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20 Feet Proud: The Jamie Whitmore Interview

Posted by: Shannon Boffeli |January 27, 2013 4:06 PM
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20 Feet Proud

Written by: Heidi Volpe


Jamie Whitmore, professional triathlete and decorated Xterra World Champion and I have more in common then just the love of sport.

Our bodies tapped us on the shoulder saying something was amiss. We both just carried on running, riding, living our lives thinking that tap would disappear, but that wasnít the case.

Finally the tap became an unbearable smack and we both found ourselves in a hospital emergency unit, and weeks later faced with the gripping reality that we had different but rare forms of cancer.

Shannon at MTB Race News suggested I interview Jamie, not because of our similar conditions simply because she is remarkable. 

I was happy to do this interview simply because I know those tears that fall and what it feels like to be temporarily stopped dead in your tracks.

I know the giant hole you climb out of with the help of family and friends once you accept what is and continue to live your life and not let the things you enjoy the most betray you. I know you march forward with the cards youíve been dealt and play your best game.

In early 2008, Jamie Whitmore sat atop the endurance-sporting world. A 5-time Xterra national champion and Xterra world champion twice over, Whitmore never imagined her body, of all things, could be out to get her. Persistent pain in her left leg finally led to crushing realization that a rare and aggressive form of cancer was attacking her nervous system.

The treatment included extensive surgery that ultimately removed her entire left gluteus muscle and damaged her sciatic nerve leaving Jamie with a nonfunctioning left leg. 

Despite her disabling surgery, Whitmore refused to abandon her passion of riding and being outdoors. Almost 4 years removed from her surgeries, Jamieís left leg is no better but sheís not letting that stop her. In 2012, Whitmore finished four cycling races and a full Xterra while just missing a spot on the 2012 Paralympics team.  Jamieís will to overcome, persevere and not simply walk away is inspiring to me and no doubt will be for every single person that has an obstacle yet to face.

 Read Jamie's complete interview below.

Heidi Volpe: What were the first tell tale signs that something wasnít right?

Jamie Whitmore: At first it felt like I pulled a hamstring but the pain in my leg that wasn't going away with rest.  I couldn't run and two months later I couldn't ride my bike any more.  Within days of my last ride I was no longer sleeping.  The pain was so bad I could only fall asleep for 20 minutes at a time.  I would wake up screaming in pain. 

HV: How many doctors were incorrect in your diagnosis and how long did it take to eventually pinpoint you had a rare sarcoma nerve cancer?

JW: I visited 3 hospitals and saw 7 different doctors over a period of two months before going to UCSF where we finally got some answers.  They were unable to diagnose what I had until after surgery.  Going in, they only knew that it was cancer but they didn't know where it was growing from.

HV: In a few words sum up the most valuable thing to share dealing with the medical community as an athlete?

JW: Trust your instincts and be your own advocate.  Second opinions are a must.  And most of all trust your doctor!  When I finally found Dr. Nakakura and his team I knew I was in good hands!

HV: You earned a running scholarship in college so this has been a discipline youíve enjoyed for a long time and was your first love. How did your doctorís tell you that youíd never run again?

JW: Everyone was under strict orders by my husband not to tell me I had "Drop Foot!"  Not sure what he was thinking!!  When the doctor asked me to wiggle my toes and I couldn't I knew something wasn't right.  When I was fitted for a brace I finally put two and two together.  That's when I asked him if I would ever run again and he said "Probably not!" Then he added "But if anyone can find a way it would be you!"

HV: How is it that you are still able to ride, but you have no sensation in your right leg? How does the muscle know to fire? Is that because of all your running in college, the deep muscle memory?

JW: The only thing that works on my left leg is the quad and knee.  It isn't very strong and I am lucky I can bend the knee (the quad nerves are helping out some), which is the only way I can ride.  It functions enough and yes muscle memory from many years of running and riding help.  My right leg does most of the work and the left leg is along for the ride!

HV: Did coaching and lecturing fill the training gap for a bit early on and of course having twins.

JW: I coached for several years while I was racing and yes it helped to fill the time while I was fighting cancer.  Sharing my testimony also helped.  I loved motivating people to fight and never give up!  The twins are a whole other story. Nothing prepares you for instant parenthood!  My hands have been full from day one.

HV: You only have one working quad and glute, How well can you climb? And how about the flats?

JW: Flats are definitely easier for me.  I don't climb anywhere near what I used to but at least I can climb.  The worst part for me is if I have to get off the bike and walk.  Walking is difficult and even more so with my bike AFO (brace).

HV: What has been the single most challenging aspect of this massive change?

JW: Not being able to move faster (walking) or simple things like bowling. I can't wear flip flops and I always have to watch when the floor is wet because I can slip.  And sometimes by good leg gets really sore if I've been on my feet all day but then I sit down only to be uncomfortable because I have a glute missing!

HV: You've already accomplished so much: 37 Xterra wins, world championships, you've beaten cancer and have two beautiful children why not just walk away from training and competition?

JW: Competition is in my blood.  Since I was little I have been competitive at everything including Pictionary and other board games.  It is hard to walk away from something that is part of you.  Not to mention how important it is to show people that they can do anything if they just try and never give up!

HV: What has returning to competition meant to you. 

JW: Returning to competition has been an incredible experience that words cannot accurately describe.  For three years a part of me was missing.  Every time I ride my bike it is pure joy and racing . . . well that is the cherry on top!

HV: You didnít qualify for the Paralympics this year, why not?

JW: I was late to the game.  I've only been riding for a year . . . even though I won my category there were many fast ladies in other categories.  I was competing for one open spot and in the end they took someone else!

HV: Are you feeling challenged by the Paralympic courses? Do you hope to be a voice to make then harder then lets say the course for the wheelies?

JW: I've only competed in road for paracycling.  This was the first year they offered para-mountain biking but I did not go.  It was a joke.  Our course was the short track course.  I wasn't going to drive all the way to Idaho and pay over $50 to race for less than 20 minutes on a non-technical course.  I absolutely hope to be a voice in the para-mountain biking world.  I'm hoping to be able to compete on the same courses as able-bodied people!!

HV: Do you still have all your sponsors?

JW: Yep!  Everyone of them has still been there!  Cannondale, Clif Bar, Michelin, Mona Vie, Zeal, Squadra, ESI Grips

HV: How was Leadville?

JW: Leadville was awesome! The experience of a lifetime. I was emotional a few times as I climbed to the top. I remembered lying in a hospital wondering if I would ever ride (let alone compete) on a bike again. Then there I was climbing high on a mountaintop with thousands of others. It was AMAZING for sure!

HV: Do you have to do anything different to your bike?

JW: My seat is lower which makes the good leg uncomfortable but it could be worse

HV: You recently did an Xterra in Guam and used forearm crutches for the run, are you going to start training with those now for future events? Or are you just mountain biking now.

JW: Mostly mountain biking but I'm always up for an Xterra if someone has forearm crutches to borrow!! I don't own a pair . . . I suppose if I did I would train with them!

HV: Describe lining up on any given race day.

JW: It is difficult if itís a triathlon - I always have to watch my step since I can't feel my left foot.  I have to have a pair of crocs with me to put on right when I come out of the water.  I usually hop to it and put it on then hobble to transition.

If it is a mountain bike I have to have my bad foot clipped in and I need to line up to the right in case someone knocks me off or crashes in front of me.  I need to be able to clip out and I can only do so to the right.

HV: I made sure I walked the day after my surgery.  I was in a level one trauma unit and making it from the bed to the exit sign was a huge accomplishment for me (it was about 20 feet). What about you? Did you have any ground-breaking firsts while in the hospital? 

JW: I had to learn to walk again after the first surgery.  It was difficult because my leg was in atrophy and I could no longer feel it.  I wasn't making progress for 5 days and they were worried . . .over the weekend I pushed myself and was able to walk the hallway.  Mostly I could just support myself on the walker.  It was enough to be able to go home.  Every time I ended up back in surgery it was like starting all over again.  The kidney infection really set me back because of the pain on top of the incision in my stomach and butt!  I was a mess.

HV: When I finally came home from the hospital, seeing the moon had a big impact on me. My field of vision [in the hospital] had been about 8 feet. I either stared at the ceiling or the hospital curtain. It was so freeing. How about you? What made you feel that sense of freedom again?

JW: I feel a sense of freedom every time I ride.  I feel like I'm not disabled!





Surgeries: 4

Stitched, Stapled and glued (to many stitches and staples to count and sometimes I was glued shut!)

Days in Hospital: Too many to count but was in and out for a year

3 years 1 1/2 months from first major surgery to first race

Races this year: Xterra Guam, Defi Paracycling TT race, Para Cycling Nationals, Leadville 100 and ParaTri Southwest Regional Championship

Countries Traveled: Guam, Canada

States Traveled: Colorado, Georgia and Arizona

Number of Speaking Engagements: 10

Races Announced: 5

Adventures with the Twins: 7 (Races and Camps)




Surgeries: 3

Staples: 17 up my abdomen

Days in Level One Trauma Unit: 6

Suggested Chemo Treatment: declined

Accepted Treatment: watchful wait

CT Scans: 5

Days between last surgery and first race: 30

First race: 6 hrs of Temecula : 2nd

US Cup Triple Crown XC: 1st

USA Cycling National Championships: 1st

USA Cycling Nationals Super D: 2nd

Work Trips to Brazil: 3

Podiums in Brazil: 3

Work trips to Santa Fe: 3

Vegan Powered 12 Hrs of Temecula Duo: 2nd

(Sarah Jansen and I raced against men)

ISC Single Speed: 1st

6 Hrs of Temecula: raced single speed, Series Winner

November 2011 Heidi Volpe was diagnosed with a rare form of digestive cancer and wondered if she would ever ride her bike again. About one year post surgery riding and racing have taken on new meaning for Heidi. Itís given her a new sense of fulfillment and is an indication of her overall well being.

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