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04 May, 2016

I Am An Ironman

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“You’re not dying here; You’re not dying now!” Those are the last words Kristian Fesel remembers saying to himself before the world went black. A 12-time Ironman finisher, Kristian never expected to be told, “You have a brain tumour,” but the story of his journey before and after receiving that news is what makes this man so remarkable. – BY ROXANNE MARTIN

Starting 12 years ago with a bucket list of big dreams, Kristian set his sights on completing the first Ironman to take place on South African shores in 2004. He trained harder than he had in his entire life, and come rain or shine he was out on the road getting the much-needed miles in. “I think I was over-trained for the first one – it didn’t matter if I was sick, or if it rained, I trained through everything!” says Kristian.

That race wasn’t a great one… Being a newbie, he lacked experience with his equipment and 70km into the 180km ride his pedal broke clean off the shaft, leaving him to pedal home using one leg. “I had a horrible race,” laughs Kristian, but he was determined that come hell or high water he was going to finish – and finish he did, in a time of 14h53 (his slowest to date). At the time he didn’t know how much his level of determination would serve him 11 years later!

Post-race was not a pretty picture: Not only could he not hold down any food, but he had severe chaffing and incredibly stiff muscles, and he couldn’t even lift his feet to step onto the pavements. Before completing the event he had said to himself that this would be a once-off thing, that he would “go there and get the t-shirt.” Yet the very next day, feeling the worst he had ever felt, he said to himself, “I’ve got to do this again,” and the bug obviously didn’t just bite him hard, it sank its jaws in deep, as he has just completed his 12th South African Ironman, and 14th all together if you count the two international events he has taken part in.

Repeat Act

Once Kristian had gone through the experience of one Ironman he was more in-tune with what was needed training-wise, and also began to listen to his body, “I am a lot more in touch with my body, I know when I am getting sick, when I need to take time off and when to rest,” he explains, adding that he is not a fan of training indoors, so all of his training is done outdoors. After all, as he puts it, #OutdoorsIsFree. It is this understanding of his body that has served him well over the years.

However, Kristian doesn’t just do the Ironman once a year, the lifestyle of being a triathlete has become his way of life, and his family have followed suit, with his wife, Renata, competing in the events as well, and his children along as happy spectators, looking at their hero dad achieving something incredible year on year. There are only 13 other people to have completed all 12 Ironman SA events, and it seems now the race is on to see who will be the last man/woman standing!

When we asked Kristian the reason that he goes back every year, the answer left us with goose-bumps: “I have tears in my eyes every single year, walking down onto the beach, you feel the beat of the drum from the Zulu drummers, you feel the energy of the dancers alongside them, you hear Paul Kaye in the background, you see the camera crews, hear the helicopters above you. You have thousands of spectators on Shark Rock Pier, screaming and cheering, and then suddenly you have a moment of silence where they say a prayer, followed with the singing of the National Anthem. You stand there in your wetsuit, goggles and cap, and just look at everything and say, ‘Wow.’ The emotion, the presence of the event, is something that when experienced, is like nothing else, and it is my annual highlight standing there and knowing I get to do it all again.”

Frightening Experience

In 2015 Kristian completed his 11th Ironman, and says in comparison to his other races, he was under-trained, as he had been battling with a hamstring issue that turned into a torn calf, which prevented him running for four months. Despite the race being tough, he finished in a respectable 13:18 and decided after the race that he would take a well-deserved two weeks off training. However, the day before he was due to return to training, he came near to losing his life…

Lying in bed that evening, he felt what he can only describe as a growing pain in his leg, and walking to the bathroom, he became alarmed when his leg went into spasm and he wasn’t able to put it down on the ground. Knowing something was horribly wrong, he called to his wife for help. “She asked if I was okay, and at that point I was leaning on the towel rail and I screamed back to her, I need help here,” explains Kristian. As Renata walked into the bathroom, his right arm went numb and he fell to the ground, half of his face drooping with paralysis, and Kristian says, “I thought I was having a heart attack, and I kept asking myself how can this be happening, I am an Ironman!”

With Kristian lying on the floor, in and out of consciousness, Renata took control of the situation. Remaining calm, she immediately contacted the paramedics, who arrived within 10 minutes. All Kristian can remember is saying to himself, “My kids cannot grow up without a father,” before the world went black. Upon arrival at the hospital, the first thing they asked Renata was what drugs was he on, thinking he had OD’d, then they sent him for a catscan. At 2am that morning, after all the trauma of the seizure, Kristian received the news that no-one ever wants to hear: “You have a brain tumour.”

Kept overnight, Kristian saw the neurosurgeon the next morning, who immediately sent him in for a MRI scan, which not only confirmed what he had been told, but also that his tumour was the size of a snooker ball. However, Kristian was immediately put at ease by his surgeon’s calm, confident attitude as he described the process to remove the tumour in such a matter-of-fact way that it never occurred to him to be worried. Also, with hordes of visitors coming to see him in the hospital, he says there was never really time to really process what was going on, but admits that one of the things that kept him going was his plans to complete the Ironman-distance Challenge Roth in Germany a few months later in July. So, the first question he asked his Surgeon following the news that they would be operating to remove the tumour was, “I have a race in July, can I go?”

Remarkable Recovery

A week later the tumour was removed and the recovery began, and this is where Kristian’s 11 Ironman finishes served him well. After just one night in the ICU ward, he was transferred into the general ward, and a few days later was recovering so well that he was released to go home. “The doctor said to me that my recovery and strength was just phenomenal, that they weren’t treating me like a normal patient,” says Kristian.

Three weeks later he was on the indoor trainer, and five weeks later was out on the road again, even though he battled fatigue, but he kept going. And just 12 weeks after the operation, on his 42nd birthday, he was on the start line of Challenge Roth. Having caught Renata on the ride leg, they started the run together, and Kristian says he was overcome with emotion and had to take a moment, “Here I was, on my 42nd birthday, 12 weeks later, having had a brain tumour removed, running with the person that saved my life.”

Up till then it had been the proverbial fairy-tale race, but 7km into the run Kristian hit the proverbial wall, “I had a total sense of humour failure,” he admits, but luckily Renata was by his side, and together the two walked and ran to make it to the finish. “Crossing that finish line together was one of the best moments of my life!” he says.

Back to His best

Almost a year to the day that he had the seizure, Kristian found himself on the start line for his 12th consecutive Ironman SA, and just before the race, he said, “I am full of emotion but at the same time absolutely calm. I am so ready for this race!” He went on to finish in a comfortable 12:28, and when asked afterwards how many more Ironmans he plans on doing, he answered that his goal is 20, but being in the running as the only one to do all of the races in SA, his real answer is, “I want to be the last man standing!”Starting 12 years ago with a bucket list of big dreams, Kristian set his sights on completing the first Ironman to take place on South African shores in 2004. He trained harder than he had in his entire life, and come rain or shine he was out on the road getting the much-needed miles in. “I think I was over-trained for the first one – it didn’t matter if I was sick, or if it rained, I trained through everything!” says Kristian.

That race wasn’t a great one… Being a newbie, he lacked experience with his equipment and 70km into the 180km ride his pedal broke clean off the shaft, leaving him to pedal home using one leg. “I had a horrible race,” laughs Kristian, but he was determined that come hell or high water he was going to finish – and finish he did, in a time of 14h53 (his slowest to date). At the time he didn’t know how much his level of determination would serve him 11 years later!

Post-race was not a pretty picture: Not only could he not hold down any food, but he had severe chaffing and incredibly stiff muscles, and he couldn’t even lift his feet to step onto the pavement. Before completing the event he had said to himself that this would be a once-off thing, that he would “go there and get the t-shirt.” Yet the very next day, feeling the worst he had ever felt, he said to himself, “I’ve got to do this again,” and the bug obviously didn’t just bite him hard, it sank its jaws in deep, as he has just completed his 12th South African Ironman, and 14th all together if you count the two international events he has taken part in.