterans in a celebratory event called the Ironman in Minutes.

On a weekend morning, usually in February, the group gathered at Fletcher Cove in Solana Beach for a micro-version of the race in Kona, Hawaii. Instead of a 2.4-mile ocean swim, they dip their toes in the water; instead of a 112-mile bike ride, they'd cycle for 112 minutes; and instead of a 26.2-mile marathon, they'd run for 26 minutes.

Then in January 2017, McCartney met Ironman veteran Mike Levine, now 70, who at the time said he was sitting on his couch "for a year-and-a-half waiting to die" from stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

To inspire him to fight for his life, McCartney invited Levine to take part in that winter's Ironman in Minutes event, and she named him the first recipient of her "Anything is Possible" award.

Recently, Levine, who did not die and went on to compete with McCartney in the 2017 Ironman World Championship, reunited with her and 11 other pancreatic cancer patients, family members and Ironman vets for the 2019 Ironman in Minutes. The duo, who are now as close as siblings, gave this year's "Anything is Possible" award to new honoree Katie Gutzwiller.

Gutzwiller, 48, was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer in March 2017. She had hoped to have surgery to remove her tumor early last year, but a spot was found on her liver, so it was canceled. Adding to her complications is the pancreatic tumor itself, which has wrapped itself around major arteries, making surgery so risky that few surgeons will attempt it.

She and her husband, Steve Jurman, are both Ironman veterans so they took their disappointment over the cancellation of the surgery in stride and have since focused on a new finish line a bit farther down the road: an as-yet-undiscovered drug treatment that could lead to a cure.

"We were running the 50-yard dash to get to the surgery table. Then we had to regroup. We're now doing a full-on marathon," said Gutzwiller, who has two children with Jurman, 11-year-old daughter Reese and 7-year-old son Cooper.

Gutzwiller, who worked as a clinical psychologist before her diagnosis, said she has found inspiration, strength, solace and lasting friendship in the company of this small group of Ironman athletes and fellow patients who make up the Ironman in Minutes team.

"Kathleen is a ray of sunshine. What she has done will outlive us all," Gutzwiller said. "I think I have gotten, in some ways, much more from this group than from some of my doctors."

Levine moved with his wife, Jan, to Gig Harbor, Wash., last September to be closer to family. But they still fly down every month to see his oncologist, Dr. Paul Fanta, in San Diego.

McCartney still joins the Levines for all of his local appointments, and together they regularly meet with Fanta's other pancreatic cancer patients to offer inspiration about never giving up. It's a message they've delivered to pancreatic cancer patients, journalists and Ironman competitors from around the world.

Levine said McCartney "literally breathed life back into me" in 2017 by encouraging him to train for a return to Ironman in Kona, a race he'd done twice in the early 1980s. The duo weren't able to finish the 2017 race because Levine was racing with half of his lung capacity, but they made international headlines with their awareness campaign.

"What I've found that helps is that if you set a goal for yourself down the road, you need a strong mind-body-spirit to fight this and survive a little longer," Levine said. "To me, Ironman means life. It gives us a unique sense of added strength to help us battle this terrible disease."

Levine was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer nearly four years ago. That's an exceptionally long survival rate for the deadly disease. Because symptoms don't show up until most patients are already in the final stages of the cancer, the survival rate is low. Just 20 percent of diagnosed patients survive to the one-year mark. By year five, the number drops to 7 percent, according to the American Cancer Society.

Facing those long odds put Steve Norman, 71, in a very dark place emotionally last November, when he received his diagnosis of stage 2 pancreatic cancer. The San Diego resident and Ironman World veteran said his father died a horrible death from pancreatic cancer when he was 59 years old. Six months later, his father-in-law also succumbed to the disease.

"That was a pretty bleak weekend for me," Norman said. "I wasn't sleeping and I was terrified of the whole thing. I went looking online for some historical Ironman information and picked up Mike's story. I read it and thought, 'I might have a hope of life after all.' His story got me through the weekend."

After reading the article, Norman immediately booked an appointment with Levine's oncologist, Dr. Fanta. At their first meeting, Norman told Fanta why he had come and how he hoped to meet Levine someday. By coincidence, Levine happened to be sitting in the next room, with his wife and McCartney, awaiting his own monthly appointment.

"It was a very serendipitous meeting," said Norman, who also took part in the Ironman in Minutes. "Mike's tenacity, his fight and the fact that he had taken on this Herculean effort to compete at Ironman was very inspiring for me and it helped me get along. Basically, his goal of trying to accomplish wonderful things has given him a new lease on life."

McCartney, 59, said meeting Levine, and finding a new late-in-life calling working with pancreatic cancer patients, has been one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. She was recently laid off from her job with a wellness and fitness center and said she hopes her next job allows her to continue helping and inspiring others.

Back in 2012, McCartney was herself at a low ebb. She'd taken nine years off from Ironman competition to deal with a back injury and had gone through a divorce. To revive her spirits, she decided to begin training for that year's Ironman World and came up with the idea for Ironman in Minutes with her good friend and training partner Julie Moss. Their paths famously crossed at the 1982 championship when Moss collapsed feet from the finish line and McCartney ran past her to claim the world title. ABC camera crews then captured Moss' agonizing crawl to the finish line on her hands and knees.

After meeting Levine in 2017, McCartney dug out her 1982 Ironman World medal, put it in a frame and turned it into the perpetual "Anything is Possible" trophy. Levine kept the plaque for the first year, then passed it on at last year's event to 2018 recipient Paul Smith. Unfortunately, he died from pancreatic cancer five months later.

At the request of Smith's widow, McCartney carried a vial of his ashes when she competed in her 12th Ironman World last fall. After the race, she and Levine scattered the ashes in a private ceremony. Levine said he hopes that when his time comes, McCartney will take some of his ashes to Kona as well.

McCartney said that offering goal-setting support keeps pancreatic cancer patients from "going down the rabbit hole and never coming back out." As a result, she and Levine announce the next "Anything is Possible" award recipient a year in advance.

This year's recipient, Gutzwiller, learned Sunday that she is expected to give next year's award. That gives her a promise to keep in 2020 and a goal to meet for next year's dual recipients: Steve Norman and Robert Duran.

Levine has also set a new goal for himself. Health permitting, he, McCartney and other Ironman in Minutes teammates are aiming this summer to walk 118 miles from the UCLA Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research in Los Angeles to the Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla, Calif.

McCartney said she's pleased to see how a quick decision to transform the mission of the Ironman in Minutes two years ago has affected so many lives and brought so many new friends into her circle.

"I started thinking about it differently and focusing on the big picture, not just my journey," she said. "I thought, 'why do I find strength in Ironman?' It's a sense of community, it's sports, it's having goals and it's living a dream with hope, purpose and passion."

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