From Heart Surgery to a Triathlon – Farther than Full Circle

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A journey from a seemingly healthy lifestyle, to heart surgery and back again.

“I want you to admit yourself to the hospital”, was about the last thing I thought my doctor was going to say to me. At 42 years of age and as someone who worked out at least three times a week and tried to watch his diet, this was a shocker. I had some discomfort while cutting the lawn over the weekend and went to see my physician the following Tuesday, July 17, 2007, and this wasn’t what I expected to hear.


Under protest, I admitted myself, and the next day had the angiogram. I knew I was in trouble when the doctor asked who I wanted to do my surgery. I mumbled, “The best.” My wife came into the recovery room and she was smiling until she saw the look on my face. I told her they didn’t think things looked good. The surgeon was there in what seemed like seconds and said, “Let’s bump some folks and get you in tomorrow at 1 p.m.” I went from a Tuesday lunchtime doctor appointment to Thursday afternoon surgery. I had no time to think about things and really didn’t know what to expect.


Well, five bypasses later I awoke feeling like I had aged 50 years. I was amazed that they get you into a chair in the ICU and then you are walking the next day on a telemetry floor. The care I received at Buffalo General Hospital was excellent, even though I still had the “Why me?” thoughts going through my head. With the support and love of my family, I started my recovery. But, one phone call stuck in my head. One of my best friends called and said we’d get in shape and do a triathlon the next year. I thought, “Why not”?


I started my recovery walking four to five times a day for very small distances. Each time I would go a little farther. I was shocked by how tired I was after the first walk, which was to my neighbor’s house and back. I got my wife and daughter involved. I’d say, “It’s time to walk the dad.” This got a laugh, and they went with me. We enjoyed our time together as a family. I realized how lucky I was to be alive and able to enjoy being with my loved ones. The incisions started to heal and my body started to feel normal again. The mental healing would take a while longer, as I questioned every pain, twinge, or abnormal feeling.


My recovery spanned the summer months, and after six weeks I started going to rehab three times a week. I went to cardiac rehab at Buffalo Cardiology & Pulmonary, and the staff was awesome, but it seemed like I was different than most of the patients. Most of the other patients were older, but I had one thing in common with everyone there and that was heart disease. I showed up every day with a smile and started out ahead of the game, because by that time I was already walking five miles a day.
 
The nurses were great and we had a lot of fun kidding when I would tell them to keep an eye on my heart rate and that I was going to push a little harder today. It wasn’t a good workout if I didn’t get scolded for getting my heart rate up to the limit that they wanted me to stop at. I listened to the talks they gave about diet and nutrition and always tried to learn something new about the changes I made in my life. Light walks turned to long walks, long walks turned to light jogs and light jogs turned to interval training. All this was with my health, my family, and my promise to myself in my mind.

 

 

The Buildup
I participated in the American Heart Association 5K Walk in September with my family. This event brought a realization to the number of those affected by heart disease, not only survivors but their loved ones. We had fun and I told my wife that I was still planning on doing a triathlon the next year.
 
I returned to work and continued making progress throughout the fall and winter. Things heal and you continue on. I went back to another sport that I enjoyed, downhill skiing. It took a little getting past the tentative feeling, but I was skiing again with family and friends and even though I was more careful I enjoyed it more than I ever had. My daughter and I shared songs and stories on the chair lift and we really lived in the moment.
 
In March I signed up for the Orchard Park Quakerman Triathlon being held on June 29th, 2008. This was a show of commitment to reach the goal set while in the hospital. I started swimming and trying to increase my distances in running and biking. My friend wavered from his promise, but said he would be there to cheer me on. His decision actually made me more determined to keep my promise to myself. Maybe he’ll still come around, but either way I was sticking to the promise I made to myself to do this. I knew the act of finishing what I started would make me feel that I’d come full circle—or better yet, farther than full circle. I also started researching triathlon training and joined a wonderful website called BeginnerTriathlete.com. I even had a mentor who would give me inspiration. (Thanks, Jerry.)

The Training Diary
-My training has been going well and sometimes I’d feel I had to hold myself back, as I forget that I’ve had any cardiac surgery. I am feeling stronger and healthier overall even though my wife occasionally calls me “Jared,” as I have a habit of stopping at Subway now. I think she has changed some of her eating habits because of me. We have a minimum of red meat and stick to fish, chicken, turkey and occasionally pork. We’ve eliminated salt, as much fat as we can, and have increased the vegetables and fruit in our diets. Our daughter even wants to have vegetarian meals, although our tofu experiment didn’t turn out so well. Since I started my recovery I have lost over 40 lbs. and when people notice I tell them the bypass diet isn’t for everybody, but it works.

-Another bonus is that my 10-year old daughter, Tori, has agreed to do the kids’ version of the triathlon. We jog and bike together and she is showing a real interest in training with me and hopefully this will stick with her. I’ve learned to enjoy every moment I can with my family and friends, and I’m not letting life pass me by.

-It’s April 25th and I’ve gotten longer runs and bike rides in. I’ve tried to increase my swim time and really enjoy my quest. I’m getting my equipment for the triathlon in order and will start transition practice soon. The term “brick” means something else to me now. It’s two months until the triathlon and I can’t believe how excited I am.
 
My wife talks me into buying a decent triathlon bike and what a difference it makes. I tell her I can’t blame being slow on my bike anymore. I’ve done rides of 20-plus miles lately, and I am definitely comfortable with the 22-mile triathlon distance now.
 
-It’s May 21st and my exuberance has led to a couple of nagging overuse injuries. The last couple of weeks I’ve had to back off on the running, as I have developed a case of shin splints. In response, I increased by biking and swimming to off set that and still feel confident about finishing the sprint distance. 
 
-I’ve started getting my gear ready and purchased triathlon clothing. I’m a big, muscular guy at 225 lbs., and I thought the spandex days were well behind me. I think the salesperson at the running apparel store thought I was nuts because I was laughing like a fool in the changing room while trying them on. Come to think of it, when I showed my wife the outfit she laughed too. She laughed harder when I explained that all the triathletes wear this type of clothing. Oh well, there’s no turning back now. 
 
-It’s only a couple of weeks out and my leg has healed to the point that it doesn’t hurt to run anymore, so I ran the Corporate Challenge in Delaware Park on June 5th. It was a hot and muggy day and I went out at a comfortable pace all the while keeping an eye on my ever present heart rate monitor. I completed the 3.5 miles in 38:38. Not a great time, but I am a big guy and the main thing is I did not experience leg pain after. I was very happy. 
 
-With only three weeks to go my daughter and I start practicing our transitions. Transitions are the equipment changes between segments of the triathlon. It takes practice putting shoes on while wet and learning how to set up your transition area. We have fun doing this together and have built camaraderie that people going through something similar do. We are father and daughter, but we are also triathletes together.
 
-I am not worried, but a glint of doubt creeps into my head. Am I ready for a triathlon? Have I done everything that I could do to prepare? How will being a cardiac surgery survivor affect me during the triathlon? Is this a selfish goal? I think about how good I feel running, swimming, biking, and working out and know that this is an attainable goal for me. Yes, I am ready. 
 
-The last two weeks go by in a blur of preparation, creating lists, checking lists, double checking list,s and yes, triple checking lists. We pick up the race packets the Friday before the triathlon and I know that I am ready and I won’t turn back now. The day before the event is spent in a frenzy of packing the bags and getting everything ready for the event. I was kind of a maniac and it showed.

 
The Race Report
The morning of the race started early. I got up at 5:30 a.m., showered, and repacked bags that I had packed three times already. My family got up a little while later and we started out to the event. It was about 15 minutes from the house, which was great. I seemed pretty calm on the outside (at least I thought so), even though I was really excited. Was I nervous? A little, but I was more excited. The event was awesome. There were around 200 triathletes all doing the same thing as me, getting ready, talking and just soaking it in. It was a great feeling.
 
I got my race number drawn on my arm, my age on my calf, and my timing chip anklet on. This gave me a little rush of adrenaline. I setup my bike in the rack and got my transition area ready. I had practiced this so I had a feeling of readiness. It was great having my family and friends show up and support me. It was appropriate because that is what they did from the time of my surgery to the triathlon: support me.


Before I knew what was happening the swim waves were being started by age. I was in the fourth wave so I got a chance to watch other people start. Some swam like crazy while others had that “deer in the headlights” look. I knew I was comfortable in the water, but I was slow. No problem. My goal was to finish with a smile, being slow was not worrying me. I got a shoulder rub from my daughter and thought to myself that she was worried about me.


We laughed and she gave me a hug and kiss and I went into the water to get ready. It wasn’t cold, but I couldn’t help wondering how it would feel with a wetsuit. My wave was called and we waited about four minutes until our horn blew. My group was joking and reassuring each other. Honk! The horn blew and off we went. I started slow (what other choice did I have?) and just kept plugging away. Then in a short amount of time that buoy that looked so far from the beach was right there. I went around and just kept stroking, kept breathing, kept thinking, “I can do this.” Then the last buoy was right there and I turned toward the beach. I got to the beach and started walking and then I started jogging and my daughter, Tori, and her friend, Sam, gave me high fives and I heard the crowd cheer me on. The swim was done and now my favorite part, the bike, was next.


I reached my bike in the transition area and started to get my shoes, helmet and sunglasses on. My family cheered and I gave them the thumbs up sign and a smile. That would be something I did countless times, give the thumbs up and a smile to the people cheering and the volunteers at the race. What a great way to spend a nice summer day.


The bike was next, and it is my most comfortable part of the triathlon. I jogged my bike to the mount line, hopped on, and off I went. I started pedaling and tried to get a feeling for everything. There’s nothing like cruising on the bike and feeling like you’re one with it. I started catching people and couldn’t help but look at the numbers with their ages on their legs. I was not only catching folks in my wave, but I started catching the other groups. I drank a little water and had a GU packet. I just kept pedaling, and the simple thought of catching the next rider and the next, kept me so occupied that I was making the final turn in what only seemed like minutes, not an hour.


The park appeared and the loud cheers started again. I dismounted and jogged to my transition area. I racked my bike, took my helmet off, tossed on a hat, and off I ran. What I knew would be the toughest part ended up tougher than I had planned. In my excitement on the bike I did not hydrate enough and the cramps that hit both legs started pretty early. I had to take five or ten steps to loosen up a couple of times, but I just kept going.

 

Looking back I think being preoccupied by my legs made the run seem shorter. I took some water at the two mile mark and in a blink of an eye was at three miles. I actually started feeling good and made a turn down the street and heard the volunteer say “If you’re on your second lap turn right and the finish is just a little bit ahead”. That little bit started with a run through a wooded trail and then across a bridge and into the picnic area. The picnic area had people on both sides of the trail. Little kids were reaching to high five you and I heard the cheers of all the supporters and my family and friends. I took the last turn and felt like I was running on clouds, no pain, not out of breath, everything was great. The announcer called my name and I crossed the finish line with both arms raised. I felt a sense of satisfaction that equaled the effort I put into this accomplishment. My family came over and congratulated me and I felt truly blessed to have this support here at the race and from others who could not attend.


I was basking in the moment and then my daughter started her triathlon. It was a shorter distance but with all the same events and transitions. I cheered like mad and felt a connection with her knowing that we worked together and that we would always share this moment. It made me think, “What if I hadn’t got the warning sign of a heart problem? What if I hadn’t gone to the doctor? What if my care and recovery hadn’t been outstanding?”


I feel like I have come farther than full circle and that I have a true second chance and now realize what a truly healthy lifestyle means. I am lucky that I have always worked out and it is an everyday thing that I enjoy. I try to vary my workouts to keep things interesting and I think that is why the triathlon appealed to me. I may be a little strict about my diet, but I think I have the duty to myself and my family to be that way. I have bigger goals now and I will be including as many family and friends that I can. My daughter’s friends want to train with us for next year’s triathlon. My wife is wondering if she can get a team to do it with her. People at work have started working out. I am glad that others have learned from my experience and we all can make healthy changes to our lifestyles.

 

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date: August 5, 2008

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