Doubled over in a lawn chair at the 2017 24 Hours of Adrenalin awards ceremony, Ryan Correy did not enjoy the wait to collect his solo championship title.
His face was ghost white. His gingerly shuffle to the podium looked painful. He hadn’t been able to eat solids on the bike, and now he appeared ready to fall over at a feather’s touch.
Yet as painful as the 24-hour race was, the next 72 hours were life altering.
“I literally went from there to home and was in bed for a day straight in agony with my stomach. I went for a followup meeting with doctors two days after the race. It’s an odd thing when the doctor is in tears, talking to me. She said there was a high probability it was cancer, but still held out hope it was something else,” Correy said.
At 34, Correy is not your typical Stage 4 colorectal cancer patient. But Correy isn’t your typical 34-year-old. Most people didn’t have a dad who pushed them through “manhood training,” which included biking across Canada as a 13-year-old. Most people haven’t biked from Alaska to Argentina, or attempted a seven-day stationary bike world record, or written a book.
He and his wife Sarah Hornsby moved to Canmore a year and a half ago to discover new bikepacking adventures on lost trails. He’s publishing a book on the subject this spring. Correy is extremely fit, eats right, doesn’t drink much or smoke. The first time in his life he took drugs, it was opiates for his cancer treatment.
“It’s a diagnosis for older people or people who haven’t taken care of themselves,” Correy said. “We eat mostly organic. We are active. We live a relatively stress free lifestyle.”
Since the cyclist is so healthy, the diagnosis made little sense.
“It started as a stomach ache. It was something that would come and go. Then it stayed for a week, and my wife encouraged me to see a doctor, which I’m very naďve about doing. I’m always a person who bounces back from everything,” Correy said.
Doctors originally attributed the pain to an abdominal tear or perhaps a parasite picked up in the backcountry, which made much more logical sense for a guy who rides around the backcountry for 10 days at a time.
But things didn’t get better.
“Another week goes by, and things start changing. My bowel movements are changing quite a bit. The doctors order more tests, bloodwork and ultrasounds. They started picking up lesions on my liver,” said Correy, who prepared for the cancer diagnosis.
This was all two weeks before 24 Hours of Adrenalin – the race he would win. Correy was second in 2016 on the course, had a DNF in 2010 and ended up in hospital when his adrenal glands fried from exhaustion.
“They hadn’t told me yet because they knew I was doing the race. I asked if I should do the race. They were concerned, but didn’t tell me I couldn’t do it. I was telling them I felt OK on the bike, in a hunched over position. That didn’t seem to bother me. Now, that’s changed,” Correy said.
Through every test and piece of news, Correy remained strong. He played the rock for his family and friends. He spoke openly on a podcast about cancer; prepared himself for the worst, and hoped for the best.
“When we met with the oncologist and he said it was Stage 4, it was another hit to the gut for our family. Sarah and I expected it … our family, not so much,” Correy said. “I tell my family ‘this is something people beat every day. Don’t over worry’.”
According to the Canadian Cancer Society, the five-year survival rate for Stage 4 cancer is generally in the 15 per cent range. It’s important to remember, however, those rates include very few young, healthy men.
But Ryan Correy doesn’t want to be your movie of the week. He rejects tear stained Youtube videos and overly emotional brochures and ambiguous language around paths and journeys. He’s just not in that space.
Like an athlete, he is breaking the task down into manageable segments. Three months of chemo followed by surgery to remove the cancer. What Correy has going for him is his health and attitude.
“I could be naďve, but when you go down the Google dark hole, and see how people relate to cancer and what it means, it gets dark pretty quickly. Honestly, I tried to stay away from it. There is a lot of support, but I haven’t engaged in it,” Correy said.
Spending years as an ultra endurance athlete, Correy knows pain. He taught his body how to suffer, and he taught his body how to overcome great barriers.
“To me, I’m a young guy, I look at it like a really badly broken leg. I look at the facts and the science. I know there is no definite answer,” Correy said. “I’d rather look at it as a medical issue that has a possibility to be beaten. I need the facts, not the emotions … I am mentally equipped to know how not to dive off the deep end.”
His days are much different now. He tries to go for a 20-minute walk, twice a day. He spends most days at home in his condo, on the computer. After a car-free existence, Cam Clark Ford helped his family with a new vehicle to shuttle him back and forth to Calgary.
Correy is an excellent storyteller, so he hates clichés. But when asked about the biggest challenge he’s faced, he’s allows himself this one.
“I don’t want to say a cliché, but I think it will be this one. This one will have lifelong impacts I can’t fully envision. I could have a colostomy bag for the rest of my life for all I know. I won’t be able to ride. Unfortunately, I think that is where this one is headed.”
Correy loves to talk about his adventures. He loves to talk about the massive bike trip he rediscovered looping around Lake Minnewanka, into the Ghost region, to Waiparous and back to Canmore. He loves discussing winter rides on the Icefields Parkway by fat bike. He loves testing himself in nature, and has accomplished more than most will in a lifetime.
“I see value in doing difficult things,” Correy said. “I’m very much a proponent of fear-based learning. We come from ancestors who challenged themselves on a daily basis. Now everything is provided. The outdoors is the last great challenge. We don’t have world wars. We don’t dedicate huge portions of the population to innovating … nature doesn’t care who you are.”