BY NOLAN PETERSON
Breast cancer, bleeding in the brain and a broken collarbone.
Lying in her hospital bed in July, 2008, Tasha Huebner thought she was going to die. One year later she was standing on the starting line of the Ironman Wisconsin triathlon facing a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike race and a full 26.2 mile marathon- all on the same day. Huebner’s body is not indestructible, and her mind is not immune from fear or dark imaginings, but she will never speak the words: “I can’t.”
In 2008 Huebner was training for her second Ironman triathlon. The Ironman is considered the toughest one-day race in the world, pitting athletes against a 140.6-mile course to be completed by swimming, biking and running without rest between events. “When I first started doing triathlons I thought the Ironman was completely insane!” Huebner says. “But the more you train the more the Ironman seems logical – it changes your way of thinking.”
Huebner completed her first Ironman in 2007, and she was hooked. She signed up for an Ironman race to be held in Madison, Wis., in the summer of 2008 and committed to the intense training regimen for a second time.
Then there was cancer. That summer Huebner was diagnosed with breast cancer and immediately began treatment. Despite the punishing toll the radiation therapy took on her body, she continued to train for the Ironman, determined to prove that even with cancer her willpower could carry her through the arduous event.
“I am incredibly stubborn,” Huebner says. “I was going to do that race even if it killed me.”
Then there was the crash. While training on her bike just weeks before the race Huebner crashed at high speed and suffered serious injuries. She broke her collarbone and suffered a traumatic head injury that caused bleeding in her brain. Even though the crash almost killed her, Huebner now makes light of her luck: “If you’re going to get an injury I suggest you injure your brain. Despite everything I had going on I was just in la-la land.”
Huebner’s body and mind were broken, and her chance of competing in the 2008 Ironman was over. Even now, four years later, she still suffers from her brain injury. “It’s all fuzzy and I still don’t have any short-term memory,” Huebner says. “It took me months before I could function.”
Huebner underwent one operation to simultaneously repair her collarbone and remove the cancerous tumors invading her body. Months later she completed radiation therapy and was declared to have no evidence of disease by her doctors. She had cancer on the ropes, but her mind was still recovering from the crash. And her body was exhausted. “Cancer steals from you, it makes you feel disfigured, it makes you feel like crap, it just takes so much from you,” she says.
Huebner gave the disease an identity. She envisioned it as an enemy that was trying to disrupt her life and conquer her spirit. She was determined to prove that cancer was not going to get the better of her. While recovering from her radiation treatment she signed up for the 2009 Ironman Wisconsin – less than a year away.
It takes at least nine months to properly train for an Ironman triathlon, and due to the rising popularity of the event it’s necessary to sign up a full year ahead of time to get a spot in the race. Huebner didn’t want to miss her chance to race in 2009. Her body would just have to be healthy and ready to go. Cancer wasn’t going to win.
“It was really, really, insanely hard to start training after the radiation,” Huebner says. “I felt like crap and was tired all the time, but I thought, ‘Ok, you stupid fucking cancer, you’re not going to get the best of me.’”
Little by little her strength returned, and she was able to rebuild her body. Most Ironman athletes agree that the race itself is the easy part, the training is where toughness is really measured. Twice-a-day workouts before and after work. One hundred mile bike rides on the weekends, no matter what the weather. There are sacrifices to be made — relationships are strained, and social lives are practically abandoned to squeeze in just a little bit more training. All of this takes endurance. Endurance of the body – yes. But beyond that it takes endurance of the spirit to keep waking up for those early morning swim sessions, and to change out of work clothes right into running shorts after a long day. Huebner did all of this while recovering from cancer and a brain inury.
Nine months later Huebner was on the starting line of Ironman Wisconsin. It was a cold, windy and rainy day – miserable conditions for the race. Unfazed by the weather, she was ready for the ordeal. She had trained hard and overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to be on this starting line. For her, the training was the challenge, and the day of the race was the reward. It was a chance to celebrate the rediscovered strength of her body and her unconquerable fighting spirit.
“You see this super-long day stretching out ahead of you, and you think, ‘What am I doing here?’” Huebner says. “You just take it one thing at a time. You’ve done so much training that it’s not hard to find that focus, you’ve already won the battle.”
It was the longest day of her life. The weather was awful. But the physical suffering of the race was nothing compared to what Huebner had already endured. The limits of her body didn’t matter anymore, her spirit would never be exhausted. Half a day later Huebner was once again dubbed an “Ironman.” Ironman athletes often describe the race as a life-changing experience. Many claim the race breaks them down to their most raw, exposed state and reveals their true strength of spirit. Like surviving cancer. Like almost dying in a bike crash.
It is an experience not often replicated in the modern world. For Huebner, the race itself was not the goal, nor was it the singular accomplishment that it had been the first time she crossed the finish line. In 2009, Huebner had proven herself an Ironman long before she took the first stroke of the swim.
“The second one was such a huge personal victory just to show up because I knew what it had taken to get there,” Huebner says. “When I got through the training on top of everything else I was going through that year, plus the miserable weather, I realized I was kind of a bad ass.”
Huebner was declared free of cancer in December, 2008, but her foe was beaten for good when she crossed the finish line of the 2009 Ironman Wisconsin.
Huebner is now 43 years old. She has no evidence of cancer after completing radiation therapy in 2008. In 2010 she underwent reconstruction surgery, and she takes medicine daily to prevent the disease from coming back. Her next goal is to cycle the Alps this summer, and she continues to do triathlons.
“I had an epiphany on my second Ironman,” she says. “It was a long day, and the rain was pouring. I wondered why I gave up so much to do this race. Life is so short, is this really worth it? But I realized that no one else cares if you finish or not, I wasn’t out there to impress anyone. I did it for myself.”