By Scott Prater
Anyone who has signed up to compete in one of the Schriever Fitness Center’s monthly sports events knows who Seth Cannello is, but the Schriever Air Force Base sports and fitness director is about to become a household name among triathlon circles.
A book detailing his 2009 Arizona Ironman Triathlon effort was scheduled to hit bookstores this month.
“When I registered for the 2009 Arizona Ironman I had no idea it might lead to this,” Cannello said. “I filled out a form. On it, race organizers asked questions like ‘how many triathlons have you competed in’ and ‘have you overcome any dramatic obstacles during preparation for this event.’”
Those two questions proved fateful for Cannello, who responded by writing that not only would this would be his first triathlon attempt, but that he had also endured a tough bout with testicular cancer a decade earlier.
It turns out that Jacques Steinberg, an award-winning writer for the New York Times was gathering information for a book he was researching about Ironman triathletes. Cannello’s story proved so riveting that Steinberg sent a message, asking if he could follow Cannello’s training up to and including the race.
“I found it oddly coincidental that Mr. Steinberg contacted me the day after we learned my father had been diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor,” Cannello said. So, that added to the complexity of my training, to say the least.”
A shocking discovery
During the summer of 1994 he felt like he was in the best shape of his life when he jumped into a swimming pool at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.
The 25 year-old Soldier worked out every day and led an active lifestyle, but that dip would change his life in too many ways to count.
“When I hit the water I thought I had really injured myself,” he said. “I struggled to reach the side of the pool and then needed a good 15 minutes just to catch my breath.”
Following an agonizing night, he awoke the next morning to discover severe bruising from waist to knee.
The trip to a local hospital eventually revealed an even more shocking diagnosis: testicular cancer.
Over the next few weeks he endured a blast of intensive chemo therapy treatments, a measure doctors said could most likely cleanse his system of the cancer.
Two years later, as soon as he thought he might have beaten the dreadful disease, he was told the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Following surgery to remove them he was told again, there no were no other signs of cancer.
It would be another two years before doctors discovered another tumor, this time on his left shoulder blade.
Once again he endured more surgery, but it’s been 14 years since that last treatment. He continued regular checkups over a five-year span and was cleared every time.
That’s not to say everything has worked out smoothly. The disease ravaged his body and left him unable to work, which eventually led to an early discharge from the Army.
He recovered during the few years following his discharge, eventually picking up work in the fitness field at the U.S. Air Force Academy, which later led to his position as the fitness center director here.
“I had never really contemplated my own mortality until the day I was diagnosed,” he said. “I vowed if I survived I wouldn’t take my life and health for granted. That’s one of the reasons I sought employment in the health and fitness industry. I try to encourage people to live healthier lifestyles because I know firsthand how important being fit can be. Even if you get sick, the healthier you are, the easier it is to bounce back.”
A marathon is just not gonna do it
After years of organizing sports events for some of the Air Force’s most competitive athletes, Cannello felt inspiration growing. Watching others compete from the sidelines simply became too much to handle.
After considering a multitude of competitive endeavors, he said he wanted to do something he knew would provide a real test.
“Once I decided to go for the Ironman I told everyone I knew,” he said. “One of the first questions people asked me was, ‘Why not just run a marathon, or a half triathlon,’ but I knew I needed something bigger. Through my job here at Schriever people often tell me about their sports endeavors. When I heard about marathons and other forms of ultra-endurance type achievements I always thought, ‘I could do that,’ but the Ironman scared me. The entire time I was training for it, I was terrified that I might not be able to finish.”
He registered for the Arizona Ironman 364 days prior to the race, saying his motivation stemmed from his battle with cancer and a desire to accomplish something truly amazing.
He knew instantly that this was the test he was looking for. Ironman competitors must swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and finish with a full 26.2 mile marathon, all in less than 17 hours.
Waking at 4 a.m. each day, he swam, cycled and ran before work. Following his daily duties, he hit the trails again, racking up hundreds of miles in a single week.
Meanwhile, his father’s condition worsened, which took time away from his ability to train.
“I worried constantly that I wasn’t training enough,” he said. “Brain cancer does incredible things to a person. My dad needed my help, so I was constantly running up to his house.”
But fellow Schriever triathletes Rob Ladewig, a contractor with the Missile Defense Agency and Lt. Col. Clifton Stargardt, 25th Space Range Squadron, individual mobilization augmentee, provided some much needed encouragement, telling him it was perfectly normal to feel like you’re not training enough.
“I was fatigued all the time,” he said. “I couldn’t believe training could be that tiring. And I didn’t need to diet. I ate everything I could get my hands on. People would laugh at me when they saw three entrees on my plate at the dining facility, but really, I was eating constantly and I still lost nearly 40 pounds while training for Arizona.”
During the final month leading up to the race, his father passed away.
“Under the best of circumstances training for an Ironman is time consuming, difficult and stressful,” Stargardt said. “You sacrifice time away from your family on weekends for long bike rides and runs, wearing yourself out, resting, recuperating, and then doing it all over again to give yourself the best chance of making it from the start to the finish.”
Cannello freely admits, the swim segment of the Ironman is his worst event. Heart heavy with un-subsiding grief, he dived in for the first leg.
“I just remember being so cold I could hardly function,” he said. “I must have looked bad coming out of the water too because when my wife saw me the first words out of her mouth were, ‘are you going to be able to continue?’ — that made me angry.”
If he didn’t have enough motivation already, that comment provided a spark. He needed 17 minutes to warm up and change from sneakers to cycling shoes, and began to feel comfortable again 10 minutes into his bike leg. From there, he rode the rest of the 112 miles and had plenty of energy left for the 26.2 mile run.
Steinberg was one of many who witnessed the 2009 Arizona Ironman and he detailed competitor’s training and their results of the race in his book, “You Are an Ironman: How Six Weekend Warriors Chased Their Dream of Finishing the World’s Toughest Triathlon.”
The book is due out this September.
“I have deep respect and admiration for what Seth had to go through during training, dealing with his father’s illness on top of the other family sacrifices,” Stargardt said. “He set a goal, worked hard for it, dealt with the difficulties that came at him and didn’t stop believing. And with that recipe Seth can forever call himself ‘Ironman.’”