Transplant recipient survives cancer and heart failure to compete in Ironman triathlons

In six years, Derek Fitzgerald has completed three marathons, four Half Ironman triathlons, and five full Ironman triathlons (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run). That’s impressive as is, but it's even more incredible when you realize the 44-year-old did it all after beating cancer, surviving heart failure, and receiving a heart transplant.

When he was 30 years old, doctors removed a tumor the size of a grapefruit from Fitzgerald’s stomach and diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The lymphatic system cancer affects more than 200,000 Americans each year, according to the Mayo Clinic. Fitzgerald spent the next five months undergoing chemotherapy. Within three months, he was diagnosed with heart failure, an uncommon side effect of chemo. In 2011, Fitzgerald received a heart transplant.

Before his cancer diagnosis, Fitzgerald was sedentary and overweight, Runner's World reported. But during his post-transplant physical therapy, he began walking—and eventually running—more. "I felt amazing, so grateful to be alive," Fitzgerald told Runner's World. "My body had gotten that far. I wanted to kick the tires a little bit and see if I could go a little further."

So he did. Eight months after his transplant, Fitzgerald ran his first 5K. Two months later, he finished his first half marathon. And he kept going—just two years later, Fitzgerald became the first American heart transplant recipient to compete in an Ironman triathlon. Now, Fitzgerald trains six days a week and frequently competes in races—all while communicating with his doctors and watching his health. "I have to listen to my body," he said. "I have to be smart about it. I take what my body gives me."

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Fitzgerald told Runner's World that he hopes to show other transplant recipients how much they can accomplish. He also founded the nonprofit organization Recycledman Foundation to raise money for heart disease, cancer, and transplant research.

And Fitzgerald saves all the medals he wins from his races on a rack—hoping to one day give them to a loved one of his heart donor. That person, he said, is the real hero for deciding to "save the life of a complete stranger on their last day."

(h/t Runner's World)