WHAT MAKES TONY TICK?

Triathlon Magazine Canada - - T1 - BY LOREEN PINDERA

Tony O’ke­effe started out fast on Day 3, the run leg of the 2016 Ultraman World Cham­pi­onship in Kona, cov­er­ing the first 10 kilo­me­tres of the dou­ble-marathon in 39 min­utes.

In an 84.4-kilo­me­tre race.

“Yes, this can be sui­cide,” O’ke­effe con­curs. “My idea was to put pres­sure on the lead­ers and force the pace. It’s a long way and my hope was to crack the field, to make up time.”

At 55, O’ke­effe was the old­est in the in­vi­ta­tion-only field of 40 and one of the most ex­pe­ri­enced – in seven pre­vi­ous Ultraman races he had never placed fur­ther back than fourth. The 10-km swim and 421-km bike ride be­hind him, he was in third place, 45 min­utes be­hind Mex­ico’s Inaki de la Parra, 33, who had a five-minute lead over 40-year-old Amer­i­can, Rob Gray.

O’ke­effe pegged Gray as the one he had to crack by set­ting such a blis­ter­ing pace, leav­ing him in the dust and clock­ing in the first 42.2 km in 3:22, a cou­ple of min­utes slower than planned, but still run­ning strong.

“With eight miles to go, I was ready to push for the win,” O’ke­effe re­calls. “Then Juanma Gu­tiér­rez Muñoz came steam­rolling through like a man on a mis­sion, Inaki hot on his heels…. I didn’t ex­pect to see Inaki on the run, and it struck me then that the race was over. I got a lit­tle down on my­self, where I should have kept my foot on the gas. My mind­set was: First, or noth­ing.”

The re­tired Cana­dian Forces lieu­tenant-colonel had to set­tle for third place, break­ing the all-time record for men over the age of 50, but “the Ultraman brides­maid, yet again,” he says, laugh­ing rue­fully. The irony is, were he a mere mor­tal, he shouldn’t have been there at all. It seems trite to talk about de­ter­mi­na­tion in the rar­efied world of ul­tra-dis­tance sport, but O’ke­effe might top all con­tenders when it comes to sheer grit.

A three-time fin­isher in the 3,000-mile Race Across Amer­ica solo cycling event (he placed fourth in 2010) and a vet­eran of 29 Iron­man races, in­clud­ing four trips to the world cham­pi­onship in Kona, O’ke­effe was hit head-on by a pickup truck in Septem­ber, 2011 while cycling near Colorado Springs. “It was just one of those freak ac­ci­dents,” O’ke­effe said. He had re­turned three weeks be­fore from a one-year stint in Afghanistan, and he and his wife Jackie Cow­ley, an RCAF ma­jor, had been posted to NORAD head­quar­ters at the Peter­son Air Force base.

“I was just so de­lighted to be out on my bike again,” O’ke­effe said. “I was com­ing down the hill when I spot­ted the truck, and then it was as if time slowed down. I could see the driver, a young con­struc­tion worker. I could see that he wasn’t

pay­ing at­ten­tion.”

O’ke­effe went right through the wind­shield, wak­ing up in the hospi­tal after emer­gency surgery to ex­tract shards of car­bon fi­bre – what was left of his brake han­dle – from the soft tis­sue around his fe­mur. Luck­ily, he landed in the hands of Dr. Martin Bou­b­lik, the or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon for the Den­ver Bron­cos and a con­sul­tant to the U.S. na­tional ski team. Over the next sev­eral months O’ke­effe went through three op­er­a­tions to re­pair a torn calf mus­cle and es­sen­tially re­build both knees.

“Ev­ery­thing in these knees be­longs to some dead guy,” O’ke­effe quips.

A phys­io­ther­a­pist’s ad­mo­ni­tion that he’d never run again was the im­pe­tus he needed to sign up for Ultraman 2012, even though he was still on crutches eight months be­fore the race.

He knew he’d made a mis­take as soon as he ar­rived in Kona.

“It was aw­ful,” O’keefe said. “The only thing that saved me was my train­ing as a sol­dier. It’s some­thing I drew on in Ride Across Amer­ica: There is this lit­tle dark closet I go into just to get through it.”

De­spite a lot of walk­ing in the dou­ble-marathon, O’ke­effe man­aged a fourth place over­all fin­ish. Still, he de­bated whether he’d ever do an­other long-dis­tance event. Some­thing pressed him on. Dur­ing his re­hab after the ac­ci­dent, O’ke­effe had un­der­gone physio next to men and women who had suf­fered real trauma, sol­diers who’d come back from Afghanistan phys­i­cally bro­ken and men­tally dispir­ited. so get­ting in­volved in Sol­dier On, a Cana­dian Armed Forces pro­ject to help in­jured mem­bers through sport, seemed a nat­u­ral next step.

He de­cided to pre­pare a team of in­jured vet­er­ans to take on Iron­man Mont-trem­blant in 2013.

It doesn’t es­cape him – what bul­lets he’s dodged, what great op­por­tu­ni­ties he’s had and how far he’s come. Grow­ing up the only boy with four sis­ters in an Ir­ish Catholic fam­ily in Chateau­guay, Que., O’ke­effe says he “got into a lot of clever mis­chief,” drop­ping out of school after ninth grade and join­ing the Cana­dian Forces at 19 be­cause he had no idea what else to do.

O’ke­effe fin­ished high school by cor­re­spon­dence while do­ing his air crew train­ing, in­tent on get­ting into Royal Mil­i­tary Col­lege in Kingston, Ont. so that he could be­come a com­mis­sioned of­fi­cer and fly. He spent the last of the Cold War years track­ing Soviet sub­ma­rine move­ments in the North At­lantic, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a CF18 fighter pi­lot weapons in­struc­tor.

Along the way he had two chil­dren, Cale, 29, now a doc­tor in Buf­falo, N.Y. and Keiran, 26, an in­te­rior de­sign stu­dent. Jackie, a New­found­lan­der whose bub­bly per­son­al­ity be­lies the nerves of steel she needs to be an aero­space con­trol of­fi­cer – and to be Tony’s wife – is the cap­tain of his sup­port crew in ev­ery Ultraman race, a low-bud­get af­fair that re­lies on fam­ily and friends to sup­ply food, drink and en­cour­age­ment.

The cou­ple was still sta­tioned in Colorado with NORAD when O’ke­effe came home to Que­bec in 2013 to race Iron­man Mont-trem­blant. What was sup­posed to be a friendly home­com­ing race, com­pet­ing with his sis­ter Tr­ish – her­self a top age-grouper – and his fel­low sol­diers, turned into a life-al­ter­ing event. He felt anx­ious and ter­ri­ble. He came out of the wa­ter in good time, but he had noth­ing in him for the chal­leng­ing bike course.

“I re­mem­ber pass­ing Tony eas­ily on the bike, and I said, ‘What’s go­ing on with my buddy?’” re­calls Michel Pel­lerin, a car­diac sur­geon com­pet­ing in the same 50 to 54 age group.

On the run, O’ke­effe looked pasty and ill, and his heart raced madly as he strug­gled to keep a 5:30/km pace.

Some­how he fin­ished, his mind on the Sol­dier On com­peti­tors who were count­ing on him to show them how it’s done. Then came the di­ag­no­sis of what had hap­pened: supraven­tric­u­lar tachy­car­dia, the same car­diac con­di­tion that forced the great Aus­tralian triath­lete, Greg Welch, to re­tire in 1999.

O’ke­effe doesn’t ad­ver­tise the treat­ments and pro­ce­dures he’s had since then to sta­bi­lize and mon­i­tor his heart. He’s well aware peo­ple might find it ab­surd that he’s still train­ing and well aware of the grow­ing body of sci­en­tific ev­i­dence that chronic aer­o­bic ex­er­cise and com­pet­ing in ul­tra-en­durance events can be risk fac­tors for per­ma­nent car­diac dam­age. In 2014, months after un­der­go­ing an ab­la­tion to cor­rect the tachy­car­dia and an­other pro­ce­dure to im­plant a Re­veal mon­i­tor – a tiny de­vice to record ad­verse heart events – the mon­i­tor picked up atrial fib­ril­la­tion, a con­di­tion he shares with a non-ath­letic sis­ter. He’s now on sodium chan­nel block­ers, which he has­tens to add are the op­po­site of a per­for­mance-en­hanc­ing drug. So far, they’re work­ing.

O’ke­effe be­lieves he’s train­ing in­tel­li­gently and learn­ing to lis­ten to his body. His heart events seem linked to anx­i­ety, so he’s elim­i­nated cof­fee and sugar and taken other steps to de-stress. In 2014, he re­tired from the Cana­dian Forces after 33 years of ser­vice.

Will Tony O’ke­effe race again? That top podium po­si­tion at Ultraman still feels tan­ta­liz­ingly within reach.

“I won’t reg­is­ter for Ultraman un­less I think I can win,” says O’ke­effe. He’s al­ready plan­ning his 2017 sea­son with that race in mind, know­ing that there could be set­backs.

“Ev­ery race is a gift,” he of­fers.

Loreen Pindera is an ed­i­tor at CBC News.

ABOVE Tonyo’ke­effe’s wife Jackie Cow­ley was there for sup­port the whole way

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