Run for Life

S.B. Triathlon Runner Returns After Beating Cancer

S.B. Triathalon
Paul Wellman

When a young, robust John Brazelton was ripping through triathlons, he never would have believed that finishing in 550th place would feel so good. That’s where he ended up in the Santa Barbara Triathlon last Saturday, 17 years after he won the race in a record-setting time. More significantly, it was exactly one year after he lay in an Orange County hospital with scorching pain in his abdomen and a grim picture emerging from a CT scan.

Anna Gardner, his mother, will never forget that morning. She was watching the sun come up at her Santa Barbara home when the phone rang. “It was John,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m in the emergency room, and it’s bad. Really bad.’” The scan had revealed a large abdominal tumor. Further tests were to confirm it originated from testicular cancer.

The start of the 2010 S.B. Triathalon.
Paul Wellman

It was “the darkest and most terrifying time of my life,” Brazelton, 42, wrote in an online journal. His biggest fear was leaving his tri-family—wife, Karen, and daughters Jillian and Kirsten—without the man in their lives. But the final diagnosis brought hope. He had one of the most treatable forms of the disease.

After undergoing two months of arduous chemotherapy, Brazelton’s cancer was arrested. He got on a bicycle last Thanksgiving, “trying to feel human again.” Early this year, he came up with the idea of doing the triathlon. It helped that his oncologist, Dr. David Burtzo, was a triathlete himself. And it was auspicious that this year’s S.B. Tri was a fundraiser for the Teddy Bear Cancer Foundation, which supports the families of children with cancer.

John and Jill Brazelton
Paul Wellman

“It’s been a very long, very slow process,” Brazelton said of his becoming an athlete again. “I still have nerve damage from the chemo. I haven’t felt my toes for a year.” But he got through the long course Saturday—a mile swim, 34-mile bike ride, and 10-mile run (which he walked)—in four-and-a-half hours. It was the 14th time the Santa Barbara High graduate (class of ’86) did the race, and by far the slowest. “It made me appreciate how fast I used to be,” he said. “The walk took me two hours, 20 minutes. On a good day, I’d run it in an hour flat.”

Wearing the yellow “LIVESTRONG” shirt and bracelet of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, Brazelton pumped his fist when he finished and said, “This is an emphatic ‘up yours’ to cancer.”

It got even better on Sunday. Brazelton swam, biked, and ran with 11-year-old Jillian, as she did her first triathlon on Santa Barbara’s sprint course. They finished the two-mile run with a triumphant flourish, and then there were hugs all around with family and friends.

Jill and John Brazelton at the finish line.
Paul Wellman

“She’s the complete package,” Brazelton said of his daughter, a swimmer, ballet dancer, and, like him, a science maven. He will be returning to his job as a chemistry teacher at Newport Harbor High School this week.

The parent-child division of the S.B. Tri has grown in popularity since it was introduced by Joe Coito, the event’s longtime director. It epitomizes the healthy, family-friendly spirit of the weekend at East Beach. The 2,000 participants and 350 volunteers all did their part with hardly any complaints.

Coito announced the awards for the top finishers and presented a contributor’s plaque to Joe Howell, a stalwart of the fitness community. Howell, a lawyer, accepted the award with the shortest speech of his life, words that summed up the weekend: “Great event. Thank you.”

GAMES OF THE WEEK: It was August last weekend, not September, and I hope the goof in last week’s column did not mislead you. I must have been looking ahead to the start of the football season. It’s here. There are three high school games in town Friday, September 3: Righetti at Dos Pueblos, Cabrillo at San Marcos, and Channel Islands at Santa Barbara. They kick off at 7 p.m. … Santa Barbara City College will dedicate its renovated field and track at La Playa Stadium on Saturday, September 4, before the Vaqueros open their football season against Allan Hancock College at 6 p.m. From 4-5:30 p.m., there will be a sizzling competition between the schools’ chefs in the parking lot outside the stadium: The Grid Iron Tri-Tip Cookoff. Tickets to taste the results are $10 in advance (730-4076) and $12 at the door. … More than 300 intrepid runners will take off from Stearns Wharf early Sunday morning to begin the Pier to Peak Half Marathon. When they reach the finish line at La Cumbre Peak, they will be able to look down at the distant wharf almost 4,000 feet below.

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