Carmel Valley cancer survivor aims to race half-Ironman in Hawaii


For Jeff Tuetken, 2015 will be a milestone year filled with many hard-earned miles. Tuetken, 57, a cancer survivor and triathlete, hopes to be celebrating reaching five years cancer-free in November, after having crossed the finish lines of several half-Ironmans.

This year on March 28, he will race the Ironman 70.3 California and fulfill a dream of racing in Kona at May’s Ironman 70.3 Hawaii. He hopes to schedule in “at least” two more half Ironmans this year.

After beating cancer, Tuetken was determined to race again — to get back and see how much he could do.

“I enjoyed running, biking and swimming, not because of how fast I was or how many medals I won. It was just something I enjoyed to do,” Tuetken said. “Triathlons are just as fun. I’m just an hour later than I used to be.”

Tuetken, an engineer for General Atomics, is a longtime Carmel Valley resident. For the past 11 1/2 years, he and his family have lived in Del Mar Mesa, among the original homeowners in the area before it was built up around them.

He wasn’t always an athlete, and his athletic career only really got started when he and his wife, Reba, got a jogging stroller for their 1-year-old son, Adam (now 23).

“We started pushing that stroller faster and faster,” said Tuetken.

Their fitness progress inspired them to sign up for the Race for Knowledge 5K, a race that ran for more than 20 years in Carmel Valley. Tuetken loved the experience and started training to run longer distances, working up to a half marathon and a full marathon.

When running got “boring,” he bought a bicycle, and then started swimming laps at the pool.

Reba traveled a fair amount for work, and she recalled their children, Adam and Alyssa, complaining because Tuetken would tote them to the pool and have them count laps for him. That way he could combine a workout with watching the kids.

While at the pool, he met several people training for triathlons and thought that was something he could probably do. In 2001, he started with sprint distance triathlons (750 meter swim, 12-mile bike and 3.1 mile run), then moved on to Olympic-distance (1.2 mile swim, 25-mile bike and 6.2 mile run), and worked his way up to challenging half Ironmans: a 1.2-mile swim, and a 56-mile bike ride, topped off with a 13.1-mile half marathon.

In the garage is the family’s wall of fame, covered in race bibs and medals. Reba runs half marathons but leaves triathlons to her husband; she prefers spin class to road racing and doesn’t like swimming.

Besides, she said, they both can’t be out on their bikes, as someone has to be home to worry — the way she did in 2010 when Tuetken was in San Francisco for a race and she didn’t hear from him when she had expected to. Turned out he had taken a spill on his bike when a biker wiped out in front of him, landing him in the hospital with a concussion, groin injury and road rash. He was on crutches for a few weeks.

While Reba winces, Tuetken, the endurance athlete, recalls the story with a smile. There is nothing that compares with triathlons for him: the test of fitness and strength and the happy celebration at the finish line, the incredible sense of accomplishment.

He encourages anyone out there to give triathlons a try: “Somebody will cheer for you,” he said.

Tuetken’s life took an abrupt and unexpected turn in 2010. Intense pain brought him to the doctor’s office, pain that just kept getting worse.

After several tests and a colonoscopy, Tuetken was diagnosed in November 2010 with stage three colorectal cancer. He was told he had a tumor the size of a golf ball and was given a 50/50 chance of surviving five years.

He started a year’s worth of treatment in January 2011, beginning with radiation and chemotherapy.

“It was a year of torture,” Reba said, noting that by the end of that first month in January, he was declared 100 percent disabled. “He couldn’t walk from the bedroom to the kitchen, and I’m thinking, ‘This guy just ran a marathon.’”

Tuetken underwent two surgeries and went through daily radiation and a 24-hour “chemo fanny pack.” A man who thrived on getting outside and being active was reduced to “waiting around for (my) next treatment.”

“The chemotherapy was just brutal,” he said.

By December 2011, Tuetken was able to return to work on a limited basis. In the past four years, he has returned every three months for check-ups and so far has remained in the clear.

“I believe Jeff’s being so healthy and fit prior to treatment was a major contributor to him pulling through the treatment and why he is alive today,” Reba said.

However, Tuetken said, “I will never be back to normal. The treatment changes your life forever. I have a lot of collateral damage from the chemotherapy such as permanent neuro-pathy in my feet and hands, and I still have numbness in my hips and a constant ringing in my ears. That stuff will probably never go away.”

Because of the permanent damage from chemo, Tuetken said it would be too difficult to ever complete a full Ironman. The nutrition requirements go way up for a full Ironman, and Tuetken’s special diet would never allow him to ingest the amount of nutrients needed to be moving for six or 7 1/2 hours of the race.

Per his doctor’s advice, he took it easy his first year of recovery and returned to training and racing in late 2012. Just as with his triathlon beginnings, he started out with sprint and Olympic distances and moved up to finishing a half-Ironman in 2014 at the Ironman 70.3 California in Oceanside. His finish was about an hour behind his fastest time on the course, but the important part was that he finished. He has lost the least amount of time on the bike, which he considers his strongest leg of the race.

Now in preparation for this year’s Oceanside and Kona races, Tuetken is training three days a week — running Los Penasquitos Canyon, swimming laps at Bay Club Carmel Valley or running or biking on his favorite route, Coast Highway.

“I wish I had more time for training, but I also work 50 hours a week, so it’s tough to get in another workout,” Tuetken said.

Ironman Hawaii is considered one of the hardest courses because athletes have to endure heat, humidity and strong winds. Last October, the Tuetkens volunteered as race help on the bike course for the Ironman in Kona, watching as people battled to pedal against 25- mile-per-hour winds.

Watching athletes struggle in the bracing wind and scorching heat, Reba couldn’t help but ask her husband: “You still want to do this?”

“It beats chemo,” Tuetken said. “At this point in my life, it’s just being able to finish, not winning a medal. If you finish, it’s a victory.”

A half-Ironman has always been a challenge for him, before and after beating cancer. It’s all about having the courage and the ability to endure, to finish and to survive.

“Half the battle is between the ears,” Tuetken said. “You can always take that one more step and then one more step and eventually, you get there.”