I first met Don Lopez in 2006 at the Triathlon Club of San Diego Monday night JCC pool swim. I had just come off my first Ironman¬† season and I was gearing up for my second one. Don quickly became a huge support system and training partner of mine while I was training for Ironman Florida 2007. After completing IMFL'07, a group of us from San Diego decided to sign up for Ironman Arizona November 2008. Don and I were amongst this group to sign up, train for and complete Ironman Arizona 2008. Over the past few years Don and I have become very good friends, such a good friend that I would have given up my Ironman Arizona goals to help him get through his first Ironman. Why do you ask! Friends, inspiration and heroes can come from many different people but Don has it all. Please take a moment to read about my friend & training partner: Don Lopez
ABOUT DON LOPEZ - FROM PARENTS
KK: What kind of a kid was Don growing up?
DL: At a very young age, Don exhibited independence and determination. It was not easy dissuading him from what he liked, he would come back and come back until he feels he has worn you down or he has reached the limit. He would sit in a corner for hours and hours playing and building with his Lego and Mechano sets. Don built his own bike and, while in high school, converted our 1971 Datsun to a powerful sports car. We knew then that he would be an engineer.
DL: Don made friends easily and would go out of his way to help friends. He loved sports and tended to be quite physical when playing but definitely a team player.
DL: At school, he was an average student except when he focuses on courses that he loved where he received outstanding grades. He was full of surprises - he received an award when he graduated from high school, and again when he graduated from college. Through an engineering degree and through two graduate degrees, Don conducted himself with joy, self-assurance and maturity.
DL: Karen (then Don's girlfriend) was very instrumental in Don's academic accomplishments. We often joked that Don did not want to be left behind by Karen! Thank you, Karen.
KK: Please describe how you felt when Don told you that he was going to train for an Ironman Distance Triathlon.
DL: There was an element of fear given his health history and young family. Yet we were proud knowing that he would be helping a cardio-vascular foundation and he would be achieving a personal triumph. We also knew Don would be very methodical in seeking medical and training advice. We could not let him go without our strong support.
KK: What were some of your concerns for Don while training for such a challenge? DL: Foremost was over training beyond the capacity of his already damaged heart muscle. How would he reach peak physical and mental condition without risking his overall health? With the training demand on his time, how would his family cope during the training period and final triathlon? Under a worst case scenario, what would we all do?
KK: During the 2008 season, it was very obvious that you supported Don; I think I saw you guys at every event. As spectators, give us your perspective of these events. DL: What struck us most was the camaraderie of athletes and teams. We witnessed many acts of kindness in helping each other within a very competitive environment. Triathletes truly promote the highest gentlemanly behavior in sports. The events were well-organized and fun to watch. They were family affairs too and we always felt we were part of the events. We always found ourselves cheering not only for Don but for all the fine athletes.
KK: Now that the finish line had been crossed and Ironman Arizona is complete, please sum up the whole experience you had watching Don during the race. At the end of the day how did you feel about the whole Ironman experience?
DL: The whole experience could be summed up as apprehension and fear, stress of not knowing the whole time how Don was (we were only at the main Triathlon site), and relief whenever he passed us by. Nothing can describe how we felt seeing Don and Sofia approach the finish line.
DL: Being with Karen, Sofia and Mateo is always a source of joy for us. We were so proud of Sofia and Mateo as they waited and cheered their Dad. We watched Karen and it was impossible to imagine how she felt.
DL: Our many friends who watched the event with us provided strong support and encouragement. It was with great relief when we saw Don relaxed, strong and enjoying himself after showering and coming back to cheer some of his teammates. The following day we cried a little bit being very thankful that nothing bad happened to Don. The real joy did not come until a few days later.
DL: While the Ironman experience was great, we would not wish Don participating in another one. He has achieved a new personal goal and we are proud of his accomplishment. However, we feel that he should not continue risking his health and family's future.
ABOUT DON LOPEZ - FROM WIFE
KK: Please take a moment and let our readers know how Ironman training impacted your life as a wife and mother?
KL: I thought of the ironman training like having a needy pet. ¬†There was definitely an added 'presence' in our home such that the kids and I were aware, but it brought such fulfillment to Don that it just grew to be part of the family. ¬†It was a pleasure to see Don taking such pride in his accomplishments. ¬† The kids learned from that too.
KK: It takes a strong individual to share ones loved one to such a commitment. Given Don's medical situation, how did you stay so strong and supportive?
KL: There was no alternative, so it never really crossed my mind that I could not support it. ¬†When Don puts his mind to something, there is no stopping him. ¬†He knew I had concerns. ¬†But, even though I did not tell him so, he also knew that I trusted he would not do anything he believed would jeopardize his future with his family.
KK: Now that the finish line had been crossed and Ironman Arizona is complete, please sum up the whole experience you had watching Don during the race. How did you feel when he ran down the finishers shoot with your daughter?
KL: It was an experience I will never forget. ¬†I was overwhelmed with emotion that I had no idea would surface. ¬†I am not eloquent enough with my words to appropriately describe the day, but even writing this, it brings tears to my eyes. ¬†Watching the swim start at the break of dawn was the most special moment to me. ¬†Only then is when it really hit me what was Don was about to do. ¬†At the bike transition, Don didn't show up as soon as we expected him (he was resting at the swim exit per his doctor's orders). ¬†That is a few minutes of my life that is forever etched in my memory. ¬†It is the only time during this entire process when I thought, just maybe, something awful happened. ¬†Then, Don showed up. Glowing. ¬†The rest of the day was spent chatting with other spectators, bragging about Don's accomplishments, resting in the VIP tent (where we bragged some more), and then brief intervals of screaming at the top of our lungs as Don whizzed by on the bike or run. ¬†Watching Don and the rest of the competitors, I was humbled. ¬†I really felt like every single competitor was a superhero ... a bit crazy, but a superhero nonetheless. ¬†I didn't see my daughter run down the shoot (could not wedge my way in), but I have the most amazing picture of them crossing the finish line. ¬†Her expression says it all... "Wow, you did it. You really can do anything you put your mind to.'
ABOUT DON LOPEZ - FROM DON LOPEZ
KK: Don please take a moment and tell our readers a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? What is your athletic background? What is your level of education?
DL: Geez Kev!¬† Why all the formality?¬† I mean after all we've been through.¬† OK, but since you asked...
DL: I grew up in Northern California.¬† I was confused as a child, so at the age of six, my parents thought it best to enroll me in ballet camp.¬† What should have lasted only a summer turned into a 3-year boarding school experience (those sneaky parents).¬† It really was a blast, and to this day I enjoy prancing about daily in my unitard.¬† Come to think of it, maybe that's why I'm so comfortable in my lycra/spandex tri gear.
DL: My parents forced me to move to San Diego when I was 13.¬† I was like, "...I'm 13 already.¬† You guys go ahead; I'll hang out here in Palo Alto for a few more years."¬† No dice.¬† But in the end, I really feel at home in San Diego.¬† In addition to countless hours of ballet, I managed to play soccer, and football as a kid.¬† I went to UCSB for undergrad, then University of Michigan for grad-school.¬† The most important part of my childhood - I fell madly in love at the tender age of 16!
KK: How did you get started in the sport of triathlon?
DL: I got suckered into it by this wacky Brit Matt Sparks.¬† He all but dared me to join the Triathlon Club of San Diego (TCSD).¬† He said, "...all the cool kids are doing it.¬† So should you.¬† What are you, chicken?"¬† That was all I needed - Some Brit coming over to the U.S. throwing down a challenge.¬† I grabbed the war paint and it was on!
KK: Don, you and I share a common bond, heart disease, which is part of our families' history. By the age of 38, you have had two heart attacks.¬† How do you stay so active and positive?
DL: I try to laugh a lot.¬† I think even in the most serious of situations, there's got to be a little room for humor.¬† Docs told me to go exercise, so I said, "OK, how ‚Äėbout I do an Ironman?" They said, "huh?"¬† And I said, "Exactly!"
DL: Find a great woman or man and fall in love.¬† If you have love in your life, you will want to live life to its fullest.¬† The great thing about being in love is you can act as young as you want, and your spouse will still love you no matter how juvenile you are.¬† What seems like immaturity today will be cherished virility in the future (or so I hope!).
DL: Go have some kids.¬† That'll keep you young.¬† If you can't, go steal or borrow some.¬† Point is, they will keep you active whether you like it or not.¬† Drink wine - preferably Bordeaux, Cabernet or Pinot.¬† White wine is for sissies.¬† Throw back an Irish Car Bomb or two.¬† OK, may not keep you young, but it'll put hair on your chest.¬† Except for me; I'm Filipino which means I'm hairless!
DL: I feel younger and healthier today than I ever have.¬† Do I credit triathlon?¬† Partially.¬† But I more so credit who I've met through triathlon and TCSD as the real reason.¬† These crazy folks have evolved from mere training partners to true friends.¬† In their company and in the presence of my family is where I stay safe, healthy, and forever young.
DL: I also take lots of drugs. Shhh, don't tell all those USAT and USADA guys.¬† Come to think of it, you aren't posting this on your website are you?¬† Better retract what I just said.¬† I guess I'm supposed to call them meds not drugs - meds are good for you, drugs aren't.
KK: In 2008 you took on a huge athletic challenge by committing to Ironman Arizona. With your medical condition, what was your formula for success?
DL: Ironman smironman!¬† Really, what's the big deal?¬† I mean, anyone can do 140.6...if they are willing to commit and put their mind to it!
DL: Formula for success?¬† Chase you [Kevin Koresky] round-and-round at Fiesta Island.¬† Do not pass go; do not collect $200.¬† Get tangled up in the kelp every Friday at La Jolla Cove, plus hit the JCC pool Mondays and Wednesdays.¬† Go through 3 pairs of running shoes in 10 months.¬† Wash, rinse, repeat!¬† The key for me was gradual volume ramp-up.¬† Some can train for Ironman in as few as four months; I needed 10 to slowly work up to race volume.¬† Yeah, I had the training plan you gave me and I think I was 95% compliant.
DL: Leading up to IM Arizona, I picked races that progressed in length.¬† In 2008 I did one half marathon, one international distance triathlon, and one half Ironman.¬† Each race was specifically selected to test my training and fitness progression.¬† My goal was to be fit enough for each race so that when I completed the event, I still had lots of gas left in the tank.¬† So I never had a time goal; my only goal was to complete races...and beat you!¬† You know I'm kidding, right?
DL: Karen [my wife] and the kids were supportive of the whole Ironman idea...I think.¬† You should ask her.¬† I'm still married, and Mateo and Sofia still recognize me as daddy, so I think our family unit survived the ordeal.¬† Karen picked up a lot of slack.¬† I usually do most if not all the cooking, but not last year.¬† That must have sucked for her.
DL: I was advised by no less than three cardiologists, each with varying opinions.¬† And that is exactly what they have - opinions.¬† Not ‚Äėright' or ‚Äėwrong', not ‚Äėyes' or ‚Äėno'; just educated opinions.¬† I think only one was actually comfortable with the whole Ironman idea.¬† So naturally he's the one I listened to the most!
KK: Life balance is a key ingredient to everyone's success in life, triathlon can become a very overwhelming and demanding sport at all levels. Triathlon can very easily overtake a person life, how do you find life's balance as a son, husband, father, friend, training, racing and career?
DL: OK, this must be question # 10 from ‚ÄėKevin's library of standard triathlete questions'...It's all about the tri.¬† Nothing else matters!¬† I eat, breathe, and sleep triathlon.¬† I am a tri-animaniac!¬† Next question please.
DL: I regret missing Mateo's and Sofia's soccer season.¬† Sofia and I missed several Y-Princess campouts due to my training schedule.¬† Once I committed to Ironman, I knew I had to stick with the plan for it to be successful.¬† So for the few precious hours I had with the family, I made every effort to have quality time with them.¬† I also did my best to infuse training into family obligations.¬† So for example, when we went up to my parents' house in San Juan Capistrano for the day, I'd leave earlier on my bike and Karen and the kids would drive up.¬† Or when we took a family vacation to Las Vegas, I woke up extra early, did a 13-mile run, and still managed to meet everyone for breakfast.
KK: Please describe what your Ironman experience has meant to you and your family?
DL: It was and still is the best thing that has ever happened to us, bar none!¬† Nothing, I mean nothing can eclipse this.¬† Except for my marriage...and the birth of my awesome kids...and the love of my parents and sisters' families...and our education...and our values and morals...and our cherished friendships...and...¬† Point is, it was a great accomplishment for our family - one that we will never forget.¬† But, it must be placed in perspective.¬† The Lopezs are fortunate and lucky to enjoy a great life overall, and Ironman is just one piece of the story.
DL: Another regret I have - and I don't even know if regret is the right word - is I wish my family really understood it from my perspective.¬† I'm pretty sure my family, especially my parents, worried about me a lot.¬† I guess no matter how old your son or daughter is, its parental nature to worry about your kids' well being.¬† As I parent, I'm going through this now.¬† But I honestly believe I managed the risks associated with Ironman training very well.
DL: Were there risks?¬† Sure.¬† But every time you drive your car, walk across the street, or eat a meal you place yourself at risk - risk of being injured, sickness, etc. ¬†It's the ability to understand and manage the risks that is important.¬† I never pushed myself beyond what I thought was OK.¬† If there is one thing I learned it's to listen to your body.¬† And right now, I'm more in tune with my body than I've ever been.
DL: Kevin, you were out there with me almost every day.¬† Did I ever look so exhausted that it caused you concern?¬† You took on the enormous responsibility as my ‚Äėguardian' of sorts while I was training.¬† I hope I never pushed myself into the red zone - And you know I used my heart rate monitor religiously.¬† Even during the race itself I was quite relaxed...once I got through the pre-race jitters, of course.¬† Heck, we even joked around when we saw each other on the course.
DL: I guess I'll keep telling them [my family] not to worry.¬† And I'm sure they'll keep worrying about me so long as I continue this sport.
KK: Please describe your race day experience. How did you feel, favorite parts, challenges, the support, and the finish?
DL: First of all, hats off to NA Sports (now WTC) and especially all the volunteers for putting on such a spectacular event.¬† The logistics alone must have been a nightmare.¬† I really can't thank everyone involved enough for making it an awesome event.¬† I was in Tempe for almost an entire week, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself from the minute I arrived ‚Äėtill the minute I left.¬† In a weird way, I was kind of sad when I was driving home - sad that my drive back to San Diego signaled the end of the IM Arizona experience.
DL: I have many ‚Äėfavorite parts' of the event - waving to friends and family on the course, seeing all you guys racing, finally finishing the swim!¬† But two special times were when I ran down the finish chute with Sofia then finally hugged Mateo and Karen, and when we all saw John [Correia] come through the finish.¬† Seeing John meant that all of us completed the journey safely and successfully.
DL: The swim was challenging...boy that mass swim start is sure something else!¬† I just tried to keep a steady, rhythmic stroke.¬† There's no way around it; I'm just a damn boat anchor in the water.¬† It took me about an hour and a half, and I couldn't wait to get out of the water.¬† The bike was great...until some nut-job in front of me decided to nail his brakes and come to a dead stop at one of the rolling aid stations.¬† I went down hard.¬† My right thumb broke my fall, and the impact with the road pretty much turned it into hamburger meat.¬† Then if that wasn't bad enough, this gal rode over me while I was down and her front chain ring cut right into my back.¬† So with all the blood thinners and anti-coagulants I'm on, I was a bloody mess.¬† Yeah that sucked!
KK: And what about this Dr. Fitzgerald guy you met?¬† Tell me about him.
DL: Words cannot convey how amazing and special a person Dr. Fitzgerald is.¬† I only met Dr. ‚ÄėFitz' the Friday before the race, yet the impact he has had on me will last a lifetime.¬† I knew there were real risks involved with my Ironman attempt.¬† I never let on that I was concerned, but inside I knew I was.¬† TCSD member Mark Kenny placed me in contact with Dr. Fitz's office.¬† I was able to get a last-minute appointment with Dr. Fitz, but I was told it would only be 20 minutes because they ‚Äėsqueezed' me into his schedule.¬† My 20 minutes turned into an hour plus.¬† What started as an assessment of my medical condition turned into an Ironman Arizona coaching session tuned to my special needs.¬† You see, Dr. Fitz has done Arizona as well as another Ironman and an assortment of other triathlons.¬† As we wrapped up, he said to me, "You know, I'm going to see if I can add myself to the medical support staff for the race."¬† And he did just that!¬† I think he sensed I was a little nervous, and that by his being on site, I would be able to better focus on the race.¬† Talk about peace of mind!
DL: The Saturday night just before the race, I received the most comforting and inspirational text message from him.¬† It read, "Swim - relax, bike - be safe, run - solve the problem. And above all, enjoy the moment. Dr. Fitz."¬† You know, he spent his entire Sunday at the race observing me.¬† He picked me up coming out of the swim and monitored my progress loop by loop - he even knew all my splits!¬† He purposely selected a late shift in the med tent to coordinate with my anticipated finish time.¬† And when I was done, I asked to be escorted to the med tent where he congratulated me and monitored my recovery.¬† He asked me to stop by his office the following Tuesday for some blood work and a quick checkup.¬† And just as before, I had no appointment, was in his office longer than expected, and the medical evaluation gave way to coaching.¬† However this time, we talked about ‚Äėwhat's next for Don?'¬† To this day I can't bring myself to erase that text message, and I don't think I ever will.
KK: Please tell our readers about the charity you came across while training for Ironman Arizona. What is there purpose/goal? How can our readers get in touch with the charity?
DL: Going into this, I knew I wanted to tie my Ironman endeavor to some type of charitable action.¬† My introduction to Carlsbad-based Cardiovascular Disease Foundation (CVDF) was somewhat by accident.¬† I stumbled upon their annual 5K jog/walk flyer and took it home.¬† I went to their website and was immediately struck by their mission and approach.¬† Unlike other heart disease foundations that funnel dollars into R&D, CVDF was more focused on educating the public about the causes and prevention of heart disease.¬† In particular they have this Healthy Habits, Healthy Kids (HHHK) program where they go to regional schools and teach young kids about heart disease, smart lifestyle choices, proper exercise, and healthy eating habits.¬† I arranged a meeting with them, recounted my medical history, educated them about my Ironman intentions, and told them I'd like to raise money for their HHHK program.¬† They accepted and we launched a fruitful partnership in May 2008 which to date has yielded over $14,000.¬† You can visit CVDF at www.cvdf.org.
KK: With all the work you put into your training, you also found time to raise money for your charity. How did you find time to squeeze this in? What was your goal when it comes to helping CVDF? Please tell about how it ties into you becoming the Ironman Arizona Ford Everyday Hero.
DL: One word - outsourcing.¬† That great American business model...Really I mean that.¬† I relied on the assistance of so many.¬† The folks at CVDF did more than their share to drum up sponsors and individual competitors.¬† My family - especially my dad - tapped into their extensive personal and professional networks.¬† You and Elaine [Gower] even orchestrated your own programs such as the Fiesta 100 which generated funds for CVDF.¬† JT Lyons at Moment Cycle Sport even ran a special event to generate funds.¬† I couldn't have done this by myself.
DL: My Goal?¬† At the onset I really didn't have a specific dollar amount I was shooting for.¬† I would've been happy with reaching $5,000.¬† But we got to $5,000 within five days of the campaign.¬† But I did know I wanted to direct my funds specifically to their Healthy Habits, Healthy Kids program.¬† I guess the only goal was to put as much into the fundraising effort as I did into training for the race.
DL: Regarding the Ford Everyday Hero Award...Several folks in the club were aware of my medical condition and involvement with CVDF and took it upon themselves to nominate me.¬† Others took it a step further and forward the nomination e-mail to all of TCSD (and beyond!).¬† This must have had a snowball effect because I think NA Sports' inbox was flooded by nominations for me from many, many, TCSDers - whether they were racing Arizona or not!
DL: They notified me the Tuesday before the race and needless to say, I was shocked, thrilled, but most of all humbled by the honor.¬† I mean, who am I to be singled out of this group of 2,500 people; we all trained ridiculously hard.¬† And fundraising?¬† Like I said, largely a team effort.¬† I didn't deserve the award, but perhaps ‚Äėwe' did.¬† For me, the most important part of the award is the $1,000 donation Ford made to CVDF on my behalf.¬† Personally I received a comp'd entry into any 2009 NA Sports Ironman event.¬† That's pretty cool too, but I haven't yet decided what to do with it.
KK: What has been the best part of this journey? Would you ever do this again?
DL: It blew man!¬† Never gonna do it again!
DL: The best part?¬† The friendships that emerged over the course of training hands down!¬† If I ever do another Ironman, it would have to have the same support and friendship structure as with IM Arizona.¬† While triathlon is inherently an individual competition, I can't think of another sport where training and friendships are so intertwined.
DL: Will I ever do it again?¬† Stay tuned for Don's comeback tour in 2010!
Thank you Lopez family.
Don is there a question coming that is hidden in this quote? "If I ever do another Ironman, it would have to have the same support and friendship structure as with IM Arizona."