Brain tumor inspires local man to compete in extreme races

For Howard Magazine
What would you do if you found out a brain tumor was benign? This local man began extreme racing.

Lee Barwick was never a runner.

He’d never even entered a one-mile fun run before he decided to take the leap into the world of extreme competitive triathlons and long-distance races.

It all started six years ago when he was suffering from debilitating headaches and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. After receiving the news that it was benign, Barwick, 36, decided he was going to live life to the fullest.

“I was definitely depressed,” says Barwick, who grew up in Columbia and attended Hammond High School and Howard Community College. “Over the next three to four years I started to put on weight, and on my 34th birthday my wife said something had to change and she got me a gym membership.”

As a new member of Health Unlimited gym in Mount Airy, Barwick attended a consultation and for a workout plan with personal trainer and former Marine Kevin Phelps.

It wasn’t an average first meeting for a personal trainer.

“When we sat down, I said, ‘What brings you into the club?’ and he said, ‘I want to do an Ironman triathlon,’” Phelps recalls. “My next question was, ‘What races have you done?’ When he said he hadn’t run any races, I was shocked but up to the challenge.”

Barwick, who now lives in Mount Airy with his wife, 8-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, works at Vectorworks, a computer-aided design software company in Columbia, during the day. He spends his spare time training for some of the most challenging races in the nation.

When they started training sessions, Barwick didn’t tell Phelps that he didn’t know how to swim. And in triathlon training, that’s a must.

“I told Phelps to go, and I watched him and mimicked his movements,” Barwick said. “Little did he know I was fighting not to drown.”

Barwick took the plunge and competed in his first race just six months later, in September 2013, at the Chesapeake Man in Cambridge — a 140.6-mile Ironman-distance triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon run.

He was the only runner with no previous race experience. And he finished.

“A lot of people … think that they need to train for forever, and it really comes down to what’s in your head and a lot of people don’t understand that,” says Frank Fumich, a longtime extreme triathlon runner and 2014 winner of the Quintuple Anvil, which is five Ironman distance races. Fumich and Barwick met at the Anvil races last year.

“Lee’s a tough guy, no-excuses kind of guy,” Fumich says.

Barwick decided within 15 minutes of crossing the finish line that he wanted to go a step further. He started training and competed in the Double Anvil Double Ironman last year.

Less than 30 runners enter the race, and just a handful finish. Barwick made it about halfway but had to drop out after bad leg cramps during the swim portion of the course.

“I think I was capable of finishing it but I would have had to have a perfect day,” he says. “It was definitely a taste of reality.”

But that’s not the end for Barwick. He has competed and finished multiple 50K races and plans to work up to one of the hardest races in the world — the 135-mile Bad Water Ultramarathon in the desert of California’s Death Valley.

“I needed to make a change in my life because of the tumor,” Barwick says, “and I am blessed to have my wife and family here to support me along this crazy journey.”

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