A brotherly competition: How a marathon challenge saved a man’s life

Special Reports

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – We all have someone we look up to and admire.  They pick us up when we are down and push us to the limit when we want to throw in the towel.  They answer your call for help, especially when life gets overwhelming. 

For FOX16 Anchor Kevin Kelly, that person is his brother, John. In Kevin’s eyes, John is the most courageous and bravest person he knows.  

So, when Kevin challenged John to do a marathon with him, he didn’t hesitate. Little did they know that brotherly competition would one day end up saving his life. 

The competition begins

Pick any day over the past 13 years and odds are the brothers were either swimming, biking, or running trying to outperform the other. 

When asked who’s more competitive, Kevin or John, John laughed and said, “us.” 

The head-to-head competition started back in the 1960s.  The front lawn of the house we grew up in was our stadium and battleground.  

“It was football, it was running, whiffle ball, we played all kinds of sports on the front lawn,” John said. “We didn’t have to worry about video games.  We didn’t have to worry about TV.  We had black and white cartoons, nothing exciting to do.  So, if you wanted to do something we went outside and made stuff happen.” 

Whether it was boxing, riding motorcycles, or playing tennis, the brothers were always trying to outperform the other. 

That changed in high school when their competitive worlds collided on the soccer field.  For the first time, they were both on the same team. Kevin was a goalkeeper and John was a forward. 

“We had a good team,” John recalled.  “I scored goals, you blocked them.”

Our soccer careers continued in college but came to a grinding halt when we graduated and entered the real world. 

“I moved up to Silicon Valley and got into the Silicon Valley thing and work took over and ultimately kids,” John said. 

The competition resumes

It wasn’t until 2007, nearly 20 years later that the competitive flames would reignite. 

Kevin had just completed the Little Rock Marathon and was thirsty for more.  So, he called his brother and challenged him to join him.  John still remembers what Kevin said to him over the phone.  

“San Diego Rock n Roll,” John said. “Be there yeah. And something to the effect of, hey ‘Stay Puff’ why don’t you try it?” 

In true Kelly fashion, he didn’t hesitate.  

“Eight weeks later, I’m on the starting line and pretty much cursed your name the entire race because that really hurt,” John recalled. 

Three months later, they did the Long Beach Marathon. 

Three months after that race, they battled it out in Phoenix.  

“You and I held hands and jumped across the finish line 26.2 miles later,” John said. “It was a photo finish.  We were holding hands and yeah, you beat me by one second.  So, you were three, and oh.” 

A new race against time

In 2008, the brothers were training for their next race. But in a span of 24 hours, John’s life would forever be changed. 

“In May, I was running the La Jolla half-marathon and it was truly one of my best races ever,”  John recalled.

It was almost his last race. Minutes after crossing the finish line, he noticed blood in his urine — not a little, but a lot.  The next day he went to see a urologist.  

“He looked at me and goes you have transitional cell carcinoma and it’s pretty significant,” John said. 

John had bladder cancer and needed surgery immediately. 

According to the American Cancer Society, 65,000 men will be diagnosed this year along with bladder cancer. Of those, nearly 20 percent will unfortunately die. 

The average age of someone being diagnosed with it is 73. 

John was just 45.  

“That was shocking,” John told Kevin.  

Twenty-four hours after being diagnosed, things got worse. John couldn’t move his right leg and was having trouble breathing. He was rushed to the emergency room again where he learned he had blood clots in his leg and lungs.  

“The doctors are telling me in the emergency room, the clots are a bigger problem right now,” John recalled. “Those could take you out if we don’t address those right away.” 

He was immediately put on blood thinners.  And to treat the bladder cancer, he was given weekly doses of BCG — a liquid drug that is injected into the bladder that attacks cancer cells. 

“I would receive those once a week for weeks on end,” John said. 

After 12 long and painful weeks he went back in for a checkup.  The cancer was gone. 

“Part of this journey has been a gift,” he says.  “First and foremost, if you believe in God, boy was he looking out for me.  Every day is a great day when I look back and think about it… right?  Cause every heartbeat is a gift.” 

Another sudden halt

The two brothers hit the pavement again. They were back in action. 

Only this time, they upped the ante and started doing triathlons, specifically half-Ironman races. The sport involves swimming 1.2 miles, riding your bike 56 miles, and then running 13.1 miles.  Over the next 10 years, they did nearly a dozen half-Ironman’s in California, Texas, and Missouri. 

But then out of nowhere, the cancer came back. 

The BCG treatments started back up again but this time they didn’t work.  

“I was becoming violently allergic to it,” John said. “Ultimately, my kidneys shut down one time and I’ve never experienced pain like that.” 

Talks of removing his bladder were more frequent… and frightening.  

“If you have to take out these parts it’s bad,” John said. “So, yeah did I think I was going to die? You bet.” 

His urologist decided to try a different approach this time.  He put him on Interferon, a powerful drug where proteins and injected into the body and trigger immune cells to attack and kill cancer cells. 

He’s been getting Interferon treatments every three months for the past three years and so far, it’s working.  As a result, we are back to doing what we love, swimming, biking, and running. 

Game on

“Everybody’s journey is different or unique,” John said. “It’s a gift.  I’m still here. I got a heartbeat.” 

John also has the will and desire to one day finally beat Kevin in our next brotherly challenge.  

“I’ve said this to you repeatedly. You absolutely saved my life,” John told Kevin. “You didn’t know you were doing it at the time, but how in the world does all this happen?  And so, if you call me up and ask me to do any sort of crazy competitive thing… I’m there.” 

Funny John said that… because back in November of 2020, Kevin picked up the phone and challenged him to do the Tulsa Ironman with him. This is the big one!  It started with a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and then a 26.2-mile run.  All of this must be completed within 17 hours. 

What do you think he said? 

“I’ll be there.” 

The race is May 23, 2021, and they both have every intention of crossing the finish line.  And it doesn’t matter who crosses first! 

For more information on bladder cancer and the various types of treatments please visit the following links:

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/bladder-cancer/about/key-statistics.html

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/bladder-cancer/about/what-is-bladder-cancer.html

https://www.cancer.org/cancer/bladder-cancer/about/new-research.html

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