Hope is never lost when you have amazing people who refuse to give up even in the most adverse circumstances. Triathlete, motivational speaker, and fundraiser, BethAnn Telford, is a paragon of such a person. She joins Robert "Fireman Rob" Verhelst on the show to share her inspiring story. Having been diagnosed with brain cancer in 2005, BethAnn fought on and refused to give up on her dream of completing the Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii in 2012. Since her recovery from surgery, she has been running marathons for a cause in all seven continents, raising awareness about pediatric brain cancer and the funds for brain cancer research under Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure.
Listen to the podcast here:
Running For A Cause: An Inspiring Story Of Hope And Perseverance With BethAnn Telford
I have a great guest who I had the pleasure of being at Kona with in 2012 and continue to be a friend because she is an inspiration. She's a triathlete, a motivational speaker, a fundraiser, and somebody who you need to know more about. BethAnn Telford, how are you doing?
I'm doing great, Rob. It is a pleasure to be with you. I follow you and all the others that were on our great expedition to Kona in 2012 via virtual outlets. It's great to talk to you. I know that we have over several times, but what a pleasure it was meeting you back there. I'm happy to do this with you.
It's crazy to think it's that long ago but it was and you continued to challenge life and we're going to get into your story. One of the things I always love and I always watch that Kona video. I see you carrying that flag with hope on it. Tell me more about what that word hope means to you.
I was very dedicated to my job, 24/7. I worked for the government and I still work for the Federal government. When I was young, I wanted to go hell's bells like I do with athletic endeavors. I was going into the office at 6:00 and not coming home until 10:00 or 11:00. I worked for a cabinet member at that time. I never thought about charities or someone that was sick. I was healthy, my family was healthy and my friends were healthy and active. When I was diagnosed in 2005, it was like this wall was in front of me and I was desperate. I was looking for people, inspiration, and a word that would carry me through this long journey that I've been dealing with for many years.
You have all these different people giving you thoughts and everything. My father started this whole thing with hope. When I had my surgery, he said, “There's hope for this. We can get through this.” It stuck to the point where I had it tattooed on my left wrist in the inside of it so that when I was running, doing events or even at work, I could look down in and know that the word hope to me is that there's a future and there are things that lie ahead. There might be hurdles but you're going to get through them and it's going to be not back to normal, but it's going to be okay. That's why my word hope sticks with me. It started with my father and he's my biggest cheerer and the person that has made me who I am now.
You talk about your diagnosis and I want to go back to that. In 2004, you're running the Marine Corps Marathon and you said you felt a popping sensation in your head at Mile 19. You were an active person before this. What happened after that?
I played field hockey in high school and then I got a scholarship for college. For field hockey, you only had to run a mile to get qualified for the team. Of course, I made that but I never did distance running. When I moved down here after 9/11 to DC, you're out on the river and the Potomac and all the monuments. It was continuous people running or walking, biking, physically exercising and getting out. I was like, “I’ve got to join a running group.” I did and I joined a group that was for the Foundation for AIDS at that time. We were training for the Marine Corps Marathon and that's how it all started. I started doing distance running down here in DC and I trained. I did several Marine Corps Marathons prior to this one in 2004, but at that time, Mile 19 was on Hains Point. Hains Point is the little island that sticks out in the Potomac that is the barrier for DC to Virginia or old town Alexandria to Rosslyn area.
At that time was Mile 19 and I felt a pop almost like I was going on an airplane. You know how you have to clear your ears, you've went up and it gets foggy. I did but then my running gate was off and I was swerving left and right and all over. I was hitting people and almost like I was drunk. I composed myself and I finished. I got to Mile 26.2 so it was a seven more mile track but I considerably slowed down. My vision was messed up and I got across the finish line, immediately went to the medical tent, and something was wrong. I thought it was dehydration. It was one of the hottest days that Marine Corps Marathon had but that’s where my story all started in. When I felt that pop in my head, Rob back at Mile 19, I looked up and to this day in all these Marine Corps Marathons later, every time I stopped there or my friend stopped there, there is a sign there about me that people go up during the race and it's this little a shrine of like, “This is not going to get me. I'm coming back and I'm going to get you.” It's Mile 13 on Marine Corps Marathon. The course has changed over the years but that marathon is my VIP marathon. I love it.
You've made your name there. You had that normal lifestyle you were talking about and you went in and you found out that you had a brain tumor.
I thought I was dehydrated. I went to the medical tent at the Marine Corps and they tried to get some life back in me with the saline solution. Marine Corps Marathon is always the last day, last Sunday in October. I was used to going to work the next day after doing several marathons. I went into work and again, as I told you, I worked for a high-level federal employee and I was his assistant. I kept his calendar. I did personal things for him to make sure he was on time, lunch dates, meetings, and hooking him up with other people according to his schedule. That Monday through Wednesday, I was a mess and like I had started the job. On top of that, my left eye was having trouble with sight. It was straying. I was running into this old furniture that had been there for 30 or 40 years and missing telephone calls for him. The meetings were wrong. I got on the Metro to go home instead of going to Northern Virginia. I ended up on the other side of Maryland.
Things were not right. By that Wednesday, my boss had pulled me into his office and he says, “There's something wrong with you. Are you drinking?” I'm like, “No.” I told him earlier about what happened at the Marine Corps. I went into the hospital and he had directed me to get a physical. I went to GW there. At that time, I was still being seen by my doctor back home. I'm from Pennsylvania and I was being seen by my doctor at Hershey Medical but because of the urgency I was sent to GW. I went there and they diagnosed me with an inner ear infection. They collaborated with my doctor, Dr. Thomas Weida, who now is a sports doctor at the University of Alabama. He's been seeing me since I was a toddler. He said, “Something is not right. I am putting in a prescription for an MRI there.” I went and got an MRI right away and the results came in. I had a major left frontal lobe brain tumor and that's when my life changed.
I can imagine. At that point, you had all these things that were ahead of you that you thought of and then now it's a different direction. One of my favorite stories when you started to begin to learn how to walk again at the hospital. You made a circuit to be able to try to beat your friends and family. Tell me more about this.
As I said, my father is my biggest coach and hero. When I say coach, he doesn't know anything about triathlons. When I went to buy my bike, he was like, “Where's the kickstand? You're paying how much for a tire?” When I say coach, just life skills. He always pushed me past my boundaries. In the hospital, they weren't even sure what was going to happen after surgery. I lost the sight of my left eye and I lost the ability to have children. When you say there were things ahead of me, I wanted to have children so bad. I was afraid to swing my legs over the side of the bed to start to walk because I wasn't sure about my sight and my balance. That's a huge issue. My father said to me, “I am going to try to race you around the intensive care.” He made a path and we did it in. He pushed me and pushed me every limit there was. People would cheer us on, I had my friends that came in that were athletes, and they would take me on these almost therapy lap run or walks type of things to see if I could get myself going. That was my first time learning to walk again.
The best part is I know you well. Anybody who's reading this blog has a slight glimpse into what you started to do after that. You didn't stop at racing people around the hospital ward once you got done. Was it a month after your surgery that you entered your first 5k brain surgery?
I had surgery back in April of 2005 and I stayed in the hospital for some time. Instead of coming back to DC, I went home to Pennsylvania so I could be looked after by my parents and my sisters. It's quieter there. It's the country. There was a 5K in our hometown. When my sister said, “Let's do it,” the whole family and my dad says, “I'll go to the halfway mark.” I have two older sisters, my mother and I were at the start line, family friends were there and the community that knew me. It was great and it was in the area at my home. My mother and sister said to me, “Now, you will not run, you will walk this.” I was like, “Sure.” The gun went off, all the good runners went, I was feeling down for myself, and I got to the halfway mark.
You have to remember I had no hair. My head is wrapped. I got a patch on my eye and in the halfway mark, I hear my dad. I knew right it away, I couldn't see him but I know his voice. It's like, “Get going Beth, pick it up, come on.” It took me back to the days of field hockey when parents could scream, yell, swear, whatever on the sidelines and my dad even had a blow horn. That moment that I heard my dad, that is the moment I knew I was going to be okay. I picked up my pace. I left my sisters and mom. I ran towards the voice of my father, and I finished that 5k not walking but running. When I say running, it's not the pace that I was used to, but I had one foot in front of the other and I was doing the best I could. It was very slow, but it was because of my father.
It is the pace of progress towards something better.
That's a great way to say that.
When you look at the situation that you went through because a lot of the people that read this blog want to find out the inner workings of, how did you mentally get from point A of being diagnosed to point B of going, “I'm to get my life back to what I want it to be?” What would you say the three tips would be for those people?
Surround yourself with great friends and family. My whole thing is I don't like to be around negative people that, “You're sick, you should stay at home.” I heard that when I went to Ironman. That's the worst thing you could do. You're going to kill yourself. Number one is family and friends. Number two is I have a great team of doctors to the point where I have personal emails and numbers. I don't call them up and say, “I stubbed my toe.” For reasons, I have their numbers because I have such a great rapport with them. Lastly, you have to believe in yourself. If you can't believe in yourself, you're not going to get far in life or get over those obstacles that you have. I believe those three things are what truly have gotten me to the point where I am now as far as these incredible things I've been able to do, the job I've been able to keep, and the great people that I go out and train with or have conversations with.
You didn't just go 5Ks and stuff like that. You weren't content with doing that. How many Boston Marathons have you finished?
I have qualified and finished, let's put that way there because someone might think I did it for charity, which is great. I qualified and finished six marathons. It would have been seven and thank God it wasn't because I missed the year of the bombing. In fact, my name I had, I was in, my bid was there and my friend picked up my bid. They thought I was at the starting line. The bombing happened and it would have been at the timing that I would have come to the finish line. It was crazy. I had been in the hospital for emergency bladder replacement. Would I have rather been at the bombing or have the bladder surgery? Definitely the bladder surgery.
Not just that many Boston Marathons. How many consecutive Marine Corps Marathons have you done?
I have done fifteen consecutive and that's my favorite. I love the men and women who serve our country. I love being able to run through DC with all the great monuments to many people in. It's no prize money there. It's a great race and I love the race director.
I want to go to 2012. We were part of the same thing as Kona Inspired. I love it because on the NBC coverage, right before, I'm on there. It always makes me smile every time I see you flash that tattoo on your wrist of hope. Tell me what that day meant, not just for you, because you had somebody waiting at the finish line and you created an impact. I want to read a quote here before I let you tell me that but you said, “I fight for those who are unable especially for children suffering from cancer. There is a very significant lack of funding for pediatric cancer.” Tell me what that day meant to you and what it meant to the individuals that you helped.
It was huge. It had to be by far at that point, the biggest thing in my life that I had accomplished. I was very lucky to have my parents there. I have my partner there. Meet the wonderful people that were in Kona Inspired, that's where you and I forged a wonderful relationship. Todd was there and we had a great group of people from the foundation and other foundations. I met your girlfriend at that time, who's now your wife. I had the opportunity to have someone fly over, a pediatric brain tumor warrior of mine who I call my bestie and her mother. I had met this little girl through my father who was reading the newspaper back home and on the front page, this little girl was featured. She was featured because of her brain cancer. Her classmates at the Bible Baptist School were making hats for her because she had lost her hair and she was very conscious of it.
My dad says, “You have to meet this girl.” The next time I was home, I met her. Her name is Anya. We formed a great relationship. I love every part of her. She's grown into a teenager now. She's had nine surgeries since I met her for her brain tumor. Each time she comes out, even more thankful to anyone that she meets or helps. She is going to be the new mini-me. She might not be athletic. She's taking over a lot of my speaking gigs and we do a lot of speaking gigs together. She was much young at that time, to have her at the finish line, I knew the whole time out there that what I was doing was for so many kids. When you read about that, the pediatric funding for an adult is 42%. Rob, what do you think it is for a child, for pediatric cancer in general?
I can only imagine it's half or even less than.
It’s 7%. It's ridiculous. When I heard that from my doctor, Dr. Henry Brem and when told I wasn’t able to have kids, I adopted all these kids. I thought I have lived my life. I have been to the prom, I've driven a car, I've gotten speeding tickets and I've been grounded several times. I went to school and furthered my career in the federal government serving our country. These kids might not get to do that. I felt that that was going to be my platform. The whole time being out there in Kona and that piece where you see me talking, there was a part where the guys followed me and they did that with you on the motorcycle. They're like, “What do you think?”
I said, “I'm going to go back. I have enough time. I want to run another ten miles.” They're like, “We are done with you.” As I came around that corner, and you know that feeling, to go up in front of the crowds is like, I was carrying so much weight on me. It all lifted off. I felt like everyone ran in front of me and it was their finish. When I came across the finish line, I went right to her. She was right there with her mom. I, unfortunately, swore, “Jesus Christ, that’s the hardest thing I did.” I covered my mouth and I was thinking, “This girl is a little religious girl and here I am saying this.” I was so excited. To see her smile and wait for me all those hours, she had taken naps. Later on, I had seen all these pictures of her in the hotel floor room waiting for me. It was overwhelming because I raised some good money. It was all so worth it. I want to do it again and again.
This is one of the things that I love about you is that you don't stop. There's no finish line for you. You keep going and you've raised over $1 million for research supported by the Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure. You have a team that people can go to www.TeamBT.org, people can go there and find out more information. This is crazy and I have thought of doing it, but I don't know if I'm as crazy as you are. In 2017, you did the World Marathon Challenge, which is seven marathons on seven continents in seven days.
Let's get something straight. It's seven consecutive days. This is where I've pulled my brain surgeon. When I had to get the clearance because Accelerate Brain Cancer Cure wanted to make sure I was medically able to do this which is understandable. I said seven marathons on seven continents in seven days and Dr. Brem was like, “Let me think about this.” I never put consecutive in there so you do one a month or once every two months or whatever but I didn't say anything. I let him form his own opinion. This was brought to me again by one of my lovely friends who thought I should go out for this. I thought, “This is awesome. It's a great platform.”
Rob, I hope you do it. It would be so good. Take Todd and film the whole thing. I thought and still the feeling that I got when I passed over Kona, you can't express that enough. I thought that that was it for me. I knew I would do other things, but nothing is epic. This came up and I was blown out of the water. Were there days that I thought I couldn't do it? No. I trained for a year. I felt great and I knew this platform would be a great way for me to raise money and awareness for pediatric brain cancer. It’s 7 marathons on 7 continents in 7 days. You start in Antarctica and you run a full marathon. There's a special plane that takes you there that can land on the ice. It's a Russian plane.
The whole thing is starting there's due to the fact of the weather and the storms that come in. Only my luck when we started running, a snow storm came in but we finished it and immediately, we were packed before we even started the race of the 26.2. When we finished, some people that were faster like my good friend Michael Wardian were able to shower but others that were stuck in the snowstorm and I was running through snow up to my knees, we're a little bit slower. We got caught in that but as soon as everyone was finished, we jumped back onto the plane and we went back to Chile where it all started and we all met up.
From Chile onward, we had our own private jet, which was nice because you had your own designated area. I was lucky enough to have someone come along with me to do my media. They had given this person a reduced rate to get in with me and they captured everything, filmed it, and she administered all my medicine because I'm on medicines for health issues. We got back to Chile and we get off this Russian plane, we unload our gear, and we immediately run another 26.2 in Chile. When you're done, you only have so many hours to either get yourself ready and you get back on the plane. That's when we flew to Miami where I had a huge crowd. My parents and my friends were there and they ran with me. That was it. I was so happy to see my parents.
I needed a little pep talk. It's not that I wasn't going to finish, I was missing people. Other than the lady that went with me, I had known her. Her niece has a brain tumor. It was all part of that that she had come along and she's in marketing. After Miami, I finished and my dad said to me, “Can we get dinner?” The race director looked at my dad and said, “She's got to get into the van. We’ve got to get back to the airport, we're headed to Spain.” My dad was like, “Wait a minute.” I gave my dad a kiss and I left. We were off. We went to Spain. That was my fastest marathon. I like hills and it was a lot of up and downhills.
The scenery which we were in a park, it reminded me of home so much. From Chile, we finished 26.2 and we went on to Marrakesh. That was a very interesting one. We got there and women aren't allowed to run there. We respected them and didn't wear short sleeves and it was hot. I kept long pants on, but a lady came up from the area. The only thing that we had in common was she had running shoes on. She had the full garb over her head and she ran with me. She wanted to run with the American woman. I was the only American woman. I was the second American woman to do this event, the first-ever with cancer, male or female. It was great.
I have some great pictures of running past camels and that was a touching moment when she ran with me and I got to ask her some questions. We got showered and some food and got back. We did a lot of eating but I didn't sleep much on the plane or anywhere else because my adrenaline was flowing. That was number four. Dubai, that's number six. Dubai was by far the hardest. Antarctica was hard, but it was 112 degrees in Dubai and my tumor doesn't like that. I was so hot, my head was thumping, and we all worked together. Every participant, we had great people on. The whole 22 of us, only twenty of us ended up finishing, but we assisted each other by giving each other ice bags and rags. That was hard for all of us.
I finished that and then we had a long flight for the final destination which was Australia. We went into Sydney and it was nighttime so we would run through the night. We got there around 10:00 and we started running around midnight, by the time we got from the airport to the destination. From the flight from Dubai to Sydney, Australia, the race director, Richard talked to all of us and said that there was a past participant who wanted to donate $5,000 to a man and $5,000 to a woman who all of us that participated deemed the most sportsmanship of the adventure. We had to vote on each other and then give it to the race director confidentially. At the end of the Australia race, he would let us know. We all did that.
I'm running in Australia and it's midnight. We had headlamps and we were running along the beach. It was beautiful. At that race site, there was a gentleman there who had come and he had waited for me. We were supposed to be there at 9:00 and he waited until midnight when I got there. I didn't know much about him but he came up to me. He says, “You see that structure up there on the hill?” It was like a cliff that overlooked the ocean that we were down on running by. He says, “My son died there a few months ago from a brain tumor. I heard about you and I'm out here to support you.” If that didn't motivate me to run, I finished that race and I wanted to keep running and run 2 or 3 more marathons because my heart felt for this guy. New Balance had donated fourteen pairs of shoes for me.
Remember of seven countries, every half marathon, 13.1, I switched out my New Balance shoes. What we did before we left is we reached out to anyone with pediatric cancer especially brain, to design their sneaker. We had it painted on the one sneaker and the other sneaker was the country that that child would be running with me. When I got to Australia I looked down at my feet, at the finish line, I had the shoe that this pediatric kid had done on one side. This was my final pair. On the other side, the flag of Australia. I took off the left foot that had the flag of Australia and I gave it to him. Lo and behold, it fit him. I'm a size eight women so he had a very small foot. He was blown away and very happy. When I came across that finish line, I wanted to keep going but Richard had said that I was voted by my peers for the $5,000 for the woman with the best sportsmanship on that race.
I had some competition, I'll tell you, there was a blind lady from Ireland. She's awesome. She has done some incredible things. A lady from Italy that I admired but all great. Mostly, there were a lot of Asian people, there are Germans, and there were triathletes on this. It was great. It's selected that's why there was only me, Ryan Hall who's very famous and I got to forge a great relationship with him. Ryan Hall is known for his World Record Marathon time and he's an Olympic Runner and I beat him in Australia. I use that once in a while when he posts something funny, I'll say, “Remember who beat you in Australia.”
You are a motivational and inspirational person. I'm going to end this one with how we always end it. We have three questions that we ask people and then we have the rapid round questions with no right or wrong answer. The first one is, what is one thing that you haven't done but is outside of your comfort zone?
What would that be? Let me come back to that one.
We'll come back to that one. This next one you know. What's your favorite quote and why?
It’s one my father instilled in me and it is, “Never, never, never give up,” by Winston Churchill. You never give up and you never give up hope. That is why.
You can't pass on this one. If you could pick to have coffee with three other people at a firehouse coffee table. In other words, nothing is off the table. You can talk about anything and everything. Who would it be and why? They can be deceased or alive.
Andrea Bocelli because he's amazing. I enjoy his music although I don't listen to it while I'm running. He's amazing with his adversity and overcoming a lot of different issues. This is another person I have to say whose up there is Tatyana McFadden. She is a famous wheelchair athlete. She was adopted out of a Russian orphanage. She's got a great story. Those two were very different perspectives but Tatyana is incredible. I have the opportunity to meet her but not sit and discuss her adversity either.
This would be that opportunity. Who else do you think?
I don't want to get political but Ronald Reagan. There is something about him that I like. He went from one extreme of being an actor to running our country and why? It’s such a difficult job and you can never do it right. It's like a weather forecaster. The way he went out of this world was very sad. I'm seeing that with my father. I would like to go back in time and ask him questions of like, “How he thought he was going to go out of this world?” It was definitely not the way he did.
I love those three. Those are some good picks right there. We'll have to go back to question one here. What is the one thing you haven't done but is outside of your comfort zone?
The backpacking through Spain. I know it sounds very easy but through that Machu Picchu, that long trail that the monks take and it is very long, it goes through Italy, Spain. If I had to do that alone, I would freak out because I do not like to be alone. That's my biggest problem. It's been ever since I had the surgery and it's the fear of having a seizure because I do seizure and not anyone finding me. That will be out of my comfort zone, doing an event where it's one person, it's you, and the wild. Not that I wouldn't do well because I ran across the Grand Canyon but I had five people supporting me. That would be it.
You've reached the rapid round of questions. I'm going to give you two options. You choose one of them. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald's or Taco Bell?
McDonald's, I love their fries.
Camping or hotel?
I’ve got to admit, camping.
Fly or drive?
Sleeping late or wake up early?
I'm an early person, 4:00 AM.
That's way too early for me. Run or walk?
I figured that one. Partly sunny or partly cloudy?
Either because they're both great days.
I love that answer. Fire or water?
Use a porta-potty or continue to drive or run to the next physical bathroom?
Porta-potty or nature. Come on, we’re triathletes.
Coke or Pepsi?
Go big or go home?
BethAnn, it has been such a pleasure to talk with you. You are such an inspiration. Anybody that wants to find out more can go to TeamBT.org to find out more about the next adventures and the way that you can support them. Thank you so much for joining us.
You’re very welcome. What a great way to talk with you and get this out to everyone. It's been a pleasure, Rob.
Thank you so much. Thank you for joining us.