Cancer pushes Gerald Babao to the finish

This is the fourth of four stories this week on triathlons, specifically the increasingly popular sprint variety.
Tuesday: Triathlon by the numbers
Wednesday: The growing popularity of sprint triathlons
Thursday: Kim Feth’s story: From walking around her living room to finishing her first sprint tri eight months later.
Today: Gerald Babao’s story: Trying to out swim, out bike, out run cancer.

Gerald Babao is matter-of-fact about what motivated him to take up triathlons: Cancer.

“I’ve always been active in life, hiking, backpacking,” says Babao, who works as director of operations for USA Canoe/Kayak in Charlotte. “But I wasn’t a runner or cyclist, I wasn’t a swimmer. The catalyst came in 2008 when I was diagnosed with cancer, adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare head and neck cancer. That was my launching point. I felt i needed to do as much activity as possible.”

At a time when most people have their heads full just thinking about survival, Babao, who was 33 at the time, was working on how to take life up a notch. As he saw it, he didn’t have much choice.

“The medical side was beyond my control,” he says nearly three years later. “My drive was to become as healthy as I possibly could to beat cancer.

It would be a while before he could kick into training full speed. He spent the summer of 2008 at the Duke Cancer Center getting treated, then had to recuperate. When he got strong enough, he got into cycling.

“I had a slight obsession with Lance Armstrong and his ability to overcome an obstacle, and in addition to raise money for cancer research and awareness,” says Babao. To fuel both efforts — riding and fund raising — he started team Wannabe Riders Against Cancer, primarily to raise money through the Livestrong Challenge in Philadelphia, an annual century ride.

The team did its first Livestrong Challenge in 2009. While training for that ride he ran into some folks training for a triathlon. The seed was planted. He heard about TRYMCA, a triathlon training program offered through the Charlotte YMCA and signed up for the spring 2010 session at the Y’s Morrison branch. His goal: the Tri! Ballantyne sprint triathlon that July.

TRYMCA is a fairly rigorous training program, meeting three times a week for eight weeks. One day the coaches would have them swim, one day run, one day go for a ride. Baboa says he and the others in the class tried to meet at least that often on their own.

“It instilled discipline,” he says. “Prior to that, I jut did my own thing. There was never any rhyme or reason to my workouts.”

Come race day, Balboa was ready. He completed his first  triathlon — a 300-yard swim, 12.7-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run — mid pack. His finish was secondary to the new course he had set.

“I was never overweight,” he says. “I was never at the point where I was concerned about my health [prior to the cancer]. But I wasn’t in shape.” He told himself that wouldn’t happen again.

He’s mildly annoyed with himself that it took cancer to make him come to this realization. Through team Wannabe Riders Against Cancer and his growing list of other active pursuits, he hopes to encourage others to lead a healthier lifestyle before it becomes a life-or-death question for them.

“I’d like to get people to become more engaged with their lives in general,” says Babao. “I’d like to help people discover the fun things you can do that involve pushing your body to its limits.” Things such as (all done post-cancer, in 2010):

  • Cycling the notorious 29-mile stretch of pavement from Marion to the top of the eastern United States, at 6,684-foot Mount Mitchell, a total of more than 5,000 feet of climbing. “This ride was no joke,” Babao wrote on the WRAC blog. “I’m not one to embellish, but this ride is the REAL DEAL.”
  • Nation’s Triathlon, an Olympic distance triathlon that includes a 1.5-mile swim in the Potomac River, 24.4-mile bike ride and 6.1-mile run.
  • Cane Creek Triathlon, a 750-meter swim, 14-mile bike ride and 3.1-mile run.
  • Livestrong Challenge, Philadelphia.
  • Climbing Mount Rainier. (He was scheduled to climb the 14,410-foot volcano a year earlier, but cancer intervened.)

Babao has a similar slate of activities on tap for this year. He’s back in the TRYMCA program, getting up some days to run at 5:15 a.m., heading to the pool some evenings at 7:30, taking long rides on Saturday mornings. And he’s planning to add to his race resume with the addition of the Rugged Maniac 5K next month in Asheboro. Doesn’t sound like much, a 5K run, until you learn that this breed of 5K is more medieval steeplechase, with the course peppered with barbed wire, fire, tunnels, mud pits, pools of water, barricades, cargo nets, rock scrambles, swinging pendulums, and, in the words of the sponsor “a host of other obstacles that make this course one rugged gauntlet of glory.”

For Babao, it’s not about the glory. It’s about the fun. And about doing everything he can to remain healthy.

“This lifestyle allows me to believe I’m doing everything possible to keep the cancer from forming,” says Babao. “Psychologically, I know I’m doing everything in my control to prevent any kind of re-occurrence. I know realistically that it can only help so much. But if I’m doing triathlons, I know there’s a correlation between working out and ridding myself of deadly diseases.”

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