Victorian loses kidney to cancer, battles back to finish Ironman race
Though it's been close to two years since Keith Schaefer was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, he still gets emotional about the toll it took on his two young children.
"They were really scared because of the cancer; they didn't understand and were worried about what was going to happen later," Schaefer, 44, said. "I was wanting to show them that 'I can't' is not acceptable, that the words 'I can' mean so much. If I can, anybody can."
Five months after his diagnosis and having one of his kidneys removed, Schaefer began running again. The Victoria native ran two marathons and three half-marathons before taking a long hiatus in 2012.
"I just got motivated at that point. Once I got to May and I was recovered enough where I didn't have much pain anymore, I went for my first checkup," Schaefer said. "(The doctor) said you can run, and you can do whatever you want to do."
And he did.
In about a year's time, Schaefer recovered from surgery, trained countless hours and completed his first Ironman competition in May in The Woodlands. He finished the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and marathon (26.2 miles) in 15 hours and 15 minutes.
Schaefer said the six days between the diagnosis of his Stage 2 cancer and his surgery were ugly. After the emergency room initially thought he was suffering from intense kidney stones, scans showed a much more serious reality.
"They called another doctor over, and I wondered what they were talking about - they all had these weird looks on their faces," he said. "They said, 'We have to inform you that you have a large mass on your kidney, and it's probably RCC."
"My first question was 'When can we take it out?'"
Schaefer's kidney had a tumor that was 31/2 centimeters in size that was trying to cut the organ in half, he said.
A former motocross racer who had experienced multiple injuries, Schaefer is no stranger to surgeries or pain - he just wanted to get rid of the affected area and get on the road to recovery.
Schaefer's kidney was removed through a laparoscopic procedure by Victoria urologist Dr. Christopher Manatt. Two days before being released from the hospital, Schaefer opted to stop taking painkillers. He said he didn't like the way they made him feel.
"Motocross taught me that I can handle pain. I just knew it was another setback, and I had to deal with it and get past it," he said.
Schaefer raced motocross competitively for more than 15 years.
In that time, he broke his tibia and fibula bones, numerous ribs, broke his collarbone twice and separated both of his shoulders twice. And he calls those the minor injuries.
While his wife, Rachel, was pregnant with their second child, Schaefer had the worst crash of his career, which landed him in the hospital with a shattered femur, broken bones in his left arm, another separated shoulder, a punctured right lung, broken rib bones and a concussion.
"I figured that everything that has happened to me has toughened me up, and I've broken many bones and been in the hospital many times," he said. "All that stuff helped me prepare not only for the Ironman but for when I got the cancer. I told my wife that I've always found a way out of tough situations, so I'll find a way out of this one."
The road to Ironman
Swimming was the biggest struggle for Schaefer, who had been running and riding two-wheeled vehicles for years.
"I struggled for quite a while, and then in a period of a month, something clicked, and I started relaxing," he said.
A month before the full race, Schaefer and a number of other Crossroads residents participated in a half-Ironman competition in Galveston. He remembers swimming against 2-foot waves in the Gulf of Mexico.
"Swimming in Galveston in the half-Ironman was super hard, but mentally, it clicked that no other swim would be that hard," he said. "It's the craziest thing I've ever done - I was completely blown away by that swim."
From August 2013 to the competition in May, Schaefer swam three times a week, ran three times a week and rode a bicycle three times a week.
The training wasn't only a sacrifice for him but also his family, he said.
"It's a solo event, but it's really a team sport if you have a family - they're going to have to support you," he said. "It's 15 hours a week, give or take, of training. The kids gave up a lot of the last eight months for training - I missed soccer games, school events. They gave up a large part of their lives to help me through this."
Schaefer mostly trained solo but often turned to friends Paul Spinks, of Victoria, and Jason Browning, formerly of Victoria, for training advice and companionship.
"(Browning and I have) have a long-running text that I still have every message from eight months ago comparing training, where we're at and how we felt," Schaefer said. "When Paul Spinks signed up, we spent almost every Saturday for the last eight months riding bicycles together out on the highway."
Schaefer's brother, Kevin, also helped prepare him for what was coming. Kevin Schaefer has completed two Ironmans himself.
"We made our own plans, and it got us there," he said.
With his longest workout clocking in at around eight hours, Schaefer said he often wondered how he would last for another eight hours on top of that.
"That's what the training does - it gets you to that point, and that's part of Ironman, too," he said. "Go from one point to the next, you hit that milestone, and you set another milestone - just keep going, and before too long, race day is here, and you're out there doing 140 miles."
All of the months of training in strong South Texas winds and the choppy waters in the Gulf helped Schaefer get to the starting line in The Woodlands.
"You get really emotional in the first few hours, but after that, once you get to nine hours in that long day, it becomes kind of automatic," he said. "You pedal; you drink; you pedal some more; you take in some calories; you pedal some more. You're on auto-pilot."
Eventually, he just accepted that it was another long swim, another 100-mile bike ride, another few miles to run.
"You go from point A to B and then from point B to point C - you keep on going," he said. "It's the same way I define having cancer."
Schaefer's wife and children tried to catch glimpses of him throughout the day. He calls them his "troopers."
After finishing up the bicycle portion of the race, he exited the tent and saw his family by a fence.
"I leaned into them and said to them, 'This is for y'all,'" Schaefer said with tears in his eyes. "'This run is for y'all. I'm doing it for y'all.' I did it as much for them as I did for myself."
Once an Ironman, always an Ironman
Schaefer plans to compete in a half-Ironman every year for the next three years until he has been cancer free for five years.
"For my fifth year after the surgery, when I'm officially cancer free - they call it a 'Five Year Survivor' - I want do another full. That's how I want to finish it," he said.
Schaefer said if he can do an Ironman, anyone can.
"I hope that me taking it on as a beginner and committing to do a full Ironman in just one year's time inspires my family and other people to realize they can do more than they ever thought they could," he said. "We're all capable of more than we ever though we were capable of. I want to try to live my life that way."