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The physical and emotional endurance of American Ninja Warrior Rose Wetzel

The Ninja Warrior and Spartan racer talks about the longest endurance events she’s taken on.

Rose Wetzel/Instagram

Rose Wetzel is a professional Spartan racer, American Ninja Warrior, personal trainer, and has a B.A. in Sociology from Georgetown University. She’s also a glowing ball of positive energy.

Her seemingly endless patience and positivity comes in handy as a professional endurance athlete, but it also translates to her personal life. She’s used these skills to navigate hard times ranging from cancer treatment to mental illness.

Rose took to the Ninja Warrior course in Oklahoma City in a bright, rainbow colored outfit. She wasn’t picking just one color to represent one cause. She wanted the world to know that everyone faces different hardships, and we can learn to be there for each other no matter what.

Here, in her own words, Rose shares some of the experiences that have shaped her life and inspired her to reach out to others.

Rose and her husband Tim

I would never ever want anyone to see someone they care about more than anyone in the world go through something like cancer. It's a terrible experience. It's terrifying. It's simply terrifying. You don't know if they're going to make it through the surgery. What if they're one of the people that doesn't wake up from anesthesia? What if there's some crazy complication? What if you never really get to see them again? It's just simply terrifying.

My husband, Tim, and I began our experience with cancer while I was in Ohio last summer. I had just finished a race. I won the race. Everything was great. Then my husband calls me. I knew he was getting a cat-scan because he was having some weird breathing issues, but cancer was not on the radar, anywhere.

He goes, 'Um, so I have something to tell you.'

I was like 'Okay... Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. This is not the tone you usually use.’

He said, 'My cat-scan came back and the doctor said there are cancerous cells.'

I was like 'What?' First I was in denial. Oh, well that can't mean cancer. Just cancerous cells. So was it cancer-wanna-be cells?

I was in this cabin by myself on the grounds of the race. It was like someone just put a 200 pound sandbag on me. What is going on? What is going to happen? This fear. I remember thinking, ‘I have to change my environment.’ I'm here in this cabin by myself. I'm going to start losing it if I don't leave. That's not going to help anybody. I know there's a whole festival area at a race full of people whom I love. I need to be with those people.

I went back down to the race site and just immersed myself. I didn't tell anybody anything. I just immersed myself in the community there and had a very in-the-moment feeling there. I went up, I got my prize for first place. I smiled. I waved.

Then later that night when I talked to Tim again I said, 'What? Did I hear you right?’

When I came home we went to the oncologist and we started hearing different things. It was such a rare disease, this abdominal cancer. This PMP [pseudomyxoma peritonei]. It could have been worse. It could have been stage 4 stomach cancer, but was an abdominal cancer. It sounds worse at first because it's technically incurable, but it had a better prognosis than stomach cancer.

Doctors were putting notes on the board like, “Prognosis for this is 10 years. Prognosis for this is 20 years.” We're like, 'What do you mean? We haven't even had kids yet! We got married a couple of years ago! I don't even know what you're saying.' I was almost mad. 'No, take those numbers off the board. That's not fair. That's not fair.'

I have always loved running. I just love that feeling of air, freedom and dancing. Movement. It has a really great association in my mind.

Tim knew that about me. We were facing his 12 hour surgery that would include localized chemotherapy and Tim encouraged me to go race. I did 2 races 2 and 3 days before his surgery. I needed that distraction. Tim had to mentally prepare himself for the surgery too. He didn't really need me to be around stressed out, crying and worried about him, giving him a hug every 10 seconds.

On a Monday, we went into the hospital. I spent that night in his little hospital bed. Neither of us slept much, but I don't think we were going to sleep anyway. The next morning he went into surgery. Oh man. I'm an expressive individual. I'm very in touch with my emotions, but I knew I needed to hold it together for Tim. I wore a silver sparkly shirt and I was just going to be in great spirits as long as I could make it through that morning.

Right before he went into the operating room, the doctor told Tim’s mom and I the things they were going to do. What would need to be removed. What they might have to remove if the cancer had spread there. That's when the severity really hit me. He's going to go through a major surgery removing many non-vital, at least so far, organs.

His mom and I said our goodbyes to him and then we both left. As soon as we got to the hallway we lost it. It was a 12 hour waiting game.

Oh gosh. I've done a lot of endurance events in my life. I've ridden my bike for 12 straight hours from Seattle to Portland. I've done marathons. I've done obstacle course races that took 4 hours up and down mountains. But just to have to sit there and wait and wonder. That was such a long time.

All in all the doctor said the surgery went very, very well. That was a huge relief. I was so worried about the surgery itself. Of course Tim's all drugged up for the first night, so we’re just in good spirits, celebrating that milestone.

I didn't actually realize how hard the next 10 days were going to be. Tim was in SO much pain. The surgeons and nurses at Nebraska Medicine could not have been better. They were unbelievably awesome. However, the nature of what he had been through was gnarly. He had a tube down his throat. The machines around him where whirring all the time. He couldn't even sleep for the first couple of nights.

At one point a few nights in, I was drifting off to sleep for a few minutes and he woke me up. I sensed something was up and was like, 'You want me to just talk to you?'

He said 'Every time I close my eyes I see these weird things happen, so I need to not close my eyes.' I was like 'Okay. I'm here. I can distract. If nothing else, I got this one.'

I picked up this inspirational book of quotes that friends had sent and started reading all the way through. Then I started reading all his Facebook messages that people had written. Kind things. He has a huge support network.

Later, he described that the pain meds were causing hallucinations and every time he closed his eyes he saw himself being killed in a terrible way. He heard a voice that said tonight's the night you're going to die.

Imagine you're stuck there hooked up to all these tubes and all these monitors. If you wanted to run off and escape, you don't even know if you could live without these tubes. It's a very vulnerable place to be.

I stayed in the hospital every night and day for 10 days. Then after one night at home, we had to go back for a day because Tim kept vomiting. His mom came to the hospital and relieved me in the afternoon every day. I really trusted the nurses and I loved that Tim's awesome mom was there.

I would go for a little run, maybe take a nap. Sometimes shower. Those couple of hours helped. I'd do some silly things like dips on the walker just to keep some sense of fitness. I needed to keep my endorphins flowing. That mental component is huge.

Someone said, 'Wow, last year must have been horrible for you guys.' And I was like, 'You know, it had its really terrible moments for sure, but I wouldn't say every single moment was terrible.' I don't think Tim would think that either. We got a chance to see just how big and vast our support system is.

Day 10 at the hospital and I'm starting to get cabin fever! Keeping busy and fit by getting creative...

A video posted by Rose Wetzel (@runningrosie) on

Understanding how essential that support system is to every person is crucial. We all have a role to play. We need to be there for each other.

There will be really hard things that we all have to go through. We’ll have to really buckle down, grin and bear it and grit our way through life. There'll be times when things are great and going well. There'll be times when things are not going well. When things are going well, we must live in that present moment, embrace it and enjoy it.

Things were going really well for my husband and I. Then I got a phone call from him saying that he has cancer. He's the healthiest person you can imagine, with his organic food and his working out everyday very religiously. He’s doing well at the moment. Currently free of cancer and that's awesome. We have to celebrate that. Could it come back at some point? It could. But I'm not going to worry about that right now!

We’re all going to face different obstacles. We’re all different. We're all unique. Some of those differences can be these great fun things to celebrate. Like 'Oh, I'm different! I'm the one wearing the rainbow outfit against everyone else who's wearing black in this race.' Sometimes it's something that's more difficult like 'I'm struggling to make friends. I'm struggling to stand up for myself, and I'm being bullied.'

I have family members that have dealt with some very serious mental illnesses. Some of my middle and older siblings have gone through some pretty serious stuff. Like down for-the count. Like off-in-a-group-home-for-10-years type of stuff. Stuff that has you wondering, ‘Wow, will we ever really see a semblance of that brother that we had growing up again?’

I had a lot of success running in high school, which is why I was able to get a scholarship to go to college. It was right in the thick of when my siblings were going through their worst bouts of mental illness, but we didn’t fully understand it. We were trying to figure out what was going on. There was no medication or anything. There were things going on that were just not normal. Something was off.

It's difficult to be there for others on a human level, with empathy and with understanding if:

A) We don't know what they're going through. Either they haven't shared it with us or we haven't realized it.

B) Even if we do know, we don’t understand it. If it's something like a mental illness for instance, no one talks about what schizophrenia is, or bi-polar disorder, or OCD. It's hard to really be there for a friend if you have no understanding of what they’re dealing with.

Creating awareness around mental illnesses is important. With physical illness, there's also a mental component there as well. People often fall into a depression if they're told they can't do something ever again in life, or not for a long time. I feel like as a human, on a human level, being able to be there for our fellow humans is important.

Humans. That's really my favorite word to use because it gets people understanding. It's not about genders or age, or any other traditional way of ‘defining’ people.

My middle brother, Dominic, likes to say that it's poetic justice that the Wetzel family obstacles prepared Rose to be one of the best obstacle course racers in the world.

As a family, we learned to roll with the punches, to use that cliche. Growing up, if we ran out of gas, we just did what needed to be done. We all got out and pushed the car through the intersection.

One of the NBC Sports producers asked me a question at the Montana Spartan race. They asked, 'There's that new obstacle on the course. How'd you feel about that? Does it throw you off to have a new obstacle you haven't done before?"

And I said, 'Honestly, I don't mind new obstacles at all.'

My entire life has been a big messy, disorganized, unplanned production. At some point, you roll with it and take what you've got. My mom used say, 'You bloom where you're planted.'

That means you do as best as you can given the circumstances at any given time. Sometimes those circumstances are great, and sometimes they're not. You just have to keep going amidst it all.

That's what I learned as a child and growing up through all the different struggles I’ve seen my siblings deal with. I was able to use that during my husband's bout with cancer. You just have to wake up. Get out of bed.

I have learned that if I focus on other people, as in doing something kind for someone else, it helps me feel better about whatever it is I'm going through. For example, waiting on my husband during his surgery for 12 hours. I’m so worried, but there's nothing I can do make that surgery go well. Or to make it POOF, just go away. So I wrote thank you cards to some nice people who've done nice things for me lately.

Focusing on someone else has been imperative for me in dealing with whatever it is that life is throwing at me at the time that's yucky.

Running has also always been there for me. There's just this sense of freedom that comes with it. Yes, I was fortunate to be naturally good at it as a kid, though I’ve also spent countless hours training hard to become the best I can be.

Even the times when it doesn’t feel as good, like when I’m coming back from an off season, or I've been injured and have to recover, there's still just a pure feeling. I just enjoy the fact that I can do it. The fact that I can move. The fact that I'm healthy and alive. That's not something to be taken for granted.

It's important for me to share the things I've been through in life and the things that people close to me have been through; my husband, my family. To me, it's essential for us as humans to be there for each other, reach out and support each other. We need to help each other through this crazy obstacle field we call life.