With our Spartan Spirit Awards, we celebrate people who embody the key Spartan values of grit, determination, and perseverance. This week’s Spirit Award winner, Dennis Denev, is living proof that people recovering from brain tumors can achieve their goals, despite the after effects of surgery.
“In a Spartan race, you’re running through forests; you’re outdoors in air, mud, and weather. These natural elements have a hugely revitalizing effect.” - Dennis Denev
In February, 2018, doctors diagnosed Dennis Denev with what he calls, “a golf-ball sized tumor in the brain.” He called his best friend in Peru, and told him that he might not be able to travel to Cusco, 3,500 above sea level, to be the best man in this friend’s wedding. Denev’s doctors had informed him that the extreme altitude might, or might not, exacerbate the effects of his tumor. Denev was facing brain surgery that carried the risk of stroke or death, and it occurred to him this might be the only opportunity he would ever get to see Peru. He went to Cusco, but became violently ill, and had to return home within two days.
In March, he underwent a surgery in which doctors excised the tumor in his Cerebellopontine angle, a region near the brainstem that attaches to nerves that control the face, eyes, and transmission of sound from the inner ear to the brain. The surgery affected his vision, his hearing, and the way his brain processes stimuli. He was plagued by the physical effects of the surgery. Several months into struggling, he set a goal to do a Spartan Race, which he crushed in November, 2019. This week’s Spartan Spirit Winner used the tools and values found in Spartan to strive beyond his comfort zone and recover his focus and sense-of-self after life-changing surgery.
Waking Up in a Different Reality
SPARTAN RACE: Will you describe your physical and emotional state after the surgery?
DENNIS DENEV: When I woke up from surgery, my vision was different. The surgeon had removed the 6th nerve of my left eye, so my eyeball was like a marble chaotically rolling around in a box. I could not (and cannot) control it, and had to wear a patch. I also had double vision, which prevented me from reading and driving. I had neck pain, facial numbness, weakness, and tinnitus, a ringing in my ears that persits to this day. Yet, I was able to walk out of the hospital three days after the surgery. I felt like I was expected to return to normal life, and I actually went to a meeting with a potential client nine days after the surgery (with a hat over the 54 staples in my skull)!
There was no room in life to adjust to the changes to my body and perception after brain surgery. For a while, I was irritable and prone to angry outbursts. I had a spell of uncontrollable honesty during which I’d blurt out whatever truth was on my tongue, and I lost friends because of it. All of this made me depressed and anxious.
Dennis Denev Refuses to Let His Condition Keep Him From Life
SR: How did you find your way to Spartan?
DD: Once my doctor cleared me to exercise, I started going back to the gym. I wasn’t the same as I was before surgery. I was exceptionally weak in my upper body. The constant ringing in my ears was distracting. But nothing happens overnight, so I conquered two pushups at a time. I could not run but I could walk.
At one point I needed motivation, so I joined the Northeast Spartan Race Facebook group to get out of my safety zone. I talked to Spartan’s Amber Klein about her Spartan race career and she encouraged me to give it a go. It was difficult. At one point I almost gave up on my training but people in the Northeast Spartan Race Facebook page pushed me. The community spirit is one thing I love about Spartan. Once you’re with other Spartans, you become something bigger than yourself. It’s a powerful experience that carries you over.
The Healing Power of OCR
SR: Will you tell us about the experience of your first Spartan Race?
DD: It was the Nov 23 Sprint in Brentwood, NY (5K and 20 obstacles) and I finished in 1 hour, 6 minutes. I’m grateful to my wife, Mei, who was pregnant, for getting me up at 5am and out the door. I ran with a team formed to support my recovery, Team Travelogin (also the name of the non-profit I’m starting). My wife has about 100 cousins, and many of them ran.
I competed to benefit the American Brain Tumor Society. I wanted to be living proof that brain tumor surgery will not hold you back from life. My participation had a ripple effect: people ran to support me but wound up motivating and challenging themselves... I love the fact that Spartan doesn’t take place in a controlled, indoor environment. You are running through forests. You’re outdoors in air, mud, and weather. You can hear birds. These natural elements have a hugely revitalizing effect. You forget about your symptoms and setbacks, and become one with yourself. That discouraging voice — the one that keeps you from fulfilling your potential — that disappears.
SR: What are your goals now?
DD: I’m establishing a non-profit organization called Travelogin.com that will provide assisted travel and outdoor movement experiences to brain tumor and brain cancer survivors. You’re never totally ‘ok’ after brain surgery: the changes and trauma become part of you. You must accept them as part of your identity. People need time and space to come to terms with this after surgery, and there is no better way to do this than to get out in nature, which has many healing properties. In March, 2019, I got the chance to go back to Peru and do those things I missed the first time, hiking Machu Picchu and Rainbow Mountain. This was a life-infusing experience that crystallized that the best therapy is movement in nature.
SR: Will you do another Spartan Race?
DD: Definitely! I am planning to run with other brain cancer survivors at the Greek Peak Sprint in March. A larger goal is a Beast, and ultimately the Trifecta, but I am content to go one step at a time.
Also, we just received great news that there will be a new fan in Denev’s cheering section at his next Spartan Race! He and his wife welcomed their first child into the world, a daughter named Abigail, born on Jan 2. "She'll be a true soon to be Spartan," he says, with a smile.