No slowing her down

By Maureen Callahan | Photos by Marcello Rodarte

Sara Fix placed seventh at Ironman Puerto Rico in March

Sara Fix is one of the fittest people around. The first time you meet this fifty-something Clarendon Hills resident, you see a stunning, world-class athlete. Recently, she returned from Puerto Rico, where she placed second in a half Ironman competition (a normal length Ironman is a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride, followed by a full marathon, which must be completed in under 17 hours). It’s nothing new. She has placed 7th in the Ironman World Championships more than once.

You’d never know she spends two days at the hospital every three weeks to keep the neuroendocrine cancer that covers her insides, at bay. She was diagnosed a year and a half ago.

From becoming a triathlete in her thirties, to owning and coaching Endure It triathlon club and stores, to competing in 50-plus Ironman races, to being a mom, one thing is abundantly clear: cancer is only a footnote.

And there it shall remain.

Still coaching online and training herself, she takes it a little easier these days. But she’s never been near the sidelines. She’s not going to start now. While her family went to Europe on spring break in March, she randomly packed up her bike and dogs and drove to Chattanooga to ride the hills.

She has mentored countless uber-conditioned athletes while running a wildly successful business, and simultaneously raising three beautiful and talented children. And while she takes more time to focus on herself lately, she refuses to give in to her diagnosis. It’s not going to rule her life. Or have a say in how she spends her days.

Sara has a takeaway message she hopes to make clear to everyone she meets, which she recently conveyed to a crowd at Go Brewing Brewery in Naperville. They unveiled a new IPA, Sunshine State, in honor of her recent race, and asked her for a few words. “If you have pain or notice something wrong, make sure others are listening,” she stressed. “You must be your own advocate. Don’t ignore the whispers.”

Like anyone who receives a cancer diagnosis, her initial reaction was fear. A 12-hour surgery, including a full hysterectomy and removal of her gall bladder and parts of her liver, and intestines, as well as several lymph nodes, cleared the cancer that was initially visible to her doctors. Subsequent testing revealed the presence of small, spot-like tumors on her heart, lungs, brain, spine and bones. “They’re tiny; about the size of freckles,” Sara said. “So, every 21 days I undergo treatment to be sure they don’t get any bigger.”

To deal with the fear, she has changed her mindset. Sara admits that it’s not always easy, but she has learned to retrain her brain, a practice in which she thoroughly believes and one she has employed to help with her physical training over the years. She likens it to not letting herself off the hook for workouts. “You have the intensity to program your brain to do what’s expected,” she said. “It’s very possible to do.”

When dark thoughts come, she promptly pushes them away, and breathes through it- part of the brain retraining.

This is someone who has built a life in helping others cross the finish line. It’s a big part of how she finds her joy of existence. The way she sees it, maybe cancer is an even bigger opportunity to help others. “I’m wondering if cancer is just another way I can help and encourage others in the same situation in a more profound way,” Sara said.

“Don’t get me wrong, I have my moments,” she said, thoughtfully. “I get scared. But I don’t live in those moments anymore.” And though she wishes the cancer were gone, when she gets down, she reactivates her new mindset. “Well, it’s here,” she says to herself. “This is it, so don’t dwell on it. Just keep rolling.”

And with another Ironman approaching next month, it seems like her mind is made up! ■