Episode 32 Transcript

Published: Thursday February 1, 2024

“Cancer Saved My Life” – Nick Klingensmith’s Remarkable Resurgence

From Cancer Survivor to Obstacle Course Champion


Alycia Anderson: Welcome to Pushing Forward with Alycia, a podcast that gives disability a voice. Each week we will explore topics like confidence, ambition, resilience and finding success against all odds. We are creating a collective community that believes that all things are possible for all people.

Open hearts. Clear paths. Let’s go.

Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. We have Nick Klingensmith with us today. I’m so happy that our paths have crossed. When I looked at your profile with all of the medals and the awards and everything that you’ve won in your athletic career and beyond…, he has survived cancer four times.

Congratulations for being a cancer survivor. Incredible.

He lives with type one diabetes. He is also an obstacle course athlete and a best-selling author.

Welcome, Nick. Congratulations on all of your achievements and the things that you’ve overcome. I’m so excited to hear your story and share it with our listeners. So thank you so much for being here.

Nick Klingensmith: Thank you so much for having me.

Alycia Anderson: What did I leave out?

Nick Klingensmith: I’m going to start right at the beginning.

Alycia Anderson: Great, let’s do it.

Nick Klingensmith: I am born and raised on the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. I’m an Islander. I’m one of the few. No, we’re not the rich ones. Those are the people who vacation there. I’m the guy who served the rich people coffee. And ultimately, I mean, I was ambitious at a young age, I wanted to get off the island. I wanted a career. I wanted to do stuff.

So I went to a boarding school in New Jersey for a high school place called the Petty School. Ironically, right before we started this, I connected with somebody that actually went to that high school 30 years before me on LinkedIn.

So, but I went to I went to University of Massachusetts for college, where I thought I was going to go to law school and eventually work for the FBI, and it turns out that law school costs money. So that’s where I started my sales career. And I began in telecom back in 2001 in Massachusetts. So business to business sales, prospecting, knocking doors, you know, real, real kind of gritty type sales too. And I did really well at it and I think a lot of the resentments that I carried that I’ll cover in a minute. Made me an angry person that actually made me a really good salesperson for a while, and when I got after about five years, I moved to Florida.

I was tired of winter. I didn’t like the snow anymore, and I started working for small logistics company where I again started outside business to business sales, selling shipping services. And I ended up rising with that company and helping to build it to a $500 million company and I was a VP of Sales before I left and when I left there…, I love sales. I’m a sales nerd. I’m a ratios nerd. I’ll fight people all day in defense of scripts and voicemails and metrics and things they don’t like because I know that they work and they make me successful.

I have because… I’m… I’ve just started as a speaker. I don’t… I’m not using a CRM yet, but I am absolutely keeping track of every piece of outbound activity that I’m doing, the result of which I’m keeping on a spreadsheet because I don’t know what works yet.

So I need the data so I can make data informed decisions and then be more efficient.

I don’t want to grind out forever, I want to run a business.

Alycia Anderson: Yeah, yeah.

Nick Klingensmith: So I’ll learn as I go, but I digress. So I learned a lot of that over the last 15 to 20 years working in logistics sales, but that’s not really the part of the story that’s all that interesting.

When… you know, I grew up to parents of alcoholism and neglect, and that wasn’t really a big part of my story. It’s not even something that I really recognized as having the impact on my life. That it did. Until very recently. But really I felt like I was just this kind of gritty blue collar kid trying to make it in the world, and then all of a sudden 19 years ago next week, I was diagnosed with cancer for the first time.

I was like 25 years old. I was standing at a sales conference in Foxwoods Casino. We’re listening to the wrapping up remarks from the CEO or something, and I looked down at my phone and I see it was the doctor and it was a call I was waiting for. And so I stood down in the hallway and he uttered those words that I still shudder a little bit when I heard it, which is you have cancer.

And, I didn’t have a close relationship with like, you know, parents or family members or I didn’t really have a structure. I didn’t really to turn to or help me understand really, what… you know… what this was.

So my boss walked out of the conference and he followed me in the hallway, and he was like you OK, what’s going on? And so I told him, and he was like, alright, well, you know, you can get out of here. Do whatever you need to do.

And I marched straight into the poker room because I didn’t want to go be alone. I didn’t want to be home. Unfortunately, the card gods were not in my favor and my time at the poker table was very short.

And so I had to face this and I drove home. There was about an hour and a half, two-hour drive, and there was a lot of conversation with God, a lot of like I don’t like why? Like what the I just. I was struggling to understand.

I was fighting back emotion, and really, almost like thrown a temper tantrum. And when I finally got to my little apartment in Milford, Mass, I’m standing there in the bathroom and I’m looking in the mirror and I don’t like what I saw. I just saw the scared little puffy eyed kid. And then I just got mad and I got really mad.

And just like this, I went from victim to defiant because instead of it being like, oh, my God, I’m so scared of cancer. I was literally beating my chest and yelling. Bring it. Let’s go. My neighbors, who had no idea what was happening.

But, I’ve sort of adopted this process now where I get bad news and I might sulk for a day, but I’m coming out swinging the next day.

I am good when I have an enemy to fight and so that was unfortunately I thought that was like the biggest thing that was ever going to happen in my life.

And yet it was only the beginning for a period of about three more years, I got cancer again. I became a type one diabetic. I had shoulder surgery and what I got nerve damage from the shoulder surgery. I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and started sleeping with CPAP. I also forgot to mention that at this point in my life I had several herniated discs from a car accident.

And just when I think we’re right, just when I think that maybe I’d had enough because that all happened in about three years. My sister dies at 25 years old and just then when I think all the bad luck start is over, I decide that I’m going to make it worse for myself and just dive head first into my drinking and I spent the next couple of years just right into the throes of my alcoholism.

And then the best thing that could have happened to an alcoholic who really didn’t want to live anymore at the time was I got cancer again for the third time.

Only this time they told me they couldn’t operate. They told me that the tumor was so pressed up against my vocal cords and other parts of the neck that it would have been too dangerous. That tumor is still there. It’s been 10 years and that was such a hard thing to not do anything about, cause, you know, I just went off on this thing about I need an enemy and give me something to fight, and instead they’re telling me I have to sit here and do nothing.

So at that point, the way I saw it is there was nothing left to do but drink, and that’s what I did. And, I like to say that cancer saved my life.

Because of cancer, I reached my bottom with alcohol faster.

I didn’t lose my home. I didn’t lose my girlfriend. I didn’t lose my job. I had that… a very low bottom moment that I was able to say, I don’t want to live this way anymore.

And, I began a… I began a program of sobriety.

It’s been almost 10 years, but about a year after I got sober my mom died and we had a very fractured relationship. And, I don’t think I would have been able to handle that emotionally had I still been drinking. I am almost confident that I would drink until I died.

So cancer saved my life.

Alycia Anderson: Cancer saved my life. That is a statement right there. Wow.

You know, I haven’t had cancer in my life, but I’ve had to face mortality and what that means to me in my life too.

So cancer saved my life…. How does that translate to the accomplishments that you’re…? I mean, you’re obviously very physically fit.

Nick Klingensmith: Well, here’s the thing, right. That was that third time, a cancer was a low bottom moment for me that really got me into that last kind of rabbit hole with alcohol.

But I wasn’t done yet.

Because just because I got sober, it didn’t mean all of a sudden I started seeing the world as a better place. It didn’t mean that I was… I spent the next two years letting go of the bad parts of me.

And so two years later, God decided I hadn’t got the message yet and decided to give me cancer for the fourth time.

And this time it was a different cancer, because the first three times it was thyroid.

I mean, I had a routine down. It was like, oh, I have cancer. Let me go buy some books, and I’m not … books on cancer, just books to keep me busy in the waiting room. You know, just expect the process, but this time was different and I couldn’t get answers.

Like the thing is, when it comes to cancer, everything is so fragmented stage by stage, by stage and you don’t get answers as you go along and people don’t want to give you answers. And so it was frustrating and scary.

And that’s when I realized just how that there was something missing from my life because I had just spent these two years of like, feeling great, but something was missing.

And so only this time they took the cancer out of my… out of the back of my head and literally gave me an all clear. There was nothing left, and I’m like, except for the one on my neck. But that’s whatever…

The point is, I had something to celebrate for the first time like ever… when it came to cancer.

I had just been promoted at work. That’s when I was already a VP, but I had just started my own channel. I was starting to date a girl who’s now my wife. Literally everything in the world was going for me, and on one October afternoon my boss walked into my office and he said hey, Nick, I want you to do a Spartan race with me.

And I looked at him and I go… No… 8 to 10 mile trail race with obstacles. No! I had… no way I want to be that uncomfortable.

But I went home that night and that’s when I realized all those things that I just told you, I already was that uncomfortable.

There was… I checked all the boxes, everything in my life was awesome. Who wouldn’t want to be me? And I was uncomfortable.

I needed something to shake it up. I needed something to pursue. And so that’s when I decided to do my first race. It was 9 weeks away. I committed to training for it, and what ended up happening is I ran 97 of them instead, and I had six major marathons, and I’ve run ultras of over 30 miles, and I’ve done, you know, 12 hour events.

And so, to be clear, these are metals for finishing or completing events. I don’t win anything. I’m a middle of the pack athlete at best and the reason I say that, and it’s important that I say that is, I don’t ever want anyone listening or looking at me to think that I’m doing something that they can’t.

Alycia Anderson: I love it. It just gives me the chills. I love it.

Nick Klingensmith: Like I commonly post videos of me failing obstacles and I’m decent, I can get through most like I there’s no obstacle that I’ve not been able to complete. But you know I’m not chasing a podium here. I’ve had a couple of decent finishes and I’m gonna and I run into competitive heats because I want a steady barometer.

I’m always racing to improve myself and one of the most important reasons for me on that is… as a type one diabetic, which you know is registered as a disability. Like I want to show every other diabetic that we’re not asking for a level playing field. Life isn’t supposed to be fair, but life is still available to us and that’s why I do what I do.

You know, that’s where a lot of… I get my fuel and I share my vulnerability from the times with alcoholism.

And you’ll appreciate this as our… as we go on, I get so much more and more reflective, right… you know, you get sober and you realize all the times that you were bad as a drunk, but now that I’ve got some time… sobriety, I look back and I go look at all those times I could have been a better leader.

As long as we keep learning those lessons from them, I feel like I always have something else to offer.

Alycia Anderson: So I love two points. Number one, I love that you’re platform lessons… all of that motivation is coming from you don’t need to be #1, and the fact is that it is OK to be where you’re at and excel in the way that works for you.

So I think that that is so beautiful cause that could be a huge blocker for people to have the confidence to move forward if they think they need to be #1 the best. All the time.

Nick Klingensmith: Although I absolutely do have to be the best, just the best me.

Alycia Anderson: I love it. Absolutely. Yeah.

Nick Klingensmith: And that’s enough work by itself, so.

Alycia Anderson: Let’s take a quick break. You’re listening to Pushing Forward with Alycia.


Alycia Anderson: Welcome back to Pushing Forward with Alycia. I’m Alycia Anderson. We have Nick Klingensmith with us today. He has survived cancer four times. He lives with type one diabetes. He is also an obstacle course athlete, and a best-selling author.

You mentioned that diabetes is a disability, and frankly so is cancer and a lot of the things that you’ve mentioned… And, you mentioned workplace… you mentioned navigating all these things through all of this, and that’s a big challenge in disability workplace inclusion today.

Which is identifying that you’re disabled…, having a relationship with your organization…, navigating that or not…, do I talk about it…, do I not…?

Where did you fall in that, in the workplace specifically?

Nick Klingensmith: So, I’m going to be a little bit unique in this case because when I started working at the company that, down here in Florida that I was working at when 98% of the bad stuff happened… you know, I was the 7th employee.

We were a very small company at the time. You know, when I got cancer for the second time, we had 25 people. By the time, you know, in 2013 when I got it again, we probably had 100 or so, you know, in 2016 at that point, we were a pretty big company, but I was already sober. They knew all my… literally knew all my dirty laundry. I was friends with them. We had come up together so they were very good to me, but I also can tell you that because I know them.

They weren’t just good to me because we had gone out drinking together. They were good because they were good people.

Alycia Anderson: You mentioned the obstacle courses, and I’m sure I’m not using the words right so.

Nick Klingensmith: You are so far.

Alycia Anderson: But I know this is kind of translated into your speaking platform that you’re, like you speak to sales orgs and companies. And can you talk a little bit about what some of the topics are, what you’re kind of embracing through your education, within your motivational speaking?

Nick Klingensmith: So, the platform is about the life lessons learned from this lifestyle of obstacle course racing.

And I would say that the most important thing that I’ve learned from it. Yeah, I’m going to say the three things, the four things I might just go through all of them…

Alycia Anderson: Your are.

Nick Klingensmith: Number one, I know people talk about this all the time, but it’s a cliche for a reason.

Your why is your everything? It doesn’t matter what you’re doing. It matters why you’re doing it.

I ran a race with a broken rib. I broke it in mile three. I finished the eight-mile race and the reason I did it is because it was the first race that I ever ran with !#&%! cancer across my chest and you just can’t quit a race when you have that on your chest.

Now, about two months ago, I hurt my hamstring in mile 12 of a 30 mile race and I threw up my thumb and hitchhiked out of there because I couldn’t walk. I didn’t… I didn’t have the same, why.

You know, a lot of people like I couldn’t do it. You can.

I’m like, if your kids are on the other side of that fire, I guarantee you, you can. So a lot of that also has to do and how it applies to people, especially in sales. I mean, some of the guys that I’m coaching, this is what we work on. We work on purpose alignment. Why are you doing what you’re doing?

Because I was in a job I didn’t like at all for the last couple of years, but I did it to the very best of my ability because I wasn’t trying to do it to pay my bills. I was doing it so I could do this.

So every day when I’m making those cold calls and dealing with shippers and carriers and just a dumpster fire of an industry, I didn’t have the same blinders on that everybody else. Instead, I’m like, OK, this is the work I do so I can achieve my higher purpose and I can walk through fire to do that.

One of the most affecting things that I think really gets lost on so many people, I think you’ll appreciate this. Failure needs to be experienced.

Alycia Anderson: Absolutely.

Nick Klingensmith: I don’t know why we got in our heads we think we have to know everything.

How are we supposed to learn if we already know everything? You know it’s OK to fail something, and the only time it’s a failure is if you quit.

Failure just becomes another word for practice.

Alycia Anderson: Love it.

Nick Klingensmith: Which leads me to another one that is also very cliche but also very accurate. I brought up to a friend of mine today. She’s stuck in her job and it’s not going to change. And I’m like you…, I finally advised. I was like, you need to get out of there. You’re very capable. You have a lot of runway in front of you. Leave.

And like, listen you have to get uncomfortable to get comfortable. That’s not just about a do hard things, lift weights, get up early, run in the rain.

No, that’s it… Looking for a job is uncomfortable. Getting out of a bad relationship. Is uncomfortable, you know, Breaking Bad habits is uncomfortable. But if we want to achieve forward growth and success like we have to get uncomfortable.

And I can go on all day, but one, I think that’s really important and we just started talking about a little bit ago, which is that I believe.

Everyone needs a Wolf Pack. Everyone needs a tribe.

And what’s really interesting you appreciate this is the salesperson we just talked about this too. Five years ago, people looking for sales people wanted to hire the most highly energetic, vibrant people person, people buy from people they like, yeah!

And then we shoved them in a dark room and gave them a laptop.

I am one of the most self driven people out there and yet when I was doing sales, even though I had a strong purpose, my day was starting to get shorter and shorter because you just start to lose steam.

We need that human connection. We need that. We need to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves.

And these are all lessons that apply to sales and life. And just things that we carry with them and not for nothing. Every time I continue to just run into fear. I always get more of these little gems, since they’re so… because I’m constantly looking for them.

Alycia Anderson: I’m inspired. I got the chills four times in a row. Congratulations on everything. So tell me your website so we can make sure that we hear it out loud.

Nick Klingensmith: That would be www.stridemotivation.com.

Alycia Anderson: You are all over LinkedIn, that’s for sure. That’s where our paths have crossed.

Nick Klingensmith: Yeah, LinkedIn is my name. Facebook. It is my name, but every other platform it is at stride motivation.

Alycia Anderson: Awesome. As we wrap up. Do we miss anything important?

Nick Klingensmith: I have one comment, if I can?

Alycia Anderson: Please, yeah.

Nick Klingensmith: Because I did watch your Ted talk and I… There was a story that I just… I took away a little bit, when you were in school and some kid was being mean and they made him like …

Alycia Anderson: Ride around in a wheelchair…

Nick Klingensmith: Be in a wheelchair or whatever, throughout lunch and you know you, you mentioned how they perceive it as a punishment, and there was something else that I took away from that too and why I hated that they did that. They wanted him to pity you. Like…

Alycia Anderson: Totally.

Nick Klingensmith: And, I don’t want… a friend of mine is who brought up this up to me.

Oh man, they should have like a different division in racing for, you know, he specifically said diabetes, but he meant, like, you know, disabled athletes.

I’m like bro I’m not asking for a level playing field. Like, don’t… don’t. We don’t need that. That doesn’t help anybody. Empathy and pity are not the same thing.

Alycia Anderson: 100% and for our listeners who don’t know that story, when I was a kid, a little boy would chase me around, call me monkey arms. And so the punishment for him was to ride around in a wheelchair for one whole day.

And this was looked at as like, a thing that would teach him to never make fun of people with disabilities. But what it really did was it showed everyone that you should pity disability, that disability is bad, that being different is something that you don’t want, and that’s perpetuating this idea of if you’re different from an ability standpoint, this is bad.

You don’t want it. Look away. Don’t discuss it. Don’t talk it. Talk about it. Don’t embrace it.

And us having conversations like this is hopefully breaking down those barriers and those false perceptions of what it is to have something that’s different about your abilities, whether it’s cancer, whether it’s diabetes, whether it’s being in a wheelchair or even being perfectly able bodied.

We’re all different and that’s why I love that you brought that up.

OK, I’m gonna put you on the spot, but what is a motto or some advice… pushing forward moment that you can gift away into the gifts of the universe for our listeners moving forward or something that helps you staying motivated and inspired in your life.

Nick Klingensmith: It was the 10th lesson of obstacle course racing and I didn’t even learn it until earlier this year, and it’s this simple it’s live inspired.

And what I mean by that is, inspiration is everywhere.

You just have to open your eyes for it. And that’s one of the great things about obstacle course racing is it’s about you against you.

For me, it might be the best time I ran. It might be the obstacle I overcame for the first time, the fear overcome. And sometimes it’s I love to say, it’s the adaptive athlete in the course who’s showing you what mental toughness is really about, but if you look around and there are ways to inspire ourselves every single day.

That negativity is a choice. Live inspired.

Alycia Anderson: Nick Klingensmith, thank you so much for your time, and thank you so much to our listeners for tuning in again and becoming a part of our podcast community.

We are at the top 10% of podcasts out there now. We are growing fast.

Nick Klingensmith: Thank you.

Alycia Anderson: Leave a review. Please keep tuning in. I’m grateful for all of you. I’m grateful for you, Nick.

And until next time, this is Pushing Forward with Alycia, and that is literally how we roll on this podcast.