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Craig Johnston’s IRONMAN Journey from Cancer to Kona

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After suffering a seizure in his sleep in July 2018, Craig Johnston was diagnosed with a grade 3 astrocytoma, a type of malignant brain tumour. Two years later, the Aycliffe Tri Club member is training for IRONMAN UK in 2021.

“When the tumour was first found, following a seizure in my sleep, I had my first surgery to remove it. Fortunately, it was in a relatively easily accessible part of the brain, so I've been able to have extensive treatment without too much in the way of side effects or physical impairments,” Johnston said.

His surgery was then followed by 30 radiotherapy treatments over a six-week period before beginning a six-month course of chemotherapy.

“Once you've been diagnosed with something like that, they tend to keep a close eye on you, and I went back for MRI scans every 12 weeks,” said Johnston.

“Around Christmas last year they spotted a few changes at the surgery site and in July 2020 they decided it was likely some tumour missed from the first surgery which was starting to regrow so I had a repeat of the surgery in the first week of August this year and I've just finished my third month of chemotherapy on Sunday.”

Johnston began taking up triathlon after his surgery, saying: “I've been interested in triathlon for quite a few years but being a pretty poor swimmer put me off for a long time. I've been a keen runner for years and first found out about triathlon when I saw a video on Tim Don and Craig Alexander's training routine.”

Despite only recently taking to multisport, Johnston quickly set his sights on long distance triathlon, saying: “Being more into the endurance and distance side of things, I was hooked by IRONMAN and always wanted to do one but for one reason or another I never really threw myself into it.

“Now my daughter is a little older, I've got a bit more time to commit and train and finally learn how to swim properly. I met a member of Aycliffe Tri Club through a neighbour at the start of lockdown who encouraged me to join and from then I've been attending training sessions and working on my swim when Covid-19 restrictions allow.”

Johnston’s experience with Aycliffe Tri Club has been an extremely positive one, saying: “I've had nothing but great experiences and the coaches and other members are massively motivating, plus a little friendly competition always gets you working harder than you might otherwise.”

Like many other triathletes across the world, Johnston’s training has been impacted by the ongoing pandemic, saying: “Covid-19 hasn't helped, especially as I was new to swimming so having the training constantly disrupted by facilities closing has made it a little more difficult than it would have been. At least in the summer we had open water but on the other side of that, I'd be sat in the office rather than riding on Zwift had it not been for furlough and subsequent redundancy.”

Not only does Johnston have to work his training schedule around Covid-19 disruption, but he also has to fit in his preparation for IRONMAN UK around his chemotherapy cycles as the medication used can cause fatigue and sickness.

“I try to get some light base training in during it but this week for instance I haven't been able to do anything other than a light jog, luckily it goes back to normal a few days after the cycle ends,” said Johnston.

Despite the challenges, he remains positive, saying: “If anything, it’s probably got me training more as a way to keep busy during my treatment as simply put, due to the lockdown there are less distractions.”

Johnston is hoping to ramp his training up over the winter as his treatment comes to an end and will be searching for a coach to begin structuring his training more effectively.

“Most of the challenges have been centred around working with what my treatment lets me do. I managed to be back on the bike a couple of days after the surgery but that was limited to the indoor trainer,” said Johnston.

“After a few weeks, I was able to get back out running and since then it’s only been the odd four or five days off a month during chemotherapy. To get past them I've just tried to concentrate on what I can do at the time. When the pools closed, I set a marathon target and did that last weekend before the cycle. Also, through the club we've had virtual events through Strava and Zwift which mix the training stimulus up a little.”

Johnston’s training is in preparation for IRONMAN UK in Bolton next year, a long distance race that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and a marathon run.

“I signed up for IRONMAN UK 2021 around April time so it was just before I found out about the second surgery which I thought would put a spanner in the works but luckily I've been able to maintain quite a lot of training throughout the treatment,” said Johnston.

“About that time, I started logging things on a YouTube Channel called Cancer to Kona, although to qualify for that I might need to strap a rocket to my bike but who knows? I might get a lot faster once this chemo wears off.

“The idea of the channel was to hopefully raise awareness about brain tumours and cancers along with hopefully sparking people in a similar situation to myself to go for fitness or event goals as training has helped me recover massively.”

He continued: “IRONMAN has always captured my imagination from first seeing the world championships years ago, but having the second scare and another round of treatment reminded me that health's not guaranteed so I'd best do something while I can, so since starting the channel I've just thrown myself into it.

Despite the future being rather unpredictable, Johnston is approaching it with optimism and hopes to find or organise a 70.3-mile race in the next few months to prepare for IRONMAN UK.

“Obviously the idea of qualifying for the age group at Kona one year is awesome, but being realistic I've got some long hours to put in before I'm close to that sort of fitness and will probably need some experience under the belt. I guess one silver lining of all this is that I've got plenty of time on my hands,” said Johnston.

You can find Craig Johnston’s YouTube channel, Cancer to Kona here as well as his Just Giving page for Brain Tumour Research.

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