Categorized | Featured, Multi-sport, Sports

Ironman: Heart transplant triathlete just wants to finish race


Photography by Baron Sekiya | Hawaii 24/7

Karin Stanton/Hawaii247 Contributing Editor

Kyle Garlett points to his shoulder, hip and chest, where someone else’s heart is beating, and claims he had an edge going into Saturday’s Ironman World Triathlon Championship.

“I’m not using the original parts,” he said. “I think that may be an unfair advantage.”

Kyle-Garlett

Kyle Garlett

Garlett, 38, has triumphed over four bouts with cancer during the last two decades, and in the process, was pumped repeatedly with such powerful drugs, they destroyed his left shoulder and right hip. His heart also was damaged beyond repair.

“Three years ago, I couldn’t make it up the stairs. My life could not be more different,” the Los Angeles-based writer and motivational speaker said. “I really want to finish the race, but it won’t define anything about me. It would put an exclamation on my recovery.”

Three years to the day after he received his new heart, Garlett will be one of nearly 1,800 triathletes poised along the Kailua Bay shoreline, just waiting to get started on the 140.6-mile endurance race that includes a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

“When I saw the date of this race, it was too good to be true,” he said. “This year is definitely a different way to celebrate the anniversary.”

Four fights and a new heart

Garlett typically takes time to celebrate every day, grateful to be alive.

He first fought Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989 as an 18-year-old high school senior, then again in 1991 and in 1994.

A bone marrow transplant in 1994 weakened his heart to the point where he couldn’t even carry a bag of groceries from the car. But he battled on until July 1997.

The diagnosis was secondary leukemia, brought on by the chemotherapy drugs.

“At that point, I’d been fighting for eight years. I really thought I was going to die,” he said. “That was the darkest day.”

Three years of chemotherapy knocked out the leukemia, but he still was living with damaged joints and a heart that simply could stop at any moment.

In 2000, Garlett’s damaged right hip and left shoulder were replaced and in 2001 he was placed on the heart transplant list.

Then, on Oct. 10, 2006, he got the call. A 42-year-old construction worker had died on the job and Garlett was to receive his heart.

“I couldn’t have been happier. It was such a different feeling from all the previous things,” he said. “This time it was like they were repairing me finally.”

Garlett said his new heart had an immediate impact.

“Every day was better and better,” he said. “But when you have a weak heart for so long, you don’t feel it. For six weeks after the transplant, I couldn’t sleep because it was such a loud, strong beat.”

Garlett wrote to the donor’s family, promising he would take good care of his new heart and put it to good use.

Giving back

“I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an athlete, neither would my friends,” he said. “I had been active in the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and I knew I wanted to do an event with (the society’s fundraising program) Team in Training.”

At first he considered a marathon.

“But I hate running, so I figured I could handle that if I got to swim and bike too,” he said. “I really enjoyed that first one (in Malibu in 2007). I’ve done half-Ironman distance, but an Ironman? That’s ridiculous.”

Cleared by his doctors, Garlett focused on the Ironman, supported by his wife of four years, Carrie, and coach Paul Ruggiero.

While his left shoulder rotation is limited and his right leg now is slightly shorter, Garlett doesn’t consider those impediments.

His heart, however, doesn’t get signals from his brain about when to kick it up a notch and strenuous stretches through the windy lava fields on the bike might leave him short of breath, but Garlett said he’s just happy to be in Kona.

“I feel a little like I’m crashing the party. I don’t really look like the rest of these athletes,” he said.

16:59:59

While many triathletes chase personal best times or age-group records, Garlett just wants to see the finish line before the 17-hour cut off time.

“When people ask, I tell them 16 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds is just fine,” he said. “Anything less than that is gravy.”

He said Ruggiero has trained him well and he’s ready for the challenge that has left many professionals in tears.

“I know it’s going to be a long day and there’s going to be pain,” he said. “Physically, I’m not in the same league as some of these guys. But mentally, I’ve been there plenty. In an Ironman race, you have lots of time to just be in your own head. And that’s just like the isolation I was in while I had chemo. I know what that’s like.”

In addition to his coach, Garlett is backed by a cheering squad of some 15 family members and friends, who he knows will be anxiously awaiting him at the finish line.

But he won’t have time to think about what they are doing all day, as he is determined to focus on his coach’s advice.

“I’m gonna be busy. I know how my day’s going to go. It’s kind of planned out,” he said. “My coach said everyone will tell you stuff, but only listen to me. He told me not to think of the finish line. I’m not even going to look at it until I get there Saturday.”

One person will be with him every step of the way – the construction worker whose heart beats in Garlett’s chest.

“I feel him all the time, with every beat,” he said. “It’s hard because that day (of the transplant) is so exciting for you and your family, but it also is a tragic, dark day for another family.”

No. 185

Garlett’s race number is 185.

“I’m already a fan of that number,” he said. “It’s my first Ironman number.”

Track Garlett during the race – which starts at 7 a.m. Saturday – on the Ironman Web site by entering his race number or his last name.

Back to the bleachers

The roles will be reversed next month, when athlete becomes supportive husband as wife tackles a triathlon in Arizona.

“It’s been helpful in training,” Garlett said. “You don’t resent the person next to you if you both get up at 5:30 a.m.”

He won’t even consider comparing times.

“I’ve trained alongside her long enough to know she can kick my butt,” he said.

Carrie said although they enjoyed the journey, they are looking forward to a non-training period as the holidays approach.

“It’ll be nice to be done,” she said. “We’ll be fun people again.”

No regrets

“The reality is people get cancer and I just happen to be one of those people,” he said. “It’s one of the worst things and best things to happen to me. I don’t regret that I got it. It’s just you have to fight it, or you are going to die.”

His long battle back to health gave Garlett a new appreciation for the life he now cherishes.

“My philosophy in general is sometimes the tunnel seems long and dark and scary, but if you persevere you will get to the light,” he said. “People talk about living each day as your last. I hate that philosophy. I prefer to live each day as a first.”

Garlett soaks in each sunrise and sunset as if it were his first.

“It keeps life exciting,” he said. “I really like my life.”

— Find out more:

Kyle Garlett: www.ironmankyle.com

Ironman World Triathlon Championship: www.ironman.com

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