After Cheating Death Twice, Ironman Powers Through Races With Another Person’s Heart

Derek Fitzgerald crosses the finish line of the 2013 Ironman Lake Placid. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF DEREK FITZGERALD
Forty-four-year-old Derek Fitzgerald was training for the 2016 Los Angeles Marathon when he started feeling odd every once in a while—dizzy, lightheaded, struggling to breathe. He started the race but had to drop out before the finish.

The sensations weren’t entirely unfamiliar. In fact, Fitzgerald lived six years feeling like, as he puts it, the losing competitor in the late rounds of a heavyweight fight.

But that was before he ever trained for his first 5K, much less completed three marathons, four half Ironman triathlons, and five full ones. And, it was before he received a new heart.

At 30 years old, Fitzgerald had a grapefruit-sized stomach tumor removed and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Chemotherapy saved his life but—as a rare but known side effect of the particular chemical brew he received—harmed his heart beyond repair.

At first doctors thought his shortness of breath and dizziness were because of pneumonia. Eventually, though, he was diagnosed with heart failure. After six years of treatment, in 2011, he received a heart transplant.

Fitzgerald—who lives in Harleysville, Pennsylvania—had never been athletic before his cancer diagnosis. In fact, he was a sedentary office worker whose weight peaked at 200 pounds, which at 5-foot-10 made him solidly overweight. Continue reading
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