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A friend had already convinced her to stay for the award ceremony, even though the tolls of cancer meant this would be the first time in 30 years she wouldn't place.
The CEO of the Sumter Family YMCA took the microphone to announce a special award. It was for a woman who has been running in the Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot for three decades, always finishing at the top of her age class. She has completed an Ironman competition. Her perseverance and commitment to battle a March cancer diagnosis and finish the trot on Thursday serves as an inspiration to others, he said.
Teresa Jones stood at the side of the crowd, eyes closed in realization. Medals hung around other necks. A Gobbler Dash participant sat on the gym floor in front of her, orange slice juice dripping down her hand as she stared up.
She ran a half-marathon two weeks before her surgery earlier this year to remove the uterine cancer from her body, but she was not always an exerciser.
Her new office had a gym when she moved to Sumter after a divorce 10 days before Hurricane Hugo in 1989. She started going to the gym at lunch, and she started feeling her confidence and energy boost.
She had thought about doing a triathlon for 20 years, but she never learned to swim as a kid. When she turned 51, she took her first swimming lesson. By the end of that year, she completed her first triathlon.
"I got completely hooked," she said. "It's hard no matter how good of shape you're in."
She never imagined she would complete an Ironman, the trademarked triathlon that pushes athletes through 2.4 miles of swimming and 112 miles of biking before ending with 26.2 miles of running, which is a full marathon. Her running friends were training for one, and she figured she might as well join. If she didn't actually do the race, she would still be better for having trained.
The race in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has a cut-off time of 16.5 hours. She finished her first Ironman with two minutes to spare.
Training to beat cancer
While she couldn't compete in a half Ironman in October during treatment, Jones has made sure to stay as active as she can.
Whether she was at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill for four months of chemo then two months of radiation or at home recovering between rounds, she made sure to walk a mile a day. Then two miles a day. Then three. Every three weeks, she'd return to UNC for another round of chemo. Back to one mile.
She read a lot of books and listened to a lot of podcasts to supplement her Ironman training, and she said the mindset she learned in that preparation has been applicable to her fighting cancer. In an Ironman, there are things you can't control and things you can.
"This type of cancer does have a pretty high likelihood of coming back, so it's always in the back of my mind. But I can't control that, so I'm just going to keep making plans," she said. "I don't look at the statistics. I just know it's pretty serious."
You can't live your life like that, she said. It's not going to change the way she lives.
"If I let those things sit around in my body, it gives the cancer something to grow on," she said.
She can't control whether she's healthy enough to place in a race, but she can control whether she gets out there. She can walk her mile or three.
The special medal and the gift box of running paraphernalia and health supplements she received Thursday morning were a nice thought. The long-lasting effect to Jones was the support the box meant and the inspiration she could be to others.
John Hoffman, CEO at the YMCA, stopped her on his way out, after families had returned home to start reaping the benefits of a good run before a home-cooked feast. Had she heard of the Y's new LIVESTRONG program that helps cancer survivors return to fitness? It could both help her, and she could inspire others going through similar journeys.
She may not be doing an Ironman, and she may not have placed on Thursday morning, but she knows the value she has already obtained by continuing to stay active. She also knows how much the emotional support of her fitness community has carried her to more than one finish line.
Funny he should ask that. She picked an application up yesterday.
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