Thomas during week 3 of the 2010 Low-Key Hillclimbs (Judy Colwell photo)
I was really shattered, yet not surprised, to read of Thomas Novikoff's death. Dead from cancer at only 29.
I'd last seen Thomas on Mount Hamilton at the final Low-Key Hillclimb. He was looking thin and pale. He told me, in a forced-cheery voice which seemed to hide a deep depression, even fear, that his cancer was back. It was in his liver, he said. The Whipple procedure he'd received the preceding November hadn't worked as hoped. He'd wanted to climb, but instead was going to volunteer. The stomach pain was too great, he told me. Every time he rode hard his breathing caused too much pain.
I was shocked. What do I say to that? Thomas had been riding the Low-Keys since 2007, first with Team Cambio, and later Webcor/Alto Velo. I was to later learn he'd finished third in the Race to the Sun, up mighty Haleakela, just 15 months before, and finished a very close second in 2003. Yet in the few climbs he'd done in this year's series he'd been only an average climber. He had been badly anemic from his radiation therapy. Yet he'd thought he was past that, when the stomach pain started. And now his cancer had spread.
I asked what sort of treatment he was going to receive. Recurrent cancer is notoriusly difficult: it's already survived the gauntlet of chemo & radiation. More of the same wasn't going to help.
He said he wasn't in shape for more therapy until his condition improved. An unspoken message was there, filling my silence. It didn't look good for poor Thomas.
Yet he drove to the top, carrying people's jackets so they would be able to descend from the summit in the near-freezing air. It was Thomas' chance to give back. Maybe, I was thinking, his last chance.
Two weeks later was the Low-Key awards ceremony. The last few years we've awarded a "Spirit Award" to the rider who demonstrates the "Low-Key" spirit. Low-Key is about friendly competition, of giving what you have no matter what you have, and helping others do the same. Sure, we had some great candidates this year, but I didn't think at all about who would get the award this time. Thomas was the obvious choice.
Thomas wasn't there; he was at UCSF Medical Center. But we passed around some Lance Armstrong Foundation dedication cards for people to write a message to Thomas. Cara collected them and later delivered them to UCSF for delivery to Thomas.
He reponded by email. His prognosis, he wrote, had gotten worse. Worse?
So I wasn't surprised to read this blog post. Thomas had his own blog, ecshewing the shallowness of Facebook which has largely replaced the blogosphere as an outlet for people's expression. I read the posts from his final four months, and looked at his Strava record from his last rides. Really hard stuff. We leave a wake of electronic data behind us as we go through our lives. Then, one day, it freezes in time.
Anyway, I'll miss Thomas. But he certainly won't be the last. 2011 is still very young. Who's next?