Tom Dhans found XTERRA while vacationing in Hawaii. While celebrating his 30th anniversary with his wife Angie in Kapalua, Maui, he asked someone in the spa for a good place to run. It just so happened that the XTERRA World Championship was taking place in a few days, and he joined a small training group.
“I ran the actual XTERRA course and loved it,” said Dhans, who has been running and competing in triathlons for the last ten years.
The following year, Dhans’ brother surprised him with an at-large bid for the 2013 XTERRA World Championship in October.
“I had to learn how to swim,” said Dhans. “Before I started training for Worlds, I could only do side stroke. It was scary to go over there and do the race on a whim like that. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t know how hard it was going to be.”
Dhans is no stranger to hard things. In 1999, Dhans’ 16-year old daughter Brandi was killed in an automobile accident just a block from their home. It was so close that Dhans heard the crash and ran to the scene.
“I saw her take her last breath,” he said.
The Dhans decided to keep Brandi on life support for three days so that her organs could be donated to people who needed them.
One of those people was Kay Duffy, a singer of worship music with a repertoire of over 300 songs. In 1999, Duffy was only in her mid-40’s but she suffered so badly from emphysema and a failed lung surgery that her only hope was a transplant. She and her husband were living in a trailer in a church parking lot just to be close to the transplant center at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida, Gainesville.
“People who lost children,” said Dhans, “We all feel the same way and sometimes need someone to remind us we aren’t going crazy. To someone who lost a child, grief is a constant backdrop.”
Yet, in spite of this grief, Tom and Angie Dhans not only donated their daughter’s organs, but they kept in touch with some of the recipients, including a woman named Robin, who received Brandi’s heart, and Kay Duffy, who sang again with Brandi’s lungs.
The first 5k Dhans trained for was for a race to benefit Shands Hospital. Kay Duffy went to the race to cheer on Dhans and after the race, she spoke about her experience.
“The whole running community was so supportive after Brandi died,” said Dhans. “It helped to be around people like that. When Brandi was on life support, I promised her I would take care of her mom and her sister.”
And he kept that promise. Brandi’s sister Sarah is now a 21-year old college student. She ran with Dhans for a while as a teenager and did her first half-marathon at only 14.
“That was a proud moment,” said her dad, who used to take her for smoothies after hot, long runs in the Tampa heat. This year, at XTERRA Worlds, Sarah will join her dad for the Kapalua Trail Run.
Dhans attributes a strong faith to keeping their family so close and so positive. But it has been extremely hard, to keep going sometimes.
“I like the racing. But I think I like the training just as much,” Dhans admits. “Having that focus and a schedule in your life to know what you’re doing next. Having that control helped.”
Dhans gets up at four AM every day. From 7-3:30, he is a plant manager at a school, in addition to owning his own carpet cleaning business, which takes several hours of the day. In his spare time, he makes sure he does three workouts each of swimming, biking, and running a week.
“I do one long run, one interval workout, and one tempo run. And I do the same for the bike and the swim.”
Later, Dhans adds, “I guess if I’m being honest, it’s easier to suffer physically than emotionally. There’s probably some twisted physiological reason behind it, but at the end of the day, XTERRA triathlons and trail runs are a healthy distraction. They have taken me to many beautiful places and I’ve met wonderful people.”
Dhans is a warrior when it comes to challenges of all kinds. Once, at the XTERRA Oak Mountain Trail Run, he felt a familiar pain in his shin, which he knew was a stress fracture. He stumbled, caught his toe, and slid down the hill. He still finished the race in 1:57, though he was covered in blood.
“I only had two miles to go,” said Dhans, who usually pairs his XTERRA trail runs with triathlons and vice versa. “I knew I could gallop in.”
His first year at XTERRA Oak Mountain, he had a cheap mountain bike.
“I was dead last on the bike,” said Dhans. “The next day, I did the trail run half marathon, which was kind of foolish. I saw Josiah (Middaugh) after the party and he said I might as well have beat my legs with sticks, because it had the same effect. He was right. I’m smarter now, and sign up for the 5k.”
Despite being hooked on competitive sports, Dhans keeps coming back to XTERRA for the camaraderie. And for Hawaii.
“Part of the XTERRA mystique is about Hawaii,” he says. “When we went there the first time, the island captured us. Even XTERRA Oak Mountain has that Hawaiian connection.”
A few weeks ago, right before Hurricane Irma hit Florida, Angie and Tom learned that Kay Duffy passed away.
“Her husband called Angie and thanked us again and said that Kay lived 18 years longer than she was supposed to because of Brandi.”
Like a true XTERRA Warrior, Dhans did not let his sadness about Duffy or even one of the worst storms ever to stop him from training.
“I put in a long swim in the morning and am doing a big ride and brick run before all hell breaks loose.”
Dhans will be racing in both the XTERRA World Championship in Maui next month and in the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship in Oahu in December.
“I’m looking forward to hanging with my tribe in Maui,” says Dhans. “It doesn’t get much better.”
In addition to getting to see his tribe, he will also see Kalei Waiwaiole, who announces the races, and Clifford Naeole, a Hawaiian cultural advisor.
“I would love to live in Hawaii someday,” says Dhans. “Kalei said the ‘aina is in us and she sees it and I trust she knows. I don’t want Hawaii to just be a dream. I want it for me and for Angie and Sarah. Clifford explained to me that Hawaiians feel that all their loved ones who have passed are a part of the island and they gather strength from them through the land and water. I feel that racing XTERRA.”