SNOWBASIN — On the same day, at almost the same time that Todd Heustis crossed the finish line of his first triathlon, his brother succumbed to cancer.
He thinks of the life his brother didn’t get to live every time he struggles on a run or suffers on a ride.
When 53-year-old Heustis started signing up for races a few years ago, he didn’t have any idea how it would change his life or the lives of those he loved. He didn’t know it would enhance the lives of his children and father and save the life of his uncle.
Like most of us, the races were motivation to train.
They were a complex reward for not allowing inertia to overcome our desire to live a healthier, more enjoyable life. I say complex because the challenge, and sometimes suffering, that’s involved in endurance racing doesn’t seem like much of a carrot to the unindoctrinated. But for runners, cyclists and triathletes, it is both the goal they chase and the humiliation they hope to avoid.
The father of 13 joined a universe he’d never really thought about because he loves to hunt.
Four years ago, he drew a rare, and very coveted, hunting permit for mountain goat in the Colorado Rockies. The Fort Collins man realized pretty quickly that if he wanted to succeed on the hunt of a lifetime, he needed to get in better physical condition.
“I started doing every event possible to get in shape for it,” he said during last month’s XTERRA National Trail Running Championship at Snowbasin. “You know how you’re supposed to taper before big events? I did the Rock and Roll Marathon and a half ironman in the two weeks prior to the mountain goat hunt. I was pretty well fried.” But he earned his goat on the side of Mount Bierstadt at 13,600 feet.
So why did he keep training and competing? Because he could. And, also, because his brother could not.
“I think that God’s given me health and ability,” he said as we huffed and puffed our way up the scenic trails that will soon be Snowbasin’s ski runs. “And I can’t just sit around on the couch and waste it.”
He described the bittersweet moment when he reached the finish line of that first triathlon and learned that he’d lost his brother to cancer.
“And so, kind of thinking about him,” he said, “gives me a good excuse to keep going.”
Heustis said part of what drew him into endurance sports, especially triathlons like the XTERRA off-road events, is the people.
“You get to meet the neatest people,” he said. Like ultra runner turned XTERRA competitor Becky Piper, who competed alongside Heustis in the Lory XTERRA in June despite being paralyzed on the right side of her body.
“She had this plastic brace that locked her foot to the pedal, and she had a clamp that locked her right hand onto the handle bar,” Heustis recalled. “I looked at her and thought, ‘This woman has lost her mind. There is no way she’s going to do a mountain triathlon. She’s half paralyzed.’”
So he followed her through the bike ride where he and a guide helped her get back onto her bike every time she fell.
“We must have helped her get back on her bike 20 times,” he said. “Then we went through transition, and it is that time I realize she’d beaten me out of the water, and I’m a pretty good swimmer.”
They ran and walked the “hard, rocky climb” together, and they finished the sprint distance in five hours.
“I was ecstatic,” he said. “There was hugging and crying.”
And while that finish was among his favorites, nothing tops seeing his 77-year-old father, William, finish his first triathlon alongside his 72-year-old brother, Doug.
He was a Vietnam veteran who’d struggled with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder throughout his life, and only took up training for an XTERRA because his older brother was doing so.
“He started by saying he might do a little running,” Todd Heustis said. “And he actually did his first triathlon last year.”
Both William and Doug won their respective age divisions in XTERRA’s regional championships last year.
“He brought my dad a picture of him and my dad running together at an event,” he said. “My dad was like, ‘Yeah, this is nice.’ And Doug said, with tears in his eyes, ‘I don’t think you get it. If it wasn’t for you getting me out of that shell, making me do something, I wouldn’t be here today. I had plans on where, when and how, and because of this, I’m still here.’ So, how do you rank anything above that?”
We ran in silence a few minutes after that, as I contemplated all the ways in which we influence each other every day. We never know which habits our children will latch onto, what activities might bring us new and interesting friends.
But it’s clear that Heustis’ decision to get in better shape for that hunt has enhanced not just his life and the lives of his dad and uncle, but also his wife and children.
At the Utah event in September, five of his children participated, along with Heustis and his father.
Three of his children have won XTERRA National Trail Running championships, and about half of them participated — or are participating — in their high school cross-country program at Front Range Baptist Academy.
Micala Schultz won the 15-19-year-old National Trail Run championship at the Snowbasin race, and her sisters, Katelyn Schultz and Anna Heustis, helped the family sweep the podium with second- and third-place finishes, respectively. I almost didn’t go to the XTERRA National Trail Run Championship because I’d been feeling sick and I had to work late the night before. As usual, my reward for showing up at the finish line wasn’t just a decision that paid off for me physically.
Heustis is absolutely right when he says one meets "the neatest people" out on the courses of these challenging but beautiful races. They do for each other what Heustis and his family did for me that cloudy Sunday morning.
They remind you that good health is a gift, that tragedy doesn’t have to define you or make your life smaller, and that we can be a powerful force for good in the lives of those who swim, bike or stumble across our paths for just a few minutes or for every step of our lives.