Ironman Triathlon Saved My Life Multiple Times


Yep! Believe it or not, Ironman Triathlon saved my life, multiple times.

Back in the late 1970s, I was sitting in my office, at Battelle Labs, Geneva, Switzerland, when one of our technicians came in and said, “Kevin, we need some normal blood, please.” So I rolled up my sleeve and held out my arm. About 10 minutes later, she returned, held up a glass tube, and said, “What have you been eating?”

Normal human blood plasma, red cells removed by centrifugation, is a clear, straw-colored fluid, like that from the dog (I am a veterinarian, so why not) on the left of the image below. The middle sample shows fatty blood, the one on the right shows really fatty blood, like mine was before I largely fixed it with the help of Ironman.

Ironman triathlon saved my life
Normal plasma (blood without red cells) left, high blood fat (middle) and severe hyperlipidemia (like me), right (that was me, before Ironman training). For the image source for this study in dogs: see this link.

We soon discovered that it wasn’t the excellent Swiss cheeses I was eating, I have a severe genetic hyperlipidemia (HDL less than 20, TG more than 2000), which gave me a high risk of developing arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart failure. I was in my mid-30s at the time. I’ve made it to 76, but not without arteriosclerosis – I’ll get to that.

I had to bring down my blood fat levels, so I changed my diet, less fatty foods (misguided advice) and lots of salmon. This actually helped a bit, and I stuck to that for the next 20 years. On arriving in the USA, in 1981, work-related annual screening included blood tests. There it was, high blood fat, including cholesterol, and low HDL (high density lipoprotein). I was advised to take statins, which I did for a few months, UNTIL:

Roger walks in my lab at Glaxo, in the RTP, NC, and says, “Take a look at this slide, Kevin, what do you think it is?”

ironman triathlon saved my life
Fond memories of our Glaxo Toxicogenomics lab in the basement of the Gertrude Elion Building, RTP, NC

I put it on the microscope, and replied, “It looks like rhabdomyolysis [severe muscle damage] in horses, but the tissue doesn’t look like horse tissue.”

Roger said, “It’s a rat, treated with a statin.” I never touched those poisonous statins again.

Fortunately, I started the sport of triathlons a few years earlier, and was now working up to Ironman distance. My blood fat profile gradually improved with the training, which is A LOT OF TRAINING.

I completed my first full distance Ironman at the Lake Placid course, in 2007, by which time my blood fat profile was NORMAL (TG < 150, HDL >75). Sure would have killed me by now.

Thank you, Ironman.


Ironman Triathlon Saved My Life
Make sure you have a good coach! Chris Hauth spotted my heel strike, and taught me how to pace myself. Thanks, Chris!

In 2010, I was at my best, having completed the Lake Placid race three times already, and now under a great coach, Chris Hauth, of AIMP. I came off of the bike 40 minutes ahead of my only real competition, but was dropped by him (Roger) at mile-137. I developed severe burning pain on the soles of my feet at mile-10 in the run. If I walked it went away, but returned in spades if I attempted to run.

As Roger went by, I remember thinking, “I wish I could run like that.” He did a Boston Marathon qualifying time in a Ironman!!! There went my second Kona slot (I didn’t go to the roll down meeting the year before, and it rolled on by me).

Two weeks later, and thanks to my pathology training, I worked out what was happening in that race to cause the foot pain – an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA), 6.9 cm. in diameter. Within no time I was undergoing endovascular aortic repair (EVAR) surgery. Thanks again, Joe Fultom and your great surgery team at UNC-CH Hospital, NC.

If not for that race I’d be dead, as the aneurysm would have burst. It’s a silent killer. There were no symptoms until 10 miles into an Ironman race, think about that! Entropy failed to get me, that time.

I got back into Ironman training, by having a new bike built to minimize hip flexion, and changing the way I moved, to reduce risk to the stent. I went on to complete the Lake Placid Ironman on year later, in 2011, as the only person in the world to do so with and AAA stent graft, as far as I know.

You can see the full story in this video, made by Cook Medical.

Thank you, Ironman.


Ironman triathlon Saved My Life
Frits (who is sorely missed) left, and FitOldDog, at the World’s Half Ironman Championships, in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2013.

I was probably saved twice by the World Half Ironman Championships, in Las Vegas, in 2013. To cut a long story short, a nice young man ran into me on his bike at mile 26, which resulted in displacement of the left iliac arm of my stent, which was probably already loose due to enlargement of that artery. Fortunately, this occurred only a month or so before my routine ultrasound checkup, which revealed the displaced stent. It had flipped back into the aortic aneurysm, which would aging be at risk of rupture.

That race saved me from a wonky stent.

Thank you, Ironman.

But there’s more:


Tara Mastracci and her great EVAR team fixed my displaced left iliac stent graft, and saved me from chronic butt claudication. Thanks, Tara.

They couldn’t fix my displaced stent, here in North Carolina, due to FDA non-approval of an experimental device, so my excellent vascular surgeon, Mark Farber, sent me to the Cleveland Clinic for a clinical trial. There, I was all fixed up with that device by Tara Mastracci. She inserted a stent extension (built in Australia, by Cook Medical) to stabilize my left iliac arteries.

And I was soon back in Ironman training. You think I’m crazy?

I need Ironman training to control my blood fats, and I love the sport.

Thank you, Ironman.

There’s more.


Ironman triathlon saved my life
Dr. Benjamin Haithcock, himself an Ironman, removed a dangerous tumor from my chest.

In order to be enrolled in the clinical trial, for that $105,000 surgery in 2013, I had to agree to five annual full aorta CT scans (lots of radiation) at the Cleveland Clinic (It’s research). It was free on the clinical trial, or I’d have to sell my little house.

During the fourth scan, staff at the Cleveland Clinic spotted a substantial tumor, a thymoma, growing in my mediastinum (the center of the chest, where the heart sits). If it grew a lot more, or became malignant, I would have died a horrible death – a friend of mine as seen a few.

It was removed by Dr. Haithcock and his team, at UNC, Chapel Hill, NC. Thanks so much, sir.

My life was saved by an aortic aneurysm and a bike wreck (go figure), all thanks to triathlon training and some remarkable physicians.

Thank you, Ironman.

There’s more:


Ironman triathlon saved my life
Mark Farber‘s team came to my rescue again, in 2017. Thank you, sir.

Unfortunately, the stent extension, inserted in left common, external and internal iliac arteries, kinked. This resulted in a clot completely blocking my left common iliac artery. The only symptoms were sudden inability to lift my left leg, and it was almost impossible to walk uphill. Back to vascular surgery, where they found the blockage, and fixed it (in surgery again!!). Within a few weeks I was back in training.

Without Ironman training, and all the extra blood vessels (collaterals) I’d grown, I would probably have lost that leg. Sure of it!

Thank you, Ironman.


Ironman triathlon saved my life
Willbe and I, after we completed the Carrboro, NC, Gallop & Gorge 8k road race 2019. I was hoping to break 16-minute mile pace (I have severe PAD in my right calf), but we broke 14-minute pace.

Remember my genetic hyperlipidemia, kept at bay by Ironman training. Well, it was still there, and slowly, slowly symptoms of arteriosclerosis appeared, in the form of peripheral arterial disease (PAD). Dr. Farber’s staff warned me about it long before symptoms arose, based on ultrasound assessments.

Well, the best treatment for PAD, in order to avoid the common end result, foot or leg amputation, is exercise. My Ironman training over about 25 years, plus many other athletic endeavors, allowed me to continue running, but with plenty of pain. And that exercise is inducing dramatic improvements in my PAD symptoms.

Now, I’m all signed up for the Florida Ironman, November, 2020.

It’s all in my latest book, by the way. Remember what PT Barnum said, “Without promotion, something terrible happens… nothing!”

Thank you so much, Ironman, and all you wonderful vascular researchers, device manufacturers, physicians and surgery teams.

kev aka FitOldDog

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Disclaimer: As a veterinarian, I do not provide medical advice for human animals. If you undertake or modify an exercise program, consult your medical advisors before doing so. Undertaking activities pursued by the author does not mean that he endorses your undertaking such activities, which is clearly your decision and responsibility. Be careful and sensible, please.