While this whole Ironman endeavor is a Bucket List item for me and has been a memorable experience at that, the fact remains that I’m nothing special. Approximately 50,000 athletes completed Ironman distance triathlons in 2010 (according to some random source on the internet). I suspect that number is closer to 70,000 this year as the sport grows in popularity. While undoubtedly hard, I’m an experienced runner and am a prime age for endurance athletes. In other words, these are the best conditions for someone like me to partake in this. And it’s also why Men 35-39 is one of the best represented age groups at these events.
There are others attempting this with less than favorable conditions.
I first met Derek Fitzgerald during a jog in late summer 2011. I was a brand new coach to Team In Training, which is a subsidiary to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, a non-profit tasked with raising money to combat blood-born cancers (i.e., leukemia and lymphoma for the dense). It was the first practice of the season, and we had dozens of folks that were training for a half or full marathons. As the newbie coach, I was really just putting names to faces and trying to make sure no one got lost. Then, as I jogged alongside, Derek told me his story.
When Derek was 30, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma which manifested in the form of a grapefruit-sized tumor (the gold standard for fruit-to-tumor comparisons) in his stomach, which had to be removed. Chemotherapy, in all of its horrific glory, ensued. This included all of those familiar side effects — fatigue, hair loss, weight loss — in addition to the more exotic. Only a few months after finishing chemo and having been declared in remission from cancer, he learned that his heart had been irreparably damaged by the chemotherapy drugs. WTF, am I right? Can’t a guy catch a break?
Of course, his weakened heart wasn’t weak enough to immediately qualify for a heart transplant, so he was fitted with a pacemaker and lived for five years in this condition. Hey, my heart is delivering about 30% of the oxygen as a normal heart. No biggie.
Eventually but not surprisingly, his condition worsened and the need for the transplant became imperative. Thankfully, In January 2011, a donor heart became available, and (obviously) the transplant was a success.
“Hold up, hold up, hold up…January 2011. You got a new heart in January 2011?”
– Matt Wokulich (August 2011)
That’s right. My first encounter with Derek was a mere seven months after his transplant. And he was training for a half marathon. I couldn’t tell if I should treat him like a lunatic or a…a…cancer patient. But there he was, plodding along like everyone else. The Team coaching staff held our collective breath as Derek crossed the finish line at the Philadelphia half marathon in November 2011. Over the next two years, I’ve watched Derek go from a half marathoner to a triathlete to a marathoner to a half Ironman. Actually, that doesn’t adequately capture the level of activity this guy has kept. In the last year, his race schedule has been peppered with triathlons, century bike rides, half and full marathons. Turns out, he was more lunatic than anything else.
On top of that crazy training schedule, Derek’s social calendar has become packed. He has become a poster child for Team In Training, the American Heart Association, and a slew of other organizations. He’s even become somewhat of a local celebrity with a bunch of (more skillfully written) articles about him here, here and here. Or, if you don’t like reading (and if you don’t, what the hell are you doing on my blog?) you can watch a video of his story or even listen to a radio spot he did on Preston and Steve (a local Philly radio show). Seriously, if you Google “‘Derek Fitzgerald’ and ‘heart transplant'” you get over 1200 hits. Of course, if you Google “‘Derek Fitzgerald’ and ‘grumpy cat'” you get over two hundred hits. So I don’t really know what kind of conclusion I’m trying to draw here.
Why do I even bother to bring any of this up? And why now? Because this weekend, Derek will be attempting to complete Ironman Lake Placid. This cancer surviving, heart transplant recipient will attempt the 2.4 mile swim / 112 mile bike / 26.2 mile run madness that I have been training for since January. In this instance, he truly is an original, because I’m guessing there won’t be too many of those gathering at the starting line in Lake Placid this Sunday.
From my perspective, I don’t see Derek the Survivor. I see my friend. Just a genuinely nice guy who does a lot of the same stuff that I do, shares a comedic sensibility, and will join me for a run or a ride. Spend enough time with him though, and you’re reminded of what Derek has been through. If you’re around for a wardrobe change after a workout, you’ll see the gnarly scar from his transplant surgery. All activities must stop at the precise moment he needs to take his medication. Or maybe you’ll spot any of the Recycled Man icons on his person. At those times, you’re reminded that he’s not quite like the rest of us.
And if you talk to him, you start to understand that his motivation is pretty simple. He’s been given a third chance at life and he’s got an obligation to a nameless heart donor who saved his life. I cannot think of many things that would drive me more effectively than that.
So on Sunday, I’m going to be glued to my computer or phone all day, catching updates wherever I can get them. I will be one of many cheering for Derek, and I look forward to the day that I can welcome him back as an Ironman.
Final note: If you find Derek’s story compelling (and why wouldn’t you?), please consider donating to LLS. Or better yet, sign up for Team in Training and get your run/ride/swim on (I know a guy).