Carol Bauer sat in her classroom, stunned and uncertain of what was next.
Bauer, the cross country and girls track and field coach at Fieldcrest, had cancer.
A workout addict and an avid runner, Bauer had showed no signs of cancer and only unusual tiredness led her to see a doctor.
After a last-resort test revealed the cancer, the 53-year-old Bauer vowed to do what she had asked her athletes to do during so many races over her 21 years at Fieldcrest: fight through the pain.
“I think I was still kind of in denial after talking to my doctor,” Bauer admitted. “She told me I needed to call (the cancer center in Peoria), and when they answered the telephone, they said, ‘Illinois Cancer Center,’ and at that point, I finally realized that this was something serious and that I needed to deal with it.”
Bauer opted to keep the news to herself, only telling close friends and family as well as the school’s administration. She withheld her cancer from her athletes for almost 13 months and only first told her runners on Sept. 30 — the date of the interview for this story — and is only now talking about her cancer publicly for the first time.
“I didn’t want any special treatment,” she said. “I think there was a part of me that was kind of embarrassed that I had cancer. I know that’s dumb and that I have no control over it, but mostly I just wanted to deal with it myself. Some people who have cancer are seriously sick, but I didn’t want anybody to think that I was trying to take advantage and get sympathy or special treatment because mine wasn’t as bad.”
Instead, Bauer was going to fight and knew she had other things in her life left to finish, including accomplishing her lifelong dream.
Two days before her surgery to remove her endometrial cancer, Bauer sat in front of her computer in her sixth grade literature classroom at Fieldcrest West Junior High and decided to put her faith to the test as she registered for her first Ironman, to be held Sept. 8 in Madison, Wis., despite being uncertain of whether she’d need post-surgery chemotherapy or radiation — either of which would prevent her from competing — or if she’d even be alive in a year.
“My thought was, ‘Cancer may take my life someday, but it wasn’t going to be that day,’” Bauer said. “So I sat at the computer at school at noon when registration opened, took a deep breath and I thought, ‘I’m going to sign up’ because I just believed that my body was going to take whatever it had to do and that I would be able to get to the (starting) line.”
On Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, Bauer had surgery to remove her cancer, which was more intensive than doctors thought. She was to miss 10 days of school but returned to cross country three days later to watch her athletes run at the Bureau Valley Invitational.
Bauer, who underwent surgery without complications and didn’t need chemo or radiation, waited six agonizing weeks before she could return to somewhat normal running, which is her true athletic love.
She ran the Illinois Marathon in early April in preparation for the Wisconsin Ironman, a day-long race that begins at 7 a.m. and includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon, all of which must be completed by midnight.
Bauer scheduled swim and biking training workouts and worked in running when she could.
She began full-fledge training around Memorial Day and continued until race day of Sunday, Sept. 8.
On race day, Bauer bettered her own goals.
She met her two-hour swim goal as Bauer finished the swim in 1 hour, 59 minutes and 30 seconds. She then completed the 112-mile bike ride in 7 hours, 25 minutes, which was 20 minutes faster than goal.
Nearly 30 minutes ahead of her projected time schedule, Bauer began her marathon strong but began to encounter problems during her run.
“The first few miles went really well, but then I just simply couldn’t stand up, so I kept stopping at the aid stations and drinking broth and trying to stretch, but I just couldn’t stand up,” Bauer recalled.
“Probably the hardest part was it was a two-loop course, and as I’m coming into the finish the first time, I’m bent over at the waist and I can’t stand up, people are like, ‘You’re almost there. You’re almost there. You’re going to do it.’ But as I went past the finish, you could hear them go, ‘Oh no, she’s got another 13 miles to go.’ My fiancée Mitch came out and was like, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to make the cutoff time. I was like, ‘I don’t care. I didn’t come here to quit. If I don’t come in in time, I’m OK with that because I came here to finish this.’”
Over the next excruciating 13.1 miles, Bauer dealt with the pain and fought her way around the course, some of which she walked and other parts in which she ran — all of which she completed despite not being able to stand up straight.
“I was kind of pissed off because I felt like my body had betrayed me,” Bauer said. “I just felt like, ‘If I can keep going, I can do this.’”
At around 11:30 p.m., Bauer crossed the finished line, nearly 30 minutes before the cutoff, which culminated not only her dream of being an Ironman but also of beating cancer.
“The doctor told me the biggest thing was my positive attitude,” Bauer said. “He was like, ‘At no point did you give me the idea that you thought that you would die. You acted like a survivor who was going to do whatever it took to win.’ I think all those coaches pushing me harder and telling me, ‘Don’t give up’ and ‘Do your best’ made a big difference because I really felt positive throughout it all. My doctor said to me at my last appointment a few months ago, ‘You’re a poster child for surviving cancer.’”
Since her surgery, Bauer has had to undergo routine checkups for cancer. To this date, she remains cancer-free but knows there’s a chance her cancer may still return.
Even if it does, Bauer will do what she not only did once before but at the Ironman: fight through the pain.
“Afterwards (at the Ironman), the medical guy asked me, ‘Didn’t that hurt?’” Bauer recalled. “I replied, ‘Not as much as quitting.’ It sounds like one those cute phrases, but I really meant it because now and forever I’m going to be an Ironman.”
Jared Bell is a NewsTribune Sports Writer. He can be reached at 220-6938, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.