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In tribute to husband, woman joins triathlon to help their son

Karen Lyons is raising money to benefit those with juvenile diabetes, including her son, Sam (right), and to finish what her late husband started. Karen Lyons is raising money to benefit those with juvenile diabetes, including her son, Sam (right), and to finish what her late husband started. (Helen Norton Russell)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Johanna Seltz
Globe Correspondent / June 19, 2008

Karen Lyons is taking on the second annual Cohasset Triathlon to finish what her husband started.

Joe Lyons, 38, died of a heart attack last July while swimming in the first triathlon, a benefit for juvenile diabetes research. The Lyonses' 8-year-old son, Sam, was diagnosed with juvenile, or Type I, diabetes when he was 2 and Joe had signed up for every fund-raiser he heard about.

"My husband wasn't just running a race," Karen Lyons said. "He was running a race for a reason - finding a cure for Type I diabetes. And that reason has become my cause."

She'll be joined by 52 others who are competing in the swimming-biking-running event in Joe's name and have pledged more than $44,000 for his cause. The goal is $50,000.

Team Lyons includes friends, family, colleagues from BDO Seidman, the accounting firm where he worked, and people flying in from around the country. Karen Lyons says she barely knows some of the team members, but now considers them all family.

Sam will fire the starting flare for the June 29 race, which features elite athletes among the 950 participants.

The day Joe died, "it really bothered me that he didn't finish the race, that he set out to do something and didn't finish, and couldn't go back," said Lyons, who lives in Newton. "That was the first time he didn't finish something. He would always go end to end - it was so central to who he was.

"It was just such a sad ending. . . . It stayed with me and kept bothering me. One day, in November or December, I was in a spin [exercise] class and I just had a vision of riding a bike through Cohasset. I started feeling I have to do this race. I have to finish it for Joe."

The feeling surprised Lyons, a slight woman still stunned from losing her husband. At 6 feet 3 and 180 pounds, Joe Lyons was an avid golfer and weekend basketball warrior with no history of heart disease. They had met when her company acquired his in a buyout and moved him to San Francisco. She took him running to show him the area and they became good friends before she realized they were falling in love. They were married for 12 years.

Her compulsion to compete in the race where her husband died startled her, and she confessed to a little relief when she checked the race website and found that all the slots already were filled. But then Bill Burnett, the race director, contacted her to discuss doing something at the triathlon as a tribute to Joe.

The town had endorsed the idea of repeating the event, noting that Joe's death had been a tragic fluke and not attributed to safety factors in the race, which consists of a quarter-mile ocean swim, followed by a 12 1/2-mile bike course, and a 3.2-mile run.

"Bill had this beautiful list of things he wanted to do - a moment of silence, an award in Joe's name for the person raising the most money," Karen recalled. "And I said, 'I think I want to do the race.' I honestly didn't know what his reaction would be. But he said, 'Great. There's no greater tribute to your husband than that.' "

An avid runner and one-time yoga instructor, Lyons has been training diligently and spent her 44th birthday last month practicing swimming in a wetsuit. The effort pales, though, compared to what she and Sam have to do to cope daily with his diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes, which typically strikes in childhood but also affects adults, is an auto-immune disease in which the body attacks cells that produce insulin in the pancreas. Insulin converts carbohydrates to energy, so people with diabetes tire easily and have trouble gaining weight. Managed poorly, diabetes can lead to kidney or heart failure, blindness, amputation, and death.

"It's a very bad disease," Lyons said. "You don't grow out of it, there's no known reason for what triggers it. And it can't be treated with a simple shot of insulin, or the same shot of insulin every day. You have to think about it every time you eat, every time you exercise. You have to think about it constantly."

She's risen at midnight and 3 a.m. for the past six years to prick Sam's finger and check his insulin levels. He's learned to sleep through it, even when she has to give him either insulin or a glucose tablet.

Sam's also learned to test himself at school - in the classroom or playground - and Karen's worked hard to demystify diabetes for his classmates. She's also reassured other parents who find out their child has the disease. "It helps to see that Sam's OK, that he goes to karate and birthday parties. They see him happily playing and that helps give parents peace," she said.

Every year on the anniversary of Sam's diagnosis - Feb. 5 - they have a party to celebrate "one more year of good care." His friends give him "Happy Diabetes Day" cards and presents, and he gets to eat whatever he wants - which usually includes a hot fudge sundae.

"It's a good way of making Sam not feel different in a bad way," Lyons said. "There has to be an upside to it."

When they learned that Sam had diabetes, Karen quit her management job at Lucent Technologies and took on the task of managing Sam's care. Joe devoted himself to raising money for diabetes research. Now, along with chores like taking out the trash and fixing the toilet, she's taken on Joe's quest for finding a cure.

"Is it going to be emotionally hard to do the race? Obviously that's a difficult moment to gauge," she said, pausing to regain her composure. "I know I'm going to feel a great sense of pride, knowing my husband would be proud of me. . . . My son is very proud of me and that gives me a lot of strength. Participating in the triathlon has given me the opportunity to bring something good out of tragedy."

The webpage for Team Lyons expressed it this way: "Joe did not live to see the cure, but his spirit is strong and with us. Please support us in honoring a very special man and his dream by helping us achieve our goals. We can think of no greater tribute."

Information about Team Lyons is available at teamlyons.org or cohassettri.com, which also have links to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

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