For most triathletes competing in Sunday’s Escape to Miami Triathlon, the thrills that come with the event’s distinct setting include ferrying out to and swimming ashore from an island in the bay, cycling up and down the Julia Tuttle Causeway and running along the MacArthur Causeway with a feeling of being suspended above the water.
For two South Florida women, the triathlon holds a deeper meaning. For both Lauren Shoemake and Virginia Echavarria, the race is a touchstone for their recovery from life-threatening setbacks that temporarily left them unable to swim, bike or run.
Both are ready to go the international Olympic distance (.9-mile swim, 25-mile bike, 6.2-mile run) from Margaret Pace Park, from where they’ll ride a boat out to Escape Island, also known as Pace Picnic Island, for the start.
Here are their stories:
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Shoemake, a 29-year-old attorney from Fort Lauderdale, completed the 2015 Escape event seven months after having surgery to remove a brain tumor and in the middle of one of her chemotherapy cycles.
“Doing Escape last year enabled me to feel like I got my life back,” she said. “This will be my fifth one in a row, and it will be really special because I feel stronger than ever and more thankful than ever that I can still do this.”
Shoemake suffered from headaches for years and also had tingling in her extremities and flights of euphoria but none of the doctors she consulted suspected brain cancer. When she had a seizure in her office and a colleague found her on the floor, a subsequent scan revealed a large Grade 3 anaplastic oligodendroglioma tumor that had probably been growing for eight to ten years, she said. She underwent emergency surgery followed by 12 months of chemo treatments.
“I feel very lucky because I survived a very rare type of cancer and got back to work and have stayed active,” said Shoemake, who was a runner before she did her first triathlon in 2012. “It’s an insidious cancer and I’m aware that almost everyone has recurrences, but they are on the cusp of better treatments or a cure, so I’m hopeful I can keep doing Escape for at least another decade.
“And my biggest bucket list item is to run the Boston Marathon.”
Echavarria, 27, is moving up to the Olympic distance after doing four sprint triathlons. She’s planning to do a 70.3-mile Ironman in October. She’s grateful to be back in form two years after she was hit by a car while riding her bike in Kendall. Her left leg was severely injured.
“I remember seeing my leg and thinking it looked like a piece of raw meat from Publix,” she said. “It looked like a shark bit me.”
Before she blacked out, “I grabbed the paramedic by his necklace and asked him if I’d ever be able to walk again,” she said.
She woke up in the hospital unable to move or detect feeling in her leg.
“They had to do a second surgery to re-attach a nerve behind my knee and I wound up losing about five inches of the nerve,” she said.
Echavarria spent five months in a wheelchair, giving pep talks to her fellow disabled patients, and after intense therapy was able to resume riding, running and swimming as well as her Mass Communication studies at Miami-Dade College.
“Every time a doctor said I wouldn’t be able to do this or that, I told myself not to accept pessimism,” she said. “Evenutally, they called me ‘the walking miracle.’ My father bought me a new bike and told me, ‘I raised you to be a warrior.’ I fell a lot at the start but I got to know myself again on the bike.”
She has not regained 100 percent movement and still walks and runs with a limp. She’d like to compete in the 2020 Paralympics for her native Dominican Republic.
“I’d like to be an example to other people,” she said. “My message is: If I can do it, you can do it.”