After A Midrace Heart Attack, Triathlon Champion Returns


For Timothy O’Donnell, hours of denial found its way into denial late on the night of March 13, 2021, when, in the emergency room of a South Florida hospital, his trauma care specialist called his resuscitation team and told him to stay close.

Triathlon champion and one of the fittest men in the world, O’Donnell recalled that dreadful day a little over 13 months ago. “That’s where the athlete’s mindset comes in. Just put the negativity out of your mind and focus on survival.”

And yet, hours ago, that mentality had almost cost him his life. He initiated a series of events that illustrated the limits of the tough mentality that pervaded endurance sports, with sometimes fatal consequences.

During nearly 20 miles on his bike and his 11-mile run in the Miami Challenge triathlon, a 62-mile championship event, O’Donnell struggled with severe chest tightness and pulling pain in his left arm while competing against some. one of the best triathletes in the world.

The demeanor that made him so good at ignoring the pain allowed him to forget how far he’d come and continued when he got off his bike a lap early. That mindset was there when he went on the 11-mile run in the final episode, even though he was having trouble breathing and feeling like he was having an asthma attack.

O’Donnell, 41, of Boulder, Colo., was making a mistake that many seemingly healthy middle-aged men make each year, often with disastrous consequences. He couldn’t accept that someone like him might have had a heart attack, not being named a widower for its severity and frequency among middle-aged men who were fit and had no idea what they might be at risk for.

“It’s not such an uncommon story,” said Aaron Baggish, O’Donnell’s cardiologist and director of a clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital that provides comprehensive cardiovascular care to athletes. “You can exercise, stay healthy, and lower your risk, but no exercise provides complete immunity against heart disease.”

After a year of rehabilitation and medical research, and plenty of soul searching and long talks with his wife, three-time Ironman world champion, Mirinda Carfrae, O’Donnell is ready to compete seriously again.

Two weeks ago St. Petersburg, Fla. Anthony had planned to get into racing form, starting with the Triathlon, but a cold forced him to withdraw. Now his comeback will kick off this weekend at the Ironman 70.3 North American Championships in Chattanooga, Ten. followed by the full Ironman continental championship in Des Moines in June.

“The idea is to go back to Kona,” said O’Donnell, referring to the Ironman World Championships that took place in October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

A little more than a year after a near-fatal cardiac event, taking brutal endurance tests might sound reckless, and O’Donnell and Carfrae, their two young children, were skeptical at first. They agreed that if continuing the race had any chance of harming his heart’s health, he would quit.

“His racing career wasn’t on our radar,” Carfrae said while breastfeeding her 16-month-old babies recently. “We were trying to get him healthy so he could live a long and healthy life.”

Heart attacks like O’Donnell experienced occur when a piece of plaque that builds up in the inner lining of the arteries ruptures and causes a blockage, preventing blood from flowing properly to the heart.

After that, O’Donnell learned that he had a genetic predisposition to heart disease, particularly plaque buildup on the walls of his arteries, a condition that is difficult for doctors to detect.

Doctors used a common procedure to repair O’Donnell’s left anterior descending artery with a stent – a mesh coil that widens the artery – then proceeded to treat him with medication, all of which made a safer return to the race than it seemed, Baggish, his doctor said. .

During O’Donnell’s race, his body was working so hard to pump blood that he managed to push the blood through the clot. He finished 11th in 2 hours 44 minutes 56 seconds, but could not stand up after that. He called his primary care doctor from the recovery area and told him about the tightness in his chest and the pain that hit his arm during the race. The doctor told him to take an aspirin to break the clotting and go to an emergency room, where he saw the trauma specialist call the resuscitation team.

“At that point in the hospital, I finally got it,” he said. “Wow, it’s really happening.”

A week after his heart attack, O’Donnell hit the treadmill for a stress test and was soon cleared for light aerobics training.

Once O’Donnell, Carfrae, and his doctors were comfortable with his general fitness, they began discussing races again, including what medications he could stop taking because they could hinder his performance.

The mental challenges were particularly difficult for someone with an analytical bent like O’Donnell, who graduated from the United States Naval Academy with a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering. Doctors told him this heart attack would happen whether he was competing in triathlon or not, but he still wonders how his wife and kids nearly lost him.

Carfrae had his moments, too. Early in O’Donnell’s recovery, Carfrae told her he would go on the treadmill while she was going down for a nap with the kids. Two hours later he woke up and heard the TV go off and the treadmill was still running. He thought that O’Donnell was still unable to train and must have passed out. Fearing the worst, she burst into the room. Turns out he started training later than planned.

This year they participated in a short-term triathlon for couples in Florida. He watched her go into the water and thought: Must it be there?

“I had a terrible race,” Carfrae said. “I was so worn out emotionally.”

In science, they take comfort in the words of their doctors and the math that says the chance of having another heart attack drops dramatically because the main potential cause of one has been fixed.

“Tim is more likely to hurt himself in a bad bike accident than in another coronary event,” Baggish said.

That certainly doesn’t mean he won’t have another heart attack. O’Donnell is a heart patient, no matter what he looks like from the outside. Being absurdly fit probably saved his life after ignoring the symptoms. He won’t do it again, but ex-Navy officers don’t usually live their lives in Bubble Wrap and know the only alternative is to accept the uncertainties.

“There are always variables you can’t control,” he said.



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