Racing against cancer
Durango Ironman works to ‘Make an Impact’

SideStory: Tri the Rim returns Sunday

Brett Kohlhardt does a little skinny skiing at Durango Mountain Resort in his tuxedo Speedo. The number 28 on his chest represents the estimated 28 million people living with cancer./Photo by Ingrid Bodie

by Luke Mehall

Brett Kohlhardt plans to race at least 448 miles this year in various triathlons, and each step of the way will be for a cause. His newly founded “Make an Impact” fund-raiser will benefit two causes over the course of the year: the American Cancer Society and Durango’s Sue B. Earl, Kohlhardt’s physical therapist and friend who is battling leukemia.

Kohlhardt, a 26-year-old Durango resident and Fort Lewis College graduate, shared that the journey, which started last month with a half-Ironman at Lake Mead, is the result of wanting to reach out and help others, as well as a way to combat one of his own demons.

A California native, Kohlhardt got into racing at an early age thanks to his parents, who are both supportive and a little bit competitive. He entered his first sprint-triathlon at 13 alongside an unusual competitor, his mom.

“I crashed hard on the bike section, and my mom just flew right by me,” he said. “When I asked her why she didn’t stop, she said, ‘It’s a race, I wanted to beat you.’”

Kohlhardt has chased after that feeling over and over again, and estimates that he’s done somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 triathlons. While attending Fort Lewis College, he also raced on the cycling team. “Racing is my life, and it defines me,” he said. “The joy I get from training and racing, there’s nothing like it.”

However, Kohlhardt has also suffered from depression and confidence issues throughout his life. He noted that he often uses training as a crutch, saying, “Daily stresses melt away when I’m out there training, and the feeling of being out is usually a euphoric one.”

Training partner Alister Ratcliff noted that Kohlhardt’s dedication and physical stamina are extreme. “Brett wants to train eight hours a day, every day of the week, for the entire year,” he said. “When we bike together, Brett has usually already gone to the pool that morning at 5 a.m. and then gone for a run in between the time we get together to ride at 10 or 11 in the morning.”

In his personal life, Kohlhardt’s drive to succeed has been both a boon and a barrier. After graduating from college, he immediately applied for nursing school. “I had this illusion that I wasn’t going to be able to do anything with my degree, and that was one reason I enrolled in nursing school.” he said. “When things weren’t going well in nursing school, I dropped into a deep depression and was really beating myself up about it.”

Brett Kohlhardt rolls the blacktop during a recent triathlon in Nevada. The local athlete and Fort Lewis College graduate has dedicated his race season to the fight against cancer./Courtesy photo

After three semesters, Kohlhardt dropped out and started seeing a psychiatrist and taking anti-depressants. As always, his training and racing helped him climb out of the hole. With the demands of nursing school behind him, he dreamed of going big with the 2011 racing season. In addition to his personal goals, he wanted to add a twist to it. He wanted to help others; to make an impact.

“The reason I chose cancer is because both of my grandfathers have passed away from the disease,” he said. “Additionally my physical therapist and friend, Sue B. Earl, is also suffering from leukemia, and I want to help her and her family.”

His first publicity stunt for the fund-raising was running from the Fort Lewis College Clock Tower, through downtown and to the Durango Recreation Center, in a tuxedo Speedo. On his chest the number 28 was written in Sharpie marker, designating the estimated 28 million people living with cancer, and on his back 1 in 2 and 1 in 3 was written; the odds of being diagnosed with cancer for men and women respectively.

Inspired by the buzz that was created by the run, Kohlhardt was encouraged to do a similar stunt, this time on skis at Durango Mountain Resort. He agreed, when $200 in donations were rounded up in short time and donned the marble bag for a day of skiing at Durango Mountain Resort.

“There was plenty of hooting and hollering that day up on the mountain,” he said. “But, perhaps the funniest thing was a kid who yelled out Hey-Steve-O (a line from the movie ‘Jack Ass’). I did feel like a jack-ass, but part of me likes to be that clown and make people laugh, and I don’t mind at all when I’m doing something for a good cause.”

Kohlhardt’s racing season has gotten off to a successful start, with a first-place finish in his age group (7th overall) at the half Ironman in Lake Mead. It was a race full of intense winds and mental struggles, and he felt a feeling of not only racing for himself, but those he wants to support with the fund-raising.

On his blog (, he wrote about a particularly difficult section of the race where he nearly gave up: “I started thinking about calling it a day when I got to transition. This thought was quickly squashed as I reminded myself that I am racing for more than myself. I’m racing to raise money for the American Cancer Society and Sue B. Plus if my grandfathers could go through the hell of fighting cancer till the end, along with Sue B never giving up on her treatment, surely I could get through 13 miles of running.”

In addition to his fund-raising mission, Kohlhardt is closing in on attaining professional status as an Ironman by earning a pro card. To achieve this, he’ll have to make a podium finish in the most competitive, elite races on the circuit. His upcoming races will take him to California, Arizona, Boulder and Steamboat Springs. He also hopes to qualify for the World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii, for 2012.

En route, Kohlhardt has been captivated by early support of his mission and hopes that the “Making an Impact” project might lead to more opportunities to support those living with cancer.

“I feel like I haven’t been able to lose with this mission,” Kohlhardt said. “I really like how everything is unfolding, and the quest has opened up my mind creatively. I’ve made a fool of myself a couple times. The worst that can happen is I’ll be embarrassed. The best that can happen is that people will embrace the cause.” •