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Four-time cancer survivor Mike Thompson sets sights on Ironman Texas

Triathlete doesn't let depleted lung capacity, missing fibula, interfere with training.

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Mike Thompson's lungs pump at 40 percent capacity, and he has no fibula in his left leg because doctors removed it to rebuild his jawbone not exactly the makings of a typical endurance athlete.

Those challenges won't stop Iron Mikey, as his friends call him, from competing in his first Ironman triathlon next month.

At the moment, Thompson, 25, a four-time cancer survivor, is pausing long enough between training sessions for a little hydration and rest at Dominican Joe's coffee shop. He'll be back out on the hike-and-bike trail around Lady Bird Lake soon.

"For me, it's pretty much to show cancer who's boss," Thompson says of his Ironman quest. "I was told I wouldn't live past 18, that the chances of me surviving cancer again and again and again were slim."

Thompson was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 1996, when he was 10. He remembers thinking, "Does that mean I'm not going to live very long?"

He started chemotherapy within a week of his diagnosis. The treatment caused complications, and he developed a nasal infection that required more than 20 surgeries.

He went into remission the following year, but the cancer returned three months later. In the next few years he had two bone marrow transplants and facial reconstruction after radiation treatments caused a tumor in his jaw.

Fallout from the treatments lingers today. His lung capacity was depleted by months of chemotherapy, and he lost 40 percent of his hearing. His growth slowed, and he stands just 5 feet 4 inches tall. Doctors told him walking would be difficult the first few years, and that he'd probably never run.

"I've shown them," he says. "I've gotten really fast."

A strong heart, he says, has helped him compensate. He's got the lean, strappy look of an endurance athlete, too.

Cancer, he says, has made him who he is, especially in the world of triathlon.

"You have to fight yourself to get through cancer. Because of what I've been through, and because I'm smaller, this is my way of proving to myself I'm capable of competing with the best athletes in the world," he says.

Now cancer-free, Thompson is using his experience as motivation.

In 2009, he joined Team in Training to cycle 100 miles around Lake Tahoe and raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. That just sparked a desire to do more.

When Thompson returned to Austin, he jumped into running and swimming, too. He completed his first triathlon — a half Ironman with a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run — in a respectable six and a half hours. (No beginner-friendly Olympic distance race for Thompson!)

"I fell in love with it. And I knew immediately I wanted to do an Ironman," Thompson said.

He's now looking down the barrel at his first full Ironman, the Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas in the Woodlands outside Houston on May 21.

He has teamed with John Whitaker, founder of the nonprofit GoMitchGo, an arm of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, to raise $10,000 for blood cancer research. (To learn more about his efforts, go to www.ironmikey.com.)

Thompson, who works at RunTex as a coach and shoe technician, has been spending 18 to 20 hours a week preparing. Steve Blackmon, whom he met through the Team in Training program, is writing his training program.

He has faced setbacks along the way.

He missed five weeks of training over the winter because he needed a tissue graft on the side of his mouth. Then, just as he was getting back, his bike was stolen.

He hopes to finish the Ironman in 12 hours, and has enlisted his own fan club — some 150 supporters — to come to The Woodlands to cheer him on.

Today, with his cancer gone, he travels to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston for yearly checkups, but doesn't get mired down wondering what future tests will show.

"I learned a long time ago that worrying only takes away precious minutes you could be out doing something," he says.

For him, those minutes would be better spent going back to Concordia University Texas this fall to finish a degree he started before he had to drop out for medical treatment. And they'd be better spent on the bike, in the water or running down the trail around Lady Bird Lake.

"I would rather be out there training than anything else," Thompson says. "The world is my playground, and I want to be out there in it."

He hopes one day to race in the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. He also wants to start his own nonprofit foundation, one that would focus on helping cancer patients and their families work through the emotional toil of fighting cancer.

"If I can go from being in a hospital bed without enough strength to stand up to swimming, biking and running 140.6 miles, hopefully I can inspire just one person to live life a little fuller," he says.

pleblanc@statesman.com; 445-3994