Local pastor, diagnosed with brain cancer, completes Ironman for his daughter, Hero.
On a warm Friday morning in October, 39-year-old Jay Hewitt is at the starting line for the Ironman Triathlon.
Organized by the World Triathlon Competition, Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile marathon run. Races are held worldwide from Japan to Turkey to Australia. But Hewitt isn’t racing in a far off land with thousands of other athletes. He is racing alone, at home in Orange County.
Hewitt initially planned to race in Australia this year, but the race was canceled due to COVID-19. Hewitt then heard about a virtual race Ironman was launching, in which a Garmin smartwatch could be used to record a participant’s distance and time. That time would automatically be uploaded to the Ironman platform allowing athletes to see where they placed among others who also competed the same day.
Which is how he ended up on a self-plotted course with his wife, Natalie, and 5-year-old daughter, Hero, blowing the airhorn at the starting line.
Hewitt started training for the Ironman Triathlon in August 2019, but his decision to compete in the race was made long before.
“When my daughter was born, I wanted her to see me complete the race and teach by example that with enough hard work, you can do anything,” says Hewitt. “I thought I would wait until she was older, so she could comprehend it. But then I got diagnosed with brain cancer.”
Hewitt felt there was no time to waste and on the first day of his radiation treatment, he ran one mile on a treadmill. By the end of his radiation treatment five weeks later, he was running up to 20 miles a day. He also received chemotherapy treatment during this time.
“The most difficult thing was just starting my training day. I would wake up feeling nauseous and really fatigued. It is hard to find motivation when you feel that terrible.”
But Hewitt, who is also lead pastor at Friends Church Orange, has always found opportunity in obstacles.
He now had the opportunity to also teach her that the business of dream following wouldn’t always be easy.
“I realized that if I was vulnerable enough to let her see me get sick, I could also let her see me get up … and teach her to hold on to hope and press on.”
The swimming portion of Hewitt’s race took place in the Back Bay of Newport Beach, where a small footbridge goes over the water. With each stroke, he would come up for a breath and for that half second, he could see his wife and daughter on the bridge, cheering him on.
“I was able to wave to them and I could see my daughter waving back at me,” Hewitt says. “I was crying in my goggles.”
But he found strength through gratitude and on race day, Hewitt saw things to be grateful for around every corner.
“Once I made the decision to plan my own race, I had to bring in people to help me,” says Hewitt. “I had a race director that worked with the Newport Dunes resort to secure the water so I could swim in the ocean.”
He also worked with local police departments to arrange police escorts.
“Officers from Newport Beach would drive with me as I rode,” he says. “Then they would pass me to officers in Huntington Beach who would follow me as I rode to Seal Beach, then Long Beach and back.”
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His wife and daughter rode along too, Hero hanging out of the car window at one point with pom-poms in hand.
“I could hear her tiny voice scream, ‘That’s my Daddy!’”
There were over 150 volunteers that helped make Hewitt’s race possible. The Ironman organization also stepped in and brought Hewitt on as one of their athletes. They supplied him with gear and were also present to provide the official finish line and finisher medal the day of his race. They even arranged for legendary Mike Reilly, the “voice of Ironman,” to announce his name (via video) at the finish line.
“The coolest thing about planning my own race was that I got to arrange my own course and the end of the marathon was on my street.”
Hewitt says he hit a rough patch at about mile 130 where he feared his body might give out. But as he ran through his own Placentia neighborhood, he had just one driving thought: “I have to get home to see my wife and daughter.”
He pushed through and when his own house was in sight, he could see Hero holding the finishing tape.
“I was interested and [a] little nervous to see how [Hero] would interpret all this, because she is so young,” Hewitt says. “But I can just tell she gets it … she gets that I was doing it for her. …And that there is no distance that I wouldn’t go for her.”
Kinetoscope Studios is currently producing a documentary chronicling Hewitt’s Ironman journey. It is scheduled for release in 2021. He hopes to help create a keepsake for his daughter for years to come.
by Sarah Mosqueda