Living Strong

"Pain is temporary, but quitting is forever.” Lance Armstrong

Robin Dutton would agree. It’s a philosophy he lives by and while he doesn’t know Lance Armstrong personally, so far they’ve been living lives of uncanny parallel: at 29 and 33 respectively, both men are elite cyclists and world-class level tri-athletes. Both have accomplished incredible personal athletic feats and achieved notable and newsworthy victories. Both have found a deep love in their lives with strong and inspirational (blonde!) women, and both have endured a life-altering, maybe-20%-chance-of-survival testing. A testing which has pushed them to new arenas, where winning has as much to do with the strength of their personal beliefs and the depth of their character as it does with pushing the boundaries of individual abilities and stamina.

For Robin, the test began quite literally out of the blue, on May 26th of this year. Cycling along a country road in the afternoon sunshine, he was struck by a vehicle whose driver was partially blinded by glare. The impact was so severe that paramedics and nurses at the hospital didn’t think he was likely to survive. With injuries from partially collapsed lungs and bruised kidneys, to broken bones in his nose, neck, ribs, arms and legs, a severe concussion and enough lacerations to require washing and bandaging for over four hours, he was immobilized in a hospital bed for 12 days. He says he doesn’t remember his time there, other than the non-stop family and friends who were his daily constants.

He did manage to find the courage to laugh again, although it hurt like hell. And though morphine sustained it, the laughter was fuelled by the grateful realization that he is very much alive and able to appreciate the enormity of it. That, and just possibly some of the onward and upward encouragement in the particular style of reading material his buddies brought for him…

From the beginning of his ordeal and throughout his ongoing recovery, Robin’s attitude has been positive, without self-pity and full of forgiveness. "The guy who hit me – there’s no point in getting mad. It was an accident and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it. Just take every day and do the best with it.” He considers himself, "Lucky with all the things that have happened. I’m glad the injuries weren’t more severe – they could have been worse…I have a friend who is a quadriplegic; he would have given anything to be in my position. I’m here and making a 100% recovery.”

Just like Lance Armstrong, the elite athlete in Robin is used to pushing himself to get what he wants. He is following his doctor’s schedule, but admits to "not want(ing) to be in the house now watching TV, (I know the entire daily schedule!) or reading a book. I’m impatient to get on with it!”

That drive to ‘get on with it’ began at the age of 14 when he began competitive cycling. By 19 he was racing mountain bikes at the Pro-Elite level, a professional status that earns very small financial rewards or alternatively, leads to Olympic trials and participation. After a family move from Courtenay to Nanaimo, Robin found himself without his usual group of riding friends, (one of which is the 2000 Olympian Geoff Kabush) and turned to running to meet other fitness-minded people in the community. He began to seek out new venues and challenges and combined his love of cycling with running and swimming in Iron Man triathlons, off-road X-Terra competitions and Muddy Buddy races, (teams of two people: one running, one riding, who switch their positions after every mile, and endure gruelling courses over long distances).

Robin’s athletic ability, drive and determination quickly established him as a winning and respected competitor. His record of accomplishments includes a fourth place finish, (with his partner) at the Muddy Buddy World Championships on Catalina Island, California in 2002. The marathon course included a vertical climb of 4000 feet. Robin remembers it finishing with lots of fun, and paying for the beer afterwards. He ran his first marathon in 2001 without training for it: he wanted to see if he could qualify for the Boston Marathon. His time had to be under three hours and ten minutes, so he did it in 3:08. Then there was his Iron Man competition in Penticton in 2002, finishing 999th out of a field of approximately 2100 entrants and in the same year, the Victoria Half Iron Man where he came first in his age group, (24 to 29 year olds) and was the B.C. Long Course champion. In Portugal, 2004, on the Isle of Madeira with his girlfriend Carrie Willekes cheering him on, he finished an Olympic distance triathlon, (1500m swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run) as an impressive 38th overall in a field of international competitors. He was 14th in his age group and 2nd in terms of Canadian athletes.

He does it because he loves it all with a passion and that energy keeps him working hard at it, in practice and conditioning. His belief is that "good things happen to good people. You have to have a positive attitude to do things – if you wake up grumpy, then you wouldn’t do anything”.

He also credits the support of important people in his life. His friends, Norm Thibault and Stefan Jakobsen, owners of "Frontrunners” in Nanaimo, and superb international athletes in their own right, gave him the sponsorship he needed, (and a job with time out for competitions!), while developing and nurturing the local running and biking community. All of which gave Robin the support network and base he needed to thrive.

The other important person for Robin has been Carrie. He calls her his "Superstar”. She has been there for him throughout it all: proudly watching him accepting his awards and now helping him accept his temporary physical limitations. "She’s the one who came home during her lunch break everyday, to make me lunch, knowing I couldn’t move at all. She’s done everything and I owe her a lot”.

She’s even managed to make him laugh again, (without the morphine), helping him heal the emotional and psychological trauma, day by day. Life and love can be tough, and in return for brushing his teeth ‘wrong’, Carrie has treated Robin to some unexpected rinsings in the shower. And a bout of inexplicable deafness from the next room. And a case of "The Mysteriously Moving Walker”…All of which he says has given him, a lot that he can’t describe, and "An appreciation for simple things that were taken for granted before, like feeding yourself and putting on your own socks”. He is also able, finally, to laugh about his missing $200.00 bike shorts. He knows they were cut off him at the scene of the accident, but only because the paramedics had "special scissors that they’re dying to use on everything!”

While Lance Armstrong was fighting and winning his battle with cancer, he created a charitable foundation for further research and awareness that has now raised roughly $45 million through sales of his yellow "Live Strong” wristbands. Asked whether his future holds plans for a "Dutton Button”, Robin and Carrie laugh and say it is more likely to be a campaign for safety awareness and the use of bike helmets. They both know that Robin’s completely destroyed helmet was what ultimately saved his life. With all this time for thinking, Robin has become more convinced of how important it is to get the message across to everyone, but especially to older riders and teenagers, that helmets are necessary, "no matter what your hair ends up looking like!” and that riders need to be ever aware of the road and their safety.

Will Robin follow in Lance’s tire tracks and make a cycling comeback? Absolutely. He is setting himself new goals and has plans to compete in an Iron Man triathlon next June. He is not allowed to begin running again until December, but says he has already accomplished so many of his goals, like getting his neck brace off and learning to walk again with a cane, that he is joyful and "pumped to do it”.

There is one small thing that makes him different from Lance Armstrong at the moment, and that’s his fondness for a lovely pink electric chair, new to the living room. It raises him up and out to go to the bathroom. But his attitude about it is pure Lance: "Lifting yourself up,” he says, "is fun.”

He is conquering his fears and overcoming the obstacles, because he knows he can. He’s done it before, with an inner strength and a belief in himself, and the care and support of loving people. He’s a winner, a survivor and an inspiration. Robin Dutton does Live Strong.