LAKE PLACID - Just two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, 35-year-old Kelly Sullivan feels like she is back to herself and is ready to compete in the Lake Placid Ironman on Sunday, July 27.
Sullivan is a high school biology teacher in Voorheesville who lives in Schenectady during the school year and in the Adirondacks during the summer. She's grown up spending summers at her parents camp in Keene Valley but is renting a house in Lake Placid this summer with her husband Joe.
"I don't see myself as a cancer survivor, and I don't see myself as an inspiration," Sullivan said Monday. "I think people like to put me in that (category). I just want everyone to know that they can do it. There was never a question in my mind that I couldn't do this, and I couldn't wait to get back to this. A two-year turnaround. That's pretty exciting for me."
(News photo — Mike Lynch)
Sullivan will be one of more than 2,000 Lake Placid Ironman competitors Sunday who will attempt a 2.4-mile swim on Mirror Lake, followed by a 112-mile bike leg, before ending the day by running a full marathon distance of 26.2 miles.
Sullivan became interested in triathlons about a decade ago. At the time, she was doing a lot of running, which is her first passion. However, she has rheumatoid arthritis and gets sore if she runs every day. So she decided she needed to mix up her physical activities.
After being inspired by Lake Placid Ironman competitors she watched cycle through Keene, she bought a bike and joined a gym where should could go swimming. The large volume of activity not only helped her arthritis but the severe asthma condition that she suffers from.
"I've been happier ever since, and my joints have been happier ever since," she said.
Sullivan competed in her first triathlon sprint in 2004 and then did the first of two consecutive Ironman competitions in 2009. After the 2010 Ironman, she decided to take a year off and focus on running. She also needed a break from the intense training schedule that is required of Ironman competitors and wanted to spend more time with friends and family.
"After doing that for two years, it was time to just be normal again," she said. "Although I don't know that our normal is really normal."
That year she still did a marathon and plenty of other training, just not to the level of Ironman, which consumes 12 to 20 hours of training per week.
She then decided she was ready to do the Ironman again and signed up for the 2012 competition. But that plan got derailed on Feb. 13 of that year when she was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.
"It was the worst moment of my life," she said. "Initially obviously, you think about death and everything but I knew I would be fine."
Even with the diagnosis, Sullivan said she still wanted to do Ironman. She had been training hard and was in the best shape of her life. She talked to her doctors about doing the event but they told her it was out of the picture. She had surgery in mid-March. From May until August, she would have to undergo chemotherapy. After that until late April 2013, she would have to have targeted drug therapy. One of the hardest parts about undergoing therapy was that she was limited in how much she could do physically, especially in the beginning. That was really hard for her.
"I love running," Sullivan said. "It's my therapy. It's the only way I stay calm and collected."
For about two months after her surgery in March, she took time off from everything while she recovered. Eventually, she began to feel strong enough to exercising again.
First, she got permission from her doctors to do a quarter-mile run, which she turned into half mile.
"It was the best half mile I've ever done in my life because I got so excited I was running," she said.
From there, the mileage grew incrementally, although it was still very limited in the beginning compared to her normal routine. By the end of the treatment, she was getting in good shape. And in late May, just a month after finishing her last cancer therapy, she completed a marathon. That summer, she signed up to do this year's Ironman.
Sullivan said family, friends and people she met along the way were very supportive and helpful. She said the first couple of weeks after finding out she had cancer was very lonely, and she questioned whether she would be able to be an athlete again.
One of the things that helped her mentally was meeting athletes in similar situations. She met a woman who did a half Ironman after getting cancer and another one who has done 10 marathons post cancer.
Leading up to this Ironman, Sullivan has been training with her husband Joe, who is doing his fourth Ironman, and a club out of the Albany area called Team Loco. She's also expecting to have a large contingent of friends and family at the race, including two oncology nurses who treated her.
"Knowing that you're going to see people out there that you know just makes it even better," she said. "I know a lot of the local people who are doing it too. And I can't wait to see them out there. It's just so exciting. It's like a big family. You just hope that they don't hit you in the water."
In her first two Ironman competitions, Sullivan finished in about 16 hours, or about 11 p.m. She's expecting to finish in that general time frame again, or perhaps a little earlier because the starting time is earlier this year than during her previous races. Despite the late finish and struggles she will go through during the day, she believes it will all be worth it.
"An Ironman finish line is like nothing anybody has ever experienced unless you've done it," she said. "It is a massive party at the finish line, and you just come into this arena of people after doing that many miles. It's euphoric, amazing."