Fractured skull, strokes, cancer – none could stop triathlete Mike Julien achieving his Ironman dream
One moment Mike Julien was enjoying a sunrise ride before work. The next he was lying, stunned, in the road.
“I didn’t even hear the car behind me,” he says. “I just remember flying through the air and landing on my head.”
Even on the way to Salisbury hospital the stoical businessman insisted he was fine. “I just had a bit of road rash on my bottom and a headache. I can remember saying ‘I’ll take a paracetamol later – please just let me go home’.”
With no scans or x-rays taken, Mike was discharged, champing at the bit to get back to his training for Ironman Mont-Tremblant in Canada five months later. As soon as the rash healed, he was back to his training plan. All seemed fine…
Mike, 56, had taken up triathlon after leaving his accountancy job to start an internet retail business in 1999. Missing the hustle and bustle of office life and enjoying more flexible hours, he joined a gym.
“The guy who ran the spinning class was always talking about triathlons and said, ‘Come on Mike, come and give cycling a go’. So I turned up to his next time trial on my old bike wearing rugby kit from my university days.” Mike overtook so many cyclists he was snapped up by Banbury’s Team Cherwell triathlon club. “I started doing sprint, then Olympic-distance races and really enjoyed them.”
Mike moved up to longer distances, completing his first half-Ironman, then Ironman Austria, Switzerland, South Africa and Lake Placid (US). It was while training for Mont-Tremblant in 2012 that the accident happened. “I was a bit sore for a few days, but carried on as before.” About a month later, however, things started to go wrong.
“I was getting tingly sensations in my left hand and I couldn’t move my fingers. My left arm got lazy, then the legs started going. I’d be accused of being drunk – I wasn’t walking in a straight line. A GP diagnosed me with high blood pressure and prescribed medication.
“If anything, I felt worse. I started falling over on runs – when there was nothing to trip on. I also started doing silly things, such as emptying the contents of the dishwasher into the fridge.” Mike also suffered from headaches and made mistakes at work.
“I was trying to hide the symptoms from my wife. Her father had recently died and I thought she should grieve for him rather than worry about me. I was adamant I was doing another Ironman.”
It was only when his daughter Mathilda, then aged 12, asked in a frightened voice: “Daddy, what’s happening to you?” that Mike realised he needed help. His wife, Kim, demanded an urgent referral to a neurologist. “By now, I was worried sick. All sorts of conditions were going through my mind,” he admits. On the journey home from an MRI scan, Mike’s mobile rang. It was the hospital. Mike needed to return… immediately.
The scan revealed that, as a result of the accident, Mike had suffered not only a fractured skull but a series of strokes with consequent brain damage. “I was relieved to hear about the skull – it explained everything. Even the strokes were better than some of the other things I’d worried about!”
The main artery going into the brain, at the base of his skull, had been damaged. A flap had torn off – which was now blocking vital blood flow. “Because my heart was so strong, as a result of many years of Ironman training, it was still able to push some blood through that hole to keep me alive.” If he was less fit? “I would have lost more than my brain,” he says, pragmatically. Medication to lower blood pressure had worsened the condition. “As a result, bits of my brain had died off.”
Mike was ordered to spend six months resting – to give the torn flap a chance to heal. He pulled out of Mont-Tremblant and resigned himself to the sofa. An occupational therapist visited him at home with a ‘plan for recovery’. “In six months I’m going to get you to walk to the shop, unaided, buy a newspaper and walk home,” she said. Instead, Mike showed her his confirmed entry for Ironman South Africa the following spring.
After six months of rest, Mike’s consultant declared the artery had healed and he threw himself back into training. Doctors continued to monitor his blood every six weeks.
With just five weeks to go before his Ironman comeback Mike went for his usual appointment. There was a problem with his platelet levels. But they weren’t linked to a risk of another stroke – Mike was diagnosed with essential thrombocythemia, a bone marrow cancer linked to leukaemia. “The rest of the appointment is a bit of a blur,” he confesses. “But I remember them talking about chemotherapy.”
Instead of polishing his final few weeks of training, Mike attended hospital for daily IV chemotherapy sessions. “I was absolutely gutted. I was so desperate to do South Africa and get on with my life. I was more upset at missing the race than being unwell.” In need of something to aim for, Mike entered Ironman Zurich.
When he begged for some flexibility on his chemotherapy sessions, the consultant, a fellow runner, agreed. “He arranged it so I could have fewer sessions before the race and more afterwards.”
Mike quickly learned that his training would need to be base sessions. “If I made an effort it would take me a couple of days to recover. All I could do was long, slow training. I’d train in the morning then sleep for hours in the afternoon.”
The day of the race, last July, dawned blisteringly hot. “Wetsuits were prohibited which slowed me down and the swim took me almost twice as long as I’d planned – 125 minutes instead of 70.”
Mike also struggled with his emotions. “I heard them announce my story over the PA system – that I was undergoing chemotherapy. I cried for the first 20 miles on the bike,” he says. “The enormity of it all finally hit me. I had no idea if I’d ever race again after that day.”
“Normally on the bike I’d spend six hours overtaking people – but there were athletes overtaking me. When I saw Kim I said, ‘It’s a race too far’. It was just so hot.
“For the second lap, I started to pick up and as a quarter of the field dropped out I was thrilled to get to the finish line in 15 hours. I was three hours behind schedule and Kim and the children were frantic, but relieved as well. Kim knew that if I hadn’t finished I’d have been a complete pain until I’d done another one.”
The following day, Mike broke the news of his cancer to the children. “I was so relieved they hadn’t heard the PA announcement. I wanted to tell them in my own time. I told them, ‘I can’t be dying – I’ve just done an Ironman’.”
To keep the cancer under control Mike will be on medication for life and sadly has had to accept his Ironman days are over. “The left side of my brain is working perfectly, but the right side is buggered. I can’t drive and have been advised to stop cycling. With no transport, I’ve had to give up swimming as well.”
But Mike remains positive. “I’m entering another chapter of my life,” he says. “I told myself, if all I can do is run, well, I’ll do that. I’m now running 70 miles a week, with Basil my dog.”
Mike’s ambitions haven’t got any smaller. Just after Triathlon Plus spoke to him he ran Marathon des Sables. And what’s next? “There’s a similar race in the Amazon. And there’s also Cape Epic – 500 miles of mountain biking in six days. That’s a possibility.”
He hears us laughing incredulously and joins in. “Well, we’ve got to have something, haven’t we…?”
Words: Fiona Duffy
Photos: James Lampard