TULSA, Okl. — John and Kevin Kelly have a bond that’s hard to break. Yes, they are brothers, however living 1,500 miles a part they are still as close as ever thanks to their competitive spirit.
13 years ago, Kevin ran the Little Rock marathon and wanted more. He called John, who lives in San Diego, California to see if he wanted to run the San Diego Marathon with him. Even though John hadn’t done anything that athletically difficult in about 20 years, he still accepted the challenge.
Fast forward to 2021 and the brothers have countless marathons, triathlons, and half Ironmans under their belt. A year ago, Kevin wanted to up the ante and asked John if he wanted to do their first full Ironman in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 mile run within 17 hours.
Without hesitation John accepted.
“Kevin is the one who kept doing it over and over and over,” John said. “He was the one that said hey guess what we’re gonna do in May?! We’re gonna go to the lovely place of Tulsa and do an Iron Man. And of course my response… absolutely.”
Before you know whether they finished an Ironman or not, let’s go back to 2008.
John was in the best shape of his life, running in the La Jolla half-marathon as part of the training for the San Diego Rock N’ Roll marathon about four weeks later.
“I was having some issues,” John said. “It kind of felt like I was running too many miles or something else was going on. That was life altering.”
John had blood in his urine. It had been happening sparingly a couple weeks before the half-marathon, but after he finished the race he knew it was getting worse.
“It looked like doctor pepper,” John said.
He saw an urologist the next day. As soon as walked in with his urine, the doctor checked on him immediately for tests.
“No idea what’s going on,” John said. “The camera is inside for 10 seconds and he says get dressed we need to talk.”
John was diagnosed with a significant case of Transitional Cell Carcinoma, the most common type of bladder cancer. Normally men around the age of 73 are diagnosed with TCC, John however, was 45.
“That was shocking,” John said.
John had surgery a few days after the diagnosis. However, 24 hours post surgery he couldn’t move his right leg and was rushed back to the emergency room.
“I have clots in my legs,” John said. “The next day my heart rate starts spiking to the 72-75. My resting heart rate is normally in the 40’s or 50’s. I’m having problems breathing, go back to the emergency room. I’ve got pulmonary embolisms, so now I have clots in my lungs. The doctors are telling me the clots are a bigger problem. Those can take you out if we don’t address those right away.”
The doctors placed John on blood thinners and a drug called BCG. A liquid drug that’s injected into the bladder to fight cancer cells. John underwent painful treatments for about a year, however they were more frequent during the first 12 weeks of the treatment plan.
John was finally cancer free, and hopped back into the pool, on the bike, and in his running shoes. This time he and Kevin wanted to go bigger. They upgraded from marathons to completing nearly a dozen half Ironmans.
Suddenly in 2008, the cancer came back.
“You asked if I thought I was going to die… absolutely,” John said.
He went through the same treatments, but this time was severely allergic to the BCG.
“My kidneys shut down at one time and I’ve never experienced pain like that,” John said. “If I could have taken a 45 and put that thing against my head and pulled the trigger I would have. It hurt that much. I didn’t think it was possible.”
When John had lost all hope that he could beat the cancer a second time, he called his doctor after an emotional conversation with his wife Suzan, and told him to do everything he could to save his life.
Since he was now allergic to BCG, John’s urologist put him on a powerful drug called interferon where proteins are injected into the body and trigger immune cells to attack cancer cells. John has been treated every three months for the last three years and so far… it’s been working.
“If you believe in God, boy was he looking out for me,” John said.
“We had some crazy days and some crazy times, crazy situations that arose from the treatments,” John’s best friend and neighbor Jeff Goldman said. “He stayed strong throughout the whole thing.”
“I know he went through hell, but I also know that he’s the most courageous and bravest person I know,” Kevin said. “There was never a doubt in my mind that he was going to fight this to the bitter end. I never even considered him dying. Never even crossed my mind. Just cause I know who he is and it wasn’t going to be an option.”
John thinks that Kevin saved his life because of that random call he got 13 years ago to run a marathon.
“Why out of the blue did Kevin happen to run a marathon? And why did you call me up and challenge me?” John asked. “Then we got in really good shape because of the competitive nature and then a year into that, because were running so many miles I found the tumors early.”
“I don’t think I saved his life, I think he saved his own life,” Kevin said. “He didn’t have to accept the challenge. And he did. We don’t know what the outcome would’ve been otherwise.”
“Just keep going… don’t stop,” John said. “That’s what this journey has been about. These long distances, these crazy ultras, the competitive nature is just one more step. Give it all you got. Don’t quit. That’s another gift that he’s given me.”
Kevin’s next gift to John was the 2021 Ironman championships in Tulsa.
The younger brother ended up crossing the finish line first. Kevin finished his first Ironman with a time of 14:23:21.
John also finished his first full Ironman with a time of 14:42:25.
“I’m a little worried with what we do after this,” John said. “They keep getting longer, and I’m not getting any younger and for a guy who’s almost 60 this is a tough day at the office.”
“The whole time I was thinking it would be so easy to walk off the course,” John said. “As I was going through the race you almost think back to the cancer. Cancer and cancer treatments I never had a choice. If you want to live, you go through the treatments. It’s a pretty strong compelling reason to want to do that.”
“In many ways this was significantly harder than going through some of the other things I’ve gone through because of the option with no real penalty to walk off. Once you get to the later stages it’s pretty much you’re going to have to carry me off on a stretcher. Anything can happen and anyone of us on this planet could be spending their last day tomorrow. What are you going to do with it?”
After the race John didn’t know if he’ll do another full Ironman. However, just 13 days after the toughest physical challenge of his life he’ll be in Hawaii competing in the Kona half Ironman.