Molli Serrano brings several titles with her to the starting line of the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, Saturday -- mother, wife, veteran triathlete and cancer survivor.
Serrano was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on June 2, 2011, a month before she was scheduled to compete in Ironman Austria. The 39-year-old, three-time Ironman competitor and mother of twins was facing a 20 percent chance of survival and underwent surgery 25 days later -- the birthday of her now 8-year-old twins. The seven-hour procedure removed half of her stomach and pancreas, her gall bladder, and a large portion of her intestines.
“I contemplated doing Ironman Austria before my surgery but my husband [and fellow triathlete Juan] and doctors told me that wasn’t an option,” she told Playbook this week. “My cancer diagnosis took that Ironman away from me. I was not going to let it take it away from me permanently.”
Resuming her training was an integral part of the healing process. “Two weeks to the day after my surgery I was back on a bicycle. My husband always says: ‘The doctors healed my body, but … training saved my soul.’ It was my way of showing everybody that cancer was not going to beat me,” she said. “It was very freeing mentally to be on out on my bike. It was like a ‘hall pass.’”
Four months following her diagnosis and in the middle of radiation treatment, Serrano, of Plantation, Fla., led a 62-mile charity bike ride in South Florida with her chemotherapy pump sitting in her back jersey pocket and attached to her chest. "You feel like you're stripped of your life,” she said. “Training is way to show you still have control.”
The conditions and course at Kailua-Kona are unforgiving, as 2011 US Pro Ironman champion and 2012 Ironman 70.3 Texas winner Timothy O’Donnell (@TOinTRI) learned first-hand when he failed to finish in his first appearance there last year. “It was really just inexperience and overzealousness. I tried to do too much training and attacked it too hard. I was sick before the race and over-trained.” O’Donnell told Playbook Thursday.
O’Donnell, 32, said this year he trained “smarter” and not as much: “Part of this race is getting to the starting line healthy.”
O’Donnell, a native of Shavertown, Pa., recently got engaged to 2010 Ironman World Championship winner and current chocolate milk spokesperson Mirinda Carfrae (@Mirindacarfrae). They talked about their relationship in the latest video from the Ironman Ali'i Drive You Tube series, posted Thursday.
“It’s always hard in terms of the male ego having a significant other who is racing and is the best in the world,” O’Donnell told Playbook. “We joke about that stuff and banter about things, but we’re really a team now.”
His advice to Serrano and any other first-time competitors: “It’s a long day. You have to stay in the moment and break up race into little pieces. Keep it simple.” The weather often “brings a whole new level to this race,” he added. “You have to be well-fueled and smart about it. When you bring in that heat and humidity, it makes for a long day. That’s the beauty of this race.”
Serrano’s training regimen peaked with upwards of 400 miles biking, 40 miles running and 20,000 yards swimming each week. From a competitive standpoint, the biggest obstacle caused by Serrano’s surgery and treatment has been the simple fact she isn’t able to absorb nutrients and digest food as well as she could before. “I’ve had to come to terms with slower running times, slower times on the bike,” she said. “I’m very competitive with myself.”
Serrano, now cancer-free, entered the Kona Inspired contest by posting this video detailing her story. In July, she learned of her selection and was also featured on NBC’s “Today” show. The finish line at Kailua-Kona is just a restart for Serrano, who will be wearing purple to raise pancreatic cancer awareness and a bracelet engraved with the message “Kickin’ cancer with an iron will -- strength, faith and love.” She and her husband this week were selected by lottery to compete in the “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlon in California next March.
For O’Donnell, a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, his mission Saturday is simple. “The biggest thing I can do in this sport is to win here in Kona. It really is my dream right now.”
The 140.6-mile Ironman World Championship course on the Western side of the island of Hawaii includes a 2.4-mile swim in Kailua Bay, a 112-mile bicycle ride along the Kohala Coast, and a 26.2-mile run on the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway, ending at Ali’i Drive. Live coverage begins at 12 p.m. EDT via the Kona Ironman site. Race updates will be posted on the Ironman Facebook page and on Twitter @IronmanTri. The race airs on NBC on Oct. 27 (4 p.m. EDT).