The water was cold, and Catherine Hanson knew that better than anyone. Standing among a field of hundreds of triathletes, each one encased in the comforting compression of a neoprene wetsuit, there stood Hanson in a tissue-thin singlet. In seconds, the starting gun would fire and the mob would take to the waters of Lake Michigan for the first leg of the 2014 USA Triathlon Sprint National Championships.
When Hanson threw herself into the water, she was at an immediate disadvantage. While her peers benefited from the added buoyancy and temperature regulation of their wetsuits, Hanson was to swim the 750 meters aided by little more than her own ability and a will that has been hardened by traveling a road few of her peers ever will, or ever should. That made it all the more impressive that day when she emerged on the shore 750 meters later near the front of the pack and went on to cross the finish line ahead of all but 25 others in her 117-member age group.
Hanson is a triathlon minimalist and proud of it. Where others wear wetsuits, Hanson wears her singlet. Where some ride specially-engineered bicycles that cost thousands of dollars, Hanson pedals a 13-year-old road frame that she affectionately describes as "rickety." The most cutting-edge piece of equipment she owns is a pair of Mizuno Wave cross-trainers.
Hanson is an economy car racing against a pack of Ferraris. She shouldn’t be passing her more technologically-aided peers, but she does. Her rickety bike shouldn’t be overtaking its more aerodynamic counterparts, but it does. Hanson shouldn’t be leading the pack, but she does.
In fact Hanson, the cancer survivor, shouldn’t even be here to compete in triathlons. But she is.
In a sport where adversity is the name of the game, there may not be an athlete more familiar with adversity than Hanson. The eighth-year Longwood cross country coach and single mother of three has devoted her life to long distance training in its many forms, but in 2010 Hanson ran into an obstacle that she couldn’t simply run past. It started with an irritating tingle in her throat, and when she finally admitted to herself that something was wrong, the condition had developed into full-blown esophageal cancer.
"I tend to put things off when it comes to my health," Hanson said. "In a nutshell, I’ve probably had this condition with a loose valve for most of my life. I remember many, many days of running where I got this constant burning sensation, especially after caffeine. And it goes away, you don’t really pay attention to it because you’re young. But from what I was told, years of that acid coming up into my esophagus just stripped my healthy cells away, and that’s what is termed Barrett’s syndrome."
Barrett’s syndrome or Barrett’s esophagus is a condition in which the healthy cells of the esophagus are stripped away by prolonged acid reflux. As the esophagus heals itself, incorrect cells replace the once-healthy cells. In some cases, the condition can lead to cancer, and unfortunately for Hanson, hers did just that.
For years – "most of my life," she now recalls – Hanson has endured that chronic acid reflux caused by a loose valve in her esophagus. Running irritated the condition, and given her near-daily commitment to the sport, it was irritated quite frequently. But Hanson, ever the grinder, chalked it up as a minor inconvenience and pushed through the discomfort on her journey from one mile to the next.
Years later when she received the grim diagnosis, it was accompanied by a survival rate. She would have to endure throat surgery, chemotherapy and a host of other procedures just to even have a chance at beating the disease.
"It was depressing. Straight up," she said. "I didn’t let a lot of people know. I tried to just, like everything else, gut through it, suck it up and bully my way through. But it caught up to me. The emotional aspects of all of that are pretty heavy-laden. Chemo treatments are awful to begin with. They cause depression."
Catherine Hanson at the finish line with the Longwood Scarf
But at a time in her life when her own mortality hung in the balance, Hanson refused to simply cheer on a team of medical professionals as they ran her own race for her. The doctors came armed with their surgical instruments, chemo treatments and medical expertise, but Hanson had her own set of tools at her disposal.
"They used to let me bring my running shoes there," she said. "They’d give me my treatment, I’d go run, come back and check in with them and head home. At least it was a part of who I still felt like I was. It was the one thing I felt like I could control. There’s all this crap going on, but at least I could still run."
The running wasn’t just helpful in helping Hanson cope. Her medical team actually encouraged the physical activity, believing it would promote healthy blood cells and help her recover from treatments. Their only concern was that jogging would sap away the calories Hanson’s body needed to heal itself, especially given the difficulty throat surgery presented in allowing Hanson to keep up her food intake.
Hanson obliged and monitored her nutrition. She kept running even as the weight shed from her already-sinewy frame. But then the treatments started working. The surgery was a success. She started to regain muscle. When she ran, she wasn’t as fast and wasn’t as strong, but she got a little better each time out. That may have been as good of an indicator as any that Hanson’s health was improving.
"Running was the thing that helped me," she said. "Every person that goes through this, it’s different. You have to find what gets you through it."
After she was deemed cancer-free, Hanson went back to her routine. She plugged away at her ho-hum 70-mile weeks, attempting to regain the same level of fitness she had once held as her norm. Aware that it might take a while to get back to that pinnacle, she wasn’t surprised when she didn’t recover after her runs as quickly as she thought she should. But the runs didn’t get any easier. The more she ran, the worse she felt.
"I really just couldn’t get it back," she said.
Here is where Hanson separates herself from the pack. Instead of simply accepting the reality that a near-death encounter and a lengthy relationship with chemotherapy permanently sapped her of a small bit of vitality, she found another way to test herself. Instead of trudging along her own personal road to recovery on foot, she just found another way to travel.
When Hanson started swimming, the intent was "just to take some of the load off with the [running] miles." But then her swims got longer. She swam faster. Her runs improved. At that point, she was regularly training for two-thirds of a triathlon, so of course the next logical step was to buy a cheap bike and go all-in.
Eight triathlons later Hanson is among the best in the United States in her age group, though she refuses to believe that. She finished 26th out of 117 in the 40-44 division at the national championship in August and qualified for the US National Team in the 45-49 range following age-up calculations. She is eligible to compete in next September’s ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Chicago, which will draw the top triathletes in the world – including Hanson.
Despite how far she’s come, however, Hanson is quick to admit that she is not in the clear. She will have to deal with the Barrett’s Syndrome for the rest of her life and receives a check-up every six months to make sure the cancer is still in remission. Given her journey from hospital bed to finish line, though, Hanson lives her life with a perspective different than most. And it has not only made her a better triathlete, but a better coach as well.
"It definitely ties into how I coach and how I deal with my athletes," she said. "You have to live for today. Embrace what gifts you have today and build those. ‘I want to redshirt this season and wait until next year.’ No, you don’t want to do that. There’s no guarantee for next year."
That there’s no guarantee for a next year for the 44-year-old Hanson is what keeps her plugging away despite everything she’s already accomplished.
"I’m never, ever in the clear. And I never, ever will be, and that’s why I live the way I do. That’s why going to nationals was so special for me this year. With my rickety bike and everything."