MOUNT PLEASANT — A year ago at this time, Drew Papillon was just starting to recover from brain surgery to remove a large, cancerous tumor.
But at 8 a.m. Sunday, Papillon was lined up at the lake shore to begin the punishing Ironman 70.3 Racine Triathlon.
Last summer, a challenge like that wasn’t even a remote thought for Papillon, now 32, of Mount Pleasant — even though he and his wife, Amy, had done their first Ironman the year before.
“It was horrible,” he said. “It was so hot, I had stomach problems. I was like, ‘I’m never doing this again.’ ”
Later in 2010 Drew Papillon, an emergency room nurse, started having what he later learned were temporal-lobe seizures: vivid, inexplicable memories of people, areas and music that made him feel like he was hyperventilating.
“I would feel tired afterward,” he said. “I thought I was just stressed out.”
“I thought I should make sure nothing’s going on,” he said. “I got an EEG (electroencephalogram test) and everything was great.”
But everything wasn’t great. Drew, who has an unshakable Christian faith and is a full-time divinity student, “prayed a lot. And we said, ‘Let’s just do an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging scan), just to be safe.”
On June 10, 2011, they did. When the call about the results came, Amy said, “They said, ‘Pack your bags and bring your wife.’ ”
“It was sort of ominous,” Drew said.
The MRI showed a long, 7-centimeter-thick tumor in his right temporal lobe. They didn’t yet know it was malignant.
Complicating matters was that Amy was due soon with their first child. “We didn’t want the surgery and the baby to come at the same time,” Drew Papillon said.
His first surgery was the biopsy that revealed a grade-two cancer. Soon afterward came the operation to cut out most of it — though not all. The surgeon had to leave about 30 percent there or risk damaging more of Drew’s brain.
He had the surgeries, then a break before starting eight weeks of radiation treatments that sapped all energy. “That was rough,” he remarked.
But in between, he recovered enough to be present July 8 when their son, Judah, was born.
“That was one of our prayer quests,” Drew said. “God was really merciful.”
His first post-surgical exercise was to swim a bit. But progress was slow.
“One time we went on a bike ride and he ended up in tears,” Amy said. “He couldn’t finish.”
“That was like, ‘This is for real,’” he said.
By December, she was ready to sign up for another Ironman. And soon, he agreed to sign up also.
Amy thinks training for Ironman has helped her husband get physically stronger and become more like his former self.
But they have no idea how many more Ironman competitions he may have left, because Drew doesn’t have a long life awaiting him. The cancer will regrow, fiercer than before, they know. The average life expectancy after discovering a cancerous brain tumor is five to 10 years.
Amazingly, he said he doesn’t think about the limited years awaiting him. “I think that’s because I’m OK with death.”
Saturday, on the eve of the contest, Drew talked about his motivation for racing.
“I really want people to see God’s grace in the midst of a hard situation. Because really, I’m going to need God’s grace to get through that.”
He added, “And I hope to finish. That’s another goal.”
Drew did finish Sunday’s Ironman, in 6 hours and 34 minutes. “It was so hot and really, really, really tough,” he said.
But an hour after he finished, he said, “I feel great right now.”
Asked if he would do another one, he replied, “I would definitely think about it.”