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Real Runners: She’s Doing An Ironman For Her Mother

A happenstance hospital find landed Kris Toomey training for a full Ironman.

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Photo: Courtesy of Team Toomey
Photo: Courtesy of Team Toomey

As Kris Toomey (bib 427 above) sat beside her mother’s hospital bed at the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City, fear, concern and uncertainty swirled through her head.

Last October, just one night prior, Toomey learned that her mother, Beverly Duncan, had been diagnosed with what doctors believed to be multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. Toomey purchased an airline ticket that night and made the 2,000-mile journey from her home in Pennsylvania to Utah to be by her mother’s side before an operation to remove a cancerous tumor from her spine.

“They took her in for emergency surgery and removed most of the tumor that was wrapped around her spine, but the tumor had consumed a vertebrae and parts of others,” Toomey, 48, says. “So they had to put rods and pins in to stabilize her back. It was very overwhelming, as you can imagine. Her recovery was very difficult because she was stuck in a hard neck brace that she had to wear 24 hours a day.”

As Toomey dutifully waited in her mother’s room in the intensive care unit, she grabbed the copy of Triathlete Magazine she had packed in anticipation of her extended stay. She thumbed through the magazine, merely going through the motions as the rhythmic sounds of the hospital machinery, coupled with her anxiety, provided a somber backdrop.

But one page captured her attention. Plastered on one of the pages was an advertisement for the 2015 Ironman Lake Placid, which stated that the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) was the official charity partner of the grueling competition. Toomey, an avid runner, was entranced by the ad. She said she had never heard of the type of cancer before her mother’s diagnosis. Surely, it was a strange coincidence, she thought.

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“The doctors removed the tumor and the neurosurgeon said he thought it was multiple myeloma,” Toomey says. “I had never heard of multiple myeloma. I didn’t know what it was. It would take a couple of weeks of testing to confirm the diagnosis, but [the neurosurgeon] was pretty sure.”

Toomey tucked the magazine away and focused her attention back to her mother, resting a few feet away. She returned to Pennsylvania a few days later and pondered competing in the July competition to honor her mother’s fight against the disease. A few of her friends were veterans of the Ironman Lake Placid, so she sought their advice. But she first wanted the support of her husband, U.S. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania), before making her commitment official.

“I knew I couldn’t do it without his support. He thinks a simple sprint is just crazy, never mind a whole Ironman competition,” she says with a laugh. “But he understood why I was doing it and he gave me his full support.”

With her mother serving as her inspiration, Toomey will compete in the 2015 Ironman Lake Placid in upstate New York on July 26. Shortly after speaking with her husband and friends to reaffirm her decision, Toomey grabbed the copy of Triathlete and reached out to MMRF Events Manager, Kelley Ward. The two worked together to devise a plan to prepare Toomey for the competition and pair her with a team.

“I remember her emailing me, and we just kind of took it from there,” Ward, 26, explains. “It was like the two worlds collided right in front of her. It’s was completely coincidental, but really cool. From the beginning it’s been really fun to work with her.”

Toomey has enlisted the help of friends and a running coach to guide her through a rigorous training program to prepare her for the scenic 140.6-mile course that is surrounded by the Adirondack Mountains. For a brief period in college, Toomey was a member of the University of Connecticut diving team, so she looks forward to the 2.4-mile swim in Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake. But running, she admits, poses a more significant challenge.

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Lehigh Valley, Pa.-based running coach Jeff Karwacki oversees Toomey’s weekly running regimen, which she also blends with bike and swim training. Karwacki, 43, coached cross country and track at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., for 16 years before retiring after the birth of his son. He now works mainly as a running consultant. Karwacki says Toomey, a mother of three, balances the time-consuming training well.

“She’s real good at keeping in touch and letting me know how things are going,” Karwacki, who ran at the University of Scranton, says. “Sometimes I think she feels she’s giving me more information than I need, but I always tell her ‘the more information, the better’ because I want to try and just be as helpful as I can. Training for the event that she is training for is very time consuming and the event itself is going to be very difficult. I’m trying to make it as easy as I can for her to maneuver through everything and still be able to take care of her other commitments of being a mother and a wife.”

Nanette Meadowcroft has known Toomey for more than a decade and counts Toomey among her closest friends. While the two share a common interest in triathlons, Meadowcroft says their friendship goes much deeper. Although Meadowcroft will not run alongside her friend in July, she’s offered her encouragement and support along the way.

“I think she’s hopeful; she’s hoping for the best,” Meadowcroft, 36, says. “She knows the prognosis, and I think she’s making the most with the time she has for this race. Her mother was an active working woman and I know that after the surgery and therapy and having to go through everything, it was a little hard for her to see her mom like that. She’s just like Kris—they’re very active, high energy. But she’s never discouraged.”

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Today, it’s been seven months since Toomey sat with her 71-year-old mother that morning in the intensive care unit. Toomey said her mother’s life is slowly returning to normal. She recently completed her fourth month of chemotherapy treatments. While there is no known cure for multiple myeloma, Toomey remains optimistic. She has been able to raise more than $5,900 for multiple myeloma research and hopes to raise $15,000 as well as awareness for this form of cancer.

The Ironman Lake Placid has given Toomey a therapeutic outlook as she trains for the event. One positive benefit that has come out of her unfortunate circumstance is that she has also gained a new support group.

“It’s given me a great perspective,” she says. “Everyone has been great. They have great attitudes and it’s been a fun environment.”