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New York triathlon not for faint of heart
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Forsyth County News
Competing in a triathlon? That’s serious business.

Open heart surgery? That’s really serious.

So, how serious would it be to combine the two?

That’s what Greg O’Keeffe wondered.

Sunday, he found out.

His story actually begins about 28 years ago, when O’Keeffe was born with a constricted aortic valve.

Flash forward to O’Keeffe’s freshman year at Columbia, when he tried out for the Lion’s baseball team. O’Keeffe’s heart kept him from passing the physical. Because a heart murmur had been detected when he was a child, Columbia doctors urged O’Keeffe to see a cardiologist.

After monitoring the situation, by 2008 it became apparent that O’Keeffe needed open heart surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. The surgery was performed on May 20, 2008, by Dr. Allan Stewart at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

“Without the operation, he would have been dead within a month,” Stewart told Thomas Kaplan of the New York Times. According to Stewart, the surgery carries about a 10 percent mortality rate. Serious stuff indeed.

However, successful surgery of this type enables the patient to resume a normal life. Kaplan reported that former Major Leaguer Aaron Boone had similar surgery, and was playing baseball again six months later.

Sure enough, about five months after his surgery, O’Keeffe told Kaplan he was “pretty much back to normal.” Except, perhaps, for his thought process.

“I got to thinking,” O’Keeffe told Kaplan, “Hey, I’m going to take full advantage of my health now. I’m going to do a triathlon!”

Then, in another moment of sheer brilliance, O’Keeffe decided to challenge Stewart to join him. As he wrote in Adam’s Heart Surgery Blog on July 11, “I felt challenging Dr. Stewart to the New York City Triathlon was the best way I could thank him for helping give me a crack at a healthier life, and offer him the same in return.

“Plus, how else was I supposed to hold him accountable for his work?”

Stewart may have a healthy heart, but he’s hardly the model triathlete. According to Kaplan, he performs over 400 surgeries a year, each one lasting about six hours. His usual dinner? “Pizza or Taco Bell.”

Now, you don’t just show up at the starting line and attempt a triathlon. The race requires months of training. The New York City triathlon is an Olympic Distance race. It involves a 1.5 kilometer swim down the scenic Hudson River, where you must remember not to swallow any of the water.

Next is a 40 kilometer (24.8 mile) bike ride up the West Side Highway, into the Bronx and back, followed by a 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) run into Central Park.

“The last year of training has had its ups and downs,” O’Keeffe wrote in his July 11 blog. “I’ve done everything possible to ensure I don’t let Dr. Stewart beat me next week.

“The biggest motivator, though , is simply knowing that I’m 110 percent healthier (maybe more) than I was before my heart valve replacement.
Whenever I’m training and need a little extra push onward, I don’t have to dig too deep to find the motivation.

“A good heart is a terrible thing to waste!”

Stewart began biking to work, running four times a week, swimming reluctantly, and wound up losing 25 pounds in six months. He amazed his fellow doctors, including the media friendly Mehmet Oz.

“He would come into the hospital, put his bike in the corner of his office, and take off his biking pants,” Oz told Kaplan. “It was visually arresting, and intellectually so as well, as you watched a man go from Superman to Clark Kent, to be able to do his daily writing, or, in our case,

Still, given the ardors of the race, including the heat and humidity, finishing wasn’t a given. Of the 3000 that started Sunday’s race, 12 were hospitalized. A 31-year-old London man, who collapsed a quarter-mile from the finish line, was listed in critical condition.

Stewart, who started earlier than O’Keeffe, finished in 3 hours, 45 minutes, 51 seconds. The toughest part was slicing through the Hudson. “I looked up at 600 meters, and said, ‘I’ve got nothing left’” he told Kaplan. “But I figured I had no excuse not to finish, because he was going to finish.”

And finish O’Keeffe did, in 3:03:59. Waiting at the finish was Stewart, who was moved to tears by the sight. “I don’t know who saved whose heart more,” he told Kaplan.

The website shares their story, raising awareness and money through pledges from their races. Yes, races, plural. They have at least two more triathlons planned.

“I feel lucky to have had this surgery at 26,” O’Keeffe wrote. “Old enough to gain some amazing perspective from the experience, but still young enough to be able to apply it constructively for the rest of my life. I’m doing my best to make the most of it!”