Life

Two Years Left To Live

By: Steve Pullen • 4 years ago •

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As a professional athlete at 17 years old, I’ve had a different life to most. I was a part of the Nutri-Grain Ironman Series while at school and continued to the big-time at 19, competing with household names in the Uncle Toby’s Super Series with prizemoney of well over $1,000,000.

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moved to Queensland with my girlfriend (who would later become my wife) and competed well for a few years making good money, and was crowned Australian Ironman Champion at 23 in 1999. My wife was obsessed with the small amount of celebrity that surrounded the sport but I just loved the competition.

After having a beautiful daughter, Jade, things changed. Although competing would always be in my heart, I knew that I had to provide more for my family, so building houses became the new competition for me. I suffered as most athletes do with loss of identity from no longer competing in a sport that was all I ever knew. I missed winning gold medals, winning races like my hero Trevor Hendy, the thrill of the competition and my mates who had become like brothers. I was depressed and became overweight.

I focused on my work and created a second life, but during the rush to get there, the Global Financial Crisis hit and a lot of money was wiped out of the housing market. I found myself with a few problems, one of which was a wife with post-natal depression. We ended up splitting and sadly, I haven’t seen my daughter now for 6 years. The court costs to gain access cost me and I ended up using whatever spare change I could find to try to salvage my business. Eventually, due to reasons out of my control, I was forced to liquidate the business.

I had a few very bad days, but I had to push on because I know that one day my daughter will want to see her Dad for herself and I knew what I wanted her to see.

Soon after, at the age of 35, a great mate basically forced me to start training again and enter the Coolangatta Gold, one of the most challenging Ironman endurance races in surf sports. I reconnected to the training and regiment. I made the commitment to train three times a day, every single day. I went from a very sorry 110kg and running 5km in 35 minutes, to 82kg running a 16 minute 5km.

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I was back on track physically and mentally. I ended up finishing 5 th only a few minutes behind the winner and loved it. You need to put in around 30 hours a week to get to the top performance in an area, so that breaks down to around 4 hours a day. It’s a big commitment but when you put in a big, consistent effort, the results are amazing.

I remarried a few years later and exactly a year into the marriage, I was training for another Coolangatta Gold and Ironman series. At that time, we owned a portable house and renovation business, a coffee shop and plant nursery. Life was going well again. Then one morning, I woke to tingling toes which seemed to be no big deal. But a 5km jog later left me unable to walk properly for 3 days. I started losing muscle and my times were going backwards. Off to the doctor I went, and after months of tests they diagnosed me with Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP).

This basically meant that my immune system was eating my nervous system. The prognosis wasn’t great with anywhere from 2 to 10 years in leg braces and crutches; to a total paraplegic and death by organ shutdown. Nobody could give me a cure or timeline, just a 2 weekly visit to the hospital for a blood product infusion that made me very sick.

As if things weren’t bad enough, once the wife was aware of my prognosis she told me that she “didn’t do sick and that I would have to fight this on my own” which resulted in the end of my second marriage. Once again I was left with no money and a few suitcases of clothes. Three mates stepped up and looked after me for a few months as my health continued to deteriorate to the point where I was unable to walk. The doctors finally sent me for a PET scan at the hospital where it was discovered that I had an enlarged spleen and four large bone tumours. Having a friend who was a radiologist, I clearly knew it was cancer.

Being a professional athlete is hard and hurts like hell, but having to tell your parents that you have two years to live is unbearable. I couldn’t break Mum and Dad’s hearts over the phone, so I rang my brother to go and tell them. They drove from Port Macquarie to Nambour the next day and stayed with me until I was due for chemo. Another month of testing for a lymphoma-type cancer, that seemed like an easy fix in my eyes, actually came up with Poems Syndrome. I was 111 th in the world to be diagnosed and the 4 th youngest at 38.

Age was on my side but results weren’t, so after a few uneasy days, I decided to become an expert in killing cancer and learnt everything I could. I was a professional athlete again, eating the cleanest fresh food and water, and taking alternate medicines. This was now the race I had to win. My ski training reduced from 15-20km a session to 1500m, swim from 10km sessions to 1km, running was non-existent – a stagger in leg braces and crutches was it! I couldn’t feel below my knee and even broke my leg getting out of the shower one day, which I managed to keep from Mum and Dad as they didn’t need more worry.

Being a professional athlete is hard and hurts like hell, but having to tell your parents that you have two years to live is unbearable.

I had fantastic mates that treated me normally and kept me going, even holding a fundraiser to help with treatment, although life after treatment didn’t look promising. I kept positive, kept training and always had a perfect PH alkaline diet because I was determined I was going to survive. I was going to walk and race again even though statistics were against me.

Massive waves are frightening but seeing two horse-sized, chemo-filled needles getting injected into your heart is worse, but I was ready for the fight. I had my yoga mat, juicing machine, PH neutral water and great food being delivered to hospital. I was due for an 8 week stay and was feeling ok for 6 days. I was exercising daily and aiming for the hospital record of 6 x 70m laps walking around the ward. I only managed 4 laps and was devastated. The physio bought in 1kg dumbbells to keep me exercising when I couldn’t walk, which is all I could lift so things weren’t looking good at all.

One day, I decided I needed to try and break the 6 lap record around the ward. I put on my leg braces, grabbed my walking stick and only made half a lap. I was covered in sweat, crying my eyes out and feeling like I had lost all hope when Nathan Meyer, one of my oldest friends, came around the corner. We had trained together as kids and raced fiercely for 15 years, but that was the day he kept me from giving in and saved my life.

Never give up, never give in. No matter what you are told, your body and mind can achieve the impossible – you just need to make it happen.

He got me around the rest of the lap back to my room and, in so many ways, helped me to live. I was in hospital for 18 days, exercised for 14 days, and watched 6 people die. I looked into every room on my walks and saw 34 rooms of people who gave themselves only two options. 1. Live because the doctors fixed them, or 2. die because the cancer won the battle. I chose my own option and decided to force my blood around my body and heal it through positive thinking and exercise. Everything I’ve learnt through sport, extreme effort training and positive thoughts got me through the toughest race ever. I’m almost back to normal walking now, the cancer has gone and I’ve now gone past my 2-year expiry date.

Never give up, never give in. No matter what you are told, your body and mind can achieve the impossible – you just need to make it happen.

Steve Pullen is a former Australian Ironman Champion, Business Owner and Coach. Steve started his professional Ironman career at 17, competing in both the Nutri-Grain Ironman Series and the Uncle Toby’s Super Series. At 23, he was crowned the Australian Ironman Champion.

2 years ago, Steve was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of blood cancer and given only 2 years to live. This is where Steve’s story begins. He drew on his years of training, determination and fitness to take on the toughest race of his life.

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