When he picked up my call, I asked him how he was. It’s a standard greeting. And a standard response would be something along the lines of a “Good, thanks.” Or, for someone living with Stage 3B lung cancer, perhaps a “Hanging in there.” But that’s not what I got.
Kirk Smith told me in a voice so sanguine, “I’m living the dream.” His optimism was immediately palpable, contagious through the phone that connected us from his home in Athens, Georgia to my office in New York. He was just 51 years old in 2013 when a doctor found unusual masses in his chest and told him he had just a five percent chance of surviving another five years.
An avid triathlete, Smith never smoked. His cancer, which kills more than 400 people each day—more than prostate, breast and colon cancer combined—was caused by a genetic mutation called ALK+ (anaplastic lymphoma kinase). His treatment began with a targeted therapy drug, crizotinib (Xalkori), to combat the mutation, and came with a slew of adverse side effects. Thanks to research, he was able to later switch to another FDA-approved drug, ceritinib (Zykadia), and has since watched his tumors shrink and his lymph nodes clear. But, no, he’s not still standing today.
He’s running. He’s biking. He’s swimming. He’s going the distance with a half-IRONMAN triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, 13.1 mile run) in North Carolina come October, competing alongside Free to Breathe, a lung cancer research and advocacy organization that has raised more $14 million and will fund two new grants this year. In other words, Smith is one inspirational dude. So I caught up with him for more on his motivation, training and, you know, being a badass.
“Surround yourself with positive people, people that lift you up and, when you have days when you get out on a ride and get your crap kicked and you’re getting dropped, they come back and give you a little bit of shit and push you.”
You’re living proof that research into new medications could be extraordinarily beneficial to people living with cancer. How are you using IRONMAN to get the word out there?
I felt like, for me to say that I have lung cancer and I used to do triathlons wasn’t very inspirational. So I talked to my wife and I talked to my doctors and said, Maybe I can do this race. It sounds really cheesy, or cliché or like b.s., but hope is all some people need. I’m not expecting to beat cancer—not by any stretch… I don’t really care about awareness. We’re all aware of cancer. I want people to be educated on what makes a difference, and they are not all researchers, but they’ve got dollars in their pockets they could contribute, and that makes a difference.
Can you walk me through what exactly one does to train for an IRONMAN? What is a typical week for you?
One of the biggest fears for me when I was diagnosed with cancer is that I would just shrink up because the cancer and sometimes the medication can affect your muscle mass. So my training has been to reverse that—slowly amp up my fitness so I don’t lose that weight.
I own my own business, so I have to work around that. So most of my week is probably a morning workout at 5:15-5:30 in the morning. Typically that’s a run or a swim or a gym workout. In the evening, it’s possibly a swim, or a bike ride, which might be on the road or mountain biking—or a gym workout. And on the weekends I’ll try to do several [workouts]… So I’m working out almost every day of the week.
A ride might be anywhere from two hours to a three-and-a-half-hour bike ride, and that’s about as far as I want to go. That’s not what I would normally do for a half-IRONMAN, but I feel like, with my condition, I need to strike a balance. My runs will probably be maxed out at about 90 minutes, anywhere between six to 12 miles. My road bike rides will be anywhere between 50 and 65 miles, and a mountain bike ride I don’t chart mileage; I just do it for time, so it might be a two-and-a-half- to a three-and-a-half-hour ride.
“I don’t want the sympathy vote. I don’t want to be the guy who everyone’s pulling for last place coming in a million miles behind. I want to race this race and I want to do well.”
In terms of dieting and your fueling strategy, do you have follow any strict regimens while you’re training?
I’ve always been very healthy and I eat a lot. When I was diagnosed, I was trying to gain more muscle mass so I ramped my calorie intake up to about 4,000 calories a day. But it’s all really nutrient food. It’s healthy and, as much as I can, it’s natural. As much as I can, I minimize processed foods. It’s smoothies, lean meats, vegetables, salads, nuts and almonds.
So, we talked physical training, what you’re eating, and I feel like this has gotta be pretty mental, too.
I live by this philosophy of live. ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ We really have no other choice. I have cancer. That’s the reality. But it does not define me. Crying about it or second-guessing does no good. Analyzing survival rates does no good. So let’s get on with it. Arm ourselves with as much knowledge and positivity as we can. Do the best that I can to stay healthy, make intelligent nutrition and health choices to help ward off both the cancer and the side effects of the meds. Fight. Every day. But more importantly, live. Every day.
Surround yourself with positive people, people that lift you up and, when you have days when you get out on a ride and get your crap kicked and you’re getting dropped, they come back and give you a little bit of shit and push you. You get going and stop feeling sorry for yourself and keep on rolling.
Do you have any major personal goals for this race?
One of them is get to the race healthy. The reality is that October is a ways off, and the cancer could start growing and I could be dealing with challenging health issues by that time. Not to be melodramatic, but that’s the reality of it.
I don’t want the sympathy vote. I don’t want to be the guy who everyone’s pulling for last place coming in a million miles behind. I want to race this race and I want to do well. I don’t expect to win it, but my point of doing this is to challenge myself and perform pretty well relative to my capabilities. Ideally, I’d love to do a five-hour race. And, also, I want to raise $3,500 for Free to Breathe, just personally, and for the charity slot that I’m in, and I hope this story gets out there. Research is saving lives and it’s important and here’s proof.
When you finally reach the finish line, how are you going to celebrate?
I really don’t know. I’m not somebody who cries at the finish line and I’m not somebody who has to call attention to myself and go crazy, but who knows, I may do that… I know I’ll be thankful that I’m out there and can race. That’s the biggest thing—that I’m 54 years old and I’m in good enough health that I can be out there and push myself a little bit. So I’ll probably do a little bit of fist pumping, yell and then get out of the way.
“The ‘new normal’ can kiss my ass. It’s a phrase used a lot in regards to ‘adjusting to your new life with cancer.’ I hate that phrase. What I hear is that I should accept where I am physically because of this disease. Nope! I choose not to settle for where I am.”
Is there anything else you feel worth noting?
No matter how much I’ve come to ‘normalize’ the fact that I have this disease, there is never a day that goes by that it’s not the first thing that enters my mind when I wake up. Though we are still riding out this “hurricane,” in some way, I’m one of the lucky ones. The cancer has pushed me as a human being, expanding my life experiences. Yes, it sucks to have cancer, but it has inspired me to grow in ways I might not have otherwise. Odd as it may sound, I am grateful for the life lessons it has taught me so far.
Maybe this is what I have really been training for all these years—all those triathlons and long training rides on the bike and 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons and circuit classes, and morning runs, and long rides and swim sessions—maybe they have all been about getting me in fighting shape to face this. Five percent—that’s the five-year survival rate for Stage 3B lung cancer. A formidable number but not insurmountable. Putting this in racing terms, I’m not usually the fastest guy at a race, but I’ve finished in the top two-to-five percent in a lot of races. So why not do the same with this ‘race against cancer’?
The ‘new normal’ can kiss my ass. It’s a phrase used a lot in regards to ‘adjusting to your new life with cancer.’ I hate that phrase. What I hear is that I should accept where I am physically because of this disease. Nope! I choose not to settle for where I am. I want to improve in everything I do—my work, my health, my breathing, my strength, my running, my riding. I want my lungs and my heart to be stronger next month than they are this month. And even stronger the next month. I don’t want pity. I want to be challenged. I want to be pushed way out of my comfort zone. I want to pour sweat and fall down and get dirty and I want the people around me to enjoy being a part of that as well. It’s the only way I can continue to improve. It’s the way I want to live.