Everyone has a story to tell, this is what I love about this sport. I first met Paul Duffy last year at the Desaru Long Distance Triathlon in Malaysia. It was on the run where we first exchanged words. I had noticed him on the bike, you notice ALL white people in races in Asia as we stand out like a sore thumb. And I think he was dressed all in white too – sort of a British version of Tjornborn Sindballe. Onto the run and the issue with Desaru is not the course but the heat. As my walking legs started to work I saw Paul in the distance. He was walking. I caught up with him and as I passed, shouted out ‘come on big guy’. Sometimes you may get a rude retort at such positive outbursts from fellow racers, especially if you are having a bad day, this was the risk I took. But as I passed I heard him pick up his steps and start running, he then proceeded to overtake me. A short while later I see Paul again in the distance. He is walking again. As I approach just before I get level he starts running. This went on for the remainder of the 21k. As he heard my squishy shoes approach that was his indication to stop walking and start running. At one time I even shouted out ‘hey am I pacing you or something?’ ‘Yes. As soon as I hear you coming that’s my sign to start again,’ he joked. We crossed the line that day seconds within each other. But that is not the story here. After the race we met up. He came and thanked me for the pacing and I mentioned I wanted to have a ‘run down’ and did he fancy a short jog. It was during that jog where I learnt about Paul’s amazing story…
After graduating I soon got a job in London as a foreign exchange broker with a real keen interest in moving to Asia. With all the excesses associated with entertaining clients I had the lifestyle that leads to being unfit and overweight. After all that partying and entertaining I needed to change my lifestyle. Whilst living in Japan my wife and I had visited the Big Island of Hawaii numerous times and helped my in-laws setting up Lava Java in Kona.
I had watched in great fascination the athletes training and competing in the Ironman World Championships in 2000 and 2001. Having been a decent middle-distance runner who had done a few half marathons in a reasonable time during my college years, I decided that I would complete an Ironman in 2002 with the aim of someday competing in Kona.
This was my lifestyle change or challenge. I was weighing in at 96kg. My friends just laughed at me when I struggled to swim 50m in a pool. So on January 2, 2002, I started my 6-month preparation for Ironman Utah in Tokyo. Not the ideal location to train for an Ironman but nothing is perfect and as with all aspects of life you just learn to adapt and take on the challenge. My weight plummeted to 80kg and I felt good and fit again. There was no turning back - I was hooked on triathlon.
My job as a foreign exchange options broker for TFS ICAP Options Ltd with whom I hold the position of Senior Vice President has a two major drawbacks when it comes to training for an Ironman race. Firstly are the hours that start at 6:30am and end at 5:30pm, or later if markets are busy. Secondly is the entertainment, which in Tokyo can be into the early hours of the morning. Coupled with being married and having a very young family, this makes for a very difficult act to juggle.
With training taking from anywhere from 15 to 24 hours per week it means getting up at 3:30am most mornings and spending a few nights a week at the pool and track. Even weekends are early as I have always tried to get my bulky workouts completed as early as possible to have as much time with my wife and kids as possible, as during the week a few moments is all I can spare. That is work’s fault, not triathlon I tell myself.
With the long work hours, heavy training regime and limited family time my stress levels peaked in 2003-2005. It was early in 2005 after a yearly company medical that it was found that I had a brain tumor (oliodendroglioma) between my sensory and motor cortex - a bit of a shock to the system to say the least. It was a low-grade tumor but big (golf-ball size) so had to be dealt with due to its location.
Living in Tokyo and not that fluent in Japanese (typical lazy Brit - never learning the language of my host country), the prospect of dealing with this in Tokyo scared me immensely so I headed to Singapore and met with some great surgeons. I had also spoken to several other doctors and all had their different takes on sorting out my situation.
My choice was aggressive surgery to remove everything with a definite chance of some disability in my left arm or leg, or a more conservative approach of removing the bulk but leaving a margin around my sensory and motor cortex. I favored the latter being a strong believer that medical practices were only advancing and I could deal with any residual tumor later, whereas I found it unthinkable to accept disability so early on.
Anyway surgery happened at the end of Feb 2005 and things looked OK. I moved back to Tokyo and was back at work only having had two weeks off. Another two weeks later I was gently spinning and doing some light swims. My theory being that if I can do my workouts and function at work then there can’t be anything wrong with me. I didn’t go crazy but managed to do something most days.
It was a few months before I was able to run and ride on the road to avoid possible jarring injuries of the brain but all looked positive. I then spoke with another surgeon I had been advised to talk to and he said I needed to get everything removed because otherwise there was a good chance I wouldn’t live past seven years.
I had to prove him wrong so went with my brother Iain to Boston to see the authority on brain tumors. Luckily my wife and mother-in-law had put me on a diet that was in theory supposed to boost your immune system and when he diagnosed me he saw no residual tumor; a great sign and proof that a healthy lifestyle and positive thinking can be a powerful tool in medical prevention. Things were looking good.
Junk food was out as was heavy drinking and now a very healthy life was the way forward. To help my lifestyle and feel a bit more secure due to my desire to push myself physically post surgery and the constant threat of seizures from the scar tissue on my brain I relocated to Singapore to be closer to my surgeon.
One year after surgery I did my first of four Ironman Malaysia races, dubbed The Toughest show on Earth. The anniversary of my brain surgery, it was a race I came to love, as it was a reminder of an obstacle my family and I had overcome as a team.
So the dream now was to get a Kona slot: for me to race and for my kids because they love a vacation in Hawaii. I had been missing out narrowly in all the years up to 2008 so decided to get a new coach for the 2009 season. I immediately liked the new approach, as it was a breath of fresh air. It finally made sense. I was happy to be training with people that could tell me how to improve. Confidence was restored. So the plan was to do IM Malaysia as it meant so much to me for personal reasons.
If I didn’t qualify there, then IM China was the race for my coveted slot. The build-up went to plan and I was gaining in strength in preparation for IM China. As most people have probably read, IM China was horrific in terms of heat and humidity and basically came down to a run in the blazing sun without shade and was a crawl for most. I maybe lucked out having been back in Singapore now for three years so I was used to the heat and humidity. I just managed to keep a check on my age group opponents and paced my way to one of the slots - Dream accomplished.
Now it’s 2010 and Paul is off to Kona again after qualifying in China. He continues to live and embrace his new lifestyle and admits he cannot ever see himself stopping Ironman racing. ‘ It is an obsession and way of life now. I need to do the training as part of my daily ritual,’ he admits.
Paul’s story is inspiring not just because of the illness he has overcome but his work alone is an adversity in itself. The power of believing in yourself and having your family support and believe in your journey is priceless. Personally I feel there are no excuses, merely obstacles you need to climb over or find a way round.