Ironman Kona: Cancer Survivor, Heart Transplant Recipient Kyle Garlett


The Kona Ironman, which involves a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run, is grueling enough for elite athletes. But imagine trying to accomplish this feat after surviving cancer four times and receiving a heart transplant. That's what Kyle Garlett will attempt at Kona this year. He completed his first race, the 2007 Nautica Malibu Triathlon, 11 months after heart surgery, and he hasn't stopped since.Find out more about him in this conversation with Outside Online.

–Aileen Torres

What's your training regimen?
My coaches have gotten on me about not thinking of myself as Kyle the heart-transplant guy. They want me to focus on Kyle the athlete, so my training regimen is pretty similar to anyone else who's training for an Ironman–six days a week. We obviously ramped up to where we had some really long workouts about three weeks ago, and then we started to taper off. By the time we got to the long stuff, I was doing 20-25 hours a week, 100-mile bike rides, 20-mile runs. I had a pretty lengthy base training, just because I'm not coming from a place of being an athlete for the last 10 years. Prior to the transplant, I spent a decade really being inactive just because, physically, I couldn't do much. From a physical standpoint,compared to the other athletes, I'm probably near the bottom of the rung, but I'm hoping that, mentally, I'm up to the challenge.

Whatever possessed you to do this?
Prior to my transplant, I knew I wanted to do an event, and I kind of decided on triathlon. And so, the week I was in the hospital after the transplant, my wife and I started looking at the triathlon schedule and chose the Malibu triathlon. It was about 11 months after my transplant that I did that race. I did a couple other races, and somebody mentioned Ironman. I thought that was ridiculous–I mean, I'd just had a heart transplant, so I'm not doing an Ironman. But I started looking around and I noticed that the date of this race is my heart transplant anniversary. My heart transplant was on October 10, 2006, so this Saturday is my three-year anniversary. When I saw that date, I thought to myself, that's too good not to try. So I talked to my doctor andasked him if it was possible, and he assured me that if I did the training that, yes, my heart can be made strong like anybody else's. So here we are now, three years later.

You're also a four-time cancer survivor. Have you always been an athlete?
I was first diagnosed when I was 18. I had my heart transplant when I was 35, so for that 17-year stretch, I was either fighting cancer or heart disease. When I was a kid, I played sports, like most 16-year-olds. It's hard for me to say if I would have been an athletic adult or not. I just never had the opportunity. I was sick from 18 on. So this is really a brand new kind of thing for me. But I've actually written a couple ofsports books. I'm a sports writer.

When you're training, are there certain things you need to avoid or keep in mind?
There are certain things that I struggle with in terms of how my body operates. Because of the transplant, there aren't any nerves that connect my brain to my heart–all those are cut during the transplant, so my heart only responds to adrenaline release into the bloodstream. So, like, if we were riding along on a flat course, I can keep up witheverybody–and then all of a sudden we hit a hill. Well, their brains tell their hearts, We're on a hill now, you need to pump faster. And so they get a little extra juice to get up the hill. My body doesn't do that, so I'll start to struggle on a hill because my heart, as far as it knows, we're not on a hill. As far as my heart goes, it knows that we're sitting on a couch. So it's a little more difficult. When I hit stuff like that, I start to get a little short of breath. So it's just something I have to be aware of. I also have to take a pretty long time to warm up because I don't have those nerves. So basically, it's like an engine, in the way of time. I just have to warm it up pretty long before I drive it.

You've done triathlons before.
Yes. I've done about five, and I've done a half Ironman. So I've done long distance. Certainly not Ironman distance, but I've done half. The reason I got into triathlons is because I hate running. I figured I could stomach the running if it included a swim and a bike. But the idea of just going out and running–it sounds miserable to me. Forwhatever reason, doing a marathon after 112 miles on a bike doesn't seem as bad as just doing a marathon. The biking is going to be critical for me. If I have a good bike, it will give me a little extra time on the run. The bike will make or break my race.

How do you think you'll do this year?
I feel good. I'm gonna be a late-night finisher, but I really do feel like I know exactly what I need to do to get to the finish line, and I feel I've got the ability to do that. I feel pretty confident–maybe that might change, but right now, I'm feeling pretty good.

The most popular annual Ironman event will take place at Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii Saturday, October 10. Outside Online'sAileen Torres will be covering the big day, but before then, she'll beposting about competitors and all other things Ironman. You can checkout her accompanying blog, “Hawaii Adventure,” for tips on what to doand where to stay if you're planning to visit.