Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Inspiration and Dedication from a true Ironman Hero..

From Cancer to Kona
Christina Gandolfo profiles amazing Kona qualifier Andrew Johnston

Published Wednesday, October 11, 2006
Despite living with leukemia, Andrew Johnston has qualified for Hawaii and is racing on a mission to raise money, awareness and hope for those living with cancer.

It was mile 112 of the 2004 Ford Ironman USA Lake Placid bike leg, and Drew Johnston was tearing through the best triathlon of his life. In just his second-ever Ironman, the 32-year-old age grouper from Decatur, Georgia, was riding near the front of the field on a notoriously brutal course. He ended the bike in 20th place overall, looking primed to break the 10-hour mark.
But when he exited T2 and tried to run, Johnston’s stride was halted. Initially, he dismissed the bone and joint pain he felt as the ordinary “torment” anyone might experience during an Ironman. But with each step the severity of the aches worsened.

By mile 15 the pain was so severe forward motion was no longer an option. “With every step I took I felt like someone was hitting my legs with a baseball bat,” he remembers.

After coming so far - 129.4 miles to be exact - Johnston did the only thing possible: He stopped, stumbled off the two-lap run course, and called it a day. It was at that moment that his world came crashing down.

Not that he knew it then.

It would be weeks before Johnston understood the full impact of what happened in Lake Placid. When he learned the pains he suffered were triggered by his vascular system going terribly awry, a new reality became apparent -- his life had changed forever.

A hematologist/oncologist told Johnston that he had chronic myelogenous leukemia (CML). He also explained that if Johnston was lucky enough to survive the disease, odds were he’d live with it the rest of his life.

Two years later Johnston, now 34, is living with CML, a bone marrow cancer in which white blood cells begin growing normally but fail to mature and die as intended, thereby accumulating to dangerous levels which inhibit normal bone marrow cell growth. This puts the body at risk of life-threatening complications and infections.

Aside from a bone marrow transplant -- an invasive procedure with many potential risks and complications -- there is no cure for CML. Those afflicted live with symptomatic treatments that have their own host of side effects.

For Johnston, a successful personal trainer and coach in Decatur, this means taking Gleevec daily, monthly blood testing at the Atlanta Cancer Care Center, and enduring excruciating bone marrow biopsies every six months at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Clinic in Houston, Texas, to monitor his cancer status.

While he is officially in molecular remission thanks to the “wonder drug” Gleevec, Johnston has been forever changed since his diagnosis.

The drug leaves him in a chronic state of anemia with resultant fatigue, a below normal white blood cell count, and uncontrollable muscle cramping that can strike at any time. It's happened while simply brushing his teeth or during long-distance triathlon racing, which Johnston returned to last year with impressive results that many healthy age groupers only dream of.

This past June, while competing at Ford Ironman Couer d’ Alene in Idaho, Johnston qualified for the Ford Ironman World Championship, despite enduring bouts of abdominal pain and intense hamstring cramping. He finished in 10:06, good enough to secure a roll-down slot to Hawaii.

“I qualified by the skin of my teeth,” Johnston will say. But after remembering that just 11 months prior he thought he’d never cross another finish line again, he reluctantly admits he’s proud of the effort.

For Johnston, being a successful endurance athlete comes down to mental fortitude and the belief that he’s one of the lucky ones.

“When I go for treatment and see people with no hair, in a wheelchair and with a mask covering their face I remember I’m blessed,” he says. “I wake up in the morning and tell myself I choose to be healthy, happy, confident and strong.”

However, Johnston admits there are times when he can’t help but think, “What if?” What if I’d discovered triathlon earlier? What if I hadn’t gotten sick?

These are natural questions for someone who once trained with the cycling team at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and raced as a pro cyclist. After graduating from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1994 Johnston and his wife Diana set off for Europe where he raced as part of the Belgian Haverbeke GB team and later the Palafrugal and Homs squads in Spain.

But after enduring three separate concussions following peloton crashes -- the last of which left his speech slurred and short-term memory impaired for months -- Diana, by his side since they were high school sweethearts, told her husband that his cycling days were history. Arguing wasn’t an option.

A year later, after getting lost on the way to a mountain bike race he ended up finding his new athletic direction. On an impulse he called a friend who was doing a duathlon the following day.

“I said, 'Where’s the race? I’ll be there.'”

Johnston finished fourth overall in the run-bike-run event, and wondered if multisport was his calling. Knowing there were a greater number of opportunities to compete in triathlon, Johnston asked his wife -- a former competitive swimmer -- to teach him freestyle swimming.

“My strategy that first season (2001) was: ‘Don’t drown, kill ’em on the bike, and hang on for dear life on the run,’” Johnston says.

It worked. In his first season of triathlon racing Johnston placed in the top five overall in 10 out of 11 races; was named Georgia Olympic Distance Triathlon Champion; placed fifth at the National Iron-distance Championship (held at the Great Floridian); and the following year qualified for the World Long Course Triathon Championship. He was also named All American Triathlete three times by USA Triathlon.

After battling to regain his fitness despite his leukemia diagnosis, Johnston is primed to do the remarkable in completing the most revered triathlon in existence, the Ford Ironman World Championship.

He says a perfect race in Kona would mean breaking the 10-hour mark, but his only true objective is to finish amid the smiles, and no doubt a few tears, from the many supporters who have helped him fulfill a dream.

His massive support crew in Hawaii will include Diana (who will be more than halfway through her pregnancy with the couple’s first child), Johnston's mother, Bruce, who he calls his “biggest fan,” his sister, Heather and her family, one of his physicians, a handful of training partners, and if that weren’t enough, a film crew.

Johnston’s childhood friend, Jeff Keating, a screenwriter and filmmaker, is raising funds to produce a documentary about Johnston’s experience as a triathlete with CML. The film -- “Living is Winning: From Cancer to Kona” - will chronicle his journey to Hawaii.

And if he gets his way, Johnston says the film, along with his own personal efforts to raise $10,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, will not only raise awareness and money for CML, it will provide much-needed inspiration.

“My goal is to do some good and spread hope that cancer doesn’t have to mean stopping living,” he says. Spoken like a true champion.

To learn more about Johnston’s efforts to raise funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, or to donate, go to: http://www.active.com/donate/tntga/tntgaAJohnst

To learn more about the documentary please go to http://www.doghousepictures.biz or contact Jeff Keating at jkeating@doghousepictures.biz

You may contact Christina Gandolfo at cgandolfo@ironman.com

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