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Cancer survivor tackles 515K race

Katlyn Smith | Thursday, December 6, 2007

Saint Mary’s chemistry professor Toni Barstis, a triathlete for seven years, did not view her cancer diagnosis as a death sentence. For her, it was motivation to keep training.

Barstis was one of 35 athletes invited to participate in this year’s Ultraman World Championships during Thanksgiving weekend in Hawaii.

She hopes her efforts will encourage other cancer survivor athletes to continue training and competing.

“If Lance [Armstrong] isn’t a great motivator, I can be a motivator for middle-aged women,” Barstis said. “Don’t take no for an answer. I hope to show the importance of staying fit and reaching for something unattainable.”

The two-day event, which covered a total distance of 515 kilometers, was on the Big Island of Hawaii. The first day of competition included a 10-kilometer ocean swim, a 145-kilometer bike race through Volcanoes National Park on day one. On day two, participants completed an additional 276-kilometer bike race plus two marathons.

Although unable to finish the race due to asthma, Barstis was not discouraged.

She was the Ultraman Canada women’s champion in September, finishing three minutes shy of the record.

A survivor of gynecologic cancer, Barstis entered the triathlon just six weeks after finishing chemotherapy.

The Northern Indiana Cancer Research Consortium sponsored Barstis in the triathlon. She hopes to raise money and promote awareness nationwide for forms of gynecologic cancer.

“I want to help other women with the idea that you can live and survive after treatment,” Barstis said.

Training for the supreme challenge involved “every waking hour,” she said. “Ultraman is my part-time job.”

The Ultraman is more of a collegial event, where participants encourage their competitors to finish, Barstis said.

The Hawaii and Canada competitions each had a different level of difficulty. The Canadian course required climbing the Canadian Rockies. In Hawaii, Barstis had to contend with ocean currents, humidity and volcanoes.

The toll the race takes is more mental than physical, she said.

“Although your body wants to give up and you experience highs and lows, you must visually believe you will finish,” Barstis said.

Each triathlete has a crew come along for motivation and focus. Throughout the event, the crews support other participants and form a close community. The participants celebrate each other’s victories and grieve for each other’s failures.

“It’s a magical experience, they are my family,” she said. “Ultraman is the soul of triathlon.”

Barstis aims to finish Hawaii, complete a 100-mile run and do some long distance biking in the future.

Barstis said her family has grown closer celebrating her achievements. And the competitions, she said, have given her a focus outside of cancer.

The two Ultraman events, in Hawaii and Canada, have participants from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Germany and the United States. Founded in 1983, the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii are held annually on Thanksgiving weekend.

Toni Barstis is department chemistry chair at Saint Mary’s. She also performs cancer research.