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Iron Man with a Heart of Gold

By Alexander Blum '13 on August 08, 2012 09:47 AM

hesse_stephens.jpg

Photo from Cathy Stephens's blog bringiton23.com. Todd tells Cathy, "You are an Ironman."

Todd Hesse never thought it would be a big deal.

At midnight on June 24, Hesse stood at the finish line of the Ironman race in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. He had completed the grueling triathlon, which comprises a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run earlier in the day. It hadn't been a particularly difficult race for Hesse, who works in alumni & parent relations at Reed and who ran an Ironman once before. He was doing it more because he wanted to spend time with his brother.

Hesse watched the last contestants come in, pushing themselves to reach the finish line by midnight in order win a medal and the coveted title of "Ironman." A crowd thronged to cheer on the final triathletes.

"The place [was] flippin' hopping," Hesse says.

At 11:59, a lone figure came running down the final stretch. The figure was Cathy Stephens, who was running to raise awareness about asthma. Her own case was so severe that her lungs have collapsed and she had been hospitalized on multiple occasions. To get through the worst attacks, Stephens says she had taken to writing lists of "things I would do if my body could."

The crowd got into a frenzy as Stephens approached the finish line, with an overall time of 17 hours. She crossed at 12:00:23—23 seconds too late to earn the title.

"I would love to call her a finisher," said announcer Mike Reilly, booming into the microphone. "But she's not."

Then Hesse made his move. He removed his Ironman medal from around his neck and told Reilly to give it to Stephens. Reilly chased Stephens down and gave her the medal, telling the crowd, "She's an Ironman in our hearts."

Hesse gave Stephens a hug and left with his brother, expecting that to be the end of the story.

But it wasn't. Turns out the episode was caught on film and quickly went viral as an example of generosity and sacrifice. A church pastor focused on the medal in a story to his congregation as an example of how to be a good Christian. (Hesse, an atheist, found this somewhat ironic.)

"It was just a no-brainer," Hesse says. "I have a medal, I don't need [another] one."

Nonetheless, Hesse says that learning Stephens' story "has been really important to me."

Though he never expected to see Stephens again, Hesse was tracked down by his race number visible in the video. He had written a blog post about this number, 1438. (Hesse especially likes line 1438 of Beowulf: " A grievous journey on the sail-road. Saw serpents and wild beasts.") It was not until days after the race that Hesse learned Stephens' name and her story.

While many people find spiritual fulfillment in the race, Hesse was not among them—until now. "When we connected in this way, it was an experience," he says.

Stephens doesn't place too much importance on the medal, either. What mattered to her was having fun, finishing, and raising awareness of "illnesses that limit your life."

But, she is also happy to embrace the story for a different reason. The episode drew international attention to the issue of asthma. Stephens has been contacted by asthmatics the world over inspired by her story. "To be able to have an impact on other asthmatics," she says, "even if it's just encouraging them, is beyond what I ever expected."