While we cannot wipe out cancer, understanding its nature and the special risk to firefighters allows us to take steps to reduce its occurrence and severity
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That was the only question Firefighter Katrina Silva needed to ask herself before accepting a challenge — a challenge most people wouldn't even consider — let alone a 5 foot 3 inch mother of two.
Weighing in at just 135 pounds, Firefighter Silva is a bona fide powerhouse, having competed in the Ironman Florida, that's a 2.1-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and full 26.2-mile marathon.
She did all of that twice, the first time in 2011, and again in November 2012.
However, the second time around, she packed on the pounds, tipping the scales at about 170.
She trained hard every day, working in the necessary bike rides, swims and runs.
"I would say my average week would be trying to get in at least 10 to 12 hours per week of training," she said. "A lot of times that consisted of getting off of work and riding 60 or 70 miles up until the time I was like 'OK, time to pick up my daughter from the bus stop.'"
Some days, she said, she would double up on workouts if "the family allowed" and someone could watch the kids. If she was lucky enough, she would bike up to 50 miles then run a half marathon.
Yet with all the workouts, through every foot and mile, Firefighter Silva's weight-gain never budged, and she wanted it that way.
That's because her extra pounds were in the form of her firefighter gear.
Donning her turnout gear and air pack, Firefighter Silva powered through not only her training, but the full Ironman competition crossing the finish line in a way no one else did.
What turned her on to accept such a challenge?
She said it was actually a YouTube video.
Completing a Florida half-Ironman in May 2012, Firefighter Silva was watching the race highlights on YouTube. She saw Lance Armstrong win the race when she noticed a related video pop up, one of a firefighter in full gear crossing the finish line at a Texas Ironman competition.
"I clicked on it and I learned about him [Robert Verhelst]," she said.
She dug a little deeper on Firefighter Verhelst, and found out he was racing for Code 3, a nonprofit aiming to help firefighters stricken with cancer to assist them either financially or emotionally and to also provide other nonprofit cancer organizations support.
Firefighter Verhelst, deeply affected by the Sept. 11 attacks, decided to compete triathlons in full gear to honor his fallen brothers and sisters and to raise money for Code 3. He finished his first triathlon in full gear on Sept. 11, 2011.
Since then, he has made a name for himself, wearing a helmet that says "hope" and competing in triathlons and marathons all over the nation, having racked up over $8,000 for Code 3.
Firefighter Silva poses after finishing the Ironman race
At first skeptical as to why someone would carry that extra weight to complete such an arduous task, she was overwhelmed with what Firefighter Verhelst was doing and his reasons why.
"I found out he was doing it for Code 3 and firefighters battling cancer — I got goose bumps. I started crying. I just felt driven and motivated to want to get involved. That day I contacted Code 3," Firefighter Silva said.
She told Code 3 she had a background in triathlons and they readily accepted her to join their team to help spread the word on firefighter cancer awareness.
A fire lit in her belly, Firefighter Silva began her training, inspired by Firefighter Verhelst and the message of Code 3.
However, two months into her training, her inspiration became much more personal.
"I found out one of my very close firefighter friends, who I went to firefighting school, EMT school and got hired with, at 32, had cancer," she said. "It put that much more meaning behind what I was doing and I just want to give firefighters hope."
For most athletes competing in these types of extreme distances, they have coaches or are part of teams, but for Firefighter Silva, as a full-time firefighter and mom with a husband who also worked full-time she had to fit in her grueling workouts whenever she had a spare moment.
"My training basically had to be whenever the kids were in school or during my days off," she explained. "Or sometimes my whole family would be asleep and I'd go for a run at 11 p.m. I am so not a morning person."
Although she later confessed that she would make herself get up at 4:30 a.m. to get a long swim in before work. She says she's tried to integrate that schedule into her regular routine, but hasn't been successful yet.
Despite how grueling her training was, it was also a tough for her family, who she says had to sacrifice time with her so she could put in the necessary hours to make sure she could complete the race.
"It's a huge hit that they take. You have to be selfish in a way," she said.
When it came to the race, she said she had a good friend running the course with her, but explained that she had the support of so many more.
After her over 100-mile bike ride, Firefighter Silva said her hands were sore; however, they got even sorer when she was on the receiving end of hundreds of high-fives.
From children volunteering at aid stations to fellow athletes, she said the outpour of support really helped her to keep going.
"I was touched to the bottom of my heart the support I got from everyone, from fellow athletes, to the volunteers, to my family, the spectators — everyone. Once I put my gear on it was just a standing applause," she said.
Never giving up
Firefighter Silva said, though, that there were definitely times when she wanted to give up, her body struggling under the added weight of her gear.
"Your body wants to stop and your mind finds a thousand reasons of why you want to stop, but you find the few key reasons why you should keep going," she said. "Just knowing that I'm an example of hope to these firefighters and my friend that's battling cancer right now, that definitely kept me going."
In the end, Firefighter Silva raised close to $3,000, and while she says that it may not sound like a lot, it is definitely enough to possibly help a firefighter pay his or her house payments or other bills.
She said above anything else, being able to spread hope and awareness to her fellow brothers and sisters afflicted with cancer was the most important thing. By completing her journey, both physically and emotionally, she hopes that others will be inspired to never give up, including her children.
"If I could finish something like this, you can overcome your challenges," she said. "The Ironman mantra is, 'Anything is possible' and I just want to be that example to people."
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