Tin Man Soars to Second Chances in Lake Placid, Arizona
IRONMAN recently welcomed its first heart transplant recipient across the finish line. And he’s just getting started.
by Lisa Dolbear
Nobody knows just how much heart it takes to complete an IRONMAN better than Derek Fitzgerald. At 40 years old, Fitzgerald became the first American heart transplant recipient to complete a 140.6-mile race at IRONMAN Lake Placid last month (16:14:38 hours).
Long before the Harleysville, PA resident began fighting for the IRONMAN finish line, he was fighting for his health. Fitzgerald spent a decade battling cancer, survived heart failure and received a heart transplant after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 30 (2003). Fitzgerald says he was not athletic before his health took a turn for the worst. He didn’t even know how his friends found out about the 5K races they competed in on the weekends. “It was like some kind of weird subculture that I found completely fascinating and foreign,” he says.
Little did he know, he’d later become part of that culture in a big way. His debut as an athlete started three months after his transplant—on the rehab treadmill. At first, he walked. Before long, walking gave way to a slow shuffle, which turned into a a light run. He felt his first runner’s high during one of these sessions. “All the forgotten memories of what it felt like to be healthy came back to me, and all I wanted to do was feel more,” he recalls.
While at the University of Pennsylvania transplant center, Fitzgerald’s mentor, Dan Smith, told him about cancer survivor and transplant recipient Kyle Garlett, who had attempted to complete the IRONMAN World Championship twice. “He saw a lot of similarities in our stories,” Fitzgerald says. It didn’t take long for him to contact Garlett on Facebook.
Fitzgerald did his first 5K in September 2011, and eventually moved up to the half marathon with Team in Training in November 2011. He signed up for the St. Anthony’s triathlon in 2012. “It’s safe to say I caught the bug,” he says. He enlisted the help of a coach and completed IRONMAN 70.3 Florida that same year, where he and Kyle hatched the idea for the Tin Men Endurance Team, comprised exclusively of heart transplant recipients, or as they say it, “lucky second chancers.”
Fitzgerald sees IRONMAN as a way to honor his donor and celebrate a second chance at life. The donor process is anonymous, but he still feels a respect for his gift-giver. “I know all that I need to know about my donor and his or her family based on their decision to save my life in the darkest moments of their own lives. They are heroes, and I try to live a life that’s worthy of their gift,” he explains.
This November, Fitzgerald hopes to make history by crossing the finish line at IRONMAN Arizona with four other heart transplant recipients—the Tin Men. “Some people just don’t realize what they can do. They’ve been told what they can expect from their lives and never break free from those limitations,” Fitzgerald says. His hope is that people will take a cue from the Tin Men to overcome their own obstacles and find success. “All of us came within moments of death,” he says, “but we worked our butts off and became triathletes.”
For someone who’s had every muscle sliced from the base of his neck to below the waistline, getting back on track with his body has not been easy. “There’s no magic pill to overcome all of that damage, just a long-term commitment to hard, sometimes painful work,” he says. When things get bad, Fitzgerald closes his eyes and remembers the man he was before the M-dot: “I think about how long it took me to lift my head on my own, to learn to walk again, or the seven years I spent wondering if I would wake up from each night’s sleep.”
For Fitzgerald, the finish line in Lake Placid was just the beginning of a high he’s still on. His wife is expecting their first child this January and greeted him in the Olympic Oval with open arms and a finishing medal, a moment of pure happiness and a reminder of how precious each day really is. Being alive and active is a gift that he plans to carry through the coming years, both on and off the race course.
Lisa Dolbear is a three-time IRONMAN and USAT Level 1 coach. Visit her blog on mental skills training at trimojo.com