Karen Newman is Pushing the Limits

Defying the odds, Karen Newman is showing the world what’s possible.

At the start line on June 23 everything was still. Then the gun fired, and Karen Newman plunged into the waters of Lake Dunmore for the swim leg of the Vermont Sun Triathlon. For 600 yards, her world was consumed by churning water and the kicking feet of other swimmers. She was one of the pack, wearing the number one bib she’d earned as a past Vermont Sun Triathlon Series Champion.

Karen reached the shore and jumped on her bike, feeling her slim but strong five-foot-three-inch frame relax as she eased her pelvis onto the saddle. She felt none of the pain that had debilitated her just a few days before, a pain that made her wonder

Karen Newman in her element, after winning the silver medal for her age group at the 2015 Huntsman Senior Games.

how long she could bear to sit. In that instant, she knew this race would be about winning, not just finishing. 

As she ran the last mile, Karen was flying, dark hair streaming behind her. Her husband Peter Newman filmed her as she closed in on the finish line. “It was like watching a 16-year-old run. I choke up just thinking about the joy in her smile,” said Peter. “I sent the video to our three boys, who couldn’t be there that day, with the headline ‘Screw Cancer.’”

Karen raced the sprint triathlon just one week after finishing radiation treatment for stage IV metastatic breast cancer. It was the third time in 10 years that she had faced a stage III or IV cancer diagnosis. On June 22, she wrote in her blog, “Tomorrow I will race in my last triathlon… It’s been nearly 30 years, more than half my life.”

  At 57, she finished the race 6th overall among women, beating competitors half her age, with a time of 1:20.48. At 23:16.9, she had the fourth fastest run for women for the 5K. She finished the 600-yard swim in 10:18.2 and the 14.25-mile bike leg in 45:14.7 and she won her age group. 

On Mother’s Day, 2018, nearly two years to the day since she had received her second diagnosis, Karen Newman learned she had another new tumor, this one at the bottom of her spine in her sacrum. She was also told that several tumors in her pelvis were growing. The doctor who read her PET scan told her that one should have cracked her pubic bone, though it has not. For weeks, she couldn’t sit down for pain in her pelvis and back. In June, she underwent another round of radiation, which was especially tough on her body because other delicate organs and tissue near the tumors were affected.

“I was worried the bike ride would break my pubic bone,” said Karen when I met her at her family’s lakefront cottage in Charlotte in early July. “But I jumped right back into racing mode, and I guess the warrior in me came out.” Fourteen days later, she would be flying to Denmark for the Aquathlon World Championships on July 12. She said it would be her last.

The Warrior

Karen has been a warrior of sorts on and off the triathlon circuit for more than 30 years. She was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child and is now the published author of a memoir, Just Three Words. She struggled with an eating disorder for half her life

Karen Newman at the Vermont Sun Triathlon, June 2018

(and beat it) and currently serves as the President of the Vermont Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She didn’t start racing triathlons seriously until she was in her late 30s and has competed in nine International Triathlon Union World Championships in aquathlon and sprint triathlon since 2001.

Karen started out as a cross-country runner at the University of Vermont. It was there that she met Peter Newman. He was a freshman tennis player and she was a sophomore. At a fraternity party, she asked him if he wanted to go for a run with her early the following morning. She picked him up and they ran the streets of Burlington in a blizzard. They dated for seven years, until parting ways in New York City in 1988.

One year later, Karen was engaged to another man and on her way to finishing what would have been a sub-three-hour marathon. When she got to  the 24-mile mark of the 1989 New York Marathon, there was Peter, with a sign. He’d chased her for seven miles. The sign said, “Go Karen Stetson” on one side and “Will you marry me?” on the other.

“She stopped running to stare at me. All she said was, ‘Are you serious?’” said Peter. Karen said yes right then and there and finished with a time of 3:33:00. She maintains that Peter was worth slowing down for.

Peter proposed to Karen at the 24-mile mark of the 1989 New York City Marathon.

Karen will be the first to tell you that she didn’t start competing seriously in triathlons until 2000, after her sons Stetson, now 26, Chase, 24, and Trent, 19, were born.

Steve Hare, owner of Vermont Sun Fitness Centers and founder and organizer of the Vermont Sun Triathlon Series, said Karen has competed in his races for more than 15 years. “She started winning in her ‘40s, and everybody was like, ‘whoa,’ this woman is really fast.” And she kept getting faster.

  “Except for a few really exceptional runners out there… once people turn 50, their running goes downhill,” said Hare. “Not so for Karen. I saw her blow right past me on the running leg this last race,” he added. Hare is a former all-American triathlete.

Karen started winning her age group in regional triathlons in her late 30s. In 1999, her times in regional sprint triathlons qualified her to compete in the Triathlon National Championships in Oceanside, Ca. She didn’t qualify for Worlds in that race, but she did qualify for a second series of time trials in Lake Placid, N.Y. later that year. At that event, she passed a competitor just feet from the finish to earn the fourth spot on Team USA. That meant she would compete for the women’s 40-44 age group at the 2001 World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. Seven years later, she was still at the top of her game and she competed in her age division in the World Triathlon Championships in Vancouver, B.C. in 2008. The difference? That was just days after she completed her fourth chemotherapy treatment for advanced, aggressive stage-three breast cancer. She recovered and went on to win silver at the 2012 Age Group World Championships in triathlon as the top American participant in the women age 50-54 category with a time of 1:20:59.

In 2013, Karen broke the Huntsman Senior Games World Triathlon record with a time of 1:11.00 for a 450m swim, 20K bike and 5K run. In 2015, the USA Triathlon Federation presented Karen with the Most Inspirational Comeback award. She has been named an All-American triathlete eight times.

Hare says that even with cancer Newman was and is an exceptional competitor overall. “What really makes her stand out is her speed on the running legs—though she’s no slouch in the other two events either.”

Racing Cancer

When Karen Newman was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, she was a successful dietitian and nutritionist and a working mom with three young children. She was 46 years old, a triathlete and harboring a secret.

That secret came to a head with her cancer diagnosis: Newman had struggled with disordered eating since she was a teenager. A near-deadly bout with anorexia at age 14 led to a 20-plus-year battle with bulimia. By day she counseled others about their nutritional habits, provided relief to people suffering from their own eating disorders and was a dedicated mother and accomplished athlete. By night, she was making herself sick.

“I was a triathlete making myself sick before national championships. People would tell me, ‘oh, you look great!” said Newman, a strikingly beautiful woman. “I thought my husband would divorce me and that I’d lose my job if anyone knew.”

The addiction was so engrained in her that when she was first diagnosed with cancer, her first thought was that she’d probably lose weight while undergoing chemotherapy. She felt relieved. But she stopped making herself sick that day, after it became clear that if she continued, she would not survive for her three boys. “For anybody who is a parent, your child always comes first.”

When Karen signed up for chemotherapy, it was on the condition that her doctor allow her to keep training for the 2008 Triathlon World Championships, which she qualified for by placing fourth at Nationals in 2007. It took her three separate meetings to find an oncologist who would let her compete.

Peter and Karen on an Essex-Charlotte ferry ride in 2008.

Newman swam daily throughout her first round of chemotherapy. She learned to run and bike during the eight hours between her treatments and when the nausea would sink in. Competing became a metaphor for life: She’d promised her sons she would compete at Worlds, and if she could finish the race, she could beat cancer too.

When the time came to race, her doctors advised against it. Peter and her closest friends supported her.

In the end, she competed in the World Championships just five days after her fourth round of chemotherapy. She finished hypothermic and in second to last place.

When her hair fell out, just days after she returned home, she was all the more determined to keep competing in triathlons–even through a mastectomy that resulted in lymphedema. “That was the first time I had really cried about cancer, my family and what I was going through—everything. I sobbed that my children had to worry about their mother dying,” Karen wrote in her book, Just Three Words. She was determined to show them otherwise.

Peter said he never once questioned whether Karen could race. “My role was to support and encourage her. Failure wasn’t an option. She always brushes herself off and gets up and keeps swinging.”

In 2012 she returned to the World Championships to finish second in her age group with a time of 1:13:44. “That was the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen,” Peter said. “She is fearless. She comes off as sweet, but she is tough, and she is the strongest person I know.”

A New Life

In 2009, Karen thought she had beaten cancer. And for seven years she was cancer free. “Cancer was not a death sentence, it was an opportunity for life,” says Karen. It ended her battle with bulimia. She also started going to church again. “Your trial allows other people to be the eyes and hands of Jesus and it changes you to know you are loved. It is powerful to know that the way you walk through your trial can bring others hope,” she says.

Then, at the Pump-it-Up 5-miler in Jericho on Mother’s Day in 2016, she suffered a stress fracture in her spine. She walked the rest of the race and collapsed at the finish line. The cancer was back and it was in her bones. A doctor told her she would never walk again. She told her kids that she would qualify for one more World Championship.

For months, there were days when she could hardly get out of bed. She spent nights throwing up from chemotherapy and days training. “It’s important in treatment to have a goal. For me that was to get up and get myself outside. Every day I would say a grateful prayer before my feet ever touched the ground. Then I’d push through the pain,” said Karen.

That September, Karen placed fourth in her age group, women 55-59, at the 2016 Cozumel ITU Aquathlon World Championships, with a time of 45:32. A few days later on September 15, she placed 31 at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final with a time of 1:37:59. Afraid of a catastrophic fall, she raced on a mountain bike.

Those performances earned her the last spot on Team USA for the 2018 World Triathlon Championships. It was something she was looking forward to. Then, on Mother’s Day 2018, Karen was told that she has stage IV cancer. Doctors also told her that after the radiation therapy required to treat the tumors in her pelvis, she’d likely never walk again.

Since completing that radiation therapy, she has been swimming almost daily. She spends time with her family and she works. She rides her bike and she runs two to three days a week.

According to Dr. H. James Wallace, medical director of Radiation Oncology at the University of Vermont Medical Center, radiation therapy to the pelvic region causes fatigue in most patients, and can cause anemia, nausea, and reduce the body’s ability to oxygenate local muscles during exercise. Karen said she can feel the weakness in her pelvis. “Sometimes it feels like there’s not enough bone there to support my back,” she said. Dr. Wallace said it can take patients years to recover their former athletic capacity after undergoing such invasive radiation therapy.

In Karen’s case, she’s competing as a world class athlete.

When asked why she endures so much to race now, Karen said, “I want to push the limits of what people think is possible, so that other stage IV metastatic breast cancer patients know they can do amazing things.” 

With a smile, Karen says she is looking at other treatment options for this fall. She is optimistic, and when you meet her, she exudes a health and warmth that makes you forget the cancer.

The Last Race?

On July 12, 2018 at the start line for the 2018 World Aquathlon Championships in Fyn, Denmark, Karen Newman bobbed between two buoys along with twenty other women from around the world. As hordes of jellyfish stung her exposed feet, she marveled that she could be there just three weeks after a shot of chemotherapy.

When the gun went off, she plunged her face into the water and was immediately stung on the mouth. After the 1K swim through myriad tentacles, she struggled to get her ear and nose plugs out. “That transition cost me the podium,” she said. 

At 22:37, she ran the fastest 5K of any competitor in the women, age 55-59, division. Her overall time was 43:10. She finished in sixth place overall and was the first American, proudly representing Team USA.

Karen Newman at her home in Charlotte, Vt. Photo

When asked if she still plans to retire, Karen said, “I just might be back. If I can get the fastest run time in the world after only two weeks of training, who knows what’s next?” She said that when she runs, she feels healed.

“There is a pre and post cancer Karen,” said Peter. “Sometimes situations like hers remind you of how precious life is. She has always been someone who laughs. She’s the most unique person I’ve ever met, and despite what she’s been through, she maintains a childlike wonder at the world,” said Peter, who has watched other cancer patients and athletes react to Karen over the years.

“She makes you feel like you’re the only person in the world when you’re in front of her. Despite the fact that we’ve aged, she still makes my heart jump when she walks around the corner.”

“This life is about love,” said Karen. “And my mission is to leave a legacy of love. Nobody is going to remember what you did, but they will remember how you lived.”