Triathlon Magazine Canada - - FEATURES - BY SARA GROSS

ONE DAY LAST Au­gust, as Fern Esau was pre­par­ing to travel to Chal­lenge Pen­tic­ton with some friends, her doc­tor called. “You need to pre­pare your­self for death,” he said.

Esau ar­tic­u­lates this with a straight face as we sit at her din­ing room ta­ble in early De­cem­ber. A woman who nor­mally weighs 145 pounds is now un­der 100 and gasps for breath due to a re­cent blood clot in her lungs. She rec­og­nizes the im­pli­ca­tions of what she is say­ing, but she breaks into a smile and says, “What kind of thing is that to say to some­one?”

Esau was di­ag­nosed with stage four pan­cre­atic can­cer. “I thought I was suf­fer­ing in­di­ges­tion.” she says, “Onions don’t agree with me.” In­stead they found what she calls “a big mucky growth on my pan­creas.”

“Pan­cre­atic can­cer is evil,” she ex­plains, no longer smil­ing, “You don’t no­tice un­til it’s too late.”

That day in Au­gust, Esau went to Pen­tic­ton any­way, cheered for her friends and signed up for the race in 2016.

A per­sonal trainer for 11 years and triathlon coach for four, Esau is an in­spi­ra­tion to many in her com­mu­nity in Vic­to­ria. The 62-year-old has fin­ished 66 triathlons, raced for Canada at nine world cham­pi­onship events and won her age group at many events in Western Canada in­clud­ing Shawni­gan Lake and the Great White North Triathlon.

Esau’s life has not been with­out chal­lenge. A sur­vivor of do­mes­tic abuse in both her mar­riages, she raised three of her four chil­dren on her own. Of her 15 years spent do­ing so­cial work she says, “I of­ten felt I was on the wrong side of the desk.”

But she found the strength to leave her past be­hind and, in 1997, dis­cov­ered run­ning when she en­tered a 10K race with her sons. She took up triathlon in her 40s and cred­its the sport (in par­tic­u­lar de­scend­ing on her bike) with help­ing her find in­ner strength. “If I can do that, I can do any­thing,” she tells me.

In 2010, Esau qual­i­fied for the world cham­pi­onship in Bu­dapest. “I had al­ways been a nose-to-the-grind­stone kind of per­son: school, univer­sity, work, rais­ing kids. I had never trav­elled.” So she got a map, Googled “Triathlon + Europe” and flew over­seas for a month-long ad­ven­ture on her own. “I ended up rac­ing in Kitzbuhel [Aus­tria],” she tells me, “It was the year Paula Find­ley won. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”

En­durance sport helped Esau move from a self-de­scribed “vic­tim mind­set.” She quit her job and started work­ing as a per­sonal trainer. She got her coach­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion and be­gan help­ing oth­ers with their jour­neys to emo­tional and phys­i­cal health.

“Triathlon has helped me through [the can­cer]. My heart is strong. It’s all about your mind­set, one more hill,” she says with a blank stare.

When the Vic­to­ria triathlon com­mu­nity learned of Fern’s ill­ness, many of us won­dered how we could help. Fern said, “I want a party.” And so, on De­cem­ber 11, 2015, a 150 peo­ple came to­gether to cel­e­brate Fern.

“I went out and bought my­self a se­quin dress,” she tells me, “I know I am skinny from the chemo, but I don’t care, I want to wear se­quins.”

Dur­ing the hour I spent with her, it be­came ap­par­ent that Fern os­cil­lates be­tween an ac­knowl­edge­ment that she is ter­mi­nally ill, and hope for the fu­ture, “This is the hard part, right now. Af­ter this, I’ll be back swim­ming in no time.”

Esau in­tends to do an Iron­man the year she turns 65. The plan is to build into it with her first marathon in 2016, “That plan might have to be de­layed,” she tells me, but there’s no doubt she in­tends to con­tinue.

“I love the peo­ple. Of course I love the sport and the chal­lenges, but it’s re­ally about the peo­ple.” As we went to press, TMC re­ceived the sad news that Fern Esau passed away on Feb. 9.

Two-time Iron­man cham­pion Sara Gross lives, trains and coaches in Vic­to­ria.

About to cross the fin­ish line at Es­cape from Al­ca­traz


Esau has no short­age of sup­port­ers as seen here at her cel­e­bra­tion of life party


On the bike at Es­cape from Al­ca­traz

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