The Argonaut Interview: Kyle Garlett

By Vince Echavaria

Kyle Garlett is no longer held back by the fear of taking his body to physical extremes.

Early on as a heart transplant recipient, Garlett was hesitant to push himself beyond a certain limit when not knowing how much his body could withstand during physical activity. Due to concerns of safety and inexperience with a new condition, it was common for the former Marina del Rey resident to pull back when challenged physically.

But thanks to time and a few demanding, competitive feats – triathlons, half marathons and a couple Half Iron Man races – behind him, that fear has become a thing of the past for Garlett. He will next attempt another scaled down version of what is considered one of the ultimate physical tests, the Iron Man triathlon. In the Half Iron Man on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii June 2, Garlett and the competitors will attempt to swim 1.2 miles, bicycle ride 56 miles and run 13.1 miles consecutively.

He has done most of his training throughout the local coastal area, including Santa Monica and Venice beaches.

Garlett developed his heart condition after experiencing three bouts of Hodgkin’s disease, which began when he was just 24. During the course of treatment, he received a stem cell transplant and chemotherapy, which led to a secondary illness, leukemia, and eventually damaged his heart.

Through continuous treatment Garlett was cured of leukemia but his heart remained weakened, causing him to need a transplant. He waited five and a half years on the transplant list until a donor was found in 2006.

Due to his participation in various competitions he has received a number of motivational speaking engagements. He has also been actively involved in fundraising for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, earning the organization’s Greater Los Angeles Man of the Year award, and hopes to raise $5,000 in his upcoming race.

The former freelance sportswriter has chronicled his story in his book “Heart of Iron,” released at the end of last year. He sat down recently with The Argonaut to discuss the various challenges he’s faced, his passion for competition and what he believes are the possibilities for transplant recipients.

Q: Talk about your book “Heart of Iron.” What inspired you to write this and what is the overall message?

I wanted to make sure people who are facing their own challenge recognize that there is life at the end of it. I would say the overall theme of the book is that no matter how long and dark that tunnel is that you’re in, if you can persevere long enough you will get to the light at the end of it.

I wanted people to know that if you’re fighting cancer, or have a heart that needs an organ transplant, hang in there – there’s life afterwards. It translates beyond just to people who are sick; I think it’s for anyone who’s facing a life challenge.

Q: How has your life changed since your heart transplant?

When you’re waiting for a heart transplant you have a real hard time thinking long-term. You don’t think about your future because it’s so uncertain. That’s probably one of the things that’s most changed in me – that there’s an optimism about the future; it feels like the future is limitless.

As you’re waiting for a transplant you kind of have this cloud over your head where you’re afraid to think too long-term because you don’t know if that day is going to come, so you don’t plan for it. Probably the biggest change is the optimism in life that I feel.

Q: What are some main differences you face than non-transplant people?

I have some challenges from what I’ve been through. My lungs got damaged because of the chemotherapy – they operate at about 75 percent capacity, so I get a little more short of breath than your average athlete. It’s a little harder for me to control my heart rate so I’m a more slower athlete for sure. But otherwise, my heart is as healthy as anybody else’s heart.

Q: You’ve been actively involved with Leukemia and Lymphoma Society fundraising. Why do you feel it is important to be involved with such an organization?

As someone who was lucky enough to survive, I kind of feel like it’s my duty to give back to the organization and reach out to the patients who are diagnosed tomorrow who are in need of support. When you hear the word “cancer,” even if they tell you this is a very curable cancer, it’s still cancer and it still freaks you out, so it’s helpful for people as they’re first diagnosed.

Q: Do you believe people with transplants are able to do anything healthy, active people can do?

Yes, absolutely. I was part of an all heart transplant Iron Man relay team – a heart transplant patient from North Carolina did the swim, I did the 112-mile bike ride, and a heart and double lung transplant recipient ran the marathon. We are not the weird exceptions; maybe I would say we’re not the norm but that’s because we’ve chosen to push ourselves, it’s not because others can’t do it. I know so many heart and lung transplant patients – so many who are healthy and able to do amazing things and live normal, wonderful lives.

Q: What do you expect it will be like competing in the next Half Iron Man?

It’s definitely a physical challenge but I’m certainly capable of doing it. I’ve been able to do it, and physically I’m able to do it.

Lance Armstrong (cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner) will also be competing in Hawaii. I will probably not be competing with him for a spot. The starting line will be the only time I’m near him (smiles).

Q: Why are you so passionate about competition? Has it helped show you that you’re not physically limited?

I feel healthy when I’m out there and it’s a reminder of being healthy. When you cross the finish line it’s a quite a rush; it’s very cool.

For me, I’m not setting goal times. It’s just about doing the event and crossing the finish line. It’s a way to kind of celebrate my own health, a way for me to honor my donor and just to feel good.

Q: Why have you chosen to challenge yourself in such grueling events like the Half Iron Man rather than a triathlon or marathon?

Because it’s harder. I wasn’t going to get any faster so I figure if I do longer events then speed is not an expectation. When somebody says, ‘I did an Iron Man,’ no one says, ‘well how fast did you do it?’ – nobody cares (laughs).

Q: What do you think it takes to complete such an exhausting challenge and what will keep you from wanting to quit?

I think, one, it takes patience. With the months and months of training, it’s not a quick payoff. For Iron Man you start training nine to 10 months before it, so it’s a long process to get your body ready for it.

You have to be in the moment – when you’re on your bike you can’t start thinking about the run. You just have to be in that moment focused on what you’re doing at that time.

Q: What other goals have you set for yourself both competitively and career-wise?

I would like to do more speaking. Career-wise I would like to become a regular at motivational speaking. I would also like to try writing some fiction. In terms of races, I would like to become a runner enough where I would like to do a few marathons, like the L.A. Marathon.

Q: What would you like people to know about the possibilities for transplant patients?

The nice thing is that after your transplant your life can be what you want to make it.

For people who are thinking about being organ donors, there’s no reason why not to. To me, it’s like the ultimate final act on Earth to be able to pass on life to others. As you’re going out, to be able to save the lives of six, seven, eight people through your organs, it’s pretty amazing.

I was lucky enough to have a man, in what was a horrible day for his family, they made the decision to pass on life to others, and in the process they saved me.