Athlete outpaces heart problem

Howard Neighbors

September 08, 2006|By Janet Gilbert

I'm going to have to swim in the Potomac," said Woodstock resident Ken Cornell, who is training for the Nation's Triathlon on Sept. 16 in Washington. "I'm not too thrilled with that."

What is thrilling, however, is how far the 46-year-old Cornell has come since spring 2001.

While on vacation in Ireland with his son, Matthew, and his wife, Karin, Cornell started experiencing an irregular heartbeat. "I felt like my heart was skipping a beat, but I didn't want to ruin the vacation," he said.

He returned home and scheduled a checkup. He was diagnosed with premature ventricular contractions -- a benign condition that is not life-threatening. Cornell continued to experience the symptoms off and on for a few weeks until one day, while playing in a neighborhood softball game, he felt his heart racing and slowing down when he ran the bases. He consulted his cardiologist, Dr. Martin Albornoz, and further tests revealed atrial fibrillation (an irregular heart rhythm).

While atrial fibrillation is a treatable condition, it is not to be taken lightly. Because the fibrillating heart allows blood to pool in the atria, clots could form and travel through the bloodstream to the brain, where they could cause a stroke.

Cornell, 5 feet 11 inches tall and 165 pounds, is hardly the poster boy for heart disease. Always active, he enjoyed team sports growing up and jogged during his 20s and 30s.

Now he found himself in a cardiologist's office. "My heart was not pumping efficiently," Cornell said, "I couldn't even walk up a set of steps without huffing and puffing."

After a week on medication, he felt like himself again, and Albornoz, an avid triathlete, encouraged him to attempt triathlons.

There are several types of triathlons. Most people start with the "Sprint," in which distances vary but usually fall in the range of a quarter- to three-quarter-mile swim, a 10- to 20-mile bike ride and a two- to five-mile run. The "International" or "Olympic" category has a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 41-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run. The "Ironman" includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full marathon of 26.2 miles. The "Half-Ironman" has the same three events but at half the distances.

Cornell completed his first Sprint in 2002 and found it challenging. Through 2003, he worked on longer-distance triathlons. By 2004, he decided he wanted to run an Ironman, so he signed up with an online trainer to prepare more seriously.

"It was a goal for me, my dream to do one," he said. He also began seeing a nutritionist and changed his eating habits.

"I don't eat fast food anymore," he said.

In January 2005, on a whim, Cornell entered the lottery for the October 2005 Ford Ironman World Championship Triathlon in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. On April 15, 2005, he was notified that he was in.

"I sure picked a good one to do for the first time," he said.

Cornell felt a range of emotions. "I was happy I got in," he said, "but I was scared I got in. I wondered, `Can I finish?' I thought of my family waiting at the finish line, how I wouldn't want to let them down."

The Ford Ironman World Championship is often referred to as the Super Bowl of Ironmans. Cutoff times apply to each race segment, and competitors must finish by midnight, 17 hours after the start.

Approximately 1,800 athletes from 50 countries and 50 states compete; most earn slots by coming in at the top of their age groups in any of the qualifying Ironman or Half-Ironman races across the county. The only other way to compete is by winning a slot in the national or international lottery, which started in 1983 to give the "everyday" athlete a chance to compete. One hundred fifty lottery winners from the United States are randomly selected from more than 5,000 entries.

To validate a lottery place in the world championships, participants must complete an Ironman or Half-Ironman event, or forfeit their slot.

Cornell, a construction supervisor, got busy. Between April and the Oct. 15 world championship, he completed one sprint, two international and two Half-Ironman triathlons, and ran his first marathon. He had never done a "century ride" of 100 miles, so one weekend he cycled out Route 97 to Pennsylvania and back.

"I wanted to do all of the distances in each discipline," said Cornell, aware that the world championship would be his first full Ironman. He pushed hard. A typical day from his online trainer's schedule included a two-hour bike ride followed by a 45-minute run.

Of the commitment to do an Ironman, Cornell said: "It's really a family thing. During training, Karin and Matt would be doing all the chores -- I'd be saying, `I'm going to the couch!'

"If it weren't for them, I couldn't do it."

With his wife and son watching, Cornell crossed the world championship finish line in 15 hours, 50 minutes and 45 seconds. He finished 1,649th. More than 1,740 athletes completed the event, according to Blair LaHaye, Ironman/Iron Girl director of communications.

"My goal was to cross the finish line," Cornell said. "It's a feeling of accomplishment no one can take away -- it'll always be there with you."

The Ironman Web site says the race takes courage, determination, and passion. In Cornell's case, it also took heart.


Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? If there is, Janet Gilbert, our neighbors reporter, wants to know about it.

E-mail Janet at, or call 410 313-8276. Janet also has a Web site:

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