Ironman race tests bodies and spirits, snarls traffic

jneff@newsobserver.comJune 2, 2013 

When Katie Eschleman registered in October for Sunday’s Ironman race, she was bald from the chemotherapy she’d been given every three weeks for breast cancer.

For a week after each course of chemo, her fatigue was sometimes so crushing, so paralyzing, that she couldn’t muster the energy to stumble down a flight of stairs from her bedroom to the kitchen table.

On Sunday, Eschleman couldn’t stop grinning after 70.3 miles of swimming, biking and running.

“I’m tired, it was a ‘loooong’ day, but I feel so good and so alive,” she said.

Eschleman, a 38-year-old music therapist from Quarryville, Pa., was one of 2,000 people who demonstrated their desire to swim, sweat and suffer their way to a ineffable blend of delirium, exhaustion and exhilaration that follows an Ironman race.

The racers started the day with a 1.2-mile swim in Jordan Lake, followed by a 56-mile bicycle ride to downtown Raleigh, and capped the fun with a 13-mile half marathon that wound through Raleigh to the N.C. Art Museum and back.

It began as a glorious day for a race, breezy with a crisp blue sky dotted with shade-giving clouds. At brunch time, the clouds thinned and the temperature climbed, to the regret of the runners.

And it was a miserable day for those choosing to get about in cars: Traffic was snarled in downtown and the west side of Raleigh; the “Road to Freedom” event at the N.C. Museum of History started late because the speakers and praise singers were stuck in traffic.

The runners, oblivious to the traffic jams, ran with their own stories and goals.

Rob Verzera was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2007. A business owner from Fuquay-Varina, he took up extreme sports in 2010 on a bet with a neighbor after a bunch of beers. Their wives had finished a short swim bike and run race; the husbands decided that if the ladies could do it, they had to step up.

MS can pose problems in a race. Verzera’s right arm went numb during the swim, and he lay on the beach for a few minutes before mounting his bike. Heat can causes flare-ups, so Verzera spent the race putting ice down his shirt and dumping water on his head.

“That was the frickin’ hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he said afterward. “But someday I won’t be able to do this. At some point, I’ll be sitting in a wheelchair.”

Wes Spratt, a 57-year-old pharmacy executive from Elgin, S.C., is a self-proclaimed exercise addict. It’s taken him from 240 pounds down to 180. He thrived on the camaraderie and smack-talk of his workout partners.

Last summer, Spratt was sick and nauseated for six weeks. Before ultimately finding an allergy to strawberries as the cause of the nausea, doctors spotted cancer in his right kidney. The cancer was stage 1; treatment was surgery and no chemo or radiation.

The race?

“That was good,” he said. “I don’t feel 57, and I don’t feel like I have cancer.”

But cancer has been foremost in the mind of Eschleman, the music therapist from Pennsylvania.

The chemo was followed by radiation that left her with severe burns that stung, chafed and left her skin so weak that she got a severe staph infection. Twice.

Soon after a double mastectomy, an idea took root: “I’m going to get through this, and I’m going to race the Ironman.”

She had started running marathons because she wanted her daughters, now aged 9, 7 and 6, to see that anything was possible.

“My children have seen me very, very sick,” she said. “I want them to see that I’m not sick anymore.”

Sunday’s race was so meaningful to her that the misfortune of a flat tire during the bike race brought her joy.

“I giggled when the support crew arrived” to fix the flat, she said. “All last year, I needed help. I never had to do it on my own.”

Neff: 919-829-4516

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