From Cancer Patient to Ironman Champion

In 2017, at age 35, Robby received a shocking diagnosis: He had cancer. The doctor told him
September 22, 2022
Robert Klein

Robert Klein (not the comedian, though I know him too, as it happens) is my lifelong friend. I first met him 39 years ago in Flushing, Queens when we were both only a few months old and in the same playgroup. I’m told we had the same outfit on: diapers. We didn’t yet know how to say hello to each other, but we must have figured it out because the friendship took off, and here we are, still buddies. Even when we don’t see each other in person for a while, since we live 3,000 miles apart, whenever we talk it feels just like old times.

In 2017, at age 35, Robby received a shocking diagnosis: He had cancer. The doctor told him he would have to undergo two surgeries with a recovery time of six months for each. The diagnosis was a wakeup call for him. 

“In the hospital bed, before I went into surgery, I told Emily that I’m going to come back and do the New York City Marathon (NYCM),” Robby said. 

Thank God, Robby got better, and he kept his promise to his wife — and himself. 

He started training. In order to qualify and gain guaranteed entry into the New York City Marathon, he had to run shorter races (5K/13.1 miles) around the city and volunteer for one race. 

“For the next 10 months, I was running these races once every few weeks in order to qualify for the NYCM in 2020,” he said. “I qualified for the race in 2020, ended up doing the Westchester Olympic Triathlon again in 2019 as well and then turned my focus to doubling the Olympic Distance.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic put the fall 2020 NYC Marathon on hold, but Robby was determined to keep on going.

“This did not deter me, at this point I was determined to complete a FULL distance Ironman 140.6 mile race, before I turned 40,” he said. “I had until December of 2022 to do this.”

While everyone was locked down in their homes learning how to bake bread and make desserts, Robby doubled down on his training and began a journey that would result in him being in the best shape of his life. He researched health, fitness, longevity, and diets that could prevent the cancer from returning. He signed up for an online vegan cooking course called “Forks Over Knives Plant Based Cooking Certificate.”

“As I learned more about this lifestyle and became a better cook, my family started to join me in this way of eating,” he said. “I started becoming stronger, had noticeably more energy, and could eat as much as I want, because I understood the important concept of calorie density. Once I felt how amazing this way of eating made me feel, especially recovering from these long workouts I was putting my body through, I was hooked for life.”

Along the way, Robby completed his first 70.3 Ironman in June of 2021. He decided he was going to go for the full Ironman the following summer at Lake Placid, New York. 

“I came up with a training plan with my coach and began the 12-month training program to get me across that finish line at Lake Placid, all while embracing a 100% plant-based diet with minimally processed foods,” he said.

Robby began working with a local nonprofit called Plant Powered Metro New York, mentoring participants transitioning to a plant-based lifestyle. 

“These sessions brought me so much joy and satisfaction, to be able to make such a difference in strangers’ lives just by sharing your story and giving them tips on how to eat,” he said. 

Training for the triathlon was no easy feat. Robby had to learn how to swim, bike and run long distances. 

“Training for an Ironman is one of the toughest feats a person can do,” he said. “This is why less than .01% of the population on Earth has finished one of these races.” 

He had to prepare to swim 2.4 miles around Lake Placid, then bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles. As a husband, as well as the father of a young daughter, Robby had to carve a lot of time out of his already packed schedule to exercise.

“At the peak of training, I was probably training about 15 hours per week, so it basically become another part-time job,” he said. “The balancing act that you learn to juggle while training is nothing short of a miracle. I changed my work schedule around so I could work longer hours four days a week and have one day in the middle of the week off, Wednesday, so I could do my long training day without interrupting my weekends. At peak training, I was spending seven to eight hours on the bike on Wednesday, and then on Saturday and Sundays, I biked and ran for between three and three and a half hours.” 

This past summer, Robby, who now goes by the nickname Broccoli Rob, completed the Iron Man, fulfilling his dream. He did it in 17 hours, and with the support of 20 people, including his loving wife Emily and his eight-year-old daughter and her friends, cheering him on.

“It was such a pick-me-up when I saw 20 people all wearing Broccoli Rob t-shirts and holding signs and big cut outs of my head as I went out for the second 56-mile loop of the bike,” he said. “It was such a special moment that I will never forget. The cyclist that was behind me actually witnessed the pure joy on my face and all those people cheering. He caught up with me a few miles down the road to tell me that he never saw anything like that in all his years of racing.”

Robby often reflects on his time in the hospital and how far he’s come today. 

“Becoming an Ironman after being on the operating table not knowing if the cancer had spread or not, just five years earlier, was very emotional for me,” he said. “Every start line that I’ve toed since I started doing these races, I get a little choked up. Every time I passed another milestone during training, I kept amazing myself that I can do this. It started to build so much confidence that I really started to believe the Ironman mantra, ‘ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!’”

I am inspired by his newfound “Anything is possible” mantra. In fact, it’s a great message for all of us to take going into the High Holy Days this year.

I’m so proud of my friend Robby for all he has accomplished and continues to accomplish, but more than that I am inspired by his newfound “Anything is possible” mantra. In fact, it’s a great message for all of us to take going into the High Holy Days this year. We’re all facing our personal challenges that hold us back. But by setting our intentions on achieving our goals and making sure our actions follow, maybe, in our own way, we can all become some form of Iron Man or Woman.  

Personally, I decided a good first step would be to start exercising more and focusing on my health, like Robby did. I started two weeks ago at 5,000 steps a day and now am at 6,200. They are baby steps, but I’m trying. 

I also started making small goals for myself to accomplish each day in a small notebook I carry around with me (my goal today was to write this article). I have accomplished more these past four weeks because of this than I usually do in a whole month! You do the math.

I realized from Robby’s story that I have always set big goals for myself and often fall short of accomplishing them. But by making small manageable goals, I’m accomplishing more and feeling encouraged along the way. Over time, they will add up to big results.

Don’t believe me? Just look at my friend Robby Klein. When I met him, he couldn’t even crawl! And now he’s a genuine Iron Man. 

No one can take that away from him. In fact, no one can take anything away from him. They’d have to catch him to do that, and that’s near impossible these days!

Shana Tova!

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