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Record-setting Duathlete Overcomes Major Setbacks to Return to the Starting Line

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There are duathletes who love to compete and duathletes who live to compete. And then there’s Mike McCarty, who credits duathlon with saving his life. He competes to live. 

It all started with a wisdom tooth.

In January 2011, the 65-year-old duathlete visited St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford, Mass. His head hurt and he thought he had the flu. Unable to shake the throbbing in his skull, he drove to the hospital to see what could be done to relieve his pain. The sooner he defeated his headache, the sooner he could get back to training for the upcoming Duathlon National Championships. At the hospital, doctors identified the source of his headache as a pesky wisdom tooth — one that required a simple extraction to remove. However, the operation proved to be anything but simple.

Unbeknownst to McCarty, an important change in oral surgery protocol had been implemented four years earlier. Beginning in 2007, oral surgery patients with heart murmurs were no longer given antibiotics prior to their operation unless they insisted. McCarty had a heart murmur for 40 years, but because of this change, antibiotics were withheld. Midway through the tooth extraction, McCarty suffered a heart attack and was transported to Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital for open heart surgery. While on the operating table, McCarty had a stroke, leaving the left side of his body temporarily paralyzed.

He pulled through, and following the surgery, McCarty began the arduous process of rehabilitating his body. It wasn’t easy. He had to relearn how to make movements that used to be instinctive, but were now difficult.  Still, throughout the recovery process, McCarty had his eyes trained on the Duathlon National Championships. He’d participated at the race a record 22 consecutive years and he didn’t want the streak to end.

Despite the odds (and doctor’s orders), McCarty refused to accept defeat, remounting the bike with only two months to go before the race.

“I have no heart disease, so it was just a matter of getting right back to the run and bike after release from rehab,” McCarty said.

Three months after being partially paralyzed, McCarty toed the starting line at the Duathlon National Championships and finished the race.

“It was a long fall from being the National Masters Duathlon Champion in Richmond at age 65 in 2010 to being the next-to-last finisher in the 65-69 category at Nationals in Oro Valley in 2011,” he said. “But the endorphin rush at the finish was every bit as great if not greater due to how far I'd come from not being able to move my entire left side three-and-a-half months before that.”

Proving doctors wrong is nothing new for McCarty. He first did it nearly 30 years ago — before his first duathlon.

“My choice to lose 35 pounds by taking up triathlon and then duathlon at age 40 was a result of my father's heart attack death at age 49,” McCarty said. “I'd already had two arthroscopic knee operations by age 31 and was told my marathon and road racing career was done.”

McCarty proved doctors wrong by returning to competitive endurance sports, and since then, his career has been nothing short of incredible. For the past 25 years, McCarty has been one of the most dedicated and consistent duathletes in the country. Aside from his championship streak, McCarty has also competed in 21 consecutive ITU World Championships, including an age group victory in 2000. He is an annual fixture among USA Triathlon’s All-American honorees, having been selected 19 times.

This weekend, McCarty will race in the USA Triathlon Duathlon National Championships for the 24th consecutive year. He will once again enjoy feeling the road beneath his feet and the endorphin rush that floods his body upon finishing. But, for McCarty, there is more to duathlon than just the competition. It is a sport that he loves and one that has, in many ways, defined his life.

“I can go to a local race in Massachusetts or Arizona in summer or winter and see people I know, but when I go to worlds or nationals, I'll see over 100 folks that I know, including my best friends that I was fortunate enough to meet through the sport and have been racing and hanging out with for 10 to 24 years,” McCarty said. “To me there are no better, nicer or friendlier people.”  

There’s no telling how much longer McCarty can continue racing, but this much is certain: it’s going to take a lot more than just a doctor to stop him. 

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