Longwood XC coach beats cancer and the field in triathlons

Longwood cross country coach Catherine Hanson has qualified for the ITU World Championships in 2016, representing Team USA. (Andrea Dailey/Longwood University)

Catherine Hanson was four-tenths of a second away from qualifying for her age bracket and joining her fellow triathletes at next week’s ITU World Championships in Chicago.

Instead of wondering “what if,” the Longwood University cross country coach already attained her goal of competing in next year’s world championships in the 45-49 age bracket in Cozumel, Mexico where she’ll represent Team USA.

“You have to qualify a year in advance for the worlds and after just missing last year I decided to go all-in and get after it,” she said. “I can’t imagine passing all those people wearing jerseys from other countries and representing the United States. I can’t wait.”

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Hanson finished 120th out of 977 female competitors at the Milwaukee qualifier with a time of 1:17:14.42, third fastest of any female entrant from Virginia. Next year’s competition in Cozumel will be held Sept. 11-18. More than 4,000 athletes competed in the Milwaukee qualifier.

Every triathlete has a story about how they’ve grown to test their mettle through biking, running and swimming, but Hanson’s story goes a bit deeper.

In September 2009, the single mother of three went to the doctor with a chronic sore throat. While on a road trip with her cross country team, her doctor called with the results: She was in the early stages of esophageal cancer.

It hit her hard. Esophageal cancer makes up about 1% of all cancers diagnosed in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. So far this year, 16,980 (13,570 in men, 3,410 in women) new cases have been reported in the United States. ACS studies show the disease is three to four times more common among men than among women.

“I realized I didn’t fit the type it normally hits, a smoker or alcoholic,” Hanson said. “My toughest obstacle was accepting how I got cancer, which was really from a loose valve at the base of my esophagus. Apparently, years of running seeped acid into my esophagus and ate away healthy cells. How could something I love so much bring on such an evil beast like cancer?”

Longwood cross country coach Catherine Hanson has qualified for next year's ITU World Championships in Cozumel, Mexico. (Mike Kropf/Longwood University)
Longwood cross country coach Catherine Hanson has qualified for next year’s ITU World Championships in Cozumel, Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Mike Kropf/Longwood University)

Despite what it wrought Hanson kept running through her chemotherapy treatments. She’d bring her shoes and run 50 miles a week. The family asked her to save her strength, but the doctors looked at her progress and felt it helped her stay healthy.

Six years later she is cancer free and dedicated to triathlon competitions. But still, nothing comes easy.

The wetsuit she used to compete in the frigid waters at the Milwaukee qualifier was a gift from a friend whose husband turned out to be the same size. The bike she’s now riding was purchased on eBay and paid for by extra money she raised mowing neighbor’s lawns with a walking mower and teaching water aerobics.

“You do what you have to do,” she said. “The mowing was good exercise and the guy I purchased it from, we still keep in touch because he’s a former triathlete who had just bought the bike a week earlier and got into a terrible car crash that left him in a wheelchair. We’ve talked. I’ve told him what I’ve gone through and I want him to know what I’m doing with the bike.”

Cancer gave Hanson a new outlook on life and how she coaches her country team at Longwood.

“The school and team has been so supportive from Day 1,” she said. “I can’t imagine ever going back to the way I was before cancer. It really brought me peace to myself. It showed me that I don’t have to go out and suffer to be successful. I can train smarter. I went from being a very transactional coach to transitional coach.

“Transactional is all about training, the results, showing up, performing, doing the work. Transitional is knowing they are students first, knowing they show up with amounts of stress and I open door and open heart for them. It’s a different approach, more like a dealing with family and realizing everyone is an individual and you can just treat them the same.”

As this year’s world competition takes place, Hanson will be coaching her own team as it hosts its Third Annual adidas Cross Country Meet at the Longwood University Golf Course.

“Things have a way of working out. I couldn’t — I wouldn’t — have gone this year even if I had qualified,” said. “This is my job and my family.”

Above: Longwood cross country coach Catherine Hanson has qualified for the ITU World Championships in 2016, representing Team USA. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Dailey/Longwood University)

Dave Dondoneau

Dave Dondoneau is a freelance writer based in Honolulu