By Brad Reynolds

The path to good fitness can be one hell of a journey. We all have our obstacles to overcome. Maybe you’re shy or embarrassed and don’t know where to begin. Maybe you feel you’re too busy to devote time to exercise and nutrition. Maybe you think it’s too late for you; your health and youth have faded and that’s just the way life goes.

Well, you’re wrong.

“Don’t say you can’t do it. You can do it. You have to decide you can,” says Paul Schroer.

Paul is a personal trainer in Great Falls. He’s 54 and has a kind face that offsets his intimidating physique. He loves fitness – anyone can tell that – so you might think it comes easy to him. But it doesn’t – because we all have our obstacles to overcome, and for Paul Schroer, the biggest one was cancer.

“My story in fitness goes back fourteen years ago,” he explains.

At that time Paul was a salesman, often on the road. He was out of shape – constantly sitting, constantly smoking, constantly eating junk food. He weighed more than he ever had. He knew he needed a change.

At forty years old, Paul got a membership to (what was then) Gold’s Gym. He started doing five minute cardio routines and lifting weights. It was something… but it wasn’t enough to get him into the shape he wanted.

Three times a week, for months, Paul’s friend Sharon asked him to attend the gym’s cycling class. Each time he respectfully declined but it never stopped Sharon from asking. One day Sharon asked if Paul would like to attend cycling class as usual, and as usual Paul said no. But instead of simply accepting his answer this time, Sharon said, “Yeah, you probably couldn’t handle it anyway.”

“That was it for me,” says Paul.

The friendly jab motivated him to prove to Sharon (and himself) that she was wrong. Paul made it through the class, continued to attend, and became stronger. A year later, he had lost 25-30 pounds and was feeling good about himself. Wanting to share that feeling with others, he became a certified personal trainer.

“Fitness became a lifestyle for me,” says Paul. “Being healthy and helping others achieve their goals makes me happy.”

With a lot of hard work and discipline, Paul had gone from the worst shape of his life to the best, and he wanted to keep challenging himself. So, he set his sights on one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world: the Ironman Triathlon.

Ironman is a grueling long-distance race that consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.22-mile run, raced in that order without breaks. As if finishing the race isn’t enough, participants are competing against the clock. Each event must be completed in a limited time frame and all competitors must finish the race in 17 hours to be designated an Ironman.

Paul knew he wasn’t ready for Ironman yet, but he was determined to get there. In 2007, he competed in his first sprint triathlon, a race which consists of a 750-meter (0.5-mile) swim, a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) bike ride, and a 5-kilometer (3.1- mile) run – no easy feat, but a cakewalk compared to Ironman.

“The first one I did… just to survive was sheer agony,” Paul says.

He competed in three more sprint triathlons that year and did another two in 2008 before taking his training to the next level, competing in two Olympic distance triathlons. As the name implies, this is the race that triathletes compete in at the Olympic Games – a 1.5-kilometer (0.93-mile) swim, a 40-kilometer (24.8-mile) bike ride, and a 10-kilometer (6.2- mile) run. After racing like an Olympian (twice), Paul was ready to take a crack at Ironman.

In 2009, he traveled from Montana to Washington for the Half Ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run). It was tough, but his training had prepared him well, and he made it through. After completing the race, his friend Jeff dared him to sign up to compete in the full Ironman later that year. Paul accepted the challenge.

“I wasn’t feeling very well when I signed up for the full,” he says… and it wasn’t nerves getting the best of him.

As Paul trained for the race, he began experiencing dizzy spells on a regular basis. He sought the advice of multiple doctors, but each told him that he was depressed and prescribed him anti-depressants.

“I kept saying, ‘I’m a happy person. I don’t need anti- depressants,’ but no one would listen,” Paul explains. “The wife of one of my clients is a doctor, Kathleen Blair. When she heard what I was going through, she offered to check my blood.”

What Dr. Blair found was irregularly high protein and low iron, a sign of blood cancer. She continued to do blood work on Paul and advised him to see an oncologist. The oncologist told him he had leukemia. It was an upsetting development, but it didn’t stop him from wanting to race. In fact, it did just the opposite.

“I had the Big C and I wanted to cross Ironman off my bucket list,” Paul says. “Everybody is going to die. I asked myself what I ask my clients; ‘How do you want to live?’”

Training for Ironman – an already Herculean feat – was made even more difficult by the cancer. Paul felt fine while training, but in between sessions, he could feel there was something wrong in his body.

More bad news came with a trip to the dermatologist. His masseuse had advised that he get a freckle looked at and it turned out to be melanoma. Doctors were able to remove it immediately, but in order to heal properly from the surgery, Paul had to give up training for three weeks – the three weeks leading to Ironman.

When Paul lined up for the race at 7am on June 21, 2009 the weather was horrific. Rain pounded. Wind blew. The storm seemed a perfect metaphor for what he was struggling with internally.

“All day I was trying to beat the clock,” he says. “I kept barely completing the events before the officials yanked the competitors that were falling behind.”

Paul made it through the 2.4-mile swim. He finished the 112-mile bike race. But as he neared the end of the 26.2-mile run, the outcome looked uncertain. It was going to be close.

If he couldn’t complete the race by midnight, he’d go home empty-handed.

“After all I’d put in, I was focused on finishing,” he says.

It was 11:42pm when he crossed the finish line. An official stopped him and said, “Paul Schroer, you are an Ironman.” The feeling was electric.

***

After the race, Paul learned that in addition to leukemia, he had lymphoma and multiple myeloma. He took some time away from fitness during chemotherapy but returned to triathlons as quickly as his recovery would allow. He’s competed in four half Ironmans since.

Paul hopes that one day there will be a cure for cancer, but for now he’s combating the diseases with good nutrition, fitness, and a positive attitude.

“Don’t let cancer beat you,” he advises.

You don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to fight cancer. Paul says that taking small steps like committing to a daily walk and limiting your sugar intake can help you improve your health and your chances of recovery.

“The will to live is the most important thing,” he says. “Every time I line up on the starting line, it’s a victory for me. Ironman keeps me going.”

Whatever your passion, whatever your dream, you’ll need to be healthy to enjoy it. If Paul can be a triathlete with cancer, surely you can overcome your own health obstacles. Find your Ironman and become a better you.