first met Dr. Nunez seven years ago, when he hired me to teach in his department at a local community college. One day, a few months into my tenure, I was smoking a cigarette outside of our offices when he sat down next to me.
"Mind if I have a drag?"
Dr. Nunez wasn't the type of guy I pegged as a smoker. In fact, he was the complete opposite -- an Ironman triathlete who was known for sneaking out between classes and meetings to swim laps in the campus pool. Shocked, I handed him my Marlboro Light and watched him smile mischievously as he took it between his fingers and ... snubbed it out in the nearby ashtray.
"You don't need that s---. Come on, let's go get some coffee."
As we talked over Americanos, Dr. Nunez became Carlos, and Carlos became my friend. He invited me to come swimming with him, and the next day we snuck out between classes and meetings to swim laps in the campus pool.
Eventually, I joined him at a few 5Ks. Then I did a sprint triathlon with him. Then an Ironman. Today, I'm training to qualify for the Boston Marathon.
Life as I know it began with a Marlboro Light outside an office building.
A year and a half ago, Carlos was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer. Triathlon, which had been so central to our friendship, was suddenly put on the back burner. The focus was not on Sunday morning bike rides, but doctors and surgeries and chemo and fear. I listened as my best friend described his slim odds of survival with just a little bit of cockiness: "Hey, even if 99 percent die, someone's got to be in the 1 percent. You're looking at him."
When we received the news that the cancer was in remission, there was much jubilation. There was gratitude. There were even a few tears. Most importantly, there was normalcy. The Sunday morning bike rides came back and Carlos began talking about racing again: "If I'm still in remission at my next checkup, I'll register for this 5K."
With an playful grin, he leaned in and whispered, "Who knows? Maybe I'll do another Ironman someday."
I had my best friend and training partner back. Life as I knew it had returned.
Last week, Carlos texted me from his doctor's office, where he was attending his first checkup, four months after being declared cancer-free:
Two tumors in liver. Surgery not an option.
I felt like someone had reached through the screen of my phone and punched me in the gut. Things had finally returned to blessed normalcy, only to have been upended all over again.
A few days later, over lunch, he described the size and location of the tumors, and what it meant for the future:
" ... so it looks like my options are pretty limited, but we'll give them all a shot. Don't close the book on me just yet. I've got a feeling there's still a few more chapters left."
I smiled. "Yes, there are."
"I asked my doctor if he thought I could still do a triathlon. He said he didn't see why not."
"Well, of course. Might as well!"
"So I'm going to sign up for Ironman Arizona 2013."
I choked on the sip of water I had just taken. "What?"
Carlos looked up at me and gave me the grin I had come to associate with his mischief the last seven years. "You in?"
For the past year, my training has been focused on running, firmly rooted in the goal of a Boston qualifying time. It's a personal goal, one that lights the fires under my ass every morning and gets me excited about each day's workout. There are professional implications too, since I've written about my goal in this column and have a book deal on the process of trying to qualify.
All of that can wait for one year. It's on hold. I've got to train for an Ironman.
Some may think it's crazy for a cancer fighter to even consider doing a triathlon, much less actually going through the rigors of Ironman training on top of the hell cancer puts him through every day. But in case you haven't figured it out already, Carlos isn't the average cancer fighter.
I don't know how the doctors will treat Carlos this time around, or if it will even work. I don't know how much time he or I or anyone else have left on this planet. All I know is that if some of that precious time is going to be spent training for an Ironman, there's no place I'd rather be than on his back wheel every Sunday.
This is, after all, life as I know it.
Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman Triathlons and everything in between to justify her love for cupcakes (yes, she eats that many). Susan lives and trains in Phoenix with three animals: A Labrador, a cattle dog and a freakishly tall triathlete boyfriend. She claims to be of sound mind, though this has yet to be substantiated by a medical expert. You can follow her @SusanLacke