UltrAspire’s Kevin Robison conquers cancer, 100-miler
By Henry Howard
As if 2020 wasn’t a nightmare enough, it threw Kevin Robison for an unexpected loop: a diagnosis of embryonal carcinoma testicular cancer.
“We just needed something else in 2020,” he says, jokingly. “It was apparently going too well for us, so we needed to throw something else in there.”
Robison — the president of UltrAspire, which has a family atmosphere — has been a runner since he was a kid who excelled in the mile during middle school. He later won national awards in high school and competed at Southern Utah University. But the cancer diagnosis was an ultra he had no desire to enter. Fortunately, he had a supportive crew who helped him overcome the initial grim news.
The diagnosis wasn’t a total surprise because he had rescinded testicle surgery as a youth. Men who undergo that surgery have a very high cancer diagnosis rate.
“I was always told what to look for. I was always told to do my self-checks,” he explains. “But that doesn’t make it easier. It's possible to get in a car wreck anytime you are in a car. Doesn't mean when you get into a car wreck, you're like, ‘I knew this was coming.’ You're super shaken up. We have some trigger words in our society. Cancer and chemotherapy are definitely two of them.”
‘Oh, that’s concerning’
Robison credits his wife for pushing him to go to the doctor when there appeared to be an issue with his right testicle. The doctor saw Robison the day after he called for an appointment.
“He's feeling around and says, ‘Oh, that's concerning.’ I have been a fairly healthy person. But I immediately go to worst-case scenario and ask, ‘Cancer concerning?’”
The doctor confirmed the fears and told Robison to brace himself for the next 48 hours, which were going to move quickly.
First up was to get a scan to determine whether there a tumor was present. During the appointment, the tech told Robison he might not get a call until after the weekend. However, that changed when the radiologist checked the scan.
“You will hear from your doctor today,” the tech relayed. “That's when it started becoming very real. It contradicted what she just told me. She knows what she just saw.”
Robison returned to work at UltrAspire. A half-hour later his doctor called.
“It's a confirmed tumor. Can you come back to the urologist? They can get you in right now."
As scary as that flurry of events was, Robison was reassured. His type of cancer has a 95% cure rate.
“Everyone kept telling me that out of all the cancers, this is one you want because it is highly curable.”
But that doesn’t completely erase the doubts for the patient.
“I might need chemotherapy. Don't get me wrong. I'm super grateful that it's highly curable and that it's got a good prognosis this, but let's state it that way.”
‘A grueling two weeks’
While the cancer is highly curable there was still a sense of urgency. There was no available times for surgery the following day so the urologist performed the emergency surgery the same day.
“We'll stay longer for you,” they told him, “because the concern is, if it was embryonal carcinoma, which it was, that's the most aggressive form of testicular cancer. Now again, while highly curable, it can spread as fast as every 18 hours.”
The surgery went well and the next step was to evaluate the biopsy, two weeks later.
“This 48 hours moved so fast,” he recalls. “But that was a grueling two weeks.”
A stressful time
The biopsy showed it was embryonal carcinoma with a lymph node invasion.
“There was concern that it had done in my lymph node. So luckily it hadn't spread beyond that. I didn't see any tumors in my lungs or anything like that. But because of the concern of a lymph node invasion, they did want to do chemotherapy.”
The recommendation was one round of chemotherapy, called BEP treatment.
BEP stands for three chemo drugs: Bleomycin, Etoposide and Cisplatin. With any medical procedures, there is risk. In this case, Bleomycin, which is specific to testicular cancer, can be “a bit scary,” Robison says, adding that 1 percent of those who are given Bleomycin die of lung failure.
“So being a runner at a fairly high level, I’m freaking out, right? This is scary. I am religious. I'm a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And so there was a lot of prayer that went into that for sure and trying to make the decision. Ultimately we did decide to go with the BEP and now I think I can safely say that was the right decision. So we haven't seen any lasting effects and haven't seen any lasting issues.”
During the chemo, Robison was up front with this three children who were ages 7, 5 and 12 months at the time.
“That was definitely tough to try to navigate that with the kids. I wanted to make sure I was happy so they could see dad's fine. He's bald now, but he's OK. That was tough.”
Robison emerged from the surgery and chemo, and now looked to the future.
“Obviously the residual effects do take a while. I was still feeling pretty crappy months later. I've tried to run. I tried to dabble. I wanted to get back into it, but I really wasn't fun in the drive. I've been pretty out of shape before and had to come back, but this was different.”
Finding a challenge
It was a low point for the former Division I college athlete, who for the first time found running to be a challenge. He got winded after just running a mile.
“I was really having to come back from a place that frankly I was inexperienced with,” he says. “This is horrible. This is hard. This is brutal.”
Chemo began in January, followed by remission in February and then his oldest son wanted to do a 5K.
“He inspired me and he was super stoked,” Robison recalls. “I was happy for him and it was an amazing time. A 7-year-old going sub-30, I was super stoked for him.”
Describing himself as having an “all in or nothing outlook,” he needed a goal. He found it in St. George. Called The Last One Standing, the race is a six-mile paved loop. Runners have 90 minutes to finish it and start the next one.
Unlike the seemingly endless Last Man Standing races, the race is over at 102 miles or 17 laps.
Robison had two months until race day. “I'm only five months into remission, only five months to be removed from treatment,” he says. “I thought, ‘I'm going to finish that stupid thing.’”
While Robison had run the race three times previously the most miles he hit was 80. Those were solo attempts and he knew he needed assistance to complete the 102 miles. He talked to his wife and reached out to his parents for support.
“Those last miles get absolutely brutal, then I'm going to need someone with some sanity to help me through this and give me what I need and help me out.”
Robison opted for the 102-mile challenge because he knew he could complete a 5K, 10K or other shorter distance.
“Anything in life, any problem we have, whether it's a health issue, financial, relationship problems, whatever it might be, we want to feel like we're coming back stronger, right? We want to accomplish something or do something or have something that makes us feel like that we are now stronger than we were before. And that's what I wanted this to be. I want to achieve something that pre-diagnosis, I've never done, and finishing 100 miles is something I'd never done.”
Supporting the cause
Training went well for Robison. He was ready for the race, which began at 7 p.m. on a Friday. The heat was ready for him and the other runners.
“St. George very much emulates Vegas weather,” he explains, saying the high was around 98 on race day. “Even though we're in Utah, we're hot and September is no exception. So you run through the full night and then you are sleep deprived. You’ve got all the miles on your legs, now you have to battle the heat. That's what makes this really, really quite difficult.”
About 4:30 in the morning, Robison needed a boost. He received it from Vanessa, wife of UltrAspire founder Bryce Thatcher (learn more about Thatcher's lifelong love of running).
“I'm obviously tired and feeling a little sluggish,” he says. “She had previously agreed to crew me for a lap, pace me for a lap. That definitely put a spring in my step. Whose boss's wife comes to crew them during a race? That's unheard of. So to have her come and run a lap with me before going to work that Saturday was awesome.”
Robison kept plugging away, getting support from his crew. One step at a time. One loop at a time.
“The race really did go really smooth. At these races, if you feel like crap and you need an hour at an aid station, that's not an option. You're going to miss the cutoff.”
It’s a slow grind. Runners only need to average around 15-minute miles to complete the race. They do, however, need the consistency. One misstep can be costly.
“You really do have to have a somewhat of a perfect day in order to stay on that pace,” he says, noting he used the UltrAspire Lumen 600 3.0, Basham Race Vest and Momentum 2.0 Race Vest. “For me, it really did go that well. Nutrition was staying down. We stayed cool by dumping things in water and getting icepacks. That's where I struggled in past years and that's why the crew was huge.”
Two laps to go
Robison said the realization of the finish occurred to him on the penultimate loop. In a way, it was similar to his college days, running the mile.
“If I'm being honest, I was trying not to think about it,” he says. “People who know me, they know I have ice in my veins. But I was trying to focus on the game plan. It almost reminded me of racing the mile. Last slot takes care of itself. If you can get through lap three, lap four is in the bag for the most part.”
Still, that last lap was a lot harder than Robison imagined it would be.
“I thought adrenaline would've kicked in more,” he remembers. “It’s been a while now. But, I just put my headphones on, just kind of get my head space. And I thought, ‘Holy cow, I was sitting in a chair getting chemotherapy seven months ago. Now we're going to finish a 100-miler.’”
His kids started the final loop with Robison but peeled off, leaving him with more time to contemplate the past year.
“It was definitely getting pretty emotional,” he says. “Toward the end, I came around the bend and there's trees and then you turn a corner around the trees and that's when you see the finish line. My family's waiting for me there on that corner with my kids. I got super emotional and running to that finish line and being able to accomplish that goal and finish a 100-miler.”
It represented another first for Robison.
“That was the first time, honestly, it was in that moment, cresting the finish line where I realized that I beat cancer."
The journey continues
For Robison, the 100 was a special moment, along with becoming a national champion in the 4x1 mile in high school, and being named all-conference in college.
“This was really different,” he reflects. “To be able to achieve something like that, it was really, really special. Even just talking about it now, it’s emotional.”
But his battle still continues. Every three months, Robison sees doctors, gets blood work done and undergoes a CT scan.
“I'm on my second year now doing that. That's going to continue for two years. And then for three more years, I'll still continue to do CT scans and blood work every six months. I have another nearly four years until I'm truly cancer free, and the journey's done.”
Name: Kevin Robison
Hometown: Orem, Utah
Number of years running: 22
How many miles a week do you typically run: “Oh man, that really ranges. Anywhere from 20 to 40.”
Point of pride: “There are honestly several. I was an all-American and national champion in high school in the 4 x 1 mile. I was an all-conference athlete in college. I can now add cancer survivor to the list. Obviously, the chemo- to 100-miler is a huge point of pride for me. I have a lot of pride in my family as I am a father of three.”
Favorite race distance: 50k or 50-miler.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “I really don’t stick to a routine. I can eat anything and everything before race day. For training and racing a have a strict regimen of Huma gel and Skratch Super fuel.”
Favorite piece of gear: Basham race vest and the Lumen 600 3.0
Who inspires you: “My father. He was a good runner himself back in the day and really got me started in the sport. He has taught me life lesson after life lesson. From a running standpoint, I have always looked up to Bernard Lagat and Bob Kennedy. I have had the great opportunity to meet them both and they are both incredible.”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I am usually not a music guy when I run, I tend to just be with my thoughts. But if I had to play anything it would probably be Party by Boston. Really any classic rock jam.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “To be honest I don’t really have one, I just kind of do me.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Kevin Robison on Strava
• @kevinarobison on Instagram