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Focus on Year of the Air Force Family: Airman Defies Cancer, Celebrates Life's Second Chance with Ironman Finish

Maj. Steven Bogstie, Space and Missile Systems Center's Strategic Plans and Programs action officer, crossed the finish line at the Ironman California 70.3 triathlon in late March 2009, seven months after surviving a rare blood cancer. (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Steven Bogstie, Space and Missile Systems Center's Strategic Plans and Programs action officer, crossed the finish line at the Ironman California 70.3 triathlon in late March 2009, seven months after surviving a rare blood cancer. (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Steven Bogstie, Space and Missile Systems Center's Strategic Plans and Programs action officer, starts his 56-mile bike ride at the Ironman California 70.3 triathlon in late March 2009, seven months after surviving a rare blood cancer. (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Steven Bogstie, Space and Missile Systems Center's Strategic Plans and Programs action officer, starts his 56-mile bike ride at the Ironman California 70.3 triathlon in late March 2009, seven months after surviving a rare blood cancer. (Courtesy photo)

Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif. -- More than three decades ago, two Californians, John and Judy Collins, staged the first endurance race that circled Hawaii's island of Oahu. The first Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon linked the 2.4- mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim, a 112-mile Round Oahu Bike Course and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon, according to Ironman.com.

Most average people would never voluntarily push themselves to these extremes. A few who willingly complete all three events would be the rarity. Even rarer are those triathletes who overcome potentially terminal illnesses and long, painful and restless recovery to roar back to life and finish the challenge with gusto.

One can't help but marvel at Maj. Steven Bogstie's story over the past four years of trials and triumphs. Major Bogstie, an action officer with the Space and Missile Systems Center's Strategic Plans and Programs office, is one of the rare individuals whose inspirational story provides great depth and clarity to one's perspective of life.

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His Ironman journey was gradual beginning with a co-worker's simple challenge in 2006: the Amtrak Century ride, a 100-mile bicycle ride from Irving to San Diego, Calif. "I thought it would be a good challenge, so I went for it," said Major Bogstie. "I finished that first ride and returned in 2007."

The long bike rides served to stoke his innate competitive spirit. "After my first century ride, I was looking for another challenge," he said. "I signed up for the San Diego marathon and the Disneyland half-marathon in 2007, finishing them both.

"My next logical step [after completing the half-marathon] was to try a triathlon," Major Bogstie continued. "Basically on a dare, I registered for Ironman Arizona in 2008. Imagine that: My first triathlon of any distance was going to be a full Ironman! On race day, I was clearly out of my element but I managed to finish all 140.6 miles."

And that was how he got his start in the sport of triathlon.

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On the heels of his first triathlon, Major Bogstie was highly energetic and motivated. Who wouldn't be? A mere three years ago, he was sitting in his armchair, watching a triathlon on television and wondering how someone even went about training for such a competition. Now he was a triathlete with seemingly unlimited potential to best his own record. He signed up for Ironman California 70.3, a half Ironman event, in March 2009, which would prepare him for his second full Iron Man later in the year.

Then life happened. In late 2008, he became sick with flu-like symptoms and was constantly tired. On Jan. 7, 2009, a day of infamy forever seared in his mind: Major Bogstie was officially diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, "a rare cancer of the blood that caused my white blood cell count to explode exponentially," he said. "A normal WBC count is somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000, whereas my count was 300,000 by the time I was admitted to the hospital."

According to the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org), this type of leukemia "starts in the bone marrow (the soft inner part of the bones where new blood cells are made), but in most cases it quickly moves into the blood. It can sometimes spread to other parts of the body including the lymph nodes, liver, spleen and central nervous system (brain and spinal cord)... 'Acute' means that the leukemia can progress quickly, and if not treated, would probably be fatal in a few months."

He spent the next seven and a half months in and out of the University of California - Los Angeles Medical Center, undergoing five rounds of high-dose chemotherapy. The chemotherapy was designed to kill the cancer cells in his blood, but it also destroyed his red blood cells and platelets, or "cell fragments... important in plugging up holes in blood vessels caused by cuts or bruises. A shortage of platelets is called thrombocytopenia. A person with thrombocytopenia may bleed and bruise easily," according to the ACS website.

"I had about 30 blood transfusions and 20 platelet transfusions during the course of my treatment," said Major Bosgtie. "There were days that if I could stay awake three or four hours without having to sleep, it was a good day."

He beat the odds.

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Soon after his release from the hospital, in a matter of weeks, Major Bogstie returned to running in August 2009, "if you could call that 'running,'" a smile spread across his face as he recalled. "The chemo and lack of physical activity definitely took a toll on my body. It was much more difficult to get back into shape than I had anticipated."

His first 1.5-mile run time was 17 minutes 52 seconds. "My whole body was in some sort of pain," he said. "I was lucky to be able to run 300 yards continuously without walking."

He gradually worked himself back into shape and passed his fitness test six weeks after officially returning to work in August 2009.

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It didn't take long for his Ironman yearning to take hold. Major Bogstie signed up for Ironman California in March 2010. "My goal for this half Ironman was simple: just finish the race," he said. "Truthfully, my fear of failure was high going into this event."

Since he wasn't officially included in the race until 45 days prior to the event, he didn't have sufficient dedicated training time that he would like. "Up to this point, I had been working out regularly but not on any sort of program or schedule," he said. "So I developed a plan that heavily concentrated on biking and running to prepare for the race."
On race day, March 27, 2010, his inside was like knots, all type of nerves and anxiety overwhelming the senses. He was about to take on probably the most meaningful and challenging race of his life. But he was also a mere seven months from defying a potentially deadly disease. The painful memories were still fresh, but here he was, on his feet, breathing in the ocean breeze, bathing himself under the Oceanside, Calif., sun, and joining the jovial company of fellow competitors.

When the whistle blew, the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run became a blur. The competitive spirit reared its head and swept away his nervousness. He once again was a triathlete, with a renewed license of life.

"I finished Ironman California in 7 hours 42 minutes, not good compared to the rest of the field, but it was a great accomplishment for me," he beamed. "It was an awesome experience."

Actually, Major Bogstie placed 2029 overall, beating out 196 others. He finished the race under the time limits for each category while 83 were disqualified or did not finish. Of the 317 competitors in his division, male 35 to 39 years old, he recorded 41 minutes 56 seconds for the swim (placed 249th), 4 hours 6 minutes 46 seconds for the bike (314th) and 12 minutes 4 seconds for the run (279th).

All in all, the cancer survivor took up the challenge and finished it.

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"I totally look forward to competing in a full Ironman next year," said Major Bogstie.

Sitting in his cozy office surrounded by the basic furniture and equipment, nary a trace of trophies or memorabilia, he contemplated upon being asked for any advice he could give and said, "Believe in yourself, set goals, develop a plan and stick with it the best that you can. Don't be afraid to share your goal with other people as it helps keep you honest.

"For me, most importantly though, support from family, friends and co-workers was absolutely essential for not only beating leukemia but also providing the necessary support to compete the Ironman California," he paused. "I am convinced that without love and support, I would not be here today."