ROCHESTER, Minnesota—On September 7 in Madison, cheered on by family and friends, I completed the Ford Ironman Wisconsin Triathlon (2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and a marathon of 26.2 miles) in 14 hours and 34 minutes.
The 140.6-mile odyssey was the culmination of a multi-year journey of self-discovery and a year-long philanthropic effort to raise awareness for myeloproliferative disorders (MPDs).
In 2003, I had completed my fellowship in hematology and medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic, and found myself carrying 300 pounds on my 5-foot-9-inch frame. I was always a heavy man, but the demands of medical training had led to physical inactivity and further weight gain.
After years of taking care of patients with malignant diseases, the lessons they had taught me were finally sank in. These patients were facing challenging, and sometimes fatal, diseases with strength and courage. I saw people my own age with acute leukemia or MPDs willing to risk all their potential remaining days for just one hope for a cure.
Meanwhile, I was blessed with perfectly good health, but I was squandering it away. The future consequences of my lifestyle were clear: hypertension, diabetes, coronary disease and even death. On January 1, 2003 (yes, some New Year’s resolutions work), I vowed to honor the good health I was blessed with as a testament to my patients who were not as fortunate.
Along with my colleague and mentor, Ayalew Tefferi, MD, I specialize in MPDs. Areas that I have worked in include efforts to better understand and quantify the symptomatic burdens of MPDs and investigating how physical activity might improve disease-related symptoms.
MPDs have seen an explosion of research advances since the discovery of the JAK2-V617F mutation in 2005. A host of additional pathogenetically linked mutations were subsequently identified. Key MPD breakthroughs have been followed by the rapid development of over a dozen potentially clinically active inhibitors of JAK2; several are now undergoing investigation in phase I and II clinical trials. Now is a crucial period for research funding to advance the therapy for patients who desperately need better treatments today.
I wanted to give back to my courageous patients by trying to raise awareness and crucial funds for research. I approached the two main advocacy foundations—MPD Foundation and the CMPD Education Foundation—and asked if I could have the honor of trying to raise funds and awareness funds on their behalf. We called the effort “TRIing for an MPD Cure.”
‘Legs of jelly’
Back in 2003, hard work, better nutrition, and joining the Mayo Clinic’s community program for learning how to run marathon medical training programs helped me lose 130 pounds.
I ran my first 5K road race in November of 2003. To date, I’ve completed 10 marathons in various U.S. cities. I also decided to try my hand at triathlons and, after 30 “practice” events, I confronted the king of all triathlons, the Ironman.
For the Madison event, a year of hard training—over 5,000 miles of cycling, 2,000 miles of running, and hundreds of miles of swimming—proved its worth on that sunny morning of the race. The 2.4-mile swim start with my 2,300 fellow racers was part contact sport and part swim.
The epic cycle ride consisted of 112 miles in a stiff west wind and an endless series of Midwestern hills. After a full day that started at 7 a.m., I still faced a full marathon by late afternoon.
With legs of jelly I stumbled out of the transition zone. I thought of my patients and their struggles, which grounded me in simplicity and ease. They gave me the strength to journey through those toughest miles. A final wave of energy and emotion welled up inside me as I sprinted through the finish to the embrace of my family.
“TRIing for an MPD Cure” raised over $12,000 for key MPD research efforts. I will continue to run and repay the debt I owe to my patients who taught me to cherish life and live it to the fullest.