Super-fit comeback after cancer

It’s the busiest time of the year for weekend warriors, with the Cayman triathlon on Sunday and the local marathon exactly a month later, but one super athlete is grateful just to be alive and putting himself through all the pain.

The Christmas break is no longer an excuse to pig out for the fittest because there is the grueling Mercuryman half-Ironman in January and Off The Beaten Track the following month.

Competing in all of them is Dave Bennett, who was overweight and only a recreational player in team sports until a disturbing event sparked a change in his attitude to health and fitness.

It came when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Luckily, it was caught in time and Bennett, thankful of surviving the cancer after several surgeries and months of chemotherapy, got incredibly fit.

Left with body scars from the surgery, Bennett dramatically reassessed his well-being and lifestyle.

Twelve years on since the traumatic time, the 42-year-old Englishman from the south coast town of Portsmouth is a picture of glowing health, although recently he did have a severe back injury that required a lengthy hospital stay.

Bennett was hit by a car in the summer while on his bike training for an Ironman. It involved a week in Cayman Islands Hospital after suffering paralysis, which was pretty scary, but thankfully it was not permanent.

Bouncing around again and up for the challenges ahead, he does admit, though, that the Cayman triathlon preparation has not been great.

Swimming sessions have been limited since the accident, but at least his bike and run training have gone well.

“I will definitely take part,” Bennett said. “It’s such a great event, so many wonderful people taking part, organizers and volunteers.”

As for his preparations for the Cayman marathon on Dec. 1, things were going smoothly until shortly before the surgery.

“I was running well and enjoying the times with my truly wonderful training partners. Often things come along to throw a spanner in the works, be it injury or work commitments. I guess the key is how you respond to these challenges.

“The wonderful friends that I have met whilst being so active on this amazing island have helped me through some down times, and now I’m almost ready for this year’s marathon and have been training hard.

“I received great treatment by the whole medical team. Most importantly from Lauretta, my wonderful and understanding wife. I was later diagnosed with a broken disk at the top of my spine. My fantastic neuro-surgeon removed the broken bits, inserted a graft and a titanium plate and put me back together.”

Having plates in his back does not deter. Maybe he should be called Bionic Bennett now.

“Life’s too short not to be doing the things that you love. I’m not one for standing still and I wanted to be up and running as soon as possible. There’s lots of things I have left to try and being fit enables me to do those things.”

Now a lean, super-fit, always cheery athlete, the information systems wizard at Cayman Islands Monetary Authority, has certainly changed shape since weighing a hefty 220 pounds.

“I don’t like scales, but as a cancer survivor, part of my annual tests with the oncologist involves a stand on the scales. I had the first of my abdominal surgeries back in 2002.

“I was told to refrain from contact sports so I had to give up the ones that I loved dearly – rugby, football and Gaelic football.”

He remained pretty inactive for a while and gained the weight far too easily. That changed when he met a doctor from Miami’s Baptist Hospital and was inspired to take better care of himself.

“I’m down to 165 pounds now and wouldn’t be much use on the rugby field even if I wanted to.”

Assuming he gets through the triathlon OK, the two goals for the marathon are to finish and to set a personal best, which he did here a couple of years ago.

“I managed to break the magical four-hour barrier in a time of 3 hours 57 minutes. I swore I’d never run another marathon once I ran under four hours. Oh well!”

Since his cancer episode, Bennett has supported all causes on the disease. “Obviously I was very shocked at the time and I had no idea what path I was about to start on. I was very ignorant to this type of cancer, or any of the cancers, to be honest. It’s amazing what you can learn in a short period.

“I met a lot of incredibly inspirational people. People who were suffering with so much pain, but who were still able to share a smile and a laugh at any time of the day.

“You gain a lot of perception on life. Whilst on chemotherapy I witnessed a 16-year-old kid and a middle-aged man die in beds next to me. Getting a balance in life is so very important. You can’t live your life solely saving for a retirement that you may never see.”

Bennett knew nothing of cancer before his diagnosis. “Learning from my own experiences and ignorance at the time, I now try to promote male cancer awareness.

“Girls are great at sharing personal problems with either each other or their doctors. Us chaps aren’t quite as good. ‘We will go the doctors later’ or ‘it will go away’ Sound familiar?

“More knowledge may prevent delayed diagnosis and save some people from an untimely exit. I volunteer with the Cayman Islands Cancer Society and give presentations in schools, churches and offices on male cancers.”

Although he loves the Cayman marathon, inevitably, it’s crossing the finish line that he enjoys most. There he enjoys a celebratory glass of champagne with Lauretta and close friends like Chris Sutton, Rodger Yeomans, Justine Plenkiewicz and Julie-Ann Pearson (who leaves for Australia after the triathlon).

“The start is actually the best part. There are so many people in a relatively small space. There is so much energy at the start line. The water stops are great, and it’s always a good surprise to see what the aid stations will be decorated with, also the Christmas lights on the houses en route.”

To keep fitness levels up for the four forthcoming events, part of his training will include a point-to-point run from Barkers in West Bay to Starfish Point, near Rum Point, a mere 53 miles. Then it’s time to shift attention to triathlon again for Ironman Texas in May.”

At least his wife Lauretta is not left behind because she is one of Cayman’s top women runners. “She is one of the most understanding wives there could be,” he said. “She will hopefully be running the half marathon again this year.”

Fresh off last weekend’s Halloween 10-10-10 at the Reef Resort in East End, Bennett found the going comfortable initially.

“The first 20km was OK, the last 10km not so. Who knew Cayman had so many hills? It’s another great event in the Cayman calendar and also not to be missed. I shaved 22 minutes off last year’s time and finished third overall, which I was a tad surprised with.”

After the pain and anxiety from his accident only two months ago, Bennett is grateful to be competing again. His great spirit to enjoy life and get the most out of it obviously got him going too.

“I am so happy to be even taking part in this year’s marathon – assuming I survive the triathlon. I love our marathon. The atmosphere is amazing, running on South Church Street at the start, with nothing to hear but pounding feet, never ceases to put a smile on my face. The numbers continue to grow thanks to the organizers, supporters and competitors. The camaraderie in endurance athletes is a wonderful thing.”