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Vickroy: Iron man determined to beat cancer

Tom Randich left re-learns how ride bike during workout last month with help his training buddy Ken McIntyre.  |

Tom Randich, left, re-learns how to ride a bike during a workout last month with the help of his training buddy, Ken McIntyre. | Supplied photo

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Updated: February 15, 2014 6:16AM



Tom Randich does a lot more than get by with a little help from his friends. He has his sights set on running the Grand Canyon with their help.

It won’t be easy for the 54-year-old Orland Park businessman — and not just because it’s the Grand Canyon.

Randich, a triathlete who competed in grueling Ironman races in both 2007 and 2012, is being treated for a tumor on his brain stem.

Still, when the other members of Team Intent, part of a national triathlete training group based in Frankfort, take off from the south rim of the canyon later this year, Randich plans to be right there with them.

“If anyone can do it, Tom can,” said Jeff Shoemaker, Randich’s friend and fellow member of Intent. The 49-mile Rim to Rim Run is “a bucket list thing” for the Intent athletes, Shoemaker said.

For Randich, it’s a lifeline.

“It’s my goal this year,” Randich said. “It makes me work harder.”

Randich’s story begins in 2005, when he had a heart-to-heart talk with his dad’s cardiologist after the elder Randich’s quintuple bypass.

“The doc said if I didn’t do something, he’d be seeing me in 15 years,” Randich said. So the 211-pound father of three made a decision right then and there to get in shape.

“I used to watch the Ironman races on TV when I was a kid. I was always intrigued by them,” he said.

So he aimed high. He started working out and running. In 2006, he joined Intent.

“When I signed up, the lead guy asked me what my goals were,” Randich said. He told them he’d like to be able to run an Olympic-distance marathon — 26.2 miles — in five years.

“Then he told me, ‘You’re going to do that next year,’ ” he said. “He also told me I was going to run a half-Ironman in the spring and a full Ironman in the fall of the next year.”

Randich remembers laughing and saying, “No way.”

But once he started training with the group, he discovered two things: that he could always do more than he thought he could and that friendship is an empowering thing.

“Sure enough, I did all three that next year,” Randich said. “It was an incredible experience, especially doing it as a team. We just pushed each other the whole way.”

En route to reaching his goals, his weight dropped to 165.

“I was in the best shape of my life,” he said.

Then, the following year, the metal shelving company that Randich worked for closed. As he struggled to start his own shelving business, he fell off the training schedule. Years passed.

By 2011, his weight was back up to 211.

He said to his wife, Diane, “What do you think if I do another Ironman? Not for the race, but to get in shape.”

He not only got back in shape for the 2012 Florida race, he knocked 66 minutes off his previous Ironman time.

He was back, but not for long. He was signed up to run the Wisconsin Ironman in September 2013 when he was dealt another setback, only this one went well beyond time constraints.

Four months before that race, he was riding the stationary bike at a friend’s house when he suddenly felt like he was going to pass out. The fatigue increased over the next two weeks, to the point that he was taking four to five naps a day. The first doctors he saw attributed the symptoms to other issues, including a rotator cuff problem Randich had been having.

But after his right side went numb and he began running into walls, more tests were ordered. Finally, an MRI revealed a tumor on the brain stem.

He was hospitalized in July with a diagnosis of Stage 4 glioblastoma. The tumor, due to its location, was deemed inoperable. Doctors gave him one year to live.

Pam Erickson, Randich’s assistant and a member of Intent, remembers that brief period during which he stopped being his usual overachieving self.

“There was a two-week span of just processing,” she said.

“And then one day I walked into the hospital room and he was himself again. He was ready to fight; this wasn’t going to get him down,” she said.

He transferred to the Northwestern Brain Tumor Institute, where Dr. Priya Kumthekar confirmed that the average survival rate for patients with his condition is 15 months.

“But each patient is his own statistic,” she also said. “We see 10 patients with this tumor every day. The average lives 15 months but that means several also live much longer.”

Diet, exercise and attitude always help, she said.

“When people are functioning better, they do better,” she said.

Randich vowed to approach his diagnosis with the same determination he’d used to get ready for Ironman events. He completed 33 days of radiation and is getting chemotherapy through this June.

He also began physical and occupational therapy at Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which partners with Northwestern.

If a therapist told him to do 10 minutes on the treadmill, he did 15.

“It was harder than training for Ironman,” he said. “But I could see the progress and that only made me work harder. The more I exercised, the better I felt.”

And then, all of a sudden, every day was like a miracle, he said.

“My leg moved. Then my hand moved,” he said. “A therapist told me, ‘If you keep this up, you’re going to walk out of here.’ ”

Sure enough, he did.

“He has been inspirational for me and for those of us in our clinic,” Kumthekar said.

The best doctors can do is shrink the tumor. His last MRI showed it to be very stable, not growing.

“Since Northwestern,” he said. “I have not had a bad day.”

When his wife said recently, “ ‘Tell me you’re getting better,’ ” he said, “I told her, ‘I beat this thing months ago.’ ”

Erickson said, “Tom never ceases to amaze. He is so willing to tackle this head on. He just wants to live every single day and not miss a beat.”

His friends are only too happy to help him.

After he reached the limit that insurance would pay for therapy, he vowed to keep at it on his own. His friends pitched in to make that happen.

For months, they have been taking turns coming to his house, doing therapy sessions with him and holding Randich accountable for his progress.

Randich said his wife and children, Katie, Kim and Tommy, also have helped encourage him through the difficult time. The support enabled him to complete two miles of a 5K run in August.

“Last year, I took third place,” Randich said. “This time, I finished third to last. But that’s OK.”

“It’s been incredible,” said Shoemaker, who owns All Star Trophies in Frankfort. “He works so hard.”

Shoemaker, who helped Randich tackle the stairs at Swallow Cliff, said, “He’s doing better than anyone else with his condition. He shows all of us why you should never stop, because you just never know.”

Kim Chaput, of Frankfort, said it probably helped that Randich was in optimal condition when the tumor struck.

“I remember when they told him he’d never walk or move his arm again,” she said. “Look at him. He’s walking, driving.”

Last month, with the help of his friend Ken McIntyre, Randich rode on a mountain again. It took him several tries to work out the intricacies of pedaling while steering, but once he did, he took off and rode for five miles.

“It’s great,” Erickson said. “We get this chance to just be with him and do what we all love — work out. But we also get to see him improve.”



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