An Ironman and a heart disease survivor – Richard Gardner

Richard Gardner is a heart disease survivor from CNY. He is a guest blogger sharing his story.


Rich finishing the Ironman Maryland last October
Rich finishing the Ironman Maryland last October

I am an Ironman Triathlete. That means I’ve completed a race where you swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles, and then run (or run and walk, a lot, in my case) a 26.2 mile marathon. I’m also an open heart surgery survivor. That means doctors cut open my chest, stopped my heart, operated on it, and then brought me back.

I’m not your typical heart patient.  I’ve always taken care of my body. I ran marathons in my twenties and started doing triathlons in my thirties. I never smoked, drank, or ate a lot of junk. Therefore, I was very surprised when at the age of 57 my doctor asked,  “Has anyone ever told you, you have a heart murmur?”
It turned out I had been born with a bicuspid aortic valve, a relatively common congenital heart defect. It had been working fine, as they usually do, all those years, but had started to leak creating the murmur my doctor heard. I remember thinking, “I guess I’m not immortal after all,” and “I guess if you get your heart broken enough times it breaks for real.”
I was in the middle of training for my second Ironman Triathlon at the time and was afraid I would have to stop. During my first visit to the cardiologist he reassured me it would be fine to do the Ironman so I continued to train and completed the race three months later.
A week afterwards I went in for some more testing which revealed, not only the valve was leaking, but the diameter of my upper aorta had dilated to two and a half times its normal size. I knew surgery would be in my future.
In January of 2010 I went to a hospital in Syracuse where I had the valve and upper part of my aorta replaced. I recovered fairly quickly, probably due to a lifetime of aerobic training, and six weeks later I returned to running, swimming, and cycling. Six months later I competed in my first post surgery race, a short triathlon in Cazenovia, NY.  I did one more sprint triathlon before the end of the summer and went into the winter looking forward to even bigger and better things in the coming year.
A routine visit to my cardiologist the following Fall put a hold on my plans for doing longer races. The results of an echocardiagram concerned him and he recommended I stick to the shorter triathlons. He was quite clear he didn’t want me to do another Ironman. I was quite upset.
I spent the next few years doing research and getting second and third opinions. I got conflicting answers. I also found an online support group of people like me who were athletic and had heart issues. Some of them had the same surgery I had and were pushing their limits. They seemed fine.
At some point I decided to compromise between what my doctor wanted and what I wanted. I went back to training for longer distances but kept the intensity of my workouts low.
In the Fall of 2014 I registered for Ironman Maryland. I spent the next year building my training base and early Saturday morning, October 17th, 2015 I arrived at the starting line in Cambridge Maryland ready to go. Approximately fourteen and a half hours later I crossed the finish line and was once again an Ironman. A week later I saw my cardiologist who listened to my heart and gave me a clean bill of health.
I’m not recommending heart patients go out and do ultra-distance racing. It might not even be good for you. I share my story because people are understandably frightened about heart surgery. Sometimes stories like mine give them hope and that is my wish for whoever is reading this today.

Richard Gardner

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