It began with a tic in his lower lip. A slight involuntary spasm that was odd and annoying, but hardly alarming.
No way did it suggest that Conner Martin would soon be in a fight for his life.
The strange thing was, Martin had never felt better. An outstanding athlete at Mill Creek’s Jackson High School, where he won eight varsity letters in four years, Martin was gearing up for the 2011 Ironman Coeur d’Alene triathlon, a supreme feat of endurance that combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. His training was arduous, his body was responding, and he was confident of competing well as race day neared.
It seemed like nothing — surely not an unseen medical condition foretold by a tiny facial tic — could stand in his way.
“I was in great shape,” said the 22-year-old Martin, a 2009 Jackson graduate. “I was running faster than I’d ever run. I was swimming more than I’d ever swam. I was biking a lot. I felt like I could do anything.”
But all that changed over the next few weeks. The tic became more pronounced and Martin began experiencing other symptoms, including a series of seizures. Hospital tests revealed a cavernous malformation — in layman’s terms, a large cluster of dilated blood vessels — in his brain that was affecting his nervous system.
The malformation was initially the size of a pea, so it was decided to treat it with medication. But within two weeks — and following another severe seizure — the mass had reached the size of a golf ball. This time there was no option but surgery.
A few days later — it was May 27, 2011 — a surgeon made incisions in Martin’s head to peal back the scalp, then opened his skull. The malformation was about an inch below the surface of the brain, so the surgeon inserted special instruments to remove the lesion.
The operation was successful, but when Martin woke the right side of his body was temporarily paralyzed. “I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t go to the bathroom on my own, I couldn’t do anything,” he said.
Well, he could do one thing. He could still dream of being an Ironman.
Because in the nine months of his rehabilitation — from the day of his surgery until February of this year, when he was finally cleared to resume training — Martin became more determined than ever to race at Coeur d’Alene. And although his doctors were dubious and his family cautious, none of that mattered.
“I’m one of those people who when you say ‘no,’ I say ‘yes,’” he said. “When I hear can’t, I think can. And I love proving everybody wrong. The doctors were saying, ‘We’re not recommending you do it,’ so I asked them, ‘If I do it, will I die?’ And they said ‘no,’ but that’s the only thing they said.
“They never told me, ‘Yes, you can do it.’ What they said was, ‘We hope you do. And good luck.’”
In a step of faith, Martin submitted his entry for this year’s race last August. He had to wait another six months to resume his workouts, which gave him less than four months of training before the race.
Not a lot of time, but enough.
“The one thing that stands out in my mind is his tenacity,” said Buffy Linnell, his personal trainer from Everett’s Columbia Athletic Club. “Conner doesn’t give up. He won’t quit. … He was a little behind schedule, but he did some incredible training. And having his youth in back of him, that was a good thing.”
On race day, she said, “I didn’t doubt that he was going to finish. I knew he’d make it across the finish line.”
The Ironman Coeur d’Alene is one of the premier triathlons in the United States, drawing close to 2,500 competitors this year. And when they all hit the water, “it was like going to war,” Martin said. “I was getting kicked, slapped and punched. I had people swimming over me and people swimming under me. It was so hectic.”
Later he completed the bike portion and started the run. As the fatigue grew, he was urged on by the thousands of spectators lining the course.
“There were people everywhere,” he said. “There wasn’t any part of the course where there weren’t people watching and cheering. It was like a Seahawks game for 14 hours straight.”
Martin began experiencing leg pain as he ran, which forced him to walk and meant he would miss his target time. But that didn’t matter, he said, “because the overall goal was just to finish.” And as he neared the end, he began to pick out some familiar faces — his father Bill, his mother Tamara, his brother Riley, and several friends.
Seeing them in the crowd, “it was like all the pain in my body suddenly disappeared,” he said.
As he made his final few strides, “the hardest part was trying not to break down. I was running and telling myself, ‘Don’t cry, dude. Just keep cool and get there.’ But when I crossed the finish line, it was really emotional. Because at the same time last year, I was paralyzed and lying in an ICU bed.”
Yes, there were tears and not just his own. In the finish area he was embraced by his father and brother, all of them crying.
“I knew it was going to be emotional,” Bill Martin said. “Before the race I told people I was going over there and I could barely even talk about it. And then when he went across the finish line, it was like a miracle in some ways.
“There was a lot of pride, a lot of relief, and a lot of feeling good that he’d been able to achieve something for which he’d worked so hard.”
Conner Martin, who says he is “100 percent recovered,” is already looking ahead to other triathlons. His goal is to qualify for next year’s Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
“I have big dreams,” he said. “Because the one thing I have from the surgery is that I don’t put limits on anything. I’ll tell my friends, ‘I’m going to do the Tour de France,’ and they’re like, ‘Yeah, right.’ And I’ll say, ‘Well, I did an Ironman after brain surgery, so why can’t I do the Tour de France?’
“It’s like I’m always saying, what’s the worst that can happen. Because I’ve had brain surgery, so I’ve already been through the worst.”