I was at the airport heading off to cover the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike Race a little over two years ago when Jan Levine approached me.
Her husband, Mike, was a long time triathlete who had completed the Ironman World Championship back in both 1982 and 1983 and had always been a top age group athlete.
Jan told me that in July of 2015 Mike had been diagnosed with Stage Four Pancreatic Cancer and had been given six to nine months to live.
Pancreatic Cancer will be the second leading cause of cancer deaths by 2020 and the projection it will be number one by 2030. Plus, according to Jan, Pancreatic Cancer had the lowest survival rate of all the cancers.
Jan and Mike were obviously devastated. Their doctor recommended something called The Whipple Procedure where parts of a number of your internal organs are removed, but even after having the surgery, Mike’s diagnosis had remained the same.
Mike and I connected on email and he would fill me in how he was doing on a fairly regular basis.
Last fall, Jan reached out to me and asked for a favor.
“I’m going to need family help with Mike as he continues to deteriorate,” she told me. “We’re going to move to the northwest to put Mike into hospice up there and I was hoping you could help arrange a going away party for Mike.
He has been so close to the endurance sports community over the years, it would be great to have a barbeque at our house and have some of the legends of the sport join us to say goodbye to Mike.”
So in December of 2016, 1981 Ironman champion John Howard, myself, duathlon legend Ken Souza, star photographer Lois Schwartz and triathlon legends Bill Bell and Julie Moss joined us at Mike and Jan’s house for a farewell party.
Mike appeared weak and frail, but he did his best to smile as we all chatted and laughed about the good old days.
1982 Ironman World Champion Kathleen McCartney couldn’t make it to the barbeque because she was sick, so instead, she asked Mike if he’d like to go for a bike ride.
Kathleen was persistent and the two connected for a very short ride with Mike having to stop often to catch his breath.
“We didn’t ride far,” remembers Mike,” but it felt great just to be outside again, to be sweating again.”
At about the same time, Dr. Paul Fanta at UCSD became Mike’s doctor and he told Mike and Jan to quit spending time getting their affairs in order.
“He told us to take a cruise,” remembers Mike. “He told us to get back to living our lives.”
The next thing you know, Kathleen is calling me and telling me that Mike is getting stronger every day, that they had been riding 150 miles a week and that his lungs were now clear.
Then Kathleen said something that stopped me in my tracks: “Bob,” she insisted, “I think Mike can do the Ironman.”
On June 29th, through the support of the Ironman and the amazing Kathleen McCartney, we surprised Mike with a spot in the October 14th Ironman Triathlon World Championship.
Ironically, it was watching the February 1982 Ironman telecast on ABC where Kathleen caught a crawling Julie Moss in a finish that put the Ironman and the sport of triathlon on the map that motivated Mike to sign up for his first Ironman that next October.
“Exercise is medicine,” Mike insists. “My strength and endurance have increased
tremendously since we started working out together and Kathleen, Dr. Fanta and the Ironman have given me a new lease on life.”
Mike Levine and Kathleen McCartney finished the 2.4 mile swim and about 53 miles of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship bike ride on Saturday October 14th. Unfortunately, Mike was getting lightheaded during the ride and felt it would be dangerous to continue.
Mike and Kathleen will continue to raise awareness and funds for Pancreatic Cancer and are committed to getting back to Kona. After all, they have a little Unfinished Business!
Is there power in sport? You bet there is.
Just ask Mike Levine.