Heart of an IRONMAN: St. Jude dad trains with the help of his son

Chris thought about quitting. But he persevered, and has set a new challenge for himself at the St. Jude IRONMAN 70.3 Memphis triathlon in 2021.

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  •  5 min

Bertha

“You tell us once we start something, you’d better finish,” Calvin told his dad, Chris.

It was 2018, and Chris had been thinking of quitting the IRONMAN 70.3 Boulder. The IRONMAN triathlon asks competitors to swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and finish by running 13.1 miles. It’s a grueling event requiring months of training.

But in the midst of his dad's training, Calvin had been diagnosed with cancer – something Chris couldn’t have foreseen when he signed up for the endurance event.

Chris had his job as a train engineer and his two other boys to look after at home in Nebraska while his wife, Tiffany, kept Calvin and their youngest, Mariah, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.

“It’s OK. You can quit,” the voice of reason had been telling him. “No one could blame you.”

But now it was out of the question. Because here was Calvin, watching his dad, paying attention to how he handled hardship. Chris couldn’t let the 10-year-old down. Not with all Calvin was going through – the radiation and the chemo.

He would do it. For Calvin.

Calvin

A tough slog

The first signs of Calvin’s cancer emerged in June 2018 after a family bike ride. His mom noticed a bump on his back and his right leg was swollen. A trip to the doctor and a CT scan revealed the presence of cancer, and a biopsy a few days later typed it as stage IV rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the soft tissue.

Calvin had tumor growth in five places: his pelvis, hip, stomach, lung and neck.

As Tiffany and Chris discussed treatment options with their medical team, something one doctor said stood out: “He said, ‘If it was my kid, we’d go to St. Jude,’” said Tiffany.

“We had no idea what we were up against. No idea. We just knew that this was the best place. They have the best doctors and had the best options. We didn’t hesitate to come. At all.”

So, after obtaining a referral, Tiffany took Calvin and the baby to St. Jude while Chris and Calvin’s two brothers, Oliver and Finnegan, stayed home. When Chris had to be on the railroad, the boys stayed with Tiffany’s parents.

At St. Jude, Calvin underwent chemotherapy, proton radiation treatments to his pelvis and photon radiation treatments to his lungs and neck. It was a tough slog, where every worst-case scenario seemed to play out. Best-case scenario, he would have finished in half the time, but his counts never rebounded easily.

Through it all, Calvin kept his mom and the nurses laughing.

“Calvin is quick-witted, happy-go-lucky and strong-willed,” said Tiffany. “He fights through the pain, and he’s a really happy kid.”

“He’s jokeful,” said Tiffany, possibly inventing a word.

He watched all the sports he could, including golf, baseball, basketball and Huskers football. He kept in touch with his friends in class through FaceTime and told his mom he hoped they wouldn’t forget him.

They never did, of course. Throughout his treatment, photos flooded in of people wearing the "Calvin Strong" t-shirt his family created. His older brother’s baseball team added Calvin’s name to their batting helmets.

And in June 2018, Calvin and his mom logged onto the IRONMAN app and cheered as they watched Chris cross the finish line with the Calvin Strong shirt held above him. He finished in six hours, 20 minutes – a nice showing for a first timer. But even more important, he’d shown his son he could finish what he started.

In December 2019, Calvin’s treatment was winding down, and he prepared to go home. His Christmas list included a new bike, swim goggles and swim jammers like the kind Olympian Michael Phelps – and his dad – wore.  All the gear he would need to help his dad train for the next IRONMAN.

He also asked for snow. If they could arrange it, he wanted it to snow.

Powering through

When Calvin got home in December 2019, he had some atrophy in his leg and couldn’t do the running, so he helped his dad train on the bike and in the pool.

Calvin

“You know, I gotta tell you, I was pretty impressed,” said Chris. “For 18 months of going through cancer treatment … he did pretty darn well for how small a frame he was.”

But that’s who Calvin is: If there’s a thing to be done, he does it without complaint, and expects you to do the same.

“He swam the whole length of the pool, we’d take a short little break and he’d swim back, and we’d work on his form,” said Chris.

Then it was Chris’ turn.

Slowly, they were building strength and endurance.

Turns out, they’d need every bit of both because, earlier this summer, scans revealed Calvin’s cancer was back. It was a devastating setback for the family, but one they were determined to overcome.

Calvin is back at St. Jude for treatment, so Calvin’s coaching, like so many things right now, will have to happen virtually.

“He’s a straight shooter,” said Chris. “You’ll tell the kid, ‘Yeah, Calvin, I need to spend more time running.’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, then just run, Dad. It’s not hard.’”

From the perspective of the kid who’s made it through nearly two years of cancer treatment, it’s as simple as that.

So Chris powers through.

Snowfall

There’s not enough time for everything, Chris says. Not when his days on the railroad are so long.

So he balances as best he can, deciding what to do too little of on a particular day, so he can do enough of the other thing. Sometimes he realizes: I’m not playing enough with my kids. So instead of training, he tosses the ball with his sons and swings his little girl in circles. He checks in on Tiffany and Calvin.

He realizes happiness resides in the short, special moments of life:

The kids jumping on the backyard trampoline and collapsing into laughter.

That million-dollar view of the mountains near Keenesburg, Colorado, a town along his train route.

Calvin’s blunt encouragement by cell phone: “Just run, Dad. It’s not hard.”

The snowfall on that night in December when Calvin finally came home after his first treatment at St. Jude. “Calvin had wanted snow so badly,” said Tiffany. “So I had prayed, ‘Lord, please let it snow.’”

Calvin

When the snow began to fall in quiet drifts and Calvin ran outside to play, it felt like an early Christmas wish come true. The answer to a prayer.

Chris will never forget it. He does not take any of it for granted.

These moments of beauty – and the promise of more with his family – fuel him. They push him forward on each run, each ride, each time he hits the water. They make him grateful for St.  Jude.

Next year, Chris plans to compete in the St. Jude 70.3 IRONMAN Memphis. Because Calvin is counting on him.

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